African Monastic Wisdom: The Pursuit of Purity

“The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule”  — St. Moses the Black

 

First, I acknowledge my debt to Fr. Paisius Altschul, the Priest at St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church, for making this very powerful quote from St. Moses a part of his article “African Monasticism:  It’s Influence on the Rest of the World” (Epiphany Volume 14:4, 1995).  I am acquainted with the influential saint and his acts of forgiveness and humility.  I find these words of the article and quotation extremely timely in this era of a Christianity which chases after anointings, breakthroughs, and “favor.”

Fr. Paisius with Subdeacon John Norman at the Ancient Faith Afro-American Christianity Conference 2011

The Desert Fathers of Egypt set the tone for pursuing the Christian life at a time when the faith could have been easily swept up in common culture and popularity.  When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (no, he did not make it the state religion), converting to the faith became the “in” thing to do for status and upward mobility.  Three hundred years prior to this, those bold enough to declare themselves or found out to be Christian ran the risk of torture and death.  With the emperor giving a seal of approval to the Church, people accepted the faith for a variety of wrong reasons without facing any sort of challenge from the government.

The monastics  understood that there was still one horrible persecutor that had to be overcome that was more dreadful than even the worst of the previous emperors:  Satan.  They understood that to fight against this great enemy with all of their energies, they could not be distracted by the things of their world.  Even the normal and honorable pursuits of a career, trade, spouse, and family were to be shunned for the sake of seeking a pure heart and the kingdom of heaven.  Anthony the Great is regarded as the father of all who turned their backs on the world for the sake of the world beyond.  By this lifestyle devoted to prayer, these men and women received renowned wisdom and were sought after by kings and commoners alike.  They became advisers to bishops and other clergy (such as the relationship between Anthony and Athanasius).  Their influence spread from the African deserts to those of the pre-Islamic Middle East, Greek and British isles, and the Russian and Siberian forest.

And what was the guiding wisdom of these desert dwelling monks and nuns?  In a nutshell, we must constantly strive for purity and the kingdom of God.  Even though most people are not called to become monastics, they taught that Christians must set aside time for prayer, renounce the vanities of this world, and devote ourselves to becoming transformed to becoming children of God.  Such a pursuit was for whosoever would obey the command of Jesus, “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

St. Macarius the Great. One of the most influential Desert Fathers.

In a Christianity of “favor ain’t fair,” I fear that the wisdom of the African monastics is sorely lacking.  In fact, such a view of God reduces the divine to being an agent of unfair earthly advantage rather than the Eternal One who commands us to conform to His will in order to enter His kingdom.  While I do not claim to be an expert on the Desert Fathers, Early Church Fathers, or the Philokalia; it is safe to say that none of the African saints taught such an idea as seeking God’s favor for earthly blessings.  These were men and women who, in best conditions, dwelled in monastery cells with a diet of whatever was in season.  The more extreme of them lived in caves and wore the same garment until it was threadbare (Mary of Egypt).  While they had no argument against those who earned reward and wealth in the world or received such things by some sort of luck, material blessings were not the point of being a Christian.  To make worldly possessions through one’s abilities and labor as evidence of possessing the grace of God will corrupt the believer into self righteousness where those who fail are considered unable or unworthy of the kingdom.  To make worldly possessions through some divine intervention without personal merit as the standard of God’s grace turns the focus of the Christian away from the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the earth.  Purity of heart cannot be obtained through either of these paths.

Purity can only be obtained through the grace of God.  We are to be co-workers for our salvation by constantly pointing ourselves to this purpose.  While we non-monastics  live in the regular world, we must consider becoming a pure being the true point of our existence.  Sure, we should strive to do our best in our employment and studies, obtain quality possessions, develop healthy relationships of all sorts, enjoy times of recreation, and set aside an inheritance for future generations.  But, if purity is difficult to reach even for those who purposely aim for this, it is all but impossible for those who do not.  St. Anthony taught that if one were to renounce the world and live in the desert, he will overcome all temptations and would still have to conquer lust.  St. Mary of Egypt struggled against the legitimate and lustful desires of her former life for 47 years before she obtained purity of body and soul.  How much more difficult is it then for someone who desires God’s “favor” for a job promotion, fine possessions, and an attractive spouse?  Pursuing favor over purity is like pursuing alcohol instead of water.  The soul of such a person becomes intoxicated and dehydrated.  Sooner or later, the soul dies.  A sip of strong drink or wine has its place as Jesus Himself changed water into wine at the wedding feast.  Not long after that, He offered living water to a strange and sinful woman, St. Photini (yes, the Samaritan woman at the well had a name and was considered equal to the Apostles) that if she would drink of it, she would never thirst again.  If the wine of “favor” comes our way, let it come and celebrate.  But, it must never be the main beverage we seek.  We need the living water of purity of the body and soul and drink of it constantly as our entrance into the kingdom of God relies on it.

And we Orthodox Christians must be aware that we are not drunk with the wine of complacency in our faith.  It is easy to boast in the fact that, “We have seen the true light ….” as members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  But, unless we devote ourselves to spiritual growth,  we are no better off than our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends.  Indeed, there are many who have never heard of this ancient faith and its spiritual depth and richness who have found salvation through Jesus Christ with nothing more than the Bible and a humble and sincere walk with God.  As one Orthodox bishop noted about Protestants, “they have taken the little they had and make much while we too often take our much and do little with it.”  While the bishop was talking about evangelism, unfortunately, the same can be said for our spiritual development if we don’t take our pursuit of purity seriously.

Lessons From Lent: The Temptations

There really isn’t any point in fasting, praying, nor almsgiving during Great Lent and Holy Week if you are not trying to grow spiritually from the experience.  During this time of renewal, I ran across one of the spurious letters of St. Ignatius to the Philippians that made me take a second look at the tempting of Christ in the desert (Matthew 4).  Satan attempts to persuade Jesus into three frames of mind that would lead him into sin.

St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

First, is ignorance of the word of God.  In the previous chapter, our Lord was baptized, had the Holy Spirit descend on Him, and had been announced by the Heavenly Father as the Son.  Jesus needed no other proof as to who He was.  Thus, Satan’s challenge (if you are the Son of God) fell on deaf ears as our Lord chose not to be ignorant, but to pay attention to the word of God rather than obey the legitimate cravings of his flesh.

The second dangerous frame of mind is a vainglorious relationship with God.  Here, Satan was careful to use scriptures to give Jesus a sense of assurance of safety if He would cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.  But, rather than fall for the seemingly legitimate bait of scripture, our Lord stood on the more humble command not to put God to the test.

The final mentality that Satan used to tempt Christ was direct rebellion against God for the sake of the world.  No doubt, the splendors of the ancient world’s kingdoms were great.  Yet, Jesus knew there was a much greater and everlasting kingdom that was not built by human conquest and construction.  Our Lord felt that this place was so great that He commanded the devil to leave him for even offering up such a choice.

Christ overcoming Satan

Considering my own struggles and temptations, I can see where every sin is linked to one of these three frames of mind.  For the sake of satisfying legitimate cravings we ignore the truth God indisputably revealed to us.  We say and act as we wish because we have adjusted the scriptures to fit our bidding rather than to submit to what the scriptures say believing we have God’s approval.  For the sake of what we can gain in the world, we gladly serve the devil himself in direct defiance that God has something greater for us if we are faithful and patient.

Pascha (Easter) is a few days away.  I anticipate enjoying every form of meat and dairy product that my palate chooses and wallet can afford.  But, I pray that I will spend times meditating on these lessons from my first Lenten Fast as an Orthodox Christian.  Rely on the word of God and forsake the flesh.  Walk with God in humility and not vainglory.  Serve God only and reject this world as it calls us to serve Satan.

A Blessed Holy Week and Pascha to all.

 

The Race of Jesus: My Two Cents

Anyone who enters St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond will be dumbstruck at its iconography.  The patron saints, Cyprian of Carthage and Moses the Ethiopian (the Black),  are both African and are as dark as my father and myself.  The icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Theotokos are both racially ambiguous, kinda like  mixed-race “redbone” blacks.  With the exception of one or two Ethiopians, virtually everyone in the church is white of Eastern European origin or Anglo-Saxon converts.  The ancient pictures of Christian Nubia depicts brown-skinned kings, queens, bishops, and saints.  But, Jesus and Mary are depicted as pale skinned.  This can be seen as a debunking of the black Jesus idea as the native Africans who had their own kingdom and were not under the yoke of bondage did not paint Jesus as one of themselves.  How do we interpret the question of the race of our Lord when He walked the earth?

A Slavic Christ Pantocrator

First, let’s go to one point that we all should be able to agree upon.  Jesus was not of a pale skinned, blonde haired, blue-eyed, Nordic stock.  Anyone with any sense of archaeology or history knows that such people would have found it difficult to survive in the Middle East.  The Israelites spoke a Semitic language that was closer to those still spoken in the Ethiopian highlands than Western Europe.  Indeed, the earthly lineage of Jesus has no connection to any place in Europe.

Yet, the idea that Jesus was a racially pure dark-skinned Nilotic African is also  misleading.  Immediately some would like to the point out that the Pharaohs of Egypt were  black people.  It is undeniable that most of the great rulers of Egypt were black.  But, consider the fact that there was a good deal of race mixing with lighter skinned races for centuries.  The Hyksos were a Semitic people who ruled Egypt for about 200 to 300 years.  The African kings did continue to trade with the likes of the Hittites, Phoenicians, and even the Greeks blending Egyptian blood even further.  The conquest of the Persians and Macedonians pretty much ended the idea of a racially pure black Egypt before the dawn of the first century.  So, when Joseph took Mary and the Child to Egypt to hide from Herod, it was just as much out of the fact that Herod had no authority over any place outside of Judea as it was that the Holy Family would be  able to blend in with the general population, which by that time the people’s skin tones ranged from “high yellow” to Ethiopian brown with a few darker Africans and more pale European elites.

6th century Christ Pantocrator from Sinai

Early Christianity depicted our Lord and Savior in a variety of skin tones.  For the Slavic people, a dark-skinned icon of the Theotokos was well accepted as she was from a part of the world different from theirs.  To a black Nubian, anyone from north of Memphis was painted with pale skin because they would be lighter than themselves.  For the first 300 years of the faith, Christians of all races were persecuted not because of skin color but because they refused to abandon their belief in Jesus.  After the legalization of the faith, it was a deacon from Africa, Athanasius, denounced by his detractors as “the black dwarf” that led the successful argument that Jesus was co-substantial and co-equal to the Father.  His mentor, Anthony, was another African and is widely regarded as the father of Christian monasticism.  Athanasius would later become the bishop of Alexandria and write the list of books that would be canonized as the New Testament in the African city of Carthage.  Europeans knew the history and the roles their African brothers played in the establishment of the Christian faith and even through the Renaissance depicted black people with the same dignity and honor as they painted and sculpted themselves.

A 5th century mosaic of Jesus from Rome

The slave trade changed this sense of mutual respect.  Muslim Arab conquerors  began the process of dehumanizing  Africans who refused to convert to Islam. They ruthlessly persecuted Christianity in Egypt and the Middle East, conquered Christian Nubia, and left Ethiopia as an isolated Christian nation.  As Western Europeans began their age of exploration, they saw the profits that could be made in enslaving non-Christian Africans.  With the faith barely reaching beyond Ethiopia and no regard for the persecuted Orthodox believers, greedy Catholic and Protestant elites found it easy to dismiss sub-Saharan people as being subhuman.  This is where the “curse of Ham” doctrine (a lie that was never taught by neither the Desert nor Early Church Fathers) was born with the excuse that Africans were meant to be slaves.  Catholic elites quickly ignored all but a handful of their black and brown-skinned icons and any references to Christianity’s African past.  Protestants rejected icons wholesale relying only on their various interpretations of the Bible.   Even through the end of the Trans-Atlantic trade, the preferred images of a more European-looking Jesus was a tool to establish supremacy  over the darker races of the world (the slave trader John Hawkins named his ship, “Jesus,” and his coat of arms was a black man in bondage).  African-Americans have every reason to reject portraits of our Lord and savior as a blonde haired, blue-eyed, pale skinned man.

Coptic Christ Pantocrator

But, I wouldn’t necessarily endorse every picture of Jesus with dark skin, an Afro, or dreadlocks either. To display images of a black Jesus to counter the racist images that we African-Americans had grown up with makes sense.  But, there is a temptation to use the dark-skinned Christ not as a tool for healing and reconciliation, but as a wall to keep black and white Christians separated.  Someone may easily start boasting his identity with that of the Lord and consider their former oppressors ans incorrigible or too far gone to receive salvation.  Blacks are not in an economic, political, nor social position to impose on whites anywhere near the same kind of hell we went through in this country (nor would 99.9% of us want to).  But, to use the image of Jesus as an example of black supremacy is just as racist and wrong as what white society did to us.

If you are comfortable with your heritage and skin, you need not be bent out of shape with what color Jesus is.  Attending St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church this past weekend, the images on the iconostasis were all darker than my mother.  The Slavs know that they have preserved the faith during the fall of Byzantium and spread Christianity to North America.  So, venerating images darker than they are is not a problem.  I saw a picture of an Ethiopian woman proudly displaying an icon of the Theotokos with pale skin.  For her to admire and adore this image does not threaten her noble history as the Christian kingdom that was never colonized by neither Arab Muslims nor Western Europeans.  African-Americans have experienced chattel slavery and segregation under the image of a Nordic image of Christ.  But, we also developed a reverent spirituality in the midst of our suffering and proven that the power of love and non-violence can overcome hatred.  Like the Ethiopians and Slavs, we can hold our heads up with a sense of pride.  We need not get uptight about the color of the image.  And as we are all called to the great multitude of humanity that will be saved in the heavenly kingdom, perhaps it is best for us to embrace one another’s differences as well as our unique qualities here on earth.

MEMORY ETERNAL! HIS EMINENCE METROPOLITAN PHILIP

I wasn’t privileged to meet him.  But, like all others who have converted to Orthodoxy, in particular the Antiochians, Metropolitan Philip Saliba has touched every one of us.  The story of how in 1987 he opened the doors of the church to some 2,000 American Evangelicals has to be the biggest mass conversion to the faith in modern times.  Indeed, it was a miniature mirror of Acts Chapter 2 with 3,000 being saved on the day of Pentecost.  Even before this great occurrence,  Sayedna Philip was laying a foundation for expanding the faith by forming various church organizations for women and youth and bringing different factions of the church together.  I am sure there are those who were born and raised in the Antiochian Church and only one or two generations removed from their immigrant forebears  who bemoan some of the changes such as the self-rule status of the North American Diocese and services conducted in English rather than Arabic.  Yet, this metropolitan has  effectively maintained the doctrine of 2,000 years of Holy Orthodoxy and help to present it in a way that invited curious inquirers to come even closer, even to “come home.”

MEMORY ETERNAL!

As a newly converted/catechized believer, it has been an honor for me to come into the Antiochian Church as we say “farewell” to such an influential leader and tireless worker.  His loss should serve as an encouragement for all of us to have the light of Jesus Christ shining brightly in our lives and not to be lacking in our efforts to spread the Gospel.  Not everyone will meet an Orthodox Metropolitan.  But, we of the faith can be an example of what a metropolitan is to everyone we know and meet inside and outside of the church.  And especially during Great Lent, let us give greater attention to our spiritual lives that we may witness salvation to others.  In our parishes, let us be attentive and cooperative as good stewards of our resources that we may provide outreach to our surrounding and far-flung communities.  I believe this is the example Sayedna Philip gave us.  In Christ, let us live by it.

Against Modern Heresies, Simply Stand and Practice

Religion is an open market in America.  Christianity in this nation is no exception.  Though we all claim to serve the same God, the fact that there are about 40,000 different denominations and non denominations all claiming to preach and teach the Gospel is quite confusing.  The doctrines of these churches tend to change with popular opinion and worship styles with the latest trends.  A good friend who studied at Duke University’s School of Divinity shared a profound quote with me some years ago.  “Let the church be the church.  Let the world be the world.  And let the church offer something different from the world.”  With the wide variety of doctrine and practice being governed by the world and not by an ancient and holy standard, it is no wonder there is such confusion about true faith in this country.  The 40,000 church “church” is no different from the world that honors all opinions and considers all opinions valid.

The Orthodox Church provides the unchanged historic and spiritual link between Jesus Christ and the world.  Thus, when we hear doctrines and see practices that are well out of line with Holy Tradition (including and especially the Bible that we canonized), many of us would like to shout “heretic” to the top of our lungs and carry out a crusade against those who teach such doctrines.  Knowing the horrific struggles of our forefathers from the righteous martyrs of our first 300 years to the modern sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East in defense of the faith, we can’t help but to be offended by distortions of the Gospel.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch

Before we pick up bricks and throw them at our critics, let us first consider ourselves and our own sinfulness.  As the accusers with the adulterous woman, it is way too easy for us to drag the wicked before Christ and not address our own wickedness first (and I am stepping on my own toes here as well).  Our Lord made it imperative for us to carry our crosses, not to throw stones.  It is impossible to carry one thing and throw something else with efficiency and effectiveness.  Those who would throw condemn themselves.  Those who will carry receive the blessing.

In reading the Syriac version of St. Ignatius’s second letter tho the Ephesians, this advice may be the best way for we Orthodox Christians to confront those who we disagree with:

 Pray for all men; for there is hope of repentance for them, that they may be counted worthy of God. By your works especially let them be instructed. Against their harsh words be ye conciliatory, by meekness of mind and gentleness. Against their blasphemies do ye give yourselves to prayer; and against their error be ye armed with faith. Against their fierceness be ye peaceful and quiet, and be ye not astounded by them. Let us, then, be imitators of our Lord in meekness, and strive who shall more especially be injured, and oppressed, and defrauded.   (chapter 10)

I think that we really have to be patient with people with these doctrines.  Unless we were born into an Orthodox family, it wasn’t that long ago that we were Protestants and Nondenominationals.  Unless you grew up in Alaska or near an immigrant neighborhood in Pittsburgh or some similar city, you wouldn’t have known an onion dome from indoor football stadium.  In all honesty, even “cradles” don’t know everything about Orthodoxy.  So, we shouldn’t demand that our heterodox neighbors and friends readily jump and accept what little we are able to tell them about the faith.

There isn’t a need for us to run and see who we can pick theological fights with.  Chances are, someone will step to us instead.  When they do, simply stand on the truth that you have received and come to know for yourself.  And we can stand not simply because we know the right scripture verses and can quote the right desert fathers.  We can stand because we participate in the services, prayers, fasting, and love of the Church.  We can stand as we seek God’s mercy and humble ourselves before Him and show our love for the holiest of icons; man who was made in His image and likeness.  Stand and practice the faith.

A Response to Paul Talbot

In response to my article,  The Ever-Virgin Mary:  My Bull’s-Eye Theory,  I received this response from Paul Talbot.  I have never met him.  I am a bit suspicious if this is a friend of mine trying to pick my brain (what little I have), or if this is someone who frequently post opinions against those who do not hold to his interpretation of Christianity.

Mary was a virgin through-out her life. Not true and this article offers NO evidence for that statement at all, it only attacks and attempts to discredit the substantial evidence against the statement.

This belief was central in early church doctrine, Not true. The early church knew Jesus brothers. One of them, James, led the church in Jerusalem and wrote the book of James in the bible, another wrote the book of Jude in the bible.

continued (though somewhat skewed) in Roman Catholicism, True.

and was unchallenged by the first wave of church reformers. True, because they had been indoctrinated all their lives by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

I confess that I am not the best at apologetics.  But, here is my attempt.  I recommend  the Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy Blog as a far better resource for defending Orthodox Christian doctrine.  

Dear Sir,

I mean you no personal insult.  I am afraid that your criticism of my article shows you have not considered basic Biblical language translation, ancient and eastern culture, and that you overlooked the main point of the article and (thus) failed to put up a legitimate argument against it.

In at least nine other verses of scripture, it is written that Jesus has brothers.  However, the language of the New Testament was not English.  It was Greek.  In the oldest Greek translations of the Bible, the word generally translated “brother” is adelphos.  Adelphos literally means “kinsman” which can be taken as “brother, cousin, fellow countryman” or even “fellow believer.”  This word is used some 80 times in the New Testament as Paul used it frequently to describe his relationship to other Christians.  Thus, the “brothers” of Jesus may have just as well been his first cousins, or close childhood friends.

A glimpse of ancient culture will give some clarity to this term “Brother.”  Jesus was brought up in a culture that regarded general kinship.  Lot was the nephew of Abraham as stated in Genesis 11:27-31.  But, in Genesis 13:8 and 14:14, 16, the text clearly does not use the term “nephew.”  The term used is “brother,” which in Hebrew is ‘ach (fellow tribesman, or blood relative).  So, even when the Hebrew is translated into Greek (the Greek language Septuagint was the version of the Old Testament used by the Apostles as it was written some 200 years before the birth of Christ), the word adelphos was used indicating no specific relationship between the two men other than the fact that they were kinsmen.  By the way, in Strong’s Concise Concordance (I am using this and Vine’s Concise Dictionary of the Bible), the term “nephew appears only twice in the Old Testament with neither reference referring to the story of Abraham and Lot.

No, my article had no “proof” that Mary was ever-virgin.  That was not the main point.  But, since proof is what you wish to criticize me on, I ask you what is your proof that Mary had marital sex and bore these James, Jude, and the other “brothers.”  See that I have given you the argument of the languages and culture from a text that you can readily obtain and are probably familiar with.  But, I would also ask that you dive even deeper into the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and others were of the same generation of and one or two generations removed from the Apostles.  Almost every time they mention her name, they call her the Virgin Mary.  Consider this, if she had other children, why would anyone have continued to call her a virgin?  And in every version of the Nicene Creed (the oldest accepted in 325 AD and revised in 381, both of which are older than the canonized Holy Scriptures of 398) she is the Virgin Mary.  So, if you have some proof that the earliest interpreters and translators of the Old and New Testaments are wrong, please set up a blog site and post what you have found.  Let me know when you posted this.

Again, the meat of my article had little to do with offering proof of Mary’s Virginity.  My point was that believing in Mary as ever-virgin (whether Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, or Orthodox Christian) can help us strive for sexual purity.  The aim for us is to flee adultery and fornication whether it is the act or even the thought of them.  Of course, we Christians aim to be Christ-like.  Second only to Him (both fully human and fully divine) is His mother who was the fully human “maidservant of the Lord.”  A maidservant dedicates her body, mind, and spirit to the service of her Master.  Likewise, our aim is to dedicate our whole selves to our Master, God the Holy Trinity.  An ever-virgin Mary (with her Son and our God) makes the perfect target for us to aim for; that we would seek to keep ourselves pure as she did so that Christ can be a part of us and born in us as she was.   If a person cannot maintain sexual control, then let him find a wife or her husband and keep their sexual activity for that spouse (as Paul advised the Corinthians in his first epistle 7:1-9).  It makes sense for us to aim for the highest level of purity (the bull’s-eye) and feel confident in attaining the second (the inner circle around the bull’s eye).

Since you chose to disregard the main point of my article, I am curious to know how your perception of Mary can help lead someone to sexual purity.  By believing Mary to be either unwilling or unable to set aside her sexual desires (even within a legitimate marriage) to be the Lord’s handmaiden, where then is your example for people to set aside his (or hers) for the greater purpose of God?  If you deny the dart thrower the ability to hit the bull’s-eye (celibacy for God’s glory), how then can he best focus on the inner circle (faithful, heterosexual marriage)?  If your doctrine of rejecting Mary’s ever virginity, in fact or theory as my article was a theory, gives someone a high point to aim for in the struggle for control of sensual desires, I would like to read your blog article.  As I mentioned earlier, I would be glad to read your work on your site.

Also, you failed to answer the question I posted in the first paragraph of my article you challenged:  Also, if Jesus did have blood siblings as we define them by our western standard, why is it that he left the care of His mother to a disciple rather than one of the children she supposedly gave birth to?  James and Jude were alive.  Why were they not chosen for the task?  Do you have any proof that they were somehow less worthy to care for their own blood mother than a disciple?  I would like for you to provide proof with your answer.

The Ever Virgin Mary: My Bull’s- Eye Theory

“Failure is not the problem.  The problem is low aim.” — Dr. Benjamin Mays

Yes, I believe that Mary was a virgin through-out her life.  This belief was central in early church doctrine, continued (though somewhat skewed) in Roman Catholicism, and was unchallenged by the first wave of church reformers.  It wasn’t until the more radical reformed churches came into being that the perpetual virginity of Mary was questioned and rejected.  Many make this error based on the scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters with His mother waiting to speak to Him even though in that culture one’s cousins were also counted as siblings.  Others are misled by the text where Joseph did not know (as in carnal knowledge) Mary until she bore her son and named him Jesus.  This is a translation problem for in the same Gospel, Jesus declares He will be with us until the end of the age.  By that logic, after the end of the age, Jesus will no longer be with us.  Also, if Jesus did have blood siblings as we define them by our western standard, why is it that he left the care of His mother to a disciple rather than one of the children she supposedly gave birth to?

O Virgin Pure

Perhaps the most disturbing and failed excuse for rejecting Mary as ever virgin is that “she was still human.”  Yes, I believe and the Church teaches that Mary was fully human.  But, is it wise to believe that the natural state of humanity is to wallow in desires of the flesh, or to pursue purity and unity with God? If we aim for the best standard of physical pleasure, sex in heterosexual marriage, we aim for what God has ordained under the Old Covenant, which is good.  As humans, we have a chronic tendency to fall short of our goals.  Pursuing pleasure often distracts us from our goals.  In fact, we tend to excuse personal fulfillment of pleasure as a greater good (“all is fair in love and war”).  Combine aiming for the lesser goal with our tendency to fall short of our goals and the distraction of pleasure and you have a recipe for a society doomed for sexual failure.  It is like a darts thrower who never aims for the bull’s eye.  If there is no central point that he seeks, he will barely reach the inner circle where there is great value.  Instead, his darts will land on various parts of the board (at best) and may even stray far away from the board and hit by-standers causing injury.

But, let a society pursue the purity of an ever virgin Mary.  There is an unusual purity to aim for; to be human and offer one’s sexuality as a sacrifice as a celibate.  It was through the Virgin that the Savior was born and He was also celibate as he was fully human as well.  Mary becomes the bull’s-eye the dart thrower aims for.  With a central target, the thrower will still not make his goal all of the time.  But, he can hit the safe and valuable inner circle of holy matrimony.  A darts-man who hits this circle with regularity is as admired as the one who hits the bull’s-eye.  Novices at darts that constantly strive for the bull’s-eye will improve from hitting the wall, to hitting the outer areas of the board, to hitting either the highest targets of monasticism or matrimony. And this may be the root of why our modern society is engulfed in sexual immorality; rejecting the ever virginity of the fully human Mother of God has taken away the spiritual bull’s-eye that we should strive for in our sexuality.  We don’t see that supreme holiness can be born in us and in one another.  If we cannot see this possibility, then it is difficult to see ourselves and one another as much beyond potential sex partners.  We dehumanize each other in the worst ways.  Men are seen as lovable but brutal.  Women, especially in modern pornography, are treated in ways that if they really were dogs, the PETA would break every law in the world to protect them.  Even outside of porn, our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are too frequently thought of,  referred to, and treated as less than the icon made by  God that they are as we men are.

This is not to say that those of us who hold Mary to be Ever Virgin are perfect in obtaining sexual purity.  We are probably as bad as, and in some cases worse than anyone else.  But, holding her as one who abstained from sex even after giving birth gives us an example to aim for.  And if one constantly aims for the bulls-eye, the result will be to the better.

Letting go of the pain

Originally posted on Out of Egypt..:

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew 6:14-21

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate forgiveness Sunday. If you are not familiar with this event, it is one of the most beautiful in all of the life of the Church. We start our Lenten journey by each asking every other person in the community for forgiveness as we offer them kisses on their cheeks. From the least to the greatest, from the oldest to the youngest, we exchange these holy kisses.

Part of being human is understanding that our actions matter. Each and every action we take has an effect on everyone around us. We come together and ask forgiveness of each other because we need the forgiveness of others and we need to forgive others. That is true in your own families and it is true here in the church. We spend quite a bit…

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Embracing Great Lent

I am excited about this weekend.  Sunday is Forgiveness Vespers and the beginning of the greatest period of reflection and renewal in the Orthodox Church, Great Lent.  I half jokingly believe my excitement will die down after drool myself silly over the umpteenth Hardee’s Monster Burger commercial.  But, this is a time that I have been looking forward to.  Last year, I participated as an outsider looking in.  This year, I am a part of the brothers and sisters in Christ who will ask each for and forgive each other with the kiss of peace.  Along with the fasting, we will devote ourselves to being more intentional in our prayers and giving our time and talents as well as our treasures to the less fortunate.

Prostrations in Prayer

While many non-denominational churches are embracing fasting in some form or another during different parts of the year, Great Lent is the central fast in Eastern Christianity.  Antiochians and Greeks may observe the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas) on a different date than our Slavic brethren.  Ethiopians celebrate Timket (Epiphany or Theophany) more elaborately than Armenians.  But, as the great feast of Pascha (the Resurrection of our Lord, Easter) is the same through out the Orthodox world.  The forty days before the great feast is a time we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls to celebrate our Lord’s conquest of death by His death and the renewal of life by His Life victoriously restored.

I am embracing this great season not only because it is my first time doing this as an Orthodox believer.  I can’t help but to believe that Lent is a preparation for me to do some good work in the church.  Friends inside and out of Orthodoxy have asked if I am interested in becoming a priest.  Slow down, it will be about five years before I would be considered for seminary in the Antiochian jurisdiction and even then, a M.Div does not necessarily mean instant ordination into the priesthood.  Looking at the complexity of of Divine Liturgy and other services and remembering the challenges I had as a Baptist pastor, I am in no rush to assume that office again, if ever.

Forgive one another their sins

One of the readers has approached me about chanting during Matins.  The head of our Christian Education Dept. asked if I was interested in teaching an adult Sunday school class.  I accepted and am waiting on a date.  I am also a part of the parish evangelism group and will soon announce the inaugural meeting of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black/VA Chapter.  So, I am and am about to get some things done.

But, I can’t help to believe there is something deeper to be done and starting with myself.  I have some sins that I kinda swept under the carpet and made more than a few excuses for.  They need to be resolved.  Despite my reputation as an easy going guy, I do have issues with insecurity.  My loud voice and friendly personality hides the fact that I am often lonely and withdrawn.  More than I care to admit of my personality looks like a bungee jump gone wrong.  So, if I am going to be this wonderful chanter, reader, evangelist, teacher, organizer, and (dare I say) priest; I have quite a bit to work on.  I pray that God will cause me to dig deep within myself to recognize my flaws and begin managing them if not correcting them all together.

St Ephrem of Syria

 

The Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian is traditionally said many times throughout each day during Great Lent, in addition to our daily prayers.

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

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant. (+)

Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sin and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed from all ages to all ages. Amen. (+)

(The “(‘+)“ indicates that those praying make a deep bow or prostration at this point.)

Contemplating Confession

No,  I didn’t rob a bank, pick up a hooker, or stab anyone.  No, it is none of your business exactly what I am guilty of.  But, I am a sinner and I did sin.  The medication for this sickness is confession and repentance.  In Orthodox Christianity, there is a process of coming forward to the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child beside the priest in the presence of the church.

It is a bit intimidating of a process.  Granted, with the chanting going on and speaking in a low voice with the priest, no one can hear your business.  Only when the priest declares absolution does anyone hear anything during the sacrament and even then nothing is disclosed about what was done.  Plus, the early fathers never demanded that everyone confess every sin in the church beside the priest before attending Divine Liturgy.  There may (and probably should) be a spiritually reliable person in one’s life to confess to.  Father does not need to hear every time you took an ink pen from work, drove over the speed limit, or fantasized over the new office intern.  We don’t believe anyone should beat up themselves over every sin.  Confession and repentance is an on-going process that we should be experiencing in our daily spiritual disciplines.  A daily and frequent seeking of God’s mercy and salvation from evil should and must be pursued and is enough to absolve us from sin if done in sincerity.

But, there are some things we do because of severity, frequency, and the potential danger that going before God during Vespers, Matins, or completely in private with the priest is advisable for the sake of our souls.  Such a confession can be the first act of recovery from an addiction or prevention of a bad situation from becoming worse.  In some cases, it may be a preparation for one to confess to legal authorities and prepare for civil consequences.  While such things as 12 step programs, anger management, and the like may be useful and effective in correcting outward behavior, sin is the illness of the soul and only the blessing of forgiveness from God can correct it.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9)

There was a time when I would have deemed such a practice as unnecessary.  But, when I think about it, Protestants sometimes have similar practices of confession.  At altar calls people can ask the preacher to pray for forgiveness.  Certainly, a pastor keeps an open door and heart to anyone to confess privately.  Many churches advocate prayer partners and spiritual mentors where one can go to when they can’t reach the pastor, or feel more comfortable spilling their guts with than with the pastor.  And all Christians are encouraged to repent of sins in private as part of their daily prayers.  So, why should anyone go before an icon, beside a priest, in a prayer service, and confess sins?  Let me briefly name three:

  1. The ordained priesthood has the ability to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit and succession by the resurrected Christ and his Apostles (John 20:22,23).
  2. Confession is essential for repentance and cleansing from sin (Mark 1:4,5).
  3. We are a community of people who seek to live anew, not just individuals seeking personal salvation (Matthew 3:5).

I am called to be the salt of the earth.  If I lose my savor to my sins, I am useless.  I am called to be the light of the world.  If I hide under the basket of my failures, I cannot fulfill my purpose to share the True Light (Matthew 5:13-16).    I pray and believe that confession will heal my wounded soul, give me the ability to heal those whom I have harmed, strengthen my Christian journey, and unite me even closer with my fellow believers and humanity as a whole.