Orthodox Christianity

A Week at the ‘House’: Antiochian House of Studies Residency Program

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The Antiochian House of Studies (AHOS) is a correspondence certification and graduate degree institution that has a very demanding reading and writing program for its students. The professors are authorities in Byzantine liturgics, canon law, Eastern Church history, and other subjects.  Although the school was established as a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox under Metropolitan PHILIP to prepare men for the ordained clergy offices, the school is open to every Christian (and non-Christian, I suppose) who wants a working knowledge of our faith.  One can earn a Certificate in Applied Orthodox Theology (the three-year St. Stephen’s Program), Master of Divinity through the St. John of Damascus Seminary of Balamand University in Lebanon, and qualified students can earn a D. Min in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.  For an institution of higher learning without an actual campus and doesn’t require a student to leave his or her home and life to study, AHOS has a good deal of academic clout and respect.

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Even though we don’t have a traditional campus, each student must complete a week of residency for each year enrolled in the St. Stephen’s Program. The residency is held at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center near Ligoner PA (an hour or so outside of Pittsburgh).  My friend and fellow church member at St. Basil, Chris, gave me a heads up of what to experience.  There would be little time for “R&R.”  Almost every moment will be spent in either classes or worship.  The food will be plentiful and delicious.  But, from 8 am to 10 pm, I would be constantly in class or worship.

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For the most part, Chris was absolutely right. And I enjoyed meeting some of the teachers that I had known only through the red ink they put on my essays (Fr. Najim).    Class was often lively with discussion and points that we normally wouldn’t consider.  For example, I dreaded the very thought of Cannon Law (I am a former Baptist.  Religious legalism smacked of either Judaizing or Catholicism).  Fr. Viscuso did a great job in explaining how Canon Law is not a weapon we use to beat one another over the head with.  It is a ministry used to direct the church to its best and most ideal expression.  Even though we were all tired around 9 pm, all of us in the Byzantine Liturgical Practice class carefully listened to the 45 years of wisdom coming from Fr. Shalhoub.  I had no problem making it to Orthros (morning prayers) at 8 since I start mine at home at 6.  Vespers before dinner was a wonderful service to attend with a daily sermon as well.  We only had Compline (bedtime prayers) one night, led by the Slavonic students.  It was actually very beautiful and has encouraged me to try to keep some form of it (again) as a part of my personal prayer rule.

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The one thing that I wasn’t told about was how unique of a fellowship the AHOS is and the spirit of brotherhood that exist among us students. I did meet some of my classmates through Facebook before I knew we would be in class together.  But, we all did more than just get along.  We all came together for the common purpose of study and the worship of God.  The variety of backgrounds we all have is mind-boggling.  Some of us are “cradles” who grew up in the Antiochian or some other jurisdiction of Orthodoxy.  Some of us are of Oriental Orthodox Churches.  Some of us are from the Middle East and other nations.  Some of us aren’t even Orthodox, but Anglican and Evangelical.  No matter where we came from, we came to see the beauty and truth of the Church of Antioch where the believers were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26).  From this city, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were set aside by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel to various parts of the world (Acts 13:1-3).  The Spirit still moves us to share the Good News and grow in the grace of God.

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Spending a week at “The House” was a fantastic way to cap off a year of reading books and writing essays. It was great hearing my classmates chant in our worship services (I hear myself at church and that ain’t nothing to sing about), make like minded friends from all over the country and world, be in the presence of the saints and our church leaders.  If my bank account could stand my not working, I’d want to spend another week.  I have my reading list and will secure the rest of the books I need for the year.  I probably won’t sit there and count down the days until August ‘whatever’ 2017.  But knowing what sort of week awaits me at the end of Units 3 & 4 will inspire me to get my work done and done well.

Come And See: The Eucharist Beyond Pre-packaging

Every now and then, I am blessed with an opportunity to assist my priest and ordained chanter with the Eucharist.  To critics of traditional forms of Christianity, especially those who decry against ritualism, I would only wish you could be in my shoes and experienced it for yourself.  Words can do no real justice to this the most important sacrament of Orthodox worship.

In the chalice was the bread, the body of Christ, floating in the wine, His blood.  A member of our congregation took the time to bake the loaf.  Before Matins (aka Orthros, the Morning Prayers), Fr. James carefully offered the chants and prayers that were handed down through the church for nearly 2,000 years as he cut and broke pieces of the loaf.  After adding the bread to the cup of wine, the Eucharist was blessed with the aroma and smoke of incense symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Preparing the Holy Gifts

At the high point of the Divine Liturgy, Fr. James comes though the royal doors with the chalice.  One of the sub-deacons and I hold the cloth under it as one by one, the saints come forward to partake of the body and blood of our Lord.  “Thy servant (thy hand maiden) comes to recieve thy precious body and blood” Fr. repeats for each member as we hold the cloth under their chins.  Some are elderly, others mere babes who had just been baptized.  All of us who are able had fasted through the morning that this meal was the first thing we tasted all day.  We all taste from the same cup knowing that we were one with our Lord and each other.  One by one, we all come to partake.

There are some things that one cannot get from the modern manifestation of a pre-packaged communion.  “Ain’t you afraid of getting someone else’s germs?”  I am more fearful of not taking in the life giving flesh and blood that Jesus offers to us.  Without it, we have no life.  Indeed, if we do believe this to be His body and blood, why should we fear “catching something” from someone else?  The same cup brings people together with one another and with the continued history of the church.  Germs and viruses only separate.  Members who know they are sick are wise enough not to partake.  Besides, the wine has alcohol in it, alcohol kills germs.

Does grape juice naturally have a one year shelf life?

There is no resurrection in a piece of unleavened bread.  Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover on the day before the great Jewish feast.  Thus, they would have used leavened bread as the unleavened variety would not have been available.  Leavened bread has risen as Christ Himself would and did rise from the grave.  There is no need to eat the lifeless leaven of the Pharisees and Herod.  Our Lord has conquered death by his death.

Nor is their any life in sealed grape juice.  Our Lord’s first miracle recorded by John was changing water into wine.  Does the use of the non-alcoholic make one better than those who use the substance recorded in the scriptures?  If so, are we better than the best winemaker recorded in the Gospels?  Is the minuscule amount of wine turn a person into a substance abuser?  The amount of the Eucharist given to a toddler is no more, and probably less, dangerous than the medications prescribed by physicians.

A baptized infant receiving the precious body and blood of our Lord

When done in sincerity, any form of Communion, Eucharist, of the Lord’s Supper, can be a truly reverent experience.  But there are things that cannot be contained in aluminium foil and cellophane.  Resurrection, life and unity with one another are what we offer from the sacred cup in an Orthodox Eucharist.  When taken in a sincere and repentant manner, we conclude worship with the fullness of the Holy Spirit.  Although only the Orthodox may partake of the body and blood, we do share the remaining holy bread after the service.  Come and see for yourself.

Ferguson, MO vs. Malcolm X:  Are We Chasing Our Tails?

So, it happened again.  An unarmed black teenaged male was killed by a white cop.  The response was our usual predictable outcry, “No Justice, No Peace.”  Unlike the previous incident in Sanford FL (in which the white community watch volunteer provoked a black teen to fight before killing him and was acquitted of the crime), the recent events were marred by violent confrontations between a handful of demonstrators and police.  Some businesses were looted and private property destroyed.  Did the policeman act in self defense, or did the victim have his hands up and demand that he not be shot?  That is for a judge and jury to tell, of which I am neither.  But, pondering the works of one of our most venerated African-American heroes and the universal faith of Orthodox Christianity, I can’t help but wonder if we should respond to violent and non-violent racism in a different way.

A great read

In 1964, Malcolm X did the unexpected.  He took the pilgrimage to Mecca and completely forsook the reactionary racist doctrine of America’s Nation of Islam.  He saw the universal brotherhood of Orthodox Islam and concluded that if the United States had a similar religious perspective that the problem of racism could be solved.  After speaking with an American ambassador to an African nation, he also concluded that it was our nation’s atmosphere nourishes the racist psychology of white people (see “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, chapter 19, pgs 370 & 371).

While I reject Islam as the solution, I do agree with his conclusion of the problem of racism in our nation.  We have been fighting for our rights in this nation since we were brought to Jamestown as indentured servants in 1619.  While we are no longer under the yokes of slavery or Jim Crow, the mentality of white supremacy has not been completely defeated.  In some cases, Satan has morphed this evil to be more subtle to hide behind the mask of economics, lifestyle, politics, and religion.  In other cases, he has caused people to simply ignore the importance of improving race relations.

But, here is the problem.  While Satan has used new methods to maintain the same atmosphere, we fail to fight the atmosphere.  At best, we have non-violent marches, petition drives, and rallies to draw attention to one incident or another.  We elect public officials hoping they will make great changes on our behalf.  Sadly, a handful of us will respond to racism with violence.  Sadder still, too many of us play into current apolitical and unreligious “hood rat” and “thug” images that only serves to maintain racism as many blacks are as annoyed by them as whites (listen to Chris Rock’s “Black People vs. Niggers” on the Bring the Pain release).  Carrying signs and shouting “Fired Up!  Ain’t Taking No More” only works on obvious flare-ups.  It does not address the underlying spiritual sickness of white supremacy.  In fact, as long as we fail to attack the spiritual sickness we make ourselves just as, if not more sick than white racist.  The more we see that our non-violent efforts produce limited success or fail time and time again, the more likely we will use violence against our oppressors and ourselves.

A Nativity Icon from the Coptic Orthodox Church

Strangely enough, Malcolm X gives a hint to what I believe to be the solution to America’s racist atmosphere.  In chapter 19 of his Autobiography, he mentions the Desert Fathers as the founders of Christianity (pg 368) and names St. Augustine as a savior of Catholicism (pgs 369 & 370).  The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (the Orthodox Church) was the beacon of the human brotherhood that Malcolm had in mind after his Hajj pilgrimage.  Not only Augustine, but Athanasius the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, and other African saints preserved true doctrine from heretics and were and are honored by Orthodox Christians of all races all over the world.  While ethnocentrism is a problem among several congregations, Orthodoxy has never considered one race greater than the other.

The Bishop of Rome and the kings of western Europe grew in power and wealth above their eastern Christian kin and declared themselves as the superiors of the faith.  The magisterial and radical reformations produced even more superiority complexes causing years of inquisitions, persecutions, and wars from Spain to Poland.  America was founded people who were guided by these perceptions of Christianity and Biblical interpretations.  They felt no need to study and adhere to the doctrines the apostles handed down to the African, European, and Middle Eastern saints and scholars.  And when these colonists came across illiterate brown skinned people, the whites considered themselves to be superior as they had the weapons and wealth.  This is the atmosphere we have in the United States.

As long as African-Americans consider western forms of Christianity to be a beacon of hope, we are only going to chase our tails in the fight against racism with even non-violent protest.  Western Christendom with its power and wealth created the atmosphere of white supremacy which teaches us that our African Christian heritage (and those of eastern European and Middle Eastern Christians) is unimportant.  Oh, we can talk about the African Methodist Church as the first black denomination.  But, it was founded by blacks who were fed up with being segregated by whites in the Methodist Episcopal Church.  We can talk about how Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great Black Baptist preacher.  But, when did any black Baptist convention establish its doctrine from the black saints rather than the white slave masters?  COGIC and other black Pentecostals do not offer a solution to America’s racial problem as well.  The Azuza Street “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” happened after a similar all-white event happened in Topeka Kansas.  If either of these were a true outpouring of the Holy Spirit, why did they not bring English speaking American black and white Christians together in one church the same way that Pentecost in Acts 2 bring together believers from all over the known world when the Apostles spoke in many different languages? Non-denominationalist are equally as delusional as they use an Old Testament that was compiled by Medieval Jews who sought to discredit Christ rather than the Septuagint (Greek language) Old Testament that the Apostles used and was compiled  in Egypt 250 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.  The oldest Hebrew scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls match the Septuagint (the Orthodox Old Testament is based on this version), and differ from the western Christian version in the same ways the Septuagint does.

Fr. Raphael Morgan was ahead of his time

Rather than chasing our tails protesting in the circles of a western Christian atmosphere, I propose African-Americans walk (if not run) toward Orthodox Christianity.  Those who feel uncomfortable or unwelcomed in a predominately white eastern jurisdiction, such as the Greeks, Russians, or the Middle Eastern Antiochians should find Coptic or Ethiopian congregations as these churches are undeniably African.  We shouldn’t do this with any illusions that everyone who practices the ancient faith is perfect.  But, we should understand that this church was not founded on the streets of Ferguson or on a rock in the Plymouth Colony.  This is the church that came to Africa by Mark and Matthew at the same time and with the same spirit Andrew and Paul brought it to Europe, as Thomas took it to India, and James held things down in Jerusalem.  This is the church that put the both testaments of the Bible together with the New Testament being canonized in 4th century Carthage.  This is the church where anti colonial freedom movements in Cyprus and Kenya found common ground against the imperial western Christian Britain.  This is the church of Africa’s last Emperor of the line of King Solomon and Jamaica’s most heralded musical son.   This is the church that began on the day of Pentecost with God fearing men from all nations who came to Jerusalem to worship.

Western Christendom cannot bring about racial harmony.  Roman Catholicism has known about the African saints for quite some time.  Yet, they have not shared this knowledge with us.  Mainline and Evangelical Protestantism has given us the bizarre “Great Apostasy” theory that the true church disappeared after the death of John the Evangelist (or the rule of Emperor Constantine) and they “discovered” it as they cut their ties with papal authority.  Thus, such denominations ignore the importance of even European saints, much more the holy men and women of other lands.  Non-denominational churches are no different than the denominational ones they broke away from.

It is time for us all to come home.

The Orthodox Church has never been perfect when it comes to racism in America (oh, that I wish it was).  But, the Church is rooted in the universal brotherhood of all who believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and live by the doctrines and traditions handed down by Jesus and the Apostles.  The Church acknowledges saints from all cultures and races and allows its members to learn more about how they walked with the Lord.  There is no point in running around in circles when God has provided us with a path to truth.

 

 

 

 

The Arabic Letter “Nun”

When the ISIS were about to complete their genocide of the Christians of Mosul in the past few days, they put this mark on the walls of the homes of the Christians — to mark them out for plunder and death. This is the letter “Nun” (ن), the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet (the equivalent of letter N in our Roman alphabet), the first letter of the word Nasara (نصارى : Nazarenes).

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Perhaps I shouldn’t be suggesting this as I have only recently converted to Orthodox Christianity.  Then again, I have not let my lack of years in the faith (or lack of being a part of the Church) be a barrier to sharing my opinion.  But, with the recent events in Iraq, Palestine, and the Ukraine added to other persecutions and evidence of ignorance of our faith; I think “nun” should be adopted as a symbol of the Orthodox Christianity.

“Nun” has been spray-painted on the walls of homes that are to be looted and destroyed by the ISIS terrorist in Mosul and other Iraqi cities and towns.  This blatant use of a symbol to target people for genocide is no different than when the Nazis painted the Star of David on Jewish homes and shops in Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s.  The Muslim world has always been oppressive to Christians.  However, there have always been some instances where the two faiths did co-exist in toleration of each other.  Under modern Arab dictators such as Saddam Hussien, Christians could enjoy some levels of freedom and even rise in government office.  But, the combination of American foreign policies and the rise of militant  Wahhabi Muslims has been detrimental to the survival of Christianity in the lands where our faith has existed for 2,000 years.

“Nun” indicates a home or shop owned by Nasara (نصارى : Nazarenes).  Well, was not our Lord from Nazareth?  Do we not wish to be known as His followers?  Jesus did warn the disciples that if the world hated Him, they would hate them as well.  Of the 12 (Mattias, of course, taking the place of Judas Iscariot), all but one was martyred and John the Evangelist died in exile.  Orthodox Christians are no strangers to horrible persecutions from the Jews and Romans in the early years, to successive waves of Islamic domination, to the more modern communist.  We have such a great cloud of witnesses, martyrs who’s names are well known to everyone from the Ethiopian highlands to the Siberian forest to those who will be killed by the time I finish this article.  Tertullian of Carthage taught that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  ISIS has put a new label on the seed of various Christians.  May we be worthy to wear it as well.

The blood of martyrs is being spilled in Palestine as well with the new war between Hamas and Zionist Israel.  The number of Christians in Palestine has steadily declined since 1948 and does so more rapidly as innocent civilians of the three great monotheistic religions are caught up in the crossfire of terrorism and war.  Of course no one supports Hamas launching rockets into Israel and killing civilians.  But, aren’t the lives of  Palestinian civilians, including Christians who have been in the land since 33 AD, just as valuable and worth protecting?  Shouldn’t the people of Gaza and the West Bank have control over their own natural resources and destiny?  Both Hamas and the Israelis are war criminals and our Christian brothers and sisters are paying a high price in blood and abandoning the places where our faith was born.  At least ISIS is kind enough to use spray paint to indicate who we are.

“Nun” should be a call for unity among eastern Christians.  Metropolitan Paul (Antiochian/Greek) and Mar Gregorios Yohanna (Syriac) are still missing in Syria.  Miriam Ibrahim (Ethiopian) was just released from Sudan after her horrible ordeal for standing up for her faith.   I am sure someone far more knowledgeable and scholarly can define the reasons why we are still separate from each other.  I wasn’t there at Chalcedon in 451 AD.  But here in 2014, I see more reasons for us to set aside some ancient barriers for a closer relationship, if not full unity.  ISIS could care less if someone is Antiochian or Syriac.  Zionist don’t care about what makes a Copt different from a Chaldean.  They kill us because we are Christians living in the Middle East.  We who live in the United States and other places should take the time to get to know one another.  On my way to my Antiochian Parish, there are two Greek Churches in Williamsburg and Newport News,  and two Coptic congregations and, I think, a recently formed OCA church in Hampton.  I confess that I don’t know the Copts and OCAs and I will make a point to correct that.

“Nun” should be a way to let our western Christian brothers and sisters know that we exist.  Too often, Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism is ignored as people buy the latest books from Joel Osteen or TD Jakes.  It is as if most Americans think Christianity completely disappeared from the Middle East after John wrote the Book of Revelation.  We have to help correct this mindset that ignores the faith that has a continued line of existence since the days of the apostles and gave the world the Christian canon (the Bible).  I don’t think a mere Arabic letter would cause 3,000 people in one city to become Orthodox believers.  But, we need to start some conversations and share our faith and point of view with others.

Note the T-shirt

In Mosul and other parts of Iraq, “Nun” is inspiring solidarity between Christians and their Muslim neighbors.  May we find ways to bring love and unity between us before we are forced to by bombs and gun barrels.

The Need To Read Something Deeper

During the first 300 years of Christianity, to be a member of the clergy or known as an unapologetic Christian was a sentence to torture and death.  Early believers read and followed any papyrus or scroll written by and about  these men and women  they could find.  After the persecutions ended under Constantine, Christians who were ready to renounce the world before wild beast did so in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and the Siberian forest.  Those who did not become monks and nuns sought their advice and were greatly influenced by their wisdom.  Despite disputes between them, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians (and early Roman Catholics) held the ancient monastic writings and early church fathers in the highest regard second only to the Bible.

Unfortunately, something changed during the magisterial and radical reformations as well as the revivalist movements in Western Christianity.  There arose this idea that earthly wealth and influence was a sign that God’s favor was upon one’s life.  While the early Baptist, Methodist, Church Of God In Christ and other denominations may have intended that their churches would be among the flourishing examples of this doctrine, this concept has landed in the hands of many freelance “non-denominational” clergy who use it and the name of Jesus to reap millions of dollars from people who are unknowing about Christian history.

What I find most frightening about this earthly wealth as evidence of God’s favor doctrine is that intelligent and well-meaning people have and are falling for this trap hook, line, and sinker.  They fall for it because the TV and radio stations blast the latest sermons and Gospel hits without any meditative and  self-sacrificial lessons from the more contemporary likes of Howard Thurman or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, much less from Ignatius of Antioch or Theophan the Recluse.  Books by well publicized inspirational authors dominate bookshelves at Barnes & Nobel and Wal-Mart where profits come before investigating the roots of Christian spirituality.   No one is telling modern Christians that there is a firmly grounded, tried and true alternative to “flavor of the month” Christian preachers and writers.

What makes this trend of adhering to those who promote such a doctrine is that it ultimately fails.  There are people who have been blaming themselves for not receiving their “breakthroughs” and “shifts” saying that they weren’t faithful enough or their “season” has not come yet.  Like rain and sunshine, God allows any person who works hard and smart to get rich or go broke.  Those who fail to receive the financial promises they have been seeking for years will give up on Christianity and become bitter.  Those who do become well off in the midst of such false doctrine will become arrogant and blind to what it is to become Christ like when called to “… Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”

Anthony and the Desert Fathers did what the rich young man failed to do.  And because these men and women renounced the world to devote themselves to a true and pure pursuit of God, they were and are greatly honored by Christians of many generations.  Church Fathers such as Basil and John Chrysostom did not enrich themselves in their leadership positions.  They built schools and hospitals and dressed just as modestly as a monk or reader.  The lessons of the Philokalia did not come from men who hustled for “seed offerings” to repair their private jets.  These were monks who ate little more than beans, bread, and vegetables.  None of them expected to become wealthy.  They were too busy obeying the requirements for following Christ, “Deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow me.”

Perhaps the latest book by the latest Christian preacher or inspirational speaker may have a good quote or two.  Snack foods do have a few bits of nutrition.  But, a healthy body is the time-tested result of good meals and exercise.  Our journey with Christ should also include the time-tested spiritual writings of the Bible and the writings of those who were of the atmosphere that the New Testament books were written and compiled.  How does one find such books in the midst of  a Trinity Broadcast Network dominated Christian environment?  It isn’t easy.  But, it is possible.

 

I personally recommend Fr. Athanasius Iskander’s “Practical Spirituality According to the Desert Fathers” (it’s FREE) is a great introduction to some of the most enlightening men of the monastic world.  One need not be a church history buff to apply these ancient lessons to modern life.  The Fr’s name sake wrote a short volume “The Life of Saint Anthony,” the man who was the father of all monks and nuns.  “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” is a reader friendly introduction to the 38 volume set of the Early Church Fathers (which can be read by anyone online for FREE).  Orthodox Churches tend to maintain libraries as most public ones have little concerning church history and this ancient faith.  Roman Catholic sources are useful as they do point several sources older than 1054 AD (the date of the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

To grow spiritually, we must not rely on recent authors alone as our source of Christian literature and teaching.  Take the time to discover ancient Christian writings and talk to a priest who is well versed in the early and monastic writings.

St Mary of Egypt: An Antidote for Sexual Addictions

Most people struggle with lust from time to time.  We all aren’t so overcome by it that we have violated anyone else.  But, with so much “eye candy” presented to us in every form of media, we are all guilty of thoughts and actions that we are ashamed of.  Of course, we Christians are quick to say, “Just Take It To Jesus And Pray.”  And this is the ultimate solution to our struggle with impure sexual thoughts, words, and actions.  But, our Lord also gives us forerunners who have struggled with and overcame the same sins which besiege us today as there is nothing new under the sun.  Among such great men and women who have been transformed by the power of repentance and forgiveness is Mary of Egypt.

St. Mary of Egypt

Mary was a sex addict.  She gave into lust at the age of 12.  In her story to the monk/priest Zosimas, she wasn’t forced into prostitution or the victim of rape or incest.  She just loved sex and would give herself simply for pleasure and not money. After some 17 years of her shameless behavior, she joined a group of pilgrims sailing from Egypt to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Cross.  She used her body to pay her fare constantly tempting men to have their way with her.

When she came to the church, she sought to enter.  Time and time again, she was blocked by an invisible force.  She realized that the force was her own sinful lifestyle that kept her from entering the church.  She grieved  deeply at this revelation.  Seeing an icon of the Theotokos, Mary repented of her lustfulness promising that if she were allowed to worship at the Cross that she would no longer live in her sexual exploits.  After her prayer, she was able to walk into the church and worship.

Mary made good on her promise.  She crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert with nothing more than three loaves of bread and the clothes on her back.  Led by the Holy Spirit, she lived in the desert for 47 years repenting of her sins.  This was no easy feat.  The thoughts of her former pleasures tormented her.  The desire for meats, wine, and other things also tempted her to leave the desert.  Yet, she constantly prayed in deep humility and tears to be free from her lust.  It took some 17 years of struggles to be free from her sexual addiction and lust.

Fr. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to Mary

It wasn’t until she met Zosimas in the desert that she even saw and spoke to another person.  By that time, her clothing was completely gone and he gave her his outer robe to cover her.  He saw the holiness of her story and her prayers.  The following year, he was able to give her the Eucharist.  The year after that, Mary was found dead.

Mary shows us that sexual immorality keeps us from the fullness of Christ.  Oh, we may still go to church and worship.  We may even make excuses for what we do.  “They were just pictures.  I was born this way.  We are in love, so it’s okay.”  Let’s stop fooling ourselves.  The sexually immoral will have no part in the kingdom of God.   Mary shows us that our repentance must be serious.  Casually saying, “well, the Lord knows my heart,” is not enough.  There should be a deep sorrow for what we have done and a serious commitment to change our ways.  Mary shows us that our struggle against sin is not always over in an instant.  Some addictions are stubborn to leave us and can only be overcome by (as our Lord taught His disciples) by prayer and fasting.  And indeed, fasting should be a part of the life of the faithful.  By following Mary’s example of following Christ, we can overcome even the worst of our sexual sins and live in purity.

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

Having been a sinful woman,

You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.

Having attained angelic life,

You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;

Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Transition: A New Metropolitan, Building, and Six Months In Orthodoxy

Not only have I made a major change from being Baptist to Orthodox.  Other major changes are under way now.  The change that affects all of us Antiochians is that of our new Metropolitan Joseph.  Metropolitan Philip (Memory Eternal) has left a tremendous legacy of church unification and expansion.  It is my prayer, and that of others, that our new Sayedna will let God lead him and use the gifts he has been granted with to lead our diocese for years to come.

His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan Joseph

In speaking of transitions, St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church  is now located at 1520 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666.  The building was a child care center located beside a Mormon Church and across the street from a United Methodist Church.  While I did get used to going to church in Poquoson, I think our new location will be better for evangelism and outreach as we are not far from the Mercury Blvd corridor.  Not to mention that I have two gift cards from Bass Pro Shops and there is a store less than 2 miles away!

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

Gutting and renovations will take time

Gutting and renovations will take time

We have a lot of work to do

We have a lot of work to do

Last Sunday, we held Divine Liturgy and a building sanctification in rather close quarters.  Over the coming days, weeks, and months; we will be taking out walls and putting in new ones.  A lot of mess will have to be gathered up and thrown away.  We are not hiring contractors (we don’t have that kind of money).  But, we are blessed to have people who are willing to work and have some brothers who actually know what they are doing.  As long as no one tries to put a paint brush in my hands, we will have a fine house of worship.  Compared to the churches around us, we will not look much like a religious building.  Perhaps we can put up one of those Russian style onion domes on top or something.

Fr. James with the holy water

Fr. James with the holy water

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Six months into Orthodoxy, I feel at home here.  On the surface, it would seem strange that a black ex-Baptist country preacher would feel welcomed in a white church.  But, as I explained in previous articles, the Orthodox Church is a white church that is not.  It is rooted in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.  The worship is the same as it was in the 4th century and traces its teachings back to the Apostles.  At Antioch, two African church leaders were among those who ordained Paul to spread the Gospel to the Greeks and Romans.  I am a part of the Church that was for all people from the very beginning.  While racism is still a reality in America, it is time for us to end 11 o’clock Sunday morning as our most segregated hour.   Orthodoxy has its issues with ethnocentrism.  But, it is still the church where saints of all races and all times are embraced and welcomed.

Choir and chanters

Choir and chanters

Taking the Eucharist

Taking the Eucharist

The most unifying thing about us and makes us all a part of each other is the Eucharist.  We don’t have Communion one Sunday a month with individual cups filled with some liquid that is supposed to be grape juice sealed with some sort of wafer.  Communion is not an afterthought taken lightly at the end of a service.  We believe as Jesus, the apostles, and the scriptures taught that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ and that we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood each Lord’s Day.  We believe that the Eucharist must be taken to give life to our souls and that it is the high point of our worship.  We are to be one with Christ and one with each other.  Thus, we use one cup as we have one Savior.

Athanasius:  Relevance in the Black Church Today

 

I believe it is time for African-American Christians in particular and all Christians in general to acknowledge Athanasius of Alexandria (aka Athanasius the Great) and his contribution to our faith.  I am sure there are some who would dare say that those old writers do not matter as much as they are not relevant to what is going on in the church today.  Nothing can be further from the truth.

African-Americans say the same cliché every year around Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  If this statement is true, then there can be no future for a Christian people who ignore the black man who gave the church its first creed, boldly stood against the greatest heresy of his time (which was also started by a black man), and made a list of 27 books that would be canonized as the most important collection of scriptures to Christians.

St. Athanasius the Great.  (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)

St. Athanasius the Great. (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)

Many people look at the history of Christianity as if all of the early saints looked like some Western European renaissance painting.  This is completely incorrect!  The Ecumenical Councils were attended by deacons, priest, and bishops from all corners of the known world.  Some were Celts and Saxons with pale skin and light eyes.  Others were Nubians and even Asiatic Indians with skin as dark as coal.  Most were some shade of brown between these extremes of racial scale.  Among the attendees of the First Council in Nicaea was a deacon from Alexandria who was greatly influenced by the monk Anthony of the desert.  Athanasius declared the scriptures taught that Jesus was co-equal and co-substantial with God the Father.  This was in opposition to the popular belief at the time that, according to a chant at the time, “there was a time when He was not.”  The Egyptian priest Arius declared that Jesus was the first and greatest of the created beings.  Although Athanasius won the initial argument at the Council, Arius had many friends in high places.  His chants and songs were popular.  Athanasius was driven into exile and was derided by his opponents as “a little black dwarf.”

Despite the number of influential opponents, Athanasius held firm to what the scriptures taught.  He won support from several other bishops and had the backing of the monastic community that was known for their devotion to prayer and leaving worldliness for the relentless pursuit of holiness.  At the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, Arianism was once and for all denounced.  The Creed that Athanasius proposed the first time included a deliberate belief in the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father as well as his original statement of faith describing Jesus as the, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made

The very presence and contribution of Athanasius to the first two great councils is very relevant for us today.  The fact that it was a black man (at that time, he was a young deacon) who led the fight for true Christian doctrine counters the long-standing myth that “Christianity is the white-man’s religion.”  In all honesty, we may not know exactly what he looked like.  But, that Arius (again, himself an African) and his supporters used color to describe him shows that there must have been a significant amount of melanin in his skin.  Also, that Athanasius had supporters from all over the known world, in particular the bishop (aka Pope) of Rome, shows that Christianity was a cosmopolitan faith that drew people to the truth no matter what ethnicity or race they were from.  This is also seen in Acts chapter 2 where devout men from all over the world were in Jerusalem to hear Peter’s Pentecostal sermon and in Acts 13 where the church in Antioch with its African and Middle Eastern priesthood sent two Jews to bring the Gospel to Europe.

Despite the presence of racism that still exist, today’s America is far more of a mixture of people than it was some 50 years ago.  My generation and those after me attend whatever universities we can afford and qualify for, pursue whatever careers we are interested in, and marry whomever we love.  Our nation’s most visible black conservative, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is married to a white woman.  Our President Barak Obama is not only the result of a racial mixture, his father was an African and not an African-American.  Add to the traditional black and white dynamic the Native Americans (the true owners of the land), Hispanics, Asians, Middle Easterners, and others; and you have an extremely powerful and wealthy cosmopolitan nation.  If such a diverse people could come together in Nicaea and Constantinople for the sake of true doctrine back then, surely we can do so now.  If our Christian forefathers and mothers 2,000 years ago could go beyond their various ethnicities for the sake of the Gospel, then who are we not to work toward this goal today.  A society of different people striving together in unity is as relevant for us today as it was back then.

The doctrine that Athanasius defended is very relevant today as well.  Consider the presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the African-American community with their corrupted belief that the “Word was a God (John 1:1 in the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”).”  It is no accident that this modern form of Arianism has reared its ugly head.  Because the old saying is true, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  Had we read “On the Incarnation” where Athanasius gives a detailed argument of why it was necessary for the Word of God to take on humanity for our salvation, we would have far fewer blacks in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and fewer still believing the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an equal to any other Christian belief.  Furthermore, with the amendment made to the Athanasian Creed in the Second Ecumenical Council, there would be no modern “modalism” or Oneness Pentecostals that teach that God is one person that manifest Himself in three different modes.  We would not be led to any idea that we should focus on one person of the Trinity at the expense of the other two, which leads to all sorts of false doctrines.  When we know our role in the history of Christianity and accept the roles of other people and their contributions to the true pursuit of God, we are better prepared to stand on what is right.  Standing for what is right and for what one believes in is as relevant for us today as it was back then.

For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no Holy Bible.  The early Christians had the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Old Testament (which is older than the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Protestant Bibles).  There were various Gospels and letters circulating throughout the known world.  Some were heretical and false in doctrine.  Some were correct and well-respected in some communities, yet unheard of in others.  Local bishops did have some authority to direct clergy in their jurisdictions as to what books were useful to read during worship, which were edifying for study, and which were to be avoided.  Athanasius, the Patriarch of the prominent city of Alexandria, made a list of 27 books that he felt all bishops, priest, and deacons should study and read to their congregations in 367 AD.   He shared his list with other clergy as well as those in Africa.  This list of books proved to be so popular that in 398 AD in the African city of Carthage, a synod of clergy met and declared these 27 books to be the New Testament Cannon.

If Athanasius is irrelevant to the modern African-American church or any church of our times, why then do we still use the list of books he felt were important for Christians to read?  If this list of books proved to be tried and true for some 2,000 years, could it be that the person who made the list is worth knowing about?  What else did he write?  Who were his influences?  Who were some of the other African, Asian, and European brothers and sisters who believed, taught, and stood as he did?  Athanasius and his contemporaries provided the very foundation of body of scripture that we hold to be holy.  If his work is relevant, surely he is relevant as well.  And in a community where some still denounce Christianity as the slave master’s religion, Athanasius is a great rebuttal to this myth as it was this “little black dwarf” that gave the world this universally accepted collection of the written record of Christianity.

Again, I give you the familiar quote; “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  If modern Christianity in general and African-American Christianity in particular does not know this and other great saints of early Christianity, what will be our future?  Shall we continue to give the likes of the Hebrew Israelites and Nation of Islam to denounce the black church as racially weak instead of standing on the shoulders of our ancient giants who stood alongside others of all races?  Shall we continue to read the latest books from the latest bishops who’s works fade away as other bishops who are more marketable occupy bookshelves with their latest releases while this bishop has more than proven his timeless contribution to the faith?  Shall we continue to reach for the latest conference and convocation to inspire us to receive “the next level of blessings” when we have not looked into our own basements and crawl spaces of Christianity to see what our foundation is and how it was built?  I consider that to continue to ignore the contributions of Athanasius, other African saints, and ancient saints of Christians of other races is not benefiting to us or anyone else.

No, I don’t expect every African-American to become an Orthodox Christian three weeks from next Tuesday.  But, there is a great treasure trove of doctrine, history, and spirituality that we are not tapping into when we ignore these deep roots of Christianity.  During our ordeals of slavery and segregation, perhaps it was due that we didn’t learn about such saints.  We were too caught up with the matters of the times.  Orthodox communities were very closed societies, even to the average white American.  But, blacks today have every sort of door open that we can learn more about our ancient pillars of Christianity.  We have every ability to incorporate their wisdom and words into our current AME, Baptist, COGIC, and non-denominational churches.  For those who wish to convert to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church but feel uncomfortable among a mostly white congregation, there are Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox jurisdictions as well as Eastern European and Middle Eastern ones.  Do not let fear of the unfamiliar prevent you from learning about the African Christians that helped pave the way for us all.

The Marcus Garvey Factor & African American Orthodoxy

Marcus Garvey was not an Orthodox or any other Christian that I know of.  Yet, this forefather of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism provides a couple of doorways for African-Americans to leave the confines of Protestantism and dive into the deep waters of Orthodoxy.

Truth

Garvey was a direct influence on the African Orthodox Church.  Bishop George Alexander McGuire, a former Anglican pastor from the West Indies and ally of Garvey, sought the creation of a Christian church headed by black clergy with roots going back to the origins of the faith.  A Kenyan and two Ugandan clergymen became members of the AOC in their homelands and began seeking a connection with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.  Their churches became a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the late 1940’s.  In particular, the Church in Kenya faced bitter opposition from the British colonial government in the 1950’s.  The Archbishop of Cyprus dared preach against colonialism in Nairobi and won the respect of African independence leaders.  Today, the church continues to grow steadily from its grass-roots of black people who wanted an authentic form of Christianity that was not handed down to them by their colonial masters.

Emperor Haile Selassie venerating the cross during Orthodox worship

Garvey is better known as the man who proclaimed that there would be a black king crowned in Africa.  This statement is the birth of Rastafarianism, named after the pre-coronation name of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie Ras Tafari.  The popularity of Rastafari grew with the rise of Reggae music and its biggest star, Bob Marley.  A year before his death, Marley converted to Christianity and became a member of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.  It was only natural that a man who sang about African freedom and redemption would be a part of a form of Christianity that came to Africa by the ministry of the Apostles Mark and Matthew.

Brother Bob Marley

For African-Americans fearful of being labeled a “sell-out” or “forgetful of where you came from” in their pursuit of Orthodox Christianity, the Garvey Factor with the witness of 2,000 years worth of the African martyrs, saints, and theologians crushes such shallow criticisms.  Charges like that do not deepen the faith of black Christians.  They only scare us from knowing more about who we are.  And when a person is too scared to know himself, anyone else is empowered to define him.  These charges keep us on familiar plantations and keep us fed on mere scraps.  While this was (only by the grace of God) nourishment enough when we had access to nothing else, we can now go to our own fertile fields and choice foods in the Orthodox world.

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Do not let the critics keep you shallow and scrap fed on a plantation.  For those who have seriously looked (and peeking your head in the door and going the other direction because you didn’t want to be the “only one” is not seriously looking) at Orthodoxy and decided to remain AME, Baptist, COGIC, and etc; fine.  You made an informed choice.  If you feel your choice was right, you shouldn’t mind others investigating the ancient faith and choosing for themselves.  And if the fear of being the only black person or lack of a black clergy makes you so uncomfortable about Eastern Orthodoxy (Antiochians, Greeks, Russians, OCA, …), look into the AOC, Copts, Eritreans, and Ethiopians.  Garvey and McGuire awakened black Christians to the fact that we did not have to settle for the faith that was handed down to us by former colonial and slave masters.

The Ancient Faith & Afro American Christianity Conference 2012

I have attached a couple of resources that highlight Garvey’s influence on modern African Eastern Orthodoxy:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/history/fr._raphael_morgan

http://www.orthodoxytz.com/OrthodoxMission.asp

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/features/orthodoxy_in_africa

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.