Jesus

Keep the Nativity Fast for the Nativity Feast

Dear Christian Friends,

About this time of year we post messages of all sorts showing our disapproval of the continuing secularization of the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.

KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS

JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON

I agree that there is way too much focus on the decorating, materialism, and non-religious attitudes that are condemning this time of year to being the “Winter Holiday.”  But, I think that striving to keep Christ and remember Jesus without some sort of inward spiritual process isn’t doing anyone any good.  In fact, the more we proclaim such slogans aloud without the inward spiritual process, we are probably turning more people off to the Christian faith than we are leading people to salvation, which is our purpose as believers in Jesus Christ.  If all nominal and secular Christians and non-believers hear from us are slogans and they don’t see us striving to better ourselves in preparation for this great holy day, we are (as St. Paul described) clanging brass and tinkling cymbals.  People are justified and right to ignore annoying noises.

An Ethiopian icon of the Nativity of Our Lord

For a couple of thousand years, the original expression of Christianity, the Orthodox Church has observed the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (later “Christ Mass” by the Roman Catholics) with a 40 day fast in preparation for the feast.  We do not consume meats, dairy products, olive oil, and alcoholic beverages.  According to what jurisdiction we are under (Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, etc), we begin the fast on different days and with different rules concerning fish with backbones (some permit fish on certain days with shellfish throughout the fast). Except for the elderly, young children, pregnant or nursing women, and those under medical supervision; all Orthodox believers are expected to maintain this dietary rule.  Along with the fasting, we have special prayers that we add to our individual disciplines and a special prayer service at the church during the week to help us focus on the meaning of this great and holy feast day.  As the Nativity of our Lord is of great importance, we continue to eat as we wish for 12 days and observe Theophany, the Baptism of our Lord.  Thus, we have 40 days of preparation and over a week of celebration of Jesus Christ coming into the world and the revelation of the Holy Trinity that is the focus of our Christian faith.

I am sure that some of you scoff at the idea of such fasting and the use of ancient written prayers as a “tradition of men” and that no such fast is defined in the Bible.  Yet, there is no scripture that tells us that Jesus was born on December 25th (or January 6th for our “old calendar jurisdictions like Ethiopia and Russia).  So, if we trust the “tradition” of early Christians to give us the date to observe the holy day, why not trust the tradition of prayer and fasting as well?

When one buys a pizza, who scrapes off the cheese, sauce, and toppings just to eat the crust?  Nobody, we eat and enjoy the whole thing.  The same can be said for this season we are entering and the Christian faith.  Protestant reformers and modern Christianity has scraped off the spiritual nutrition of prayer and fasting in preparation for the holy feast and left us with the empty crust of one single Christmas Day.  While many of us Orthodox Christians are guilty of the consumerism and materialism of the age, at least we have the fullness of the tradition of our seasonal fast and prayers to return to.  We have the whole pizza of the Nativity Fast and Feast.  The empty crust of Protestantism has invited Satan to pile on his toppings of covetousness, greed, lack of concern, selfishness, and other elements of our consumerist and materialistic society.  No matter how much good Parmesan, red pepper, and Italian seasonings we sprinkle on in the form of charity; the bad toppings on the empty crust has caused society to ignore the day of giving thanks to God for what we have so that we can go out and spend more money.  No amount of empty slogans will change the toxicity of the once scraped off pizza crust of American Protestant Christmas.  Thankfully, we Christians can start with ourselves and get a whole pizza.

The Nativity of Our Lord

Talk to an Orthodox priest or knowledgeable layperson about what this season means to us.  Look up information about the prayers and fast online or in the library.  Make the time to attend our weekday and Sunday worship whenever possible.  Take small steps by increasing time in personal prayer and use some of our prayers in conjunction with your own.  Also, as it is physically possible, cut back on meat and dairy consumption if but for no other reason but to reward yourself later.  Use this season not to shout mere slogans.  Do something constructive for your spiritual journey as we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s birth and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.

Where “Favor” Falls Short

Favor is a popular term in modern Christianity.  We hear it in songs and sermons.  We share it in inspirational social media post.  I used to be that weird country preacher that refused to jump on board every bandwagon of “relevant” ministry.  Now that I am Orthodox, I would rather ride a Greyhound bus from New York to LA than the wave of any popular catchwords or phrases.  In my Wednesday morning reading, I couldn’t help but to see how the pursuit of “favor” from God falls woefully short of seeking His mercy.

Out of sheer curiosity, I broke out my Strong’s Bible Concordance and found that the term “favor” appears a whopping six times in the New Testament.  Luke used the term in his version of the Gospel to describe how John the Baptist and Jesus grew up.  He used it four times to describe the relationship between the early Christians and those around them in Acts.    Not once does Jesus, Paul, nor any other epistle write describe favor as something worthy of being obtained or necessary to live as a Christian.  It is something good to have as it does give peace in mind and a sense of security.  But, “favor” is not the mark of the Christian according to the One whom we follow:

If any man would come after Me, let him humble himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.

“But what about the Old Testament?  Surely God wants us to have favor in the Old Testament.”  Here the term is used about 56 times.   In several places, the favor comes from an earthly king and not God.  Also, the wise Solomon suggest that favor can be misused as well.  Furthermore, I find this rationale most disturbing as the revelation of our salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church, is not found in the Old Testament.  To try to use a term in the Old Testament as superior to the way it is used in the Gospels is an abuse of the scriptures and a denial of the significance of Incarnate God.  If this is your line of thought, for your own spiritual health, you should consider changing it.

In comparison, “mercy” is the greater goal both in the usage of the term and significance in Christian life.  This word appears 58 times in the New Testament (about 200 times in the OT).  For those who consider the “favor” to be a blessing, please consider the Beatitude:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Having a house that people say you can’t afford, a job that you don’t have the education for, or some other form of “ain’t fair favor” does not cross the lips of  Jesus as being a blessing.  Having compassion to those who are broken, confused, disturbed, lost, rebellious, … ; this is the one who is blessed.  We all fall into one of these conditions from time to time.  Sometimes we fall into multiple conditions at the same time.  Jesus teaches here what He repeats as the “Golden Rule” of this great sermon:

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

When challenged about eating with tax collectors and other sinners in the house of Matthew, Jesus offers this rebuke from the prophet Hosea:

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To follow Jesus is to desire everything He desires.  If He never mentions “favor” but clearly defines “mercy” as what He wants from us, why should we listen to preachers and singers and read books and social media post about a barely mentioned term instead of this requirement that appears in the New Testament some 9 times more often?  To mention “favor” in worship and fail to call upon Christ for “mercy,” or to call upon the former more often than the later is spiritual malpractice.  Such doctrine and teaching is producing Christians who are in the faith for what Jesus can give them in this world rather than how we are to prepare ourselves for the next.  If and when such believers fail to get the “favor” they seek, they wander from ministry to ministry seeking it.  They tend to blame themselves for not being a part of the right man or woman of God as the reason for not receiving their breakthrough.  They will patiently wait for what they want and in not getting it, they will put some sort of spin on why they don’t have it (“It isn’t my season yet).  Or, they eventually give up on Christianity all together.  The differences between such a false concept of our faith and an Islamic terrorist is that the Muslim does his job more quickly and only kills the body.  The empty pursuit of favor is killing souls and creating walking dead Christians.

Don’t take my word for it.  Get your concordance and look up “favor” and “mercy.”  See which one is used most often and why.  Favor from God  is not a bad thing to have.  But, don’t sell your walk with Jesus short.  As I heard from a priest last weekend, “You cannot be a Christian without mercy.”

 

Songs That Moved Me: Four Cornered Room

“Go to your cell.  Your cell will teach you everything.” — St. Moses the (Black) Ethiopian

Of course, St. Moses and the other great monastics of Orthodoxy could not have had an album from War on their turn tables back in the day.  In fact, they couldn’t have had turn tables.  But, if they did, I imagine any monk or nun would have heard this song and felt it fitting in to their spiritual journey.  I forgot that I had a copy of “The World Is A Ghetto” cassette.  The whole thing is a masterpiece of 1970’s funk.  But, that fourth track, “Four Cornered Room,” strikes me as one of the best songs to prepare for daily prayers.  I would dare say it is better than most contemporary Gospel music.

First of all, War was a band that never called to make a living from the Gospel.  These were just some dudes from L.A. making songs about “Low Rider” cars, old westerns (“Cisco Kid”), and other stuff to bob your head to.  Chances are, most of us aren’t reading our Bibles and singing hymns 24/7.  We work regular jobs either as highly educated and trained professionals, something unskilled and minimum wage, or something somewhere in between.  And even for full-time pastors and church staff, chances are that your daily duties keep you from any sort of introspective time in reflective self-examination.  So, “Four Cornered Room” is not a directive from a pulpit nor a praise break by an on stage performer.  It is a hint of what needs to be done by someone as regular as you and I.  While ministers and musicians called by God do a service to mankind, there are moments when our souls are better fed by those who offer real words as they walk beside us than from occupants of honorable seats.

It was Jesus Himself that taught us the value of the “Four Cornered Room.”  While War wasn’t giving an intentional Biblical lesson, they almost parallel the Gospel:

Thinking, talking; we’ve worked out our problems – Look like we should have better days in front – Just because we took our time to think and talk – For a much better understanding  (War, “Four Cornered Room”)

and

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6)

Also, consider how many of our slave ancestors took the time to be one on one with God and themselves.  How else could we have heard such spiritual lyrics as:

Nobody knows the trouble I see – Nobody knows but Jesus – Nobody knows the trouble I see – Glory Hallelujah.

There is hope that comes from the Four  Cornered Room that no matter what our struggles and challenges are, if we would just get to that one place where we can be to ourselves, Someone will meet us and help us come to a better time and place.

 

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: For Brandon

“Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.”  (Luke 23:42)

Just when he started to make some good choices, death chose to take him from us.  Just when the potholes in his road were being filled so he could go somewhere, he went away.  Brandon not only turned his life around.  But, he was young and had plenty of time to achieve great things.  At least, that’s what we thought.  That’s what I thought as I admired his laughter and good nature as we all sat and joked around the table this past Thanksgiving.  None of us knew that the crime he tried to turn from would turn on him.

Memory Eternal Brandon Glover

Memory Eternal Brandon Glover

There was a thief on a cross who, unlike Brandon, had no hope of redemption on this earth.  He was condemned and nailed.  Left to hang on that tree until breathlessness or a merciful death blow would relieve him.  And yet, the thief did have one hope.  It was in a world to come.  It was through the Sinless One that was crucified with him.

Among the better decisions Brandon made, he looked upon Jesus as his source of hope.  He did’t know all there was about discipleship.  Nor did the thief.  But, they both had sense to believe in and call on the gateway to a better world.  Christ answered the one with faith,

Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.  (Luke 23:43)

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

May Brandon’s faith suffice for his deeds.  Lord, please let his confession be sufficient for salvation.  Let your mercy shine upon him both now and forever.  And may your spirit of comfort be on his family.

Weekly Reflection: My New Home

And so it begins.  At 8:45 AM, I received Chrismation beside my sponsor, Seraphim Hamilton, by my priest, Fr. James Purdie.  Fr. James joked with my wife saying that she had better take her photos quickly as the ceremony is over in the blink of an eye.  And as it was.  I was sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit by being anointed with Chrism (a specially scented oil used for the newly baptized and converts).  Being anointed and reading the Nicene Creed, I was welcomed into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

It wasn’t a very emotional experience for me.  I was already on the path to conversion and pretty much considered myself a closet Orthodox Christian in the first place.  This pretty much confirmed what had already happened to me.  If anything, I was more joyful that my wife who rarely attended services at Trinity Baptist Church in my 17 years as pastor was at my side.  She may have been unsuccessful at taking photos with her camera.  But, she had the strength to be with me on this part of my spiritual journey.  That is what really made me happy.

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

During Matins, some of the other worshipers came in and whispered words of congratulations.  St. Basil was packed today and there was a guest deacon from St. Paul’s in Emmaus, PA where Fr. Andrew Damick is the pastor.  My wife, who is not really interested in converting any time soon, followed the Divine Liturgy better than I did when I first visited the church.  Taking the Holy Eucharist was moving to me as I took the bread and wine from the same cup as all of my fellow believers.  This was a common-union in act as well as word.  Immediately after receiving the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, I could not wait to give a piece of the blessed bread to the woman who has put up with the best and worst (and I gave her plenty of worst) of me.

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Then came the Theophany service and the blessing of the Holy Water.  This was a first for me.  The service was not as long as Pascha (Orthodox Easter … Pascha is Greek for Passover).  But, you could tell the little children were more than a bit restless.  There were a few snacks prepared for Coffee Hour (in some traditions, this is the “Agape Meal”).  But the best part of the repast was the conversation with Seraphim and Jeff Edens as we shared how we came to Orthodoxy.  We have Ethiopians, Russians, and a couple of other immigrants and first and second generation (“cradles”) at St. Basil.  But,  most of us are converts from either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism.  Me being the first African-American convert in the church means that I have an interesting story of how I came to the faith.  But, in the end, I think we all came to the Orthodox Church for the same reason.  We all wanted to experience the presence of God the same way the early Christians did.  Of all the denominations, we found this church to be the oldest and most authentic form of worship with a deep well spring of history,  spirituality, and wisdom.  We don’t hate our former denominations in any way, shape, or form.  In the end, God and God alone determines who enters His kingdom.  We believe Othodoxy offers a more complete and holistic path of self denial, carrying our crosses, and following Jesus Christ.  Nearly 2,000 years of the same doctrine seems a good path to follow.

I thank God for my wife and my new church home (in a most unlikely place).  St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church,  1022 Poquoson Avenue, Poquoson, Virginia  23662.

The Journey Continues: The Dormition Fast

One of my frat brothers posted a photo of himself being led out to “the block” on the first day of the pledge line on Facebook.  I am not sure who took the photo of me the same day.  But, I put this up on my page as well.

Beginning the Journey (@ John Gresham)

Back then, to pledge a Greek-letter organization was a journey.  The big brothers would place all sorts of challenges and obstacles before us as test to see if we had the mettle to strive for our goal.  The aim was to complete the 4 to 6 week pledge process, participate in the rituals, and become brothers of the fraternity.  I am very glad that I “crossed the burning sands” to become a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American college fraternity.  So, what does my pledging Alpha have to do with the journey that I am on now?  My desire to become an Orthodox Christian (which will not happen this or next year) does come complete with some burning sands of its own.  Among these is maintaining a fast that no good Baptist would even think about observing.

To us of the Calvinist line, the Virgin Mary’s significance is pretty much spent after she gives birth to Jesus.  We may mention that Christ told John to take her into his home as his mother at the crucifixion.  Other than that, we see where the 12 -year-old Son of God had to be about His Father’s business in Jerusalem rather than keep up with His earthly parents.  We also see where any elder woman who does His Father’s will is His mother.  So, for us to voluntarily surrender eating meat, dairy, fish with bones (save the feast of the Holy Transfiguration on Aug 6th), and marital sexual relations for two weeks in her honor is a very tall order.  To make a special effort to improve our prayer lives, scripture reading, and love for others in remembrance of this woman instead of her Son seems to shift the focus of our devotion to someone other than God.  Besides, black and white Baptist churches in my part of the world begin holding Homecoming and Revival Services where we feast on spirit-filled preaching, anointed singing, and plenty of good food.

What we ignore is that in John taking Mary as his mother is that the ageing faithful are to be cared for as directive of Christ.  Frederica Matthews-Green brings up an interesting point in her podcast on the Dormition Fast.  We don’t mind taking care of a helpless infant as much because the baby will grow and be able to take care of it’s self.  Taking care of an elderly person who becomes more and more helpless is a far greater challenge as they will eventually die.  Death is our common destiny.  The love of Christ extends as a baby to his youthful mother.  It also extends as a dying man to a mother who will also die.  Thus, this season is to remind us to have tender love for one another as we are all on a journey that leads us to the end of this life.  By following the Light that gives Life to all, our journey will lead to eternal life with Him.

Dormition of the Theotokos

In the frat, we learned the organizations history, “steps,” and traditions through repetition and enduring hardships.  Those critics on the outside ridiculed us saying that we shouldn’t have to go through all that just to wear “some letters.”  Sometimes the lessons of Christian living are best learned by enduring some sort of challenge or obstacle that reminds us to rely on God and his mercy rather than our own understanding and will.  There is no doubt in my mind that Mary was greatly loved by the first Christians.  Her loss was mourned, and then celebrated as the Mother of God (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God – John 1:1) was accepted into heaven.  Thus, the ancient church fathers and mothers began the practice of fasting and ending the fast with a great feast in her honor.  I see the purpose and wisdom in this observance and voluntarily embrace it.

On To Pentecost: The Worst Of Sinners

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Luke 18:13

Humility is the most difficult characteristic for the Christian to maintain.  It is too easy for us to look at our salvation (either through the sacraments of Orthodoxy or as a born again Baptist) as a “Get Out Of Hell Free” card.  It is too easy to find abortion doctors, kidnapping rapist, troubled celebrities, and corrupt politicians that we compare ourselves favorably against.  With this ease of judgement (a power that belongs to God alone), complete humility is impossible for those of us outside of monastic communities.  Even monks and nuns must struggle for this goal as well.

The Pharisee and the Publican

The Pharisee and the Publican

While we may adhere to lowly words of our prayer discipline, our thoughts and words in general conversation are too much like the Pharisee.  “Thank God I am not like James Gosnell, Ariel Castro, OJ Simpson, Tea Party members, Barack Obama and his supporters, … .  I love my wife, my children, my country, my people, … .  Does not God know our words and thoughts outside of our hours of prayer?  Asking for mercy in a few appointed times without the heart, mind, and lips that seek it at all other is hypocritical.  At least the Pharisee’s hypocrisy was obvious.  We hide ours in Jesus Prayers and Gospel radio.

The Apostle Paul called himself the chief among sinners.  Sure, he could boast that he was no longer a persecutor of the Church and that he was the great missionary of Christ to the Roman world.  But, Paul understood that God alone is the judge of all mankind and that it is better to think lower of one’s self as the humble are exalted and those who exalt themselves are brought down low.  A plethora of saints from the early fathers to Seraphim Rose taught the same thing, that one should think of himself no better than our enemies.  If we honestly look at our sins as the things that separate us from communion with God, we all have reason to hang our heads down and beat our breast begging for mercy. 

Let us be careful of our thoughts and words outside of prayer.  We may be the baby-killing, teen-raping, dirty politicians with inflated egos that we are better than.  God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Journey into Great Lent (Day 29): The Journey Worth Taking

It’s almost over.  Then again, it isn’t.  Great Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week.  Everything comes to a head on Pascha (Orthodox Easter).  Afterwards, it is back to eating anything affordable that I want to eat (have you ever had baby back ribs smoked over pecan wood?).  Nor do I have to feel bad about missing the Akathist, Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and Holy Week services (50 miles one way to the nearest Orthodox church with $3.50 a gallon gas is kinda tough).  I won’t have to add more prayers and prostrations to my daily discipline.  No more self-denial!  YIPPIEEE!!!!!!!!

Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Icon of Palm Sunday

No, wait … .  I am sorry.  But, in a way, I am going to miss this great fast.  These days of self-denial have given me a stronger awareness of the One who is my strength.  I have more fully learned that the daily walk with God requires discipline and that the walk is a lifestyle that means more than “getting your praise on.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew these, and other lessons of faith, before the fast.  The weeks of preparation, weekends that highlight the church doctrine, longer prayers, hunger pangs, and not satisfying my taste buds on favorite foods has been a blessing beyond measure.  It is going to seem weird eating a 7-11 hot dog on May 6th and not needing to have St. Ephraim the Syrian’s prayer as a part of my daily discipline. 

Then again, the journey is not over.  And this is what makes Orthodox Great Lent (Orthodoxy as a whole, for that matter) superior to conferences, revivals, and other events I practice in Protestantism.  There is always something in the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church to remind us to continue the journey with the Lord.  Except for fast-free weeks, each Wednesday and Friday brings us back to Lent.  Wednesday’s fast commemorates the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  Friday’s fast commemorates the Lord’s crucifixion.  In a society that looks at these days as measures to mark the work week (“hump day” and TGIF), isn’t it more wise to use these days for serious reflection on God?  Isn’t it better for our souls to reflect on the ways we betray the Lord with our sins and repent?  Does it not make more sense to enter the weekend with an increased level of spiritual sobriety?  Furthermore, there are the shorter fast of the Apostles and the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) during the summer which helps remind us not to over-indulge in the things of this world.  Speaking of over-indulgence, the Nativity Fast comes with the Holiday Season where too many of us eat, drink, and spend more than we should. 

Without prayer, fasting is just dieting.  This is why the church has those long mid-week services where everyone, who is physically able, must stand (Akathist) and make prostrations.  Worship is not a time for us to sit back and be entertained.  We are to be awed to be in God’s presence.  As the prayer services of Great Lent are done in great reverence, so should we approach God in a spirit of holiness (the Trisagion).  As the services were held frequently, so should we seek that frequent communion with God in our personal disciplines (the Hours).  In our private prayer closets, we can continue to use the Psalms and the words of the saints to guide our union with God.  The priest who led the divine services continues to help us in our journey throughout the year.  The church family (including the priest) who forgave and asked for forgiveness to begin Great Lent is there for one another as well.  Although particular saints were honored during the fast (Mary of Egypt, John of the Ladder), there are saints for every day of the year.  We are constantly surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). 

To my fellow Protestants, I am not saying we all need to convert to Orthodoxy a week after next Tuesday.  I can understand there are some things about the ancient faith (venerating icons, translation and order of the Old Testament, the role of Mary, …) that most of us will have a hard time accepting.     But if our Lord and Savior is right that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:19-21), it makes sense for us to investigate, study, and try the prayers and fast of the church that has existed and maintained its doctrine for 2,000 years and did so for its first 300 years without a set and written cannon.  And I am not saying that every Orthodox Christian is perfect and Orthodox communities don’t struggle with society’s ills.  But, let us take an honest look at what is wrong with ourselves, families, and neighborhoods.  Let’s take an open-minded look at what the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church has to offer.   I have and am finding this journey to be worth taking.  I won’t turn back.