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Archive for March, 2008

Gabe pointed me to this great resource (for anytime, but especially Great Lent):

The Dynamic Psalter According to the Seventy

Very nice for cubeland.

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Today marks my first Lent as an Orthodox Christian. I am already finding the experience qualitatively different than any of the previous five Lents which I’ve traversed as I made my way into the Orthodox Church. It is, in all ways except for the bodily, far more difficult than anything I’ve ever undertaken. I am made so keenly aware of the spiritual nature, indeed the spiritual warfare, of this time by all the Orthodox trappings. Whereas before these things have been up in my head, they are, this year, in my experience.

I am given to believe that the devil is on a short leash, but he still seeks whom he may devour, and I tremble at the thought that we, in our freedom, may choose such a destruction, decentered and disoriented by the phantasies and delusions to which we cling in our sinfulness. Not the least of which delusions are those which minimize our own sins. An unintentional wounding, given by mere words. Surely there is no large catastrophe to which to attach to that! And yet, I nonetheless was mindful of what I had done as my godfather and I bowed before one another giving and receiving forgiveness. Faces wet with grief, we embraced and our fellowship was restored.

If there is anything Orthodox Lent teaches it is that all these Lenten disciplines are done together. We have a common rule for all (adjusted by pastoral economy as needed), common prayers and worship, a common duration. Old or new calendars, it doesn’t matter. This or that jurisdiction. It doesn’t matter. All Orthodox all around the world join together in this askesis, this contest.

The purpose of Lent, as given us by the Church, is for the initiation of the catechumens into Christ by Holy Baptism. We fast and pray for the conversion of others. This calls me out of my own spiritual myopia. Lent becomes not about my personal observances and denials of self, my personal repentance, my personal reconciliation with my loved ones, fellow Christians and God. All of these things are inescapable, good and holy–but rather I am called to move out of myself and into union with those undertaking the journey of preparation for life and union with God. There are great and grave spiritual dangers which lie within and without. And I am called, in obedience, to assist in the battle for souls and the preservation of lives; which assistance is my prayer, fasting and giving of alms.

For me this year, this contest, this battle, is suddenly fraught with deep seriousness, even, to some extent, fear. Although we have been building up to this for weeks, I feel as though thrown headlong into the fray. This struggle is pervasive: within me, within my home, within our families, within the parish. Everywhere I see this wrestling. There is no space where there is no conflict, not even in the recesses of my heart. I look about at the vast expanse and deep-rootedness of the battle and I find myself wrestling with despair. How can such evil be overcome? How do any of us turn in repentance to embrace the loving Father? How are any of us drawn out of our delusions into the truth which cuts us free, painful as is that severance?

I do not have a clue. I do know that this is only for a season. I do know that it will not be two months from now when we will celebrate the destruction of death by Christ’s bright and glorious Resurrection. How does a dead body rise from death? How does God unite himself to man? How great is the love of God for us? I cannot tell. How can words embrace such things?

It seems as though with every day that I continue on in my journey as an Orthodox Christian, I find myself knowing less and less. The things I thought I knew are so pale and incomplete when placed in the center of the reality they claim to approximate, that I wonder if there is much use in holding on to them. God is love. The Tripersonal God is love. God the Father is love. Jesus, God the Son, is love. God the Holy Spirit is love. The Holy Trinity loves my wife, my daughters, my parents and siblings, my in-laws. Even, more mystery, even me.

The rest is inscrutable. Why is it that I am called to just this time, just this day, just this city, just this parish, to do that which I am called to do: to pray for the conversion of others? Why is it, that I am given just these pains and consolations at just this time? Why is it that I have been called to these things, and to this struggle? I do not know. I wonder whether I will ever know. I do not even know whether the pains and sufferings will be recompensed with deliverance and joy. I do not know whether the consolations will bring about further union with God, or whether I will squander them. But here I am, at this time, in this place of struggle and desolation and loss, and joy. And I must believe that God is love. And I must pray for the conversion of others.

As, I trust, someone is also doing for me.

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Your Forgiveness

For all those whom I’ve caused offense, pain, or scandal, forgive me, a sinner.

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On this, the first day of the Great and Holy Fast, I want to call again to my own attention, an article I noted a couple of years ago, from the archives of Touchstone magazine. Author Adam A. J. DeVille’s Life in the Fast Lane is full of very good and important reminders. I certainly need to heed the following exhortations:

For Christians, the most important lesson about fasting is presented in blunt terms: Christ warns us in the Gospels that fasting is not to make us gloomy! It is not a bitter, excruciating ordeal: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites. . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father” (Matt. 6:16–17).

Already the note is sounded: Fasting, while a form of self-denial, is nonetheless a cause of our joy, and it is this joy, rather than the fast, that we should manifest to the world. . . .

(more…)

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Pure Monday

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine wih the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eterna life . . . (Lenten Triodion, Matins for Monday of the First Week of Lent)

How shall I now lament my fall? Where shall I begin the work of my salvation? I have lived as the Prodigal: O compassionate Lord, in the ways that are Your own, do You save me. Be hold, the appointed time; behold, all the doors through which the passions enter, and look up towards the Lord. (II Cor. 6:2). Storm-tossed by the tempest of sin, I am dragged down into the depths of despair; but I flee to the wide sea of Your mercy. Save me, O Lord. I alone have become a slave to sin; I alone have opened the door to the passions, O Word are are ready to forgive. But in Your tender mercy turn back and save me . . . (Lenten Triodion, Matins for Monday of the First Week of Lent)

Come, O you people, and today let us accept the Grace of the Fast as a gift from God and as a time for repentence, in which we may find mercy with the Savior. The time for combat is at hand and has begun already; let all of us set forth eagerly upon the course of the Fast, offering our virtues as gifts to the Lord. (Lenten Triodion, Matins for Monday of the First Week of Lent)

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Earlier, I gave some very superficial initial impressions of the Orthodox Study Bible. (This webpage gives a list of translators and commentators, but it is manifestly an old document, dated 19 September 2002, and may not be entirely accurrate/updated.) I’ve spent a week now with the OSB, and have some further thoughts.

First, a bit of my reading pattern. I have been reading a couple of pages from the Old Testament (starting in Genesis), a couple of pages from the New Testament (starting in Matthew), the Psalms on a 30-day cycle, and a chapter from Proverbs per the calendar date. obviously, a great deal of my reading is from the Old Testament.

Secondly, the Old Testament translation is not only new as in never-been-published, but it is new as in the first English translation of the Septuagint I’ve read. This newness is very welcome, as one of the challenges of regular Bible reading is coming to the text with attention and reflection. I also pretty much am unfamiliar with the NKJV text of the New Testament. For about twenty years, the only translation I used was the New International Version. And in Bible college, I’d had pounded into my head the utterly inferior nature of the Greek text underlying the NKJV, so I pretty much avoided it. In the mid- to late nineties, I finally put the NIV away and went on to other translations, settling, for a time, on the New Revised Standard Version. In the past several years, I’ve worked mainly with the Greek texts, but nothing on the order of daily devotional/contemplative reading.

With all that as background, this week of daily Scripture reading and reflection has been amazingly refreshing. While I still want to develop my facility with Greek (and still have my Rahlfs and Robinson-Pierpont 2005 on my icon corner bookshelf), I am coming again to recognize the importance of vernacular Bible reading for spiritual nourishment and development.

Let me also say one more thing: my thoughts here are not technical/grammatical (or at least are barely so). I’m not all that interested, for my own purposes, on whether or not Psalm 22 (Hebrew 23) should read more like the Masoretic text (because it’s what English-speaking Christians are more familiar with) or more like the Septuagint text (there are a couple of fairly meaty differences). I’m not all that interested as to whether the verse numbering of certain texts (or the go-ahead to keep the messy LXX variations of Jeremiah, Isaiah etc) is a wise or foolish thing. Further editions of the OSB can work these things out. And in any case, the OSB is now set to become the standard Orthodox English translation. In which case, other versions can compare to it, rather than it conforming to other versions.

Now, to more direct comments on the OSB. While I’ve not checked the Old Testament translation against Rahlfs, and while I’ve not read much of the Old Testament translation as a whole, I’ve found the first dozen and a half chapters of Genesis to read well. Similarly, the Psalms and Proverbs are also nicely done. I do find lamentable that the Psalms are not translated in “old liturgical” English with the Thees, Thous and doeths. The Antiochian archdiocese retains this language in their liturgies, and it is quite jarring to the aesthetic sensibilities to smack hard in to the Yous when you expect the Thous. But, that said, the Psalms are well done and praying them/reading them contemplatively is readily facilitated by the translation. Similarly, Proverbs reads well. I don’t have anything really to say about the New Testament translation, since the NKJV has been out for more than a couple of decades.

Now to the notes. I understand there were some pretty strong criticisms of the notes of the Orthodox Study Bible-New Testament, and the OSB website indicates that the NT notes were “slightly revised.” I don’t have the means (or the inclination) to make a careful comparison between the OSB-NT and the New Testament notes of the full OSB. But from what I’ve read of the notes for the OT books I’m reading and of Matthew, I have found them to be quite helpful in fostering my reflection and contemplation on these Scriptures. I am extremely pleased with how the notes of the Psalms (written by our own Father Patrick) very clearly bring out Christ as the key to their interpretation. This is also well done in Genesis and Proverbs.

I have read some criticisms that the whole orientation toward a “study Bible” approach to the Scriptures (and that version marketing itself as the Orthodox Bible) is existentially contrary to the Orthodox approach–that is to say, it allows for the individual Bible reader to distance himself from the Church into individual and private interpretation. But I personally find this criticism to ring hollow. Certainly one must read the notes within a mental framework that submits them to the mind of the Church. But one must do this for the Fathers, the liturgical texts, and so on. This is nothing new. Indeed, to me, the benefit of the Orthodox Study Bible is not the explicit content of the notes themselves, though, as I say, I am finding them helpful and good. But rather, the benefit is that the notes themselves inculcate the careful reader in the process of submitting the interpretation of the Scriptural texts to the mind of the Church–for the notes themselves explicitly verbalize this orientation.

As I get further into my reading in the coming months, and have more about which I may want to comment, I’ll try to post my thoughts.

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The Faith of Abraham

Genesis 12.4 notes that Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Haran out of obedience to God to go to the land that God would show him. In 12.7, God promised Abraham that he would give this land to Abraham’s seed. Abraham had no heir; Sarah was barren. In 13.14-17, when Abraham’s and Lot’s camps quarrel over the land, God again promises to give the land to Abraham and his seed, and further promises that his seed would be innumerable. In chapter 15, Abraham is having doubts about having an heir. God reiterates: Abraham will have an heir and the land will belong to his descendents. About ten years after Abraham leaves Haran, when he is eighty-five (16.3), he acquiesces to his wife’s exhortation to make God’s promise happen by their own efforts, and he goes in to Hagar, Sarah’s slavegirl, to sire a son by her. That, of course, goes badly. Twelve years after Ishmael’s birth–Abraham is now ninety-nine (17.1)–God again promises Abraham an heir, and within the year, when Abraham is one hundred years old (21.5), Isaac is born.

Twenty-five years is a long time for a person to wait for a promise from God. And Abraham clearly struggles with doubt. When he gives in to his doubt, it has problematic consequences. Yet, he continues to struggle to maintain faith, and ultimately, he enjoys the gracious promises of God. And because of his faith, we enjoy those same promises as well. (Cf. Hebrews 11:8-19)

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