The Body and Therapeutic Salvation

For an evangelical Christian (and many other Protestants), and even perhaps a Roman Catholic to some degree, coming to the Orthodox Church, it can be somewhat jarring to encounter the emphasis on the bodily dimension of an Orthodox way of life. The worship involves the bodily senses in major ways: the bright colors of the icons, the gold on the vestments and the instruments of worship (cup, paten, censer, candelabra); the strange tonic system of the Byzantine chant which fills the hearing; the rich smells of the incense and interwoven with honeyed nuances of the beeswax candles; the taste of Holy Communion and of the antidoron; the feel of the one’s body, bowing, prostrating, making the sign of the cross, embracing fellow worshippers and one’s family, even how one’s body feels while others are moving around during the service and while one stands. An evangelical is used to much more sitting and listening, perhaps standing and joining in during the praise music part of the service. There may well be bright colors and images in visual presentations and posting of hymn lyrics, perhaps some candles. Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) will be used to some kneeling, and occasional use of incense as well as the images of crucifixes and statues and paintings of saints, perhaps a few icons. But among all these, the Orthodox experience is, if I may dare to say it this way, very sensual.

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Grace, Form and Essence

The grace of God is so overly abundant to us that Christians have always tended toward one of two extremes in their experience of it. On the one hand, they emphasize the unboundedness of God’s grace and disregard limitations and corrections on their experience. On the other, they emphasize the preciousness of God’s grace such that we must limit and correct our experiences so as rightly to receive it. For some we do not chain the whirlwind. For others we do not trample gold under muddy feet. Some Christians primarily seek experience. Some primarily seek rule-keeping. Both lack balance.

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I’m Religious, Not Spiritual

It has been popular within American religious circles in the past couple of decades (since, say, the Jesus Movement) to deny being religious but to affirm being spiritual. If one is religious one is “going through the motions,” is concerned with form over substance, isn’t really a Christian. If one is spiritual one has a “personal relationship” with Jesus, can worship in the forest as easily as in a church building, is a real Christian. Yes, religion has taken a beating. No one wants to own up to being religious. Best to be spiritual. The problem is this is a false dichotomy.

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The Anchor of Confession

It is a commonplace in the Orthodox way of life that repentance is a constant. We continue to sin. We continue to repent of those sins. Stories of the desert fathers are replete with these great men of God who, on their deathbeds, having lived lives of exemplary virtue, nonetheless lament that they have no more time in which to learn the art of living repentance. For those sensitive to whiffs of works righteousness, of earning our salvation by our efforts, let’s be clear: these men were not lamenting that they had no more time to “earn” their salvation, but rather that the experience of God’s grace purifying them and preparing them for eternal life was coming to a close; they wished to be made more pure by the Holy Spirit knowing that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

In light of this centrality of repentance to the Orthodox way of life, I had some dialog in a couple of different settings over the past couple of weeks about the Sacrament of Confession in the Orthodox Church and the role it has played in my life and the lives of those I was communicating with (all of us having come from other Christian groups prior to becoming Orthodox). The few individuals with whom I was talking and I were convinced that if there were one thing that kept us anchored in and returning to the Orthodox Church it was our experience of confession.

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Godparenting 101

To be a godparent is at the same time a great honor and a tremendous responsibility. God asks each godparent to assist in leading souls along the narrow path which leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. For this reason the role of the godparent is not to be minimized or trivialized. It is in fact a role that is holy and needs to be taken seriously.

The task of steering a child along the narrow path, and bringing them up according to the law of God is perhaps the greatest of all things in life. St. Theophan the Recluse says that there is no holier act. What better thing can we offer our children than to lead them to our Lord and teach them to imitate Him in their life.

The challenge of raising up a child in the teachings of God is perhaps far greater today than ever before. We are contending against many negative influences that carry with them great appeal. Due to the fallen state that we are in, and the unhealed passions that remain within us, the things that are most harmful are the things that are most enticing. With the many obstacles and temptations, the parents along with the godparents, must help the precious souls entrusted to them through the course of life . . . .

The role and responsibility of the Godparent can be summed up in the Divine Commandment that is read from the Holy Gospel at the service of Baptism. “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” It is truly an honor to be called upon to be a godparent. May we all live a life close to the Church, seeking help from Christ, that we may fulfill our sacred duty as godparents in a way pleasing to God.

(from here)

St John Chyrsostom on Ephesians 5 (On Marriage)

Sts Joachim and Anna with the Most Blessed Theotokos
Sts Joachim and Anna with the Most Blessed Theotokos

Some excerpts:

And indeed from the beginning, God appears to have made special provision for this union; and discoursing of the twain as one, He said thus, “Male and female created He them” (Gen. i. 27.) . . . For there is no relationship between man and man so close as that between man and wife, if they be joined together as they should be. . . . For indeed, in very deed, this love is more despotic than any despotism: for others indeed may be strong, but this passion is not only strong, but unfading. For there is a certain love deeply seated in our nature, which imperceptibly to ourselves knits together these bodies of ours. Thus even from the very beginning woman sprang from man, and afterwards from man and woman sprang both man and woman.
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church.” Thou hast heard how great the submission; thou hast extolled and marvelled at Paul, how, like an admirable and spiritual man, he welds together our whole life. Thou didst well. But now hear what he also requires at thy hands; for again he employs the same example. “Husbands,” saith he, “love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church.” . . . Take then thyself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for thee to give thy life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever,—refuse it not. Though thou shouldest undergo all this, yet wilt thou not, no, not even then, have done anything like Christ. For thou indeed art doing it for one to whom thou art already knit . . . .
Seek thou for beauty of soul. Imitate the Bridegroom of the Church. . . . Let us wipe off the “spot” that is within, let us smooth the “wrinkles” that are within, let us do away the “blemishes” that are on the soul. Such is the beauty God requires.

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Orthodox Prosphora: Handcrafted since Pentecost

The Ochlophobist makes two important observations which I’d never really connected before: the Orthodox are one of the few, perhaps the only ones remaining, who make their Communion bread by hand, everyone else’s is factory produced.

Our priest, commenting on our recent shortage of prosphora-bakers (since rectified), noted that if there were no prosphora, there would be no Holy Communion. The Communion bread of the Orthodox is made by the parishioners, and the making of prosphora sanctifies one’s kitchen.

Given where I’m at now, a few days shy of six months out from our chrismation, if I were exploring Orthodoxy again, this would be one of the crucial signs of authenticity and authority, of the “one true Church.” Christ gives us the seed, the earth, the sunshine and rain, we offer to Him the harvest, the sifting, the milling, the mixing and the baking with the hands and minds and bodies and senses He gives us, never once inserting a prophylactic between our very selves and our gifts, and He then offers back to us Himself, sanctifying and deifying it all. Holy things are for the holy.

Chrysostom: “Behold, Thou Eatest Him!”

From Fr John’s blog, Chrysostom: “Behold, Thou Eatest Him!”:

Since the Word saith: This is my Body: let us be persuaded of the truth of his words; and let us believe, and look upon him with the eyes of our understanding. For Christ hath not given us a reality cognizable by the senses, but rather tokens of that reality, which same are sensible things, altogether cognizable by the understanding. For example, consider Baptism: wherein by means of a sensible thing, (to wit, water,) a gift is bestowed, but the intelligible reality which is conferred is birth and renewal. For if thou wert bodiless, he would have given thee incorporeal gifts; but inasmuch as thy soul is united to a body, he giveth thee intelligible realities under visible things which pertain to the senses. How many are there now who say, Would that I could behold his form, his face, his garments, his sandals! Behold, thou dost see him; thou touchest him; thou eatest him. Thou wouldst fain see his mere garments, but he granteth thee not merely to see him, but to eat him, to touch him, to take him within thyself.