Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist and 9/11

We do not generally celebrate the birthdays of saints. We celebrate the date of their deaths, because how we end our lives is more important than how we begin them. However, St. John the Baptist is one of the two exceptions to this rule. We celebrate both the conception and the birth of St. John as well as the Theotokos, because these two people are the holiest of the saints. St. John was, we are told in the Gospels, filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother's womb (Luke 1:15), and so he was a great saint, and the greatest of the Prophets.

Though the beheading of St. John the Baptist happened on Herod's birthday, it is the death of St. John we commemorate, not Herod's birthday, because Herod is remembered now only as a very evil and weak man..

The Herod of the Gospel we heard today is not the same as the Herod we hear about on Christmas. This was one of his sons. Herod the Great had five wives, and many children -- several of whom he had executed, and so it was said of Herod that it was safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son. After Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided among the surviving sons, and so Herod Antipas was made a Tetrarch, who ruled Galilee and Perea. Galilee was the most prosperous area in the Holy Land. Perea was the land along the eastern bank of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

It’s difficult to keep track of how the family was related to each other, because this was a family tree that didn’t have a lot of branches. Herod Antipas, was born of Herod's wife Malthake, and was first married to the daughter of King Aretas, a Nabatean King. Herodias was the Granddaughter of Herod the Great, whose grandmother was Mariamne the Hasmonean. She was first married to Herod Philip, another of Herod the Great Son’s, by his wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, and so was half brother to Herod Antipas. This made Herodias both Herod Antipas’s niece, and his sister-in-law. Herodias had a daughter from Philip, named Salome -- who was both Antipas' niece, and grandniece at the same time.

At one point, Antipas and Herodias were in Rome, and he seduced her. He convinced her to divorce her husband, and promised that he would divorce his wife, and then they would be married, and they both followed through, and were married, with complete disregard to the law of God forbidding the taking of another man's wife while he still lived, and also forbidding taking one's brother's wife at all if she already had a child from the brother.

St. John the Baptist did not say “Who am I to judge”? He did not say, “It is none of my business.” He certainly did not say “Love wins!” as many in our culture today would be inclined to say. Instead he said “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife” (Mark 6:18). He did not care what Roman law said. He did not care what Antipas said the law was. He only cared what the law of God said.

This, of course, did not set well with Herodias, who resented anyone speaking the truth about her. And so finally she persuaded Herod to arrest him, and he put him into prison in the palace fortress of Machaerus, which was on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.

But what is strange is that having put this simple man into prison, "Herod feared John"(Mark 6:20). He was the man with the power. John was locked in a dungeon, and yet Herod feared him. He feared him because he was a "holy and just man" (Mark 6:20), and he no doubt feared the people, who all thought St. John was a prophet.

However, we are also told that he often went to see John, and "heard him gladly" (Mark 6:20). He was torn, because on the one hand, he had a sin he was not willing to give up – the sin of his adulterous and incestuous relationship with his brother’s wife. But on the other hand, he was drawn to the what St. John said, and to what St. John represented. Much like when we later hear of his nephew Agrippa, he was almost persuaded. When St. Paul appeared before Herod Agrippa, after hearing his testimony, he said "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian" (Acts 26:28). And Antipas was almost persuaded to repent. However, "almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades. In the spiritual life, "almost" is not good enough.

So he wavered between two opinions. He would not repent, but he also would not give into the demands of his wife and put St. John to death.

Then, one day he threw himself a birthday party. We are told that "he made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee" (Mark 6:21). And then Salome, the daughter of Herodias, came in and shamelessly danced. This was not the normal behavior of a princess, but she had learned to be shameless from her mother. Antipas, who was no doubt somewhat drunk, was struck with lust for a woman who was his niece, his grandniece, and his step-daughter to boot. And he made a foolish oath: “Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee." And he then swore: "Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:23). Some also think that this amounted to a marriage proposal, because normally a ruler shares half of his kingdom only with his queen. She might have asked for all sorts of riches, the possibilities were great, but instead she went and consulted with her mother, and her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. And to make sure that Herod was not given an opportunity to change his made, she demanded that it be given to her on a platter, right then. Rather than renounce a foolish oath, Herod, because he feared the opinion of those who were at his party, gave in:
"And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother" (Mark 6:27-28).
Herod’s conscience troubled him. We know this because we were told at the beginning of today's reading, that when he heard of Christ, he was convinced that this was St. John the Baptist, come back from the dead (Mark 6:14-16).

We hear of Antipas one more time in the Gospels, on the night of Christ’s passion. St. Luke tells us that when Pilate heard that Christ was a Galilean, hoping to pass the buck, he sent him to Antipas, who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time.
“And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him. Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing” (Luke 23:8-9).
He would have heard Christ gladly, as he had John, but Christ did not indulge him. He performed no miracle to impress him. And one thing that this tells us is that there comes a time when God will give up a man who continues to reject the call to repentance, and leave him to go his own way. Today, is the day of salvation. Now is the appointed time (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Since Christ would not provide him with with the entertainment that he had hoped for, we are told that he and his men treated Christ with contempt and mocked him, and "arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate" (Luke 23:11). And it happened that Pilate and Herod became friends (Luke 23:12). They previously had been enemies, but became friends in their opposition to Christ.

About a decade after all of this, Antipas fell out of favor. He went to Rome, but was accused of plotting against the Emperor by his nephew Agrippa, and so lost his rule, and was sent into exile with Herodias. No one knows exactly when or how Herod and Herodias died, and this is because no one thought it important enough to record it. In St. John's Troparion, we are told "The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise..."  However, the Psalms tell us:
"Not so are the ungodly, not so; but rather they are like the chaff which the wind doth hurl away from the face of the earth. For this reason shall the ungodly not stand up in judgement, nor sinners in the council of the righteous. For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous, and the way of the ungodly shall perish" (Psalm 1:4-6).
We celebrate another unhappy anniversary today -- the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I do not believe it is coincidental that these attacks happened on the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist.*

St. John of Shanghai was the founder of our cathedral in our nation's capital, Washington, D.C. Most parishes that are dedicated to St. John the Baptist celebrate the feast of his nativity, or the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist -- because both feasts are usually not fast days, and when a parish celebrates a patronal feast, they, of course, like to do it on a day when they can eat whatever they want. However, the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist is always a fast day. There is never a year in which this day is another other than a fast day. And yet St. John insisted that they dedicate their cathedral to this feast. The people tried to convince him otherwise, but he warned them that unless they chose this feast, their parish would not prosper... and being fearful to go against such a warning from such a holy man, they relented.

I know that this story was not concocted to try to connect this feast with the 9/11 attacks, because I remember hearing it long before those attacks. Prior to 9/11, people just thought it was curious. Perhaps St. John simply wanted to encourage people to fast. However, after the 9/11 attacks this story was seen in a very different light. St. John the Baptist was a preacher of repentance. He warned that the axe is already laid to the root of the tree, and any tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and caste into the fire (Matthew 3:10). This means that the axe is already in position to start hacking away at the roots, and to chop the tree down, but there is still an opportunity for repentance.

Unfortunately, I remember how after 9/11 there was an upsurge in Church attendance. People seemed to be more interested in their faith. Like Herod, they heard the preaching of the word of God gladly. But it did not last. And look at what has happened since then. Our country has redefined marriage -- the very issue that lead to St. John being beheaded -- and in a way that Herod could not even imagine. We have thrown the law of God out of the window. And now, increasingly, we see Christ mocked in our culture.

We cannot have our cake and eat it to. This is true of us as a nation, and this is true of us as individuals. We cannot serve both God and our own lusts. We cannot call ourselves Christians, and do whatever we please, contrary to God’ law. We have to choose this day whom we will serve, and we will have to live with that choice for all eternity.  Regardless of what everyone else may do, we as Orthodox Christians must say "But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15).

*It is worth noting that the comparable terrorist attack in the United Kingdom happened on July 7th, 2005, which on the Church calendar happens to be the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

Click here to listen to the audio of this sermon.

Friday, September 09, 2016

King James English and Orthodox Worship

One doesn't usually look to Orthodox Jewish sources for guidance on the kind of English that is best suited for worship, but years ago I stumbled across some very telling comments in the preface to the book "To Pray as a Jew," by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. Commenting on his translations of the prayers his book would discuss, he says:
"I have decided to retain the use of "Thou," "Thee," and "Thy" in all passages that address themselves directly to God. The more contemporary "You" and "Your," which I had at first considered using, made me uncomfortable in some instances, although I find it difficult to explain why this should be so. The Hebrew atah (and the Yiddish du) reflect the familiar and the intimate approach to God with which I am comfortable. Still, English seems to demand, at least in some places, the more reverent "Thou" and "Thy." (To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer book and the Synagogue Service, (New York: Basic Books [Harper Collins], 1980), p. xx.).
I would argue that Rabbi Donin was right in his gut, but wrong in his explanation. It makes no sense to limit the use of "Thee" and "Thou" to God, and so he correctly senses the inconsistency of his translation choices here. He is also incorrect in his assumption that these forms are not the "intimate you" he sees in Hebrew and Yiddish. In fact, "Thou" is simply the English form of the German "Du", which is were the Yiddish pronoun comes from (English being, after all, a Germanic language).*  He is correct, however, that in English there is a need to use more traditional language when praying because we sense that the sacredness of the act requires a more reverent form of the language. Traditional English also has the added advantage of being more precise, because it allows for a distinction between the second-person singular pronoun ("thou"), and the plural ("you"), which is present in both Hebrew and Greek, and often this distinction is very important to the meaning of a text. Aside from all of that, praying "O You Who..." just doesn't work.

From time to time we hear some in the Orthodox Church arguing that English-speaking Orthodox Christians should abandon the use of "King James English" and simply use contemporary English in our translations of the Scriptures and the services. This is, however, a fairly recent phenomenon. From the time that the first modern English-speaking Orthodox Christians began translating the services (the earliest known example being in 1760), up until the 1960's, it never seems to have even occurred to anyone that they should translate the services into anything other than the traditional style of English that we find in the King James Version, and the pre-1980's editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

Even non-native English speakers followed this pattern. Nicholas Orloff, who translated a number of texts at the end of the 19th century did so, though these texts are notoriously clunky, and no longer in common use. Likewise Fr. Seraphim Nassar, published a compendium of liturgical texts in 1938 (affectionately known as the "Nassar Five Pounder") that used traditional English, and this text is still in use today, In 1906, Isabel Hapgood first published her Service Book, which was blessed by the Hieromartyr Tikhon of Moscow, and funded by the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II (who spoke English in the home with the Tsarina Alexandra (who was raised by Queen Victoria), and their children). She was an Anglican, and she clearly modeled her translation on the style of the Book of Common Prayer. This text is likewise still in use today, and was highly influential on subsequent translations of the services. More recently, the Lenten Triodion translated by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) and Mother Mary is probably one of the most standard English texts in use in the Orthodox Church today, being in use in the vast majority of parishes that use English. The fact is, one cannot find a complete set of service books in English that are not in traditional English, and the obvious reason for this is because this how the English speaking Orthodox Christians generally think it ought to be, and this has been true for more than 250 years.

But some might object that this is just due to Protestant influence. The fact that this is not true is shown by the oldest Catholic translation of the Bible in English, the Douay Rheims Bible, as well as the text of the "Hail Mary" that is still in general use:
"Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
The Orthodox approach to translation has generally been a conservative one. Slavonic was never the street language of Slavic speakers. It was a high form of Slavic language, with a huge amount of created terms, using Slavic root words, and putting them together in the same way Greek theological terms were constructed. The end result was a highly elevated language which was within reach of Slavic speaking people, but was not the language of the street.

When the services were translated into Chinese and Japanese, for example, the style used was that which was used in traditional Chinese and Japanese religious practice... which was an older form of these languages.

Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the Greek of the New Testament was not really "street Greek." It is certainly in a form of Koine Greek, but it is in a Semitic style that it full of Hebraisms rooted in the Old Testament, both the Hebrew original, and the Greek Septuagint (which likewise is full of Hebraisms, see The Semitic Style of the New Testament, and Was the Bible Written in ‘Street Language’?, by Michael D. Marlowe). Furthermore, even in the Hebrew Old Testament, you find the use of intentional archaisms, not to mention the fact that Jews continued to use the Hebrew text of the Old Testament long after Hebrew ceased to be the spoken language of the people (and in fact, they continue to use it to this day).

The Orthodox Church has always taken the position that the language used in our services and translations of Scripture should be within reach of the people (which is why Christians did not just continue to use the Hebrew Old Testament, and why we have always had so many different liturgical languages in use), but the Church has not felt the need to use the language of the street, or to regularly update our translations.

This does not mean that we should never update our translations. While I would argue that when it come to the text of Scripture we should begin with the text of the King James version, I would not argue that there is no need to correct the KJV or to update it when changes to English have rendered a particular text very difficult for the average person to properly understand. One does have to learn some vocabulary and get use to some older grammatical forms, but for the most part, these are not difficult.

Traditional English is also not a dead language. It is simply a form of English used in worship and in other solemn contexts. People use this language every day in prayer, and they do so naturally. Even among those who pray extemporaneously, they are able to pray in this manner without any difficulty, nor is what they say difficult to comprehend. For an example, I would refer people to one of the many extemporaneous prayers Billy Graham gave at his evangelistic rallies:

I think we should take to heart the comments of Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus to Dr. Kyriakos Markides:
“We must avoid addressing ourselves to God in a superficial casual way. For this reason Elder Sophrony goes so far as to say that the language we use in prayer must be different from the ordinary language of everyday usage. That is why he insisted that the language of the liturgy should not be translated into the contemporary spoken vernacular.”
“A lot of people today would strongly object to that suggestion,” I pointed out. “They demand that church services be conducted in the spoken ordinary language so that they can understand what is being said. Why did Elder Sophrony hold to such a position?”
“Elder Sophrony claimed that when we conduct the liturgy using everyday language, we lower the level of our communication with God.”
“How is that so?” I asked.
“He believed that ordinary language carries meanings and images from our daily reality that usually lack the element of holiness and purity. On the other hand, when we address ourselves to God in a language that has, as it were, an exclusive usage within the boundaries of the Ecclesia, the very words and sounds of that language evoke sacred feelings and images that facilitate communication with God. A special language that offers precise and exclusive meanings can automatically be experienced as the language of the Ecclesia. It carries greater spiritual force” (Markides, Kyriakos C., Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality, Random House-Doubleday, NY, 2005, quoted by Nun Nectaria (McLees), in an interview with the journal "Road to Emmaus').
*It is interesting to note that when the Austrian-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber's book Ich und Du was translated into English, the title was translated as "I and Thou", rather than "I and You."

Update: I received an interesting comment from Jason Rogers: "In linguistics, using different forms of a language in certain contexts is referred to as "registers" and they exist *almost* in every language. Religious registers are very common, if not the most common, kind of register. so in a sense, humans are predisposed - or "hardwired" - to use religious registers and I think this, in part, explains why older, elevated styles of language are important to us."

For more information:

An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible, By Fr. John Whiteford

Liturgical Languages and Living Tradition: an Interview with Nun Nectaria (McLees)

A Linguistic Bridge to Orthodoxy In Memoriam Isabel Florence Hapgood, by Marina Ledkovsky

You can watch a pretty good documentary about the history of the King James Bible:

For more from the narrator, Adam Nicolson, see his excellent book on the subject: God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003).

Here also is a lecture on the subject by Adam Nicolson:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review: New Edition of the Gospel, KJV

It has been many years since the hardback edition of the Holoviak King James Version Gospel was available for sale, apart from being purchased along with a somewhat expense metal cover. A few years there was a Byzantine Lectionary based on the KJV available in hardback, but now that edition is only available in a softcover. Now, at long last, Reader Peter Gardner has come to the rescue.

This edition is available in two sizes: a smaller edition for $40.00 (6"x 9", with 12-point font); and a larger edition for $45.00 (8.25"x 10.75", with 14-point font), and it actually has several elements that are not in the older Holoviak edition. Based on the contents of the standard Slavonic Gospel, it contains a brief life of the four Evangelists, an extensive appendix of the Gospel readings (more extensive than is found in the Holoviak version), and the rubrics for how the Gospel readings are done throughout the year, including the "Lukan Jump." The cover is as seen in the photo above (this is the actual hardcover, not a dust jacket). For a small mission or home, it is usable as it is. The text is in standard sizes, and so could also be put into a nicer Gospel cover.

There are a few things that would improve future editions of the text. The King James text of the Gospels is remarkably easy to read, even after 400 years of changes to the English language, and so there are not a lot of obscure archaisms that are a factor, but because the King James text was done by different teams, there are some inconsistencies in the original King James, and one of them is that in the Old Testaments, the names of people and places were based on transliterations of the Hebrew (e.g., "Elijah," "Elisha," "Jeremiah"), whereas in the New Testament, the names of those same Old Testament figures are found in forms based on the Greek text, or older English usage ("Elias," "Eliseus," "Jeremy"). Also, even within the Gospels there was some inconsistency in the use of "Holy Ghost" and "Holy Spirit." The Holoviak Gospel made the decision to use the most standard form of the names of Old Testament figures in its Gospel. It also generally replaced "Holy Ghost" with "Holy Spirit", though there are some places in which it failed to do that consistently. In my opinion, these were both good decisions. In the case of the names of Old Testament figures, to the extent that Biblical literate people know anything about these figures when they are mentioned in the Gospels, they know them by the more standard form of their names in the Old Testament, where their stories are found. While "Holy Ghost" was once commonly used in English, that usage has become increasingly rare, and I think we might as well have some consistency with the form we normally use in our private prayers, and in our public services. One other thing that would improve the text would be to use red ink for the rubrics. This would of course make the text more expensive, but perhaps, since the text is a print on demand edition, a more expensive edition could be made available as an option.

Reader Peter Gardner also has plans to publish an Apostol that will likewise be based on the King James Version. In the case of the Apostol, my recommendation would be to do a little more revision of the King James text to eliminate some of the more obscure passages, because unlike the text of the Gospels, some of these readings can be very difficult for the average English speaker to understand.

This text fills an important need for English speakers, in many respects it is the first full edition of the Slavonic Gospel in English, it is sturdily bound, and very affordable. I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Stump the Priest: Self Defense

Question: "I have heard some claim that Orthodoxy does not approve of self defense or firearms specifically, specifically attacking the "take your purse and buy" a sword verse from Luke that is often used in support of armed Christian self defense. He even went so far as to say, or at least strongly imply, that Christians shouldn't kill in combat/war. So, I suppose the question is, what is the Orthodox Church's teaching regarding a Christian's right or ability to hurt or kill others in self-defense? As soldiers during war? What about defending one's family from violence?"

The passage you refer to is Luke 22:35-38:
"And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough." 
Christ is referring to when He sent out His disciples earlier (Luke 9:1-6), and they were told to not take any of these things, and indeed they had not lacked anything during that time. But now Christ is saying that they will need to take these things with them. St. Cyril of Alexandria says that Christ was warning them about the coming tribulations that the Jews would suffer, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem. Blessed Theophylact says that Christ is simply saying that the special provision they had experienced before would not continue, and that they would need to take necessary care to provide for themselves, and that they would experience times of hunger, thirst, and face many adversaries. On the previous occasion, there was no mention of swords, but now Christ says that if they do not have a sword, they should sell their outer garment, and buy one. Had this been all that Christ said, one could have easily taken this as a command that all Christians should be armed. However, when the Apostles produced two swords, Christ said "It is enough" -- which suggests that they had missed His point. It would seem, especially based on what followed when Christ was arrested, that the Apostles thought that Christ was calling on them to defend Him in some way. However, when St. Peter attempted to do just that, Christ rebuked him and said:
"Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matthew 26:52).
Also, had this been Christ's point, 200 hundred swords would not have been enough, but Christ was in no need of human defense:
"Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? " (Matthew 26:53-54). 
So what was Christ's point? There are a number of interpretations of the spiritual significance of buying a sword given by the Fathers, but having a small sword, or dagger, was considered a common necessity that a traveler would need, and so probably the literal sense of Christ's statement was to emphasize their need to beware of dangers, and to take necessary precautions:
"The directive to buy a sword deserves a measure of separate consideration. Lined up as it is with purse, bag, and sandals, we can eliminate at once any idea that zealot sympathies are coming to expression with the commendation of the sword. The sword is thought of as part of the equipment required for the self-sufficiency of any traveller in the Roman world. Nothing more than protection of one's person is in view." (John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 35C: Luke 18:35-24:53 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), p. 1076).
It should also be noted that the word for "sword" here (machaira (μάχαιρα)) can refer to anything from a knife to a short sword (See Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 4, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1964-1976), p. 524ff).

There are two related but distinct questions here: 1). What does Scripture say about the private ownership of weapons? 2). What does Scripture say about using force, either in self defense, in defense of others, or as part of the military or police force?

As for the first question, there is nothing in Scripture that prohibits the private ownership of weapons. The passage in Luke 22 does not require us to own them, but it does not forbid them either.

In the Code of St. Justinian, there were restrictions on the private ownership of military grade weapons and armor, but even this did not prohibit the ownership of weapons such as staves, or knives (see Novel 85). It is true that this law was authored by a saint of the Church, but it reflected what was in the interest of the Roman state, which was to make revolts in a vast and diverse empire less likely. Rome also had a large standing army. On the other hand, in English history, the Kings of England long encouraged the practice of archery by the common people, because they did not have a large standing army, and in times of war, the skill of the average English bowman was in the interest of the state, and this necessarily required the common ownership of a very lethal weapon.

As for the second question, the use of force for Christians has long been a matter of debate because, for example, Christ taught us to turn the other cheek:
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:38-39).
The question we must ask about this passage is does the Old Testament law regarding an eye for an eye relate to personal revenge, or defending ones family, faith, or homeland from attack? It in fact pertains to personal revenge. This law was actually an improvement on the usual practice of exacting many times more punishment than the original offense had inflicted on the person offended. Christ raised the bar to the next level, and said that we should not seek personal revenge at all. However, we cannot and should not turn the other cheek when the defenseless are being attacked, because it isn't our cheek to turn.

Let's take a look at some other statements from the Scriptures:
"Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked." (Psalm 81[82]:3-4).
"Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17).
The problem is that, usually, oppressors don't stop oppressing the weak simply because we ask them nicely to do so. More often then not, force, or at least the threat of force is necessary. So do these scriptures contradict the commands of Christ? No, they refer to defending others, not to seeking revenge.

It is often asserted that Christ never used or advocated the use of force. This is simply not true.
"And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables" (John 2:15).
A scourge is not something used to gently influence someone -- it is something used to violently beat other people, so as to inflict pain, in order to violently coerce them in some way or other. Whether He actually struck anyone, or merely threatened to, we are not told, but we do know that the money changers at least believed he would have, and left expeditiously.

Saints Boris and Gleb are often cited by Orthodox pacifists as examples of the way Christians ought to respond to war. After their father, St. Vladimir, reposed, their brother sought to usurp the kingdom, and so plotted to kill them. They offered no resistance, because they did not wish to fight their brother, nor to see a bloody civil war. However, they were not facing an external enemy who was seeking the destruction or subjugation of their people, but their own brother, and so they chose the path of martyrdom. Their act of personal sacrifice was praiseworthy.

St. Alexander Nevsky faced a completely different situation, and Ss. Boris and Gleb actually played a role in his course of action. St. Alexander Nevsky faced an invasion from the heterodox Swedes, and so had to defend his people and his Faith.

Here is the Kontakion of St. Alexander Nevsky:
“As thy kinsmen Boris and Gleb appeared to thee, bringing thee help from heaven when thou didst battle against Velgar the Swede and his warriors, so now, O blessed Alexander, come to the aid of thy kinfolk, and contend thou against those who wage war against us.”
This refers to the following incident from the Life of St. Alexander Nevsky:
“But there was a miraculous omen: at dawn on July 15 [the feast of St. Vladimir] the warrior Pelgui, in Baptism Philip, saw a boat, and on it were the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, in royal purple attire. Boris said: "Brother Gleb, let us help our kinsman Alexander." When Pelgui reported the vision to the prince, St Alexander commanded that no one should speak about the miracle. Emboldened by this, he urged the army to fight valiantly against the Swedes.”
Had St. Alexander Nevsky decided to not resist the Swedes, it would not have been a praiseworthy act, but rather a dereliction of duty. It would not have been a higher path, it would have been a sinful path. So in the lives of these saints we see the balance between turning the other cheek, and defending one's own. St. Alexander's actions were praiseworthy, and Ss. Boris and Gleb's were praiseworthy... and there is no contradiction between them because they all responded to different situations in complete accordance with the commands of Christ.

The following quote from the Russian Orthodox Church’s Social Concept Document, and the section on “War and Peace” is instructive:
“When St. Cyril Equal-to-the-Apostles was sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople to preach the gospel among the Saracens, in their capital city he had to enter into a dispute about faith with Muhamaddan scholars. Among others, they asked him: 'Your God is Christ. He commanded you to pray for enemies, to do good to those who hate and persecute you and to offer the other cheek to those who hit you, but what do you actually do? If anyone offends you, you sharpen your sword and go into battle and kill. Why do you not obey your Christ?' Having heard this, St. Cyril asked his fellow-polemists: 'If there are two commandments written in one law, who will be its best respecter - the one who obeys only one commandment or the one who obeys both?' When the Hagerenes said that the best respecter of law is the one who obeys both commandments, the holy preacher continued: 'Christ is our God Who ordered us to pray for our offenders and to do good to them. He also said that no one of us can show greater love in life than he who gives his life for his friends (Jn. 15:3). That is why we generously endure offences caused us as private people. But in company we defend one another and give our lives in battle for our neighbours, so that you, having taken our fellows prisoners, could not imprison their souls together with their bodies by forcing them into renouncing their faith and into godless deeds. Our Christ-loving soldiers protect our Holy Church with arms in their hands. They safeguard the sovereign in whose sacred person they respect the image of the rule of the Heavenly King. They safeguard their land because with its fall the home authority will inevitably fall too and the evangelical faith will be shaken. These are precious pledges for which soldiers should fight to the last. And if they give their lives in battlefield, the Church will include them in the community of the holy martyrs and call them intercessors before God'.”
What is true of the defense of a nation on a big scale would also be true of the defense of one's family on a smaller scale.

As for self defense in a situation in which one is in danger themselves, but in which no one else is in danger, I do not believe that Scripture forbids the use of necessary force to defend yourself from a serious assault (as opposed to a personal quarrel in which there was no real danger), but it is certainly true that it is praiseworthy to not defend yourself. It is less complicated if you do not have a family that is depending on you, and more complicated if you do. All life is sacred, and we should never take the shedding of blood, lightly, however, a husband and a father has to take care of his family. As St. Paul admonished: "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (1 Timothy 5:8). And this does not just mean that he needs to bring home a pay check, it also means that he needs to take care of them, and that includes their protection, and it also entails that he try to the best of his ability to continue to be able to provide for his family.

With regard specifically to the question of the private ownership of guns. There obviously is no Orthodox position, one way or the other. It is a question of wisdom, and reasonable people can disagree. I think we would all agree that if banning private gun ownership would eliminate gun crime, and if we never had cause to fear our own government, that this would be wonderful. However, it is not quite that simple, in my opinion.

I know that people in the United Kingdom and Australia generally think Americans are crazy for wanting to have private gun ownership, but I would point out to them that in both cases, they live in Island nations that do not have a 2,000 mile border with Mexico. We have been unable to stop a steady flow of drugs across that border, and we even have a huge human trafficking problem. If we had a gun ban in the United States, there would be no stopping a steady flow of illegal weapons into the hands of criminals. So we simply have a different set of circumstances.

An Orthodox Christian is free to be opposed to the private gun owndership, but it is not true that the Tradition of the Church requires anyone else to agree with them, nor does it prohibit the use of force in defense of one's country, family, or even one's person, depending on the circumstances.

For More Information, See:

A Saint for Orthodox Pacifists to Ponder

Sermon: War, Capital Punishment, and the Sixth Commandment

The Christian Faith and War, By Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky)

Friday, August 05, 2016

Stump the Priest: Fellowship with Heretics and the Grossly Immoral

Question: "What does the Church teach about having non-believers in our homes and parish Temples? 2 John 1:10, seems to suggest that we should not have anyone who professes a teaching contrary to the Trinitarian faith into our homes, or to even greet such a person. Was this message specifically for one person or one type of person? Does this chapter have anything to do with the historical practice of keeping the Creed a secret or in asking Catechumens to leave before the Creed is recited in the Liturgy? How should orthodox believers apply this teaching to our own lives?"

In addition to the passage you referenced, there are many similar passages that could be cited. For example, St. Paul wrote:
"Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us" (2 Thessalonians 3:6). 
And Christ Himself said, when speaking of an erring brother, who refused to be corrected after many attempts:
"...but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (Matthew 18:17).
But the passage that most directly addresses the question of fellowship with someone who erring is 1 Corinthians 5:11:
"But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person."
All of these passages speak of people who are in serious error, either doctrinally, or morally, and clearly, these passages teach that there are some circumstances in which we should have no fellowship with such people... but the question is, what kind of people are were talking about, and under what circumstances would this apply?

First, let's consider who it does not apply to:

1) It definitely does not apply to unbelievers, which is clear simply from looking at the two verses which precede the passage in 1 Corinthians 5:
"I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world" (1 Corinthians 5:1-10).
The point being that one could not possibly refrain from some degree of fellowship with the vast majority of the people in St. Paul's time who were unbelievers. Also, Ambrosiaster* notes:
"Paul does not forbid the Corinthians from eating with unbelievers, since he says: If an unbeliever invites you to dinner and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you" [1 Corinthians 10:27] (Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians, Ambrosiaster, translated and edited by Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2009) p. 143).
2) It arguably does not apply to those who, though once part of the Church, have fallen into sin, and who no longer make a pretense of being among the faithful. I say this based on the example of the Lord, who regularly ate with known sinners. In such cases, he was not pretending that these people were not guilty of any sin, and were already in a right relationship with God, but was reaching out to those long estranged from the faithful of Israel.

But beyond this, we have to ask how these passages might apply to heterodox Christians. On the one hand, if we treated them as if they had been Orthodox, and then departed into heresy, schism, or gross immorality, then these passages would also apply directly to them. On the other hand, some might argue that they would fall under the class of unbelievers. But there are problems with both positions. Obviously, it is not the case that they were ever Orthodox, and so they would not have the same level of responsibility as would an Orthodox Christian who departed into heresy. But we also cannot say that there is no difference between such people and pagans.

Fr. Seraphim (Rose) puts it best, in my opinion, in a letter he wrote to someone on the subject:
"In the end, I think, Father Dimitry Dudko’s attitude is the correct one: We should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example!). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognize that we have at least our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. St. Innocent’s attitude to the Roman Catholics in California is a good example for us. A harsh, polemical attitude is called for only when the non-Orthodox are trying to take away our flocks or change our teachings" (Quoted in Not of This World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose, pp. 757-758).
I would say much the same with regard to those who were baptized Orthodox as infants, but who have never really been Churched. Such people, unfortunately, are no more knowledgeable about the faith than any other unbeliever, and so we should want to open doors for such people, rather than close them.

So who would we applies these verses to?

These verses would certainly apply to heretics and schismatics who were Orthodox, but who have been formally cut off from the Church. They could also apply to those who are under excommunication for a serious sin... but that depends.

There are many people who fall into a serious sin, and for some period of time their parish priest places them under a penance that includes being prohibited from receiving communion, but in those cases in which the person recognizes their sin, and is submitting to the penance, there would be no need to bar them from other forms of fellowship.

It would apply to those who are prohibited from communion because of a serious sin that they refuse to repent of, and who, by their open defiance of the standards of the Church, cause scandal and disruption in the Church. This, however, is a situation that I think is fairly rare. I certainly have never had to deal with such a situation.

It is a little less clear how to handle those who are prohibited from communion because of a serious sin that they are not yet prepared to repent of, but who continue to attend the services, and do so in a way that is not disruptive. In the first several centuries of Church history, when there was very strict discipline maintained with regard to who could be in Church, such people would be excluded from attending the services, and quite possibly from fellowship in the homes of believers. However, that kind of discipline ceased to be the common practice of the Church for well over a thousand years. Under today's circumstances, I do not believe that level of strictness would be in order, for such a person. It is better for them to keep coming to Church, and we would hope that they come to repentance at some point, so they could be readmitted to communion. And it would be better for them to maintain relationships with people in the Church, so long as there was no winking at their sin, or danger of others falling into their sin with them. Of course, if one had any questions about what to do, they would need to seek the guidance of their parish priest or local bishop, who are the ones ultimately responsible for imposing discipline in the Church.

The purpose of all of these verses is the salvation of the sinner or the heretic, and the edification of the Church. It is not to adhere to the letter of the law, or to punish for punishments sake.

It is said of the Old Testament Prophets that they afflicted the comfortable, and comforted the afflicted -- and that saying, while pithy, actually has a great deal of merit to it. If you have someone who is a heretic or schismatic, seeking to divide the Church, or a careless sinner whose behavior is causing scandal to the Church, such a person would be in need of some measure of affliction, to wake them up. There would also be need for the shepherds of the Church to protect the rest of the flock. On the other hand, when you have sinners who are struggling with their sins, we should follow the example of Christ, and reach out to them with love. And when dealing with the heterodox, we have to keep in mind that with knowledge comes responsibility, and we cannot hold them to the same standards as someone who was raised in the Church and should know better. If they are not actively seeking to proselytize or divide the Church, we should nurture such relationships, because that is how many are ultimately converted.

*"Ambrosiaster" is the name given to the author of commentaries long attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan, but which most scholars believe to have been written by a later author.

For More Information:

The Use of the Term "Heretic", by Patrick Barnes

Stump the Priest: Liturgical "Fossils", by Fr. John Whiteford

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Stump the Priest: Tree of Knowledge

Question: "Why did God create the Tree of Knowledge?"
"And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.... And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Genesis 2:8-9;15-17).
God created the Tree of Knowledge, and then commanded that out of all the trees of the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve not eat from that one tree, because for man to grow and mature, they had to be able to exercise their free will.

St. Gregory the Theologian said: "He gave Him a Law, as material for his free will to act upon. This Law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the Tree of Knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted; nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to men -- let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction, or imitate the serpent." In fact, St. Gregory says that had Adam and Eve obeyed the commandment, they would have been permitted to eat of it, and that the fruit "would have been good if partaken of at the proper time" (Second Oration on Easter 8).

St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote that God made man neither mortal, no immortal. He created man with the potential for both. "Even though God, in His goodness, had given them everything else, He wanted, in His justice, to give them immortal life that was to be conferred by their eating from the tree of life. Therefore, God set down for them a commandment. It was not a great commandment relative to the great reward that He had prepared form them; He withheld from them one tree, only enough for them to be under a commandment. God gave them all of Paradise so that they could be under no constraint to transgress the law.... If [Eve] had been victorious in that momentary battle, in that brief contest [the temptation of the serpent to eat of that tree], the serpent and that one who was in the serpent would [still] have received the punishment that they received, while she, together with her husband, would have eaten of the tree of life and would have lived for ever. Along with this promised life that [Adam and Eve] would have acquired, they would also have had by Justice all that had previously been given to them by Grace" (Commentary on Genesis 17:5, 18:4 The Fathers of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian, Selected Prose Works, trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr, and Joseph P. Amar (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), p. 109f).

Likewise, St. John of Damascus explains it similarly:
"When therefore He had furnished his nature with free-will, He imposed a law on him, not to taste of the tree of knowledge. Concerning this tree, we have said as much as is necessary in the chapter about Paradise, at least as much as it was in our power to say. And with this command He gave the promise that, if he should preserve the dignity of the soul by giving the victory to reason, and acknowledging his Creator and observing His command, he should share eternal blessedness and live to all eternity, proving mightier than death: but if forsooth he should subject the soul to the body, and prefer the delights of the body, comparing himself in ignorance of his true dignity to the senseless beasts, and shaking off His Creator’s yoke, and neglecting His divine injunction, he will be liable to death and corruption, and will be compelled to labor throughout a miserable life. For it was no profit to man to obtain incorruption while still untried and unproved, lest he should fall into pride and under the judgment of the devil. For through his incorruption the devil, when he had fallen as the result of his own free choice, was firmly established in wickedness, so that there was no room for repentance and no hope of change: just as, moreover, the angels also, when they had made free choice of virtue became through grace immovably rooted in goodness" (Concerning Foreknowledge and Predestination (Book 2, Chapter 30 of Exposition of the Orthodox Faith).
See Also:

Concerning Paradise (Book 2, Chapter 11 of Exposition of the Orthodox Faith), by St. John of Damascus

Friday, July 22, 2016

Stump the Priest: Degrees of Sin

Question: "I often hear sin is sin and no sin is greater than another. What's the church's stance on this particular subject?"

We see that there are degrees of sin very clearly in Scripture. For example, in Numbers 15:22-31, we are told about a general sacrifice that was offered for the unintentional sins of the people, and individuals who became aware of an unintentional sin could make an individual offering, But then it says that those who have sinned "presumptuously" (which in Hebrew literally means "with a raised hand") are not covered by these sacrifices.

You also see that different kinds of sins are dealt with very differently in the canons. Some sins can warrant very lengthy excommunications, but then when it comes to other sins, one simply needs to confess the sin, and no penance would be necessary. It would be ridiculous, for example to not recognize that there is a significant difference between mass murder, and someone briefly having an unchristian thought about another person. Of course even the most minor sins need to be repented of, and we should never excuse ourselves and ignore them, but both Scripture and Tradition recognize that not all sins are equal in their seriousness.

St. Nikodemus of the Holy Mountain explains in chapter 3 of the Exomologetarion (A Manual of Confession):

Concerning these you must know that, just as a physician is required to know what the illnesses of the body are in order to treat them, you who seek to be a Spiritual Father are obligated to know what the illnesses of the soul are, that is, sins, in order to treat them. Although the illnesses of the soul are many, they generally fall into the following three categories. Hence, you need to know which are mortal, which are pardonable and not mortal, and which are sins of omission or inaction.
1. Concerning Mortal Sins
According to Gennadios Scholarios, George Koressios, the Orthodox Confession, and Chrysanthos of Jerusalem, mortal sins are those voluntary sins which either corrupt the love for God alone, or the love for neighbor and for God, and which render again the one committing them an enemy of God and liable to the eternal death of hell. [11] Generally speaking, they are: pride, love of money, sexual immorality, envy, gluttony, anger, and despondency, or indifference. [12]
2. Concerning Pardonable Sins
Pardonable sins are those voluntary sins which do not corrupt the love for God or the love for neighbor, nor do they render the person an enemy of God and liable to eternal death, to which transgressions even the Saints are susceptible, according to the words of the Brother of God: “For in many things we all sin” (Jas. 3:2), and of John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (l Jn. 1:8), and according to Canons 125, 126, and 127 of Carthage. These sins, according to Koressios and Chrysanthos, are: idle talk, the initial inclination and agitation of anger, the initial inclination of lust, the initial inclination of hate, a white lie, passing envy, or that which is commonly called jealousy, which is slight grief over the good fortunes of one’s neighbor, and the like. [13]
Know also, Spiritual Father, that the many sins which are generally called pardonable are not of one and the same degree, but they are of varying degrees, smaller and larger, lower and higher, and that pardonable sins and mortal sins are two extremes. For in between these extremes there are found varying degrees of sins, beginning from the pardonable ones and proceeding up to the mortal ones, which degrees were not given names by the Ancients, perhaps because they are many and varied according to the class and specific kind of sins, but could have named them if they so desired. Here we name some of them, for the benefit of clarity and for your knowledge, beginning from below: pardonable sins, those near the pardonable, those that are non-mortal, those near the non-mortal, those between the non-mortal and the mortal, those near the mortal, and finally, mortal sins. Here is an example of the sins of the incensive aspect of the soul: The initial movement of anger is pardonable; near to the pardonable is for someone to say harsh words and get hot-tempered. A non-mortal sin is to swear; near the non-mortal is for someone to strike with the hand. Between the non-mortal and the mortal is to strike with a small stick; near the mortal is to strike with a large stick, or with a knife, but not in the area of the head. A mortal sin is to murder. A similar pattern applies to the other sins. Wherefore, those sins nearer to the pardonable end are penanced lighter, while those nearer to the mortal end are more severely penanced. [14]
3. Concerning Sins of Omission
Those good works, or words, or thoughts, which are capable of being done or thought by someone, but through negligence were not done, or said, or thought, are called sins of omission, [15] and are brought forth from the mortal sin of despondency, as we have said. I know very well that these sins of omission are not considered by people as full sins, because those are few who consider it a sin if they did not perform such and such a charity when they were able to, or had the means to either give good advice to their neighbor, or to do a certain amount of prayer, or do another virtue, and did not.
But this, however, I know for certain, that God will render an account on the day of judgment concerning these. Who verifies this for us? The example of that slothful servant who had the one talent and buried it in the ground, who was judged, not because he committed any sin or injustice with it (because he who gave the talent to him took it all back, as Basil the Great says in the Introduction of The Long Rules), [16] but because being able to increase it, was negligent and did not increase it: “Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury” (Mt. 25:27). It is also verified for us by the example of the five foolish virgins who were condemned for nothing other than an absence of oil. And concerning the sinners placed at the left hand, they will be condemned, not because they committed any sin, but because they were lacking and were not merciful to their brother: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink” (Mt. 25:42). The reason that God gave to man natural strength was not in order to leave it idle and useless, without results and fruit, just as that slothful servant left the talent of the Lord idle, as we said above, but He gave it to man in order for man to put it into action, and into practice, and for it to increase, doing good with it and the commandments of the Lord, and so to be saved through this. On this account Basil the Great said: “We have already received from God the power to fulfill all the commandments given us by Him, so that we may not take our obligation in bad part, as though something quite strange and unexpected were being asked of us, and that we may not become filled with conceit, as if we were paying back something more than had been given us.” [17] And also in agreement with the above words, his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, says: “As each shall receive his wages, just as the Apostle says (1 Cor. 3:14), according to his labor, so also each shall receive punishment according to the extent of their negligence.” [18]
Those things which are also called sins of omission are those which we were able to prevent, by word or act, but did not prevent. On this account those who commit these are likewise penanced according to Canon 25 of Ancyra, Canon 71 of Basil the Great, and Canon 25 of St. John the Faster. [19]
Furthermore, Spiritual Father, you must know that the degrees of sin from the beginning until the end are twelve. The first degree is when someone does good, but not in a proper manner, mixing the good with the bad. This occurs in seven ways, as Basil the Great says, “As regards the place, the time, the person, the matter involved, or in a manner intemperate, or disorderly, or with improper dispositions.” [20] An example of a sin of the first degree is when someone performs an act of mercy, or fasts, or does some other good deed, so that he might be glorified by people. The second degree of sin is complete idleness in regard to the good. The third degree is an assault of evil. The fourth is coupling. The fifth is struggle. [21] The sixth is consent. [22] The seventh is the sin according to the intellect, according to St. Maximos, which is when a person, having consented, plans carefully to accomplish that sin which is in his intellect so as to do the deed. The eighth is the deed itself and the sinful act. The ninth is the habit of someone committing the sin often. The tenth is the addiction to sin, which with violence and force compels the person to sin voluntarily and involuntarily. The eleventh is despair, that is, hopelessness. The twelfth is suicide, namely, for a person to kill himself, while having a sound intellect, being conquered by despair. So then, Spiritual Father, you must try assiduously in every way to turn the sinner around to smaller degrees of sin and to prevent him from proceeding to the greater degrees ahead. And most of all, you must endeavor to sever him from despair, no matter in how great a degree of sin he is found. [23]
Click here to see the footnotes.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) Elected Bishop of Sacramento

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church just approved the election of Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) as bishop.  Here is a machine translation of the Russian text.

CONSIDERED the approval of the decision of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on election Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) bishop of Sacramento, Vicar of the Western American Diocese. 


In accordance with paragraph 17 of Chapter XI of the Constitution of the Russian Orthodox Church, the norms of the Charter apply to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in view of the Act of Canonical Communion of 17 May 2007.

In accordance with the Act of Canonical Communion of 17 May 2007: "The bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia are elected by her Council of Bishops or, in cases stipulated by the Regulations of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, the Synod of Bishops. The election is approved by canonical norms by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. " 
July 1, 2016 the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church elected Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) bishop of Sacramento, Vicar of the Western American Diocese. July 6, 2016, His Grace Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York Hilarion addressed to His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill with the request to approve the decision of the Holy Synod. 

To approve the decision of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on election Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) bishop of Sacramento, Vicar of the Western American Diocese, leaving the place and time of his ordination to the discretion of the Hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.
You can read about Bishop-Elect Irenei here:


There is more from the ROCOR web site on Fr. Irenei's election, and his background:

Friday, July 01, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Unpardonable Sin

Question: "What is the unforgivable Sin and how do people commit it?"

Fr. Michael Pomazansky addresses this question very thoroughly in the context of his discussion of the sacrament of confession in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology:
"Holy Scripture speaks of cases or conditions when sins are not forgiven. In the word of God there is mention of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which "shall not be forgiven unto men, neither in this world, neither in the world to come" (Matt. 12:31-32). Likewise, it speaks of the sin unto death, for the forgiveness of which it is not commanded even to pray (1 John 5:16). Finally, the Apostle Paul instructs that "it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance, seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame" (Heb. 6:4-6).
In all these cases, the reason why the forgiveness of sins is not possible is to be found in the sinners themselves, and not in the will of God; more precisely, it lies in the lack of repentance of the sinners. How can a sin be forgiven by the grace of the Holy Spirit, when blasphemy is spewed forth against this very grace? But one must believe that, even in these sins, the sinners, if they offer sincere repentance and weep over their sins, will be forgiven. "For," says St. John Chrysostom about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, "even this guilt will be remitted to those who repent. Many of those who have spewed forth blasphemies against the Spirit have subsequently come to believe, and everything was remitted to them" (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew [Homily 41]). Further, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council speak of the possibility of forgiveness for deadly sins: "The sin unto death is when certain ones, after sinning, do not correct themselves . . . In such ones the Lord Jesus does not abide, unless they humble themselves and recover from their fall into sin. It is fitting for them once more to approach God and with contrite heart to ask for the remission of this sin and forgiveness, and not to become vainglorious over an unrighteous deed. For 'the Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart'" (Ps. 33:18)" (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, trans. Fr. Serpahim (Rose), (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press, 1984), p. 289f).
St. Augustine makes the identical point in his sermon on Matthew 12:32. He says that it is not merely the act of blaspheming the Holy Spirit which is unpardonable, but refusing to repent of that blasphemy: "...even this shall be forgiven, if a right repentance follow it...But that blasphemy of the Spirit Himself, whereby in an impenitent heart resistance is made to this so great gift of God even to the end of this present life, shall not be forgiven" (Sermon 21 on the New Testament). So as long as a man lives, repentance is possible, but if he persists in rejecting the Holy Spirit, it is impossible for him to be pardoned, because there is no pardon without repentance.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Stump the Priest: Two Question on the Origins of Evil

First Question: "This concerns the origin of sin and evil. Since, as we believe, God created everything good, meaning everything created was created in the ontological state of goodness or righteousness, how did Lucifer become evil? Where did the original spark of transgression or rebellion come from? If (as I would answer it myself) it came from Lucifer's free will nature, how is it not also the case that God might also choose against His own nature? This seems to me to be a necessary question arising from our free will doctrine."

Second Question: "Did Adam and Eve know what evil was before they partook of the tree of life?  If they were innocent and didn't know anything of evil, how could they stay away from it or make an informed decision to stay away from it?"

To answer these questions we should first consider what is evil? Evil is not a substance. The Fathers tell us that evil does not "exist", per se... which is not to say that evil does not occur, but rather that evil is a choice. It is not something that God created, it is the choice of a will that is in rebellion against God.

St. Basil the Great tell us:
"Again, it is impious to say that evil has its origin from God, because naught [i.e. nothing] contrary is produced by the contrary. Life does not generate death, nor is darkness the beginning of light, nor is disease the maker of heath, but in the changes of conditions there are transitions from one condition to the contrary. In Genesis, however, each being comes forth not from its contrary, but from those of the same type. Accordingly, they say, if it is not uncreated nor created by God, whence does it have its nature? No one who is in this world will deny that evils exist. What, then, do we say? That evil is not a living and animated substance, but a condition of the soul which is opposed to virtue and which springs up in the slothful because of their falling away from good. Do not, therefore, contemplate evil from without; and do not imagine some original nature of wickedness, but let each one recognize himself as the first author of the vice that is in him" (Hexaemeron, Homily 2:4-5, The Fathers of the Church: Saint Basil: Exegetic Homilies, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), p 28).
St. Diadochus of Photiki says:
"Evil does not exist by nature, nor is any man naturally evil, for God made nothing that was not good. When in the desire of his heart someone conceives and gives form to what in reality has no existence, then what he desires begins to exist. We should therefore turn our attention away from the inclination to evil and concentrate it on the remembrance of God; for good, which exists by nature, is more powerful than our inclination to evil. The one has existence while the other does not, except when we give it existence through our actions" (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, compiled by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, Vol. 1, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 253).
But someone might object, doesn't Scripture tell us that God creates evil? And then they usually will cite Isaiah 45:7, which says in the King James Version: "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things." What could be more clear than that?

The problem is that we are talking about a translation, and so we need to consider the original word that is translated as "evil" here, (רעה / רע ra‛ / râ‛âh). According to Brown, Drivers, and Briggs, the word can mean:
1) bad, evil (adjective)
1a) bad, disagreeable, malignant
1b) bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery)
1c) evil, displeasing
1d) bad (of its kind - land, water, etc)
1e) bad (of value)
1f) worse than, worst (comparison)
1g) sad, unhappy
1h) evil (hurtful)
1i) bad, unkind (vicious in disposition)
1j) bad, evil, wicked (ethically)
1j1) in general, of persons, of thoughts
1j2) deeds, actions
2) evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity (noun masculine)
2a) evil, distress, adversity
2b) evil, injury, wrong
2c) evil (ethical)
3) evil, misery, distress, injury (noun feminine)
3a) evil, misery, distress
3b) evil, injury, wrong
3c) evil (ethical)
So how do we know what sense this word has in this particular passage?

Hebrew poetry is not based on rhymes, but rather on parallelism. There are different kinds of parallelisms, but this is a classic example of antithetical parallelism. The way antithetical parallelism works is that the first line is followed by a statement that makes an opposing point -- which is not to suggest that the first line contradicts the first, but that it makes a counter point. For example, Psalm 36[37]:9 says:
For evil-doers shall utterly perish, /
but they that wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. 
The first line, which states what the fate of evil-doers will be is contrasted by the second line, which states what the fate of those who wait on the Lord -- and those fates are the opposite of one another.

In the case of Isaiah 45:7, you have two examples of antithetical parallelism:
I form the light, / and create darkness:
I make peace, / and create evil
So just as darkness is the opposite of light, the "evil" that God creates is the opposite of peace. Given that, the obvious meaning of that word in this context is something like "calamity"... clearly not moral evil. And if you look at more modern translations, you will find that this is how they usually translate it. Furthermore, if you look at what the Fathers say about this passage, they also understand it in this sense.

So to answer the first question, Satan was not created evil. He was created good, but made the choice to rebel against God, and to do evil.

And while created beings can rebel against God, God cannot rebel against Himself. God is infinite and perfect. Scripture tells us that He is Love, Truth, Light, Good, and that it is impossible for him to lie or to sin, and so it is not possible that He could choose evil.

To answer the second question, Adam and Eve had not known evil, but they did have the power of choice, they knew what God required of them, and they knew the consequences that would follow if they did not obey God. Their knowledge was limited, but the expectations that God placed on them were also very limited, and so they had the power to choose, and it was just for God to hold them accountable for that choice.

For more information:

The God who is Silent about Evil, by Fr. Georges Massouh

The Nature and Origin of Evil According to Eastern Christian Church, by Marina Luptakova

Does God create evil? (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stump the Priest: Liturgical "Fossils"

Question: "What are we to make of parts of the Liturgy that seem to be relics from a time when the Liturgy was closed to the general public? For example: the dismissal of the catechumens: "Catechumens, depart!" "The doors! The doors!" (usually interpreted as 'close and guard the doors'). In the prayers for Communion, "I will not speak of thy Mystery to Thine enemies." I don't like the idea that these phrases are just fossils. How do we understand them today?"

Some History

The practice of dismissing the catechumens generally came to an end in the general life of the Church because most countries in which Christianity existed were almost entirely Christian, and adult converts became a rarity.

There was also a closely related penitential system, that consisted of four groups of people who were guilty of serious sins, and who had been placed under a penance for some period of time: (1) the weepers, who remained outside the church doors and asked prayers of the faithful as these passed into the church; (2) the hearers, who stood in the Narthex of the church behind the catechumens, and were dismissed with the catechumens; (3) the kneelers were allowed into the back of the Nave, but who also were also dismissed with the catechumens; and (4) the co-standers, who were allowed to stand with the faithful in the Nave and attend the entire liturgy, but not receive communion, until they were finally readmitted into communion.

The penitential system eventually came to an end as well. In the early Church, to even join the Church was an act of courage, and thus the level of commitment among the average Christian was very high, and so you could impose strict penitential discipline that might extend for decades, without it being a cause for final despair and apostasy. As time went on, such strict discipline was stronger medicine than later generations of Christians were able to benefit from.

As a result of both of these developments, instead of non-Christians being completely prevented from entering the Church, and catechumens and certain penitents being prevented from entering beyond the Narthex, the Altar area (the area behind the Iconostasis) became the one area that such people were not permitted to enter. This is true at least in general parish practice; however, in some monasteries catechumens and the heterodox are still not allowed into the Nave, and are still dismissed at the time of the dismissal of the catechumens... and so this practice, while no longer common, is actually not entirely a thing of the past.

What does the Dismissal of the Catechumens Mean for the Faithful

The dismissal of the catechumens happens after the Gospel reading, and according to the ancient practice, also after the sermon.

St. Symeon of Thessalonica says that the dismissal of the catechumens represents "the separation of the sinners from the just after the preaching of the Gospel at the end of the ages. For after the Gospel has been preached in all the world as a witness to all peoples, scripture says, "Then the end will come" (St. Symeon of Thessalonika: The Liturgical Commentaries, trans. Steven Hawkes-Teeples, (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011), p 249).

So the point being that this dismissal should be a warning to us that the time we have to obey the Gospel message is limited, and that the day will come when we will have to give an account, and will either be taken away with the sinners, or receive the reward of the righteous.

Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy similarly says that the dismissal of the catechumens "should also be a warning to us... We, the baptized, sin frequently and often without repentance are present in the church, lacking the requisite preparation and having in our hearts hostility and envy against our fellow men. Therefore, with the solemn and threatening words, "catechumens depart," we as unworthy ones should examine ourselves closely and ponder our unworthiness, asking forgiveness from our personal enemies, often imagined, and ask the Lord God for the forgiveness of our sins with the firm resolve to do better" (The Law of God: For Study at Home and School (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994), p. 566).

"For I will not speak of the Mystery to Thine enemies..."

In the early Church, there was a high degree of secrecy. This was not at like the Gnostics, who had secrets that were kept even from their own members, and retained by only a select group. Christians did, however, keep many things secret from those outside of the Church. In St. Cyril of Jerusalem's catechetical lectures, he admonished his hearers to not write down what he taught them. As we have already noted, even catechumens were not allowed to remain in the Church during the Eucharistic portion of the liturgy.  But what does this prayer mean to us today, when non-Christians can attend a liturgy in its entirety, and when books about the mysteries can be read by anyone who is interested that describe the sacraments in great detail? Fr, Michael Pomazansky addresses this question in his "Orthodox Dogmatic Theology":
"This strictness with regard to the revelation of the Christian Mysteries (Sacraments) to outsiders is no longer preserved to such a degree in the Orthodox Church. The exclamation, "Catechumens depart!" before the Liturgy of the Faithful is still proclaimed, it is true, but hardly anywhere in the Orthodox world are catechumens or the non-Orthodox actually told to leave the church at this time. (In some churches they are only asked to stand in the back part of the church, in the narthex, but can still observe the service). The full point of such an action is lost in our times, when all the "secrets" of the Christian Mysteries are readily available to anyone who can read, and the text of St. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures has been published in many languages and editions. However, the great reverence which the ancient Church showed for the Christian Mysteries, carefully preserving them from the gaze of those who were merely curious, or those who, being outside the Church and uncommitted to Christianity, might easily misunderstand or mistrust them — is still kept by Orthodox Christians today who are serious about their faith. Even today we are not to "cast our pearls before swine" — to speak much of the Mysteries of the Orthodox Faith to those who are merely curious about them but do not to seek to join themselves to the Church." (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, trans. Fr. Serpahim (Rose), (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press, 1984, p. 31, footnote 12, emphasis added).
Exactly where the line should be drawn, and when exactly we are in danger of casting the pearls of our Faith before swine (Matthew 7:6) is not something for which one can lay out simply rules, but this is something that we should pray that God will give us wisdom to discern when dealing with those who are not Orthodox.