Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Stump the Priest: The Meaning of "Alleluia" and the Blessing of a Priest

Hallelujah in Hebrew

This is a two question post....

Question 1: "What does "Alleluia" mean? I often heard that it means "Praise the Lord" as a Protestant. I've noticed that we always say this word to God, with one exception: the 13th Kontakion of the Akathist Hymn, where we cry to the Theotokos "Alleluia Alleluia Alleluia!" How are we to understand this since we know that we do not offer worship (latreia) but only the relative veneration of honor (dulia) and bowing down (proskynesis), to the saints? Are we simply saying to Her, "Praise the Lord!"?"

The word "Alleluia" is the slightly Hellenized form of the Hebrew word "Hallelujah," which is the second person plural, imperative of the verb praise "Hallel" joined to the word "Yah," the short form of "Yahweh," the name of God, which is usually translated into English as "LORD." So it is a summons to praise the Lord. Often in the Psalms, we call upon various groups to "Praise the Lord". For example, the Polyeleos begins with "Praise ye the name of the Lord; O ye servants, praise the Lord. Ye that stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God, Praise ye the Lord, for the Lord is good; chant unto His name, for it is good" (Psalm 134[135]:1-3). Psalm 148 likewise begins: "Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise Him in the highest. Praise Him, all ye His angels; praise Him, all ye His hosts. Praise Him, O sun and moon; praise Him, all ye stars and light. Praise Him, ye heavens of heavens, and thou water that art above the heavens. Let them praise the name of the Lord" (Psalm 148:1-5). And so yes, as the living temple that gave birth to God the Word, were are in that hymn calling on her to join us in praising the Lord.

Question 2: "Why do Priests, when blessing the faithful, make the cross "backwards" (i.e. from left to right.)? I am looking specifically for the HISTORY of this practice. Are there any ancient churches where the Priests make make the cross over the faithful in the opposite direction (viz. right to left)?"

The priest makes the sign of the cross over people when he is blessing them in the same direction that they would (at least if Orthodox) make it over themselves. From the priests perspective, he makes the last movement from his own left to right, but from the perspective of the person who is receiving the blessing, he is making it from their right to their left, just as they bless themselves. Even though Roman Catholic's bless themselves in the opposite direction, Roman Catholic priest give the blessing in the same direction. There may be some group that does it differently, but I am not aware of any.

A laymen can bless in the same way, when blessing his food, or blessing his children... the only difference being that he holds his fingers, just as he does when making the sign of the Cross. And when blessing his child, normally he would actually touch his fingers to the child, just as the child would when blessing himself.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stump the Priest: Antisemitism in the Holy Week Services?

Question: In the Holy Friday Matins service [the service of the 12 Passion Gospels], there seems to be several hymns that come across as Jew-bashing. Doesn't this contradict Christ's prayer from the Cross: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do"?

First, so that the reader will know what we are talking about, here are some examples of the hymns that are usually cited in this regard:

From Antiphon 11:

"In return for the blessings which Thou hast granted, O Christ, to the people of the Hebrews, they condemned Thee to be crucified, giving Thee vinegar and gall to drink. But render unto them, O Lord, according to their works, for they have not understood Thy loving self-abasement.

The people of the Hebrews were not satisfied with Thy betrayal, O Christ, but they wagged their heads, and reviled and mocked Thee. But render unto them, O Lord, according to their works, for they have devised vain things against Thee.

Neither the quaking of the earth, nor the splitting of the rocks, nor the rending of the veil of the temple, nor the resurrection of the dead persuaded the Jews. But render unto them, O Lord, according to their works, for they have devised vain things against Thee" (The Lenten Triodion (Tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, Faber and Faber, London, 1978), p. 582f).

And at the 13th Antiphon, you find this hymn:

"The assembly of the Jews besought Pilate to crucify Thee, O Lord. For though they found no guilt in Thee, they released Barabbas the malefactor and condemned Thee the Righteous; and so they incurred the guilt of murder. But give them, O Lord, their reward, for they devised vain things against Thee" (The Lenten Triodion, p. 586).

There are a number of things that have to be understood here. The shorthand reference of "the Jews" as a reference to the majority of Jews who rejected Christ is found in the New Testament itself, especially in the Gospel of John -- though the usage is not uniform. For example, you still have positive references which are clearly not limited to those who rejected Christ, such as when Christ said to the Samaritan woman "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22), but there are repeated references to "the Jews" seeking to kill Christ (John 5:16; 5:18; 7:1; 10:31; 11:8; 18:36; 19:12), and then later of the disciples hiding "for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19). Obvious Christ's Jewish followers were not among those seeking to kill Him, and obviously the Jewish disciples were not in fear of each other, or of their own families, but of those who opposed Christ. Nevertheless, the sweeping references are there, but have to be understood as the generalizations that they are.

Did the Jews kill Christ? Yes, understood in the above sense. Those Jews who rejected Christ, killed him. Some argue that this is itself antisemitic to say, but the Gospels and the Book of Acts, written by three Jews and one gentile are quite clear on this point. For example, on the day of Pentecost, St. Peter said to the Jews who were assembled from all over, to celebrate the feast:

“Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain…. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made the same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” Acts 2:22-23, 36).

But many of those who heard these words responded in repentance:

"Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:27).

Peter replied to them: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call" (Acts 2:38-39). And we are told that "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). And thus the nucleus of the Church in Jerusalem took shape. And so while the Jews who rejected Christ and called for his death acquired a special guilt, it was a guilt that was easily pardoned with repentance and baptism. And of course, there were many Jews living far away from the Holy Land who knew nothing of the events of Christ's passion, and so were obviously not personally guilty of His death... until they heard the word of the Gospel, at which time they had the choice to embrace it, and take the side of Christ, or to reject it, and take the side of those who rejected Him. And in the book of Acts, as St. Paul went around the Roman world preaching the Gospel, he always went to the Synagogue first. Sometimes, most of the Synagogue embraced the Gospel, other times, only a fraction of them did. Only after preaching to the Jews first, did he move on to the gentiles in the area. By the time the Gospel of John was written, the lines were pretty much drawn, which is why the phrase "the Jews" is used in the way that it is. Those Jews who accepted the Gospel blended with the rest of the Christians, and lost any distinct identity. But when we hear the phrase "the Jews" in reference to those who rejected Christ, we have to remember that Christ, His Mother, and His Apostles were all Jews, and so this does not encompass all the Jewish people at the time of these events. 

It is often pointed out that it was actually the Romans who carried out the act of Crucifixion. But while Pilate and the Roman soldiers who mocked Christ, and put him on the Cross certainly were not guiltless, it is nevertheless true that it was the Jewish leaders who were pushing them to do it, and they were the ones who had the Law and the Prophets, and should have known better. As Christ Himself said to Pilate: "...therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin" (John 19:11). But here again, when we hear the words of the Gospels and the words of the services speaking of the betrayal of the majority of the Jews, we should not think of them as "those people." The Church is the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), the Israelites formed the Church of the Old Testament, but the New Testament Church is in continuity with the old. And so when we see the failure of the Jews of Christ's time, we should think about how we ourselves fail Christ. And we should also remember that there are no people more responsible today than Christians are, because we have both the Old and the New Testaments, and the teachings of the Apostles. We have been given much more than the Jews of the Old Testament, and so much more is required of us. As St. Paul says, speaking of the present alienation, and future restoration of the Jews:

"Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee: (Romans 11:20-21).

It is also true that in one sense, we are all guilty of Christ's death, because Christ died for our sins. And in fact, on the day of Pascha itself, when we bless the Artos, we begin the pray with these words: 

"O God Omnipotent and Lord Almighty, who by Thy servant Moses, at the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and the liberation of Thy people from the bitter bondage of Pharaoh, didst command that a Lamb be slain, foreshadowing the Lamb which, because of our deeds, of His own good will, was slain on the Cross, and taketh away the sins of the whole world, Thy beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ...."

Now, to get to the specific hymns in question, you find the same reference to the Jews that you do in the Gospel of John. But the repeated phrase calling for those who rejected Christ to be rewarded according to their deeds are pointed to as being unchristian. 

That phrase "render unto them, O Lord, according to their works" is a reference to Psalm 27[28]:4: 

“Give unto them, O Lord, according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavours; according to the work of their hands, give unto them. Render their reward unto them.”

This Psalm, as is often the case, is seen by the Fathers as being a prophetic hymn about Christ.

Here is what Cassiodorus says about this verse in his commentary on the Psalms:

Give them according to their works, and according to the wickedness of their pursuits. The Jews wittingly performed evil, but unwittingly did good. They inflicted death on Christ, but by this, death itself was ended. They shed his blood, but by this the world’s sins were cleansed. So He asks that they be given them according to their works, that is, according to their wish, for every man does what he wishes, those who strive to do harm often do good, as the devil does, for in inflicting the punishment of death on the innocent he affords martyrs a path to a heavenly crown. He underlined His earlier words when he said: According to their wicked pursuits, that is, according to their evil aspiration to harm the innocent. They preferred to consign to death Him who had come to save them. According to the works of their hands give thou to them: render to them their reward. There are four types of reward. One is when men render evil for good, as the Jews did to Christ; though He had come to save them, they voted to crucify Him. The second is when good is rendered for good, as when God will say to His chosen: Come ye, blessed of my Father, posses you the kingdom prepared for you from the the foundation of the world. The third is the future repayment of evil with evil, when He shall say to the wicked: Go into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels, on the principle that with the same measure that you shall mete withal it shall be measured to you also. The forth is when he repays good for evil as He states here, so that former persecutors become converted, and subsequently praise Him. But all this which He foretells of His enemies is not malevolent supplication but a presaging of the future, for in the gospel He says: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. But both statements are loving; here He threatens to frighten so that they may not perpetrate their crimes through despairing fatalism; in the second case, in His passion, he prays that He may guide their hearts to repentance. The frequent repetition of the terrifying sentiment is not idle; He strives to break their stony hearts with the fire of His great threat” (Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms, Vol. 1, trans. P. G. Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press,1990), p. 271f).

St. Augustine interprets this psalm in the same way:

"It is the Voice of the Mediator Himself, strong of hand in the conflict of the Passion. Now what He seems to wish for against His enemies, is not the wish of malevolence, but the declaration of their punishment; as in the Gospel [Matt. 11:20-24] with the cities, in which though He had performed miracles, yet they had not believed on Him, He doth not wish in any evil will what He saith, but predicteth what is impending over them."

"“Give unto them according to their works” (ver. 4). Give unto them according to their works, for this is just. “And according to the malice of their affections.” For aiming at evil, they cannot discover good. “According to the works of their hands give Thou unto them.” Although what they have done may avail for salvation to others, yet give Thou unto them according to the works of their wills. “Pay them their recompense.” Because, for the truth which they heard, they wished to recompense deceit; let their own deceit deceive them" (St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 27[28]).

It should also be noted that the Scriptures make it clear, repeatedly, that we will be rewarded according to our works (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 20:12-13). If we repent of our sins, God will blot them out, but if we do not, we will have to answer for them. These hymns are not hoping that the Jews will not repent, but stating that those who rejected Christ, and did not repent will be rewarded according to their works. And this is stated to inspire repentance in those who were these fearful words.

Elsewhere in the same service, we hear in this hymn, which is repeated twice at the Praises, the words "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do":

"Israel, My first-born Son, has committed two evils: he has forsaken Me, the fountain of the water of life, and dug for himself a broken cistern. Upon the Cross has he crucified Me, but asked for Barabbas and let him go. Heaven at this was amazed and the sun hid its rays; yet thou, O Israel, wast not ashamed, but hast delivered Me to death. Forgive them, Holy Father, for they do not know what they have done" (Lenten Triodion, p. 596).

And once every eight weeks, on Saturday evening we hear this plea to those Jews who have yet to embrace Christ:

"The guardsmen were instructed by the iniquitous: Keep secret the rising of Christ; take the pieces of silver, and say that while we slept the dead man was stolen from the tomb. Who hath ever seen or heard of a corpse, and moreover one embalmed and naked, stolen, and the grave clothes left behind in the tomb? Be ye not deceived, O Jews! Learn the sayings of the prophets, and know that He is truly almighty, the Deliverer of the world!" (The Octoechos, Vol. 3, trans. Reader Isaac Lambertsen, (Liberty, TN: St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1999), p. 5 [Tone 5, Saturday Evening, 3rd Verse at, Lord, I have Cried]).

Just as we cannot re-write the New Testament in order to make it more politically correct, we also cannot re-write services that have been composed by the saints, prayed by the saints for centuries, and embraced by the whole Church. It is only natural that during Holy Week, we focus on Christ's passion, and the contents of the Gospels, and as a matter of fact, those Jews that rejected Him played a prominent role in those event. And there is not a word in those hymns that is not firmly based on the Scriptures, Old Testament and New. However, we should be careful to understand what these services and the Gospels actually mean and do not mean. Neither these hymns nor the Gospels are making any racial comments about Jewish people. A white man cannot convert to become a black man. But a Jew or anyone else can convert to become a Christian. So it is not a matter of race, but a matter of ones disposition towards Christ. The problem the Church has with those Jews who reject Christ is the fact that they reject Christ, not that they are Jewish.

We should also, especially in the light of the holocaust, be very careful about how we speak of Jews in our parishes, and how welcoming we are to those Jews who are interested in the Faith. St. Paul tells us that the day will come when the majority of Jews will embrace Christ (Romans 11:26), and we should be prepared to welcome them when that day finally arises. And any Orthodox Christian who has animosity towards Jews should repent, as they should repent of animosity towards any person or group. The Scriptures are very clear on this point, and in fact St. John repeats this point four times in his first epistle:

"He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now" (1 John 2:9)

"But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes" (1 John 2:11).

"Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him" (1 John 3:15).

"If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (1 John 4:20).

In short, you cannot be an authentic Christian, if you hate your brother.

For more on this subject, I would encourage you to read Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky)'s Sermon Against the Pogroms. And you can also listen to my sermon "The Church of Smyrna and the Synagogue of Satan", which addresses this question in some detail.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Stump the Priest: Noah's Flood

Question: "Was the whole world actually flooded in Noah's flood, or were just parts of it flooded? Does it matter? I went back to read the story but I wonder have the translations from the Greek been lost or misinterpreted? How are we to think of the story of Noah?"

There are conservative Protestants who have laid out detailed arguments that the flood of Noah was a universal flood, and explain how it could have happened. As interesting as some of their theories are, I would not want to have my faith in God rise or fall on them.

There are also many who argue that the flood was a regional flood. In Hebrew, the word that is translated as "earth" in the flood narrative is either "eretz" (which means "land", and can mean either a local area, such as the land of Israel, or the whole earth), or "adamah" (which means "ground," or "soil") -- and so neither word necessarily suggests the entire earth is in view. In recent years this view has been bolstered by evidence of a flooding of the Black Sea area, and evidence that a very large area of land under the black sea was once inhabited by humans, and this is also relatively near to Mount Ararat, where the Bible says the Ark came to rest.

It is also noteworthy that there are flood stories in almost every culture. Sometimes this is cited to discredit the Genesis account, and to argue that the story of Noah is just one of many, but if there was a great flood that affected all of mankind, then you would expect to find such stories in every culture. In fact many of these accounts have striking parallels with the account in Genesis. For example, in addition to having flood legends, the Chinese character for a ship is a boat with eight mouths on it::

And of course, the Ark had Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives -- a total of eight persons.

Since we cannot go back in time to observe what happened, we can only look at the evidence, and speculate as to what actually happened. However, as Christians we know that the Scriptures are inspired. We know that in whatever sense the flood narrative in Genesis was intended to be taken, it is true. We should then focus on the theological, spiritual, and moral meaning of the flood narrative, and not worry about how to explain what actually happened... because, what scientists think they know about the history of the world today is not what they knew 100 years ago, and no doubt it will not be what they will know in another 100 years. These are interesting questions for scientists, and it is interesting for laymen to study these questions, but that is not what the story in Genesis is trying to teach us. We should focus on what the story means for us, as believers, and we should not feel as if we have to settle these questions to trust the Scriptures.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Stump the Priest: Prayers for the Dead on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th day

Question: Why do we pray for the dead on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th day of a person's repose, and what is the basis for the practice?

St. John Chrysostom states that the practice of praying for the dead comes from the Apostles themselves: "Not in vain did the Apostles order that remembrance should be made of the dead in the dreadful Mysteries. They know that great gain resulteth to them, great benefit; for when the whole people stands with uplifted hands, a priestly assembly, and that awful Sacrifice lies displayed, how shall we not prevail with God by our entreaties for them?" (Homily 3 on Philippians).

The Church commemorates the dead at every liturgy, and in every liturgy (that of St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. James, etc.). But there are special days of commemorating the dead, and these commemorations also go back to the Apostles.

The Apostolic Constitutions state: "Let the third day of the departed be celebrated with psalms, and lessons, and prayers, on account of Him that arose in the space of three days; and let the ninth day be celebrated in remembrance of the living, and of the departed; and the fortieth day according to the ancient pattern: for so did the people lament Moses, and the anniversary day in memorial of him. And let alms be given to the poor out of his goods for a memorial of him" (Apostolic Constitutions 8:42).

St. Symeon of Thessaloniki says that the memorial on the 3rd day is in honor of the Trinity, the 9th day memorial is in honor of the nine ranks of angels, the 40th day memorial is in honor of Christ's Ascension on the 40th day, and the annual memorial signifies that the departed lives and ins immortal in the soul (Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, The Mystery of Death, trans. Fr. Peter A. Chamberas (Athens, Greece: The Orthodox Brotherhood of Theologians, 1997), p. 422f).

An old article from Orthodox Life (The Church's Prayer for the Dead, Orthodox Life, 1978, no. 1, p.16f), summarizes the Church's teaching on this question:

"We commemorate the dead on the third day firstly, because those who have departed had been baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the One God in three Persons, and had kept the Orthodox faith they received at holy baptism; secondly, because they preserved the three virtues which form the foundation of our salvation, namely: faith, hope and love; thirdly, because man's being possesses three internal powers—reason, emotion and desire—by which we all have transgressed. And since man's actions manifest themselves in three ways—by deed, word, and thought—by our commemoration on the third day we entreat the Holy Trinity to forgive the departed all transgressions committed by the three above-mentioned powers and actions. When St. Macarius of Alexandria besought the angel who accompanied him in the desert to explain to him the meaning of the Church's commemoration on the third day, the angel replied to him: "When an offering is made in church on the third day, the soul of the departed receives from its guardian angel relief from the sorrow it feels as a result of the separation from the body. This it receives because glorification and offering is made in the Church of God which gives rise in it to blessed hope, for in the course of the two days the soul is permitted to roam the earth, wherever it wills, in the company of the angels that are with it. Therefore, the soul, loving the body, sometimes wanders about the house in which his body had been laid out, and thus spends two days like a bird seeking its nest. But the virtuous soul goes about those places in which it was wont to do good deeds. On the third day, He Who Himself rose from the dead on the third day commands the Christian soul, in imitation of His resurrection, to ascend to the Heavens to worship the God of all."

On the ninth day, the Holy Church offers prayers and the Bloodless Sacrifice for the departed, that his soul be accounted worthy to be numbered among the choirs of the saints through the prayers and intercession of the nine ranks of angels. St. Macarius of Alexandria, in accordance with the angel's revelation, says that after worshipping God on the third day, it is commanded to show the soul the various pleasant habitations of the saints and the beauty of Paradise. The soul considers all of this for six days, lost in wonder and glorifying the Creator of all. Contemplating all of this, it is transformed and forgets the sorrow it felt in the body. But if it is guilty of sins, at the sight of the delights of the saints it begins to grieve and reproach itself, saying: "Woe is me! How much I busied myself in vanity in that world! Enamored of the gratification of lust, I spent the greater portion of my life in carelessness and did not serve God as I should, that I too might be accounted worthy of this grace and glory. Woe is me! Poor me!" After considering all the joys of the righteous in the course of six days, it again is borne aloft by the angels to worship God.

From earliest antiquity the Holy Church has correctly and devoutly made it a rule to commemorate the departed in the course of forty days, and on the fortieth day in particular. As Christ was victorious over the devil, having spent forty days in fasting and prayer, so the Holy Church likewise, offering for the departed prayers, acts of charity and the Bloodless Sacrifice throughout the forty days, asks the Lord's grace for him to conquer the enemy, the dark prince of the air, and that he receive the Heavenly Kingdom as his inheritance. St. Macarius of Alexandria, discussing the state of man's soul after the death of the body, says: "After the second adoration, the Master of all commands that the soul be led to hell and that it be shown the places of torment there, the various parts of hell, and the diverse tortures of the wicked, in which the souls of sinners ceaselessly wail and gnash their teeth. The soul is borne about these various places of torment for thirty days, trembling lest it itself be imprisoned therein. On the fortieth day it is once again borne aloft to adore the Lord God, and it is at this time that the Judge determines the place of confinement proper to it in accordance with its deeds. This is a great day for the deceased, for it determines his portion until the Dread judgment of God, and therefore, the Holy Church correctly commands that fervent prayer be made for the dead on this day."

In additions to these days, there are days appointed throughout the Church year on which the dead are specially commemorated. That Christians have always prayed for the dead is one of the most well attested Traditions of the Church, and is found in the earliest writings of the Church, throughout the fathers, and is a practice that is also found in Judaism and Islam. Only with the advent of Protestantism do you find Christians that do not pray for the dead, but not even all Protestants reject prayers for the dead.