Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Response to "Holy Communion and Menstruation"

St. Dionysius of Alexandria

Fr. Ted Bobosh has written an article on a topic that comes up from time to time -- whether or not we should observe the custom of women refraining from Communion during their menstrual cycle. Curiously, Fr. Ted appeals to Apostolic Constitutions as his primary basis for rejecting this custom, but makes no mention of the Ecumenical Canons that endorse the same custom. This is curious because Canon 2 of the Quinisext Council specifically rejects the Apostolic Constitutions because it contains many impious and heretical interpolations. And in that same canon, the Holy Fathers affirmed the canons of St. Dionysius of Alexandria (who reposed in 264 AD.) as well as those of St. Timothy of Alexandria (who reposed in 384, and was one of the Fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council), and in those canons, this custom is affirmed (see Canon 2 of St. Dionysius and Canon 7 of St. Timothy).

Contrary to the suggestion of the quote from the Apostolic Constitutions that Fr. Ted cited, no one believes that a women is separated from God during her menstrual cycle, cannot pray, or is deprived of the Holy Spirit. Nor does anyone teach that having a menstrual cycle is in any way sinful. Nor is the custom of women refraining from communion during this time an absolute prohibition. We do, however, have customs of ritual purity in the Orthodox Church. For example, when clergy are vesting for the liturgy, we ritually wash our hands -- not because they are physically dirty. Any clergyman with any sense has washed his hands before he comes into the Church. However, this action does remind us of our need for spiritual cleansing. If a priest cuts himself when serving the proskomedia, he must leave the altar, and not return until the bleeding has stopped. If a priest is driving and a young child runs out in front of his car, and is killed, that priest will never be allowed to serve the Liturgy again -- not because he killed the child intentionally, but because he has blood on his hands, and so can no longer offer the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist.

With the New Testament, the Old Testament worship has been replaced by a new Liturgy (Hebrews 8:6), but this does not mean that there is no continuity between the Old and the New Covenants. Some things have been set aside completely, and other things have been retained to one degree or another. In the Old Testament we see that there was quite a bit of concern about blood, and we see that even in the New Testament this concern has not been set aside (see, for example Acts 15:23-29).

The customs that we retain have a symbolic and didactic significance, but they are not absolute. If a woman was in danger of death during her menstrual period, she would of course be communed without any hesitation, because then the didactic value of this custom would be superseded by the more immediate need to prepare the woman for her death.

Fr. Ted did not mention the oft quote epistle of St. Gregory the Great in which he said that this custom should not be obligatory, but it should be noted that he also says that if a woman wishes to observe this custom it is praiseworthy -- which is very much in contrast to the position usually taken by those who cite St. Gregory on this subject. It should also be noted that St. Gregory the Great reposed in 604 AD., and the Quinisext Council was held in 692 AD. -- and so we do not know what he would have written had he lived after the time of that Council.

If someone wishes to argue that the canons of Ss. Dionysius and Timothy of Alexandria were due to the historical conditions of the times in which they lived, and that modern sanitation has made this practice no longer necessary, at least they are attempting to take the canons seriously rather than merely dismissing them. But those who take the position that the practice has never had any justification have a serious problem in explaining how these canons could have been affirmed by an Ecumenical Council -- and beyond that, they have the problem in dealing with the Old Testament laws regarding menstruation. Do they not believe that the Mosaic Law was inspired by God? Regardless of whether one thinks we should observe the custom in question today or not, if "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 2:15-17), then these laws could not be just a matter of ancient superstition, ignorance, or misogyny.

It should also be noted that the Russian Church has recently reaffirmed this practice, in the document: On the Patricipation of the Faithful in the Eucharist, which was approved at the Synod meeting held on February 2nd - 3rd, 2015 in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

See also:

On "Ritual Impurity": In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin), by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

More to the Point: Should Nuns Light Their Icon Lamps?, By Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Churching and the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Stump the Priest: Making the Sign of the Cross

Question: "Making the sign of the cross became a practice in the 4th century. The apostles, Christ and nobody in the ancient Church practiced it, so why should we?"

This question is based on a false premise. The earliest reference to the practice of making the sign of the Cross comes from Tertullian (who lived between c. 160 – c. 225 AD):

"And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down?  Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent.  To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week. We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday. We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground.  At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the Cross]" (De Corona, Chapter 3).

Tertullian was not trying to defend the traditions he mentioned in this passage. He was appealing to these unwritten traditions to defend a Christian soldier who had refused to wear a laurel wreath crown in a ceremony in which the soldiers were receiving a bonus from the Emperor, which sparked a local persecution of Christians. Tertullian's point was that this soldier was following the tradition of the Church, though many argued he should have gone along with the ceremony, and spared others the persecution that followed his refusal -- and one of their arguments was that there was nothing in Scripture that dictated this soldier's actions.

Tertullian appealed to these other traditions because they were uncontroversial, and ancient. This treatise was written in 201 AD, by a man born in 160 AD. Would such a man consider something to be an ancient tradition if it were less than a century old? I don't think so.

Even in our time, we pass along oral histories that go back at least 100 years, and Tertullian lived in a culture in which preserving oral history was a much bigger part of the culture, and change happened far more slowly. I was born in 1966, and my grandfather on my father's side was born in 1878. He died a year before I was born, but I was told a lot about him by my father. He was born in Iowa, but went to Texas as a young man, and for awhile he worked as a cowboy, before settling down and becoming a farmer. He lived to see the invention of the car, the airplane, radio, television, the atom bomb, and space flight. That is an incredible amount of change for one to see in a single lifetime. When my grandfather first heard about the invention of the radio, he thought someone was pulling his leg. "What do you mean? Sound flies through the air for miles, and then you hear it through an electric box?" This story of my grandfather's reaction to news of the invention of the radio is just about 100 old. There are a great many oral histories that I have heard that go back a hundred years or more. And anyone who listens to old people tell their stories will likewise hear a whole lot of oral history that covers the better part of a century.

If making the sign of the Cross was something that originated even 50 years before Tertullian made mention of the practice, there would have still been people alive in the Church who would have remembered its introduction, and it is unlikely that there would not still be some discussion of this change in piety as long such people were still around. So it stands to reason that the practice could not have originated very much after the end of the first century... if it did not originate well before then. After all, this would not have been a minor change in Christian piety, because as Tertullian says, the sign of the Cross is something we do "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life."

One other argument in favor of the antiquity of making the sign of the Cross is the fact that it undoubtedly was the universal practice of the Church when Tertullian wrote this treatise. How would that have come about, if it was a relatively recent change? There is no record in the early Church of there ever having been a controversy about making the sign of the Cross.

The oldest record of the content of Christian catechisms is the catechetical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and here is what he says about making the sign of the Cross:

"Let us, therefore, not be ashamed of the Cross of Christ; but though another hide it, do thou openly seal it upon thy forehead, that the devils may behold the royal sign and flee trembling far away.  Make then this sign at eating and drinking, at sitting, at lying down, at rising up, at speaking, at walking:  in a word, at every act (Catechetical Lectures 4:14).

St. Basil the Great made a very similar argument to Tertullian in his Treatise on the Holy Spirit (66-67), though he used it to defend the teaching that the Holy Spirit was a person. He made the argument that the ancient doxology "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit" was evidence that the Holy Spirit was a person, as are the Father and the Son. But in response to the argument that this doxology was not found in the Bible, but only in the liturgical tradition of the Church, he responded:

"Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.  And these no one will gainsay;—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church.  For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer?  Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing?  For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this?  Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition?  Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught?  And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels?  Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?  Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents"

And again, he was not defending the practice of making the sign of the Cross, he was appealing to it as a tradition that even the heretics would not deny.

Interestingly, Christians making the sign of the Cross played a role in the beginning of the last great persecution of the Church prior to the time Constantine:

"Diocletian, as being of a timorous disposition, was a searcher into fortune-telling, and during his abode in the East he began to slay victims, that from their livers he might obtain a prognostication of events; and while he sacrificed, some attendants of his, who were Christians, stood by, and they put the immortal sign [of the Cross] on their foreheads. At this the demons were chased away, and the holy rites interrupted. The soothsayers trembled, unable to investigate the wonted marks on the entrails of the victims. They frequently repeated the sacrifices, as if the former had been unpropitious; but the victims, slain from time to time, afforded no tokens for divination. At length Tages, the chief of the soothsayers, either from guess or from his own observation, said, “There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites.” Then Diocletian, in furious passion, ordered not only all who were assisting at the holy ceremonies, but also all who resided within the palace, to sacrifice, and, in case of their refusal, to be scourged. And further, by letters to the commanding officers, he enjoined that all soldiers should be forced to the like impiety, under pain of being dismissed the service. Thus far his rage proceeded; but at that season he did nothing more against the law and religion of God. After an interval of some time he went to winter in Bithynia; and presently Galerius Cæsar came thither, inflamed with furious resentment, and purposing to excite the inconsiderate old man to carry on that persecution which he had begun against the Christians" (Lactantius: "Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died," chapter 10).

While we have no record of exactly when the practice begin, the evidence suggest it either began with the apostles, or very soon after their departure from this life. But without any doubt, the entire Christian Church embraced the practice, and prior to the Protestant Reformation, we have no record that anyone naming the name of Christ ever objected to the practice.

See also:

Christianity Today: Why do liturgical Christians make the sign of the cross?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Stump the Priest: Sacraments in the Bible

Question: "Why does the Orthodox Church teach many sacraments, and that they bestow grace, when the New Testament only speaks of two sacraments as only memorials: Communion and Baptism?"

Your question is based on three false premises. Contrary to your assumptions, the New Testament does not only speak of two Sacraments, and neither does it teach that Baptism and Communion are "only memorials". Furthermore, your question assumes that if something is not explicitly taught in Scripture that we should reject it, but this doctrine of Sola Scriptura is itself not only not taught in Scripture, but is in fact directly contradicted by Scripture (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 2:15). See my article on Sola Scriptura for more on that subject.

How many Sacraments are there?

In the service for the reception of converts from heterodox confessions, one of the affirmations that a convert is asked to affirm is: "Dost thou believe and confess that there are seven Sacraments of the New Testament, to wit: Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, Confession, the Priesthood, Marriage, and Anointing with Oil, instituted by the Lord Christ and his Church, to the end that, through their operation and reception, we may obtain blessings from on high?"

Do we find them in the Bible?

Yes, we do. Let's consider each of the Sacraments aside from Baptism and the Eucharist:

1. Chrismation: One place we find Chrismation mentioned in Scripture is in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22: "Now he who establisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts." And 1 John 2:20: "But ye have an anointing from the Holy One, and ye know all things." We also see in the book of Acts that the Holy Spirit was imparted by the laying on of hands of the Apostles (Acts 8:14-17; Acts 19:1-7). And not only that, but we find Chrismation affirmed as a sacrament in the earliest writings of the Church (e.g., Tertullian's Treatise on Baptism (ca. 200 A.D.), 7:1The Apostolic Tradition (ca. 215 A.D.) of St. Hippolytus 21:19-22; St. Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lecture 21 (on Chrism)).

2. Confession: When Christ appeared to the Disciples after the Resurrection, we are told: "And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John 20:22-23). Obviously for this to have meaning, there would have to be some occasion in which the apostles, or their successors would either confer forgiveness, or choose not to confer it. And this clearly was not merely a "memorial", because Christ clearly says that Heaven will confirm their decision.

3. Ordination: It is clear from Scripture that there were offices in the Church (deacon, presbyter, bishop), and so there was some way that the Church appointed people to these offices. We see, for example, in Act 6:6, when the Apostles had selected the first deacons the seven men chosen were "set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them." St. Paul admonished St. Timothy that he "Lay hands suddenly on no man" (1 Timothy 5:22) -- in other words, he was to be careful about who he ordained, lest he "be partaker of other men's sins..." There is such an abundance of testimony from the early Church on this that it hardly needs to be cited. But we see these three ranks of clergy in the Epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch (who was a disciple of the Apostle John, and martyred in 112 A.D.): “Similarly, let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the bishop, who is a model of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s council and as the band of the Apostles. Without these no group can be called a church” (Trallians 3:13). 

4. Marriage is called a "covenant" in Scripture which has God Himself as a witness (Malachi 2:14): "Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant." St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter to St. Polycarp said that: " It becometh men and women too, when they marry, to unite themselves with the consent of the bishop, that the marriage may be after the Lord and not after concupiscence. Let all things be done to the honour of God" (Epistle to Polycarp 5:1). And Tertullian speaks of the sacrament of marriage in his treatise "To My Wife" (ca. 200 A.D.): "Whence are we to find (words) enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; (which) angels carry back the news of (to heaven), (which) the Father holds for ratified? For even on earth children do not rightly and lawfully wed without their fathers' consent" (To My Wife 2:8:4).

5: Holy Unction: We find this sacrament clearly described in James 5:14-15: "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."

Are the Eucharist and Baptism merely "memorials"?

Christ taught his disciples that if they did not eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, they had no life in them (John 4:48-69), and even Martin Luther took Christ's words "this is My Body... this is My Blood" (Matthew 26:26-28) to mean that the Eucharist is literally, not merely figuratively, the Body and Blood of Christ.

St. Paul speaks of the Eucharist in two places in First Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, he says:

"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread."

And then in 11:23-30, he says:

"For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep."

St. Paul says that the Eucharist is the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, and that if we partake of it unworthily, we eat and drink damnation unto ourselves, because we have not discerned the Lord's Body, and so we are are "guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord." That all seems awfully extreme if we are talking about a mere "memorial."

St. Ignatius of Antioch, who, once again, was a disciple of the Apostle John himself, and bishop of one of the most important centers of the early Church said of the Eucharist:

“Be zealous, then, in the observance of one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one chalice that brings union in His blood. There is one altar, as there is one bishop, with the priest and the deacons, who are my fellow workers” (Philadelphians 4:1).

“But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how they oppose the will of God…. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against the gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again” (Smyrneaens 6:2-7:1).

“Flee from divisions, as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbyters as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you may do may be trustworthy and valid” (Smyrneans 8:1-2).

“Assemble yourselves together in common, every one of you severally, man by man, in grace, in one faith and one Jesus Christ, who after the flesh was of David's race, who is Son of Man and Son of God, to the end that ye may obey the bishop and presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 20:2).

It doesn't sound like St. Ignatius thought the Eucharist was a mere "memorial."

As for Baptism, Christ said that those who believe and are baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). St. Paul says that we are buried with Christ in Baptism so that we can be raised with Him (Romans 6:4), and that Baptism is the "circumcision made without hands" (Colossians 2:11). St. Peter said  that the Ark of Noah was a type of Baptism, and that Baptism is "the antitype [that which was foreshadowed by the Type], which now save us" (1 Peter 3:20-21).

Only if you ignore what Christians have always taught about these sacraments could you reach the conclusions you assume in your question.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Stump the Priest: What is going on in Exodus 4:24-26?

Question: "What is going on in Exodus 4:24-26?"

The passage as it is found in most translations is fairly obscure. This is how it reads in the New King James Version:

"And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision."

The wider context of this passage does not offer a lot of help. It is not entirely clear even who it is that the Lord was seeking to kill, though most commentators see this as being Moses. Though why the Lord was seeking to kill him is not entirely clear, though it clearly has something to do with his son not having been circumcised. Zipporah, who performs the circumcision, was Moses' Midianite wife. This is considered to be one of the most obscure passages in Scripture.

However, the Septuagint text is a bit easier to decipher:

"Thus it came to pass on the way at the inn, that the Angel of the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipphorah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son, and fell at his feet and said, "The flow of blood from my son's circumcision is stopped." So He departed from him, because she said, "The flow of blood from my son's circumcision is stopped" (Exodus 4:24-26, Orthodox Study Bible).

Rather than the Lord Himself seeking to kill Moses, here it is the Angel of the Lord. And rather than flinging her son's foreskin at her husband, here Zipporah falls to the feet of the Angel of the Lord, and because of her having circumcised her son, and her plea, the Angel of the Lord departs.

The Angel of the Lord speaks and acts for the Lord, and is usually spoken to as if He were the Lord. The Fathers usually see the Angel of the Lord as the pre-incarnate Christ.

St. Ephrem the Syrian explains the meaning of this text as follows:

     "At the place where they were spending the night, the Lord came upon Moses and wanted to kill him, because he had discontinued circumcision in Midian for one of his sons who had not been circumcised. From the day that [the Lord] spoke with him on Horeb, he had not been united to his wife, who was distressed; and she was under judgment because she had not put full faith in his word. [Moses] blamed her for keeping his son from being circumcised. They spent the night [preoccupied] with these thoughts. Suddenly an angel appeared for both of these reasons, while seeming to appear only because of circumcision.
     [The angel] appeared to Moses in anger so that his departure [from Midian] would not be ridiculed because he had discontinued circumcision without necessity, while the Hebrews had not interrupted it in spite of the death of their children. Now whom should he have feared, God, who prescribed circumcision, or his wife, who had stood in the way of circumcision?
     When Moses' wife saw that he was about to die because she stood in the way of circumcision, about which and on account of which he had argued with her that evening, "she took a piece of flint" and, still trembling from the vision of the angel, "circumcised her son," letting him be splattered with his [own] blood. Then she held the angel's feet and said, "I have a husband of blood. Do not cause suffering on the day of the celebration of circumcision." Because there was great joy on the day Abraham circumcised Isaac, she said, "I too have a husband of blood. If you do not [refrain from harm] on account of me, who circumcised my son with my own hands, or on account of Moses, refrain on account of the commandment of circumcision itself which has been observed" (St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Exodus 4:4:1-3, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. III, Joseph T. Lienhard, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2001) p. 32).

So Moses had up to this time given in to his wife's objections to circumcising their son, and God was prepared to take his life, had she not yielded, and performed the circumcision, which was the sign of the Old Covenant. The reference to Moses being a husband of blood means that she had redeemed his life by the blood of her son's circumcision.

What this should tell us is how seriously parents ought to take the baptizing of their own children. They should not put it off out of laziness, indifference, or frivolous reasons. And if God would have killed his own prophet Moses for failing to perform such a rite, how seriously ought we take the sacrament of Baptism, of which circumcision was a type and shadow?

Friday, March 06, 2015

Stump the Priest: Spiritual Wickedness in Heavenly Places

Question: "What does Ephesians 6:12 mean when it says that we struggle against evil powers in high places?"

When you are trying to understand a passage, if you don't know the original language of the text well enough to examine it in that way, a good way to get a better feel for the range of meaning of the text is to compare several good translations.

King James Version: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

Young's Literal Translation: "because we have not the wrestling with blood and flesh, but with the principalities, with the authorities, with the world-rulers of the darkness of this age, with the spiritual things of the evil in the heavenly places."

New King James Version: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

Revised Standard Version: "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

English Standard Version: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

Taking the best elements of the above, I would say the best way to translate this text would be:

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the cosmic-rulers (κοσμοκρατορας, or "world-rulers") of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places."

This is speaking about the demons, who war against us, and who are the powers behind the evil of this age, and who reside in the aerial realm.

In Ephesians 2:2, St. Paul spoke of "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience". Commenting on this, St. John Chrysostom says:

"Here again he means, that Satan occupies the space under Heaven, and that the incorporeal powers are spirits of the air, under his operation. For that his kingdom is of this age, i.e., will cease with the present age, hear what he says at the end of the Epistle; “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against powers, against the world rulers of this darkness;” (Eph. 6:12) where, lest when you hear of world-rulers yo`u should therefore say that the Devil is uncreated, he elsewhere (Gal. 1:4) calls a perverse time, “an evil world,” not of the creatures. For he seems to me, having had dominion beneath the sky, not to have fallen from his dominion, even after his transgression" (Homily 4 on Ephesians).

One of the most important books on the spiritual life that every Orthodox Christian should read, and re-read, is "The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life," by St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), which was recently re-published by Holy Trinity Publications in a revised translation. St. Ignatius discusses the meaning of this passage in chapter 43 of the Arena, and then talks about how we should wage the war against what this verse speaks of in chapter 44, and 45. I would recommend the entire book, but these chapters deal with this passage in great detail.