Thursday, September 29, 2016

Stump the Priest: A Sacrifice of Righteousness

The Prophet Nathan confronts King David with his sin.

Question: "I have often been perplexed by the last two sentences of Psalm 50. Is this thought to me a Messianic psalm? If so, I find difficulty in the culmination of the psalm being animal sacrifice. How ought we to incorporate this psalm in our daily prayers in light of this verse?"

Psalm 50 [51 in Protestant Bibles] is not really a Messianic psalm in the usual sense. It is a penitential psalm. In fact, you could say that it is THE penitential psalm We not only pray this psalm daily, but usually we pray it several times a day in the services, as well as in our private prayers.

To understand the ending, you need to keep in mind the context of the entire Psalm. We are told in the superscription that it is "a psalm of David, when Nathan the Prophet came unto him, when he went in unto Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah." We read about this in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:23. There we are told that it was "the time when kings go forth to battle" and yet, for the first time in his adult life, David the King did not go into battle with everyone else, but rather "David tarried still at Jerusalem." Then, in his idleness, one evening, being unable to sleep, David walked upon the roof of his house, "and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon." And rather than put up any resistance to this temptation, he had someone find out that she was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. And not allowing the fact that she was married to another man to dissuade him, he seduced her, and got her pregnant. Then hoping to cover up his sin, he called for Uriah to return to Jerusalem (who was one of his own soldiers, putting his own life on the line for his king and the nation of Israel), hoping that he would sleep with his wife, and then believe that her child was his own. But Uriah proved to be a better man than David, because he would not allow himself the comforts of home while his fellow soldiers were fighting in the field. He told David:
"The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing."
David even called for Uriah to eat with him, and he got him drunk, but even then "he went out to lie on his bed with the servants of his lord, but went not down to his house."

Nevertheless, rather than admit his own guilt, David sent Uriah back to the battle, and wrote to Joab, his general:
"Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die."
Joab did as he was told, Uriah was killed in battle, and word was sent back to David. Then David took Bathsheba as a wife, and perhaps thought that he had gotten away with it... but he had not.

King David was, we are told "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14), and "the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Samuel 23:1), and yet he fell into not only adultery but murder. How was this possible?

St. John Chrysostom says of this:
"And the prophet was found in adultery, the pearl in the mud. However, he did not yet understand that he had sinned; the passion ravaged him to such a great extent. Because, when the charioteer gets drunk, the chariot moves in an irregular, disorderly manner. What the charioteer is to the chariot, the soul is to the body. If the soul becomes darkened, the body rolls in the mud. As long as the charioteer stands firm, the chariot drives smoothly. However, when he becomes exhausted and is unable to hold the reins firmly, you see this very chariot in terrible danger. The exact same thing happens to man. As long as the soul is sober and vigilant, this very body remains in purity. However, when the souls is darkened, this very body rolls in mud and in lusts. Therefore, what did David do? He committed adultery; yet neither was he aware nor was he censured by anyone. This occurred in his most venerable years, so you may learn that, if you are indolent, not even old age benefits you, nor, if you are earnest, can youthful years seriously harm you. Behavior does not depend on age but on the direction of the will. Although David was twelve years old, he was a judge; his predecessors, however, who were old in years, committed adultery; and neither did old age benefit them nor youth injure this one. So you may learn that the affairs of prudence rely upon the will and do not depend on age, just remember that David was found in his venerable years falling into adultery and committing murder; and he reach such a pathetic state that we was unaware that he had sinned, because his mind, which was the charioteer, was drunk from debauchery" (The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving, 2:2:5-7, trans. Michael P. McHugh (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998),  p. 18f).
St. John tells us, that since when a physician falls ill another physician must cure him, likewise, when one prophet fell into sin, another Prophet was sent to cure him. He did not immediately confront him, lest having his sin publicly exposed at once, he become defiant. Instead, he used a story to cause the King to pronounce judgment over himself:
"And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, "There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him." And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, "As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." And Nathan said to David, "Thou art the man!" (2 Samuel 12:1-7).
St. John Chrysostom observes:
"What did the king say? "I have sinned against the Lord." He did not say, "Who are you who censures me? Who sent you to speak with such boldness? With what daring did you prevail?" He did not say anything of the sort; rather, he perceived the sin. And what did he say? "I have sinned against the Lord." Therefore, what did Nathan say to him? "And the Lord remitted your sin." You condemned yourself; I [God] remit your sentence. You confessed prudently; you annulled the sin. You appropriated a condemnatory decision against yourself; I repeal the sentence. Can you see that what is written in Scripture was fulfilled: "Be the first one to tell of your transgressions so you may be justified" [Isaiah 43:26 LXX]? How toilsome is it to be the first one to declare the sin?" (The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving, 2:2:9, trans. Michael P. McHugh (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998),  p. 20f).
So you find in Psalm 50 the full expression of the Prophet David's repentance. Towards the end of the psalm, we find the references to animal sacrifices. The Prophet, having come to see the depth of his sin, recognized the inadequacy of simply offering animal sacrifice to be reconciled with God:
"For if Thou hadst desired sacrifice, I had given it; with whole-burnt offerings Thou shalt not be pleased. A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit; a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise" (Psalm 50 [51]:16-17).
St. Augustine comments that this foresees the time when these sacrifices would be replaced by the reality that they pointed towards:
"David was living at that time when sacrifices of victim animals were offered to God, and he saw these times that were to be. Do we not perceive ourselves in these words? Those sacrifices were figurative, foretelling the One Saving Sacrifice. Not even we have been left without a Sacrifice to offer to God. For hear what he saith, having a concern for his sin, and wishing the evil thing which he hath done to be forgiven him: “If Thou hadst willed,” he saith, “sacrifice, I would have given it surely. With holocausts Thou wilt not be delighted.” Nothing shall we therefore offer? So shall we come to God? And whence shall we propitiate Him? Offer; certainly in thyself thou hast what thou mayest offer. Do not from without fetch frankincense, but say, “In me are, O God, Thy vows, which I will render of praise to Thee.” Do not from without seek cattle to slay, thou hast in thyself what thou mayest kill. “Sacrifice to God is a spirit troubled, a heart contrite and humbled God despiseth not” (ver. 17). Utterly he despiseth bull, he-goat, ram: now is not the time that these should be offered. They were offered when they indicated something, when they promised something; when the things promised come, the promises are taken away. “A heart contrite and humbled God despiseth not.” Ye know that God is high: if thou shalt have made thyself high, He will be from thee; if thou shalt have humbled thyself, He will draw near to thee" (Exposition on the Psalms, Psalm 50 [51], 21).
The psalm ends with these words:
"Do good, O Lord, in Thy good pleasure unto Zion, and let the walls of Jerusalem be builded. Then shalt Thou be pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness, with oblation and whole-burnt offerings. Then shall they offer bullocks upon Thine altar" (Psalm 50[51]:18-19).
Blessed Theodoret sees in these verses not only a prophecy of the Babylonian captivity (which happened several centuries after the time of King David, and the subsequent return and restoration of Jerusalem and Temple; but also a prophecy of the coming of the Church:
"From these words we are taught more clearly that the psalm is full of prophecy: the verses bear on those compelled to dwell in Babylon, longing for liberation from slavery and bewailing the desolation of the city. They beg that the city be granted some pity and recover its former good fortune, with the ramparts repaired, and the liturgy performed according to the Law. As it is, he is saying, it is not possible for those living in foreign parts to offer to you the prescribed sacrifices, as the Law is clear about sacrificing in that city alone. But if we were to be granted the return and were to rebuild the Temple, then we would offer to you the prescribed sacrifices. Now, very applicable to them is the verse, You will open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise: theirs is the cry, "How shall we sin the Lord's song in a foreign land? [Psalm 136 [137]:4]" The conclusion of this psalm contains, however, a further prophecy as well. You see, after setting forth above the gifts of the all-holy Spirit, he went on to show the God all to be not pleased with the sacrifices according to the Law, and his prayer is for the new Zion to emerge, the heavenly Jerusalem to be built on earth, and the new way of life to be inaugurated as soon as possible, offering not irrational victims but the offering and sacrifices of righteousness, and rational and living holocausts, of which blessed Paul says, "I urge you brethren, through the mercies of God to present your bodies as living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, your rational worship [Romans 12:1]." The most divine David, you see, in so far as he had learned the obscure and hidden things of the wisdom of God, was aware that the New Testament contains the complete forgiveness of sins, and yearned for rapid and complete liberation from sins. And in his longing to attain in his own case the rapid and generous purification, he spoke these verses" (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Psalms, 1-72, trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), p. 302f).
So while this psalm is not a Messianic psalm per se, it certainly does has prophetic elements that relate to the work of the coming Messiah.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

2017 St. Innocent Liturgical Calendar, now ready for order

You can now place your orders for the 2017 St. Innocent Liturgical Calendar. In addition to providing liturgical rubrics based on the Jordanville Calendar (Troitskij Pravoslavnij Russkij Kalendar), the calendar also includes a liturgical color chart. The cost is $32.95 Bookstore discounts are available based on the quantity ordered. The Calendar can also be ordered in PDF format. All Calendars are according to the Julian Calendar. To order, and for more information, see:

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 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 anything 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 too. 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 where 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."

Update 2: For those who say that King James English is too hard to understand, my wife's first 3 languages are not English, and she did not live in an English speaking country until she was 16. She did not grow up hearing King James English. However, she has been hearing it for many years since in Church, and today (8/10/2017) I sent her a Chinese Orthodox text that was in classical Chinese, and asked her what it said. she translated three hymns into English... and into King James English to boot, and she translated all the verbs and pronouns into their proper grammatical forms.

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: