Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Stump the Priest: Fasting and Marital Relations

Question: "Are married couples required to abstain from sex during the fasts?"

The short answer is "no." But a longer answer is necessary here.

It is a pious custom for married couples to abstain from sex during the fasts, and when this is done by mutual consent, that is a good and laudable thing. However, the key word in the question is "required," and something that must be by mutual consent cannot therefore be required.

St. Paul addresses this question directly:
"Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment" (1 Corinthians 7:1-6).
St. John Chrysostom comments on this as follows:
"The wife hath not power over her own body;” but is both the slave and the master of the husband. And if you decline the service which is due, you have offended God. But if thou wish to withdraw thyself, it must be with the husband’s permission, though it be but a for short time. For this is why he calls the matter a debt, to shew that no one is master of himself but that they are servants to each other. When therefore thou seest an harlot tempting thee, say, “My body is not mine, but my wife’s.” The same also let the woman say to those who would undermine her chastity, “My body is not mine, but my husband’s.” Now if neither husband nor wife hath power even over their own body, much less have they over their property. Hear ye, all that have husbands and all that have wives: that if you must not count your body your own, much less your money" (Homily 19 on 1st Corinthians).
And specifically on the meaning St. Paul's admonition: "Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time," St. John says:
"What then can this mean? “Let not the wife,” says he, “exercise continence [i.e. abstain from marital relations], if the husband be unwilling; nor yet the husband without the wife’s consent.” Why so?  Because great evils spring from this sort of continence. For adulteries and fornications and the ruin of families have often arisen from hence. For if when men have their own wives they commit fornication, much more if you defraud them of this consolation. And well says he, “Defraud not; fraud” here, and “debt” above, that he might shew the strictness of the right of dominion in question. For that one should practice continence against the will of the other is “defrauding;” but not so, with the other’s consent: any more than I count myself defrauded, if after persuading me you take away any thing of mine. Since only he defrauds who takes against another’s will and by force. A thing which many women do, working sin rather than righteousness, and thereby becoming accountable for the husband’s uncleanness, and rending all asunder. Whereas they should value concord above all things, since this is more important than all beside.
     We will, if you please, consider it with a view to actual cases. Thus, suppose a wife and husband, and let the wife be continent, without consent of her husband; well then, if hereupon he commit fornication, or though abstaining from fornication fret and grow restless and be heated and quarrel and give all kind of trouble to his wife; where is all the gain of the fasting and the continence, a breach being made in love? There is none. For what strange reproaches, how much trouble, how great a war must of course arise! since when in an house man and wife are at variance, the house will be no better off than a ship in a storm when the master is upon ill terms with the man at the head. Wherefore he saith, “Defraud not one another, unless it be by consent for a season, that ye may give yourselves unto prayer.” It is prayer with unusual earnestness which he here means. For if he is forbidding those who have intercourse with one another to pray, how could “pray without ceasing” have any place? It is possible then to live with a wife and yet give heed unto prayer. But by continence prayer is made more perfect. For he did not say merely, “That ye may pray;” but, “That ye may give yourselves unto it;” as though what he speaks of might cause not uncleanness but much occupation.
     “And may be together again, that Satan tempt you not.” Thus lest it should seem to be a matter of express enactment, he adds the reason. And what is it? “That Satan tempt you not.” And that you may understand that it is not the devil only who causeth this crime, I mean adultery, he adds, “because of your incontinency” (Homily 19 on 1st Corinthians).
A husband and a wife have a responsibility to serve one another, and to help each other on the path of salvation. If depriving your spouse of marital relations causes them to sin, you are responsible for having caused them this temptation.

In this regard, Origen wrote:
"You have given up your wife, to whom you are bound. This is a big step you have taken. You are not abusing her, you say, but claiming that you can be chaste and live more purely. But look how your poor wife is being destroyed as a result, because she is unable to endure your purity! You should sleep with your wife, not for your sake, but for hers. (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3.33.23-25, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. VII, Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 1999) p. 59f).
St. Augustine wrote a letter to a woman named Eudicia on this issue, and advised her, based on St. Paul's words as follows:
"According to this, if he had wished to practice continence but you had not, he would have been obliged to give in to you, and God would have given him credit for continence for not refusing intercourse out of consideration for your weakness, but not his own, in order to prevent you from committing adultery. How much better would it have been for you, for whom subjection was more appropriate, to yield to his will in rendering him the debt, since God would have taken account of your intention to observe continence, which you gave up in order to save your husband from destruction" (Letter 262 to Eudicia, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. VII, Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 1999) p. 62).
So in summary, it is good to fast from marital relations for a time, by mutual consent, but it is positively sinful to insist upon it, if your spouse does not consent. And according to St. Augustine, when such a spouse do not refuse their husband or wife, they have both the virtue of having had good intentions, and also of showing due love and consideration for their spouse.

Finally, it is worth considering the wise words of Fr. Alexander Lebedeff:
"Not long after we were married, my wife and I (I was a third year Seminarian at Jordanville then), were invited to have lunch by one of the old Russian couples that lived in the so-called "Russian village" about a mile from the monastery. We gladly accepted (we were so poor, we were subsisting mainly on macaroni, so any invitation "out" was deeply appreciated). After a wonderful Russian meal, the old "babushka" of the house took us over to the side and conspiratorily whispered: "I know you're recently married, but you do know, of course, the Church rules on when you can, and when you can't?"
It was pretty clear what she was talking about, so we just politely nodded.
She went on: "Well, you can't do it on Tuesday, because that's the eve of a fast day; you can't do it on Wednesday, because it's a fast day; you can't do it on Thursday, because that's the eve of a fast day, also; you obviously can't do it on Friday, because that's a fast day, too; you can't do it on Saturday, because that's the eve of a Feast Day, and you can't do it on Sunday, because that's a Feast Day."
"What about Monday?" I asked.
"Well, you can't do it on Monday, either, because of an old pious custom, since Monday is dedicated to the Bodiless Powers, the Angels, who are an example of purity--and it's also a fast day among monastics."
I asked the venerable Babushka, "And you followed these rules strictly when you were young and just married?"
"Oh, no," she replied, "We were young and foolish, and didn't know any better. . . "
The point of this story is that old babushkas are the first to point out restrictions that do not at all exist according to the Church. The scriptural admonition is for married couples *not* to deny each other sexual relations, except by mutual consent for the purpose of prayer and fasting.
Abstinence from sexual relations (by mutual consent) is certainly appropriate the evening before receiving the Holy Sacraments, and during the day that one receives them. It is certainly *not* an absolute "requirement" of the Church to abstain on all fast days (and on the eves of fast days), or during the 11 days after the Nativity when marriages are not permitted.
The Russian Church in the 13th century issued guidelines for married clergy on these issues, and they included as days of mandatory abstinence only the first and last week of Great Lent, the two weeks of Dormition Lent, and Wednesdays and Fridays during Nativity Lent and the Lent of the Holy Apostles.
The married state is blessed and the marriage bed is undefiled. The Holy Church in protecting the sanctity of marriage and the well-being of the spouses, as well as encouraging procreation and the raising of "fair children" has no interest in creating artificial impediments to preclude spouses from "rejoicing in one another."
If anyone wishes individual guidance on these matters, they should, of course, consult with their Spiritual Father."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Audio of the Advent Retreat 2016

On December 3rd, Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) gave a talk and fielded questions and answers. Here is the audio:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Here also is the sermon he gave on Sunday, December 4th, which was the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos:

Friday, December 09, 2016

Stump the Priest: Time Management

Question: "How do you find the time to do all the things we should do as Christians, with all the demands that today's world puts on us?"

We have far more free time at our disposal than most people did in the past. Most people spent the bulk of their time trying to survive. They did not have lots of leisure time, as we do. But just as expenses rise up to meet income, we have found lots of things to waste our time on, and so we do.

Imagine how laborious a process it was just to wash clothes, within living memory. Now we throw our clothes into a washing machine, along with some soap, come back less than an hour later, and throw them into a dryer, and we are done. This once was a task that consumed hours and hours, and was hard and tedious work.

There are a few things that I have found helpful in terms of making good use of my time.

Samuel Logan Brengle 

Years ago, when I was in college studying to be a Nazarene Minister, I read a little book by a once well known Salvation Army officer by the name of Samuel Logan Brengle (1860-1936), entitled "The Soul Winner's Secret." That book had a chapter entitled "Redeeming the Time" which was based on the verse:
"See that ye walk circumspect, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil." (Ephesians 5:15-16).
It was focused on time management, and he had two bits of advice that made a strong impression on me:

1). Look for opportunities to make good use of your time:
"If you would save time, have a Bible, a notebook and a pencil always at hand. Never go on to the street or take a journey without at least a Testament with you, and some other useful book if possible. And don't forget to use them. The Gospel of St. Matthew can be read through in two hours. This may not be the most profitable way to read it, and yet it will pay to read it right through at one sitting, that we may see the life of Jesus as a whole as we would the life of any man. Paul's first letter to Timothy can be read in twenty minutes, while Jude can be read in three minutes easily. Then don't throw away these minutes." 
Many people insist that they haven't the time to read the Bible, but we have so many opportunities in a given day that would otherwise go to waste. For example, if you ride the bus to work, if you have a Bible with you, or simply a smart phone with a Bible App, you could read quite a bit of Scripture every day by simply making use of time that would otherwise be frittered away, either by staring out of the window, or surfing the web to no particular purpose. If you have a meeting to go to, you might spend 15 minutes waiting for it to begin, which could either go to waste, or be spent doing something profitable, like reading the Scriptures or some other edifying book. If you are travelling by air, you will likely spend quite a bit of time waiting to board flights, and even longer on those flights. You should see these as great opportunities for uninterpreted reading.

Also, when he speaks of carrying around a notebook, this is very important. The way most people's minds work, ideas come to us at unexpected moments. We often think about things we should do, but will forget to do, if we do not make notes when the thought is fresh in our minds. Today, we might do so in a wide variety of ways, but making notes that can later be easily retrieved and put to use is an important part of planning as well as being creative and productive.

2. Having a Plan:
"With many much time is lost for want of system. Things are done at haphazard, duties are performed at random, and after one thing is done time is wasted in deciding what to do next. It is well, then, to have a program for every day, or, better still, for every hour and minute, as our General [William Booth] does when he goes on a tour. For months ahead the General will have a program for every hour of the day, and whether he succeeds or not in perfectly carrying it out in all its details, he at least works to it, saves anxious worry, loses no time and accomplishes a well-nigh incredible amount of business. Of course in this busy world, full of surprises and unexpected calls, any program must be flexible and not like cast iron, and in times of emergency the soul-winner must be prepared to cast it to the winds and follow according to his best judgment where the Spirit leads, singing with all his heart: 
"I would the precious time redeem, And longer live for this alone To spend and to be spent for them, Who have not yet the Saviour known, And turn them to a pardoning God And quench the brands in Jesus' Blood.
My talents, gifts and graces, Lord, Into Thy blessed hands receive. And let me live to preach Thy Word, And let me to Thy glory live; My every sacred moment spend In publishing the sinner's Friend""  [from the Hymn "Give Me The Faith Which Can Remove" by Charles Wesley].
We can either let the day unfold as it will, or we can come to it with a plan to accomplish what is most important to us. As he says, it is almost always the case that things will not go entirely according to our plans, but if we have a plan and accomplish only half of it, we will usually be far more productive than those who have no plan at all.

I tried to develop a system to plan my time, and it was somewhat effective. Years later, however, I discovered a much more effective system in the form of the Franklin-Covey planner. At that time, in my secular job, I was a new supervisor, and this coincided with me becoming a priest -- so I had a lot more demands on my time than I had ever had before. I often had to go to various training sessions, but one day the training was on the Franklin Planner, and in the training I was given a free starter planner. I walked out of that training somewhat incredulous about the claims of how effective their system was, but since I had a free planner, I thought I would give it a try. I found it to be so effective, that I went and bought a CD-set of the training "Focus: Achieving Your Highest Priorities," and every couple of months, for about a year or so, I would listen to that recording again, to refresh my memory until I had the system down.

I began talking to people about Franklin planners so much that some people thought I was getting a cut on the sales. I also discovered that quite a few people I knew were already using these planners... and I wondered why they didn't say anything to me about it before.

Now some people will be wondering why an Orthodox priest has gone from talking about a book by a Salvation Army officer, to discussing a planner designed by Mormons (Steven Covey and Hyrum W. Smith). But regardless of the theological shortcomings of these sources, we can and should learn from others -- even the non-Orthodox -- when they have they have something worth learning. In the case of Samuel Logan Brengle, you had a man who was deeply committed to Christ, was a servant of the poor, and was truly tireless in his work. While he was certainly wrong about many things, there was also much to be admired, and much worthy of emulation. In the case of the Franklin planner and its approach to time management, you have a tool that can be put to Orthodox use.

One fairly unique feature of the Franklin planner is it has you first clarify your values (i.e., what is important to you), and then to set goals to live out what is important to you, and then to plan how you will accomplish those goals. Using this system, one could place making lots of money as their highest priority, and then set goals and establish plans to get rich. But if you have Orthodox Christian priorities, you can use that same system to help you accomplish spiritual goals as well more mundane goals, and to balance them with your various roles in life (being a Christian, having family responsibilities, doing your job, etc).

We should, however, understand that no matter how good we may manage our time, we can't constantly be at 100% productivity. Human beings cannot sustain that. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this saying regarding St. Anthony the Great:
"A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, 'Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.' So he did. The old man then said, 'Shoot another,' and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again and the hunter replied 'If I bend my bow so much I will break it.' Then the old man said to him, 'It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.' When he heard these words “the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened" (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 3f.).
There are no doubt other systems to manage time that may work better for other people, but these are things that I have found helpful.


The following quote from St. John Chrysostom is very much to the point here:
"Do you not know that just as when we hand over money to our servants, and we demand accounts from them down to the last obol [a small silver coin, equaling 1/6 of an average man's wages], in the same way God will demand an account from us of the days of our life, as to how we have spent each day? What then shall we say? What shall be our defense, when we are requested to give our accounts of that day? For your sake the sun rose, and the moon brightened the night, and the intricate pattern of the stars shone forth. Winds blew for your sake, and rivers flowed. For your sake seeds sprouted and plants grew, and the course of nature preserved its own order. Day appeared and night followed. And all of this happened for your sake. But do you, when all creation serves you, satisfy the desire of the devil? You have rented such a home from God, I mean this world, but you have not paid the rent. And you were not satisfied with the first day, but on the second day, when you should have paused for a while from the evil that was enveloping you, you returned again this time to the theater. You ran from smoke into fire, descending into another pit that was even worse. Old men shamed their grey hair, and young men threw their youth away. Fathers brought their sons, from the beginning guiding inexperienced youth into the pits of depravity, so it would not have been a mistake to call those men child killers rather than fathers, as they surrendered their children’s souls to evil. What kind of evil, you ask. Because of it I am in agony, because although you are ill you do not know you are ill or call the doctor. You have become filled with adultery, and you ask “What kind of evil?” Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”?  “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me?  For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching?  Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass (Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theatres).
For more information:

Sermon: Redeeming the Time

A YouTube video explaining how Franklin Planners work

Friday, November 25, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Pledge of Allegiance

Question: "Does Christ's prohibition against oaths in Matthew 5:33-37 mean that we should not pledge allegiance to the flag?"

While Christ certainly forbade the making of foolish and idle oaths, he did not forbid the making of solemn promises. One thing that you find through Scripture is the concept of covenant, and a covenant is a binding and solemn promise.

Take marriage for example, which is one of the most common forms of a covenant that we still enter into today, In marriage we make a covenant with our spouse, with God as a witness, that we will remain faithful to them as long we both shall live.

The Prophet Malachi called the Israelites to task for failing to fulfill this covenant:
"And this is the second thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, With whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,” says the Lord of hosts. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Malachi 2:13-16).
It is clear from these verses that we can and do enter into binding covenants, that God is a witness, and that to fail to live up to those covenants is therefore treachery against both the person the covenant is made with (in this case, one's spouse), and treachery against God himself.

Furthermore, the Church does not teach that Christ taught against all oaths. The Catechism of the Russian Orthodox Church, composed by St. Philaret of Moscow has the following comments with regard to the third commandment:
"532. When is God's name taken in vain?
It is taken or uttered in vain when it is uttered in vain and unprofitable talk, and still more so when it is uttered lyingly or irreverently.
533. What sins are forbidden by the third commandment?
1. Blasphemy, or daring words against God.
2. Murmuring, or complaining against God's providence.
3. Profaneness; when holy things are jested on, or insulted.
4. Inattention in prayer.
5. Perjury; when men affirm with an oath what is false.
6. Oath-breaking; when men keep not just and lawful oaths.
7. Breach of vows made to God.
8. Common swearing, or thoughtless oaths in common talk.
534. Are not such oaths specially forbidden in holy Scripture?
The Saviour says: I say unto you, Swear not at all, but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. Matt. v. 34, 37.
535. Does not this go to forbid all oaths in civil matters?
The Apostle Paul says: Men swear by the greater; and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath. Heb. vi. 16, 17. Hence we must conclude, that if God himself for an immutable assurance used an oath, much more may we on grave and necessary occasions, when required by lawful authority, take an oath or vow religiously, with the firm intention of not breaking it." 
It should also be noted that St. Paul often called on God as a witness to what he said, which is what we do when we give an oath in court or when taking an oath of office:
"For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers" (Romans 1:9).
"I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1).
"Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not" (Galatians 1:20).
So no, there is nothing in Christ's commandments nor in Church tradition that would prevent us from saying the pledge of allegiance.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Vote

Question: "Should Orthodox Christians vote?"

There are no canons of the Church that either require Christians to vote, or forbid them from doing so. There are restrictions on the involvement of clergy and monastics in political matters, but not laity... so long as they do not take positions clearly at odds with the teachings of the Church. Clergy may not run for office, and while they can and do comment on moral issues that may have a political element, they are generally not permitted to engage publicly in purely political matters.

The Russian Orthodox Church has a document which addresses a wide range of social and contemporary issues entitled "The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church," and in its section on the Church and politics, it says:
In [the] face of political differences, contradictions and struggle, the Church preaches peace and co-operation among people holding various political views. She also acknowledges the presence of various political convictions among her episcopate, clergy and laity, except for such as to lead clearly to actions contradicting the faith and moral norms of the church Tradition.
It is impossible for the Church’s Supreme Authorities and for the clergy, hence for the plenitude of the Church to participate in such activities of political organisations and election processes as public support for the running political organisations or particular candidates, election campaigns and so forth. The clergy are not allowed to be nominated for elections to any body of representative power at any level. At the same time, nothing should prevent bishops, clergy and laity from participation in the expression of the popular will by voting along with other citizens....
On October 8, 1919, St. Tikhon appealed to the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church not to interfere in the political struggle. He pointed out in particular that the servants of the Church «by virtue of their rank should be above and outside any political interests. They should remember the canonical rules of the Holy Church whereby she prohibits her servants from interfering in the political life of the country, joining any political parties and, what is more, from making the liturgical rites a tool of political demonstrations»....
The fact that the Plenitude of the Church does not participate in political struggle, in the work of political parties and in election processes does not mean her refusal to express publicly her stand on socially significant issues and to present this stand to governmental bodies in any country and on any level. This position may be expressed only by Councils, the church authorities and those empowered to act for them. In any case, the right to express it cannot be delegated to public offices or political or other secular organisations.
V. 3. Nothing can prevent the Orthodox laity from participating in the work of legislative, executive and judicial bodies and political organisations. This involvement took place under various political systems, such as autocracy, constitutional monarchy and various forms of the republican system. The participation of the Orthodox laity in civic and political processes was difficult only in the contexts of non-Christian rule and the regime of state atheism.
In participating in government and political processes, the Orthodox laity are called to base their work on the norms of the gospel’s morality, the unity of justice and mercy (Ps. 85:10), the concern for the spiritual and material welfare of people, the love of the fatherland and the desire to transform the surrounding world according to the word of Christ.
At the same time, the Christian, a politician or a statesmen, should be well aware that in historical reality and, all the more so, in the context of today’s divided and controversial society, most decisions adopted and political actions taken tend to benefit only a part of society, while restricting or infringing upon the interests and wishes of others. Many such decisions and actions are stained with sin or connivance with sin. Precisely for this reason the Orthodox politician or statesman is required to be very sensitive spiritually and morally.
The Christian who works in the sphere of public and political building is called to seek the gift of special self-sacrifice and special self-denial. He needs to be utterly attentive to his own spiritual condition, so that his public or political work may not turn from service into an end in itself that nourishes pride, greed and other vices. It should be remembered that «principalities or powers, all things were created by him, and for him… and by him all things stand» (Col. 1:16-17). St. Gregory the Theologian, addressing the rulers, wrote: «It is with Christ that you command, with Christ that you govern, from Him that you have received the sword». St. John Chrysostom says: «A true king is he who conquers anger and jealousy and voluptuousness and subjects everything to the laws of God and does not allow the passion for pleasure to prevail in his soul. I would like to see such a man in command of the people, and the throne, and the cities and the provinces, and the troops, because he who subjected the physical passions to reason would easily govern people also according to the divine laws… But he who appears to command people but in fact accommodates himself to wrath and ambition and pleasure, … will not know how to dispose of the power»....
V. 4. The participation of the Orthodox laity in the work of governmental bodies and political processes may be both individual and corporate, within special Christian (Orthodox) political organisations or Christian (Orthodox) units of larger political associations. In both cases, the faithful have the right to choose and express their political convictions, to make decisions and to carry out appropriate work. At the same time, lay people who participate in public or political activity individually or within various organisations do it independently, without identifying their political work with the stand of the Church Plenitude or any of the canonical church institutions or speaking for them. At the same time, the supreme church authority does not give special blessing upon the political activity of the laity....
If we involve ourselves in politics, we are not free to take positions that are clearly opposed to the teachings of the Church. Thus, for example, it is not possible for one to be pro-abortion, and an Orthodox Christian. However, there are often complicated choices that have to be made, and the Church is not going tell people who to vote for. But one should be guided by the teachings of Scripture and Tradition, and vote -- or not vote -- according to their own consciences. As is true of all that we say and do, we should always keep in mind that we will one day have to give an account to God. May God give us all wisdom and guide us in the way that we should go.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Stump the Priest: Reproving a Scoffer

"He that reproveth a scorner getteth to himself shame: and he that rebuketh a wicked man getteth himself a blot. Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee" (Proverbs 9:7-8).
Question: "How should we understand Proverbs 9:7-8? Are we not to reprove the scorner? Or the wicked man?"

Often people take things that are said in the book of Proverbs as if they were immutable promises of God. For example, the proverb "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6) is often cited as it was guaranteed that if you raise your children right that they would at least eventually come to a point at which they would live according to the way that they were raised. However, a proverb is a word of wisdom that is usually going to prove to be true. This does not mean that there are no exceptions. There have been righteous people who raised their children right, but nevertheless had a child who died in rebellion against God. That does not make this proverb untrue... because generally it is true. Experience shows this to be the case. But experience also shows that there are some exceptions. Children retain free will, and despite the best Christian parenting, there are some children that rebel against their upbringing, and never repent.

In this case, it is generally true that rebuking a scorner is not going to go well, because such a person is not inclined to listen to any rebuke, and generally will only heap more scorn on the person doing the rebuking, But this proverb is not a commandment. There are cases in which rebuking a scorner might be in order. But one should obviously be very cautious about it, because it is generally not a good idea.

If you had a child who was a scoffer, as a parent, it would be your duty to rebuke him. Also, there may be some opportunities to say something to a scornful person that, at that particular moment, might actually be received well. If you have such a person in your life, you should pray that God would change their heart, and provide such an opportunity, and pray that God will give you the wisdom to know what to say, and when to say it.

One other aspect of this proverb is that it is teaching us to accept correction. All of us at some point in our lives have been wicked, and inclined to scorn correction. But if we have any wisdom we should love those who justly rebuke us. And even when we receive what we think to be an unjust rebuke, we should consider what we are told, and seriously question whether there is in fact some justice to it. Often our enemies will tell us things about ourselves that our friends will not. They may even do it with malicious intentions, but a wise man can even learn from his enemies.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Stump the Priest: Prostrations at the Liturgy

Question: "When are prostrations made at the Liturgy?"

We do not make prostrations at all on Sundays, with the exception being the veneration of the Cross on the third Sunday of Lent, or when the feasts of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross or the Procession of the Cross fall on a Sunday.

We also do not make prostrations on feasts of the Lord (except for the veneration of Cross), regardless of what day they fall on.

We do make them on great feasts of the Theotokos, unless they fall on a Sunday.

During the Church Year, we stop making prostrations after the Presanctified Liturgy on Holy Wednesday, with the only exception being the veneration of the Epitaphios (Plashchanitsa) at Holy Friday Vespers, and Holy Saturday Matins. Even though the Epitaphios remains out until just before Paschal Matins (in Russian practice), prostrations are not supposed to be done when venerating it after the Matins of Holy Saturday (which is actually served Friday evening). We do not make prostrations again until the Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost.

Keeping the above in mind, at Liturgies that do not fall on Sundays or Feasts of the Lord, there are five points at which prostrations should be made:
1. At the Anaphora, the priest or bishop says "Let us give thanks unto the Lord."
2. At the end of the hymn: "We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks unto Thee, O Lord; and we pray unto Thee, O our God." For those in the Altar who are able to hear it, this should be done when the priest or bishop says "Changing them by Thy Holy Spirit." That prayer is traditionally said in a low voice, while the hymn is being sung, and so the people usually do not hear it said.
3. At the end of the hymn to the Theotokos at the Anaphora: "It is truly meet," or its substitute (Zadostoinik).
4. When the chalice is brought out by the deacon or priest, and he says"With the fear of God and with faith, draw nigh." The clergy do not prostrate at this time, because they do this earlier in the Altar, before they commune.
5. When the chalice is shown to the people for the last time, and the priest or bishop says "Always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages." The common practices, however, is that those who have received communion do not make a prostration at this point, and so the clergy likewise do not make a prostration.
It is also a common practice in some local traditions to make a prostration when we sing the "Our Father." However, according to Archbishop Peter, St. John of Shanghai taught that this was incorrect, because, as we say just before we sing this prayer at the Liturgy, we are asking that God would enable us "with boldness and without condemnation to dare to call upon [him] the heavenly God as Father..." And a son does not prostrate himself before his father, when he has such boldness and is not under condemnation.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Stump the Priest: Readers

The Tonsuring of a Reader

Question: "How does one become a Reader, and what does a Reader do?"

We learn a great deal about what it means to be a Reader from the admonition that the bishop gives to a Reader after he is tonsured (i.e., made a Reader):
"My son, the first degree in the Priesthood is that of Reader. It behooveth thee therefore to peruse the divine Scriptures daily, to the end that the hearers, regarding thee may receive edification; that thou in nowise shaming thine election, mayest prepare thyself for a higher degree. For by a chaste, holy and upright life thou shalt gain the favor of the God of loving-kindness, and shalt render thyself worthy of a greater ministry, through Jesus Christ our Lord: to whom be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen."
This tells us that the office of the Reader is the first rank of the priesthood. There are two types of clergy: minor clergy, and major clergy. Readers are tonsured, which means that rather than being ordained in the Altar, they are set apart by having some of their hair cut in the form of the Cross (as also happens at baptism, and when someone is made a monastic) and ordained in the Nave of the Church, as are Subdeacons, who are also minor clergy. The major clergy are Bishops, Priest, and Deacons.

But what it means for this to be the first rank of the priesthood is that the same basic requirements to be ordained a Priest are also required of a Reader. A reader must of course be Orthodox. He must also be a man who has not been married more than once. He must be of a good reputation. There are other possible impediments to ordination, and most of them apply equally to readers (there are different age requirements for deacons, priests, and bishops, and bishops are required to be monastics).

A Reader should also read the Scriptures daily, and be familiar enough with the texts that he reads that those who hear him are able to understand him, and be edified by his reading. In addition to that, a Reader should learn the rubrics of the services, and should learn to sing his way through the services by learning the tones, and how to use and combine the liturgical  texts at the kliros. In most parishes, there are choir directors who do most of that work at the main services, but a Reader should learn this as well, so that if he is the only person at the kliros (as can happen at some of the daily services) he will be able to read and sing all of the parts of the services that are not specific to the Bishop, Priest, and Deacon.

The admonition to the Reader that he "in nowise" shame his election means that he should be an example to others in the Church. As St. Paul admonished St. Timothy: "be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conduct, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity" (1 Timothy 4:12). And a reader should do this in order to prepare himself "for a higher degree." In other words, a reader should be preparing himself for the possibility of serving in a higher rank of the clergy. Of course all Christians should try to be an example "in word, in conduct, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity," but this should be especially the case for clergy. This means a Reader should be personally pious, loving towards others, and should love the services of the Church.

Anyone who is able (and of course an Orthodox Christian) can serve the function of a Reader, when needed. And there are many people who are not tonsured as Readers who do. However, one who actually is a Reader has a duty to fill this role, and so should be zealous to prepare himself to fulfill this role, and should be eager to actually do it, being present whenever possible for the services, and making themselves available to do their duty.

If someone is interested in becoming a reader, they should speak to the priest and begin applying themselves to learning how to properly do it. Even if they are not eventually tonsured as a Reader, the knowledge they acquire is beneficial to any Orthodox Christian.

For more on what it means to be a Reader, I would recommend reading Instruction for the Church Reader as well as A Guide for Readers in the Orthodox Church, by Fr. Geoffrey Korz.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Immoral Policy of the United States Government in Syria

I feel compelled, as a Christian and as an American citizen speaking only for myself, to condemn the policy of the United States government which has been to overthrow the Syrian government by arming and funding a radical jihadist insurgency. This has fueled and exacerbated a conflict which has witnessed the deaths of nearly half of a million Syrians, produced five million refugees, seven and a half-million internally displaced people, and has brought untold misery upon many millions more who have suffered either directly or indirectly as a result of this shameful policy. [1]

I cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that our government continues, with our tax-payer dollars,  to fund and arm those who are raping, murdering, and displacing Christians (who represent about ten percent of the overall population) and other religious minorities in Syria. [2]

Our government waged a phony bombing campaign against ISIS for more than a year, with the only effect being that it made it appear that we were doing something, and provided cover for what we have clearly been up to. In fact, the end result of our government’s actions was to allow these terrorists to push further west into Syria. Our government willfully "looked the other way" because it put added pressure on the legitimate Syrian government (a United Nations member). [3] Some of the foremost academic experts in the world have repeatedly confirmed this. [4] To the extent that ISIS has been “on the run” in recent months, this is primarily due to the efforts of the Syrian Army and their allies, and not to the half-hearted actions of our government.

ISIS soon overran much of Iraq and Eastern Syria, often traveling in large convoys across open desert (which would have been easy targets for a serious bombing campaign by the world’s most powerful air force), and eventually captured historic Palmyra in Syria. This has resulted not only in the immense immediate loss of human life, and the destruction of countless communities – but also the loss of priceless artifacts and documents that are lost to future generations, forever. Ancient Christian communities, many that spoke the very language of Christ, and have existed since the time of the apostles have been destroyed. [5] We have seen the revival of slave markets, which have functioned openly in the streets of cities in Syria and Iraq.  And our government has not only done very little to put a stop to these things, but has in fact funneled arms and supplies to groups closely allied with the al-Nusra Front (which is a branch of Al Qaeda, lately calling itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and ISIS. [6] Our own government has also continued to demonize other world powers, who at the invitation of the Syrian government, are assisting in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups. Our leaders continue to keep this civil war going, instead of pursuing legitimate avenues of peace, while continuing to remain closely allied with sources of terrorist ideology like Saudi Arabia. [7]

Lest anyone think that what I am saying reflects conspiracy theories or fringe views, I would note that no less than Franklin Graham, who does charitable work on the ground in Syria, and is the son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, has been pointing out these errors in US policy in Syria for years. Like most of those who know the Christians of Syria, he opposes any attempt to overthrow the Syrian government, because this government has protected Christians and other religious minorities, and any government that would likely replace it, would see the end of Christianity in Syria. [8]

We should all call upon our leaders to stop this reckless and inhuman policy, and especially condemn any suggestion that we should bomb the Syrian Army. It is unfortunate that many civilians have suffered and died in this civil war, but the primary responsibility for that belongs to those who set this war in motion, fueled it with a steady supply of arms and supplies, and have consistently prevented efforts to bring it to a swift conclusion. [9]

We should also immediately cut off all military and financial aid to “rebel” groups, which is what fueled the rapid rise of ISIS in the first place. [10] We should end the sanctions that helped create the turmoil that laid the groundwork for this civil war.  And furthermore, the US government should provide sufficient resources to rebuild the communities that have been destroyed as a result these immoral and unjust actions. We should also all continue to pray daily for the peace of Syria and for the victims of this tragic and foolish war.

[1] Seumas Milne (June 3, 2015). Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq. The Guardian. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from

[2] BBC News, Syria's beleaguered Christians (February 25, 2015) Retrieved October 6, 2016, from

[3] In fact, Vice President Biden, speaking at Harvard University on October 2, 2014, admitted that our regional allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) created, armed, and funded ISIS and the other terrorist groups because they hoped to overthrow the Syrian government:

[4] See for example University of Oklahoma professor Dr. Joshua Landis in a May 2015 statement: or see Chatham House (UK) expert Hayder al-Khoei:

[5] Philip Jenkins (September 4, 2013). Syria’s Christians Risk Eradication: A post-Assad Islamist regime threatens to re-enact the Armenian genocide. The American Conservative. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from

[6] Kevin Boyd (September, 2014). Remember Those 'Moderate' Syrian Rebels That The U.S. Armed? ISIS Got Some Of Those Weapons Too. Independent Journal Review. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from

[7] Scott Shane (August 25, 2016). Saudis and Extremism: ‘Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters.' New York Times. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from

[8] Newsmax Prime (September 30, 2015). Rev. Franklin Graham on how Russian airstrikes affect Christian persecution. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from Russian Orthodox Church Youtube Channel (October 29, 2015). Rev. Franklin Graham meeting with Patriarch Kirill. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from

[9] Ron Paul Liberty Report (October 6, 2016). Why Everything You Hear About Aleppo Is Wrong. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from

[10] RealClear Politics (August 10, 2015): Former DIA Chief Michael Flynn Says Rise Of ISIS Was A "Willful Decision" Of US Government. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from:

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: