Ghosts on the calendar

When I was younger, I remember I asked why the church celebrates Easter and Christmas when they do. And I remember it being one more question that never received the straightest of answers.

I think I know why, or maybe I’ve narrowed it down to a few possible explanations.

Reason #1. I think most Christians do not know a thing about the history of their faith (emphasis most definitely added). And why should they? Few churches offer any kind of teaching on the history of the ancient church, the teachings of the ancient church and how or why things are done somewhat differently today. Some Christians have a kind of rough general outline of the past–they have Acts, Luther and then the subsequent history of their own denomination. But as denominational distinctions continue to blur in the era of the mega-church, those few little pieces are washing out with the tide.

I think that’s sad. I believe we would better appreciate the value of our religious freedoms if we truly understood the dangerous journey made by Christianity into the 21st Century. I think we would better understand the way to live the faith in a modern society if we understood the context of its origins 2004 years ago. I think we would be better Christians.

Reason #2. Those that do know something about the history of their faith may not want to answer any subsequent questions about why things have changed so much, because I think those questions are harder to answer. Why is it that we have reduced the Christian calendar to just a few days a year? Why is it that we don’t recognize the history of our faith and honor those who have gone before?

Christmas in my church is called “The Nativity of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.” It is celebrated on December 25 using some calendars, and on different days on other calendars (which I am in no way getting into here). It is one of a number of major feast days giving to us by the Church to celebrate the redemptive work of our God. Some other major feasts include:
*The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross (Sept. 14)
*The Theophany of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ (Jan. 6)
History note: This feast predates Christmas, and in many ways celebrates the same things as Christmas–celebration of His birth, the adoration of the wisemen, childhood events of Christ, and His Baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Forerunner. And if you notice it is twelve days after Christmas (cue the pipers piping and drummers drumming).
*The Entrance of Our Lord Into Jerusalem-that would be Palm Sunday.
*Pascha– or known to Western Christians as Easter.

Isn’t that fantastic?! Look at all those days that draw our eyes from the mundane struggle we find ourselves in, and turn them up to our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. And that’s not even all of them! There’s many other feast days, lesser feast days, and then the days we just observe the life of a saint, or reflect on some other aspect of our faith in practice. I have LOVED getting to know the liturgical calendar, and I regret not taking full advantage of all it has to teach me. And as I’ve looked at that packed calendar, I’ve wondered why I had never seen most of this before.

My guess is that as the Protestant church pushed itself further away from the Roman Catholic Church, it shed so many of these dates like some kind of shell, along with so many other worthwhile practices. And the further away it gets from Luther/Zwingli/et al, fewer of these will remain. Maybe in a few more centuries, some Christians will just combine Easter and Christmas into one big day so they can worry about other things the other 364 days a year. It’s, sadly, probably not outside the realm of possibility. I’m sure if you told a Christian in the year 904 that many Christians in the future would not have a great use for Mary or the saints, or would reduce the Christian calendar to just a few days a year, he or she would shake his or her head in disbelief.

And by the way, today we observe Venerable Alypius the Stylite of Adrianopolis, among others. Have a blessed day!

Like the Greeks

I took my very first class in Byzantine chant today, during coffee hour after liturgy. It’s taught by our priest’s son who makes it sound so much easier than it really is. I play the piano and can read music, but this is unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. (And I was just getting used to the few Arabic phrases during the Liturgy.)

Byzantine chant. It sounds so, well, foreign. It is. And it’s one of the oldest musical systems in the world, or something like that.

When I first met an Orthodox Christian, my first thought was “Oh, like the Greeks.” Yep, like the Greeks. And the Russians. And in my case the Antiochians (Arabs).

As I tried to explain my fascinating encounter to those in Protestant land, I found myself saying “Like the Greeks” anytime I needed any kind of context. Sometimes I cheat and still do.

But that’s really a cop-out, and it allows those who want to ignore the claims of the Holy Orthodox church to do so under the argument that’s just an ethnic expression of Christianity. It is not. And for the sake of intellectual honesty, I had to be willing to accept my own practice of Christianity as one that shared certain ethnic roots as well.

My grandparents are, largely, German. And hailing from rural Iowa, they attended German Baptist churches. So we were also Baptists. Other Germans are, duh, Lutherans, and of course Catholics. The Dutch–well, they’re Reformed. English–Anglican. Scotch–Presbyterian. Italian–Catholic. And so on.

And our new mega-church inventions are equally ethnic. They are 100% an American construct, with a heavy emphasis on entertainment (we call it “seeker sensitive) and consumerism/product placement (only this time you’re consuming Jesus).

I don’t mean in any way to be sacrilegious or too critical, but we need, I needed, to be honest about this.

I had to come to the conclusion that Christianity, here’s a shocker, originated not when Luther nailed his little list to the doors, nor when Tyndale worked so hard on making Holy Scripture accessible. Christianity came to existence in the Middle East, where they eat cucumbers and yoghurt, pitas and falafel. Jesus WAS NOT likely blue-eyed and blond-haired. Nope. He was a Palestinian.

One of the things that was so hard to get over for me was that the Western way of doing church may actually not be the way that it looked in a post-Acts church. They probably didn’t have a “special” before the sermon, an altar call or pass out bulletins. And as I studied and read those who studied better than I ever could I realized that my uncomfortable hunch was correct.

The Scriptures were chanted–it carries the voice quite far without the need for fancy sound systems and it eliminates the presence of emotional inflection that can be misleading or manipulative. They believed the Eucharist was more than just a symbolic cracker crumb and shot of Welch’s. They had deacons, priests, and bishops.

Fr. Peter Gilquist, in his book Becoming Orthodox outlines the surprise of his Campus Crusade cohorts as they discovered all this stuff, and subsequently what they had to do about it. The more I read and studied, the more I knew I too had to do something about it.

It is easy to dismiss Orthodoxy as just an expression of the cultures that largely still practice it here in North America. But that is much too convenient. It’s much harder to say that maybe our post-Reformation, post-Enlightment, post-Great Awakening, and post-modern practices of it may not be the BEST way to do this Jesus thing.

And as more Americans join the Orthodox church, it will take on, probably, a little more Western expression (a little less Byzantine). It has happened in every culture that has practiced it. Greek chants sound different than Russian which sound different than Arabic. The Ethiopians in my church venerate the cross a bit differently than those from Syria. But don’t expect any change to happen too quickly, or for them to be big ones. We are, after all, still Orthodox. (Question: How many Orthodox priests does it take to change a light bulb? Answer {imagine spoken in a Russian accent}: Change? What is this change?)

I didn’t think the Western, Reformed/Protestant way was the BEST way. So now I find myself in our little choir loft, muddling through the tones.

Lord, have mercy.

Sacred spaces (or Eyes of My Faith, part II)

With some hammering and the use of a friend’s drill (thanks Phil!), I was able to (FINALLY) set up my very first icon corner. In my last place of residence, all the corners were occupied, and the few icons I had were placed wherever I could find the space. But in this new, bigger space, I have plenty of room for my books, and the icons. So I stained some corner shelves, mounted them on the wall, and hung my larger icons all around them. The way it’s set up, they are visible right when I walk in the front door, and then when I leave, they are the last things I see. There are a few more things I need to make it proper (a vigil lamp and some incense) but it’s great so far.

Why, you ask, do you need an icon corner? Good question.

As I grow (oh, so slowly) in my understanding of Orthodoxy, I see all the different ways that God speaks to me through the practice of this faith–fasting reminds me of how pathetic my will is and how necessary it is to rely on His; the beautiful written prayers show me that I’m not the first person to pray nor the first person to wrestle with issues of self-doubt and sin; and icons remind me of those that have gone before and connect me with the ideals of Christianity (virtue, piety, sacrifice, love.)

This seems to be what the early Church Fathers had in mind when they defended the use of Holy Icons during the Seventh Ecumenical Council in the 8th Century. From the Decree of the Second Council of Nice, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and, yes, I know it’s a lengthy read:

“We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (aspasmon kai timhtikhn proskunh-sin), not indeed that true worship of faith (latreian) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received. So we sing prophetically the triumphal hymns of the Church, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem. Rejoice and be glad with all thy heart. The Lord hath taken away from thee the oppression of thy adversaries; thou art redeemed from the hand of thine enemies. The Lord is a King in the midst of thee; thou shalt not see evil any more, and peace be unto thee forever.”

Creating a space in my home for prayer and spiritual reflection leads to a deeper intentionality in my spiritual life, it gives me a place to come apart and think about my relationship to the Most High God, and it helps me to shut out the distractions of the world around me. And in the way my living room is laid out, unintentionally, the icon corner places my back to the television set. How wonderfully appropriate!

I had rarely seen an icon in my Protestant life. But the most vivid recollection of childhood Bible stories was a picture of Jesus in the big, dog-eared Bible story book my mom would read from at the foot of her bed in the evenings. That picture brings tears to my eyes now as I think about it. Jesus, albeit a blue-eyed European one, was holding a chubby-fingered blond-haired, blue-eyed girl. His loving eyes and open face were laughing, and she had her little hands on his beard, an act of a child’s intimate trust.

All my life I was looking for that Jesus. That image had burned its way into my conscience, into my soul. When I walked into St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church the very first time, I saw Him. This time, He was on the ceiling–the icon of the Pantocrater. As I slipped into the very last seat in the back row (yep, we’ve got pews, but that’s another topic) it was as if He was watching me, with those great loving eyes, welcoming me home.

So when I muster the discipline to pray, when I stand before those icons, I don’t pray to them, but in a way I pray through them. I pray to that Jesus who loved me so much He left Heaven to come to earth to rescue the souls of men. I pray to that One who knows that I stumble and fall over the place, like a sort of spiritual toddler, and watches me with hopeful eyes, encouraging me to get up and try again. And I am surrounded by the images of those who struggled in the same ways that I do, but who nonetheless became so filled with Christ they were recognized as saints by the Church.

In that icon corner I am not alone, and I am loved.

Sleepless nights, part II

Sorry it’s been so long since I posted…

In my spiritual journey, if it wasn’t the Rapture, it was predestination/election that kept me up at night, and that only got worse the older I got.

When I hit college, I learned all about the TULIP of my faith, which I had been hearing all along, but not really in such a helpful acrostic. For those of different persuasions, or unlearned about the wisdom of John Calvin, it goes something like this:

T-total depravity

U-unconditional election

L-limited atonement

I-irresistable grace

P-perseverence of the saints

It was the second point that I found particularly troubling. If we are totally incapable of turning toward God on our own and unable to desire spiritually good things (as the T demands) then only God Himself can turn our heads toward Him. So we have the “U”–which says that He softens the hearts of those whom He has chosen, on those He has elected to serve Him/join Him. And if your heart is never softened, well, sorry.

So, if I desire to know Him more, is that from Him? According to JC (John Calvin) it has to be. But if I’m raised in a Christian home, in church every time the double-doors were open, could I NOT want to know Him? It would be impossible, unless I plugged my ears, closed my eyes and howled through every Sunday School lesson not to absorb the lesson of my need for a Savior. So, in my little brain, if I have always been exposed to the need for Christ, I could, in theory, not be one of the elect, and just desire it out of exposure. (You follow?) In this warped little world, it didn’t matter how many times I walked the aisle, raised my hand, read the Wordless Book and prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, if He didn’t choose me to go, I WASN’T GOING.

I know, I know, if I wasn’t elect I wouldn’t want God, but I’m sorry, I never saw a 5-year-old that didn’t want to know Jesus. (So…are you only predestined if you are above that age of accountability?)

If that all wasn’t terribly confusing, you then throw in the whole “doctrine” of double-predestination–that some are predestined for Heaven and others are predestined for Hell–and you have nothing more than a recipe for insomnia.

And I saw so many people around me walking the aisle with the frequency of trips to the fridge, and then they would behave completely “unregenerately” the rest of the time. I wondered about the efficacy of Calvin’s definition of salvation and regeneration (though again, not by name, since I hadn’t yet seen the beauty of the TULIP, but in speculation about Salvation in general). Maybe these poor souls were just not EVER going to get it.

I know in Calvinism the TULIP provides for humility and thankfulness, that those that know God have been chosen by Him, in spite of anything they want/do to the contrary. But to me it seemed to create an arrogance–“Gee, aren’t you glad that we’re the elect? I wouldn’t want to be a reprobate. ”

I guess I don’t believe God sorts souls like beans going into the soup. While Calvinists distill the faith to a TULIP, it seems God’s viewing it more like a daisy–this one’s in, this one’s not.

My God says that He wants all to be saved. Period. Will all be saved? I don’t know. I have enough to do worrying about myself. But I guess I worry a lot less since I know He loves me, and wants me to know Him. I know I want to know Him, and I think that is that thing He has instilled in all of us. Sure, that divine image has been marred by the fall, but a dirty/distorted mirror is still a mirror. The race of men didn’t lose that desire to know Him when Eve plucked that fruit off the tree.

Wow, we’re not even into eternal security yet…

Nov. 2

Sorry it’s been so quiet on the blog front lately. After tomorrow, things will slow down and, hopefully, there will be a larger entry forthcoming.

For those of you who are voting tomorrow…thank God He remains sovereign and in control regardless of what ridiculous choices we are forced to make in the voting booths.

God bless!