[Note: Since publishing the story of my journey to Orthodox Christianity I have received a number of questions from various other seekers. Some of the more often asked questions I have appended below, along with my feeble attempts to answer them. In addition to the questions listed below, I also have prepared a second page devoted specifically to a number of questions regarding Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It is my hope that these may help address some of the concerns others have raised in their quest and that they will aid you on your own spiritual journey. They are presented below in no particular order. — Oswin Craton]
Q. Why does the Orthodox Church put so much emphasis on liturgical worship? In I Corinthians 14:26ff., Paul instructs the Christians to have an orderly worship. If it already was liturgical, there would have been no need for him to write as he did. It seems to me that this passage could justify any worship style, so long as it is orderly.
A. Remember that the first Christians were all Jewish Christians who were well-grounded in Jewish liturgical worship. When Gentiles, unfamiliar with the Jewish form of worship, began coming into the Church they came without a fundamental understanding of liturgical worship. Apparently this was not a major problem in locales where Gentiles were in the minority, but the Church in Corinth was comprised almost exclusively of former Gentile pagans. The type of worship to which they were accustomed was rather experiential and earthy. They appear to have brought the baccanal-like worship from their pagan ceremonies into their Christian worship. St. Paul sets them straight by pointing out that God is not the author of confusion. Therefore, he says, “Let all be done decently and in order.” While not addressing the liturgy per se, his admonitions defend an orderly liturgical format prevalent throughout all the rest of the Christian world at the time.
Q. When I attend an Orthodox Church I never feel like anyone there really cares whether Im present or not. How could I expect to ‘fit in if I became Orthodox?
A. The concern you describe is one I have heard a number of people discuss from practically all faiths. Wondering whether you will ‘fit in is a human condition not particular to any church. And by human condition I mean that it is a concern that is present because you are dealing with humans.
Whether any two people are fully compatible on a social level is always a mystery. But one can be assured that within any group of 100 or more people, there are bound to be some with whom you will never become close. This is not a problem inherent to Orthodoxy (or just to church in general), but is common to literally any group of people.
But there actually are some side points to make in regards to this problem. First, it is unfortunately true that a large number of Orthodox parishes are distinctively ethnic in composition, often having been founded by the parents or grandparents of the current membership, and the founders all having come from the same country and sometimes even from the same region of the old country. As with any rather isolated group of immigrants, they tend to stick closely together. It is difficult for any newcomer (sometimes even of the same national background) to ‘fit in, as you say. This is not to say that such an exclusivist attitude is acceptable, but it is a reality. Sometimes it is a case of a parish being so close-knit that they arent sure how to welcome a newcomer, even if they sincerely desire to do so.
But this, as I say, is a human problem and is common to all groups in one form or another. I once knew a young man who was hired by a Protestant church to be their personal-evangelism minister. A very dedicated Christian and outgoing young fellow, he was highly successful in bringing in a number of previously unChurched families to this congregation. Then one day he was called before the elders of the church and chastised for going to the wrong side of the tracks to do his evangelism. Although the people he was bringing in to the church were of the same ethnicity and language as everyone else there, they were not of the proper socioeconomic class and were deemed undesirable for their congregation. To this young mans credit, he immediately resigned his position rather than being forced to spread Gods word only to the well-to-do of the community.
Another reason many people who visit an Orthodox Church may have the impression that they arent welcome is because of the nature of the worship itself. Unlike some contemporary churches that place a premium on social interaction within the worship service (Ive been told this is more homey and welcoming), the Divine Liturgy is focused very intensely on the worship of God. This is the purpose of worship, after all, to render praise to God rather than to engage in conversation with fellow worshipers. I myself have experienced times when it would be an hour or so into the Liturgy before I noticed who was standing next to me. This doesnt mean I didnt care, but only means that I was so engrossed in the Liturgy of worship that my attention was directed entirely toward God. (And let me assure you that Orthodox Christians can be exceptionally friendly. It usually will be seen if you stay for the traditional coffee hour following the Liturgy. That is when social interaction properly takes place, not in the worship itself. Please dont judge the people by their response — or lack thereof — during the Divine Liturgy.)
Additionally, even if you find yourself in a parish that is not as open and welcoming as youd prefer; even if you feel you dont ‘fit in and that the people there dont accept you, you should ask yourself whether that really matters. Sure, it will disappoint, but does it matter? If you become Orthodox, you are part of the Church. Anyone who would not accept you would be denying a part of the very Church to which they belong. It is not the people who add you to Christs Body, after all, but God (cf. Acts 2:47: And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved emphasis added).
And finally (and I hope you wont think me cruel here because I keep reminding myself of the same thing almost weekly), it isnt about you. The hundred or so people at the parish arent there to pay special attention to me or to any other individual Christian. We all are there for a common purpose: to worship and glorify God in our lives. We do this as a body, as a collective group of people, not as single individuals, each demanding special attention all the time. Are we each special? Sure. Didnt Christ die for each of us, making us valuable as individuals? Certainly. But that doesnt imply that we should exalt our own value over other peoples and wear our feelings on our shoulders, but that, as St. Paul said, Let each esteem others better than himself (Phil. 2:3).
There is an old adage, You only get out of something what you put into it. Though trite, it is true. Too many people give up on Church when they develop a feeling of not fitting in — a feeling that often is sadly overblown and in many instances is not the case at all. My objective should be to worship God and to render service to others, esteeming them better than myself ... not to keep track of who might have offended me today. Our call is to do Christs bidding; how others respond to that is not our concern. His directive to us is simple: What is that to you? You follow me (John 21:22).
Q. I was once told by an Orthodox man that I could not become Orthodox because I am not Greek. Is this true?
A. In a word, No. The Church (and scripture) teaches plainly that those who have been baptized into Christ are all one, and there is no recognition of either nationality or ethnicity (cf. I Corinthians 12:12-13). Unfortunately, the attitude you have described in your question is sometimes encountered when interacting with various cradle Orthodox (those who were born into Orthodoxy rather than having converted later in life). But it is an erroneous assumption made by — thankfully only a few — people who have grown up so isolated within a particular ethnic community that they merely assume all other Orthodox Christians must be exactly as they are. But I can assure you the assumption is entirely incorrect, as any parish priest of any nationality will tell you.
Q. When someone decides to become Orthodox, they usually first have to go through catechism classes, which last several weeks. After that they are baptized. My father believes that it is unscriptural to put off baptizing someone as soon as they believe; he insists it should be immediate, like it was in all the New Testament examples. Why wait?
A. Regarding immediate baptism, I think we need to look at this in perspective. The New Testament indeed cites many examples of believers being baptized only moments after professing their belief in Jesus as the Son of God. At the time the New Testament was being written the Church was in its infancy, and the vast majority of Christian converts at the time were Jews who were well-established in scripture and in the knowledge of God already. It was often a different story for the non-Jewish converts who came from a background of paganism. Though there is the example of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16), he seems to have been an exception, for even other Gentile converts (such as Cornelius in Acts 10) had a strong knowledge of Judaism before coming to Christ. But with the Gentiles of Athens, who were not well-versed in Judaism, we see St. Paul reasoning with them for some time before they could be at the same level of understanding as their Jewish counterparts (Acts 17:16-34).
Beyond the biblical examples, we also must use some common sense as well. Having myself grown up in a Fundamentalist church, I have seen numerous examples of what I term “kamikaze Christians” who were talked into being baptized very quickly. From my experience I have observed that most who were rushed into the waters of baptism (usually driven by a motive of the fear of hellfire) did not take root in the church, and most eventually fell away. There were a few exceptions, of course, but the rush to baptize without a persons having a reasonable understanding of what theyre doing is to my mind rather foolish. (I know of one young Catholic girl who at about age 21 was converted rather hastily to the church I then attended. She later admitted that when she was taken into the baptistry she thought the minister was going to pour water over her head and was quite shocked when he grabbed her and plunged her underneath the water. She remained in that church less than a year.) While one need not have a perfect knowledge of the Church before being baptized (if that were a requirement none of us would be Christians), it seems only reasonable to admit that certain fundamental theological aspects be grasped before conversion.
One often hears the argument that people are dying in sin very day and must be baptized as soon as humanly possible to avoid that. But people were dying in sin every day in Israel during the 30 years Jesus prepared for His ministry. God will call those who are to be saved, sometimes in His own good time. This is not an excuse to lethargy on our part, but neither is it a call for a frenzied rush. To establish a garden one must first prepare the soil. And for Christ to grow richly in a persons heart, the soil of his heart must be likewise carefully prepared. Elsewise are we not casting pearls before swine?
Q. My question is over the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I am very familiar with all the biblical passages and arguments on both sides of the issue. I find it difficult to conclude from those passages that Christs presence is real in the Eucharist, especially when I consider that its an evolution from the Passover. I see not the real presence but a spiritual and symbolic presence in the elements. How do you arrive at belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist?
A. First of all, please note that Orthodoxy does not hold to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the doctrine that the elements literally become flesh and blood). Tomes have been written in an effort to attempt to explain the Catholic position, but Orthodoxy merely accepts Christs presence in the elements as a Divine Mystery. There is no attempt to explain exactly how this takes place, other than to say it is by the power of the Holy Spirit. The bread and wine do not undergo a molecular alteration to become transformed into literal flesh and blood. Yet, through this Mystery, Christ does indeed become real in these elements in a way unknown to us.
That this has been the understanding of the Church from the earliest days seems unarguable. The overall consensus of the Church Fathers concurs with this belief, accepting as true Christs words, This is my body and This is my blood (Matthew 26:26-28). Tertullian is often misinterpreted as having held to a symbolic view or emblematic understanding of the Eucharist, but his view, when examined in the totality of his writings, appears otherwise. For instance, in his Prayer 19 he writes, Likewise, in regard to days of fast, many do not think they should be present at the sacrificial prayers, because their fast would be broken if they received the Body of the Lord.... The Body of the Lord having been received and reserved, each point is secured. Also in his On the Resurrection of the Dead (8:3) he states, The flesh feeds on the Body and Blood of Christ, so that the soul too may fatten on God. And in The Crown he echoes a reverence for the Eucharistic elements that goes far beyond mere symbol: The Sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord commanded to be taken ... we take even before daybreak in congregations.... We take anxious care lest something of our Cup or Bread should fall upon the ground. How often have I myself seen the bread or wine (or grape juice, as is used more often in most Fundamentalist churches) inadvertently spilled in a Protestant church only to be unceremoniously swept up or wiped away as mere crumbs or spillage? And if it is true that Christ is not present in the elements that is entirely appropriate. Yet much greater care was (and is) taken in the historic Church precisely because it is believed that Christs presence is indeed real in these elements. Tertullian reflects that same position in his writings.
But what is to me perhaps the most compelling evidence for Christs real presence in the Eucharist lies in the writings of St. Paul in I Corinthians 11: For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinket damnation to himself, not discerning the Lords body. No such severe warning could be attached to the observance of the Passover feast, for it was truly symbolic — the Lord instituted its observance, but He was not present in its elements. Could so great a warning as St. Paul gives — a risk of eternal damnation for improper observance — ever be attached to something that is merely a symbolic memorial? No, it seems to me that the historic teachings of the Church on this matter carry much weight in that the warnings are so severe precisely because Christ is Himself present in the Eucharistic elements.
Q. Why does the Orthodox Church make such a big deal out of Easter? Shouldnt Christmas be the most important holiday, like it is in most other churches? After all, if God hadnt been born as a man, Christianity wouldnt have happened.
A. Easter (or Pascha, as it is called in Orthodoxy) is certainly the crown jewel of all the services of the Church. And without minimizing the importance of Christmas (which Orthodoxy also celebrates), it is Pascha, the Resurrection, that is the cornerstone of our religious celebrations. While it is true that Christianity would not have come about had Christ not been born, it is even more true that it wouldnt have happened without the Resurrection. In fact, had Jesus been born and done all the things reported of Him in the Gospels, and then died on the Cross and not been Resurrected, then it all would have been for naught. Recall the words of St. Paul: If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain..... If Christ has not been raised ... we are of all men most to be pitied. (I Corinthians 15:14-19)
There are others who have claimed to be the Messiah both before Jesus (for instance, Simon of Peraea and Athronges), and there have been many pretenders since, some even to our present day. But when these false messiahs die, their movements die with them. Jesus alone came forth from the tomb after subjecting Himself to death on our behalf, and in so doing He conquered death, just as we sing repeatedly in the Paschal liturgy: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
By placing this great and holy celebration and feast at the end of a seven-week fast, the joy of Christs Resurrection is made all the more meaningful to us as we have prepared ourselves both bodily and spiritually during a time a great introspection and repentance, following Christ through his trial and crucifixion, then on Pascha itself walking with the myrrh-bearing women to the tomb to find it empty. It is the service which reminds us that we serve not a mere man but a risen Lord, one who has conquered death itself and is truly Christ and God. It reminds us that not only has Christ been raised from the dead, but also that the same promise is given to us as well.
Q. I dont understand the whole idea of monasticism. Isnt that a carryover from the Middle Ages?
A. Monasticism predates the Middle Ages by a considerable amount. While it was never a formal part of the Jewish religion, there were nevertheless prototypes of monasticism found there. For instance, it was not uncommon for single women or widows to devote themselves entirely to prayer in the Temple, as did the prophetess Anna mentioned in Luke 2:36-37. Some might say that the examples of the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:2 ), of Samuel being given to Eli as a young boy (I Samuel 1:22-27), and of the unmarried St. Paul also serve as prototypes of monastic tradition. But the source of Christian monasticism is properly found in the words of Christ when he said, Whoever would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24). Monastics are those who voluntarily choose to deny themselves earthly pleasures and careers and devote themselves entirely to prayer and service. They seek to grow in Gods image through spiritual disciplines unfettered by the cares of ordinary life. In no case is a monastic life forced upon anyone — just as marriage is voluntary among the laity, monasticism also is entirely voluntary.
As for monasticism being a carryover from the Middle Ages, it actually is far older, as we have just seen. The earliest formal Christian monastic community began in Egypt in the fourth century, although isolated and short-lived communities are believe to have existed even earlier, almost from the very beginning of the Church. Most of the early Church Fathers (though not all) were monastics.
Q. Wasnt it Jesus death on the Cross that puts me in a right relationship with God, and not the prayers of other people? How can someone elses prayers have anything to do with my spiritual condition, especially after death? This seems to go against everything I know about Christianity.
A. It is most certainly true that our salvation is a gift of God that was accomplished by Christs sacrifice on the Holy Cross. Our prayers in and of themselves do not save. But it is most appropriate to pray for others, living and dead, and to petition God on their behalf. St. John tells us, If any man see his brother sin a sin that is not unto death, he shall ask, and He shall give him life, for them that sin not unto death (I John 5:16). It is not the petitioners prayer that saves the sinner but Christs blood; yet we are told to pray for the sinner nonetheless, indicating that our prayers are effectual in some way in helping secure his salvation.
On the subject of prayers for the dead, allow me to quote a response to this question written by Fr. Stanley Harakas. I believe his explanation is much more precise than what I might say:The Orthodox Church, from biblical times, has offered prayers for the dead. They are offered on the basis of the fact that the Church is one, but found both on earth (the Church Militant) and in heaven (the Church Triumphant). Since as members of the Church we are obligated to pray for each other, there is no reason why we may not pray for the dead. However, it is another issue as to the actual consequences of our prayers for the dead. For you see, the Church also teaches that all which we do for salvation must be done in this life. According to Church teaching there is no movement from damnation to salvation in the life to come, nor is there continuation of spiritual development.
Then what effect can our prayers have for the dead? We have only the response that somehow they help by providing comfort and assistance. We do not know precisely the nature of that assistance, but we trust the mercy of God, that He will hear our prayer for our beloved dead. But this is not so unusual. Even as we pray for things in this life, we never know in advance just what kind of answers our prayers will receive. Our prayers do not produce predictably automatic results. It is the same with our prayers for the dead. Needless to say, our prayers for the dead also have an impact on us: they remind us of those who have gone on; we have the sense of fulfilling a responsibility toward them individually, we come into communion with the Church Triumphant; and, not insignificantly, we are reminded of our own eventual death and our responsibility to prepare for it and to be ready for it.
If you have access to a copy of Michael Pomazanskys Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Id encourage you to read his section of prayers for the dead for an even fuller understanding of the practice. In case you cannot find this book, I will quote a few salients parts of his discussion for your benefit below:In God all are alive. Church life is penetrated by a living awareness and feeling that our dead ones continue to live after death, only in a different form than on earth, and that they are not deprived of spiritual nearness to those who remain on earth.... ‘Neither death nor life ... shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38). The departed need only one kind of help from their brethren: prayer and petition for the remission of their sins. [Read I John 5:14-16.] Corresponding to this instruction of the Apostle, the Church prays for all its children who have died with true repentance. Praying for them as for those who are alive, the Church follows the words of the Apostle: ‘Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lords. For to this end Christ both died and rose, and revived, that He might be Lord both of the dead and the Living (Rom. 14:8-9). Those, however, who have died with unrepented sins, outside the communion of the Church, are not even vouchsafed our prayers, as follow from the above-mentioned words of the Apostle John....
Pomazansky goes on to cite examples of praying for the dead found in the Old Covenant (i.e., II Maccabees 12:38-46), then continues:That remission of sins for those who have sinned not unto death can be given both in the present life and after death is naturally to be concluded from the words of the Lord Himself: ‘Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come (Matt. 12:32).... In the Christian Church all the ancient liturgies, both East and West, testify to the Churchs remembrance of the dead.... And if our prayers are powerless to help them, in any case they are not harmful to us, according to the word of the Psalmist: ‘My prayer shall not return to my bosom (Psalm 34:16), and according to the word of the Savior: ‘Let your peace return to you (Matt. 10:13).
Q. Please explain why the Orthodox Church practices fasting. Doesnt that betray a view that material things are evil?
A. I thoroughly understand your question because I remember being taught, while growing up in a Fundamentalist church, that Catholics and others fasted and practiced asceticism because they believed matter to be evil. This idea harkens back to the ancient philosophy of Plato, which taught that material objects were but representations of spiritual realities. From that idea evolved the belief held by various pagan (and later some early Christian) sects that spirit is good and matter is evil. Orthodoxy does not hold to this heretical dichotomy. Indeed, because God created matter and deigned to take on a human body Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, matter is viewed as good — just as God pronounced it after the Creation (see Genesis 1, especially verse 31).
We do not fast because we believe food (matter) is evil, but instead as a means of spiritual discipline, to help control our passions and dedicate our bodies to God. We are not to be under the power of anything but God alone (cf. I Corinthians 6:12), not even food and drink. Both food and drink are necessary to our survival and are to be enjoyed with thanksgiving, but we are not to become enslaved by them or by anything else in life.
Fasting is not peculiar to Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Note in scripture the number of times various people fasted. Fasting was practiced from the time of Moses as a means of discipline and a humbling of oneself before God, proclaiming through visible means that one is subject to God and not a slave to physical comfort. Jesus commanded His disciples to fast (Matthew 6:16-18), and Christians have practiced this throughout all generations.
There are several reasons why we fast. The most important is, like Elijah, like our Lord Jesus, and like the Apostles, to prepare ourselves to encounter God. Just as we might bathe and dress ourselves more carefully as we are to enter the presence of a world-famous dignitary, we prepare ourselves spiritually for coming more closely into the presence of God, such as in the Eucharist.
We also fast to become ascetical. And herein lies the root of your question. There are those who are called ascetics who believe in the Platonic dichotomy we mentioned above: They abandon all physical pleasures and all matter beyond the absolute essentials to sustain life because they believe material things draw the soul down since they are evil. But this is not what the word really means. Ascetic comes from the Greek word askesis, which means to struggle. Against what are we struggling? Scripture calls it the flesh, but in scripture that is not equated with the flesh of our material existence but with the works of the flesh hatred, anger, jealousy, fornication, envy, and so forth, as St. Paul describes them in Galatians 5:19-21. These works of the flesh are actually things first conceived by the mind and then brought to fruition in the body. When the Church speaks of the flesh, it speaks of our fallen nature, the lower passions. Scripture and history both teach us that disciplining the body, especially through hunger, is an effective means of fighting against passions of the flesh — fighting essentially against the desire of personal gratification, which is the root of all sin (i.e., pride).
We also fast in order to remind ourselves of our dependence upon God for all things. Without Him we could not survive, yet in fasting we see not only how much we are dependent upon Him but also how little of this world we actually require. He sustains and enriches us.
We fast as a means of sharing in the Cross. Jesus said we are to take up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 10:38). Jesus set for us the perfect example of a life given wholly to God. And as Christ Himself fasted often and taught His disciples to fast, so do we.
Does fasting make us holier than those who choose not to fast? Does it help us score points with God? Absolutely not. Instead it helps us express sorrow for our many sins and constantly brings before us our own pitiable condition. And fasting alone accomplishes nothing spiritually. The Church reminds us constantly throughout the Great Fasts that fasting is to be accompanied by prayer and almsgiving, for otherwise it is nothing more than a mere diet that tends only to make one grumpy and out of sorts.
So I suppose, given all the evidence of scripture and the examples of Christ and the early disciples, the question really should be, Why is it that so many contemporary churches dont fast? A rather ironic thing I have noted is the prevalence today of churches sponsoring prayer breakfasts. In scripture we read that when the people of God were in special need or wished to present a truly heartfelt petition before Him, they engaged in prayer and fasting. Today many churches seem instead to associate prayer with eating. Not to condemn the idea of prayer breakfasts, but isnt that rather strikingly opposite of the example we see in the early Church?
Q. Im sorry, but I but I dont buy into any aspect of organized religion. Im just a simple Bible student who is into knowing God the Father through Christ the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Isnt that enough?
A. I am very happy that you believe the Bible (I do too) and that it has helped you learn about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. But remember that the Bible didnt come to us in a vacuum. Dont you think it might be interesting also to know about the Church that gave us the Bible and which is repeatedly described in scripture as the Bride and Body of Christ and as the pillar and ground of the truth? You speak of the Church (i.e., organized religion) as though it is a man-made institution. But I believe if you read your Bible carefully you will see that the Church was established by God and was given the Holy Spirit to guide it into all truth (see Acts 2). It would seem to me that by disavowing any relationship to the Church, you are really dissociating yourself from the Body of Christ.
Also consider the importance of community, which is expressed prominently throughout the New Testament. I would strongly urge you to read a short pamphlet by Fr. Andrew Damick titled Why Go to Church? published by Conciliar Press. Its very short (only 18 pages) but goes into a very effective explanation of what worship is and why it is important to experience it within a eucharistic community. You should be able to find a copy of this booklet at any Orthodox parish, but if you are unable to locate one please write to me and Ill be sure you get a copy.
Q. I have a hard time with you guys. When the Bible clearly says to Call no man father and also obviously teaches believer-only baptism, I have to wonder: Do Orthodox Christians even believe the Bible?
A. The crux of the question you bring up has to do with the different approaches Orthodox Christians and Fundamentalists adapt in understanding scripture. For a detailed explanation and discussion of this, please consult the essay Orthodoxy and the Bible.
As for a more detailed discussion on the question of infant vs. believer baptism, I would aks you to review the chapter Baptism (pp. 48-57) in the book (although the topic also is addressed briefly in the recommended essay).
Regarding the Call no man father question, I refer you specifically to the chapter The Priesthood in the book (pp.71-80). Suffice to point out here that I do find it ironic that many of the people who condemn Orthodox, Catholics, and Anglicans for using the term father are themselves Sunday School teachers; but if the passage you reference is so clear (Matthew 23:9), it says just as plainly in the next verse not to call another man teacher. I believe as the essay hopefully makes clear that in order to interpret this passage correctly one must first ask how the church has understood this passage from the beginning. Wouldnt their understanding be of significance, rather than simply adopting a position born of the Reformation movement that is 15 centuries removed?
Q. While visiting a local Orthodox Church, I heard a phrase repeated several times during the Liturgy: Most holy Theotokos, save us! Isnt it Christ who saves us? How does this fit in with the biblical view of salvation?
A. There certainly is no question in Orthodoxy regarding to whom we owe our salvation. Our spiritual salvation is through Jesus Christ alone. When we pray the above prayer, we are not asking for the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) to save our souls but rather to intercede for us and pray for our salvation through her Son. In fact, in some parishes the words of this prayer are actually Most holy Theotokos, intercede for us, and that indeed reflects more accurately in English what we are asking. We do not believe that Mary, or anyone other than Christ, can assure our salvation. But we may call upon her to act to protect us, to save us from danger, illness, or other tragedies through her intercession on our behalf; and we may ask for her to intercede for us that God will save us and keep us from harm. It is in that sense alone that we say, Most holy Theotokos, save us! (I also recommend that you read two excellent but brief discussions of this same topic at glory2godforallthings.com/2013/10/19/saving-mary and at blogs.ancientfaith.com/roadsfromemmaus/2015/01/29/can-virgin-mary-save-us.)
Q. In I Timothy 2:5 it states that there is but one mediator between God and man, and that is Jesus Christ. You even cite this passage in your book on page 132. Yet in some Orthodox prayers (i.e., the Theotokion post-communion prayers) Mary is referred to as Mediatrix (the feminine form of Mediator). How do you reconcile this?
A. While Orthodox Christians do ask the Theotokos to intercede with her Son for us, this is not understood to be in the sense of her being a co-redemptrix or co-mediatrix as is often assumed in Roman Catholic doctrine. It is customary for us to ask those closest to God to pray (intercede) for us on our behalf, and who would be closer than the very mother of our Lord? Since Mary is recognized in scripture as being full of grace and the Lord is with [her] (Luke 1:28), and as it states that all generations will call [her] blessed (Luke 1:48); and since we are all told to pray for one another and that the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects (James 5:16), why would we fail to ask the prayers of the holy Theotokos? The hymnography of the Church speaks often of Christ not rejecting the pleas of His mother, and she is known to have interceded specifically in the lives of many Saints.
But her intercessory position, while unique in its quality as our Lords mother, remains just that. While the term Mediatrix does appear in a few Orthodox prayers, hymns, and troparia, this should not be construed to mean she is considered equal to Christ or that she can, of herself, effect our salvation. Christ alone saves, though it was through Mary that God made our salvation possible by bearing God in her own body (hence the term Theotokos, which means God-bearer). As for the term Mediatrix encountered in some prayers, one must remember that liturgical language is sometimes very poetic in style, and as such it is not always fully precise from an absolute theological perspective. True, this bothers some people — even some Orthodox to the point that some parishes use the term Intercessor rather than Mediatrix in these prayers. But one should keep in mind that poetic license generally is accepted in all religious traditions. I well recall when the church in which I grew up, which used a fairly standard old Protestant hymnal, introduced a new hymnal that incorporated most of the old standards but made them more doctrinally correct. For instance, I remember that the Eliza Hewitt song When We All Get To Heaven was renamed When the Saved Get To Heaven, I suppose because the editor considered that the original title might promote the concept of universal salvation. A number of other changes was made throughout the hymnal, often to humorous effect, in order to try to make it more theologically precise. Perhaps that was a good thing, but it seemed a bit silly to most people. The point is that Christians generally understand when something is being stated literally and when something is poetic.
Whichever term is used (Intercessor or Mediatrix), Orthodox Christians understand the meaning to be that the Theotokos is our intercessor, praying to God on our behalf — a very special intercessor who is forever full of grace, but not serving as a co-redemptrix in our salvation.
Q. I dont understand your practice of honoring certain men and women as saints. In the New Testament, arent all Christians called saints?
A. It is indeed true that in both New and Old Testaments the faithful are referred to as saints. The words most often used are qadosh in Hebrew and hagios in Greek, both meaning set apart and holy. It certainly is true that all the faithful are called to be set apart for God and to be holy.
To encourage us in this endeavor, however, the Church in her wisdom has chosen to honor certain men and women to serve as examples to us as we engage in our own journey in this life. These are they whom we are to emulate, and the example of their courageous and holy lives gives us encouragement along our own path. Just as certain outstanding athletes or musicians are recognized in their fields as inspiration for others pursuing the same goals, the lives of the saints serve as models for us as Christians.
The Orthodox Church has never held that the saints are those and only those officially recognized and canonized as such. In fact, the Orthodox Church does not have as does the Roman Catholic Church an official process of recognizing certain persons as saints (except to maintain that all faithful Christians are saints, just as you point out). The special personages that you may think of as saints of the Church are recognized as such not by a special convention of clerics but through the whole Churchs recognition of their holy and exemplary lives. And as there is no official body established to canonize saints as there is in Roman Catholicism (a process which did not originate until the 10th century, by the way), there is no established list of those who are and who are not recognized as saints. Sometimes only a particular region or nation will recognize a person well-known to them as a saint; other saints are recognized universally. And they are recognized because of their exemplary lives, not because they were perfect. (Many saints led truly scandalous lives before committing themselves to Christ.) The saints serve as great examples to us because, like each of us, they had their own faults to overcome, their own weaknesses to subjugate to the will of God. Therefore we honor them, learn about their struggles, and endeavor to emulate their example in our own lives as we too are called to be saints.
Furthermore, we also venerate (but do not worship) these saints to honor their memory and to remind ourselves of our own spiritual potential. And as scripture itself reveals, the saints pray for us continually (Rev. 5:8; 6:9-10) and surround us every moment (Heb. 12:1), so we ask their intercession on our behalf. (See also chapter 11 of the book and the question Why do you pray to Mary? I thought the Bible said we are to pray only to God. on the Questions about Mary page.)
Q. I fear that [in converting from Protestantism to Orthodoxy] you have exchanged a wrought-iron cage for a gilded cage. Religion stinks in the nostrils of God. Jesus only had harsh words to use for the religious traditions of his day. Why would He change His mind? He came among simple people with a simple message: It was Good News that He had a plan, and He has the answer to our sin problem. It was all finished at the Cross of Christ.
A. Although your comment is not phrased in the form of a question, I feel the need to respond not in order to try and win an argument but simply to help you see the error of your cynicism and the joy and beauty of knowing Christs Church.
If by the word religion you mean false religion or religion devoid of true piety and love, then you are correct to say that it stinks in the nostrils of God. Your reference comes from the New Living Translation of Isaiah 1:13, where the Lord told the people of Israel that the incense they brought him is a stench in my nostrils. God was castigating the people for their false piety, not for their religious ceremonies as such (remember that it was God Himself who had given the Israelites precise instructions in the Torah on how they were to worship Him). It was that they were going through the motions of worship in a spiritless, heartless fashion. This was evident by their failure to show justice and mercy towards others. God instructed the people to wash themselves and become clean, to seek justice and help the oppressed. Had they but turned back to God, then their religious observances would have been acceptable, for they then would have been given from the heart.
For a fuller understanding, Isaiah 1:13 should be compared with Psalm 50:17-19, where the Psalmist says that a true worshipper must have a broken spirit and a contrite heart: Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, With burnt offering and whole burnt offering.... The people to whom Gods words were addressed in Isaiah were exhibiting only a false piety, and this the Lord despises. But when the people offer sacrifices with the proper heart, God fully accepts their worship.
It was a similar false piety that the Pharisees of Jesus day had exhibited to make a mockery of their religion, and it indeed was against such that our Lord spoke so strongly on many occasions. Yet He never spoke against religion per se, only against the false religion of those who honored God with their lips but whose hearts were far from Me (Mark 7:6, quoting Isaiah 29:13). Indeed, when we read Christs condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42, where he criticized them for tithing such small items as mint, anise, and cummin while ignoring justice, mercy, and faith, He did not follow that by saying These you ought to have done and ignored your so-called religious traditions, but instead said, These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone (emphasis added). The harsh words against the religious traditions of His day that you describe actually were harsh words against the false piety of the religious leaders. Christ never suggested abolishing religion or religious observances altogether (Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. Matthew 5:17. Note also that both our Lord Himself during His time on earth, as well as the apostles after the Ascension, continued to observe the religious traditions of their day hardly something they would have done had Jesus been as adamantly anti-religion as you suggest). Indeed, even when Jesus condemned the way many of the religious leaders were self-righteously flaunting their traditions, He did not condemn the traditions themselves but only the wrong attitude of those who were observing them. For instance, when he criticized the way some leaders were making a show of their broad phylacteries, He did not say they should abolish them, only that they shouldnt be making a show in order to be seen of men. Likewise, when He criticized the manner in which some prayed (as in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican), He did not condemn the act of prayer, even in public, but instead can be found giving instruction on how to pray meaningfully and appropriately.
But if by the word religion in your statement you mean church, as I gather from your overall context that you do, then I believe you are grossly mistaken. By stating that you see the difference between a Protestant church and the Orthodox Church as the difference between two different kinds of cages (by which I assume you imply that a church imprisons one in a reprehensible tradition that God abhors), you indicate to me a rather thorough misunderstanding of what the Church is. First of all, by stating that both are cages, it would appear that you see the Orthodox Church as simply another alternative to all the various Protestant churches that abound, only perhaps one with more glitter and sparkle (which I take you to mean by the use of the word gilded). But I want to impress upon you (without trying to sound at all presumptuous) that when making such a comparison we must not assume that were talking simply about another church but about the Church. Christ Himself said that He came to build His Church (Matthew 16:18), and when He ascended He left behind not a book but His Body, the Church, to which He promised His Spirit to guide Her into all truth and against which not even the gates of hell would prevail. It was the Church that gave us the New Testament, and in scripture the Church is variously described as a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, (I Peter 2:9); the house of God, the pillar and ground of the truth (I Timothy 3:15); and by extension She is the Bride of Christ, since Christ is the Bridegroom who gave Himself up for Her. How can the Bride of Christ be a stench in the nostrils of God?
To quote from Clark Carlton in his book The Way, Orthodox does not mean smells and bells it means right belief and right worship. The claim of the Orthodox church to be the Church does not rest upon the splendor of Her great cathedrals or the majesty of Her services, but upon the simple fact that She faithfully confesses the true God and worships Him in Spirit and in Truth.
The Church is the community of the faithful who worship God around His Table. Is it possible to do this in a manner like the Pharisees of old and render the worship as a stench in the nostrils of God? Certainly, if our hearts are not right. We must have a broken and contrite spirit and pursue justice and mercy. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.
The Church is where we meet God in the Sacraments, where we receive Christs very Body and Blood, where we come for healing and nurturing. It is where we join with other sinners to rejoice in the Cross of Christ and in His salvation ... not so much with the Protestant idea of salvation from the flames of hell, but the salvation of our selves from our fallen selves, where we are being restored to our intended place in a right relationship with our Creator. As St. Athanasius said, God became man so that we might become like God, meaning that we become by grace what God is by nature. We become children of God, and that within His holy family, the Church, which exists for all eternity and without end.
I find it terribly sad that you view the Church as a cage, as though it restricts you from becoming what you were intended to be spiritually although I suppose looking at it from a Protestant perspective one might see things in such a light. But in point of fact, the Church is where one is able to become what we were intended to be spiritually! It is where we are partakers of the Body of Christ, since the Church is in fact His Body. It is in His Church where we truly know God and the fulness of His Word. Again to quote Clark Carlton, Orthodoxy is not a set of propositions about God or even a well-planned theological system; it is an organic whole a seamless garment. Orthodoxy is in the fullest sense truth, the truth that sets man free! The beauty of the Church does not lie in its outward adornments or in its lofty Liturgy (though beauty is certainly to be found in both inasmuch as they reflect the beauty of the Churchs Founder, Christ Himself); the true beauty lies in the fact that the Church is the actual Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and is indwelt by His Holy Spirit, through whom we worship God the Father. The Church is where the true meaning of the Holy Trinity is found, just as Christ Himself prayed in John 17:21: That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.
Allow me to conclude with one more quote from Clark Carlton, for he expresses it as well as anyone Ive yet read: For the Orthodox ... Christianity is essentially a life to be lived, not a set of doctrines or moral precepts. It is not just any life, however. Christianity is life in Christ. This is understood not as an ethical imitation of Christ, but as an organic union with Him in His Body, the Church.
Q. There are so many things you Orthodox do that I do not find in scripture. Ive read the Bible all the way through, and Ive never read anything about your practice of baptizing infants, having icons, praying to dead people, establishing fasting rules (clearly made up), and dozens of other things you teach. How can you claim to be the true church when so much of what you believe is unscriptural?
A. Although you really are asking several questions in this one query, the crux of your concern has to do with your adherence to the doctrine of sola scriptura (the belief that all we need is the Bible and the Bible alone to address all religious matters and an extension of this doctrine holds that if something is not specifically mentioned in the Bible then it is de facto unscriptural). I discuss the idea of sola scriptura in several places in my book and also more directly in the essay Orthodoxy and the Bible, but I will endeavor to address your concerns very succinctly here. (I encourage you to read the other sources too, as well as other recommended readings on the subject, since this is a very important question.)
First, let it be stated most clearly that the Orthodox do believe in the Bible and believe that it is the holy and inspired Word of God. We hold it as the ultimate standard by which all religious tenets must be measured.
That being said, we must admit a difference with most Protestant churches in regards to the place of scripture. Those who adhere to the doctrine of sola scriptura tend to view the Bible as something that exists outside of, or at least over, the Church it is in some sense a book of law to which the Church must conform in every conceivable detail. Admittedly, different churches adhere to this concept to varying degrees some more, some less legal in their approach but in all cases the Bible becomes something that in a pragmatic sense exists on its own, external to the Church itself. The idea is that in order for the Bibles teachings to be applied, one first must interpret what it says.
And herein lies the rub. History has shown that when individual believers attempt their own individual interpretations of scripture we end in countless differences of opinion (witness the tremendous number of Christian denominations that exist, each claiming to be using the Bible alone a tragedy resulting from people wanting to interpret scripture and then establishing a church rather than interpreting scripture through the Church). In Orthodoxy scripture is viewed as being part of the Church, not something external to it; it is rightly interpreted through the eyes of the Church from whence it came not by each individual Christian separately.
This does not mean, however, that the Orthodox Church has read in to the Bible things that are contrary to the Word of God, as your statement seems to imply. One must remember, first, that Christ came to build His Church not to bring us a book to which He promised to give His Spirit that would guide her into all truth; and, second, that the Bible was never intended to be an exhaustive document detailing every conceivable aspect of Christian life and worship. If it were, it makes no sense that God would have allowed the Church to exist for 300 years without a canon of New Testament scripture. (As an aside, I find it interesting that many who hold most staunchly to the concept of sola scriptura renounce the idea of Ecumenical Councils yet freely accept the decree of the Council that confirmed the New Testament canon and at a time when they also maintain that the church was in a state of total apostasy.)
Many people insist that one must show book, chapter, and verse for everything they believe and practice religiously. I myself used to hold this idea as my standard for many years. Yet I found this to be quite untenable in the long run because the Bible was not given to us to be that kind of document. To start with, one cannot show book, chapter, and verse that proves the doctrine of sola scriptura to be valid. Quite the contrary, scripture states that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, and it tells us to hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle (in other words, we are taught to observe both scripture and tradition.)
Again, this is not to minimize the importance of scripture in the least, but it is to place it in its proper perspective within the Church. If anyone, regardless of standing in the Church, proposes a doctrine or belief that is contrary to what one finds in scripture, then it must be deemed heretical and false (this has happened many times over the centuries). But simply because something is not stated explicitly in scripture does not of itself make it unscriptural. One will read nothing in scripture about Sunday schools, vacation Bible schools, annual Gospel meetings, having a church building, sponsoring youth rallies, or dozens of other things most Protestant churches do, but that fact hardly makes these things unscriptural. (Although that point too may be argued by some, because there are religious groups that strongly oppose one or more of these things as being condemned simply because there is no direct, explicit authority for them in scripture a position of interpretation that has come about by separating the Bible from the ancient Church and its understanding of the holy writings).
Please take the time to investigate this matter further in some of the readings I recommend. This is a matter of vital importance to all who strive to live by the commandments of God, and a proper understanding of our various positions on this topic will go a long way to helping us understand one another as well.
As to some of the points you made specifically, again I will be brief since each is discussed in more detail in my book and elsewhere:
To the point of infant baptism (and icons also, for that matter), note that these practices have existed historically in the Church since the very beginning. Try as one might, it is not possible to find a later date at which either practice was introduced as something new. Evidence of the newborn children of believers being baptized extends back to the very earliest days of the church, well within the lifetime of some of the apostles; and history also reveals icons in existence even in the catacombs of the first centuries. It is likely that there is no explicit mention made of either in the New Testament documents because these already were practices that were very familiar to the Church from the outset (and remember that there was no collected New Testament for roughly the first 300 years of the Church). While this extremely brief explanation really is not sufficient to make a strong case, I definitely encourage you to read further on these matters. I believe you will find that neither practice in any way contradicts scripture. (Remember, just because something i.e., Sunday school is not mentioned in scripture does not automatically make it unscriptural or anathema.)
Praying to dead people, as you describe it, is really nothing more than asking those who have departed this life to pray for us. We find from Church doctrine (and from scripture itself) that the dead are not truly dead but are alive in Christ. When Christ came He conquered death and broke down the barrier between living and dead. As Christ Himself said, God is not God of the dead but of the living. We are shown that those who have departed this life are very much alive and aware in the next (consider Jesus discussion with Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor) and pray for those on earth (see Revelation 6:9-10). More specificity was not necessary in the New Testament documents because these doctrines already were a part of the Churchs Holy Tradition before they were written.
And finally, fasting: I assume you are among those who maintain that because there is no direct command to fast mentioned in the New Testament that it is not something of much importance and need not be observed. I will not here delve into the many reasons why fasting is extremely important to our spiritual well-being, but I would like to point out that when Jesus discussed fasting He did not say If you fast but When you fast (see Matthew 6:16). And need I mention the numerous examples we have of Christ, His apostles, and the early church fasting in the New Testament? To conclude that fasting is of little importance seems to fly in the face of all the evidence of scripture itself.
But to your point that the fasting rules are made up, there is some truth to that. Fasting is a spiritual exercise that requires physical discipline. Although it appears (to me, anyway) that fasting is enjoined on all Christians, the specific rules for fasting are not prescribed in scripture. There are many different types of fasts: a total fast from all food (and sometimes even water), a fast from certain kinds of food and drink, etc. The precise fasting rule we set up for each fast is something that must be decided apart from scriptural guidelines (since none are recorded). The Church in her wisdom has established guidelines for us as we approach the different fasting periods. So, yes, the fasting rules are made up as you say, but they are not arbitrary or meaningless. Neither are they legalistic and forced upon everyone. All are encouraged to observe the fasts as best they can because the spiritual exercise is good for us; but no one is commanded to do so. And even those who observe the fasts are not under compunction to approach the guidelines legalistically or do anything that may harm them physically adjustments may be made to the fasting rules depending on the physical needs of each. So although the fasting rules are not mentioned specifically in scripture, they are made up for precisely that reason but again, they are not simply arbitrary rules, nor are they imposed as a yoke upon all believers as were some of the ancient Jewish observances invented by the Pharisees. Fasting alone is meaningless it only makes one hungry and grumpy. Fasting always should be accompanied by prayer and almsgiving, a drawing closer to God and a loosening of the stranglehold that our material world can have on us.
I am fully aware that these responses are very brief and inadequate to answer all your questions adequately, but I hope that you will be moved to look into these matters further. How we understand the place of scripture and how we interpret its message to us is critical to our spiritual understanding and development.
Q. Do I not detect a rather major inconsistency in your writings? On the one hand you advocate infant baptism, even though the infant does not know what is being done for him; and on the other you explain that the importance of catechism classes prior to a converts baptism is necessary in order that he understand what hes doing.
A. It is astute of you to make this observation, but in reality there is no inconsistency since we are talking here about two different types of baptismal candidates. In the first case we are dealing with the child of two believing Christian parents. Just as a child born to Jewish parents under the Mosaic era enjoyed a covenant relationship from infancy, so too the child of Christian parents is admitted to covenant relationship in the church as well. There simply is no indication in Scripture or in history that children born to believing parents ever were denied admittance to the church until a later age. As with the child of Jewish parents, it was understood that children would be a part of the faith community and would be nurtured in that faith by their parents and by the community of the faithful so that they would grow in their relationship with God from their earliest days.
In the latter case we are dealing with an adult convert. This is not someone who has been nurtured in the faith from infancy but rather is someone who is converting to the faith — someone who has decided on his own volition to embrace the Christian life. And if one is converting to something it also means that he is converting from something else. An adult who is not a Christian is something other. Whether he is converting from another religion, from another faith, or from no faith at all, he is changing from his former life to a life in Christ. In order to do this he must have a basic understanding of what that new life is to be and to what he is committing his future walk.
Let us draw an earthly comparison. A child born in France to two French parents is French from infancy. He is not denied citizenship until he has reached an age at which he can pass an examination, but it is understood that he will learn from his parents and from his community what is means to be French. But a person who is not French but who has instead grown up in another country yet desires to become French must first learn the basics of what it means to be French before becoming a citizen of his new country. In much the same way, a person who has grown up outside the church is actually a citizen of another country, so to speak. When he desires to become a citizen of the new country (the Church, the Kingdom of God) it is important that he know what this citizenship entails. He hasnt the advantage of having been nurtured and rooted in the faith from the beginning but must come to a comprehension of what citizenship in the kingdom of God really means.
Why would children not have to do the same? Actually in a very real sense they do, though not before enjoying the beneficences of citizenship. Children born to believing parents are expected to grow (just as we all are) and to come to an understanding of what their Christian faith is all about and what it means to be a follower of Christ. But it is not necessary for them first to become an alien, a citizen of another country, before they may be fully Christs.
The practice of receiving the children of believing parents into the church through Holy Baptism has been a part of the church since the very beginning. It is not possible to point to a period in time when infant baptism was first introduced into the church. Had it been a departure from accepted practice, there is no doubt that it would have stirred up major controversy along the way; instead we see it practiced universally from the earliest days of the church. We can, however, point to a time when infant baptism was rejected. That occurred in western Europe in the 16th century, and adult-only baptism was instituted then not because it was deemed more scriptural but instead because it was a political statement against the authority of the Roman Catholic church.
Just as Jewish children were expected to grow and mature in their faith to the point that they could be circumcised not only in the flesh (as males were in infancy) but also in the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16), so Christian children likewise are expected to grow in Christ and become fully mature by His grace. But in neither case are we led to believe that the benefits of being in covenant relationship with God are to be denied to them until they reach a proper age of understanding. That, to me, is the real inconsistency, holding to a belief that children of Christian parents must first become lost before they can be saved.
Q. Why do all your priests wear beards?
A. Actually, all do not wear beards, though admittedly a majority of Orthodox priests do. This is a part of our ancient tradition (Orthodox piety begins in following Holy Tradition), and in this case it goes back to pre-Christian Judaism in which priests were forbidden to cut their hair or trim their beards. No such proscription exists today contrary to what many people think, there is no canon law that requires Orthodox priests to wear beards but the custom of long hair and beards has been one of long standing within the Church. It is not compulsory, but it is normative. There are some, principally among the Old Believers, who actually believe it is wrong for a man, whether clergy or laity, to shave his beard as it is viewed as unnatural and vain. But within Orthodoxy as a whole there is no such prohibition against shaving, though clergy in particular often observe the older custom of allowing their beards to grow. Among those with beards some will trim their beards, others will leave them untrimmed. To me the question really should not be Why do Orthodox priests wear beards? but instead should be Why do Protestant ministers shave? Clean-shavenness and cropped hair are much more modern customs and, in the early days of the Church, were viewed as fashions among the pagans. As time went on these fashions became accepted and even adopted by the Western Church (following the fashions of Rome), but beards and longer hair remained the norm in the East (following the Jewish custom).
Q. I can understand that perhaps fasting can be a good thing on special occasions. For example, I know of some elders who, when about to appoint new deacons or make other major decisions, will fast the morning of their decision and pray about it earnestly. But I dont understand your scheduled fasts, like every Wednesday and Friday, and especially why you would fast only from certain foods and not all. That seems rather artificial to me. Could you explain this?
A. First I would like to commend you for recognizing that fasting can play an important role when endeavoring to make serious spiritual decisions. Sad to say, many people today view fasting as something that was only for the Jews, considering it of minimal importance for Christians, some even going so far as to say it shouldnt be done at all because it is viewed as a work. But both Scripture and history reveal that fasting was practiced extensively by the early Christians. The practice didnt fall into serious neglect until the time of the Protestant Reformation.
Why so many modern-day Christians ignore the practice of fasting is both curious and troubling. When we look at Scripture we find that there is more said in the New Testament about fasting than about repentance, confession, baptism, or the Lords Supper! Why would Jesus and the authors of the New Testament have said so much about something that was unimportant to a Christians life?
Fasting was regularly practiced by the Jews throughout their history, and it was engaged in on a number of occasions numerous references could be cited both on special occasions (that could be for entirely private reasons or for reasons affecting the entire nation or world) and on specified dates. The latter periods of fasting were established as means of remembrance which is one of the primary purposes of ritual. In addition to the annual ceremonial fasts, the Jews of Jesus day also traditionally fasted every Monday and Thursday. Nearly all Jewish fasts were short-term (typically for only a day) and were observed from sunup to sundown; traditionally these fasts were total and involved abstention from all food and drink except for water; and after sundown the fasts were ended and nourishment could be taken. This is the type of fasting many people think about when the term is used.
But we also know that the Jews practiced partial fasts as well, such as we find referenced in Daniel 10:2-3 (In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.). It would seem that except in the rare exceptions when Divine assistance must have been given (as in the examples of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus who each are recorded to have fasted for 40 days and nights) longer fasts were not total but partial: abstaining from pleasant food, meat, and wine. Other sources of nutrients would be required to endure the longer fasting periods. (After all, the purpose of any fast is not to do harm to the body but to help discipline ourselves in order to draw closer to God.)
So although we acknowledge that fasting was indeed practiced among the Jews from the time of Moses on, it was not simply a Jewish custom. The early Christians continued the practice of fasting on numerous occasions. Often these were for specific purposes (as you describe in your question), but we also know that the early church continued the practice of fasting twice a week, though changing the days from Monday and Thursday to Wednesday (the day on which Christ was betrayed) and Friday (the day He was crucified).
As for why only certain foods are abstained from and not all food in toto, I think that should be obvious for the longer fasting periods (such as Lent): We are never to make ourselves sick by fasting, so adequate nutrition is to be maintained in order that we not grow faint or ill. The church has given us guidelines for these and all fasts, basing most fasting rules on the example shown by Daniel that when observing only a partial fast we abstain from pleasant foods, meat, and wine. In other words, we eat enough to sustain us nutritionally, but we deny ourselves food for pleasure. This helps explain why fish is not allowed during Lent but shellfish are: When the fasting rules were written, shellfish were considered bottom feeders and were not pleasant foods ... they were foods that people would not normally want to eat, so they were not viewed as food for pleasure but for necessity. So there is much thought behind all of the Churchs fasting rules. And though they are called fasting rules they are not rules in the sense of being binding laws that are inflexible. We are strongly encouraged to fast and to observe the various fasting rules to the best of our abilities (this for our own good), but these guidelines often have to be modified for various health, financial, or other reasons preferably under the guidance of a spiritual father.
The bottom line is that the fasts we observe are intended to help us discipline our bodies so that they do not become enslaved by food; so that we may devote more time to prayer and alsmgiving; and so that we may learn obedience in love, drawing closer to our Lord in the process.
Q. What exactly is holy water? What is its significance? I dont read anything about it in the Bible.
A. Holy water is water that has been blessed by a priest and is used for various sacred rites such as baptism and the blessing of persons or objects (like homes and icons). Most Orthodox believers also keep Holy Water in their homes throughout the year and typically will drink small amounts at various times (some do this daily) or even add some to their food.
Traditionally, water is blessed in Orthodox parishes throughout the world during Epiphany, the day on which we celebrate Jesus baptism in the Jordan River. And although you will not read the words holy water in the New Testament (it is mentioned in Numbers 5:17), its meaning and significance are very much present there in the Incarnation.
When Jesus went to St. John the Forerunner to be baptized, it wasnt for the purpose of signifying repentance, since Jesus had no sins to repent of. Rather, because He was God in the flesh, when He stepped into the water He reclaimed the water (matter) as His own and began the transformation of the world back into its rightful relationship with its Creator. As the God-Man, by touching the water He made the physical spiritual as well, doing away with the dichotomy of spirit vs. matter. All of creation has now regained its spiritual aspect which is why we Orthodox worship with all five of our senses seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching because even the physical, in its right relationship with God, is holy. By blessing the water, the priest signifies that it too is holy, and holy in the sense of being set apart for Gods use, bearing Gods presence within it, and this made possible by the Incarnation.
If that seems a bit of a stretch, consider how often God uses material things to communicate and interact with man. There are so many references in Scripture to fire, water, bread, Jesus healing the blind man with mud, the woman healed by touching the hem of Christs garment, the sick receiving cures from handkerchiefs touched by St. Paul, etc., that it is abundantly clear that God does will to be present in material things. Water that is set apart by being blessed for Gods use can indeed communicate to us (testify, if you prefer that word) the reality of the Incarnation.
Holy water is not magical, as some non-Orthodox seem to believe we think of it, but is that which has been sanctified through a blessing to be further testimony of the Incarnation of Christ God become man, redeeming all of Creation in His name.
An excellent (and short) homily on the subject of Holy Water in the Orthodox Church may be found online here.
Q. I dont understand the Orthodox fascination with icons. Sure, theyre beautiful, but dont they border on being idolatrous? And when I go into an Orthodox church there are so many icons of people who arent even in the Bible. This strikes me as odd, if not downright wrong. Why are all these non-biblical people represented in your church?
A. There actually are several questions here, so allow me to try and address point by point all of the concerns you have mentioned.
The first point you bring up seems to bear more on the question of why we use icons at all (though it appears that you dont have a strong objection to them on principle). There are, of course, a number of reasons why the church has historically used icons you can read a fuller explanation of this in the chapter on icons in my book (beginning on page 81), or in the short tract titled No Graven Image by Jack Sparks, or the longer treatise On the Holy Icons by St. Theodore the Studite among them being the fact that they represent the pictorial Gospel (remember that throughout most of early church history the majority of people couldnt read) and are windows to heaven that remind us not only of events found in Scripture but also of the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us at all times. The icons aid us in our worship to God, being visual reminders of the Incarnation and how that God came to live among us, redeeming the world from corruption.
I am heartened by the fact that you see beauty in the holy icons, because that too is part of their purpose to help impart beauty in our worship to God and to reflect the beauty of Gods creation. Recently Fr. Josiah Trent made some excellent points about how beauty is important to God. He mentioned the fact that the very first person in the Bible who was said to be filled with the Holy Spirit (in Exodus 31) was Bezalel, an artisan who was charged with making the sacred hangings and vessels for the Tabernacle. God sent His Holy Spirit to effect beauty, and as Fr. Josiah put it, The church is a beacon of lifes beauty. Christian churches historically have always been structures of great beauty that reflect the beauty both of God and of His creation. They are designed to point the people to a vision beyond the earth and to think about and yearn for the beauties of heaven.
So many Protestant churches I have visited are noteworthy for their bare walls and near total absence of religious symbolism ... some do not even have crosses. Not only does such an atmosphere seem to place us away from God and the saints who have gone before us, but it bespeaks the age-old heresy of dualism, a gnostic idea that there is a stark contrast between spirit and matter / good and evil, and that when we worship God we worship Him in spirit alone, detached from the evil material world in which we live. This belief denies the goodness and beauty of Gods creation and denies that God made man as an integrated whole, consisting of both body and spirit. Rather than drawing our attention to the ultimate reunification and redemption of spirit and matter, such barrenness emphasizes the desire to separate from the material world entirely and focus exclusively on the unseen spiritual, as though Christ no longer has a physical body but somehow discarded it after His Ascension.
The icons remind us that Christ became Incarnate in human form to redeem and sanctify all of creation including matter and to restore it to its rightful place.
Regarding the question of whether icons are idolatrous, I encourage you to read the above-referenced sources for more detailed discussion on this. But the short answer is No, they are not idolatrous because they are not idols. Orthodox Christians do not worship icons (that would indeed make them into idols). But we do venerate them in the knowledge that the veneration and respect paid to the icon (a material representation) passes on to the one whose image the icon bears. (If the Muslim prohibition against all artistic representations was what God intended when he forbade the making of graven images in Exodus 21, then it is incongruous that He would have contradicted himself just a few short chapters later by directing that images of not only earthly things i.e., flowers and pomegranates but heavenly as well i.e., cherubim be made to adorn the Tabernacle.) And since God came to us in material form in the Incarnation, He now is able to be represented by matter, having redeemed and restored matter to its rightful place. Orthodoxy does not hold to the gnostic idea of dualism that some Protestant faiths seem to embrace.
And finally, you ask why we have so many icons of people who arent even in the Bible. We have icons of many of our faith heroes in order to remember them and to take strength and courage from their holy examples. These non-biblical people, as you call them, are examples to us in our own struggles as we walk the Christian path. We honor their memories and look to them as having exhibited lives that we wish to emulate. And they are non-biblical only in the sense that their names are not recorded in the Bible ... because most of them lived after the Bible came to be written. But they are our examples precisely because they, like St. Paul, fought the good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith that we read about in Scripture. And just as St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians that we are to be imitators of him as he was of Christ, we strive to imitate all who followed Christ to the end. We do not endeavor to imitate St. Paul or any other saint to their own glory, but because they point us to Christ. Paul desired to be imitated only insofar as he successfully imitated Christ; and so it is with all the holy saints: They point us to Christ, the One who redeemed us all from our fallen natures. So it is only fitting that we see ourselves surrounded by these holy warriors and, through these windows to heaven we are able to be made aware of the fact that as we worship God here on earth, this great cloud of witnesses worships with us in heaven.
Q. I have read about the Orthodox practice of saying the so-called “Jesus prayer” repeatedly, sometimes even hundreds or thousands of times in a day. Isn’t this a violation of Matthew 6:7, where Jesus tells His disciples not to pray “vain repetitions”?
A. The prayer to which you refer (often called the Jesus Prayer) is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And it is true that many Orthodox pray this prayer repeatedly on many occasions. But does repeating this prayer — even hundreds or thousands of times — transgress Christ’s command not to pray “vain repetitions”?
The verse you cite reads: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” (KJV) The Greek word translated here as “vain repetitions” is battalageste, which means to babble, to heap up empty phrases, or to repeat the same things mindlessly. Christ is not here speaking against the action of repeating words themselves, but instead is speaking against the pagan practice of repeating mindless babblings for the purpose of getting the attention of the gods, who otherwise may simply ignore mere mortals. To the pagan mind, saying the wrong word or phrase could bring a curse rather than a blessing, because the pagan gods were capricious and fickle. Jesus is telling us that our God is not like that; it isn’t necessary to prattle away mindlessly just to try and draw His attention to our prayers. The difference here is not so much in repetition per se but in what is being repeated and for what purpose.
In the verses immediately following the one you reference, Jesus Himself gives His disciples a prayer to recite, which most Christians of all faiths do quite often to this day, word for word. (This is what is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” found in Matthew 6:9-13.) He also gives us the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8 as an illustration of the importance of being persistent in prayer. And, of course, we have St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” in I Thessalonians 5:17.
All of that is not to mention the fact that we have examples of prayerful repetition in Scripture, one of the most notable being that of the Lord Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-39) where we are told He prayed three times “with the same words.” An example of repetitive prayer is also found in Psalm 136 (a psalm that both Jews and Christians pave prayed for centuries) in which the phrase “for His steadfast love endures forever” occurs no less than 26 times in as many verses! St. Paul also reveals that he besought the Lord three times to release him from his “thorn in the flesh” (II Corinthians 12:8).
And finally let us consider the prayer of the angels St. John records in Revelation 4:8 who “day and night … never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty.’” Not only is this indicative of repetitive prayer, but we find also the angels offering the same prayer 800 years earlier as recorded in Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts.” It would seem that this prayer is never-ending and is offered ceaselessly before the throne of God throughout eternity — not for the purpose to gaining God’s ear but simply to reflect His infinite holiness. Are these examples of “vain repetition”?
“Vain repetition” implies empty phrases, words without meaning, either because they are gibberish (non-words) or because they are uttered without real thought or intent of the heart. In that sense any prayer could become a “vain repetition” if the person praying it is merely going through the motions, perhaps simply stringing together phrases commonly heard in prayers offered within one’s own tradition.
Prayer — whether spontaneous or repetitive — must be from the heart and should reflect the attitude of the one offering it. The parable Jesus gives us in Luke 18:9-14 of the Pharisee and the tax collector illustrates this beautifully. From appearances, the Pharisee was speaking spontaneously, while the tax collector, beating his breast as he said what later became the very simple Jesus prayer, was most likely repeating this short phrase over and over: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Yet it was the tax collector who was justified, for he prayed from the heart.
Repeating the Jesus prayer, or other repetitive prayers, is not done for the purpose that the pagans used to prattle on in their prayers — it is not done in order to attempt to get God’s attention or to tickle His ear or to indulge His pride. The repetition is for own sake, drawing us closer — moment by moment, phrase by phrase — to our Creator. As one writer has put it, “We do not say it [the Jesus Prayer] many times to gain God’s ear; we drop these words upon the heart a thousand times, ten-thousand, for a whole lifetime, so that they may etch away at our hard hearts and soften them so that we might, if even just once, receive the Lord rather than resist him.”
You may also want to read a very short response to a similar question about “vain repetition” that was penned recently by Frederica Mathewes-Green. That article can be found here.
Q. I have questions about how the Orthodox observe Communion (what you call the Eucharist). For one, you use leavened rather than unleavened bread which Christ used at the Last Supper. And then the priest distributes the elements with a spoon, very unlike what is described in the New Testament. This all seems very strange (and unbiblical) to me.
A. First, Holy Communion has been referred to as the “Eucharist” since at least the late first century. The word is from the Greek eucharistía which means literally “giving thanks,” and St. Paul uses a form of the word when discussing the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 11:24.
As for whether one should use leavened or unleavened bread in the Eucharist, many Protestants are surprised to learn that the Church in both the East and the West used leavened bread for this celebration until the 8th century when the Latins began using only unleavened bread. Most Protestant faiths have followed the Latin practice, principally because they believe that Christ used unleavened bread at the Last Supper.
The Eastern Church has never been particularly concerned with using the exact type of bread that may have been used at the Last Supper — partly because it is not clear exactly what type of bread was used (there is considerable evidence, supported by St. John’s Gospel account, that the Supper at which Christ instituted the Eucharist was not the actual Jewish Seder but preceded it by at least a day — otherwise Christ would not have died on the Day of Preparation but on Passover itself). The Church sees the association with leaven as how Christ “leavens” our lives. As one writer has put it, “The Eastern tradition likens yeast in bread to the soul in the body. The soul gives life, and therefore the ‘living bread’ of the Eucharist must have yeast.”
Many Protestant churches (especially the more Fundamentalist ones) condemn the use of leavened bread as a departure from the unleavened bread they believe was used at the Last Supper. Yet it is curious that most of these same churches find no problem substituting the wine that also was used at the Last Supper with unfermented grape juice. Why is it important to copy one of the elements exactly and not the other? If one is determined to copy each constituent of the Last Supper exactly, viewing its institution in exceptionally legalistic terms, one also would have to use only a single chalice (or cup) and have the one loaf of bread broken and distributed from hand to hand. Few churches take things this literally.
Which is also why the Eastern Church finds no inconsistency in distributing the elements via a spoon. In the Orthodox tradition, the priest breaks the bread into the chalice, and both bread and wine are given to each faithful by way of a spoon. Because we view the bread and wine with such reverence (believing in the real presence of Christ), we take great care that no crumb of bread or drop of wine should be carelessly dropped on the floor. When the elements are distributed into the hand, this sometimes happens. To avoid that, the Church in her wisdom decided to convey the bread and wine more carefully via a spoon directly into the mouth of each communicant. Fr. John Whiteford has observed that it actually would be a step backward to endeavor to return to the more ancient practice of distributing the gifts by hand. He writes, “We can look at what has happened in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II when they began to allow laity to receive Communion in the hand. The result was not an increase of piety, but just the opposite. I know of a pious Roman Catholic,” he writes, “who says more cockroaches receive first Communion each week than people, because particles so routinely drop to the floor.”
Holy Eucharist is not something we Orthodox take very lightly. After all, it is so serious that St. Paul warned us the we can eat and drink damnation to ourselves if we do not properly discern Christ's body (I Corinthians 11:29).
Q. I once asked an Orthodox man if he was saved, and he gave me some kind of wishy-washy response that led me to think he has no assurance of his salvation. Is this typical of Orthodoxy? The Bible tells me that I KNOW I am saved, and I can’t imagine being in a church where I couldn’t have this confidence.
A. I suspect that the answer you heard may have gone something like this: “I was saved at the Cross of Calvary; I am being saved as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling; and I will be saved by God’s grace on the Day of Judgment.” Or perhaps the individual said “I hope to be saved by God’s grace on the Day of Judgment.” If you yourself are coming from a particular Fundamentalist Protestant background, I could understand why you would be inclined to think his answer was “wishy-washy.” There is a belief among some that salvation occurs at a specific point in time in response to the believer’s action (whether accepting Christ into one's heart, being baptized, praying the “Sinner’s Prayer,” or through some other event) and that it is entirely irrevocable — the common phrase to describe it being “Once saved, always saved.”
Orthodoxy does not adhere to this doctrine of irrevocable salvation. How could we, when even St. Paul himself could say, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself be disqualified” (I Corinthians 9:27)? Orthodoxy sees salvation as something that can indeed be lost, not only by outright rejection on the believer's part but also by negligence.
But a part of the difficulty with your question also lies in our respective understanding of what salvation actually is. Sadly, in much Western thought, salvation (or sozon in the Greek) has been reduced to nothing more than “getting out of hell.” To many in the West, salvation means that I won’t go to hell when I die.
Well, that is a part of it. But salvation is much more than that. The Greek sozon is used in Greece to describe someone who has passed their ship safely through the waters of a terrible storm; someone who has successfully navigated through deadly trials and has arrived safely at harbor. As man’s goal is to rest ultimately with God who created him, this is a beautiful expression, for we don’t simply mean that the ship has escaped the deadly deep but that it has arrived at its intended destination.
Augustine of Hippo said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” And this shows us more completely the Orthodox view of salvation. We desire what is called theosis, or being restored to a proper relationship with our Creator as was intended from the time of Creation itself. We desire to be with God and to be like Him — not becoming gods ourselves, but being restored to His divine Image and once more in full and eternal communion with Him. This is not something that happens immediately or all at once; it is a daily calling and one which we strive for moment by moment. We are united with Christ in baptism, but this new relationship does not make us automata, unable ever to reject that gift He has given us; we are free to continue on our journey with Him and to Him, and we are free to reject Him and turn away. We will fall many times along the way, even while striving to our utmost, but we trust His grace to be with us and uphold us to the end so that we may indeed be united with Him in eternity. Of His love and grace we are sure; of our own faithfulness to Him we are cautious, ever mindful that we could sever our relationship — not because He is looking for fault in us or an excuse to abandon us, but because our own pride easily could lead us away from following Him, despite all that He has done for us.
So the Orthodox answer to your question is indeed, “I was saved when God became man and was crucified for me on Calvary and conquered death by death; I am being saved as I daily make the conscious decision to follow Christ and partake of the divine mysteries in His holy Church; and by God’s grace and mercy I will be saved at the Final Judgment."
Q. What is the point of prayer books? I was taught that prayer should always be from the heart. Reading written prayers seems very dry and formal.
A. I think no one would question your belief that prayer should come from the heart. When we address God — whether in praise, supplication, thanksgiving, or simply out of love — our words indeed should emanate from the heart.
But does praying “from the heart” also necessarily mean praying extemporaneously? Certainly God hears our prayers that are “off the cuff,” so to speak, and beyond doubt He welcomes the words of our heart when they arise spontaneously from within us. But is that the only way we should pray to Him?
From time immemorial righteous prayers have been written down for the benefit of the entire prayer community and also for individual aid and instruction in the art of prayer. The Psalms have served as a “prayer book” for God’s people in both Jewish and Christian worship for centuries down to the present day. They are examples of some of the most beautiful and heartfelt prayers uttered by man throughout the ages, and they are read and prayed in both corporate worship and private devotionals.
There are numerous other prayers that can be found throughout Scripture (some scholars count as many as 650), and our Lord Himself also gave us a prayer to use in our daily lives, a prayer that is written in the Gospels in two slightly different versions (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4).
Following these examples, there have been countless saints throughout history who have penned innumerable other beautiful and meaningful prayers for every occasion, and we avail ourselves often to the works of these “prayer warriors” (to use a popular contemporary term). They are prayers of holy men and women who had the experience of prayer and who could express the intents of the heart far better than most of us are able to on our own.
I hear often the idea that saying a written prayer means it isn’t coming from one’s heart. The accusation is that recitation of written prayers means they become mere rote. Admittedly, this is always a possibility. But it is also possible for “spontaneous”' prayers to become mere rote, especially for those who engage regularly in daily prayer. How many of our “spontaneous” prayers follow the exact same pattern time after time, often using the exact same words and phrases? Does this mean that they are not from the heart? It would be possible, even in such a case, to repeat them as mere lines that have been memorized, but it also is possible to say them with every ounce of meaning we had intended from the beginning. Whether a prayer is written down or spontaneous, our attention always should be on the words we utter.
Written prayers also are extremely important for communal worship. Many find it quite difficult to pray with meaning when they merely listen to someone else lead a prayer exstemporaneously. Without knowing what the leader is going to say, the listener must first hear and then process what the person leading the prayer is saying before he can make the words his own. This is also one reason why nearly all churches use hymnals rather than having everyone sing extemporaneously. Is the spontaneous prayer saying what I might wish to say? Is it theologically correct? Does it truly reflect my own heart?
What lover has not at some point read poetry to his beloved? Often we feel a depth of love for another that we simply cannot find words to express, and so we borrow words from poets who are more adept at expressing such deep emotions. One certainly could read a love poem in a very dry and formal manner so that it does not express the feelings within one’s heart, just as one also could read a written prayer without its having any meaning or import. But conversely, one could read the poem or the prayer and allow it to bring forth in words what could not be expressed adequately on one’s own.
But it should be remembered that prayer books are an aid for us as we approach God; they are not books of magical formulae or incantations. I would strongly advise you to sit down and examine some of the prayer books available today to see how that these written prayers, composed by countless holy men and women throughout the ages, can better express our thoughts and our needs in every way, often far better than we ourselves can do. Any Orthodox parish should have prayer books available either to buy or borrow, and you also can find several online by searching “Orthodox prayer book.”
Q. I am proud to call myself a Pagan because I have serious issues with Christianity. Here are some quotes that I’ve seen recently that I’d like your reaction to as they seem to prove your beliefs inferior.
“Prior to the creation of Christianity, women were considered man’s equal. Pagans still believe this is true.”
“If you take the Christian bible and put it out in the wind and rain, soon the paper on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone. Our bible is the wind and rain.”
And even your own Jimmy Carter had this to say about the Christian view of homosexuality: “Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born, and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things — he never said that gay people should be condemned.”
A. Although this really isn’t a question, I will endeavor to respond to each of your three quotes in the order you’ve presented them.
Regarding your first statement, I believe history will prove it categorically untrue. In nearly all the ancient pagan cultures I am aware of, there was a strong distinction made between the sexes. In some cultures, there were indeed certain women (specifically priestesses or conjurers) who were held in particular honor — even deemed above men — but the average female nevertheless tended to be viewed as little more than chattel. This was perhaps less so among some Northern European cultures where strong women could be held in honor, sometimes even being seen as equal to a man, but nevertheless the culture as a whole viewed males as stronger and more highly regarded. I am unaware of any ancient pagan culture that held to equality of the sexes in the sense that you seem to imply. Certainly the pagan cultures prevalent at the time of Christ did not hold such a view, and it was in fact Christianity that raised women to their rightful place of honor in the schema of creation. In Christ, says St. Paul, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:38). Christ Himself broke down the wall of separation that aeons of misunderstanding had built between the sexes (and also between races and nationalities), most notably when He spoke with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Though many of today’s self-professed pagans do believe in the equality of the sexes, it hardly has been the predominant view of pagan societies throughout history.
Your second quote makes the mistake of equating the Word of God with a physical book. God’s Word (the logos) is everlasting, existing eternally as part of God Himself (cf. John 1:1-4). It is not restricted to the printed words on a page — that is merely one of the ways the logos has been communicated to mankind. Simply exposing a printed Bible to the elements will no more destroy the Word of God than burning a photograph of someone will cause them to cease to exist. In Christian thought, the wind and the rain were created by the Word, and to view them as equal to or greater than the Word would constitute a reversal of the created order. (Christian scripture warns us of this in Romans 1:25.)
And lastly, you quote Jimmy Carter, the former president of the United States. You describe him as being “your own,” and while Mr. Carter does profess Christianity, he is not Orthodox and consequently does not speak for the views of the Orthodox Church. Nor is he a theologian. By making the claim that “Jesus never said a word about homosexuality,” and from that deducing that there should be total acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, he is engaging in a fallacious and dangerous ratiocination. Jesus also never said a word about bank robbery, but we do not conclude from this silence that He did not condemn it. (In fact, one could argue that by having a known thief among His closest disciples — Judas — whom He also never specifically condemned for his thefts, Christ actually condoned the practice.) This would be a ludicrous interpretation of Christ’s teachings. It is abundantly clear that Christ spoke most strongly against thievery and fornication (porneia), which includes all forms of sexual misconduct — i.e., any sexual activity (homosexual or heterosexual) that falls outside its rightful place within the created order. And in proclaiming the nature of God-ordained marriage (Matthew 19:5-6), He thereby illustrated that any sexual activity outside this blessed union would be a violation of its original intent. (And let it be understood that there is a distinction between “gay people,” as Mr. Carter states, and the homosexual act. Christ calls all men to Himself — gays, drunkards, liars, fornicators, adulterers, etc. — so it is indeed not the proclivity that would be condemned in any case, but the choice of whether one acts upon it. This whole topic is discussed more thoroughly in my essay “Orthodoxy & Sexuality.”)
Q. Why does the Orthodox Church forbid cremation? How is cremation different from letting a body rot away in the ground? In both cases, the body is gone.
A. There are sound reasons why Orthodoxy frowns on cremation. The first has to do with history. In apostolic times, cremation was the customary method among the pagans of disposing of human remains after death. The pagans believed that fire purified the departed person’s soul and freed the soul from wandering about. From the earliest days of the Church, Christians rejected this pagan practice and instead followed the ancient Jewish custom of burying the dead. The Israelites, from the earliest recorded times, treated the body of the dead with great respect because it was a creation of God. Like Christians, the ancient Jews were not dualists (they did not hold to the idea that the spirit is holy while material things are evil). When a person died in Israel, the family would wash the body, wrap it in burial clothes while anointing it with aromatic spices, and place a napkin over the dead person’s face before burying it in a tomb. (This also was done for our Lord after His Crucifixion.) In like manner, Christians continued the practice of showing such honor to the body of the dead. Cremation is seen as dishonoring the body by deliberately destroying God’s creation, and it is even seen as a denial of belief in the bodily resurrection. (And note that this is quite different from someone who dies in a fire. Someone who perishes in a house fire or other fiery accident is not deliberately desecrating his or her body. Cremation is a deliberate act and is therefore not permitted by the Church.)
As to your question about how burning a body is different from allowing it to decay in the ground, I think we see again a clear distinction between something that is deliberate (cremation) and something that simply allows a process to happen (decay). Scripture tells us that we are made from the dust of the earth, and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19), so allowing the body to return to dust is allowing it to do what God ordained for it after death. This in no way dishonors the body, but simply permits the body to return to the substance from which God formed it.
Q. I have some follow-up questions to the one on cremation: As a Christian I do believe in the resurrection at the End Time. But doesn’t this just mean that our souls are raised? How can bodies that have rotted away come back to life? And if we’re “bodily resurrected,” what happens to our bodies when we go to heaven, because I Corinthians 15:50 clearly says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”?
A. Belief in the bodily resurrection has long been a foundational doctrine in Christianity and is plainly taught in Scripture. Allow me to quote below just a few scriptures that teach it:
“The dead shall live, their bodies shall rise.” (Isaiah 26:19)
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2)
“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (John 5:28-29)
“But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’” (Luke 20:37)
So strongly held was the belief in the resurrection of the dead that St. Paul could say that to deny the (general) resurrection is to deny the Resurrection of Christ (“Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” — I Corinthians 15:12). To maintain that only the soul is resurrected on the Last Day and not the body is to hold to the pagan idea of dualism — that the spirit is holy and the body (material) is evil. This dualistic tendency often is reflected not only in the concept of only a “spiritual” resurrection but also in many Protestant churches that eschew nearly everything material (icons, incense, sometimes even crosses, etc.) while focusing exclusively on the spiritual. In Orthodox thought we are seen as both spiritual and physical inasmuch as God created us as both spiritual and physical beings. He likewise created the material world and declared it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). True, the material world is now fallen, but Christ came to restore all of creation to its rightful place. Therefore, when we are raised at the Last Day to the “new creation,” it will be to the world as God intended it to be from the beginning, complete and whole. We will be raised — bodily raised — just as Christ was raised (Jesus didn't resurrect only in spirit but bodily, as He proved to those who saw Him). He was raised in the same body He had inhabited while He walked the earth — the body that still bore the wounds from His Crucifixion. It was a glorified body, to be sure, in that it shall never again die or see corruption, but it was the same body. In like manner we shall be raised in the selfsame body we inhabit now; it will be glorified, just as Christ’s body is, so that it shall no longer see death, but it will not just be some kind of “ghost body.”
And regarding I Corinthians 15:50, please read that verse within its entire context (15:35-55). St. Paul is not saying here (in contradiction to the other verses we’ve quoted about the resurrection of the dead) that the next world will be purely spirit. “Flesh and blood” here refers to human nature in its present condition — weak, sinful, corruptible. Instead we shall be changed to a state of incorruption. We will not continue in the next life in the same bodies we have now in the sense of their being subject to death and decay, but rather our bodies (still our bodies, not just our souls) will be changed, glorified, made whole, just as Christ Himself was and is.
And finally, you ask how it would be possible for our bodies to come back to life after they have rotted away. “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). How was it possible for man to have been made from the dust of the earth in the beginning? If God could create man originally from dust, why should it be inconceivable that He resurrect the dust our bodies become after death and decay? The vision Ezekiel had of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37) bespeaks the same character as the final resurrection. Though Ezekiel’s narrative is clearly a vision, it reveals indeed that all things are possible with God.
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