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"Whether rightly or wrongly I saw a trend toward an increasing intrusiveness by the government in America to dictate what my children could and could not be taught in terms of ultimate values"
Last week I received an e-mail from Tudor Petcu, who is a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Bucharest. I did not know him, but he had read my blog on being Russian Orthodox although I’m not Russian. He asked me if he could do a written interview with me and ask me questions on how living in Russia has impacted me and how it is that I became Orthodox.
This would be part of his research for his Ph.D. He was very gracious and I gladly accepted. I received his permission to post his questions and my answers on my blog.
First of all, given the fact that you are an American living in Russia, please let me know what’s your perspective on Russia from a spiritual and cultural point of view and how did this country actually influence you as an American.
I came to Russia for the first time in 2002 as a part of a group that gave financial and other resources to Russian orphanages. The group I was with focused on the rather small city of Luga. At that time this city, in which I now live, was very poor. Crime, drugs, and alcoholism were quite common. The fall of Communism and ten years of the failed leadership of Boris Yeltsin had taken quite a toll on the people here. Many necessities were still in short supply. Now, sixteen years later the city is quite different. The resilience and inner strength of the people of Russia in the face of adversity is, in my opinion, the characteristic that led to the recovery of Russian culture and a deepening spirituality. Even in the years when poverty was common, things like ballet, opera, dramatic arts, and literature were still very important to the common people. As an American, I normally associated those interests with those in higher socio-economic groups. I was quite surprised at the number of Western classics and authors with which most Russians were quite familiar. I would say I have observed a cultural depth here that I had not experienced before coming to Russia. There wasn’t the hunger for immediate gratification that we Americans find so attractive.
Spiritually I think the change has been slower. Religion, faith, and the Christian spirituality that had been a part of Russia for practically all its history had been almost completely removed from this society for seventy years. I now see great changes in this area. From my own experience, as one who worships in a Russian Orthodox Church in a small community, I have observed a diversity of age groups in attendance. There are many children with whom my children play after Liturgy. What has surprised me, frankly, is the number of older Russians who I know were brought up in the Communist era, yet are now deeply committed to their church. It is not simply attending Liturgy, however. They seem very focused and reflective during Liturgy. There is not the fascination with being spiritually entertained in Russia that predominates in the more popular “seeker sensitive” churches in America. Obviously, I cannot read the motives of worshippers whether they are in America or Russia. I can listen and think through what I have heard from and observed in people of both cultures. Further, generalizations are always inaccurate at some points, but I would say the spirituality that dominates in Russia is more of a reflective and contemplative spirituality than the emotionally driven worship and spirituality I often encountered in America prior to becoming Orthodox.
So Russia influenced me in these areas by making me realize how I had let my circumstances dictate my commitments. Russians had overcome far more than I had ever faced and still came away committed to appreciating and improving their culture. They had faced having all spiritual values and truths expunged from their society, but they renewed their commitment to those values. Many Russians have said they see the Communist era as having purified Russia. The sufferings for their faith had a positive impact on the Church and on them as individuals. They influenced me to face my own struggles this way. Too often I had tried to avoid the difficulties rather than let them strengthen me. Russian influence had led me to seek spiritual and cultural values whatever my circumstances.
With your permission, I am interested to find out more information about your spiritual personality before becoming an Orthodox. Who were you before discovering Orthodoxy and what was your view on life and its purpose?
I was raised in a very devout Baptist family in America. The rural culture of that time was quite anti-intellectual, and as a teenager I became an atheist (although I told no one). Eventually at the end of my military service I came to believe atheism was even more intellectually bankrupt and returned to the church. My faith became central to my life. The purpose of life was to know God better and to live out what His will for my life was. After university I went to seminary for a Master’s degree. I was ordained as a Baptist minister, but my heart was in the academia. I completed my Ph.D. in Koine Greek and New Testament. I went on to teach in a Baptist University for 14 years. Over the years my faith became more “intellectualized” and less a matter of the heart. The purpose of life became more about professional and academic goals, rather than my earlier goal of knowing God. I went through the painful ordeal of a divorce, which led me to resigning from the University. I do not blame being a Protestant for that; I had to accept full responsibility for my own moral and spiritual failures. It was at that time I was offered a job teaching English in St. Petersburg, Russia. I left America and lived in Russia for three years. I married my present wife in St. Petersburg in 2007. She was raised in a Communist home, but had joined a Protestant church years before I met her. We were not in church when we married, and spirituality, sadly, played no part in my life. I think at that time I probably could not have given any purpose for my life other than the immediate concerns of each day. We came to America in 2008. My old life in America could not be recovered. I became quite despondent because I now had a job I did not find fulfilling and very few of my old friends. Life had lost its purpose. My wife eventually started going to church—one of many Baptist churches in the area. Later I joined her, and eventually we found our place among the faithful there. I was asked to teach a group in Sunday School and again committed myself to knowing God and doing His will.
Which was the main reason why you have made the decision to convert to the Orthodox Church? What exactly have you discovered in Orthodox spirituality?
It is very difficult to say what the main thing was that led to my conversion. First, my decision to become Orthodox was based on what I found attractive in Orthodoxy; it was not because I was unhappy with my Protestant church or life in general. At the time we had no plans to live in Russia again, but my interest in Russia had been rekindled when I read a book on the “October Revolution.” I started reading more on Russian history. I also ordered a conversational Russian course. For some reason, I kept reading Russian history and trying to learn the basics of the language. Then I came across a book called “The Art of Prayer,” which was a compilation from writings of several Orthodox elders (mostly Russian). The majority of the writings came from Theophan the Recluse and secondly Ignatiy Brianchaninov. I couldn’t put the book down. I would read their prayers and teachings every morning before work and before I went to bed at night. They were, obviously, from a time and a “world” very different from mine, but I knew the life they had in the Spirit was one I wanted. Something within me resonated with what these men wrote. Their spirituality was not about increasing the things you did or the number of people you influenced. It was “putting your head inside your heart.” It was focusing on the inner life, which would eventually result in exterior changes, but those were not the point. It certainly wasn’t what Protestants call “antinomian,” but neither was it focused on listing what was permissible and non-permissible behavior. I was brought up in a very legalistic atmosphere, and it had always been difficult for me to overcome that. So when I had failed completely morally and spiritually I considered myself a failure and had left the church—and God. In the teachings of these Orthodox thinkers, they simply placed life on a different and deeper level altogether. There was an honesty about failures. As one monk said in response to the question on what he and the other monks did in a monastery: “We fall down, and we get back up; we fall down, and we get back up.” I found that very refreshing.
I then found an Orthodox Church about 40 minutes away from my home and started attending Saturday night Vespers. I did not understand a lot of what was going on there. What I did understand was that everything there was about God. I sometimes smile when my Protestant friends ask me, “What was it that attracted you to the Orthodox Church?” I tell them, “The fact that the Orthodox Church was not trying to attract me.” They were friendly; they were caring. But worship wasn’t about me. So I would have to say it was the profound readings from those old Russian writers as well as the theocentric focus of Orthodox worship that were the primary factors that led to my conversion to Orthodoxy.
Can you say that becoming Orthodox, you have lived the most important or the deepest spiritual revolution?
Yes, I would say that my becoming Orthodox has been the most significant “revolution” in my Christian experience. The last time I went to my Protestant church I left thinking about the positive things I had experienced. The music was profound and enjoyable; the sermon was a great interpretation of a biblical text; the greetings from others were very genuine. As I put the keys in the car, I distinctly recall the thought that seemed to burst in my mind: “But did you really worship God?” I had thought about God; I had “absorbed” information about God; I had listened to descriptions of Him; I felt good singing about Him, yet I could not get those Saturday night services at the Orthodox Church out of my mind. Those daily readings from Theophan and the Orthodox Liturgy had completely revolutionized my spiritual life.
How and why in your opinion can Orthodoxy help people gain redemption?
Since I am still fairly new to Orthodoxy this question is a difficult one. I will offer what I can at this early stage in my “journey into Orthodoxy.”
How? Orthodoxy can help people gain redemption by those of us who are Orthodox living out our “theosis” before others. The Spirit of Christ is within us. Life is about letting the character of God become manifest through us. That way it is never letting others focus on us. We know by “theosis” we don’t mean we become gods in essence. The divine “energies” are present, however, and it is our responsibility to live redemptively with others.
Why? There is a lot of brokenness in relationships with each other but ultimately with God. In my opinion, we won’t mend the brokenness by pointing them to a really cool religious experience or spiritual hedonism. These things are superficial resolutions. The Orthodox people with whom I came in contact reflected an honest concern that did not point me to themselves or to their experiences. Their message was simple: “Come and see.” Again, I came out of a religious culture that emphasized telling people about Jesus and being ready for any question they might have. We had to win them! We organize “worship” services with their emotional and spiritual comfort in mind. Orthodoxy can help people gain redemption because it points them to God. Orthodoxy does not try and point them to improved social relationships at church or offer an attractive religious experience. Orthodox doesn’t have those “traps” in its history or religious sub-culture. Orthodoxy is founded on the truths of Holy Scripture and how those truths were interpreted by the Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers. It is not about novelty. What Orthodoxy offers is the Body and Blood of Christ to a world in need of the redemption found only in Him.
Considering that you are a convert to Orthodoxy, what would be the most important lesson that everyone of us should learn in the Orthodox Church?
I suppose that the lesson from my conversion is that if someone like me who came from a devout Protestant background, gained ordination and degrees in that tradition, and then squandered it all, can end up Eastern Orthodox then I think anyone can. I would like Orthodox people to have confidence in the faith we share. For my Ph.D. dissertation I spent a lot of time studying polemic in the ancient world–that is, how individuals and groups from various philosophical and cultural backgrounds argued with each other. Polemic was when things had reached the boiling point. My conclusions are that not much was ever gained with those arguments. I had many conversations and lunches with my priest in America before I converted to Orthodoxy. He never launched into what was wrong with Protestantism or Protestants. He never condemned any of the weaknesses he may have seen. He always let me ask my questions and patiently answered them. It was always about what Orthodoxy stood for, not who it stood against. I am concerned with a trend I saw in some Orthodox circles in America which focused on where we disagree with other branches of Christianity and deciding which ones are really Christian and which are not. The disagreements are there, but I see no advantage in focusing on them.
In Russia, I don’t see that as much as I see another problem which many of the Russian “elders” I have read pointed to: the need to stay away from superstitions and empty traditions. Orthodoxy has such a great appreciation for tradition. I think that is wonderful. Traditionalism, however, focuses on aspects of one’s culture or ethnic heritage which may have nothing to do with the faith. Likewise, old ideas and activities that are rooted more in paganism than the Christian faith ought to be left outside our way of thinking as believers. We must remember the mother of all virtues is humility. There is nothing about national or ethnic pride that leads to spiritual strength or virtues, whether it be American or Russian pride.
In conclusion I can say our family now feels very positive about our move to Orthodoxy and to Russia. Joining the Orthodox Church in America was one factor that would ultimately influence us to move to Russia, although we did not see it that way at the time. As I indicated earlier, I had been studying the Russian language and Russian history but only because I found these interesting, not because I had any inclination to move back to Russia. When we became Orthodox, we had no plans to return to Russia.
While there were various factors in our decision to move, the one area that forced the issue was our continued sense of alienation from the direction in which American culture was going in terms of morals and faith. The “transgender” issue became the spark I suppose. It was not just the issue itself, it was the cluster of ethical issues which made it difficult for those of us who hold to traditional Christian morals to be treated fairly.
Of course we knew the story of how the couple who ran a Christian bakery and could not with integrity bake for a homosexual wedding had their lives ripped to pieces. Now it seemed the decision was final that gender identification was more a psychological state than a biological fact. A mother in a department store near where we lived reported her little girl being approached in an inappropriate manner by a biological man who “identified” as a woman. The store had let it become public knowledge they would not enforce rules on who entered what restroom. The crucial concept of “tolerance” was applied in a highly inconsistent manner by the cultural watchdogs.
When we started considering our move to Russia I studied contemporary Russia as much as I could. I studied how Russian students performed on standardized international exams as well as other aspects of education in Russia.
We wanted our children to go to public schools because we believed it was the most efficient way to learn the language. I saw that President Putin and his education ministers were unambiguous in their belief that gender identity and other issues related to sexual practices were not the job of the schools or the government. One had the freedom to be homosexual in Russia, but anyone who was openly homosexual did not have the right to teach children or engage in public affection with his or her partner.
Further, Putin was not afraid to be seen with the Patriarch of Moscow in a joint statements on abortion restriction and other “hot topics.” In America our son had a homosexual teacher who openly talked about what he and his partner did on weekends or whatever. Whether rightly or wrongly I saw a trend toward an increasing intrusiveness by the government in America to dictate what my children could and could not be taught in terms of ultimate values.
I did not find those values to be consistent with what we believed as an Orthodox family. The trend was moving further away from many of the shared cultural values which I had grown up with in America toward views I hardly recognized as intellectually or psychologically responsible. In Russia, the trend was in a very different direction. As strange as it seemed, the culture that we in America had once called “godless and immoral” was moving toward one in which an Orthodox family could flourish. I couldn't dictate which way America would go, but I could decide where my family would go.
Theophany, sometimes called Epiphany, is upon us (Богоявление in Russian, Θεοφάνεια in Greek). The sixth of January is the official date that the baptism of Christ is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not to be confused with the Western holiday also called Epiphany which is a celebration of the magi presenting the baby Christ with their gifts.
The word Theophany means “Revelation of God;” Theophany therefore marks the revelation of the Trinitarian nature of God when Jesus was baptized. Those who witnessed heard the Father’s voice from Heaven, saw the Spirit descending upon Jesus, and could see Jesus in the flesh, whom God confirmed to be His Son with His voice.
The symbolism of this icon is deep and rich. There is one particular part I want to focus on for this blog entry.
Jesus is naked, or nearly so.
Christ is purposely depicted with little or no clothing. But why is that significant?
All throughout the creation narrative in Genesis we see God creating and then saying it is “good.” Man and woman were created together in God’s image. They were both beautiful, and while they lacked physical garments, they were clothed in the glory of the “image” and “likeness” of God. However, when they fell into sin, they hid in shame until God brought them garments of skin to wear (which symbolizes the sinful tendency that now obscures our true nature). Their natural beauty was transformed into an object of shame. Adam and Eve fell, and with them fell creation.
Now, enter Jesus Christ: he represents the second Adam (1 Cor 15). In shame and nakedness, Adam hid. Yet Christ comes in His majesty, both as God and man, both in glory and nakedness completely unashamed, representing the beauty of the undefiled human made possible through Him (and in the subsequent centuries, Christians were often baptized without any clothing, shedding the garments of the “old man” to die in Christ and be resurrected in Him). But why was Christ baptized if He had no sin?
While Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, it was really the Jordan and all of creation that was baptized in Christ. As Canticle Four of Compline of Theophany states, At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heaven enlightened, and mankind was set loose from the bitter tyranny of the enemy.
We see the beginning of a new creation in Theophany. Things are being set right. Christ has come not only to cleanse and restore mankind, but to adopt us as heirs into His Kingdom. And when we receive His glory, not only are we redeemed, but we draw all of creation with us into the final restoration. That is why “creation groans” in eager expectation, awaiting the glorification of the children of God. (Rom 8)
A few other notes about the Icon:
- At the top the Holy Spirit is descending upon Jesus as a dove, the Holy Spirit is depicted in a Mandorla. In this manner, The Father, using His own pre-eternal and consubstantial and subracelestial Spirit as His finger, crying out and point from heaven, openly declared and proclaimed to all that the one then being baptized by John in the Jordan was His beloved Son, while at the same time manifesting His unity with Him.” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 60.15). St. John Chrysostom also emphasizes that the Gospels state the Heavens were opened, the Spirit descends upon us so that we can ascend with Christ and the Spirit to the Father in Heaven. For the first time since the fall of mankind, the Heavens were opened to us.
- The angels on the right side are waiting to attend and dress Him after the baptism is over.
- John the Baptist, while baptizing Jesus is usually turned away or looking at the Spirit descending upon Christ. This signifies that Theophany is about elevating Jesus Christ. If this were an Olympic race, it would be as if the Old Testament (John the Baptist and all before him) were passing the baton to the New Testament (Jesus Christ and all of the saints).
- There is an axe near John the Baptist, which reflects his warning that our lives must bear the fruit of the Spirit or else we will be removed. We cannot get comfortable or spiritually lazy.
- Jesus is not submerged in the water, for creation was baptized in Him, not vice versa.
Lastly, the strange little creatures riding fish at the bottom represent the Jordan River and the Sea, both fleeing at the sight of something much bigger and greater than themselves entering the water. As the Psalms say:
Psalm 73:14–Thou did establish the sea by Thy might, Thou did break the heads of the dragons in the water.
Psalm 76:15– The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid; the abysses were troubled.
Psalm 113:3 – The sea beheld and fled, [the River] Jordan turned back.
There are several hymns sung during this season, but the forefeast Troparion hymn confirms some of the things I write about here: O Adam, be glad with our first mother, Eve; hide not as you did of old in Paradise. Seeing you naked, He has appeared now to clothe you in the first robe again. Christ has appeared, for He truly wills to renew all creation. If you can get a copy of The Festal Menaion produced by Mother Mary and Met. Kallistos Ware (St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press), then you will find nearly 100 pages of deep theology regarding this feast day.
During this time of the year, a beautiful ceremony is carried out and holy water is prepared in each parish. Congregants are free to take the holy water home with them. A portion is kept and used by the church throughout the year.
Also, house blessings are completed during the subsequent weeks using the holy water prepared during the Feast of Theophany. It is not unusual to give a small gift to the priest who has blessed the home (many priests do not receive a salary and these types of events help carry them financially through the year) and/or you may cook a meal for him. Don’t take offense though if he has several house blessings lined up for that day and does not have time to sit down for a full meal.
As soon as they are consecrated, new priests acquire a new life. Similar to the Sacrament of Baptism, which restores the purity of God’s image in a human being, the Sacrament of Priesthood also revives the image of God.
When a person becomes a priest or a monk, he crosses the threshold of a new reality and declares that it is God who is the purpose of his life.
The vows that the person takes demonstrate that the Lord becomes the reference point of his entire life, and that there aren’t any values of this world that could undermine his desire to come closer to God and to serve Him.
The Spiritual Code
If we look into it carefully, we’ll see that the vows taken by a priest or a monk in front of God and people imply his acceptance of a certain spiritual code of conduct. It is an oath that he has to abide by till the end of his days. Finally, it’s an examination of his decency and courage, accountability and honesty, and his allegiance to his cause.
It brings to memory Moonzund, a novel by Valentin Pikul, which describes the last months of the First World War and underlines how important it was to preserve one’s honor, courage, and allegiance to one’s cause in the wake of various difficult and contradictory circumstances.
First Lieutenant Artenyev who serves on a destroyer, maintains the qualities of a true naval officer in spite of the difficult situation. He is a brave and resolute man, who is also capable of compassion and who becomes sad when his crew faces a tough luck.
As an officer, he cannot yield to the destructive tendencies on the warship, and doesn’t want to placate rudeness, knavery, and cowardice.
He does everything he can to prevent anarchy and lawlessness.
Letting go of the reins and backing down is fraught with peril, judging by the example of another officer who was in charge of the engine room.
Afraid for his life, he started appeasing the sailors as soon as the riot broke out on the ship. He tolerated humiliation and mockery. He broke the code of honor and smeared his dignity, at which point he lost the other officers’ respect while not becoming a comrade for the rank-and-file sailors. He was openly despised and later blamed for disorder and collapse of the engine room.
Once a Priest, Always a Priest
Nowadays, there are priests who cannot withstand external pressure of the hateful society, agitated by the slanderous and misleading mass media accounts, which love to spit out libel about the Church, as well as internal provocations of other clergymen, who are unqualified for this sacred calling due to a number of factors, including their personal qualities. Those priests fail the test, betray the Church and the vows that they promised to God, and infect other priests with their rebellious “revolutionary” talk.
They find it hard not to kowtow to those who, in their opinion, possess power and wealth. They do their best to demonstrate to the outsiders that they are “good fellas”, accommodating and harmless.
It is a great personal tragedy for those priests. Trials must make us stronger, unite us, and help us to find out what is the most important for us. They must make our souls free from debris. That is something every Christian, especially a priest, must remember.
A priest’s heart requires constant purification to be a worthy container for God. Self-improvement is key for a successful priest. Abba Isaiah instructs, “If you want God to dwell in your heart, keep it spotless.” You must always remain honest and sincere with yourself, the Lord, and other people.
If there is just a bit of an unrepented and hidden sin in your heart, all your efforts, your ministry, and your achievements will be null and void. You won’t be able to resist temptations. You won’t be able to walk down your path till the end. You won’t be able to respect yourself.
One has to be true to his calling in every aspect. Spiritual life in general has no trivial or less important details.
It is not accidental at all that the Church puts special clothes on her priests. Those clothes must ensure their proper functioning. One must never be shy of wearing the priestly clothes under any circumstances!
Obviously, clothes don’t make us any better ipso facto. At the same time, they have been known to shield priests from many temptations.
Aside from that, the appearance and prudent behavior of a priest or a monk serve as a guidance for our contemporaries.
It isn’t easy to defy the pressure of the ever-changing world and not to get caught under the millstones of popular trends and tendencies. Christianity is for the strong in spirit.
Every person who chooses this path must be aware of the high dignity of a Christian, and especially of a priest or a monk. When you break these vows, you betray yourselves first of all. The Church was, is, and will remain forever. She is like a ship in a turbulent sea. She resists all storms and torrents. She saves and protects everyone who is inside.
Only those who don’t forget the vows that they’ve made before God and stick to those vows, will be saved.
Question:Father Andrew, your blessing. I’ve been pregnant for 20 weeks already. I didn’t plan to have a baby and I wasn’t prepared for it. The last couple of years was challenging for me both mentally and physically. I even had a nervous breakdown and suffer from panic attacks. I graduated from a university this June and decided to quit my job and spend a year dealing with my health issues, and then move on. Suddenly, I got pregnant in July… I didn’t want to get an abortion because I know that it’s a sin. However, the sin still persists in my soul: I can’t accept my baby. In an attempt to avoid feeling desperate, I went to church and asked for a permission to come and help other people, just to find something to distract my brain. However, I saw many ill people in the church, and I felt uneasy. What do I do with all that? Darya.
Answer by Fr. Andrew Lemeshonok: Man proposes, God disposes. We plan one thing but the Lord has something else in mind. We have to accept what He gives us. We have to struggle with lack of faith and the doubts that destroy us from the inside.
What are panic attacks, really? They are a sin that oppresses a person. They are rooted in self-pity, cowardice, fear, and disbelief. We’ve got to ward it off. You shouldn’t remain like that because it has a direct influence on your baby. The thoughts of not having the baby, while you have him or her already, also impact his or her life. You are responsible for that.
Thank God that you’ve been strong and smart enough not to get an abortion. Your life could have taken a completely different turn. It seems to me that your health will improve after you give birth to your baby. What you need to do now is pull yourself together, carry your baby, and resist panic attacks. I recommend you to take the Body and Blood of Christ during pregnancy. Don’t feel uneasy seeing that there are so many ill people in Church. The Church is a hospital. Naturally, there are extremely large numbers of ill people there. In fact, we all are ill.
Look for help and support from God. He is an indestructible pillar. You should thank God today. Imagine what a shame it could be when your baby is born and you see his or her Angel-like face and the smile and the outstretched arms, and you’ll recall how you planned to murder him or her… That’s why you should forget yourself now and get down to thinking about the human being who lives inside you and who you are responsible for. Your panic attacks will go away. Make it your habit to thank God for your baby, and for the new day, and for everything that you have, every morning as soon as you get up. If you manage to bring yourself into the correct mood, you’ll be able to organise both external and internal aspects of your life. May the Lord help you.
The fathers of the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, which took place in Moscow in 1917-1918, asserted that the task of “singing the chants at the Church Service can be assigned both to special choirs consisting of the professional musicians and to all people who are praying in the temple.” They even planned to include the Church singing into the curriculum of primary schools in order to help students be ready to sing at the Church Services.
Unfortunately, the Bolshevik revolution and persecution of the Orthodox Church did not allow to implement these decisions of the Local Council. As a result of the long history of atheism in the Soviet Union, now many people who call themselves Orthodox Christians represent a passive audience during the Church Service. They know how to light a candle in front of the icon and pray for their individual needs. But few understand what it really means to “glorify and hymn God’s most honorable and majestic name with one mouth and one heart.” For the most part, singing the Symbol of Faith and the Lord’s Prayer is the best they can do at the Liturgy.
In Belarus there are some parishes where the priests encourage all the parishioners to sing at the Liturgy. Of course, the introduction of this practice is a lengthy process, which requires much energy and patience from the priests and choir conductors. Naturally, common people cannot rival the professional singers who dedicated their whole lives to music. Hence, the chants performed by the whole Church congregation should be as simple as possible as far as the melody is concerned. In my opinion, we face yet another problem. Although the Divine Liturgy is the most important Church Service, the Vespers and the Matins are much more difficult regarding the structure of the Service. Without long and substantial preparation people with no music education cannot even think of taking part in such Services as singers. Nevertheless, even during the All-Vigil Night all the parishioners can sing together a few prayers, such as “Vouchsafe, O Lord”, “Rejoice! O Virgin Theotokos!”, etc.
I think that practicing Orthodox Christian should realize that their participation at the Church Service cannot be limited to listening only. After all, the fathers of the Local Council of 1917-1918 unambiguously stated that the choirs of parishioners have a right to sing at the Services. As for the professional choir conductors and professional musicians, they should be more lenient to the “common people” who possess neither musical skills nor nice voices. By the way, according to Saint Ambrose of Optina, “If you have a good voice, beware of demons.” Moreover, in the eyes of God our souls are more important than voices; “we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth.” (John 9:31). No doubt, when we learn to obey the commandments of God, we can truly glorify God with one mouth and one heart.
By Vladimir Sypchu,
the chorister from the parish of
the Entry of the Most Holy Mother of God into the Temple,
There was a little store on the outskirts of the Universe. It didn’t have a sign because it had been blown away by a hurricane. The owner of the store didn’t bother to put up another sign, since every local knew that the store was selling dreams.
The store offered a tremendous choice. One could buy almost anything: huge yachts, mansions, marriages, a position of a vice president of a corporation, money, children, an interesting job, an attractive body, a victory in a contest, big cars, power, success, and a whole lot more. What you couldn’t buy were life and death: those goods could only be ordered from the head office, located in another galaxy.
Everyone who came to the store (it must be noted that there were people who never crossed its threshold: they kept dreaming their dreams at home) would inquire about the price of their dream first.
Prices varied. For example, to get a good job one had to give up stability and predictability, and had to be able to plan forward and to structure their life, believe in their own power, and let themselves work where they wanted, not where they had to.
Power was more expensive: one had to shun certain personal convictions, find a rational explanation for everything, learn to say no to others, know one’s worth (and the perceived worth had to be high enough), be able to say I and talk about oneself in spite of others’ approval or disapproval.
Some of the prices seemed weird: marriage was dirt cheap, while a happy family life cost exorbitantly much: one had to pay for it by being responsible for his or her own happiness, being able to find pleasure in life, knowing his or her desires, suppressing the urge to match others’ expectations, being able to appreciate what they’ve got, allowing themselves to be happy, realizing their own worth and importance, refusing to be a victim, and carrying a risk of losing some friends and acquaintances.
Not everyone who entered the store was ready to buy a dream immediately. Some people looked at the price, turned back, and left. Others stood there for a long time, counting their money and trying to figure out where to find more. Others started complaining that the prices were too high, asked for a discount or inquired about a sale.
Certainly, there were people who pulled out their wallet and paid full price for their dreams. They got their dreams packed in nice rustling paper. Other visitors of the store looked at the buyers with envy, rumoring that the store owner was the buyers’ friend and that they received what they dreamed of for nothing, without any effort.
People would suggest to the store owner to lower the prices so as to make the dreams more affordable to more people. He always declined to do so because in that case, their quality would drop, too.
When asked if he wasn’t afraid of going bankrupt, he shook his head and said that there would always be the brave souls who are ready to risk and change their lives, giving up on the routinely and predictable way of doing things, capable of trusting themselves, and powerful enough to pay for the realization of their dreams.
There was a note on the door, which read, “If your dream doesn’t come true, it hasn’t been paid for yet.” The note was up there for a hundred of years or so.
And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17)
Jesus Christ begins his public ministry with a seemingly weird and unexpected action. He decides to go to the shore of the Jordan River to get baptized by Prophet John. In fact, people would come to John in order to admit that they were sinful and deprived of God’s grace. Those people yearned for spiritual renewal and repentance. It was precisely what St. John called them for: And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Luke 3:3-4).
Why did Lord Jesus go to the Jordan River to be baptized from John, given that He was absolutely sinless, according to the doctrine of the Orthodox Church based on Divine Revelation? We may find a very profound answer in some worship hymns of the Baptism of the Lord, following the time-honored maxim Lex orandi est lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of faith).
1. Consecration of Waters
O ye faithful, let us hymn the magnitude of God’s benefactions toward us; for having become man for the sake of our transgressions, He Who alone is pure and incorrupt, Who sanctifieth me and the waters, and crusheth the heads of the serpents in the water, is purified in the Jordan with our purification. Wherefore, let us draw forth water with gladness, O brethren; for the grace of the Spirit is invisibly imparted to those who draw it forth with faith, by Christ God, the Savior of our souls. (Sticheron of the Baptism of the Lord, tone 6, during the great consecration of water)
During the entire service of the Baptism of the Lord, church hymns keep repeating that when the Savior descended into the waters of the Jordan, He purified waters by his divinity. What does it mean? And why does water need purification? In fact, the world is literally contaminated with sin and lies in wickedness. When Jesus walks into the waters of the Jordan, He performs his first exorcism, his first purification of the matter poisoned by the sin, his first transformation of the creation, which groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now (Romans 8:22). The Church of Christ keeps doing what her Head once did even now: She purifies everything; She transforms matter and the cosmos itself with her Sacraments and rituals, and brings it to God, for She deems it the purpose of a redeemed human to transform the matter and to dedicate it to the Creator.
2. Destruction of Evil Forces.
Thou didst bow Thy head before the Forerunner, and didst crush the heads of the serpents. Having come to the streams, Thou didst illumine all things, that they may glorify Thee, O Savior, the Enlightener of our souls. (Sticheron on Now and Ever: Lord, I Have Cried of the Theophany Vespers)
We often hear about the Lord crushing the heads of the serpents in water. What are those serpents? They are mentioned not only on Theophany Day but also during all blessings of water, including every Sacrament of Baptism. Do some spiritual entities or beings swim in the water font in the middle of a church before the consecration of water? That’s what Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, an outstanding liturgical scholar and theologian of our time, has to say about it: “Matter is never neutral according to Christian worldview. If it isn’t attached to God, i.e., not interpreted and used as a means to interact with God, as a way of living with him, it turns into a carrier and dominion of demonic powers. It is not surprising that the rejection of God and religion goes hand in hand with materialism, which claims that it possesses the latest scientific ‘knowledge’. The unprecedented war against God, which has taken hold of more and more of the so-called civilized world lately, happens in the name of that ‘scientific truth’. It is not accidental, either, that pseudo-religiosity and pseudo-spirituality are more often than not based on rejection of matter and therefore of the world itself: the matter is viewed as evil, which is a blasphemy against God’s creation. Only the Bible and Christian faith view the matter as something that’s essentially good but on the other hand also a tool of human downfall and enslavement to death and sin, by which the Satan stole the world from God. Only in Christ and by his power can matter be liberated and become the symbol of God’s glory and presence, the mystery of his action and unity with man, again.” (Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit).
3. Fulfillment of the Law.
Desiring to fulfill that which Thou hast established from before time, O Lord, Thou didst accept ministers of Thy mystery from among all creatures: Gabriel from among the angels, the Virgin from among men, the star from among the heavens, and the Jordan from among the waters, wherein Thou didst destroy the iniquity of the world. O our Savior, glory be to Thee! (Sticheron on Glory at Litya, tone 8. All-Night Vigil of Theophany)
Although the Lord didn’t need to be baptized because He had never committed any sin, He nevertheless allowed John the Baptist to baptize him, in spite of the fearful protest of the Forerunner - I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? (Matthew 3:14). He did it for our sake because our nature, which the Savior had assumed, was in need of Baptism and purification from the ancient curse. Also, the Lord came not in order to break the Law but to fulfill it. John’s Baptism was the last Old Testament ritual because John the Baptist was the greatest and the last prophet of the Old Testament who proclaimed God’s will, which all people had to abide by. The Lord replies to St. John, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).
4. Apparition of the Holy Trinity. Epiphany.
Christ is baptized. He cometh up out of the waters and leadeth the world up with Himself. And He beholdeth the heavens opening, which Adam closed to himself and to those with him. And the Spirit beareth witness to His divinity, for He maketh haste to come to His like. And a voice is heard from heaven; for the Savior of our souls is borne witness to from thence. (Sticheron on Litya of the All-Night Vigil. By Cosmas of Maiuma)
The Baptism of the Lord marked one of the greatest apparitions of the Godhead in the history of the humankind, hence the ancient name of this holiday, Epiphany. The Lord reveals himself as the Holy Trinity, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, while at the same time being One God. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the most marvelous and majestic truth of Christianity made known by Jesus Christ. The Holy Trinity is the absolute plenitude of goodness, love, harmony, and agreement, which constitutes His greatest beauty and freedom. Most strikingly, every individual of any age and any rank is called to enter the relationship with the Triune God and let the Lord into their heart. The love of the Holy Trinity will animate everything and everyone around that person.
To sum up, we can say that the Lord was baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan River in order to purify water and to pave the way for the restoration and purification of the created world. Today, every Orthodox Christian who is vested with priestly grace can do what Jesus once did by putting his fingers into the baptismal font and making the sign of the cross with them. Moreover, all Christians are able to perform the great Sacrament of Baptism in extreme cases. If we recall that we are the universal royal priesthood, as Holy Apostle Peter said, we can transform the entire Cosmos with our prayer, multiply love, crush invisible serpents, and purify ourselves, our food, and our houses with the Holy Hagiasma, that precious gift that the Lord gives us on this day. Christ came to the world to fulfill the Law of God and to bring grace into the world. He came to us in order to reveal the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, to redeem us from our sins, and to pour God’s love into our hearts. Let us exclaim Amen happily and accept His gift.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Franklin Graham (son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham) opined on NBC Nightly News that Muslims pray to a “different God” than do the Christians. Around the same time the Reverend Jerry Vines, former pastor of the large First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that “Allah is not Jehovah”, and that it was wrong to equate all religions as some forms of pluralism attempted to do. What are we to make of such assertions (often repeated since made by Graham and Vines)? Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
The question is not as simple as it may appear, and defies a quick and easy response. Moreover, one must first deal with the underlying issue of what that question might possibly mean. Does the question ask whether the two groups, Christians and Muslims, claim to worship the same God? Or does it ask whether or not they really do worship the same God regardless of the differences between the two religions? And if the latter, how could one know this? On what basis could one determine that persons practising different religions were in fact worshipping the same God, apart from a pluralistic and ecumenical desire that it be so? That both religions were technically monotheistic? What about such fundamental differences as the lack of Trinitarian theology in Islam and its assertion that Jesus was never crucified? Are these differences fundamental enough to justify the assertion that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God? Let us try to approach the question of whether or not differing religions worship the same God from the standpoint of the Scriptures. Obviously the New Testament does not talk about non-Christian Islam, but it does have something to say about non-Christian paganism.
In one sense, it is true that everyone directing their prayers and devotions to the supreme deity is worshipping the same God, for monotheism declares that in fact there only isone God and so there is no other deity up there to receive such prayers. Presumably that is what St. Paul meant when he declared that God is not the God of the Jews only, but also the God of the Gentiles also “since God is one” (Romans 3:29-30). Though the pagan Gentiles might claim to worship not Yahweh but Zeus, still Yahweh was in some sense their God too. A pagan Athenian might have sent up his prayers addressed “To Zeus, with love”, but the heavenly mail nonetheless ended up in the in-box of the God of Israel. St. Paul makes precisely this point when he addressed such an Athenian on Mars Hill. Whether an altar was dedicated to Zeus or to an unknown God (the latter being a pagan attempt to cover all their polytheistic bases) it was the Jewish God who actually received their prayers. “What you worship as unknown,” Paul declared in his sermon, “this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). The God whom Paul proclaimed made the world and everything in it, including every nation of men living on all the face of the earth. God’s intention in creation was that all should “seek God, in the hope that they might feel after Him and find Him”. Up until then most men stupidly imagined that God was served and fed by human hands, and that He was like their gold and silver idols. Such “times of ignorance God overlooked”, but “now He commands all men everywhere to repent” and come to Him through the risen Christ (v. 25-30). From this sermon, it is clear that according to St. Paul anyway, God has some sort of relationship with all people, regardless of their religion.
It is also true, as St. Paul elsewhere declared, that pagan religions contained an element of the demonic. Though a devout, ignorant, well-intentioned, and righteous Athenian’s prayers to Zeus may have been received by the God of Israel, this did not imply that his Athenian paganism was more or less interchangeable with Judaism or Christianity. While the Athenian’s heart and intention may have been acceptable to God, his actual religion, cultus, and sacrifices were not. Paul also affirmed that “what the pagans sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Cor. 10:20). Idolatrous worship, though intended for and aimed at the Most High God, was intercepted and used by the demons, and Christians in the early centuries always regarded pagan religion as infected with the demonic. That is why at his baptism the converting pagan did not simply renounce his former pagan religion, but did so with the words, “I renounce you, Satan, and all your service and all your works” (from the Apostolic Tradition, ascribed to Hippolytus in the early third century). By “all your service”, the new convert meant “all my former religious rites”. The well-intentioned pagan Athenian of course did not consciously intend to have communion with demons. He aimed his prayers at the heavenly God, but his sacrifices were received by the demons anyway. That is why the Church in her liturgy referred to pagan religion not just as idolatrous, but as a delusion.
Did this involvement with demons mean that the pagan would be damned on the Last Day? St. Paul does not say so. In fact he said that to the pagan who “by patience in well-doing sought for glory and honour and immortality” God would “give eternal life”, for there would be “glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek, for God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:7-10). Though the pagan Greek may have had no knowledge of divine revelation or of the Law, when he did by nature what the Law required, he was a law to himself, and showed that what the Law required was written on his heart (Romans 2:14-15). But God’s mercy on the Last Day does not entail His delight in unenlightened paganism in this age. A pagan seeking the true God in ignorance may be spared at the end, but idolatry was still idolatry and was still to be shunned. All religions were not equally valid, true, or saving. In the second chapter of his epistle to the Romans St. Paul was not talking so much about ecumenism as about mercy.
Whether or not a non-Christian religion like ancient paganism could connect one with God seems therefore to have depended upon the amount of light that the ancient pagan had received. If he or she didn’t know any better and sought to please God by “patience in well-doing”, they might be spared on the Last Day. In that case, they would not be saved through their pagan religion but in spite of it. If on the other hand they knew and understood the Gospel and yet still rejected Christ, they could not be saved. For the words of Jesus are plain: “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings has a judge; the Word that I have spoken is what will judge him on the Last Day” (John 12:48). It all therefore depends upon the amount of ignorance in the non-Christian (what western theology used to call “invincible ignorance”). We are not in a position to know such inner mysteries hidden in the heart of another, but we do know that all will be judged according to the light which they have received. “From everyone who has been given much shall much be required” (Luke 12:48).
So what about our Muslim neighbours? An analogy with paganism would suggest that the religion of Islam does not connect its practitioner with God, and so in this sense Allah cannot be identified with Yahweh or with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if a Muslim has no real exposure to or understanding of the Christian message, he might still be spared on the Last Day after all if his heart was in ignorance seeking the true God. C.S. Lewis wrote about such a possibility in the last volume of his Narnian series: a worshipper of the god “Tash” (a thinly-veiled version of Allah) finds himself in the presence of the true God, the lion Aslan, an image of Christ. He realizes that his life-long worship of Tash was the worship of a false god, and that Aslan was the true God after all. In his own words, “Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc [or, King] of the world and live and not to have seen Him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service to me… But I said also, Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
“All find what they truly seek”: that seems to be the crux of the matter. Let all seek for the truth as best they can. As for us Christians, our mandate remains the same in all ages—to preach the Gospel and to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Trinity. We call all men to a saving confession of Christ our God, to sonship and forgiveness in this age, and to glory in the age to come. If a Muslim in his ignorance had truly been seeking the eternal truth of God, and recognizes that truth when we share the Gospel with him, we have water for baptism. We can bring him home.
In my Orthodox parish we will be celebrating Holy Theophany (The Baptism of our Lord) on January 6th. The celebration of this Feast of our Lord actually begins on January 5th, a day known as the Forefeast of Theophany.
Together with the other services celebrating this Feast of our Lord, there is a service of the Blessing of the Waters. This is usually conducted in the church. However in many places throughout the world services are conducted near open bodies of water. As a sign of blessing as Christ blessed the Jordan, Holy Water is poured into the body of water. A cross is then thrown into the water to be retrieved by young folks diving into the water.
Here in Colorado, many Orthodox gather on the Continental Divide for a special blessing of the waters of both sides of the Divide. Frozen crosses of water are placed in the snow on each side. In this way, the water flowing to the Pacific and the water flowing to the Atlantic are both blessed.
The holy water from the church is given to the faithful to consume throughout the year and to use in blessing their homes. In the weeks following the Feast, Orthodox clergy visit the homes of parishioners and conduct a service of blessing using the holy water that was blessed on the Feast of Theophany.
Someone asked me a very good question last year at Holy Theophany:
“Why should I have my house blessed every year? I mean, come on, I had it blessed several years ago and that seems good enough for me.”
Here is my response:
That is a great question and one that every Orthodox Christian needs to ponder. House blessings are not just some cultural tradition, but a very spiritual and important issue for you to consider.
When I was a prison chaplain, I would go around the prison to the cell of each Orthodox man and bless their home. Often other men would see me or hear about it and they too would ask for their cell to be blessed. The reports back were always the same: “Father, I felt such peace after my cell was blessed and I slept so well!” It was something that many men looked forward to each year.
Many years ago when I was a fairly new priest, a family asked me to help them. They were seeing “ghosts” in their home on a regular basis and it had the whole family scared. Being a very inexperienced priest, I felt this was a definitely above my pay grade and called upon a wonderful monastic for his advice. He said he would come and together we would bless their home. We did the entire service for blessing the home and as we went through the house, he told me that he could see the demons were fleeing in front of us. I of course saw nothing. This man is holier than I could ever hope to be! He told me that the Holy Water stings the demons like fire and they flee from it. We continued to bless the home until he said every evil had been removed. The report back from these folks in the following weeks and months was of peace, no sightings of “ghosts”, and very good nights of sleep.
I share these two stories with you to show the need we all have for the peace of the Lord in our homes. I am not suggesting that your home is filled with demons and all kinds of evil. But, throughout the year we may end up bringing things into our homes that we really don’t want there: such as anger, gossip, slander, lying, lust, hatred, envy, covetousness, sloth, despair…you get the idea. Many of the Holy Fathers of our Faith tell us that there is a very spiritual aspect to all of these and they affect the atmosphere around us. So it can be in our homes and often it happens so very slowly that we do not recognize its impact.
So the question you asked really gets reversed: “Why would any Orthodox Christian not want their home blessed each year?” When Holy Theophany rolls around this year and the list for house blessings is made available, be sure to sign up. It may be the best “cleaning” you can possibly give your home.
Church traditions require that a Divine Liturgy must be celebrated in a church on a designated and consecrated Holy Table or at least on an antimension (Greek, ‘instead of the table’) consecrated by an Orthodox bishop.
Antimension is a special cloth with an image of the Lord’s Burial. It is placed on top of the Holy Table and is mandatory for celebration of a Liturgy. If, for a certain reason, the Liturgy has to be celebrated outside of a church, there must at least be a consecrated antimension.
What are the conditions that may necessitate celebrating the Liturgy outside of a church? For instance, if a church cannot contain all the faithful on a great holiday, it is okay to celebrate the Liturgy in the church yard. Aside from that, portable antimensions were also used in the army (and navy!) during military campaigns in the past, provided that nothing would inhibit the proper and orderly celebration of the Sacrament of Eucharist.
Speaking of the present day, there is one question that has to be moved out of our way first: Why do we need to hold a church service outside of the church? If there’s no Orthodox Church within reach, it’s one thing, but if it happens because a priest just wants it, it’s absolutely unacceptable. The Eucharist is the greatest Sacrament of the Orthodox Church, and therefore calls for utmost respect and reverence.