Friday, December 08, 2017

Stump the Priest: The Twelve Days of Christmas

Question: "How are the 12 days of the Nativity Feast numbered? Does it start on the Feast itself or the next day? Is the last day of the feast the 12th Day?"

The twelve days of Christmas begin on the feast, and end on the eve of Theophany. The idea of zero as a number is not an ancient one, and so the feast itself is not day zero, but day one, of the twelve days.

In one sense, you could say Christmas is one day, the day of the feast. But then we especially celebrate the next two days, and so in another sense you could speak of three days of Christmas. But then the feast of Christmas actually is celebrated for 7 days, from December 25th through December 31st (which on the civil calendar falls on January 7th through January 13th). December 31st is the Apodosis of the feast (or the Leave-taking of the feast). In more ancient times, the Apodosis of Christmas was actually celebrated with the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord (January 1st o.s. / January 14th n.s.), but when the feast of St. Basil was combined with it, the Apodosis was moved up one day (Archbishop Job (Getcha), The Typikon Decoded, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2012), p 136). Beginning on January 2nd o.s. / January 15th n.s., we begin to celebrate the forefeast of Theophany. So the last of the 12 days of Christmas is the eve of Theophany (the last day of the forefeast).

In the priest's service book (sluzhebnik), it says in the menologion for December 25th:
"Three-day feast, and all [foods] allowed. Likewise, a twelve day dispensation for all [foods]...."
But as with many Orthodox rubrics, there is always a "but..." We dispense with the fast for twelve days, but since the twelfth day is the eve of Theophany, we don't dispense with it entirely on that day -- it is a day on which wine and oil may be consumed, but otherwise a fast day.

In very ancient times, Theophany was actually the combined celebration of the the Nativity of Christ and His Baptism. The practice of celebrating the Nativity on December 25th developed in the western part of the Church, and then spread to the east. And so, Theophany and Christmas are closely linked, and in a certain cense, Theophany is a continuation of the Feast of the Nativity, and we celebrate Theophany for eight days. I have seen Russian Christmas stars that have an icon of the Nativity on one side, and an Icon of Theophany on the other. And so on your Christmas tree, you would simply flip the star on the feast of the Theophany.

However, in another sense, you could even say we celebrate Christmas for 40 days, because on the 40th day, we mark the feast of the Meeting of the Lord  (February 2nd o.s. / February 15th n.s.) -- on which day Christ was brought into the temple, and met by St. Symeon and the Prophetess Anna.

So, as is often the case with the Orthodox Faith, there are more than one answers to the question that are all correct, but none of which tell the whole story exhaustively.

For More Information:

Stump the Priest: The Nativity Fast and Christmas Parties

Stump the Priest: Is Christmas Pagan?

Stump the Priest: Fasting on the Eves of the Nativity and Theophany

Why the Russian Orthodox Church Celebrates Christmas on January 7th

Wikipedia: Twelfth Night (Holiday)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Stump the Priest: Censing at Home

Question: "What is the appropriate way for laypeople to use incense in prayer?"

Historically, it has probably been exceptional for a laymen to use incense at home, because of the expense involved, and so it should not be thought that this is essential, but it certainly is permissible.

A laymen would only use a hand censer – not a swinging censer like the clergy typically use.

When a person censes with a hand censer, the censer is held in the right hand, and the sign of the cross is made with the censer over whatever he is censing.  Then the censer is placed in the left hand, and he makes the sign of the cross and bows… unless he is censing other people, in which case he makes the sign of the cross with the censer only, and then bows to the people without signing himself.

If you are doing morning or evening prayers, you could cense before the beginning of the prayer, though some do this at the end.

It is a nice touch to have a Cross and Gospel in your icon corner. This is where your censing would begin and end. You could just cense the icons in the icon corner, but if you wanted to, you could cense the whole room you are praying in, or other rooms too, if you wish.

There is more on the practical questions of how to use a censer if you are doing other reader services, at home or in a Church (in the absence of a priest) in "Practical Questions On How To Do Reader Services."

On a practical note, in addition to a good hand censer, you will want to have a pair of tongs to light the coals – though chopsticks work even better, if you know how to use them. Chopsticks also have the added benefit of allowing you to place pieces of incense exactly where you want them.

Update: I came across an article, which has the following comments on the use of a hand censer, which probably at least reflects pious Greek custom:

"Earlier we mentioned the hand censer as part of the icon corner. This hand censer is used in the home on eves of feasts, Saturday evenings, the beginnings of lenten periods, on the eves of name's days of the family, on the eve of the patron of the family church, and on other occasions. Some Orthodox families use the hand censer each evening at family prayer, but the minimum use of it is for the above-mentioned occasions.
The offering of incense to God is a practice which dates back to the time of Moses when God gave commands as to how to burn it.
You shall make an altar to burn incense upon ... And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall offer no unholy incense thereon (Ex. 30:1, 7-9).
The burning of incense as an offering to God will continue even to the end of the world, as revealed by God to St. John.
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God (Rev. 8:3- 5).
Because of the command and revelation of God regarding the offering of incense, the Church uses incense as an acceptable offering in its Divine Services. Since the parish church uses incense, so should the family church use incense as an offering pleasing to God. On Saturday evenings, on the eves of feasts and the other already-mentioned occasions, the house is "blessed" with incense. The head of the household carries the hand censer with burning incense throughout the entire dwelling (basement and attic included) and makes the sign of the Cross on the four walls of each room and over the beds. Some Orthodox have the custom of saying with each sign of the Cross thus made: "This room (or bed) is blessed by the sign of the Holy Cross." The person censing is accompanied by all members of the household chanting "Holy God...," the troparion of the feast or Sunday or other appropriate ode, and bearing icons or candles. The procession begins at the icon corner, proceeds through the entire dwelling, and returns to the icon corner.
The hand censer, charcoal (for burning the incense) and the incense may be purchased at some parish churches or from monastic communities such as Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Brookline, Massachusetts 02146). The parish priest or deacon would be happy to show parishioners how to light the charcoal and offer incense.
The charcoal and incense ashes should not be discarded in the garbage, but should be put along the foundation of the building, buried in the ground or put in some other appropriate place where no one will step on them.
Feast days are celebrated by Orthodox families as special and joyous occasions. These days are not regarded as normal days and for this reason Orthodox homes often are decorated especially for the feast. The decorating of the home and icon corner can be a project for the parents together with the children. The decorations themselves, the decorating, and the blessing of the house with the hand censer, all place emphasis on the specialness and the importance of the feast. These are not to be surpassed by any secular celebrations at home, for after all, the Orthodox home is a family church and God is at the center of its existence. There is nothing so empty as a Christmas celebrated, as many westerners do, so that the house decorations, the meal, the gifts, or the family get-together are the center and reason for the celebration. In other words, Christ has been made alien to the celebration" (Marriage and the Christian Home, by Fr. Michael B. Henning <>).
I also found the following:
"For country folk the farming cycle is closely connected with the Church Year, indicating when to sow certain crops, etc. There are various blessings of crops and produce, of cattle and the like, so that everything is related to God. Even townsfolk keep up such traditions as eating homemade pastry birds on the feast of the Forty Holy Martyrs (9th / 22nd March), taking care that only the most essential work is done on St Elias' day, blessing the house with holy water on the first day of every month, and censing each day with a home-censer and incense. Whenever possible, Orthodox people try to attend church not only on Sundays, but for the main feasts, even keeping children off school for this" (The Orthodox Way of Life, by a Nun Abroad, From The Shepherd, Vol. XVII, No. 3 (December 1996), pp. 4-8 <>).
For more information:

Comments on Reader Services by Archbishop Averky

The Reader Service Horologion

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Stump the Priest: The Creed and the Trinity

An Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine, accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

Question: "Why is there no mention of the Trinity in the Nicene Creed? As I understand, it was written by a Synod of bishops in order to corral and direct the young Church's thinking. Why then no mention of the Trinity? Is/was the Trinity less important than the other tenets laid out in the Credo?"

The Nicene Creed was not a new composition, but rather a refinement of previous baptismal creeds that had been in use since Apostolic times. The first known use of the term "Trinity" come from about 180 a.d. from St. Theophilus of Antioch. It is possible that the word was actually used prior to that time, but the fact that it was not used in the baptismal creeds would suggest that these creeds predate the term. It should be noted, however, that the term was used to describe a belief that was already present.

The Apostles' Creed, as it is commonly known now, has changed a bit since the time of the Apostles, but it gives us some idea of what earlier creeds were like:
"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen."
In the catechetical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem who find the baptismal creed that was used in Jerusalem at that time:
"We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, very God, by whom all things were made; who appeared in the flesh, and became man of the Virgin and the Holy Ghost; was crucified and was buried; rose on the third day; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead; of whose kingdom there shall be no end. And in one Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who spake in the Prophets. And in one baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; and in one holy Catholic Church; and in the resurrection of the flesh, and in life everlasting." 
If you compare these creeds, you find they follow a similar outline, which suggests that they have a common origin. At the Council of Nicea (the First Ecumenical Council), the big debate was about the proposed addition of one word to the creed: "homoousia," which means "of one [or the same] essence". Thus affirming that Christ is not some other being, but truly God in every respect. There were those who argued instead for the term "homoiousia," which has only one iota added to it, but that one iota of difference changes the meaning of the word to "of similar essence". There were also those who argued against both additions because by this time the older form of the Creed had been long in use, and this word was not found in Scripture, and did not have much of a history otherwise in the Tradition of the Church. However the insertion of this word expressed the faith of the Church that Christ was truly God, and not some created demigod, and so this is what the Council of Nicea affirmed.

But there is always a reluctance to change things that are so important in the life of the Church, and so the fact that the Nicene Creed used words to clearly reflect Trinitarian theology in response to the teachings of the Arians (who asserted that there was a time which Christ did not exist, and that he was a creature, and not truly God) was sufficient. And if you consider where you would have inserted the word "Trinity" to the Creed, it would have had to have been in the first line, but that was one line that no one disputed. Also, one could affirm the use of the term "Trinity" and yet still deny that Christ was fully God, and coexistent with the Father. The Creed, however, clarifies what we mean in precise terms.

The Creed of Nicea was further refined at the Second Ecumenical Council (the First Council of Constantinople), because there were then heretics who likewise disputed whether the Holy Spirit was really a distinct person of the Trinity, and so additional wording was added to the Creed to affirm that He in fact is. And so it was these two councils that provide us with what we now know as the Nicene Creed, which we use, not only at baptisms, but at every Liturgy, in in our daily prayers.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Taking Orthodoxy As It Is

Fr. Marc Dunaway, who was one of the leaders of the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission, which 30 years ago was received into the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Phillip. He is the rector of the Saint John the Evangelist Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska, and he wrote an essay earlier this year in which he laid out his suggestions for how we should take Orthodoxy to America, in the light of his experience of the last three decades:
Taking Orthodoxy to America -- Thirty Years Later
Much of what he says in this essay reflects an approach to the Church that Fr. Marc might have written 30 years ago, because it has more to do with the Protestant Church growth movement's approach to giving people what they want than it does with Orthodox Tradition.

He writes:
"The worship of the Church must clearly be a common, corporate act where everyone participates according to his role, whether as priest or deacon, reader or lay person, man or woman. Practically this means we need to encourage congregational singing of the main, regular hymns in every service. This is something many Americans expect when they “go to Church.” They want to sing, and there are plenty of beautiful Orthodox hymns that will make this possible."
While the full participation of the laity in the services is certainly a good thing, one common way that the laity have participated fully in the services is by simply coming to the services, standing in prayer, and receiving the mysteries. One doesn't have to be "doing something" else in order to fully participate.

Also, while there are some traditions of congregational singing in the Orthodox Church, such as among the Carpatho-Russians, congregational singing has not been the norm for most Orthodox Christians. In Russian practice the laity are usually encourage to sing along with the Creed and the "Our Father", but generally it is the choir that sings the rest of the services. Though nothing prevents anyone from singing along with the choir if they wish to. And if they sing well, they are generally welcomed to join the choir.
"The prayers of the priest, especially those in the Divine Liturgy, need to be said aloud so that all can hear and knowledgeably give their assent with a meaningful “Amen.” Happily, this same exhortation is also put forth in the recent book, The Heavenly Banquet by Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis, a priest from the Greek tradition, and by many other respected liturgists and teachers as well."
I've address this issue recently in another article (See: Stump the Priest: Secret Prayers), but here again, the Tradition of the Church has been very clear on this issue, and so I would ask why exactly is it that we "need" to say these prayers aloud, and on the basis of what in the Tradition of the Church does Fr. Marc come to this conclusion?
The Kiss of Peace (whether as a hand-shake or an embrace) in the Divine Liturgy should be exchanged among the people and not just by the concelebrating clergy at the altar. This is a custom stemming from biblical times, and its falling into dis-use may have weakened the participation of the people and undermined their identity as the people of God, united to one another in Christian love. A few may frown at the bustle this causes, but for the laity it is meaningful, as long as the dialogue is kept to the liturgical greeting, “Christ is in our midst. He is and ever shall be.”
I don't think we have a clear idea of how the kiss of peace may have functioned among the laity in the early Church, but we have to assume that the Holy Spirit has guided the Church, and that there are reasons why the Tradition is the way that we have received it. I spoke some years ago to a pious Orthodox lay woman who was attending a parish in which the practice Fr. Marc describes had been imposed, and she told me that she and several other single women had to stand in the back of the Church and make themselves scarce during this demonstration, because single men always seemed to seek them out especially, and they found the attention creepy. If there was anything like this practice in the early Church, perhaps the holiness of the average layman at that time prevented such problems, but we are not in the early Church. We don't impose strict discipline to prevent wayward members from being in the Church for the Eucharist, and so we can't selectively try to emulate their practices and have them work the same way they may have worked back then.
"The language of the Liturgy has to be the language of the people. The language of modern America is not Shakespearean English, and it makes little sense to perpetuate “Thee’s” and “Thou’s” and archaic verb forms in our prayers. If we do, we may eventually end up in the same situation as the modern Russians and Greeks, who use a liturgical language that is incomprehensible to the common people."
For more details on this issue, see: King James English and Orthodox Worship, but the Tradition of the Church has never been to translate the services into the language of the street, but rather to use an elevated form of the language in question. And while there are some obscurities in texts from 400 years ago, most Orthodox texts do not use the real obscurities you find occasionally in the King James text of the Bible, and so are not at all difficult to understand.

Not long ago someone asked me about a Chinese Orthodox liturgical text that they had found, and they sent me a photo of some of the text. I asked my wife (who neither grew up in an English speaking country, nor speaking English, much less Shakespearean English) what it said, and after more than 25 years of hearing the services in Traditional Liturgical English, she e-mailed back a quick translation of several of the hymns, which she very naturally did using the King James English she had become familiar with, and she did it without any errors in the forms of the pronouns or the verbs. If someone from Guizhou, China, can understand that form of English, I think the average American who was born here can as well.
"Feast day liturgies need to be done at a time when working people can attend. This means either Vesperal-Liturgies in the early evening on the Eve of a Feast or else, on some occasions, an evening Liturgy on the Day of the Feast itself. Rigidly insisting that weekday Liturgies be done in the mid-morning while most people have to work deprives sincere Christians of an essential part the liturgical life of the Church."
For more details on the problems with this suggestion, see: Why doing Vesperal Liturgies in the place of the appointed services is a bad idea, but this approach shows a lack of understanding of what Vesperal Liturgies are for. Vesperal Liturgies that are actually called for in the Typikon are always appointed on days of fasting, and this is because on a strict fast, one would traditionally not eat or drink anything all day, until the evening, at which time they might eat some simple meal. Thus Vesperal Liturgies put off the liturgy until evening for that purpose. In the practice that Fr. Marc proposes, instead of doing the Vesperal Liturgy for a fast day, you take the Liturgy of a Feast day, and tack it onto a truncated version of the Vespers of the Feast, and cut out almost all of the actual hymnody and readings of the Feast. As such, it is an abuse, which significantly distorts the Liturgical Tradition of the Church.
"The Iconostasis of the Church needs to be open enough to give a view of the Altar and to let the people know they are co-celebrants of the Liturgy and not passive spectators to something performed for them by the clergy."
This Vatican II inspired notion that the people need to see everything actually has the opposite effect of the one suggested. Traditionally, people stand, and pray, and they mostly see Icons, which help them to pray. When everyone is seated in pews, and everything is done for their viewing, they are made into the very passive spectators that Fr. Marc hopes to prevent them from becoming.
"A super-size Icon of the Mother of God in the apse of the Church may be a beautiful liturgical statement about how she is a picture of the praying Church, but it will confuse most people in America. There are other legitimate Icons that can be put in this location, such as the Mystical Supper or the Ascension, and we would be wise to draw from these, if we do not want some people to walk into the Church and walk right out even before they hear an explanation."
This is, again, the Protestant Church growth movement way of looking at the services. Tailor the services to attract the most people, and make them "seeker sensitive". Traditionally, however, evangelism is what we do outside of the context of worship. The worship services are for the already converted believer, who (if he really has converted) will not object to the Traditional placement of iconography.
"Every parish should have a deacon or two and the vision of multiple clergy in a parish needs to become standard. This is an important way we can energize the lay people to use their own gifts and accomplish all the work of the Church that needs done. (And perhaps the emerging movement to restore deaconesses will find traction and someday be blessed as well.)"
I would agree that having a deacon on a parish level is a good thing, and it certainly makes the services flow much more smoothly. However, deacons are not laymen, and so making more deacons is not going to particularly energize the laity. And the problem with the proposals for "restoring" deaconesses is that the proposals are not that we restore deaconesses to do what they actually were in ancient times, but to make them into female deacons, which is quite a different matter. This is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to push the ordination of women priests. For more on why that is a bad idea I would recommend this discussion between Fr. Chad Hatfield and Fr. Lawrence Farley: Voices from St. Vladimir: Deaconesses.
"Converts should not be required to change their names when they are baptized, chrismated or ordained. Of course, every Orthodox Christian should have a patron saint, but here in a new, Orthodox land, we need to sanctify new names just as happened in other lands in times past. Orthodoxy is the universal Church, embracing all cultures and all people, including their names."
If someone who converts as an adult has a perfectly good Christian name, I always encourage them to keep it. But when Orthodoxy has gone to new lands it has always baptized people using Christian names, and though the people may not always have used those names in their day to day lives, they at least used them in Church. If you take St. Vladimir, for an example, we know him as "St. Vladimir" and that name is now a Christian name, but we still remember that in baptism, his name was "Basil". He did not simply have St. Basil as his patron saint, he had "Basil" as his Christian name.
"Finally, Orthodox clergy should consider whether it is wise to routinely dress in cassocks, vests and traditional hats “around town.” The ancient “Epistle to Diognetus” says early Christians were distinguished by their piety not their dress. Perhaps someday we will have an attire for American Orthodox clergy that does not stand out as strange and at the same time distinguishes us from Roman Catholic clergy."
There are some logical flaws here. The epistle to Diognetus is speaking about the average layman, and it was also written during times of the persecution of the Church. But also, Fr. Marc is not suggesting that Orthodox clergy dress like laymen, and so this hardly advances his argument. He rather is arguing that we adopt a style of clergy attire that does not seem strange, but which also distinguishes our clergy from Roman Catholic clergy. But this also presents a problem, because either the attire will be like what people are used to (and therefore similar to either Roman Catholic or Protestant clerical attire), or it will be distinguished from them, and therefore be different from what most people are used to. Furthermore, it wasn't all that long ago when Roman Catholic clergy wore cassocks that were relatively close in their appearance to the Traditional attire of Orthodox Clergy.

In the classic Bing Crosby movie, Going My Way (1944)Barry Fitzgerald played the old Irish priest Father Fitzgibbon, and he is seen wearing an old fashioned Roman Catholic cassock as well as a clerical biretta which looks no less odd than an Orthodox skufia.

Aside from that, in the 27th Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, it was decreed that:
"None who is counted with the clergy should dress inappropriately, when in the city, nor when travelling. Each should use the attire which was appointed for clergy members. If someone breaks this rule, may he be deprived of serving for one week."
And so Orthodox priests should be dressed in accordance with the Orthodox Tradition.

An Orthodox priest who is dressed in traditional clerical attire is easily identified, and that is why the practice exists. It makes it easy for people to recognize him, and so they are able to approach him for blessings and to ask for prayers, or for help with other spiritual needs. It also reminds the priest of who he is, and what he is supposed to be. I have had countless conversations with Orthodox and Non-Orthodox people alike that would not likely have happened if I was either wearing street clothes, or dressed like a Roman Catholic priest. And with the unfortunate reputation that Catholic priests have acquired in recent decades, particularly when it comes to children, I was always glad that when I was out in public with my own children that I was not assumed to be a Roman Catholic priest.


There are real problems in the Church that need to be addressed, and there are abuses that have become entrenched in some areas that deserve to be challenged, but a proper Orthodox approach to Orthodox Tradition is that when it comes to the authentic Traditions of the Church, we do not try to change them, but rather we strive to let them change us.

There are many things that we can learn from Protestants and Roman Catholics. Even the Church Growth movement has some things that we can actually use (for example, there are some sociological realities in terms of Church Growth that are helpful to know (see, for example some of the points made in Starting a Mission and Building a Parish). But when it comes to how we do our services, or to traditional Orthodox piety, we need to humbly follow the best examples of the Tradition that has been handed down to us from the saints that have gone before us. We need to drink from our own well, and not seek out broken cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13).

For More Information:

Renewing the Mind: Acquiring an Orthodox outlook

Unfortunate Trends in the Roman Catholic Church (where modernist liturgical reform ends up)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Cultural Marxism and Public Orthodoxy

One could make a career of responding to all of the nonsense that "Public Orthodoxy" spews on a regular basis.

Recently, Ashley Purpura has made the unlikely argument that the services of the Church somehow promote gender fluidity, in her [dare I presume her binary gender?] article: "Beyond the Binary: Hymnographic Constructions of Orthodox Gender,"which begins with the manifestly ridiculous assertion:
"Much like gender itself, Orthodox understandings of gender span a spectrum of diverse views."
Of course, anyone with any concern for the truth who actually knows anything about the Orthodox Church knows that this is not even slightly true. There is not the most microbial fragment of a basis for such an absurd claim. Not even the remotest hint of such a microbial fragment....

But how does this presumably intelligent and educated woman come to make such a baseless statement? One has to be extremely mal-educated to ignore all of the evidence to the contrary of her thesis.

To provide the thinest of a veneer of something like evidence, she argues that there are hymns that celebrate the bravery and endurance of certain women martyrs that speak of their "manly" courage. And so we have to assume that Orthodox monks, who for the most part are the authors of such hymns, secretly wished to promote gender fluidity.

What other evidence does she cite? Well, in our hymns, male chanters sometimes read hymns that speak in the voice of women characters. For example, at the feast of the Annunciation, at the canon, there is a dialogue between the Archangel Gabriel and the the Virgin Mary, and so the fact that a man would read this canon is somehow an example of "gender-bending." By this logic, no one could ever read the Bible aloud without falling into "gender-bending" at some point, since they will inevitably speak words that were spoken by members of the opposite sex.

And so we are supposed to conclude that centuries before anyone ever knew that gender-bending was a thing, the hymns of the Church expressed a widely diverse perspective on gender, and embraced the notion that gender is "fluid"

But then Ms. Purpura asks how it is that the hymns of the Church could embrace gender fluidity when "so much elsewhere in the tradition... reinforces gender expression exclusively along an essentialized binary". Of course the simple solution to this concocted problem is to come to the reasonable, and historically defensible conclusion that Ms. Purpura's starting premise is nonsense, and then no such problem exists.

But the most perplexing question here is how it is possible for someone who is educated and intelligent to come to a conclusion that is so obviously lacking in any actual basis in history or evidence? Well, if we look at her bio at Purdue University, we find the answer. There we find that she
"...reevaluates Byzantine constructions of ecclesiastical hierarchy in light of critical theory...." 
What does that mean? That means she uses a Marxist approach on the material she studies. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Critical Theory:
Critical Theory seeks to analyze what it studies in terms of Marxist theories of class struggle, and to identify who the oppressors are, and who are the oppressed in any given context, and to interpret their subject matter in ways that liberate the oppressed. So you see, Ms. Purpura most likely does not really believe that centuries of Orthodox monks have been promoting ideas of gender fluidity, but the LGBTQWXYZ community today is (in her view) "oppressed" by ""cisgendered" Orthodox, and so if she can "reinterpret" Orthodox hymnody in a way that helps to liberate the oppressed, it doesn't really matter what the actual truth is, it only matters that the oppressed are liberated from their oppressors.

And all of this is designed simply to overturn the existing order, in order to pave the way for something new. Never mind that the history of Marxism, when put into practice has resulted in the worst slaughter and misery the human race has ever seen. Truth doesn't matter, because, they hope that just maybe... despite all human experience up until now, the next attempts at a Marxist utopia will work in practice as well as its devotees think it works in theory.

One has to wonder, at what point does Archbishop Demetrios in particular and the Greek Archdiocese in general, become bothered by their close association with the so-called "Orthodox Christian Studies Center" at Fordham University, which so consistently promotes the LGBTQWXYZ agenda, not to mention pretty much everything else they publish contrary to actual Orthodox Christian teaching.

Update: In the fuller version of the article, which is referenced at the end, and found here:

We find the following statement which crosses the line into outright blasphemy:
"Despite stemming from a Byzantine tradition that sanctifies a literary corpus of transvestite or andromimetic nuns, homoerotic mystical imagery, and a patristic tradition of resolving gender division on the path to salvation, present-day Orthodox Christianity through its official and public hierarchical channels maintains a gender binary and the cisgender performance of that binary as normative and spiritually necessary" (p. 528).
When she speaks of "transvestite or andromimetic nuns" she is referring to nuns like St. Theodora of Alexandria, who was a married woman who fell into adultery, and in repentance decided to become a nun, but because she feared that he husband would find her, chose to dress as a man and go to a monastery, where her husband would never think to look. She was later falsely accused of having fathered an illegitimate child, and she did not defend herself, endured the shame, and raised the child herself. Her innocence was only discovered at her death (see her life for more). Such examples are unusual, but exceptional cases due to circumstances, and the Church commemorates her as a woman, not as a man, and certainly not as a gender fluid person of some other non-binary category. To use such examples to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or transsexualism is ridiculous. The suggestion that the services are full of homoerotic imagery is both perverse and blasphemous. The farthest thing from the minds of the hymnographers of the Church would have been anything remotely supportive of the homosexual or gender-queer agenda.

For more information, see:

'The Frankfurt School, from "In Our Time BBC Radio 4"

Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism, by Jordan B Peterson

Orthodoxy Today has more on the views of Ashley Purpura:

Ashley Purpura: Orthodox Church Needs Women Priests and Bishops

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

2018 St. Innocent Liturgical Calendar Ready for Order

You can now place your orders for the 2018 St. Innocent Liturgical Calendar. In addition to providing liturgical rubrics based on the Jordanville Calendar (Troitskij Pravoslavnij Russkij Kalendar), the calendar also includes a liturgical color chart. The cost is $32.95 Bookstore discounts are available based on the quantity ordered. The Calendar can also be ordered in PDF format. All Calendars are according to the Julian Calendar. To order, and for more information, see:

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Stump the Priest: Seminarians and Cassocks

Seminarians at Holy Trinity Seminary, Jordanville, New York

Question: "Why do seminarians wear the cassock?"

Seminaries are a relatively recent thing in Church history. The first seminaries were established in the wake of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation in the 16th century, and were only later adopted as a model by both Orthodox and Protestants.

The first Orthodox Seminary was the Kiev Theological Academy, which was founded in 1615, on the grounds of the Theophany Monastery. Perhaps because of this historical connection of Orthodox seminaries with monasteries the practice is for Orthodox Seminarians to wear a cassock and a monastic belt, just as would a novice monastic.

The Holy Trinity Seminary Student Handbook says the following about the wearing of a cassock by seminarians:
"Being a theological school, Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary is guided in its activities by canon law. In accordance with the canons and decisions of the Orthodox Church, all inhabitants of the monastery are obligated to be in obedience to the Abbot.
Students enter the theological seminary wearing cassocks and belts like novices in the monastery but with a specially modified regime. Therefore they are obliged to submit to the seminary and monastery authorities according to the dictates of their consciences and Christian obedience which call for humility and respect for spiritual superiors. Students must be clearly aware of these things and must consider beforehand whether they are really inspired by an Orthodox Christian attitude, and whether it makes sense for them to study in the Seminary under such conditions."
Most seminaries are still connected with monasteries, and participation in the liturgical life of the monastery is one of the more important aspects of an Orthodox seminary education.

Bishop Irenei (Steenberg) had the following observations regarding the traditions of wearing a cassock (podryasnik) and an outer cassock (ryasa), in a discussion on his website:
"The normal custom vis-a-vis cassocks varies between the Byzantine and Russian traditions.
In general terms, and largely common to both traditions, the inner cassock (in Russian the подрясник) is to be worn by all persons in tonsure - that is, by all those of the higher orders of the clergy (bishops, priests, deacons), all those of the lesser orders (subdeacons and readers), as well as by monastics, and often (though not always) by seminarians. It is fundamentally a sign both of the obedience of the tonsure (in the cases of all but seminarians), and of self-effacement. In proper terms, no person in any of these categories should be in the church without being attired properly in the подрясник.
Practices regarding the outer cassock, the ряса, vary by tradition:
  • In the Russian tradition, it is the more formal outer garment of bishops, priests, deacons and monastics (of the rank of ryassophor, named specifically for the wearing of this garment, which is in origin monastic), worn over (not instead of) the cassock. The ряса is not normally worn by subdeacons or readers, and never by seminarians. In normal Russian practice, one receives a blessing to wear the ряса either on ordination to the diaconate, or when advancing in the monastic life.
  • In the Byzantine tradition, the same general practice often applies; however, it is common for readers to wear this outer garment when reading in church (usually without the cassock beneath, unique to Byzantine practice) - and in some cases others also will wear the ryassa in the same manner (choir directors, etc)." (March 30, 2007).
For More Information, See:

Priestly Attire

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Stump the Priest: Secret Prayers

Question: "Why does our parish not do all of the anaphora prayers out loud?"

The quick answer to this question is because our bishop, the service books, the Typikon and the unbroken Tradition of the Church all agree that we should do it the way we do.

Now for the longer answer...

The practice of the priest or bishop saying many prayers in a low voice is the undoubted ancient and universal Tradition of the Church. Robert Taft who is a Jesuit liturgical scholar, and a staunch advocate of liturgical "reform" makes this very clear in the opening statement of an article he wrote on this subject:
"In one liturgical tradition after another, the modern Liturgical Movement has swept aside the age-old custom of reciting at least certain liturgical prayers, especially the most solemn prayer of the eucharistic anaphora, in secret" ("Was the Eucharistic Anaphora Recited Secretly or Aloud? The Ancient Tradition and What Became of It" in Worship Traditions in Armenia and the Neighboring Christian East, ed. Roberta R. Ervine, AVANT Series, Book 3, St. Nerses Armenian Seminary, New Rochelle, NY (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2006), p. 15).
And he says that like it is a good thing. He is celebrating the fact that in the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, and in many of the ancient Churches, including some in the Orthodox Church, there has been a movement to do all or almost all of these prayers aloud. But he acknowledges in doing so, that prior to the 20th century, the universal practice of every ancient Church had been to do these prayers "secretly".

What do we mean by "Secret"?

Before we go any further, we should clarify what we mean by "secretly". There are many prayers that a priest does aloud; but there are prayers that the service books say, and Tradition instructs, that the priest should say them with a relatively quiet voice. Depending on the size of a church building, how many are present, and whether the choir sometimes finishes singing before the priest has finished these prayers, you either may never hear any of these prayers at all, if you are standing with the faithful, or you may occasionally hear at least part of these prayers.These prayers are typically said in something louder than a whisper, but not in way intended to be easily heard by all.

The Greek word that is translated in the rubrics as "secretly," or "quietly," or "in a low voice," is "mystikos", and the meaning of that word is pretty clear. The word "mystikos" occurs only once in the Septuagint, and that is in 3rd Maccabees. The NRSV text of that verse reads as follows:
"And already some of their neighbors and friends and business associates had taken some of them aside privately and were pledging to protect them and to exert more earnest efforts for their assistance" (3rd Maccabees 3:10 NRSV).
The New English Translation of the Septuagint reads:
"Even now neighbors, friends and co-workers were quietly drawing some aside, assuring them that they would support them and do the utmost to help them" (3rd Maccabees 3:10 NETS).
In context, these are people who had good reason to fear what they said might be overheard by others, and so would have been speaking in something close to whispers.

Could the Entire Church be Wrong for Most of its History?

Robert Taft tries to make the argument that in the early Church, these prayers were said aloud, and so this, along with the supposed benefits of the people being able to hear these prayers, justifies changing what he acknowledges to have been the universal Christian practice. First off, I don't believe he is correct, but before we get into that, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he is correct about the practice of the early Church. Would that mean that we should revert to that practice?

There have been changes in liturgical practice over time as the Church has adjusted to new circumstances, and many of these are related to the decline of the strict discipline of the Church after the age of the early persecutions of the Church, and so it is not inconceivable that if there was such a change, this might have been the reason for it (See: Liturgical Fossils). Few would want to go back to a system in which people who had sinned seriously had to stand outside the Church and ask for those who entered to pray for them. Cherry picking the practices from the early Church that you may like is Jurassic Park Liturgics, and contrary to a sound Orthodox mindset.

The key question here is whether or not you actually believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church. It is certainly possible that portions of the Church can fall into error. It has happened many times in Church history. But if you believe that the practice of saying the anaphora prayers secretly is an error, you are arguing that the entire Church fell into error at the most significant point of its most significant worship service. This is something that a right believing Orthodox Christian cannot agree with (See: Are the Ecumenical Councils Infallible?).

Not only do the traditional service books of the Church universally instruct the clergy to say certain prayers secretly, but the Typikon likewise instructs the clergy to do so (see, for example, Chapter 2 of the Typikon (which gives the general rubrics for serving Vespers) which instructs the priest to say certain prayers secretly at several points in the service). Even the Ecumenical Canons of the Church make reference to secret prayers (See Canon 19 of Laodicea).

What was the Practice of the Early Church?

The noted liturgical scholar, Louis Bouyer, refutes the common claim that there is proof that the early Church said these prayers aloud:
"Actually, we do not have any clear statement on the question in the patristic period. The arguments which people seem to think furnish proof for the fact of the recitation aloud of the Eucharist in antiquity, are generally merely inferences drawn from the importance attached by the Fathers to the people's final "Amen." But at least for twelve centuries in the West, and for still more in certain regions at least of the East, the people gave this "Amen" in response to a few words uttered aloud by the priest in concluding, and they never seems to have been concerned about hearing or even knowing exactly what he might have said previously and inaudibly for their sake" (Louis Bouye, Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer, Charles Underhill Quinn, trans, (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 367).
Robert Taft talks at length about the fact that it was uncommon in ancient times for people to read without reading audibly, but this really proves nothing. These prayers were not normally said without any sound whatsoever, but there were said in a much lower voice, which in a large Church, would have generally been inaudible to most of the people. This does not mean that in a small Church, people would have not been able to hear at least some of these prayers. Even today, in Churches that still follow this practice, there are often times when the choir has finished singing, and the people are able to hear portions of these prayers.

The most compelling piece of evidence that Robert Taft cites is from the Life of St. Melania the Younger, who reposed in 439 a.d., and on the day of her death a priest celebrated the liturgy at her request, and it says that while the priest was serving, in great grief, he was unable to speak up, and when St. Melania did not hear the epiclesis, she called out to him "Raise your voice so that I will hear the epiclesis" (Taft, p. 34). But this hardly proves the case here. For one thing, it seems unlikely that this was served in a large cathedral with many people in attendance, but probably in something more like a chapel, and with few people present. I doubt that the saint would have disrupted the prayers of others by shouting out her request from a great distance.

When I was a newly ordained priest, I began by serving in a relatively small room in my home, and by necessity, there was no iconostasis. It was a very intimate setting, and everyone who was present at these services heard the secret prayers that I said, even though I still said them in a lower voice than I did those prayers that are appointed to be said aloud. I am sure that this is also true in many small monastic chapels, even with an iconostasis.

He also cited a story about children, who had the custom of standing near the sanctuary during the liturgy, who were found "playing Church," and recited from memory the prayers of the anaphora. But this could be explained simply because they were standing in close proximity to the clergy, and so could hear what he was saying, even though it was said in a lower voice. My archbishop says that he learned these same prayers because he held the service book for St. John of Shanghai when he was a boy, and had to know when to turn the pages for him. It's an unusual thing for a child to pick up, but if they are eager to do so, and are close enough to hear these prayers, it is possible.

A law established by the Emperor St. Justinian is also cited as evidence in favor of saying these prayers aloud. though it actually demonstrates just the opposite.

In Novella 137, St. Justinian decreed:
"We further direct that all the bishops and presbyters shall pronounce the prayers in connection with the holy Eucharist and holy baptism not silently but with a voice which may be heard by the faithful, so that the hearts of the hearers may be thereby aroused to a greater contrition and a greater praise of God." 
But while it is clear from this that St. Justinian was not fond of the practice, the fact that he did not refer to it as a new "abuse", but clearly speaks of it as the common practice that he is seeking to change shows that it was the practice prior to his time, and the evidence shows that it remained the practice after his time, despite this decree and threats of civil punishment for those who violated it.

But Robert Taft references one bit of evidence that I think undercuts all of his other arguments. He mentions Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was a contemporary of St. John Chrysostom, and writes:
"Theodore of Mopsuestia's (+428) Homilies 15-16 on the eucharistic liturgy, written probably in Antioch ca. 388-392, stress repeatedly that silence is a sign of reverence. And from the summary prefaced to Homily 16, one might infer that the anaphora was recited in a low voice, since it asserts that the bishop raises his voice for the Sanctus" (Taft, p. 36).
Here is the quotation in question:
"We do not cast away the awe from our mind, but on account of the greatness of the things that are taking place, we keep it throughout the service equally, and we bow our heads both before and after we recite loudly the Sanctus, and make manifest this fear in a congruous way" (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on the Lord's Prayer, Baptism and the Eucharist (1933), trans. Alphonse Mingana, <;>, retrieved 10-3-2017.
But even more clear is the following, from the same text:
"The priest recites quietly these prayers, and immediately after, takes the holy bread with his hands and looks towards heaven, and directs his eyes upwards. He offers a prayer of thanksgivings for these great gifts, and breaks the bread."
Both Theodore of Mopsuestia and St. John Chrysostom were from Antioch, and if this was the practice that Theodore knew, we can be highly confident that this was also the practice that St. John Chrysostom knew, and so as far as I am concerned, that ought to settle the question.

Furthermore, if you look at the various classic liturgical commentaries from the saints of the Church, they all speak of these prayers as being done secretly.

Moreover  the fact that the Nestorians and  the Monophysites all followed this same practice is proof positive that this practice predates these ancient divisions.

What's the Point?

The point of saying these prayers secretly is not to ensure that no one else hears a word of them. It seems to me that there are three reasons why some prayers are said secretly:

1). One reason is that many of these prayers are clearly personal prayers of the priest, for example, at the beginning of the Cherubic Hymn, the priest says this prayer:
 "None is worthy among them that are bound with carnal lusts and pleasures, to approach or to draw nigh, or to minister unto Thee, O King of glory, for to serve Thee is a great and fearful thing even unto the heavenly hosts themselves.  Yet because of Thine ineffable and immeasurable love for mankind, without change or alteration Thou didst become man, and didst become our High Priest, and didst deliver unto us the ministry of this liturgical and bloodless sacrifice, for Thou art the Master of all.  Thou alone, O Lord our God, dost rule over those in heaven and those on earth, art borne upon the throne of the Cherubim, art Lord of the Seraphim and King of Israel, Thou alone art holy and restest in the saints.  I implore Thee, therefore, Who alone art good and inclined to listen: Look upon me, Thy sinful and unprofitable servant, and purge my soul and heart of a wicked conscience, and, by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, enable me, who am clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this Thy Holy Table, and to perform the sacred Mystery of Thy holy and immaculate Body and precious Blood.  For unto Thee do I draw nigh, bowing my neck, and I pray Thee: Turn not Thy countenance away from me, neither cast me out from among Thy children, but vouchsafe that these gifts be offered unto Thee by me, Thy sinful and unworthy servant: For Thou art He that offereth and is offered, that accepteth and is distributed, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, together with Thine unoriginate Father, and Thy Most holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages." 
The prayer is clearly intended to help the priest prepare himself spiritually for the more sacred moments of the Liturgy that he is about to perform.

2). There are also some prayers in which the priest is clearly praying for the people, and evidently the Church did not think it necessary for the people to hear these particular prayers said on their behalf, such as the prayer at the bowing of the heads at the end of Vespers:
"O Lord our God, remember us, Thy sinful and  unprofitable servants, when we call upon Thy holy, venerable name, and turn us not away in shame from the expectation of Thy mercy; but grant us, O Lord, all our petitions, which are unto salvation, and vouchsafe us to love and fear Thee with our whole heart, and to do Thy will in all things."
3). When it comes to the anaphora prayers, specifically, we say these prayers secretly to demonstrate the sacredness of the words and of the liturgical moment that is taking place. As Cyril Quatrone observes:
     "In our Liturgy, that which is most precious, most holy, is veiled. The altar is covered by an iconostasis, which has for its purpose, ironically, the uniting of the two areas of the Church. The iconostasis is the opposite of a barrier. Far from cutting us off from what is behind it, it mystically brings us into the very presence of the altar.
     The Holy Gifts are covered during the entrance. Again, this is part of the hierarchical nature as well as a mystical aspect of our worship. That which we are to consume, and which is to become part of our very selves, is hidden from our eyes....
     Likewise, some prayers are covered from our ears because of their preciousness to God. While the choir sings during the anaphora, "the bishop first saith secretly the Prayer of invocation, then three times the prayer of the Third Hour... These are indeed the most solemn moments of the spiritual worship in the services of the Eastern Orthodox Church" [Bishop Theophilus, A Short History of the Christian Church and the Ritual of the Eastern of the Orthodox Church, (San Francisco: Douglass Brothers, 1934), p. 46] Thus, the anaphora certainly qualifies as a time to be covered in the mystical silence of unknowing, so that our sensual conduits of information do not obstruct the noetic apprehension of the incorporeal truths expressed by the Divine Sacrifice (The Celebrant: Priest or Pastor. An Investigation of the Mystical Prayers of the Divine Services of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, Orthodox Life 46/4 (1996), p. 29).

While I would acknowledge that there are many sincere and pious people who today argue in favor of saying these prayers aloud, in additional to all that has been said, I would say in response to the arguments regarding the great benefits that allegedly accrue to the laity when these prayers are said in their hearing, that there is no sign of a spiritual revival in those Churches that have begun to do so. In fact, if you look at what post-Vatican II liturgical reform has done to the Roman Catholic Church, I would say that the evidence is quite to the contrary. It is the spirit of modernism that is behind these pushes for the "renovation" of our services, and this is a spirit alien to the Christian Faith.

Depending on your age, you might recall the TV show from the 70's called "The Six Million Dollar Man." The basic setting of this show was that a very athletic astronaut (Lee Majors) is seriously injured in an accident, so much so that military scientists reconstruct his body using super duper high tech bionic parts -- which make him better than he was before his accident. He can now leap over tall buildings in a single bound! He's faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Each show began with an intro that showed his accident, the scientists and doctors working busily to save him and then the lead scientist would say confidently "We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than before."

I first encountered religious bionics among my more liberal Protestant professors in college. Their attitude towards the Bible was the same as these scientists towards Lee Majors -- the Bible was a hideous historical accident of texts and views that happened to collide into one collection of books, but they had the technology. They could rebuild it. Not only that, but they could make it better than it has ever been. For thousands of years, no one had really understood the Bible -- but now these clever scholars had the knowledge to see the Bible for what it really was, and to reconstruct its real meaning. The Apostles might have been fooled. The Fathers of the Church might have been fooled. But not them!

I first encountered this approach among the Orthodox when I read a book by an Orthodox Liturgical scholar who approached the Services just as my Protestant professors did the Bible -- it was deja vu, all over again. The services were a mess of haphazard layers of traditions -- most of which had lost their meaning because of the current shape and understanding that prevails in the Church today. In fact, no one had really understood the services for at least a thousand years or more -- and even before that, probably they didn't get it either. Only now that these clever scholars have arrived on the scene has their true meaning been unveiled because now "We have the technology.  We can rebuilt it."

I don't believe either the Scriptures or the Liturgical Tradition of the Church were formed in a haphazard manner. I believe the Holy Spirit inspired them, and guided their shaping into the form that the Church has handed down to us, and I do not believe it is possible that not only all of the Orthodox Church, but even all of Christendom could have fallen into error on a universal practice such as this.

For More Information, see:

Friday, September 29, 2017

Stump the Priest: Oaths

Question: "Since Christ forbids us to make oaths (Matthew 5:33-36),why does the Orthodox Church allow them?"

First of all, it should be noted that that it is not the Orthodox Church only that allows oaths under solemn and justifiable circumstances, but so do Roman Catholics and most mainstream Protestants.

For example, see:

 The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Oaths,

The Westminster Confession, Chapter 22 (Of Lawful Oaths and Vows)

A lawful oath is made when one soberly calls God to witness to the truth of what they say, or to assure others of their commitment to fulfill a vow.

Examples of such oaths are found throughout Scripture. For example, Abraham made his servant swear an oath that he would fulfill his wishes regarding his son Isaac (Genesis 24). There are numerous laws regarding proper oaths (e.g., Numbers 30; Deuteronomy 23:21-23). One of the clear applications of the third commandment ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Exodus 20:7) is with regard to making false oaths. God also commanded people to be bound by oaths in legal disputes (Exodus 22:11-12Numbers 5:19). Even Christ was placed under oath ("I adjure (εξορκιζω, which means "I place under oath") thee by the Living God") by Caiaphas, and He did not refuse to answer accordingly (Matthew 26:63;

St. Paul called God as his witness in his epistles on several occasions:
"Moreover I call God for a witness against my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth" (2 Corinthians 1:23).
"For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers" (Romans 1:9).
"Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not” (Galatians 1:20).
1 Timothy 1:10 mentions "false-swearers" (perjurers) among a lists of persons whose sins are opposed to sound doctrine -- and if all oaths were sinful, it would have made more sense to simply lump all those who take oaths together, whether they kept them or not.

We find that even God Himself swears oaths (Deuteronomy 7:8; Luke 1:73Hebrews 6:16-17). And in fact,  Deuteronomy 29:12 speaks of God entering into an oath together with His people:
"That thou shouldest enter into covenant with the Lord thy God, and into His oath, which the Lord Thy God maketh with thee this day."
So what was Christ forbidding in Matthew 5:33-36?
"Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."
The Church teaches that what He was speaking against here were frivolous oaths. People had fallen into the habit of making oaths very lightly, and they had even come up with a system of determining whether an oath was binding or not, based on certain formulas, with the obvious intention of being able to make false oaths without any fear of violating the law, as they had misinterpreted it. Christ spoke of this very specifically, elsewhere in the Gospels:
"Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon" (Matthew 23:16-22)
Christ often used hyperbole to make a point. For example, in the same Sermon on the Mount, after speaking against committing adultery in the heart, Christ said:
"And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell" (Matthew 5:29-30).
If what Christ said here was meant to be taken in an absolutely literal sense, we would have Churches full of maimed and blind people. But in fact the Church specifically forbids taking these words to that extent (see Canons 22, 23 and 24 of the Holy Apostles). This is intentionally hyperbolic to drive home the seriousness with which we should take addressing our sins.

And so we should not make idle oaths. We should treat them with the utmost seriousness, but there are occasions in which they are not only permissible but necessary.

St. Philaret of Moscow, in his Catechism of the Russian Orthodox Church explains the meaning of the Third Commandment, and thus how it applies to oaths, and specifically to Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount:

"On the Third Commandment.
532. When is God's name taken in vain?
It is taken or uttered in vain when it is uttered in vain and unprofitable talk, and still more so when it is uttered lyingly or irreverently.
533. What sins are forbidden by the third commandment?
1. Blasphemy, or daring words against God.
2. Murmuring, or complaining against God's providence.
3. Profaneness; when holy things are jested on, or insulted.
4. Inattention in prayer.
5. Perjury; when men affirm with an oath what is false.
6. Oath-breaking; when men keep not just and lawful oaths.
7. Breach of vows made to God.
8. Common swearing, or thoughtless oaths in common talk.
534. Are not such oaths specially forbidden in holy Scripture?
The Saviour says: I say unto you, Swear not at all, but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. Matt. v. 34, 37.
535. Does not this go to forbid all oaths in civil matters?
The Apostle Paul says: Men swear by the greater; and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath. Heb. vi. 16, 17. Hence we must conclude, that if God himself for an immutable assurance used an oath, much more may we on grave and necessary occasions, when required by lawful authority, take an oath or vow religiously, with the firm intention of not breaking it" (The Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church (1839), in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom. Volume 2: The Creeds of the Greek and Latin Churches (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1993 [reprint]), p 528f). 
For More Information:

Sermon on the Third Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain

Monday, September 18, 2017

Doubling Down on the Game of Thrones

A couple of weeks ago, Steven Christoforou did a "Pop Culture Coffee Hour" podcast that was originally entitled "Can Christians Watch the Game of Thrones?" He got a lot of negative feedback, because his answer to this question was essentially "Yes." He later posted an apology, not for the content of the show that contained the answer to the question, but for the title of the show, which he thinks is the main problem people had with that episode, because it was perhaps too "in your face." So he changed the name of the show to "Good and Evil in the Game of Thrones." The problem was not with the title. The question "Can Christians Watch the Game of Thrones?" is a perfectly good question. The problem was his answer, which he says he still stands by.

The answer to the question should have been "No!"

That could have made for a very brief podcast, but it would have been good if he had spent some time talking about the reasons why Christians should not watch such a show.

The Game of Thrones does not merely have nudity, it has pornographic sex scenes on a frequent basis, not to mention graphic gratuitous violence. I have never watched the show, and don't intend to, but when HBO is having to sue porn sites that are taking clips from the show, and using them as porn, I'm figuring it's porn. So we are not talking about Renaissance art here.

And Steven's podcast did not dispute the frequency or graphic nature of the sexual content of the Game of Thrones. For example, at about the 16:52 mark, his co-host Emma said:
" just focus on the fact that it has, um you know, like rampant sex scenes, or like extreme violence or something, doesn't do the show merit. ... you're not giving the show its worth, like you're just judging kind of, at, like, surface value or what you've heard about it ...but I don't think it's necessary, you know, like I don't think it adds anything to the show."
To which Steven replied:
"Well, yeah, I guess that is the question, right? ... because, like, you have to know your limits on some level, and kind of like you said, like if this is something that is going to be more of a stumbling block for you than anything else, yeah, totally withdraw or fast-forward when you need to fast-forward, or whatever. Um...but my sense is after watching for so long, and after kind of following this series that it's never really gratuitous... um..."
To which Emma replied: "I agree."

Then starting at the 19:39 mark, Steven said:
"But my sense is that it has always been necessary... it's always been part of the unfolding characters, and sort of their longer narrative arc, as we go from season to season, um... but that said, I mean, you know, buyer beware. If you're gonna watch this, be prepared for stuff that is difficult. Be prepared for stuff that's uncomfortable. Um... and if anything, you know like, because it's artistic, it's not gratuitous, it's part of this, sort of, like this artistic web that's being painted... like yeah, it helps to say something about the human condition. It helps to say something about sacrifice... to say something about sin... to say something about all of these things. So, um... it's there for a reason. And if you can take it, if you have the stomach for it, I do think it's worth it."
Then at the 20:30 mark, Steven said:
"You know... It's a great series, but if it's something that, you know, that causes you trouble or whatever, you know, be careful."
Then Emma interjected: "Yeah, absolutely, because it will pop up out of nowhere too."

To which Steven replied: "That's true. That's true."

So obviously, even if we were to accept the idea that you could navigate your way through a TV series with frequent porn scenes by simply fast-forwarding past those scenes, this shows that you obviously can't always see these scenes coming.

But aside from that, someone had to make these shows. Someone's daughter or sister, or son, or brother, had to film these scenes. And someday their children will be able to watch these scenes of their parents engaging in sex acts on the internet for themselves. How is this possibly OK?

Digging the Hole Deeper

To make matters worse, Fr. Andrew Damick and his usual Areopagus co-host Michael Landsman did a show together Steven and his usual co-host Christian Gonzalez (who was not on the original podcast in question) to deal with this controversy, along with an unrelated controversy involving a video that Fr. Andrew and Michael Landsman did together. Some people objected to that video, because Michael Landsman is a Protestant minister and they think that putting a Protestant minister on as a regular co-commentator was compromising the Faith in some way. Now, in the unlikely event that Fr. Andrew should ever ask my opinion about the format of his show, I would share my thoughts with him, but there is nothing inherently objectionable about talking with a Protestant minister about religious issues. It certainly could go in an objectionable direction, but on the other hand, if Michael Landsman eventually converts to Orthodoxy, Fr. Andrew will look like a genius -- and so that issue is all a matter of wisdom at this point, and reasonable people can disagree about it.

You can listen to this podcast here:
In the World, But Not of the World: Purity vs. Engagement (Pop Culture Coffee Hour Crossover)
Unfortunately, mixing these two issues together made for a meandering conversation back and forth between these two separate questions.

Now I should preface my comments by saying a few things. The only person in this podcast who said they watch the Game of Thrones is Steven Christoforou. Fr. Andrew and Christian Gonzalez both specifically said that they do not watch it. I don't think Michael Landsman said whether he watched it or not. Also, Fr. Andrew is a fine preacher, speaker, and writer, and most of his work is excellent. However, in this case, he went way off the mark. I suspect he did so, possibly without intending to go as far as he did, out of a desire to help Steven Christoforou dig himself out of the hole he was in, but instead he only mixed himself up with this mess, and dug the hole deeper.

Fr. Andrew acknowledged that the Game of Thrones contains graphic content, described it as having "people basically, like,  having sex on screen, [and] really, you know, very graphic violence" (17:20).

When it was pointed out that this conversation defended watching the Game of Thrones, Fr. Andrew Damick denied that this was true, however the entire half or more of the show that was dedicated to this topic was a defense of the original Pop Culture podcast, and of how someone could in good conscience watch a show despite such graphic content.

For example, at about the 26:00 mark, Michael Landsman said‏:
"And we should probably say that for some people, you probably shouldn't watch Game of Thrones."
To which Fr. Andrew replied: "Yeah right, yeah..."

This clearly was suggesting that some people can watch the Game of Thrones without it being a problem, and one could easily take it to mean that this would be true of most people.

In addition to this, at one point the graphic content of the Game of Thrones was compared with the Scriptures. Ignoring the fact that the Bible is not a video, and that descriptions of evil acts in Scripture are not written to titillate the reader, whereas there is no doubt that the porn scenes in the Game of Throne are there precisely for that reason -- a somewhat massive difference, making the comparison ridiculous at best.

Watching it was also compared with eating meat sacrificed to idols, which is not something that is inherently evil, according to St. Paul, and so would be a matter of conscience about which different Christians could reach their own conclusions.

Later on in the show, Fr. Andrew said:
"Just to reemphasize, we're not talking about becoming impure. The question is what actually renders you impure. You know...we're not saying... you know... OK watch Game of Thrones and go ahead and just imitate everybody on there..." (47:45).
The obvious implication here is that while you should, of course, not imitate what you see on that show -- watching it does not necessarily involve anything impure.

Men of Stone, Iron, or Flesh?

If, for the sake of argument, we assumed that Steven Christoforou is a one in a billion man who can watch porn scenes without it being a cause for temptation, the problem remains that other people had to sin to produce these films in the first place. And aside from that, all the rest of the male population is not likely to fare so well spiritually.

Here is what St. John Chrysostom had to say about the effects of watching lewd plays in the theater of his time:
"Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”?  “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me?  For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching?  Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass [catches fire].
Why do I talk about the theatre? Often if we meet a woman in the marketplace, we are alarmed. But you sit in your upper seat, where there is such an invitation to outrageous behaviour, and see a woman, a prostitute, entering bareheaded and with a complete lack of shame, dressed in golden garments, flirting coquettishly and singing harlots’ songs with seductive tunes, and uttering disgraceful words. She behaves so shamelessly that if you watch her and give consideration, you will bow your head in shame. Do you dare to say you suffer no human reaction? Is your body made of stone? Or iron? I shall not refrain from saying the same things again. Surely you are not a better philosopher than those great and noble men, who were cast down merely by such a sight? Have you not heard what Solomon says: “If someone walks onto a fire of coals, will he not burn his feet? If someone lights a fire in his lap, will he not burn his clothing? It is just the same for the man who goes to a woman that doesn’t belong to him.” For even if you did not have intimate relations with the prostitute, in your lust you coupled with her, and you committed the sin in your mind. And it was not only at that time, but also when the theatre has closed, and the woman has gone away, her image remains in your soul, along with her words, her figure, her looks, her movement, her rhythm, and her distinctive and meretricious tunes; and having suffered countless wounds you go home. Is it not this that leads to the disruption of households? Is it not this that leads to the destruction of temperance, and the break up of marriages? Is it not this that leads to wars and battles, and odious behaviour lacking any reason? For when, saturated with that woman, you return home as her captive, your wife appears more disagreeable, your children more burdensome, and your servants troublesome, and your house superfluous. Your customary concerns seem to annoy you when they relate to managing your necessary business, and everyone who visits is an irritating nuisance.
The cause of this is that you do not return home alone, but keeping the prostitute with you. She does not go visibly and openly, which would have been easier. For your wife could have quickly driven her away. But she is ensconced in your mind and your consciousness, and she lights within you the Babylonian furnace, or rather something much worse. For it is not tow, naphtha and pitch, but her qualities mentioned above that provide fuel for the fire, and everything is upside down. It is just like people suffering from a fever, who have no reason to rebuke those who attend them, but because of the affliction of their illness are unpleasant to everyone, reject their food, insult their doctors, are bad tempered with their families and furious with those who care for them. Just so those who suffer from this dread disease are restless and vexed, and see that woman at every turn. What a terrible state of affairs!"(Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theaters, emphasis added).
We have an epidemic of porn addiction in this country. The last thing we need to be hearing from leaders in the Orthodox Church is that watching a TV series with scenes that are undeniably pornographic is acceptable, in any way, shape, or form.

Rather than defending the original podcast, that podcast should be deleted, along with the subsequent podcast that defended the original one.


Fr. Andrew Damick has posted a further response on this on Facebook:
"A word of comment on our most recent episode ("In the World But Not of the World: Purity vs. Engagement"):
If what you came away from the episode with is the question of whether it's okay for Christians to watch "Game of Thrones," you missed the point.
Some folks who've missed the point actually accused us and our guests of promoting pornography! If that's what you think of us, I can't imagine a response to that, because nothing we say will sound legitimate.
That said, we all utterly reject porn. It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't.
Also, if the question of whether "Game of Thrones" really is pornography is what you came away with, you also missed the point. Of *course* if it's all just porn there's nothing worthwhile there. But that is actually part of what's debatable and isn't a given. None of us is saying that we should go exploring porn. But that's still not what our episode was about. 
So what was it about? 
It was about the question of how we interpret our world. It was about whether and how to engage and also whether and how to remain pure. 
Fundamentally, it was about the assertion that purity and engagement are not opposites. You can engage with the culture and also remain pure. 
There's certainly a lot of room to discuss what remaining pure requires and what good engagement looks like. 
This is why we paired up discussing the controversy around the Pop Culture Coffee Hour episode with the controversy that surrounded our video ("3 Bad Ways and 3 Good Ways to Talk Religion"). 
What I hope will emerge from what is now a meta-meta-discussion is that we really should ask people what they mean when they say something, especially if what they say sounds crazy to us. Sadly, not one of the comments we've received accusing us of supporting porn actually asked if that was what we meant. It was just easier to accuse fellow Christians of the unthinkable. 
At one point during all this, I had someone say to me, "Words mean things," given in response to my saying that I didn't mean what he was saying. But words *don't* mean things. *People* mean things. And if you're more interested in how you can interpret someone's words to mean things he rejects than in finding out what he means, then you've got a real problem. 
What this illustrates is how shows like The Areopagus and PCCH really are needed. Real engagement requires asking questions and finding out who the other person is, not just leveling accusations or blanket condemnation. 
As always, thanks for listening. And let's keep engaging. It's a little rough and tumble out there sometimes, but it's still worth it."
We have contradictory statements here that do not make sense. Fr. Andrew acknowledged that the Game of Thrones contains pornography -- he described the show as "people basically, like,  having sex on screen" -- which is pornography. And here he says that he "utterly reject[s]" pornography. The dictionary would suggest that if you "utterly reject" something, this means you absolutely and without qualifications reject it. However Fr. Andrew then says that if the Game of Thrones was "all just porn," he would "of course" reject it. So the question is, how much porn does a movie or TV show have to have before that utter rejection actually results in one not being able to watch it? If you really "utterly reject porn," and if words actually do have meaning, you would have to utterly reject a series that has regular porn scenes, and do so without qualification.

So why not just say: "Orthodox Christians should not watch shows which contain porn, because we utterly reject porn, and the Game of Thrones has that which we utterly reject"? Never in the entire course of the podcast he did on this subject did anyone on that show say this, and he still has not said it. He should say that this show is not acceptable, and say so clearly.

A Further Update:

There is now another Podcast which at the beginning spends time defending the original podcast. In this episode of the Pop Culture Coffee Hour, Christian Gonzalez, and Christina spent a few minutes discussing this, beginning at about the 3:05 minute mark. Among other things, Steven Christoforou's being a fan of Game of Thrones, and so "engaging the culture" by watching and then finding Christ in its stories was called "brave" and compared with Christ's descent into Hades. You can hear it for yourself here:
Episode 39: Taking a Walk Through Parks and Rec
One could, with equal justice, defend frequenting brothels with such arguments. Yes, we can and should see God's image in prostitutes. Yes, we can and should proclaim the Gospel to them. Becoming their customers and having sex with them is not how you do that. Likewise, watching and supporting shows with pornographic content is not how you "engage the culture" and bring light to the darkness. That is instead participating in the darkness. Pornography is inherently sinful. It is inherently sinful to make it, and it is inherently sinful to watch it, and that is the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Church.

For More Information, see:

Christians and Entertainment

The Text of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

The Audio of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

The Threefold Cord