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 are 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.

Furthermore,  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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Christians and Entertainment

In a recent sermon, I addressed the problem of Christians in our time who seem to have rather large gaps in their understanding of Christian morality -- particularly with regard to the question of entertainment. You can listen to that sermon here:
When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)
Mother Cornelia (Rees) has also written an excellent article on the same subject, which shows what the Fathers had to say about Christians and unwholesome entertainment:
A Patristic Checkmate on the Game of Thrones
But in more practical terms, how should an Orthodox Christian in our times discern what entertainment is acceptable, and what should be avoided? Also, how do you deal with raising children in the context of the internet and ubiquitous access to it via various mobile devices?

Guiding Principles

The Christian life is a life of the pursuit of holiness, "without which no man shall see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Obviously, this is a struggle, particularly in the evil days in which we live. We have to keep a constant watch over our minds and hearts to keep them from falling back into sin. And since Christ has given us the principle that we cannot simply refrain from sinful actions, but must also refrain from sinful thoughts (Matthew 5:27-28), any entertainment that feeds the passions and presents us with temptations is not acceptable.

Since we say to God when we pray the Psalms “I have no unlawful thing before mine eyes” (Psalm 100[101]:3), we need to make sure that we actually live accordingly. Consequently, turning on a movie that you know contains graphic scenes that can only feed the passions is completely antithetical to this.

St. Paul admonishes us in Philippians 4:8:
"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
And there are so many good and wholesome things for us to occupy our time with, that we could never exhaust them in a thousand lifetimes, and so why should waste any of our time feeding our minds with filth?

As St. John Chrysostom warns us:
"Do you not know that just as when we hand over money to our servants, and we demand accounts from them down to the last obol [a small silver coin, equaling 1/6 of an average man's daily wage], in the same way God will demand an account from us of the days of our life, as to how we have spent each day? What then shall we say? What shall be our defense, when we are requested to give our accounts of that day? For your sake the sun rose, and the moon brightened the night, and the intricate pattern of the stars shone forth. Winds blew for your sake, and rivers flowed. For your sake seeds sprouted and plants grew, and the course of nature preserved its own order. Day appeared and night followed. And all of this happened for your sake. But do you, when all creation serves you, satisfy the desire of the devil? You have rented such a home from God, I mean this world, but you have not paid the rent. And you were not satisfied with the first day, but on the second day, when you should have paused for a while from the evil that was enveloping you, you returned again this time to the theater. You ran from smoke into fire, descending into another pit that was even worse. Old men shamed their grey hair, and young men threw their youth away. Fathers brought their sons, from the beginning guiding inexperienced youth into the pits of depravity, so it would not have been a mistake to call those men child killers rather than fathers, as they surrendered their children’s souls to evil. What kind of evil, you ask. Because of it I am in agony, because although you are ill you do not know you are ill or call the doctor. You have become filled with adultery, and you ask “What kind of evil?” Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”?  “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me?  For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching?  Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass (Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theaters).
On the other hand, one could take this so far as to assume that we should not have any leisure time or wholesome entertainment, but this would be to go to an opposite extreme, which is also unhealthy. It is not possible for anyone to constantly be at 100% productivity. Human beings cannot sustain that. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this saying regarding St. Anthony the Great:
"A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, 'Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.' So he did. The old man then said, 'Shoot another,' and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again and the hunter replied 'If I bend my bow so much I will break it.' Then the old man said to him, 'It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.' When he heard these words “the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened" (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 3f.).
Also, I recall our own Archbishop Peter's talk about his remembrances of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and he mentioned St. John asking him and the other altar boys at the cathedral in San Francisco what their plans were for the afternoon one day, and they were planning on going to see a movie (a clean movie, mind you). Not only did he not chastise them for it, he gave them some money for it. So clearly there is a balanced approach that is perfectly pious and Orthodox, and that is what we need to try to find in our current context.

So in sum, whatever we do in our leisure time it should ideally be of positive benefit to our minds and souls, but at a bare minimum it should at least not be harmful. When you have taken the time to watch a movie, for example, there should be something uplifting about it. Virtue and goodness should be affirmed in some way -- and even a good comedy will do that. Hopefully, you should have improved your mind in some way as well. Otherwise you are at best wasting your time; and at worse, actively harming yourself and your family.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

I don't think having cable or satellite service in the home is a good idea. There are some good programs one can find on  them, but you are paying for a package, and so supporting a lot of filth. So I would say, cut the cord. That's, of course, my opinion, and I don't state it as binding on anyone else. However, if you are not going to cancel your cable or satellite service, you should block any of the channels that contain objectionable content, so that if you are channel surfing (which is generally not a good idea), you won't even see what these channels are showing. This is especially important if you have children in the home. You can also use the "V-Chip" to block specific objectionable content... however, this typically does not block commercials which can often be as bad or worse than the actual shows themselves.
See: How To Watch TV Without Compromising Your Values
It is a very bad habit to leave a TV running for background noise throughout the day. Many people have their TV running all the time. It stifles conversations, and it is a mindless thing that is sure to dramatically reduce the average IQ of your family. The TV should only be on when their is something worth watching. You should also try to limit how much time is spent watching things on TV in general.

When it comes to movies, you should try to find out if the content is wholesome before you even think about watching one. There are Christian movie reviewers that will give you a very good idea of whether or not a movie is going to be worth your time.

There are still some occasional movies that are both clean and well done, but another option is to explore the many decades of films that are out there that were made in the past. For example, I think one of the best movies ever made is the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Almost every actor in the film is perfect. The cinematography is amazing. The screen play was by Aldous Huxley (not a Christian, but a great writer, and one who certainly came from a much more Christian culture than our own), and it is based on one the best novels ever written in English, and even though the movie is not a Christian film per se, it is rooted in a Christian ethos, and it affirms what is good and noble.

One bad approach is to watch movies you know have objectionable content, and just plan on fast forwarding past the bad parts. You are still watching and supporting bad movies. You are exposing yourself and your family to at least some objectionable content, because you don't know to fast forward a film until you begin to see what you need to fast forward beyond. This all has the effective of desensitizing you and your family to garbage that you should not tolerate.

If you get a bum steer on a movie, and despite your best efforts you find that it either has objectionable content, or it is simple a bad movie with no redeeming qualities, be prepared to turn it off. At the very least, if you are watching it with your family, you can point out what was wrong with it, and so gain some benefit by its negative example.

Read More, Watch Less

One of the advantages to removing broadcast and cable TV from your home is that it will make it a lot more likely that you will read more. That is a good thing even if you don't have children in your home. If you do have children, read good classic books to them, and then when you are done with a book, watch a good movie version of it. This will teach them to love books. They will generally see that the books are better than the movies, but this can help them better appreciate both the movie and the book.

Play Good Music

It doesn't have to all be classical music, but it should all be wholesome. We made a point of playing classical music for our children from the time they were in the crib, and in both cases our children turned out to be very musically inclined. It could be coincidental, but I don't think so. Baroque music in particular is very good background music for reading and study.

Electronic Devices and the Internet

Obviously as your children get older, you are going to have less of an ability to control what they see and do, but you should use that power wisely while you have it. There is no reason why young children need to have smart phones, or have unsupervised access to the Internet. If you home-school your children, this is obviously a lot easier, but if you have your children in a public or private school, buck the trend, and don't give them smart phones, lap tops, or tablets. If they have any cell phone at all, get them a basic phone that only has the ability to make calls and send text messages.

We are told that children need to have all of these things from an early age so they can be tech savvy, but none of these devices are difficult to learn how to use, and if they don't have unlimited access until they are more mature, it will not hurt them. And instead, they might learn how to actually do math, write with a pen, and read books -- all of which are dying arts for most young people these days.

I would also use an internet filter, especially if you have boys. Again, the older they get, the less these things will be effective, and so hopefully they will learn self control as your controls as a parent are gradually reduced.

You are not going to be able to shield your children completely from all the filth that is so prevalent in our culture, but you should make the effort, and show them by your example how they should approach these things when they are the ones that will have to make these decisions for themselves and their own children.


Canon 100 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council states:
“Let thine eyes look aright, and keep thy heart with all diligence” (Prov. 4:25 and 23), wisdom bids us. For the sensation of the body can easily foist their influence upon the soul. We therefore command that henceforth in no way whatever shall any pictures be drawn, painted, or otherwise wrought, whether in frames or otherwise hung up, that appeal to the eye fascinatingly, and corrupt the mind, and excite inflammatory urgings to the enjoyment of shameful pleasures. If anyone should attempt to do this, let him be excommunicated."
The Rudder of St. Nicodemus then has the following comment on this canon:
"Inasmuch as some men were wont to paint or draw on walls and boards lascivious pictures, such as women stark naked or bathing or being kissed by men, and other such shameful scenes, which deceive the eyes of beholders and excite the mind and heart to carnal desires, therefore and on this account the present Canon commands that no such pictures shall by any means whatsoever be painted or drawn or sketched. If anyone should make any such pictures, let him be excommunicated, since all the five senses of the body, and especially the first and royalest one, the eyesight, is easily led to impress the pictures of those things which it sees into the soul. That is why Solomon recommends that our eyes look aright at things that are fine and good and beautiful, and that everyone of us keep his mind and heart away from the shameful objects of the senses" (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 406f).
For More Information:

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

Stump the Priest: Time Management

Friday, September 01, 2017

Stump the Priest: Our Holy and God-Bearing Fathers

Question: "In our services we often speak of "our holy and God-bearing fathers, and all the saints..." I understand that the reference is made to the Church's founding fathers, but who is meant specifically? All the Apostles? Just Peter and Paul?"

This is an interesting question. Like many seemingly simple questions, it is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. On the one hand, you might think it could refer to all of the saints that have gone on before us, but then after they are mentioned, we then hear "and all the saints," which would be redundant if they referred to the same exact group of people. So just from the meaning of the words alone, I think we can say that we are talking about some group of saints, but not all of them.

I would say that it certainly refers to the Apostles. No doubt this also includes the Church Fathers... who are actually considered saints by the Church. Often the phrase "Church Father" is applied to any important Christian writer during the patristic period; but those, like Tertullian and Origen, that are not considered saints because their teachings contained significant errors rejected by the Church, can only be called "Church Fathers" in a very loose sense of the term, and are not what we are talking about here. It would include the Fathers of the various Ecumenical and Local Councils that the Church has received as having ecumenical authority... but again, only including the participants of those councils that are saints. We may not know all the names of these saints, but we do know the names of some that are definitely not saints, and so they would not be included.

But are we excluding saints of the Old Testament, and does this exclude women? Not at all. In many languages a masculine word is often used in a way that is inclusive of males and females, and that is true in this case. For example, we have two Sundays of the Fathers that are specifically focused on the Saints of the Old Testament -- the two Sundays prior to Christmas. On the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (which is two Sundays before Christmas), we not only sing about the many prophets and saints of the Old Testament who were men, but in the canon of the Ninth Ode, we hear about some of our Foremothers:
"By Thy might, O Lord, Thou didst of old make Thy daughters powers: Hannah and Judith, Deborah and Huldah, Jael and Esther, Sarah and Miriam the sister of Moses, Rachel and Rebecca, and Ruth the exceeding wise." 
And on the Sunday before Christmas (which is also called "the Sunday of the Holy Fathers" and sometimes "the Sunday of the Genealogy," because we read the genealogy of Christ from Matthew 1 at the Liturgy), we also sing at the Praises:
"The Virgin Theotokos, she who through the ages hath been preached on earth by the prophets in their utterances, she whom the wise patriarchs and the assemblies of the righteous proclaim, with whom the comeliness of women joineth chorus: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Hannah, together with the glorious Miriam, the sister of Moses. With them all the ends of the world rejoice and all creation rendereth honor, for the Creator and God of all cometh to be born in the flesh and to grant us great mercy."
In addition to the Prophets, Apostles, and the Fathers who have instructed the Church in the Faith, we also include those saints who were ascetical teachers. And here again, we find that this does not exclude our spiritual mothers. For example, in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in addition to such saints as St. Anthony the Great, and St. Poemen, we also find the sayings of St. Theodora of Alexandria, St. Sarah of the Desert, and St. Syncletica of Alexandria

So I think we can say that when we speak of "our holy and God-bearing fathers," we are speaking of those of both the Old and New Testaments, and both fathers and mothers, who helped lay the foundations and build up our faith and our Church, both in terms of their examples and their teachings. And this does not only include those of the distant past, but also more recent examples such as St. Cosmas of Aetolia, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, the Optina Elders, St. John of Kronstadt, and St. John of Shanghai, and many others. And we will continue to add to their number until Christ returns. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Sin and Heresy of Racial Separatism

An Icon St. Moses the Ethiopian, from a Monastery Church in Macedonia

There are different degrees of racial and ethnic prejudice. For many, it is very unconscious, but it is manifested by a desire to stick with those of your own kind, and to exclude others... at least in certain contexts. There are some, however, in the Orthodox Church who are overtly racist and antisemitic, and have ideological reasons for their views. Such people are thankfully a tiny minority, but while we should not make too much of them and blow the problem out of all proportion, we should not make too little of them either. As with any sin, we have to be clear where the Church stands. Furthermore, we have to fight even unconscious forms of racism and ethnocentricism because these things are barriers that prevent people from coming into the Orthodox Church.

Even the most unabashed racists that claim to be Christians generally have enough sense to know that they cannot admit to hating anyone and still make such a claim with a straight face, because the Bible is very clear on the subject (e.g., Leviticus 19:17Luke 6:27-281 John 2:9-11). However, they will often argue that while they do not hate other races, their love for their own race is what motivates them, and that they want what is best for them -- and they see some form of racial separatism as a necessary part of their "love." But is such a view consistent with Scripture and the teachings of the Church?

The Bible makes it clear that all men have a common origin in Adam and Eve, and so we are all part of the same human family. The Israelites certainly maintained some separation from Gentiles, but not for racial reason, but because of their faith in the one true God, which their neighbors generally did not share -- and also because of the depravity of the pagans on the one hand, and the weakness of the Israelites in being able to resist falling into their sins. Racial separatists point to Ezra forbidding the Israelites from having foreign wives (Ezra 10), but the issue there was the fact that these women were pagans. However, Gentiles could become part of Israel, if they embraced the faith, and this often happened. There is the case in which the Prophet Moses married an Ethiopian woman, for example. King David's own grandmother Ruth was a Gentile who embraced the faith of Israel, and an entire book of the Bible is dedicated to telling her story, which shows her to have been a virtuous woman, whose conversion was completely sincere. And not only was she an ancestor of David, but also of Christ Himself. That same genealogy (of both David and Christ) also includes Rahab the Harlot, who was a Canaanite.

The modern idea of race is not even found in the Bible. You do find racial characteristics noted in some cases, and there certainly is an awareness that the human race is divided into nations which speak different languages, but this is a result of sin. At the Tower of Babel, God confused the languages of men and divided them, to limit the spread of sin (Genesis 11). But these division are undone in Christ, as the Kontakion of the Feast of Pentecost teaches us:
"Once, when He descended and confounded the tongues, the Most High divided the nations; and when He divided the tongues of fire, He called all men into unity; and with one accord we glorify the All-Holy Spirit."
In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave or free -- we are all one in Him (Galatians 3:28).

Had the early Church functioned on the basis that racial separatism was acceptable, the Jews would never have mingled with the Gentiles, and there probably wouldn't be much of a Gentile Church  to speak of. However, the record in Scripture and in history shows that this was not what was encouraged or even allowed by the Apostles. There certainly were many issues that came up in this regard, because Jews had a long tradition of keeping their distance from Gentiles, but St. Paul constantly admonished both Jewish and Gentile believers to set aside their differences, and to have fellowship with one another. Within a couple of generations there ceased to be any distinction between Christians who came from these different backgrounds.

One of the great desert fathers of the Church is St. Moses the Ethiopian. He was called "the Ethiopian" for the same reason that St. John the Russian was called "the Russian", and St. Maximus the Greek was called "the Greek" -- he was a foreigner to the people that he lived among, and St. Moses was noticeably different from those around him because he was black. Yet not only was St. Moses allowed to live among the other monks who were not black, he was eventually made a priest, and was one of the most respected spiritual fathers of his time. Stories about him, along with his sayings are preserved in "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," which is one of the most important spiritual classics of the Orthodox Church.

There is nothing in the Tradition of the Church that supports a racist or separatist view. There are canons, for example, that prohibit an Orthodox Christian from marrying a pagan or a non-Christian Jew, but none that even consider the issue of race. A mixed marriage in the Orthodox Church is when a non-Orthodox Christian is allowed to marry an Orthodox Christian.

In 1872, a Synod in Constantinople specifically condemned as a heresy "phyletism," which was the idea that the Church should be divided along ethnic lines:
"We denounce, censure, and condemn phyletism, to wit, racial discrimination and nationalistic disputes, rivalries, and dissensions in the Church of Christ, as antithetical to the teaching of the Gospel and the Sacred Canons of our Blessed Fathers, "who uphold the Holy Church and, ordering the entire Christian commonwealth, guide it to Divine piety"" (Τὰ Δογματικὰ καὶ Συμβολικὰ Μνημεῖα τῆς Ὀρϑοδόξου Καϑολικῆς Ἐκκλη­σίας, Vol. II, pp. 1014–1015, Quoted in The Œcumenical Synods of the Orthodox Church, A Concise History, by Fr. James Thornton, (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2012), p 152).
The Russian Orthodox Church's position on this issue is clearly stated in "The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church":
"The Old Testament people of Israel were the prototype of the peoples of God — the New Testament Church of Christ. The redemptive feat of Christ the Saviour initiated the being of the Church as new humanity, the spiritual posterity of the forefather Abraham. By His Blood Christ «hast redeemed us to God out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation» (Rev. 5:9). The Church by her very nature is universal and therefore supranational. In the Church «there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek» (Rom. 10:12). Just as God is not the God of the Jews alone but also of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29), so the Church does not divide people on either national or class grounds: in her «there is neither Greek, nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all» (Col. 3:11).
...Being universal by nature, the Church is at the same time one organism, one body (1 Cor. 12:12). She is the community of the children of God, «a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people… which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God» (1 Pet. 2:9-10). The unity of these new people is secured not by its ethnic, cultural or linguistic community, but by their common faith in Christ and Baptism. The new people of God «have no continuing city here, but seek one to come» (Heb. 13:14). The spiritual homeland of all Christians is not earthly Jerusalem but Jerusalem «which is above» (Gal. 4:26). The gospel of Christ is preached not in the sacred language understandable to one people, but in all tongues (Acts. 2:3-11). The gospel is not preached for one chosen people to preserve the true faith, but so that «at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father» (Phil. 2:10-11)" (The Church and Nation, II, 1).
Do we have national Churches? Yes... and no. We have local Churches. The boundaries of these local Churches often corresponded to national borders, but not necessarily. In the Roman Empire, you had several local Churches within one nation, and several of these local Church extended beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. But while a local Church may have a predominant ethnic character, they do not exclude those outside of the ethnicity of the majority. In Russia, for example, you have a large number of ethnic groups which are all Orthodox, and which are all welcome to commune and fellowship in any parish.

Aside from the fact that racial separatism is contrary to both Scripture and Tradition, it also has a very practical problem, which is that it has the effect of excluding people from the Church. Our great responsibility as Christians is to fulfill Christ's great commission:
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen" (Matthew 28:19-20).
The word translated "nations" here, in Greek is a plural form of the word "ethnos," from which we get the English words "ethnic" and "ethnicity". How can we make disciples of every ethnic group, and teach them to observe all the things that Christ has commanded us if we separate ourselves from them because of their ethnicity? It is not possible. And because it is not possible, it is also not Christian.


St. Justin Martyr wrote:
"...we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all" (First Apology, Chapter 14).
For More Information:

Sermon: Hate and Racism

Moses' Black Wife

Stump the Priest: Where do the Races Come From?

A discussion on Ancient Faith Radio: "Ethnocentrism in the Orthodox Church"

Orthodox History: The “Bulgarian Question” and the 1872 Council of Constantinople, Part 1 (which is followed by 6 more parts, linked at the end of each part)