Saturday, December 22, 2007

When Half-Spent Was the Night

Antiphon. When all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne. [Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15a]

Verse. The Lord is King, and hath put on glorious apparel; the Lord hath put on his apparel and girded himself with strength. [Psalm 93:1]
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Antiphon. When all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne. [Introit for the First Sunday after Christmas]

The Bible is sometimes quite specific about the time of day when an event occurred – for example, Acts tells us that the descent of the Holy Spirit took place at “the third hour” – i.e., mid-morning. But where the Scriptures offer less detail, Christian imagination has filled in the gaps in symbolically appropriate ways. Thus, we usually think of the Resurrection as happening at sunrise: It is consistent with what the Gospels do tell us, and it is fitting that the return of the Light of the World should coincide with the dawning of the new day.

It is customary to depict Jesus’ birth as occurring at midnight. This is consistent with Luke’s report that the angels appeared to the shepherds by night to announce Christ’s birth. But midnight is the appropriate time for symbolic reasons, as well. Midnight is a pivotal moment, neither part of the old day nor of the new, but a time out of time. For this reason, people in some cultures have believed that the doors between worlds are open at midnight – thus the idea of midnight as “the witching hour,” when spirits can cross into our world.

The midnight of the Nativity was the pivotal point in all of history, the moment between BC and AD, neither part of the new era nor of the old. A momentary lull enveloped all of creation in stillness. The door between heaven and earth stood open as the mystery of the Incarnation was accomplished in Bethlehem. Then the silence was broken as the hymn of the angelic choir in heaven came to shepherds on earth.

Wishing you all a joyful Christmas and a happy 2008,

Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen

There is a rose-tree springing
forth from an ancient root,
as those of old were singing.
From Jesse came the shoot
that bore the blossom bright
amid the cold of winter,
when half-spent was the night.

This rose-tree, blossom-laden,
as spake Isaiah of yore,
is Mary, spotless Maiden,
for us this Flow’ret bore:
by God’s eternal will,
a little Babe she childeth,
yet Maid remaineth still.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender,
with sweetness fills the air,
dispels with glorious splendor
the darkness everywhere;
true Man yet very God,
from sin and death he saves us
and shares our every load.

With heartfelt prayer we ask thee,
O Mary, sweetest Rose,
by this thy Flow’ret’s sorrows
– as his he bare our woes –
to come unto our aid:
that for him, fine and ready,
a dwelling-place be made.

[Four verses of a 22-verse Rheinland Marienleid as given in a manuscript prayer book (Trier, ca. 1587), of the Brother Conrad, O. Cart., Procurator of the Charterhouse at Mainz; translated cento 1986 by John H. Uhrig, after translations and versions by Harriet Reynolds Krauth Spaeth, 1875; Theodore Baker, 1894; and George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1904.]

I’m recycling this from 2002. That was a slow year for me and I didn’t have any news to share in my annual Christmas letter, so I wrote this instead. It is based on earlier versions going all the way back to ca. 1985, when I first shared something like this orally with a few friends around All Saints’ Day.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fred Sherrer, RIP

Tonight I received e-mail messages and phone calls from a number of friends to inform me of the death of Fred Sherrer. I knew Fred from my former parish, St. Paul’s, K Street, where he had been a member for many years. He was the sort of unique character that Anglo-Catholic parishes always seem to attract in far greater numbers than other churches, proof of both the inclusiveness and the pastoral nature of Anglo-Catholicism. Tonight at Evensong & Benediction, right after the Magnificat (Dyson in C Minor for you Anglican music aficionados), he lay down in the pew and became unresponsive. His doctor administered CPR and the curate administered the Last Rites before the paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Fred’s life began with great misfortune: As an infant, he suffered brain damage in a car crash. Based on stories he told me of his childhood, I would surmise that he was quite a handful as a child and was lucky to have survived some of his dangerous experiments with electricity. Still, Fred continued to tinker with electrical and mechanical devices all his life. Somewhere along the line he learned to unplug electrical devices before tinkering with them!

For some reason, Fred was attracted to Catholicism as a child, even though his parents do not seem to have been Catholic. (When I knew Fred, his mother attended a United Methodist church.) But, because of his mental disability, probably exacerbated by a cantankerous streak, he faced continual rejection by the Catholic Church. One priest refused to confirm him. Later in life he looked into joining religious orders but, for obvious reasons, he was never accepted. He finally gave up on the Roman Catholic Church and became an Anglo-Catholic, which turned out to be a much better fit for him. He was often distressed by the Episcopal Church’s descent into heresy and weirdness, but as often as the subject came up he would announce his resolve to stay at St. Paul’s.

I think Fred always dreamed of being a priest. When in public, he always dressed in black. He never confessed this to me himself, but I am reliably informed that he would sometimes don a Roman collar and try to impersonate a priest!

Despite his condition, Fred managed to remain fairly independent. Between Social Security disability payments, other public subsidies, and help from his mother, he managed to live in an apartment by himself and travel a lot. He would often take the train to Philadelphia, where his mother lived, or to Richmond, where he had a number of friends, and stay for a month at a time. In the Washington area he had friends at a number of churches who welcomed him to Bible studies, concerts, and dinners.

But St. Paul’s was where he truly felt at home. While some parishioners gave him a wide berth and Fred himself avoided others of whom he had formed a negative opinion, he found many friends who would talk with him at coffee hours and receptions and occasionally give him a ride home after church. He would stay in touch with his friends from St. Paul’s and beyond by frequent phone calls, in which he would often ask for clarification about some bit of ecclesiastical news or gossip that he had heard or read but did not understand. Whenever he was reminded of a story about another priest or church or an episode from his childhood he would recount his experience in great detail – there was clearly nothing wrong with the part of his brain that governed memory!

At one point early in my relationship with Fred, I was beginning to resent his neediness and his demands on me. I thought, Why me? But it did not take me long to realize that he liked me because I had the patience to deal with him, whereas most others did not. I started to look at my friendship with Fred as a opportunity for ministry that I was being called upon to exercise in my parish. Here was a need, and God had given me the gifts to address it. After that, while Fred would occasionally try my patience, my resentment evaporated. When my phone would ring at 12:30 AM – Fred’s usual time to call, since he found by trial and error that was the time when I was most likely to answer the phone, night owl that I am – I would nearly always answer. And, unless I had to get up early the next morning to serve at Mass, I would usually listen for as long as he wanted to talk. I could sense that he was rationing the number and length of his phone calls to me and not abusing this privilege.

A visit to Fred’s apartment could be an adventure. Fred loved clocks, and he had several that went bong, ding-dong, or cuckoo every 15 minutes. Besides the clocks, his walls were filled with various religious pictures and calendars, and his shelves and coffee tables supported various statues, such as one of Our Lady of Walsingham. In the last few years, after his mother died, perhaps as a result of my influence, Fred also began to acquire icons, which displaced some of the previous art from his walls.

Fred was never particularly healthy, but he began to deteriorate markedly over the past few years. His emotional health declined first, after his mother died, followed closely by his aunt. They were the only living relatives he was at all close to, and he had depended heavily on his mother’s love and guidance. Then his arthritis worsened to the point where he could no longer walk around as he used to, and the reduction in exercise further weakened him.

When he began to need help for routine cleaning of his apartment, my spiritual director, Bill, suggested that we could take up that task ourselves. So every few months we would meet at Fred’s apartment, where I would pick up old papers and trash from the floor and vacuum, and Bill would clean the kitchen and the refrigerator. Occasionally we would do additional things, such as clean the bathroom or help him decorate for Christmas. As Fred’s needs increased, last year several young men from church, including Fred’s doctor, joined our team. Fred appreciated not only the things we did for him, but also our company and our attention.

A few months ago Fred was hospitalized following a heart attack. He told me last Saturday that he never felt he had recovered from that episode. The following morning at church, he passed out before Mass and was anointed for healing. At that time he told the curate that when he died he wanted to die at a service at St. Paul’s. Tonight he got his wish, and, in the rector’s words, he “left this life fortified by the sacraments of the church.”

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My New Pet Peeve about Orthodoxy

Since I have not written anything in nearly two months, I fear some of you might be wondering whether I still have anything to blog about after completing my transition to Orthodoxy. The answer is an emphatic yes, but I’ve been channeling my writing energies in other directions lately, leaving me with a growing backlog of bloggable topics that are stranded in my head, rather than flowing across your screens. I hope to resume my more-or-less weekly blogging pace soon, but I can’t make any promises about when.

I am finding Orthodox Christians, collectively, very odd in their consensus about which bits of Anglophone Christianity to embrace and which to reject. Many Orthodox, for instance, insist on saying Pascha, rather than Easter, as if these were two different, totally unconnected events. Or as if Easter somehow embodied the peculiarities of Western or Catholic or Protestant belief. Some claim to reject it because of its possible indirect connection to a putative ancient pagan goddess, Eostre. But the only testimony we have to the worship of a goddess of this name comes from the Venerable Bede, a 7th-century English monk, in his speculation about the etymology of the term Easter. Bede himself was, of course, an Orthodox Christian who called the feast by its English name when speaking English. It goes by similar names in other Germanic languages, all corresponding to their languages’ names for the month of April.

(In the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the speakers of Old English often avoided transliterating terms from Latin and Greek, instead preferring to coin new words rooted in their own language. This preference even persisted into the early modern period, resulting, for example, in the peculiarly English word atonement for reconciliation.)

Yet Orthodox Christians do not hesitate to call the Great Fast by its English name, Lent, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the season of spring, corresponding to the lengthening of days at that time of year. Nor do they shrink from calling the morning office Matins, which is cognate with the name of Matuta, the Roman goddess of the dawn.

My newest pet peeve about Orthodoxy is its ubiquitous adoption of the Puritan practice of capitalizing divine pronouns, i.e., pronouns that refer to God. It seems that some people have actually been taught that this practice is a rule of English grammar! But if you look at the King James Version of the Bible or any edition of the Book of Common Prayer, you will find that the practice of official English-speaking Christianity (i.e., Anglicanism) has always been to treat divine pronouns like any other pronouns. Nor does this practice have precedent in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture. The use of mixed cases – i.e., uppercase and lowercase letters together in the same text – developed long after the Scriptures had been written and collected. No, this practice was first introduced by the Puritans, who published their own Bibles and devotional materials outside England, in defiance of the Established Church.

(I understand that those who capitalize divine pronouns intend thereby to “honor” God. I try to imagine what the prophets might say to them about the proper way to honor God. Perhaps, “This people honors me with its capital letters, but its heart is distant from me.” cf. Isaiah 29:13.)

My first objection to the capitalization of divine pronouns is practical and asesthetic: I find it hard to read a text cluttered with capitalized words that are not nouns and that do not begin a new sentence. Every time I run into Thou or Thee, I want to start reading a new sentence! But I object even more to the Protestant hermeneutic implicit in this capitalization. It assumes that one can always identify every pronoun as referring either to God or not to God. This, in turn, rests on assumptions that 1) the meaning of Scripture is transparent, and 2) Scripture is only to be read literally. These assumptions defy the Orthodox method of reading Scripture inherited from the Fathers. In addition to the literal level, we Orthodox read Scripture on a typological level. A person or event might be interpreted simultaneously on both levels. The entire book of Song of Solomon, for instance, has traditionally been read typologically as describing the relationship between Christ and the Church, yet the capitalizers do not capitalize any pronouns in this book of the Old Testament.

(If the Puritans were reading Song of Solomon literally, perhaps they were not as “puritanical” as is often supposed!)

In short, I object to the practice of capitalizing divine pronouns in texts intended for Orthodox use because 1) it is contrary to standard English usage; 2) it has no precedent in the original Greek texts of the Scriptures; and 3) it is inconstent with Orthodox readings of Scripture.

While most Orthodox Bibles and liturgical books continue to capitalize divine pronouns, I have found some exceptions, so I know I’m not alone. In the liturgical texts on the Anastasis Website, for instance, Archimandrite Ephrem’s translations follow the traditional English liturgical usage, which does not capitalize divine pronouns.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Road Trip to Western Pennsylvania

I concluded my first week as an Orthodox Christian with a trip to the Pittsburgh area. The main reason for the trip was the fall meeting of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was to be held at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. I have been an active member of the ESBVM for nearly a decade, and I usually attend the semi-annual meetings. I even gave presentations at the 2003 and 2006 fall meetings.

I drove up a day early to visit the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City while I was in the area. I had originally planned to visit this monastery the previous week as part of my preparation for chrismation, but I just could not fit it into a week that was already packed with activity. Their limited guest facilities were already full when I scheduled my visit, so I spent Thursday and Friday nights at the nearby Beaver Valley Motel. I arrived after midnight. After a short night's sleep, I went to my car and found the battery dead. (My dome light has not been working, so I turned on the map light when I was unloading the car and forgot to turn it off.) Fortunately, I always carry jumper cables, and the man working the desk at the hotel gave me a jump, so I lost less than ten minutes.

When I arrived at the monastery, Matins, which had begun at 7:30, was already in progress. I remained in the narthex, which was larger than the nave and separated from it only by a pew on either side of the entrance. After they completed the Six Psalms, one of the nuns came out to greet me and invite me to sit in the back pew. Matins continued with the kathisma, the assigned section of the Psalter, which is often skipped or truncated in parish worship but not in monasteries. This was followed by the canon, a long hymn that has come to substitute for the Biblical canticles at Matins in some Orthodox traditions. The canon was interrrupted by two readings of spiritual advice from the writings of an elder. Matins was followed by the Divine Liturgy. Even though everything was in English, I had refrained from joining in the singing at Matins. In the Liturgy I couldn't not sing, but I kept it soft since I was at least an octave below all the other voices.

After the Liturgy, Mother Barbara, the guestmistress, introduced herself. Then I joined the priest who had celebrated the Liturgy, Fr. John, in the dining room with one of the nuns, who made us coffee and toast. Fr. John, who was originally from northern Indiana, is now the priest of the local parish, St. Elias. After breakfast I spent the morning in the library reading a book I found on the shelf there, Liturgy and Architecture, by the French Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer. At lunch I sat next to the abbess, Mother Christophora, at the head of the table. Unlike monasteries I had visited previously, where everyone eats in silence while one monk reads, here we conversed as we ate. Even though it was Friday, a fasting day, the food was quite good. After buying a few things in the gift shop and reading some more Bouyer, I returned to the dining room to make a cup of tea. As I was drinking it, one of the sisters brought me a piece of apple pie, which was delicious. I took my dirty dishes to the kitchen and found a nun and another guest shelling chestnuts. When they both wondered if they would finish the job before they had to run off and do other jobs, I said, "Give me a knife!" We finished early, and I returned to the library to resume reading.

On Friday it is their custom to follow Vespers with an Akathist, during which they intercede for youth whose names have been submitted in prayer requests. This day they sang an Akathist to St. Paraskeva in honor of her upcoming feast day. I was given a stack of slips of paper with the names of young people, which I read quietly as the Akathist was sung. After an un-eventful night at the motel, I returned in the morning for the first hour of Matins, and then headed for Pittsburgh.

The topic of the ESBVM meeting was Marian apparitions, in honor of this being the 90th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, Portugal. The meeting began with the viewing of a new DVD on the apparitions and message of Fatima. After lunch, we heard from three speakers: Fr. Brian J. Welding, a Roman Catholic priest, spoke about criteria for Vatican-approved apparitions; Fr. Gregory Jensen, a Greek Orthodox priest, spoke about apparitions in the Orthodox tradition; and the Rev. Dr. Judith Marie Gentle, an Episcopal priest, spoke on the significance of the Fatima apparitions and messages. Their talks were followed by a too-short question-and-answer period, during which most of the written questions submitted seemed to be for Fr. Gregory to answer. This was the best-attended ESBVM meeting I have seen, with a lot of Pittsburgh locals, including a number of college students, and a group that came all the way from Wisconsin, in addition the the regulars.

After the meeting, I spent the rest of the day with Mother Judith and Virginia Kimball, an Orthodox theologian. After coffee, we went to Vespers at St. George Cathedral, Oakland, a cathedral of the Antiochian Diocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic (my own diocese). Oakland is a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and St. George Cathedral is only a mile from St. Nicholas, the Greek cathedral where the ESBVM met. The iconography at St. George's is extensive and beautiful. The side walls feature icons of saints in roundels, surrounded and connected by vines. The lead chanter was one of the students we had met earlier in the day at the ESBVM meeting, a student of engineering at the nearby University of Pittsburgh and a friend of Fr. Gregory. We concluded the day with dinner at the Holiday Inn where the ESBVM's International Congress will be held next year.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chrismation Completion

I am now officially a member of the Orthodox Church! Here are a few of the photos taken by Jim, the parish webmaster. In the first picture, I stand with my fellow catechumen and his sponsor at the back of the church. It looks like our eyes are closed, but we're looking down at the service books in our hands. Our sponsors are holding our candles.

In the second picture we have moved to the front of the church. We made our confessions earlier in the week, but absolution was withheld until now. Here, Fr. Gregory absolves me of my sins.

Next came the actual Chrismation (anointing), followed by the Ablution (washing) and Tonsure (haircut). Finally, my sponsor placed my cross around my neck. In this next picture, with the Chrismation rite completed, Fr. Gregory presents the newly illumined Simeon and Joseph as the congregation sings, "God Grant You Many Years."

On the Byzantine calendar, this was the Feast of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. (Do you see the resemblance?)

On the Western calendar, it was the Feast of Our Lady of Victories, which commemorates the victory of the Catholic alliance over the Turks on this date in 1571 at Lepanto. The victory was credited to the intercession of the Virgin Mary after the Pope ordered everyone in Rome to pray the Rosary to implore her prayers.

In his homily, however, Fr. Gregory did not mention Sergius and Bacchus or the Mother of God. Instead, he spoke about our patron saints, Simeon the God-receiver and Joseph of Arimathea. They are like bookends of the Gospel, one appearing at the beginning of Christ's life (Luke 2:25-35) and the other at the end (Luke 23:50-53).

In accordance with custom, the newly illumined were the first to receive Communion. We will continue to hold our candles at Liturgy and be first in line for Communion for a period of 40 days. Here, my sponsor looks on as I receive for the first time.

In recent weeks many of my friends have recounted how many years I have been on this road. I attended my first Byzantine service 16 years ago, and I have been visiting Holy Cross semi-regularly for more than 8 years. Some of my Orthodox friends have been waiting a long time for this day, though I think we all knew it would come eventually. But I kept two of my friends waiting too long. I attended their chrismations, but they reposed too soon to see mine. I lit a candle for Geoffrey and Roxane, and it burned all morning by the Crucifixion icon, the customary location in the church for commemoration of the departed. I would like to think they were both present in spirit to witness the completion of this journey on which they each accompanied me for many miles.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Mystery of Holy Chrismation

On Sunday at 9 AM, the action will begin at the back of the church, just inside the door. After breathing on the catechumens and making the sign of the Cross on them, the priest will lay his hand on the heads of the catechumens and recite the Prayers at the Reception of the Catechumens:

In thy Name, O Lord God of truth, and in the Name of thine Only-begotten Son, and of thy Holy Spirit, I lay my hand upon thy servants, N1. and N2., who have been found worthy to flee unto thy holy Name, and to take refuge under the shelter of thy wings. Remove far from them their former delusion, and fill them with the faith, hope and love which are in thee; that they may know that thou art the only true God, with thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and thy Holy Spirit. Enable them to walk in all thy commandments, and to fulfil those things, which are well pleasing unto thee; for if a man do those things, he shall find life in them. Inscribe them in thy Book of Life, and unite them to the flock of thine inheritance. And may thy holy Name be glorified in them, together with that of thy beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and of thy life-giving Spirit. Let thine eyes ever regard them with mercy, and let thine ears attend unto the voice of his hands, and in all their generation; that they may render praise unto thee, may sing, worship and glorify thy great and exalted Name always, all the days of their life. For all the Powers of Heaven sing praises unto thee, and thine is the glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages.
This prayer will be followed by the Scrutiny. The priest will ask the catechumens if they believe in the teachings and sacraments of the Church and promise to obey her clergy, and they will respond in the affirmative.

Next comes the Exorcism. The priest will say two prayers of exorcism (listed in most books as the Third Exorcism and a Fourth Prayer − we skip the first two exorcisms). The priest then breathes on each catechumen again, saying thrice, "Expel from him every evil and impure spirit which hideth and maketh its lair in his heart." He will then expand on this:

The spirit of error, the spirit of guile, the spirit of idolatry and of every concupiscence; the spirit of deceit and of every uncleanness, which operateth through the prompting of the Devil. And make him a reason-endowed sheep in the holy flock of thy Christ, an honorable member of thy Church, a consecrated vessel, a child of the light, and an heir of thy kingdom; that having lived in accordance with thy commandments, and preserved inviolate the seal, and kept his garment undefiled, he may receive the blessedness of the Saints in thy kingdom. Through the grace, and bounties, and love towards mankind of thine Only-begotten Son, with whom thou art blessed, together with thy most holy, and good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages.
The catechumens will then turn and face the back of the church, and the priest will then ask them thrice, "Dost thou renounce Satan, and all his Angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride?" (Response: I do.) He will then ask them thrice, "Hast thou renounced Satan?" (I have.) He will then instruct them, "Breathe and spit upon him." The catechumens then turn and face the front of the church, and the priest asks them three more questions, thrice each: "Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ?" (I do.) "Hast thou united thyself unto Christ?" (I have.) "Dost thou believe in him?" (I believe in him as King and God.) Then the catechumens recite the Nicene Creed. The priest asks them again thrice, "Hast thou united thyself unto Christ?" (I have.) He then instructs them, "Bow down before him." (I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in Essence and undivided.) The priest concludes, "Blessed is God, who willeth that all men should be saved, and should come to the knowledge of the truth: now and ever, and unto ages of ages."

After this, the priest, deacon, catechumens, and sponsors move to the front of the church, where the first order of business is the Absolution. The catechumens made their confessions earlier in the week, but their absolution was delayed until now. They kneel before the book of the Gospels as the priest prays for them once again. Then they stand and make this declaration:

This true faith of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Church, which I now voluntarily confess and unfeignedly hold, I will firmly maintain and confess whole and in its fullness and integrity, until my last breath, God being my helper; and will teach it and proclaim it, so far as in me lieth; and will strive to fulfill its obligations cheerfully and with joy, preserving my heart in purity and virtue. And in confirmation of this, my true and sincere profession of faith, I now kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen.
The catechumens then kiss the Gospel book and the Cross, after which they kneel again, and the priest proncounces the absolution.

Then it is finally time for the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation. The priest says a prayer for the catechumens, and then he anoints them with Holy Chrism, making the sign of the Cross on the brow, the eyes, the nostrils, the lips, the ears, the breast, the hands, the feet, and between the shoulders. With each anointing, he says, "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit," and the congregation responds, "Seal."

The priest then says a prayer for the illumination of the newly chrismated. And then this prayer:
He who hath put on thee, O Christ, our God, boweth also his head with us, unto thee. Keep him ever a warrior invincible in every attack of those who assail him and us; and make us all victors, even unto the end, through thy crown incorruptible. For thine it is to show mercy and to save us, and unto thee do we send up glory together with thine everlasting Father, and with thine all-holy, and good, and life-creating Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages.
At the Ablution, the priest dips a sponge in water, sprinkles the newly illumined with water, and then washes off the Chrism. Next comes the Tonsure. After saying a prayer, the priest cuts the hair of the newly illumined using a small pair of scissors. With the Chrismation concluded, the congregation sings to the newly illumined, "God Grant You Many Years."

Monday, October 1, 2007

Chrismation Preparation

With my chrismation less than a week away, a post to prepare my friends who will attend is overdue.

Schedule for the day
8:30 First and Third Hours
9:00 Chrismation
9:30 Divine Liturgy
11:30 Coffee Hour
1:30 Party

Don't feel obligated to show up at 8:30 for the hours − the church will be mostly empty at that point and gradually fill up over the course of the following hour. But you'll want to be there before 9:00 − otherwise you might miss my exorcism!

Some things to keep in mind: Wear comfortable shoes, since you'll be on your feet much of the time. Most people will stand for the entire morning except during the sermon, when most of us sit on the floor (which is covered with oriental rugs). There are chairs along the sides, and you shouldn't have any trouble getting one if you're there by 9:00. Don't hesitate to sit down if you need to, even if most others are standing. Dress is conservative but not formal, ranging from very casual to semi-formal (a few men wear ties, but most do not). Also, since the service is so long, people wander in and out as necessary − one of the advantages of not having pews is that we're not stuck in one place all morning.

The action is not always at the front of the church. For example, the chrismation service will actually begin at the back of the church, then we'll move to the front. At the Great Entrance, people will clear a path for the procession through the congregation, and during Communion we clear two paths for those who are lining up to receive. So be prepared to go with the flow and move when necessary.

One unique feature of our Liturgy, which you won't see in most Orthodox churches, is that we take the Kiss of Peace literally. The standard exchange is as follows: The first person says, "Christ is in our midst," and the second responds, "He is and ever shall be." Then they kiss three times, cheek to cheek, starting with the right cheeks. Physical contact can be minimal − air kisses are not uncommon. If you would rather refrain, after you give the response just stick out your hand instead of leaning forward and most people will get the idea. This part of the Liturgy lasts about 10 seconds − just long enough to greet two people.

Immediately after the Liturgy, while the servers recite the Post-Communion Prayers, we line up to venerate the cross and receive a piece of antidoron (blessed bread). Non-Orthodox visitors are welcome to participate but not obligated. When you reach the front of the line Fr. Gregory will hold up his brass hand cross, you kiss the cross, then kiss his right hand, then move to make way for the next person in line. One of the servers will be standing nearby with a big wicker basket full of small pieces of bread. You may take a piece − or more if you're hungry. (If you don't want to kiss the cross, you can take a piece of antidoron anyway − or have someone bring you a piece.) Most people will leave immediately after this and head downstairs to coffee hour, but some stay and line up to be anointed for healing. When you reach the front of the line this time, hold out your hands, and Fr. Gregory will anoint your forehead and hands with oil as he says a prayer for healing, then he will hold up his right hand for you to kiss.

Photography is not a problem − bring your camera if you're so inclined.

You might find the Parish Visitor's Information helpful. And if this will be your first Orthodox service, you might want to read 12 Things I Wish I'd Known . . .

I'm sure I forgot something important − I usually do − so I might update this post later in the week.

The address of the church
Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church
105 N. Camp Meade Road
Linthicum Heights, MD 21090

Holy Cross is located just outside the Baltimore Beltway. A few hundred yards beyond the Beltway, you'll see parked cars lined up along the side of Camp Meade Road. Just pull off the road and get in line, and you're parked. The church is at the intersection, where there is a traffic light.

The party will be at my sponsor's home in Laurel, which is just off I-95. For those coming from the DC area, it's not too far out of the way on your return trip.

Finally, some friends who would like to attend do not have cars − one in Arlington and another in the District. If you need a ride or can offer someone a ride, please e-mail me by Friday evening.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reading List

Many of you are probably busy following the rapidly accelerating developments in the denouement of Anglicanism. I've been reading about it too, but I'm not going to write about it here – not today, anyway. So if you're looking for a break from stories about realignments, boundary crossings, gay bishops, canon law, and speculation about what the Archbishop of Canterbury might have said to his wife at breakfast this morning, you've come to the right place! Here are some things I've been reading that have nothing to do with the Anglican meltdown, along with my own mini-rants on these subjects.

In the Australian on-line newpaper, The Age, David Campbell challenges the careless English that pollutes our electronic world. I have always disputed the notion that the standards of grammar and spelling should be relaxed in electronic communications. E-mail is real communication. If you can't be bothered to use capital letters and punctuation and look up the proper spellings of words, don't be surprised if your readers don't expend the effort required to decipher and interpret it. (Unless, of course, they're your employees, in which case you can expect them to waste hours deciphering what it would have taken you two extra minutes to write properly.) One kind of error that Campbell attacks is confusion between sound-alike words. Two errors of this kind that I see far too often are the use of "illusive" for "elusive" and "adverse" for "averse." When someone uses a sound-alike word, it makes me strongly suspect that they are ignorant of the meanings of both the word they intended to use and the one they actually used. They are just parroting something they heard without understanding it.

Laurie Goodstein, writing in The New York Times, reports that prison libraries are being systematically purged of books on religion. The Bureau of Prisons has decided the standardize its libraries by limiting their holdings to only 150 books in each of 20 religious categories. This was done without broad input, so the lists are narrowly biased toward certain theological or denominational positions. The prisons are trying to eliminate works that might provoke intolerant or violent behavior in their readers – a reasonable motive for prison officials. But this method is backwards. Instead of simply banning potentially dangerous books, they are effectively banning all books that were not on the "favorites" list of their arbitrarily chosen anonymous book pickers. This is the sort of folly that inevitably results from an attitude toward religion that is implicit in much of our government and society today: that some religions are bad, but because this knowledge is politically incorrect we are not allowed to acknowledge it or act on it. Therefore, instead of condemning a religion that is evil or anti-social, the government must find some artifical pretext for dealing with it – and in the process it must equally inconvenience all other religions in the name of equal treatment. The only winners in this game are secularists, who are happy to see all religions inconvenienced.

Finally, in another New York Times article, Nicholas Wade explores the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who outlines the biology of natural law. Haidt "identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures. Some concerned the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together. Of the moral systems that protect individuals, one is concerned with preventing harm to the person and the other with reciprocity and fairness. Less familiar are the three systems that promote behaviors developed for strengthening the group. These are loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity." All of these dimensions of morality are part of our human nature. Our liberal society, however, has de-emphasized the group dimensions of morality and focused nearly exclusively on the individual dimensions. Liberals have systematically lowered people's moral thresholds regarding the group-oriented elements of morality, just as totalitarians have systematically lowered people's moral thresholds regarding the rights of individuals. Those of us who truly respect human nature cannot acquiesce to either sort of reductionism.

Thanks to Stephen for sending me the first and second articles and to Bill for the third.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Taking Up the Cross

At last night’s Liturgy for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Bishop Thomas once again exhorted us to take up our cross, reminding us that there can be no resurrection without the cross.

In just three weeks I will literally be taking up my cross. Not a big wooden one, but a small silver one, which my sponsor will place around my neck as part of my Chrismation. Last night I began perusing the collection of crosses at Gallery Byzantium in order to come up with some suggestions for my sponsor. I quickly narrowed it down to twelve and hope to reduce the list to five for my sponsor’s consideration.

The Chrismation itself will also involve the sign of the cross. The priest will anoint me with chrism (holy oil), making the sign of the cross on my brow, eyes, nostrils, lips, both ears, breast, both hands, and both feet (I’ll be barefoot). With each anointing he will recite, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” and the congregation will respond, “Seal!”

I thought today would be an appropriate time to share some thoughts on the Cross. The following passage about the Cross appears without attribution on various Roman Catholic Websites:

The Cross – because of what it represents – is the most potent and universal symbol of the Christian faith. It has inspired both liturgical and private devotions: for example, the Sign of the Cross, which is an invocation of the Holy Trinity; the “little” sign of the cross on head, lips, and heart at the reading of the Gospel; praying the Stations of the Cross; and the Veneration of the Cross by the faithful on Good Friday by kissing the feet of the image of Our Savior crucified. Placing a crucifix in churches and homes, in classrooms of Christian Schools and in other institutions, or wearing this image on our persons, is a constant reminder – and witness – of Christ’s ultimate triumph, his victory over sin and death through his suffering and dying on the Cross.

If you’re Orthodox, chances are you’ve already seen the following meditation on the Cross, written by the Rev’d Marc Boulos of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Mission, Eagan, MN, on the September page of your calendar, next to the icon of the Elevation of the Precious and Life Giving Cross:

Death is the source of absolute human power. Civilization is predicated on the fear of death. Every sin committed by human beings is derived from this fear. When we sin, as our monastic tradition tells us, we are running from our own death, trying to convince ourselves that the inevitable does not apply to us.

In contrast, in obedience to the Law of Moses, Jesus chose to face his death on the Cross. He did not make this choice because of false hope in a happy ending, or because his death was not real or painful. Jesus did so, simply, to show us that real love, biblical love – the love of the Cross – is only possible when we refuse to fear death; when we refuse to give in to it, or to engage in it.

In his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul writes that “through death” Jesus destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” in order to deliver “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

When the Lord Jesus refused to defend himself on the Cross, he destroyed Satan’s power. He revealed to the world that Satan cannot control or manipulate someone who is willing to freely give his life for the sake of others. This is the freedom of the Gospel, openly shared by those who accept the crucified Lord as their king.

Death, as we hear on Pascha, “took a body, and met God face to face. It took that which was seen, and was overcome by what it could not see.” To underscore this point, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, we elevate as the symbol of Christ’s victory, the very instrument of His murder.

Those of us who claim accountability to the crucified Jesus, and who claim to be members of his church, are accountable to proclaim his death: to proclaim the way he died and to proclaim his victory over the same. The Feast of the Exaltation, celebrated at the beginning of the liturgical year, is a powerful reminder that our entire cycle of worship and everything that we trust as Orthodox Christians, revolves around this proclamation.

In a recent episode of The Illumined Heart Podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, the guest was Dr. Joel B. Green of Asbury Theological Seminary, co-author of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts. While the interview mostly dealt with theologies of the Atonement, Dr. Green also discussed the scandal in the book’s title. It is hard for us, in our modern Western cultural context, to grasp what was so scandalous about the Cross in the context of pre-Christian Mediterranean culture. In that culture, centered on the concepts of honor and shame, the Romans had designed crucifixion not just to kill or torture their enemies, but to humiliate them and discredit them with their own honor-obsessed peoples. The victim of crucifixion is displayed naked, powerless, and defeated for his community to witness.

It is therefore amazing that Christians took the Cross as their symbol. In doing so, they were making a radical counter-cultural statement, mocking the claims of the state to control their lives and their honor with its constant threats of death and humiliation. By bearing the symbol of death, they were defying the culture of death that it represented. Contemplating this, I am eager to take up my cross.

Interfax recently reported that a Christian group in Kenya, which calls itself Friends of Jesus, had petitioned the country’s high court to declare Jesus’ crucifixion illegal. One member said: “We need the court to clarify, for the record, that Jesus was not a criminal. He advocated for the rule of law. Do you mean to worship a convicted criminal?” It would appear that this group rejects the scandal of the Cross and wants to make their religion more respectable by worldly standards.

Today is also, appropriately, the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Cyprian in 258. I took the following passage from this month’s edition of The Tilma (#192), the newsletter of the Ward of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Dallas chapter of the Society of Mary.

When the second edict was issued, condemning Christian clergy to immediate death, Cyprian was returned to Carthage to face [Governor] Paternus’ successor, Galerius Maximus. Because Maximus was ill when Cyprian arrived, he was taken to the home of the chief gaoler where he was treated as a house-guest until the trial. When Cyprian and Maximus met, the meeting was again very congenial. Maximus began by asking if Cyprian was Thascius Cyprianus.

MAXIMUS: Have you allowed yourself to be called “father” of persons holding sacrilegious opinions.
MAXIMUS: The most sacred emperors order you to sacrifice.
CYPRIAN: I will not sacrifice.
MAXIMUS: Consider your own interests.
CYPRIAN: Do what is required.

Galerius Maximus then, regretfully, condemned Cyprian to death by the sword, to which Cyprian replied, “Thanks be to God!”

Accompanied by a large throng of people, Cyprian was led to a field near the home of someone named Sextons. His followers laid clothes and napkins near his feet. Cyprian turned to them and ordered that the executioner should be paid twenty-five pieces of gold. He then attempted to blindfold himself, but had difficulty tying the knot behind his head, so he was aided by a fellow Christian.

Cyprian’s body was laid on the ground in display to satisfy the curiosity of the pagans. But it was retrieved that night and carried in a procession replete with tapers and torches to its final resting place. Galerius Maximus died a short time later.

Cyprian and his flock show us that when one takes up the Cross, one abandons the fear of death. For those who have already died with Christ in baptism, death holds no power.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Fathers on Episcopal Ministry

Last week in Nairobi, two American priests were consecrated as bishops to minister to 32 American congregations that have placed themselves under the oversight of Kenyan Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi. The preacher for the occasion was the Most Rev’d Drexel W. Gomez, Archbishop of the West Indies. In his homily, Archbishop Gomez cited an interesting passage on patristic theories of episcopacy from a recent document of the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations, which is chaired by Archbishop Gomez. I have not been able to locate the full docmument on-line – perhaps Archbishop Gomez was giving us a sneak preview. Also, it is not clear where his quotation of the IASCER document ends, since all of the on-line versions of his homily lack a closing quotation mark. Without further comment, here is the passage from the homily.

In IASCER’s response to the Lutheran document “The Episcopal Ministry within the Apostolicity of the Church,” particular note was taken of the patristic tradition concerning episcopal ministry:

Historians commonly agree that there are three principal images or models of the office of a bishop in the pre-Nicene church, which are best exemplified in Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Cyprian.

“For Ignatius, the bishop is primarily the one who presides at the eucharist. This is central for Ignatius because of his understanding of the nature of the church. For Ignatius, then, the bishop is . . . the one who presides at . . . the eucharistic liturgy.

Irenaeus, on the other hand, while echoing the eucharistic teaching of Ignatius, places primary emphasis on the bishop’s role as teacher of the faith. The context here is the conflict with Gnosticism. For Irenaeus, the bishop is above all the one who preserves the continuity of the apostolic teaching in unbroken succession from the apostles. It is through the bishop's faithful proclamation of the Gospel in each local church that the unity of the church and the continuity of the church in the apostolic tradition is preserved.

For Cyprian, the bishop serves as the bond of unity between the local church and the universal church. Here the collegial aspect of the bishop’s role comes to the fore. The bishop is one member of a worldwide ‘college’ of bishops who are together responsible for maintaining the unity of the churches. Cyprian’s primary emphasis, therefore, is upon the bishop as the bond of unity between the local church and the church universal.

In each of theses models, therefore, the bishop is the sign of unity between the local and the universal church, either through the maintenance of eucharistic communion, continuity in apostolic teaching, or common oversight of the churches.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Reading List

After recently posting five times in two weeks, I have returned to a slower pace. To tide you over until I find the time and inspiration to write something new, I'll point you to some things I have been reading.

On his blog, Catholic in the Third Millennium, Dan Dunlap has been writing an interesting and informative series, "The Christological Divide that Anticipated Chalcedon." He explores the theological controversies of the fifth century that led up to Chalcedon's definition of the two natures of Christ.

In The Wall Street Journal Online, Alexandra Alter looks at "the toll one man's virtual marriage is taking on his real one and what researchers are discovering about the surprising power of synthetic identity." The man who is the subject of her article "Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?" spends much of his time in his on-line persona in Second Life, an internet-based virtual world. For a Christian, this article raise questions about the quasi-gnostic implications of technology that allows us increasingly to withdraw from the real, material world and live in an imaginary world.

The theme of the latest issue of AGAIN magazine is "Faith of Our Fathers: The Encounter of Orthodoxy and Anglicanism." Three members of my parish, all former Anglicans, are featured in the issue. Meanwhile, in The New Republic, Jason Zengerle writes about the steady flow of Evangelicals into the Orthodox Church over the past 30 years in his article, "The Iconoclasts." (Rod Dreher mentioned the article on his blog, Crunchy Con, and my friend Colin also forwarded it to me.)

OpinionJournal reprinted "Don Putin," a Wall Street Journal editorial by Garry Kasparov, in which he compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Godfather. Mr. Kasparov is the former world chess champion and a leader of Russia's democratic opposition. I think his analysis and criticism of Putin's corrupt, self-serving rule of Russia is right on target. Given the Moscow Patriarchate's longstanding entanglement with the Soviet/Russian government, I fear it will be hard for the Russian Orthodox Church not to be tainted by this corruption. (Thanks to Stephen for sending me this article.)

I'll leave you with this especially amusing "Pearls Before Swine" strip.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

5,000 Hits!

This morning at 11:24:12 AM, this blog received its 5,000th visitor since 10 January, when I installed SiteMeter. The length of the visit was 0:00 – perhaps a regular reader disappointed not to find a new post.

If anyone has been looking for my vulture post from Holy Week, it is back up now. For some time, it accounted for about half my blog's hits. Using SiteMeter, I figured out that all those hits were coming from people who were being directed by Google to the turkey vulture photo accompanying that post. It was skewing my stats, so I hid the post for a while. It took Google over a month to update its links, but it finally replaced the prominently located link a few days ago. (I wouldn't mind drawing viewers of the photo if I had taken it myself, but I had just found it on-line and downloaded it. The original now seems to have disappeared.)

With my chrismation now just six weeks away, I plan to do a series of posts on the chrismation rite in September.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Angel Worshipers

Two days ago, Al Qaeda launched multiple attacks on isolated villages in northwest Iraq populated by an obscure religious minority, the Yazidis (also spelled Yezidis). The Washington Post limited its description of the group to four sentences:

The Yazidis are an ancient group whose faith combines elements of many historical religions of the region. They worship a peacock archangel and are considered Satanists by some Muslims and Christians in Iraq, a characterization they reject.

Yazidis largely live apart from other Iraqis, in villages near the Syrian border, to maintain religious purity, and they are forbidden to fraternize with other groups. Most Yazidis speak Kurdish but object to being called Kurds.

It is not surprising that media reports have been so terse in describing the Yazidis. They are intentionally secretive about their religion, and this is reinforced by their isolation. In fact, not even the ordinary Yazidis themselves understand the details of their religion. Their priests keep this knowledge to themselves, passing it on orally to their descendants, and they simply tell the rest of their people how to live and worship. As recently as a century ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica described them as "devil worshipers," but in recent decades more accurate information has trickled out.

Their syncretic religion seems to be rooted in ancient Iranian belief, either Zoroastrian or pre-Zoroastrian, but it rejects the core Zoroastrian teaching of dualism. It carries strong influences from Shia Islam (it honors Ali) and Sufism. The Yazidis' chief saint, Shaykh 'Adi, was a 12th-century Sufi mystic. He was an Orthodox Muslim, but the Yazidis have taken his teaching in different directions over the centuries. Yazidis make an annual pilgrimage to Shaykh 'Adi's tomb.

In general, the Yazidis seem to pick up elements of whatever religions they come into contact with. It is not unusual, for instance, for them to visit Christian shrines to request the aid of local saints.

Their religion might share a common origin with the Alevi/Alawi sect of Islam found in Turkey and Syria. The Alevi religion is also secretive and mystical and involves angels.

Angel worship is the most distinctive element of the Yazidi religion. They believe God has left the world under the oversight of seven angels, of whom the chief is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. One of the Yazidis' many taboos prohibits them from speaking the other name of Melek Taus: Shaytan. Yes, that's the same as Satan, which is the source of the story that the Yazidis are devil worshipers. Their story of Shaytan begins like that of Christians and Muslims, but it ends with a distinctive twist.

God created Shaytan as the highest of his angels, and he commanded him never to bow to anyone or anything except God himself. But then God created man, and he commanded his angels to serve man. Shaytan could not reorient himself to carry out this new command, so he refused to bow down to this new creature. Here stories differ. In one version, God reveals that he was merely testing Shaytan. Having fulfilled the prior command to bow only to God, Shaytan was rewarded with oversight of all creation. But in the more common – and more poetic – variant of the story, God banished Shaytan from heaven for his pride and rebellion. Shaytan then filled seven jars with the tears of his repentance. With these tears he quenched the fires of hell, and God reinstated him as the chief of the angels.

This story embodies the Yazidis' rejection of dualism – there is no devil and no hell, and he who was cast out of heaven is now the chief of the angels. Melek Taus is an inscrutable figure whose decisions, whether perceived as good or evil by men, are not to be questioned.

The Yazidis also believe that they, unique among the world's peoples, are descended from Adam, but not from Eve. And they believe in reincarnation. They believe, further, that the seven angels occasionally become incarnate, especially in families of their priestly caste. Descendants of those judged to be incarnate angels have special status in society and are seen as a living connection to the angels. This belief in angelic incarnation also allows them to easily adopt religious figures from other traditions by declaring them to have been incarnations of one of the angels.

There are many small, obscure religious groups like this scattered throughout the Middle East. Another such group in Iraq is the gnostic Mandaean sect, which honors John the Baptist as the greatest of the prophets. But these groups are all endangered in the current climate of ethnic and religious hostilities in that region. Therefore they are emigrating in large numbers. Some claim that most of the Kurds in Germany today are actually Yazidis. I think it's a safe bet that some of these odd religious communities will start appearing in the U.S. in the next few years.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Joy of All Joys

In my recent post on prayer, I mentioned St. Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th-century Russian monk who is said to have practiced a devotion nearly identical to the Rosary. As depicted in the icon accompanying that post, St. Seraphim would pray this devotion daily, kneeling in his cell before an icon of the Theotokos. This Umilenie (Tenderness) icon is very unusual, in that it depicts the Blessed Virgin alone, without her son. In fact, it was possibly not a traditional Orthodox icon at all, but a Western image of Our Lady. This image, which St. Seraphim called "Joy of All Joys," represents Mary's feelings of tenderness at the Annunciation.

With oil from the lampada that burned before this holy icon, St. Seraphim would anoint the sick and they would be healed. He was praying in front of this icon when he died on 2 January 1833. After his death, the abbot gave the holy icon to the sisters of the monastery at Diveyevo. The icon is sometimes known as the Seraphim-Diveyevo icon of the Theotokos, after the convent where it now resides.

While searching on-line for an icon of St. Seraphim to use with my post, I frequently encountered a very different icon of the Theotokos that was said incorrectly to be this icon of St. Seraphim's. One might think that a particular icon that is often depicted in the icons of a popular saint, and which is still in existence in a known location, would be immune to problems of mistaken identity. But in thinking this, one would be seriously underestimating the Orthodox penchant for uncritically believing and repeating misinformation.

This beautiful icon is of the Eleousa type. While Eleousa is sometimes translated, like Umilenie, as "Tenderness," more strictly it means "Merciful." I would conjecture that someone, reading that St. Serphim's icon was of the "Tenderness" type found the most beautiful "Tenderness" icon he could find and assumed St. Seraphim's must be similar. This surprisingly popular misidentification has been appearing in some pretty authoritative places on-line, such as the Website of the Orthodox Church in America (here). But the OCA displays the very same icon here, where it is labeled as the Mother of God of the Pskov Caves Monastery. I think this latter identification is probably correct – I have seen it in other places, as well.

Meanwhile, the only other image of Our Lady I have seen that is similar to St. Seraphim's Umilenie is the wonder-working image of Our Lady of Ostrobrama, which resides in Vilnius, Lithuania, where it is venerated by Catholics and Orthodox alike.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

On My Father's Side

Unless you are both a bluegrass fan and a resident of the Washington, DC, area, you might not know that this region has a strong bluegrass tradition. In the 1950s, in fact, Washington was known as the “Bluegrass Capital of America.” Perhaps that would be less surprising if you recall that DC is right across the Potomac from Virginia.

One of our local public radio stations, WAMU, has been playing bluegrass for 40 years! At one point its bluegrass programming dominated weekday afternoons, but today it is relegated to Sundays.* Still, they manage to get in a lot of bluegrass on that one day! It starts at 1 AM with “Bluegrass Overnight,” and continues with “Stained Glass Bluegrass” at 6 AM. After a two-hour break for NPR news from 10 to 12, they return to bluegrass with “The Ray Davis Show” and “The Dick Spottswood Show.” On a typical Sunday I catch at least a little of each of these shows. (I'm listening to “Bluegrass Overnight” as I finish composing this post, late on Saturday night.)

Last Sunday I was listening to “Stained Glass Bluegrass” as I was getting dressed for church, and I heard a bluegrass gospel song I had not heard before. It was Felecia Shiflett’s song, “On My Father’s Side,” performed by the Village Singers. The song continued to run through my head for the next few days. With the help of Google, I tracked down the lyrics, the name of the songwriter, and this 30-second preview of the song by another performer. You will see that the lyrics are eminently appropriate to a blog called TWO NATURES.

On My Father’s Side
Felecia Shiflett

Just a young boy in the temple one day
Shared with the doctors, they were so amazed
Never had they seen one so young speak so swift
They asked him many questions, the conversation went like this

What’s your name, son?
On my mother’s side, my name is Jesus
But on my Father’s side, they call me Emmanuel
How old are you?
On my mother’s side, now I’m twelve years
But on my Father’s side, I’ve just always been
Where you from?
On my mother’s side, I’m from Bethlehem
But on my Father’s side, it’s New Jerusalem
What’s your plan?
On my mother’s side, I’ll be crucified
But on my Father’s side, in three days I’ll arise
And I’ll sit at my Father’s side

He was the Son of God, yet the son of man
And I can’t help but wonder how Joseph must have felt
Through an open door that day, he heard his son reply
He said: You see, I’m the King of Kings, that’s on my Father’s side


*Unless you have a digital radio, that is. WAMU’s digital channel 3 calls itself “Bluegrass Country.”

Thanks to “Stained Glass Bluegrass” host Red Shipley for providing the name of the group in response to my query.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Spiritual Discplines 2: Prayer

Two months ago, as the Fast of the Apostles was beginning, I posted an entry on fasting. Now, as we begin the Fast of the Theotokos, it seems an appropriate occasion for the sequel on prayer. NOTE: The first three links will take you to some of my old articles that I have not previously publicized.

Anglo-Catholicism has traditionally emphasized the importance of maintaining a Rule of Life – essentially, a personal commitment to a discipline of regular prayer, worked out in conjunction with one's pastor, confessor, or spiritual director. While a rule might involve other elements, such as fasting, study, and volunteer work, its heart is always prayer. There are different ways to organize one's prayer commitments, but here I will use the scheme of Eucharist, Daily Office, and personal prayer.

I was probably typical of Anglo-Catholics in being strong on the first two and weaker on the third. My rule was to attend Mass on all Sundays and Prayerbook holy days, and always at least twice a week; and to say Morning and Evening Prayer daily. As a member of a parish that offered Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and two Masses every day, I had community support for this discipline. Even when, as usual, I was reciting the offices at home in my icon corner, I knew that other parishioners were reciting the offices in the Angel Chapel at church or in their own homes. Anglicanism has, from the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, offered versions of Morning and Evening Prayer that are practical for the laity, requiring nothing more than a Bible and a Prayerbook, which can be recited without hurry in about 20 minutes. Recent Prayerbooks include rubrics permitting the omission or shortening of some parts of the offices in order to allow them to be tailored to the needs, constraints, and preferences of parishes and individuals. And, if that is not enough, there are also "Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families" – abbreviated, one-page versions of the offices for home use. In short, one should be able to find an official form of the Anglican Daily Office that can be easily adapted to one's own Rule of Life, no matter where one is in the development of one's prayer life.

Anglo-Catholics often adopt additional prayer disciplines from unofficial Anglican sources, such as St. Augustine's Prayer Book, or from Roman Catholic sources. Official Anglican sources tend to be weak on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so Anglo-Catholics often supplement their worship and prayer with traditional Catholic prayers, such as the Angelus and the Rosary. With these being well integrated into Anglo-Catholic culture, it is easy to find both in Anglo-Catholic devotional books.

In Orthodoxy, I am finding that nothing is this easy. While there is a strong tradition of daily prayers at home, the usual forms tend to be short and without day-to-day variation. From December through February, I followed one of these forms. Every day I recited the Morning Prayers from the Antiochian Archdiocese's red Pocket Prayer Book, which Father Gregory gave me the first time we met to talk about my move to Orthodoxy. Following the morning prayers I would read the Gospel of the day from the Greek lectionary. It was a useful exercise for learning the standard Orthodox prayers I would encounter in various contexts, such as the ubiquitous Trisagion Prayers. I also found the short prayers practical during these busy months when I was in transition from Anglican to Orthodox and trying to participate in the lives of two parishes.

But, as Lent was beginning, I decided I needed something more. I especially missed the daily recitation of the Psalms, the central feature of the traditional Daily Office. Orthodoxy does not have a tradition of individual recitation of the offices, but Ruthenian Catholicism does. (My theory: The Ruthenians learned about the Breviary used by their fellow Catholics and decided to create a Byzantine equivalent.) I found a small Ruthenian book with versions of most of the offices for home use – only Prime and Compline were missing from its pages. I have settled into a pattern of praying Matins from this book before breakfast Monday–Friday. Instead of reciting Psalm 51 every day, I substitute a section of the Psalter according to the traditional Anglican scheme, which divides the Psalter into 60 sections for use over the course of the month at Morning and Evening Prayer. The traditional Byzantine canticles are divided over the days of the week, and propers for each day follow the traditional Byzantine weekly scheme:

MONDAY: The Holy Angels
TUESDAY: Saint John the Forerunner
WEDNESDAY: The Holy Cross and the Holy Theotokos
THURSDAY: The Holy Apostles and Saint Nicholas
FRIDAY: The Holy Cross

On Saturdays and Sundays I typically attend Vespers and Matins, respectively. On weekend days when I don't make to church for the offices, I'll pray Vespers from the Ruthenian book.

I am working on translating the book's idiosyncratic, often paraphrased, modern English into the traditional English that is standard in Antiochian usage. But this is not an easy process. Orthodoxy simply does not have official, universal, standard liturgical books like Anglican Prayerbooks. Every jurisdiction has its own books, not all of which are consistent, and parishes often do their own thing anyway. Moreover, most of the translations read as if they were created by someone who knew Greek or Slavonic better than English – which was, in fact, often the case.

Now that I have this pattern down, I am exploring ways to fill other prayer niches. Since I live less than a mile from my office, I typically walk to work once a week. I have gotten into the habit of repeating prayers as I walk. As I leave home I say the Lord's Prayer three times. Then, for the first half of the trip I recite the Orthodox equivalent of the "Hail Mary":

Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, O Mary full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
for thou hast borne the savior of our souls.

The first obvious difference from the Catholic version is that it translates the angel's greeting as "Rejoice," rather than "Hail." The Greek Khaire and Latin Ave convey both meanings, but there is no exact English equivalent. In both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, one can find instances where the word is translated either way. In their book, Mary: The Church at the Source (1997), for instance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar favored "Rejoice," even though "Hail" is more familiar to English-speaking Catholics. The second obvious difference is the concluding clause. The modern Catholic version concludes, "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." While the first two lines come straight from Luke (1:28, 42), neither concluding line comes from the Bible. The Catholic conclusion had its origin in Trent and was still not in universal use as late as the 19th century. I would not be surprised if the Orthodox conclusion had a similarly late origin.

When I turn the corner on my walk to work, I switch to reciting the Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

This is an elaboration of the prayer of the publican (Luke 10:13). On my way home I reverse the order, beginning with the Jesus Prayer, switching to "Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos," and concluding with the Lord's Prayer as I arrive back at home.

I am currently considering how I might work an Orthodox version of the Rosary into my prayer life. While use of the Rosary is not widespread or well known in Orthodox circles, neither is it entirely unheard of. St. Seraphim of Sarov, for instance, was known for his devotion to the Rosary. In Orthodox contexts, the discipline of the Rosary is sometimes known as the Rule of the Mother of God. I have located a few Orthodox Rosaries on-line, such as this one. The prayers are slightly different and some of the mysteries are also different, but it retains the familiar structure of the Dominican Rosary, with fifteen decades, each dedicated to a different mystery from the lives of Christ and his blessed mother.

Earlier this evening, when a few of us were talking outside the church following a Paraklesis service, one friend asked another about developing a rule of prayer. One key piece of advice he offered, which I heard (and repeated) many times as an Anglican, is that the most important thing about a rule is that you will actually do it every day. The most elaborate rule of prayer won't do you any good if you can't keep it. But following even the simplest rule can begin to form the discipline of prayer, which can serve as God's foothold in one's daily life.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Noble Joseph

Today is the feast of my patron saint, Joseph of Arimathea. The cover of this past Sunday's bulletin featured an icon of St. Joseph that I had never seen before. He stands before Pilate, requesting the body of Christ, while a soldier looks on. (I could not find this icon on-line, but fortunately I have my digital camera handy!) Here is the story from the back of the bulletin:

While we usually think of him mainly when we observe our Lord's Passion, JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA is actually remembered by our Holy Orthodox Church on July 31. During the time of Christ, he was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin – the supreme religious court for the Jews of that era. Yet he was much more than this: he was a secret follower of Jesus who ". . . was searching for the kingdom of God." (Mark 15:43) A man of great material means, Joseph was a well-respected man in the community. His repuation, no doubt, enabled him to boldly approach Pilate and ask for the body of Christ, so that the Crucified Savior could be given a proper burial, according to the prescriptions of the Hebrew Law. Yes, he would have it buried in his own new tomb, hewn out of a rock. It is said that this act of kindness infuriated the Jews, who had him cast into prison. Tradition tells us that the Risen Lord appeared to him so that he would have first-hand knowledge of the Resurrection.

Upon his release from prison, Joseph was exiled from his homeland of Judea. He dedicated the rest of his life to preaching the Gospel, joining the Apostle Philip on a missionary journey that took them to the coast of Europe. Joseph is thought to have been responsible for bringing the Good News about Christ to the inhabitants of present-day England, winning many converts there. Joseph of Arimathea is considered to be a saint by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Legends and myths abound concerning this saintly man, including connections with the Holy Grail and King Arthur! We remember him, however, primarily for his pious gesture of burying Christ, for which we will forever ascribe the word "noble" to his name.

When Joseph went before Pilate to ask for the body, Pilate promptly granted his request. Pilate, who had not wanted to execute Jesus in the first place, had no reason to withhold the body. He might even have taken pleasure in the thought that it would annoy the Jews! But what about Joseph – did he guess the punishment that would follow from his pious duty?

This telling of the story of Joseph reminded me of Sophocles' play, Antigone. The heroine's brothers, joint heirs to the throne of Thebes, had quarreled, and one had expelled the other, who then returned at the head of an Argive army to regain the throne. They both fell in the ensuing battle. As the play begins, King Creon has decreed that Eteocles, who died defending Thebes, should receive full honors, while his brother Polynices was not to be buried – upon pain of death. Antigone promptly defied the king's command, covering Polynices with a layer of dirt. Knowing the penalty under earthly law, she yet obeyed the unwritten law of heaven, showing her brother the honor due to the dead. For her choice, she was sentenced to be buried alive – sealed in a cave. The citizens secretly honored Antigone for doing what was right and customary, but they would not contradict the king in public. The blind prophet Tiresias ultimately persuaded Creon of his sin, but it was too late: Antigone had already committed suicide. Upon finding her dead, her lover Haemon, Creon's son, also killed himself, followed by his mother Eurydice. (This is a tragedy, after all.)

Euripides' earlier version of the story, now lost, is said to have had a happy ending: the calamity was averted by the intercession of Dionysus and was followed by the marriage of Antigone and Haemon.

According to legend, Joseph was a well-traveled merchant. It is possible that he could have heard a version of the Greek legend in his travels. If so, he might have imagined the risk he was taking in defying the consensus of the Jewish rulers in order to obey the Jewish law regarding burial of the dead. Just as Antigone was sealed in the cave, Joseph was sealed in a prison cell.

Unlike Antigone, however, Joseph did not yield to despair. When the gods intervened for Antigone, in the person of Tiresias, she had already given up hope. According to Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathe, Joseph was fed during his imprisonment by daily appearances of the Holy Grail, which sustained his life and his hope. But according to the Gospel of Nicodemus (which was probably the source of elements of Joseph's story related in Sunday's bulletin), during his first night in prison Joseph was visited by Christ himself, who transported him home to Arimathea.

Joseph had already proven himself the sort of person who does not give in to despair. When all of the disciples besides John were in hiding, Joseph of Arimathea was the one who retained the presence of mind and the courage to attend to the immediate need of Jesus' burial.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Visit from St. Anna

In her latest podcast, Frederica talks with Father Athanasy, a Russian Orthodox priest who is the custodian of the myrrh-streaming icon of St. Anna, the grandmother of Christ, whose feast was today in the West, yesterday in the East.

In Orthodoxy, a frequent sort of miracle these days is when an icon "weeps" with oil infused with myrrh. Such icons and the oil that comes from them are often associated with healing miracles. Even apart from the miraculous origin of this oil, the Church has long used blessed oil for anointing the sick, and myrrh has been used medicinally for centuries, as well as for incense, perfume, and embalming.

Father Athanasy, with the blessing of his bishop, travels to visit parishes all over the country with the miraculous icon, leaving peace and healing in his wake. Earlier this month, he brought the icon to Holy Apostles Orthodox Church, right here in Beltsville, for the parish's patronal feast. Frederica recorded her talk with Father Athanasy after the Vigil service on 12 July, the eve of the feast. The next morning I attended the Liturgy at Holy Apostles, where I also had the privilege of venerating the icon and being anointed with its myrrh. The sweet fragrance of the myrrh on my forehead lasted all day!

At lunch after the Liturgy, I sat at Father Athanasy's table. He currently lives in Philadelphia, but he said the one thing that might make him consider relocating himself and the icon was if a church dedicated to St. Anna were to be founded in Annapolis, Maryland – literally, the City of Anna!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chrismation Date

It's now official: God willing, I will be chrismated as a member of the Holy Orthodox Church on Sunday 7 October! The chrismation will take place at 9 AM, immediately before the 9:30 Liturgy, at Holy Cross.

As some of you know, arranging the date was not easy. With my uneventful life, I can be available any Sunday this year, but my sponsor, the other catechumen, and his sponsor all have extensive travel plans in late summer and early fall. The scheduling process was complicated by the fact that we were all distracted with planning, executing, and recovering from the Parish Life Conference of the Eastern Dioceses, which was hosted by Holy Cross this year.

Shortly before the PLC, three of my fellow catechumens were chrismated. I was watching closely, knowing that I'll be next! In the first photo, as all three catechumens kneel before the iconostasis, Jack receives absolution from Fr. Gregory (they're both hidden by Jack's sponsor, Cal). In the second photo, Doane gets her tonsure.

After the Liturgy, Brandon's sponsor Keith hosted a party to celebrate the chrismations. Reader Michael took these photos at the party.