Category Archives: Church Services

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (13)

In our culture there seems to be a fascination with the end times, with the end of the world. In addition to serious theological studies, there are many popular treatments of the end of the world in the movies, on the internet, in television shows, books, magazines, etc. Of course, much of this interest in the United States comes from Christian sources. But not all. One sees material taken from Nostradamus, the Maya and countless numbers of others.

Much Christian thinking about the end times comes the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. This book was written in the late 1st century by the Apostle John, probably from the island of Patmos during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian when the church was undergoing fierce persecution ordered by the Emperor. The book, indeed, talks about the end times in quite startlingly images and language. Since the time the book was written Christians have tried to predict the time of the end of the world through interpreting the words and images in this book. In a certain sense this is not wrong because the Book of Revelation is indeed written to talk about the end times. But time and time again, people have tried to learn, not only the exact time of the end, but also detailed descriptions of the people, places and events of the end times, trying to prove when this will take place. However, Jesus Christ, shortly before his return to heaven said: “…”It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Here Christ is clearly telling future generations that they will never know the exact sequence of the end. Many times people have tried to fit the images and language of this book exactly to their own time, which in hindsight, seems silly to us. For example, once the author of these lines was shown a book written in the early 19th century proving that every detail in the Book of Revelation specifically pointed to Napoleon as the one who is bringing about the end of the world. And of course, before and after this time Christians have seen different historical figures as the Antichrist, who will come before the end and do horrible things. So different persecutors have been called Antichrist: Attila the Hun, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, etc. so trying to use this book as a book of details of the immediate future. So there was every reason to read this book in times of persecution. Doing this shows us the real meaning of this book is to comfort and strengthen Christians undergoing persecution. As said above, this work was written at the time of the persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian and it does brings comfort to Christian undergoing persecution. Indeed, this is, despite the quite graphic and violent images and language, does give comfort. As St. John writes: “… he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

This book tells us that ultimately, God is in charge, and will finally save His faithful people.

Of course, one reason that God does not tell us either the time of our own death or the end of the world is so that we will always been vigilant. This is not to say that God is trying to frighten us, but rather to prevent us getting lazy in living the Christian life. Christ told us through parables about vigilance. For example:

“Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, `My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 24:45-51)

In this parable, as well as others, Christ tells us always be vigilant, but concerning our own end and the end of the world.

But again, Christ is not trying to frighten us. The whole meaning of the Book of Revelation is one of hope. It tells us that no matter the suffering which we personally experience and the whole world experiences, God is in charge. One of the most touching verses of the Bible is found in Revelation 21:4 “… he will wipe away every tear from their eyes…” This is what God has instore for each of us and for the whole world.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (12)

​Many people has asked: “What is man? What is humanity?” The Bible itself asks the question:“What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him,…” (Job 7:17)

Many people have a rather low view of humanity. Some people think that human beings are simply animals and have developed consciousness by some unknown process. Others think of human beings in economic terms. People are simply economic units who produce and consume. In some Asian religions the human person has no ultimate reality.

​The Bible has a different view. The Book of Psalms says

“… what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.” (Ps 8:4-5)

And the Book of Genesis says:

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26)

In other words, human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and no matter how far one strays from God, no matter how far the image and likeness has been replaced by sin, the image and likeness can never be lost and a person can always repent and restore the image. In the words of St. Gregory the Theologian:

“Let us offer to Him who suffered and rose again… ourselves, the possession most precious to God and most proper.”

​In other words, human beings are God’s most precious possession. For that reason God never gives up on humanity no matter how much we have strayed from God’s path, which is the reason that God chose the Jewish people for the coming of Christ to restore a damaged image. And finally Christ comes into the world to save us. Christ’s saved us by his life, death and resurrection. Christ’s life is salvific but in many respects the crucifixion is the heart of Christ’s mission. Quoting St. Gregory again, “A few drops of Blood recreated the whole of creation.” Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection renews and saves, not only human beings, but the whole of creation. In fact as 2 Peter 1:4 says:

“Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”

​This is what humanity is called to and destined for.​
We should realize that Christ never abandoned his humanity, but Christ’s humanity sits at the right of the Father. In other words, Christ, by ascending into heaven, has taken humanity into heaven. In this way Christ is divinizing or humanity and we all will be in heaven with God in our deified humanity. In other words, Christ ascension into heaven, body and soul, points the way to our life in heaven, body and soul.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (11)

Although we are Christians we often hold a sub-Christian, even un-Christian, view of life and death. For example, we sometimes think that the Christian view of death is that after death our souls go to live in heaven with God forever. But this is a pagan view. For Christians, the human being is an embodied soul. The soul and body are one
entity. We say in the Creed that we “… look for the resurrection of the dead.” The idea is that when Jesus comes back at the end of times the dead will rise and human beings will be embodied should as God intended us to be.
We also err when we say or think that death is ‘natural’. People talk about the ‘cycle of life.” An organism is born, it matures, it ages and it dies. This view of life is found in many areas of our culture.
However, the Christian view of death is quite different. We are not created to die but live eternally and death is an unnatural thing caused by sin. We find this concept beautifully expressed in a talk that the late Fr. Thomas Hopko gave in 1999. Fr. Tom said:

“It is beyond any doubt that We Christians are convinced that we are created for life; it is not God’s will that we die. God doesn’t want death; He wants life. In the Scripture, death is the enemy. The Apostle Paul even calls death, “the last enemy”.
Death is not natural, not a natural part of our life and not willed by God. The Wisdom of Solomon, which for us is part of the Bible, says very clearly, “God did not create death”.
Death comes into the world as a rebellion against God. Death comes into the world because people do not choose life, but choose death, darkness and themselves over God.
It is our teaching that death results from the human rebellion against God from the beginning and with the help of the demons (who are loves of death, darkness, and evil). The Bible actually teaches a kind of ‘package plan’, you have God, truth, life, and glory, or you have the demons, darkness, death, Satan, sin, corruption, ugliness and rot. This is the basic reality, and there is no middle path.” (Fr. Thomas Hopko, Brisbane Australia, 1999)

The idea is that the sin of Adam and Eve and all humanity introduced death into the world. In a mysterious way, even the physical world has become involved in corruption due to human sin. As St. Paul writes:
“…. for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now. (Rom 8:20-22)
So when Jesus comes again He will not only reunite human souls and bodies but will restore the creation to what it was before sin, as God intended it to be.
And we should think about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise as being completely a bad thing. By eating from the Tre of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they sinned. If they had then eaten from the Tree of Life, they would be immortal.
This may seem good to us, but if they had done this then sin would be immortal too.
They would have to live forever with the burden of sin on their conscience.
When God expelled Adam and Eve from paradise He knew He would send his Son Jesus Christ to be the conqueror of all sin and would restore humanity and the universe to their original state.
Jesus Christ did not have to die. He willed to die because he knew that He, as God, would destroy death by dying. Death could no longer hold Christ. By voluntarily entering into the kingdom of death He destroyed it and freed humanity from the need for eternal death. Because Christ was also human, new life was given to human beings.
This is reflected on the Paschal icon which shows Jesus Christ breaking the gates of death and leading Adam and Eve (and all humanity) from hell.

This action of Jesus Christ fulfills the Old Testament prophecy. For example Psalm 16:10 says: For thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the Pit.” We can also look at Isaiah 25:8-9 and Ezekiel 37:12-14.
“He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:8-9)
“Therefore prophesy, and say to them, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord." (Ez 27:12-14)
So we can see that through Christ’s action, humanity and the cosmos will finally be restored and will exist with Christ in glory forever.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (10)

​We enter the church through the water of baptism. Water, as such, has a washing, cleansing and life-giving properties, so it is naturally used in the world of religion. For example, in Japan, people undergoing spiritual training will pray and meditate under waterfalls, even in the harshest of weather. In Judaism there is a rite similar to baptism called Tevilah, a purification ritual which involves immersion in water, which is used for the baptism of converts and for other things. One difference from Christian baptism is that Tevilah can be repeated while Christian baptism can be done only once.​On a certain level we can see baptism as an initiation ritual. On a natural level again, when we enter a new group (e.g., a new school, the army, a club) there is often some ceremony of welcoming the new member of the group. From that point of view, baptism is the ceremony of welcome into the church.
​Another major purpose of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. These days baptism is usually administered to children so the idea of baptism for the forgiveness of sins may seem odd. However, baptismal texts go back to the earliest days of the church when most candidates for baptism were adults, so that the forgiveness of sins was seen as one of the key functions of baptism. Because baptism can only be administered once, people in the early church often postponed baptism until late in life.
​Another aspect of baptism is participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Christ was in the grave for three days, in baptism we go down into the waters of baptism three times. Just as Christ rose to new life after three days, we are reborn after rising from the water. As St. Paul writes in Romans 6:3-5:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. “
​On a historical note, the original meaning of the Greek word baptism means immersion into water, so this is the preferred method for Orthodox baptism, although baptism by pouring is also practiced.
​In the New Testament, the first reference to baptism is the ministry of John the Baptist. St. John’s baptism was for forgiveness of sin and did not grant eternal life. As St. John himself says comparing his baptism to that which would be given later by Jesus Christ.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt 3:11)
​The baptism of Jesus Christ by St. John is the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. Christ did not need to be baptized but he allowed Himself to be baptized to show his solidarity with the whole human race. Also, by undergoing baptism Christ gave an example of what human beings will need to do to be saved. Finally, by going down into the depths of the water, Jesus purified all waters. In the Bible and in pagan writings, it is thought the sea monsters, or dragons, lurked in the water. This view came about because water has death-giving as well as life-giving properties.
​Of course, for us Orthodox baptism is immediately followed by Chrismation, the anointing with chrism, which is a special kind of oil. This combination of baptism with water and anointment with chrism is often see as “illumination”. In other words, those who were in the darkness of sin and death are brought to the light of eternal life.
Finally we can say that the mission of the church is to fulfill Christ’s command given at the end of St. Mathew’s Gospel:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Mt 28:19)

 Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (9B)

As mentioned earlier, it is necessary to venerate icons to demonstrate our faith that Jesus is True God and True Man, God in the flesh. It we were to scorn icons we would be saying that Jesus Christ is either not true man or not true God, which would be heresy.​However, there is an important distinction to make, as those saints who defended icons say, there is a difference between worship and veneration.

​As noted above, the defense of icons was undertaken by many Christian clerics, monastics and lay persons. There are two saints especially connected to the theological defense of icons

​In the first period the great defender of icons was St. John of Damascus (676-749AD). St. John was a Christian and who was raised in Damascus under Muslim rule. These Muslim rulers were quite tolerant of Christianity and many Christian Arabs worked in the Muslim government. St. John’s father wanted a good Christian education for his son and hired a Sicilian monk to teach him both secular and religious subjects. As a result of his education and talent, St. John was given an important position in the Muslim Caliphate’s government. When iconoclasm started in Constantinople St. John wrote three “Apologetic Treatises Against Those Decrying the Holy Image”. In other words, defenses of the veneration of icons. Ironically, because St. John lived in the Muslim territory, the Byzantine emperor could not take action against him. However, the emperor forged a document claiming that St. John was conspiring against the Caliphate. The Caliphate dismissed St. John and had his right hand cut off. Tradition tells us that his hand was restored through the intercession of the Mother of God. St. John retired to St. Sabbas Monastery near Jerusalem where he lived until his death. In addition to his defenses of icons, St. John also wrote many other theological works, including many of the liturgical texts and hymns the Orthodox Church uses today.

​In addition to what was said earlier about the differences between worship and veneration of icons, St. John declared that he did not venerate matter, meaning the paint and wood of the icon, but rather the creator of matter, that is God. Also, he stated that it was permissible and even necessary to venerate material things because Jesus Christ had entered the material world so that matter itself can be a means of grace.

​The great defender of icons in the second iconoclast period was St. Theodore the Studite. St. Theodore was a monk and later abbot of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Studius, near Constantinople. St. Theodore made the Studite Monastery a center of scholarship and piety. Many of his writings are included in the Lenten Triodion, the service book the Church uses during Great Lent. When the second iconoclast period began St. Theodore wrote three “Refutations of Iconoclasm”. As a result of this St. Theodore was exiled and died in exile before the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which is writing had helped to accomplish. St. Theodore wrote that we can venerate icons because Christ became incarnate.

​“If anyone should say that when the image of Christ is displayed it is sufficient neither to honor nor dishonor it, those refusing it the honor of relative veneration, he is a heretic.”

​We can see that St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite gave verbal form to the church’s veneration of icons, defending it from ancient, as well as modern iconoclasts.

​Sometimes Orthodox Christians are accused of ‘worshipping’ icons. However. St. John made the point that worship (latreia) is due to God alone. We worship only God. However we offer veneration (proskynesis) to icons, as well as to relics, the Gospel book, and so on. And this is quite natural and human. We like to have photographs of our loved ones around us and may even kiss the photograph of our departed parents, for example. This is a natural kind of proskynesis. We stand and salute or place our hands on our hearts when the flag is raised. So it is quite natural that we ‘venerate’ objects which convey deep meaning to us.

​One of the things that the iconoclastic period shows us is that as important as the role of theologians, bishops and even empresses had played in the history of the Church, it is the whole people of God, clergy monastics and laity, have the duty to recognize and hold and defend the faith., In the iconoclast controversy the lower clergy and laity were not passive before a battle of emperors, empresses and bishops, but rather played an important role in the defense of the faith. Once again, we see that many Christians today are paying with their lives in defense of the faith. We should help them, as we can pray for them, and try ourselves to be knowledgeable about our faith.

Fr. John