Category Archives: Sermons

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

One of the things that strike a non-Orthodox visitor on the first visit to an Orthodox Church is the icons. Icons are everywhere. They lie on stands and are hung on walls.
There may be frescos or mosaics. Orthodox Christians kiss icons, light candles around them and pray to the person depicted on them. Icons are an essential part of Orthodoxy.
Icons go back quite early in Christian history, although not many early icons survive because they were destroyed by iconoclasts, as we shall see in a moment.
According to tradition, St. Luke, author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, painted icons of the Virgin Mary.We are not sure how many icons of her he painted but he is usually credited with at least two. He is said to have painted an icon Hodightria (the Directress, or the one who shows the way). These icons show the Mother of God pointing to the infant Jesus who is sitting on her lap. The point is that she is directing us to her Son, who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
Another icon by St. Luke is the Eleousa (Merciful, Tenderness). This icon shows St. Mary embracing the Christ child and the Christ child embracing or caressing His mother.
It makes sense that St. Luke should have painted an icon of the Mother of God. St. Luke appears to have written the part of his Gospel that describes the circumstances of Christ’s birth from her point of view. We are not sure where the originals of St. Luke’s icons are now, but icons in these styles are found everywhere in the Orthodox world.
Another icon from the early days of the church is the icon ‘not made by human hands’. The story behind this icon is as follows: King Abgar of Edessa was suffering from leprosy. He heard that Jesus Christ was a great healer so he sent a servant to Jesus to ask him to come to Edessa and cure him. Christ told the servant that He could not come to Edessa. However, Christ took a piece of cloth and pressed it o his face and his face miraculously appeared on the cloth. The servant took the cloth to King Abgar who put it on his body and was healed. This icon of the Holy Face is called the Mandylion and the icon ‘Not Made by Human Hands’ because it was not painted by an artist. This icon eventually ended up in Constantinople, from where it was stolen by a crusader in 1204. Its current location is uncertain.
These narratives of St. Luke’s icons and the Mandylion would be difficult to ascertain historically but they show that the memory of the church knows that icons go back to the earliest period of the church.
In spite of this, in the early 8th century the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor Leo III banned icons. He ordered the icons to be taken out of churches, monasteries, public places, and homes. This is known as iconoclasm or the smashing of icons. This is the first iconoclast period which lasted from 730-787AD. Many Orthodox Christians suffered arrest, torture, and death in defense of icons. No one is quite sure why Leo began this campaign against icons. One theory is that he was influenced by Islam, which is against icons. Some say that he was influenced by the Old Testament which forbade the making of images of God (Ex 20:4). This prohibition made sense in the Old Testament period because no one had seen God, so the image of God would have been a product of human imagination and fantasy and so would have been an idol.
However, things changed radically in New Testament times when Jesus Christ, the eternal Son, and Word came into the world. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. As St. John writes “Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, `Show us the Father’?; (Jn 14:8-9)

 

“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied,” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, `Show us the Father’?; (Jn 14:8-9)

And

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God;” (Jn 1:1-2)

So because Jesus is God in the flesh He can be depicted in icons.
In any case, Emperor Leo was succeeded by his son Constantine V, who continued his father’s policy as did the next emperor Leo IV. However, when he died his son Constantine VI was still a child so his mother Irene became regent, ruling in place of her young son. Irene was a supporter of icons and so called a council which later was known as the 7th Ecumenical Council or Nicaea 2. During the lifetime of Empress Irene and the next two emperors, icons were venerated, but a new campaign against icons was begun by Emperor Leo V. This is the second iconoclast period which lasted from 814-843AD. This policy was continued by his son Michael II. But when Michael died Empress Theodora became regent for her young son Michael II and she ordered icons to be restored on the first Sunday of Great Lent in 843AD. From this time to the present the day is celebrated as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

Fr. John

 

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (8b)

As the 5th century went on a new false teaching arose. This false teaching so emphasized the divinity of Jesus Christ that his humanity was reduced to nothing. This may seem strange to us. We naturally believe that Jesus Christ is a human being. But in ancient times, there was a strong sense that God could not really become human. People who were raised on Greco-Roman philosophy could not believe that God Himself could be hungry, thirsty or tired. This was inconsistent with their notion of God. They would say that all of Christ’s physical needs were a kind of “show”. Some even said that when Jesus walked he did not leave footprints in the sand. And, of course, Jewish people could not accept that the Messiah would die a painful, shameful death on the cross. Again, a ‘play acting’ Jesus could not truly transform humanity from within. This is why the Church has always held on to the humanity of Christ. In other words, Jesus Christ had to be truly God to conquer sin, death and the devil, but he also had to be truly human to help us. A council was called in Chalcedon to address these issues. The council said that although there is only one divine person in Jesus Christ, there are two natures, divine and human. Therefore, this council was defending the humanity of Jesus Christ.​There are Christians who do not accept the Council of Chalcedon. These people affirmed that there is only “one divine nature” in Jesus Christ. The Christians are sometimes called “monophoysite” (mono-physis = one nature). They are also called non-Chalcedonian Christians or Oriental Orthodox, and include the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian churches. However, as a result of further study and ecumenical dialogue beginning in the 20th century, theologians have come to see the difference between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians as linguistic verbal differences rather than differences in belief. We can hope that God will lead us to heal this schism.
​Some people thought that this stress on the two natures was a falling back to the Nestorian heresy which said there was only a connection between the divinity and humanity of Christ. To make it clear that the Council of Chalcedon was not Nestorian, the Emperor Justinian (It is interesting to note that the Emperor Justinian was a skilled theologian, as his activities on behalf of the church show. It was a strong tradition in the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire that laymen and women could be theologians. This held true to the very end of the Eastern Empire. In the West, theology early on became a matter for clergy, not for lay people. Justinian was also renowned as a builder. He commissioned the building of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) Basilica in Constantinople [now Istanbul] which for many centuries was the greatest church in Christendom. After the Muslims conquered it, it became a mosque and is now a museum. Justinian also commissioned the building of St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, one of the oldest, still functioning monasteries in the Christian world.) called a council in 553 to reiterate the Orthodox teaching that Jesus Christ is one, divine person in the two natures, human and divine. To express this poetically Justinian wrote the hymn “Only-begotten Son” which we sing at ever Divine Liturgy.
Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, Who without change didst become man and wast crucified, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!
​We can see, then, that the 1st to 5th ecumenical councils were concerned with showing how Jesus Christ is related to God and humanity. This was not for the sake of theological controversy or debate, but rather to be sure that Jesus Christ is truly our Savior.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (8a)

​In previous articles we looked at the first and second ecumenical councils. In this article we will look at the third, fourth and fifth ecumenical councils. But before we do this, we should go over some of the material about the first two, because really all the counsels are related. In a sense we could say that the theme of all the counsels is who Jesus Christ is and how He is related to God and to us.​In the early 4th century a priest of Alexandria named Arius began to preach that Jesus Christ was not God. Arius said that Jesus was the first being who was created, through whom God created the world, but he was still a created being, not God. This false teaching so disturbed the church and civil society that the emperor called a council of bishops to settle the matter in 325AD. The Fathers of the council condemned Arius and affirmed that Jesus is indeed God. The Fathers adopted the Creed which we sing at every Liturgy which says that Jesus is “…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made;…”
​So the first ecumenical council stressed the divinity of Jesus Christ, the second council (381AD) was called because there were people denying that the Holy Spirit is God. To combat this, the council added a section about the Holy Spirit in the Creed. We say that we believe “… in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified;….”. In other words, the second ecumenical council affirmed that the Holy Spirit is God also.
​In the early 5th century a man named Nestorius became Bishop of Constantinople. When he became Bishop he learned that the Christians in Constantinople were venerating the Virgin Mary as “Theotokos”. Theotokos is a Greek word which is often translated as “Mother of God”. However, it literal means “the God bearer”. In other words, the one who has given birth to God. Nestorius did not like this because he thought it was incorrect to say that Mary is the Mother of God. Nestorius said that she should be called “Christotokos” (the one who bore Christ) or “anthropotokos (the one who gave birth to a man). Nestorius said that there was a division between the Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, and the Jesus Christ who was born of the Mother of God. He said that there was a connection between the two, but they were not the same.
​At one point Nestorius said that the Word of God dwelled in the man Jesus as in a temple. The problem with this, of course, is that the word of God can be said about all holy men and women. This means that the difference between Jesus Christ and other holy people is a matter of degree. One would say that the word of God dwells in Jesus to a great degree than it does in other holy people. It would be a difference of quantity, not quality, so to speak. In a sense this is a very modern false teaching. Most people, Christian or non-Christian, have good things to say about Jesus. People see him as a great spiritual leader, a moral teacher and so on. Some Buddhists see Jesus as an enlightened being, some Hindus will say that Jesus is an incarnation of God. Even some Jews will say that Jesus was a charismatic rabbi. It is indeed wonderful to see Jesus Christ praised this way, but all of this praise falls short of confessing that Jesus is “true God of true God.” This is what Nestorius denied and the council of Ephesus affirmed. In other words, Nestorius denied that the son of Mary is truly God. Again, we have a denial that Jesus is God. In order to deal with this problem a council was called in 431 AD in Ephesus. The council stated that the Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary is indeed the eternal Son of God. There is not just a connection between the two, but they are one. This council said that it was proper to call the Virgin Mary “Theotokos” because she is the Mother of God. This was the third ecumenical council which defended the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (7)

​Sometimes when people think about salvation history they have the following scheme in mind: The Old Testament is about God the Father, the New Testament is about Jesus Christ, and the ongoing life of the church is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It is easy to see why people think this way. When we read the Old Testament we do not see Jesus Christ mentioned by name. On the other hand, Jesus Christ is the central figure of the New Testament. And when the church is born on Pentecost it is with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. However, this way of looking at things is quite wrong. This is because the three persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – always act as one. We saw in an earlier article the Son of God and the Holy Spirit cooperate with the Father in creating and sustaining the world. As the Gospel of John has it: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.” (Jn 1:10).​Also, the church teaches that when God appeared to people in the Old Testament it was the pre-incarnate Son of God who appeared. For example, in the Book of Exodus we see the following:
“And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Ex 3:2-6)
It was the pre-incarnate Son of God who is speaking to Moses. Or in the Book of Isaiah we find:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Is 55:10-11)
When this passage speaks about the word it is referring to Jesus Christ who is the Word of God.
​This, of course, is the Christian view of the Bible. For the Jews this is nonsense. But we believe that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of the Old Testament and with our knowledge of Jesus Christ we can see the deeper meaning of the Old Testament. We should remember that when the Apostles were teaching the only Bible they had was the Old Testament because the New Testament was only gradually coming into being in the 1st century AD.
Going further into the Creed we see that Jesus Christ was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. The Church has always insisted that Christ was born miraculously of a Virgin. The church believes that the Virgin birth was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.
“Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el.” (Is 7:14)
This translation comes from the Greek version of the Old Testament. “Parthenos” indeed means virgin in Greek. The Hebrew version of the Bible simply has the words “young woman”. But the Church looking at the whole of salvation history has insisted the Greek word Parthenos (virgin) is the correct reading of the text.
​Sometimes people think that the church believes that sex is somehow dirty and sinful, and that is why Jesus had to be born of a virgin. This is not the case. Rather the church teaches that the one who came to bring salvation to humanity can never be in need of salvation himself, as would be the case if he were born in the normal manner. Yes, Jesus Christ is genuinely a human being, but His humanity was not in need of salvation. This is because of the virgin birth. Jesus is a real human being but not a ‘mere’ human being, a human being like any other human being.
​Looking at the two points covered in the article, that Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God, was always present and active in the world, but became fully present with His birth from the Virgin Mary.

Fr.John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (6)

We all want to go to heaven. Heaven is the good place. We certainly don’t want to go to the other place. There are probably as many conceptions of heaven as there are human beings. We all have our individual idea of heaven. However, there is sometimes the idea that heaven is a little bit boring. People talk about heaven as a place where angels strum harps and swing censers. The fullest description of heaven is to be found in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. Let us look at some verses from this book.
“At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads. From the throne issue flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:2-8)
When we read this passage, it reminds us of the Divine Liturgy. There is a throne (the altar), white robes (vestments), lamps of fire (candles), and the hymn “Holy, holy, holy” which we sing at Liturgy. Finally in Revelation 5:8,
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;”
We have bowls of incense. This really does seem like the heavenly version of our Liturgy.
​However, this does not necessarily appeal to everyone. At one time an Orthodox priest was teaching a class of bright teenagers about heaven. To describe the glories of heaven the priest compared heaven to a never-ending Liturgy. For him, this was the height of beauty. However, the teenagers in the class reacted with horror. For them the Liturgy was a rather boring event their parents took them to. For them, the idea of a never-ending Liturgy was a nightmare.
​The problem here arises out of our conception of eternity. We are tempted to think of eternity as a never-ending succession of minutes and hours. This is not the case. Eternity is a condition of no time. Time only began to exist when the universe was created. Time is the opposite of eternity. Eternity is the eternal now. This being the case, there is no possibility of being bored in heaven because it is the eternal now, not a succession of minutes and hours. This notion of eternity also tells us something about Jesus Christ. The Creed says “…. And one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages.” Naturally, we think of God the Father as being eternal. But the Creed says, that Jesus Christ was begotten of the Father. This sounds like the Father was first and the Son second. Obviously when human parents beget a child, they existed before the child came into being. As a matter of fact, heretics such as Arius thought the Father was first and the Son second. [Arius was infamous for saying that “There was a time when He (Jesus) was not. In other words, because the Son is begotten by the Father He is the second. However, Arius is forgetting about the difference between eternity and time. This is a false teaching and Arius was condemned and the Creed written.] However, the begetting of the Son takes place in eternity, the eternal now. As the Creed says “before all ages”. In other words, Christ was begotten in the eternal now before time so Jesus Christ is just as eternal as the Father. Of course, as human beings we cannot really conceive of the eternal now. We can only think of a succession of minutes and hours. Nevertheless, we can be sure that the eternal now of heaven will be anything but boring.

Fr. John