The Orthodox Faith – The Sacraments (1B)

In earlier days it was thought, for example, that a funeral, monastic tonsure, the blessing of icons and the blessing of water at Theophany were sacraments. In this sense the church is a universe of symbols.

One aspect of baptism is repentance. In the Creed we say, “I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins.” The text of the service mentions repentance in several places:

“That he may prove himself a child of the Light, and an heir of eternal good things, let us pray to the Lord.”

“That this water may be to him a bath of regeneration, unto the forgiveness of sins, and a garment of incorruption, let us pray to the Lord.”

In fact, the church prays that the demons will be cast out from the person being baptized.

“Expel from him every evil and unclean spirit which hides and makes it’s lair in his heart.”

“Look upon thy servant; prove him and search him and root out of him every operation of the Devil. Rebuke the unclean spirits and expel them…”

All of these expressions seem odd to us because usually people are baptized as babies or small children. However, our service of Baptism goes back to the time when people were baptized as adults. In those days, Baptism was considered a life-changing event. For adults it was a way of being cleansed from all the sins of one’s life. In addition, in those days it was often thought that there was no possibility of having sins committed after Baptism being forgiven. For this reason, many people put off baptism until very late in life. For example, the Emperor Constantine, the emperor who legalized Christianity, was baptized on his deathbed. However, as the sacrament of Confession became more widely used, the forgiveness of post-baptismal sins became possible.

As we have seen, repentance is one of the themes of Baptism. What is repentance? Some people think that to repent means to castigate oneself, to say I am a terrible sinner. I am unworthy and so on. This is not a helpful way to see oneself and to grow closer to God. The Greek word for sin is “harmatia” which means to ‘miss the mark’. It was originally taken from archery. In other words, the archer aims his arrow at the target and lets it fly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reach the target. So, what does the archer do? He doesn’t go around saying to himself and to others that he is a bad person, that he is unworthy to be an archer. Rather, he picks up his bow and practices. This is the way it should be with us. We want to be good people. We want to love God and our neighbor. This is the target. To be honest, we will not always hit the target. Sometimes our arrows of love will fall short. If we fail in loving God and neighbor as we should, we should ask God to forgive us. Sometimes this includes Confession.

Looking at the original Greek word for repentance is also useful. This word is “metanoia”. This word has two parts, meta and nous. The word nous is sometimes translated as mind or intellect in English. And indeed, this captures part of the meaning of nous. When we think of intellect, to us it usually means the rational thinking part of the mind. But in this case, the word has a broader meaning, something like intuition or seeing wit the eyes of the heart. It is a knowing that encompasses heart, mind and intuition. So, metanoia means literally to change one’s mind, to redirect the nous away from ourselves and our passions, to God and neighbor. Once again, to repent (metanoia), means to change one’s focus because sin means falling short of our target.

Fr. John

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Great Lent 2020

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The Orthodox Faith – The Sacraments (1A)

In the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and in some other churches, it is said that there are seven sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Ordination and Anointing. The last named sacrament is sometimes called Extreme Unction or the Last Rites, implying that it should only be given to a person on the point of death. This is quite wrong. It is a sacrament of healing. This will be treated in another article.
In the Orthodox Church the sacraments are officially called mysteries. However, the number seven is somewhat misleading.
The limiting of the sacraments to seven began only in the Western Middle Ages and was adopted by the Orthodox much later. Theologians have described the sacraments as “visible signs of invisible grace” In other words, the church takes ordinary material such as water or bread and wine and blesses it. In this way they become grace-bearing. From this point of view everything in the church is sacramental. It is important to realize that, in contrast to many religions and philosophies that say that this material world is something to be escaped from so the soul can go to heaven to live with God, or that material world is an illusion, we need to know that Christianity has always insisted that the material world is something real and good, created by a loving God. The Bible tells us that when God created the world “…God saw that it was good” (Gen 12). Now of course, there is much evil in the world. In addition to the evil things that human beings do with their own free will, there is much evil not caused by humans. There are diseases, earthquakes, illnesses of various sorts, and so on. Atheists ask us why a good God would allow such evil and ultimately we don’t know why God allows these things. The Church has always believed that this world “fell” when Adam and Eve fell into sin. Obviously we cannot prove this, but the idea that human sin is somehow related to the evil in the world is not so hard to believe. Because of this, we believe that when Christ comes again to raise the dead, he will redeem the material world also .As the Book of Revelation says
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; 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.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev 21:1-5)
This world will not disappear but will be transformed just as our ordinary body will be transformed into a resurrection body. In this way we can say that the sacrament of the Church are foreshadowing of the coming transformation and resurrection. To quote from the Book of Isaiah which is read at the Great Blessing of Water on Theophany
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein. No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Is 35)

The use of bread, wine, oil, water, in the sacraments is a way of participating in and foreshadowing the coming transformation of the world.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (5B)

Light is associated with the coming of Christ. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah points forward to the coming of the Messiah in the world.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2).
Some of these passages we read during Advent, the period before Christmas because Christ is the light that dispels darkness. At Christ’s birth, there was light in heaven.
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” (Luke 2:9)
During His earthly ministry, at the Transfiguration Christ appeared surrounded by light. “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” (Mt 17:1-2)
Finally, Christ says of Himself
…Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
So God is light. Jesus Christ is light and before them, all darkness, gloom, negativity disappear.
Interestingly, there is a connection between the dikiri and trikiri and the sign of the cross. As Orthodox Christians, when we make the sign of the cross, we join our thumb, index and middle finger together and fold the ring finger and pinky into the palm. The thumb, index finger, and middle finger represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity, just as the trikiri does, and the ring finger and pinky represent the two natures of Christ, divine, and human, just as the dikiri does. So every time we make the sign of the cross, we are confession our faith in the two fundamental dogmas of the Orthodox Church. The Trinity and the Incarnation, that God is in three persons and that Jesus Christ is human and divine.
We have to remember that nothing we say or do in the church is just for show. The Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Liturgy are rich symbol systems. A person could spend a lifetime studying the symbols and never exhaust their meaning.
The clergy does not wear vestments for show or to make themselves important, but rather to show that the church and the Liturgy are foretastes of the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our experience of the Kingdom of heaven does not begin after death or after the Second Coming. We enter the Kingdom of Heaven when we are baptized and then receive Holy Communion. It is to symbolize this that the clergy wears vestments.
Another aspect of Orthodox Liturgy is the use of incense. The use of incense signifies our prayers ascending into heaven Incense was used in the Old Testament. For example
“… and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” (Exodus 30:8)
“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.: (Psalm 141:2)

This Psalm is used at the evening Vespers service in the Orthodox Church. The choir sings this psalm while the priest or deacon censes. So, our prayers rise to heaven like the incense and the words of the psalm are united with the action of the priest. The use of incense will continue in the Kingdom of Heaven, as we see in the Book of Revelation.
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne;…” Revelation 8:3)
Again, all of this shows that nothing we say or do in church is arbitrary, but is a richly woven tapestry of meaning.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (5A)

In the Orthodox Church, bishops, priests, deacons and altar servers wear special clothing during the services These special clothes are called vestments. They are usually beautiful and ornate. The vestments of bishops are especially ornate. There is a reason for this. After the fall of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire the bishops began to wear vestments which only the emperor could wear before the fall of the empire. This requires some explanation. When people talk about the fall of Rome, they are usually speaking of the deposition of Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 AD. But this was the end of the empire of the West. However, there was also an Eastern Roman empire centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The relocation to Constantinople was done by Emperor Constantine, the emperor who legalized Christianity. The Byzantine or Eastern Roman empire continued until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. So an Orthodox Christian empire fell and an Ottoman Muslim empire was established in its place. After this the Orthodox bishops started wearing some of the special clothing the emperor used to wear.
The most notable of these vestments is the mitre, a special hat for bishops (and in the Russian church certain priests are given a mitre, as well). The mitre is simply the crown the emperor used to wear. Why did this happen? Were the bishops trying to make themselves more important or to show off? The answer to this is probably no. We have to remember that the Roman empire with all its faults, was a Christian empire. The whole society, from emperor to peasant, was Christian. In America, church and state are separated and church membership is seen as a personal choice. But this is not how it was in the Roman empire. The empire was a Christian commonwealth until the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. Christians became, at best, a tolerated minority and sometimes a persecuted minority. The vestments of the bishops showed that the ancient Christian community still survived, although now in a difficult position. In the absence of the emperor the bishops took on the role of leading that Christian community.
In addition to the bishop’s vestments, bishops use two special candle holders to bless the people. They are call dikiri and trikiri. The trikiri has three candles and the dikiri have two candles. These candle holders have great significance. The trikiri, which means three candles, points to the Orthodox dogma that God is one and three, one nature and three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The dikiri with two candles signifies the dogma of Christ’s two natures, human and divine.
Someone might ask why we have so many candles in church. In the days before electric light one needed candles, but we no longer use candles for illumination. So why are they there? The symbolism of light and dark is something that exists in all cultures and religions. Darkness is associated with blindness, gloom, danger, death and despair. Light is the cure for these things. Light drives away the above-mentioned negative conditions. Light is associated with God. We see this over and over again in the Bible. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, right at the beginning of creation
“…God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen 1:3)
God guides us with His light during our life’s journey.
“Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105)

Fr. John

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