Theology of the Body Broken-The Solution

We have reflected on the brokenness of the body in sickness and death and seen the challenges to understand these problems in a balanced manner. In these reflections we have seen an image of theology that can understand that while God provides healing and answers to prayer with our desire to be granted relief from our affliction, a simultaneous acceptance of our sufferings can still be part of the will of God for us particularly when our prayers for physical healing are not answered with that healing that is requested. With that in mind, how can we look more clearly at our sin apart from simplistic statements such as “this is God’s will”? Perhaps there is a solution that comes when we see our body broken as a theological vision.

To first understand our brokenness, we can look to our liturgical traditions that reflect on the healings from Scripture that we discussed in part one. As one example of this, it is important to note the hymns from our Byzantine tradition that are proper to some of the Sundays of Pascha. In the Sundays of the Paralytic and the Man Born Blind, we do not shy from the ugliness of sin and disease. Instead, we see them as portals into heaven, whereby we reflect upon our own spiritual weaknesses. On the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, we sing this: “With eyes that are spiritually blind, I come to You O Christ; and like the man who was blind since birth, I cry out to You with repentance: You are a light shining to those in Darkness”. Kontakion for the Sunday of the Man Born Blind

Here we see that our spiritual blindness is something that is common to all of us. We may be stricken with a broken body that is unable to physically see, but when we approach this Sunday in our liturgical calendar we all challenge ourselves to ask where we may be blind on the spiritual plane. What spiritual truths of goodness or even sin are something that we fail to see? What aspects of reality are we seeing as something that they are not, or perhaps in our spiritual myopia things afar off are hard to discern? Do we have spiritual far-sightedness and are some aspects of our spiritual vision most difficult to see clearly when they come close to us? Do we think that something is good but it is really bad for us, or vice versa? In seeking our spiritual healing from Christ the physician of souls and bodies we can grow by realizing the many ways that we can be blind on a spiritual level.

Similarly, on the Sunday of the Paralytic who was healed we pray: “O Lord, with your divine authority, as You once raised the paralytic, now raise my soul, paralyzed dreadfully with all kinds of sin and disgraceful deeds, that, being saved, I may cry out to You: Glory to Your merciful power: O merciful Christ.” Kontakion for the Sunday of the Paralytic.

Again as was the case with spiritual blindness, we may not be physically unable to walk as was the paralytic, or this may be exactly our physical condition. Spiritually, our theology of the body broken calls us to realize that we all have forms of spiritual paralysis regardless of our physical condition. We can therefore ask ourselves mystical questions such as: What movement should we be making that we are not making? What are we trying to accomplish that does not seem to happen despite our efforts? Here we can see a spiritual paralysis that needs healing from the same Divine Physician.

In speaking of the word body, it is also important that we think about another understanding of the body beyond our own personal bodies. After all, many times we as the Church are called the Body of Christ, with Christ being the head of the Church (e.g., Colossians 1:18). If the theology of the body broken helps us understand our own afflictions, does it also apply to the corporate body of our own parishes, particular Churches, and the entire Catholic Church?

Without entering the realm of a specific judgment or other forms of criticism, we can also apply the theology of the body broken to communities as well as to persons by asking some important questions. After all, if we are spiritually blind as a parish, we may all miss the importance of something that we fail to do or something that we see in an unclear manner. This may be liturgical, moral, or even a basic human element such as our ability to show hospitality. Are we spiritually blind when we as a whole group miss some spiritual truths? Are we spiritually paralyzed as a broader particular Church when we often fail to move throughout our communities as messengers of the Gospel? Does the broadest level of the Catholic Church manifest spiritual illnesses that need healing? Expanding beyond those two Sundays on our liturgical calendar, the theology of the body broken is a wide project which can extend to all of our brokenness, where each affliction or disease that manifests itself physically beyond blindness and paralysis is something that when understood rightly has a spiritual message to our personal or corporate state of affairs. Ultimately we may come to a point in the theology of the body broken where we understand what spiritual cancer is, as would be the case with spiritual arthritis, and beyond. This will not only expand our understanding of spiritual illnesses, it will also benefit how we evaluate ourselves in the journey to union with Christ. Instead of looking at our shortcomings as crimes, when we view them as illnesses we have at least two benefits. First, we can feel less ashamed, guilty or hopeless when we see our weaknesses as illnesses as opposed to treasonous transgressions. Our own suffering factors in to the equation, alongside our true sense of culpability. Second (and more importantly), our personal and corporate failings are things that do not need judgment or programs to fix a guilty or fallen down structure. We instead return once again to that beautiful image of Christ as our Divine Physician of Souls and Bodies.

There is one important qualification to our meditations on the theology of the body broken that is important for us to repeat at this juncture. We should not conclude that a person who is physically blind or paralyzed is somehow more spiritually blind or paralyzed than those who are not physically suffering with that condition. This also does not mean that if you suffer from these physical ailments or any others that you are some kind of example that must be placed in front of the eyes of all. Explaining exactly why sicknesses occur is asking too much of the mystery of life, which goes back to our scriptural studies in the first reflection. We instead see sickness as a mystery that must again be held in the dynamic of something that we seek and ask for healing as we simultaneously understand that the spiritual healing is what matters most. Nevertheless, when we read these hymns and think along this angle of the theology of the body broken, this is not a perspective that shies away from the imperfections of this world by only thinking on the spiritual plane. No, this is a perspective that sees the flaws and sadness brought about by our sin to be an occasion of eye-opening embrace of our fallenness, with the hope of moving beyond that fallenness. The paradox of understanding our weakness, God’s open arms that embrace us, and yet our admission that God is able to take us and mold us as clay in His merciful power that shines as a light in our Darkness answers our longing to be made both whole and loved at the same time. While not denigrating the importance of our flaws, there is something to this idea of acknowledging our own blindness, our own inability to walk, and our own position of illness. It is hope for the today when I am not all put together. We have such a long way to go in our journey to union with Christ, but even in our broken state of affairs, we can see a beautiful story that is being created after that ideal likeness that came to this earth to save us all. Thus, the theology of the body broken is a powerful vision to view our physical and spiritual weaknesses on the path where we are today and where we hope to be tomorrow.

Lastly, let us consider the end of our lives on a personal level, and ask if we are understanding death as linked to sin with the fullness of our tradition. At times we may read passages like Romans 6:23 and feel that death is merely a punishment from our God who is just and free from sin. There is truth to this image, but like all images of the divine we should be wary of missing the fullness of an image. In our Eastern Christian tradition our holy Father Gregory of Nyssa is among many who taught that we should not simply death as simply a punishment. In his Great Catechism he wrote: “Nevertheless one who regards only the dissolution of the body is greatly disturbed, and makes it a hardship that this life of ours should be dissolved by death; it is, he says, the extremity of evil that our being should be quenched by this condition of mortality. Let him, then, observe through this gloomy prospect the excess of the Divine benevolence.“ (The Great Catechism, VIII) The end of this quote is key to understand it fully. In considering our mortality, we see that our evil itself is quenched when we die. Yes, there is the dissolution of our body, but here we are not thinking of death as a destruction in a solely negative sense. Instead, we see here that our mortality is a way to quench and destroy our own evil. Thus, while sin is often considered a sickness, death is conversely a source of life in that our sinfulness can finally cease when we are united to Christ and we are freed from the sinful aspects of our bodily existence. This may sound paradoxical, but perhaps this paradox is precisely the solution. Perhaps we need to again consider our body broken in the light of who we are as the Body of Christ.

As mentioned in our reflection on the problem of suffering and death, our last scriptural example of someone who prayed and did not receive deliverance from death was Christ Himself. Being members of His body, understanding His own lack of deliverance is important, but even more important is to understand Christ’s death in its full context and significance. At the Mystical Supper, Christ proclaimed “this is my body which is broken for you”. (1 Corinthians 11:24) In our Byzantine Tradition, the Paschal Troparion triumphantly proclaims, “Christ is risen from the dead! By death he trampled death, and to those in the tombs He granted life!” Our understanding is that Christ’s death is life-giving precisely in its being a death. If we understand the theology of the body broken, there is an opportunity to see that our own deaths are likewise life giving.

From a very basic human level, a Christian death of the likes of which we pray for in the Divine Liturgy is one where our death can bring friends and family closer together. Many times the opposite may be the case, due (for example) to inheritance squabbles or discussions of how the funeral should be held. While the negative examples can be multiplied ad nauseum, we also can understand that if Christ’s body was broken to bring life, we can understand that our own ultimate breaking of our bodies can be life giving. The Christian example of one who is at peace with prayers being answered by God bringing spiritual but not physical healing may be an example that helps the skepticism in the hearts of others. The forgiveness that is extended in the midst of real pain and suffering can bring one to the foot of the cross where like Christ we can cry out, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Our own death can be a cause of thanksgiving (the root of the word for Eucharist is thanksgiving, after all) because in offering our lives we can show in the most radical way possible that God is worthy of all thanksgiving and praise at even the seemingly darkest moments of our lives. In the theology of the body broken, the most radical form of brokenness can be the most radical form of praise to God, when rightly understood. We have sought to navigate the pitfalls of simplistically analyzing sickness and death for the precise reason of seeing the good that can come in some of the most painful moments. Pitfalls of being overly simplistic about why we are suffering can very easily obscure the vision of our union with Christ in our lives. In contrast, when we can understand the theology of the body broken, we do not cease to pray for healing but we assent to the more mysterious and ultimately triumphant will of God. We see that our union with Christ is such that if He was not spared the cup of offering our lives, then we are called to do the same offering our bodies as a living sacrifice that is wholly acceptable to God, as the letter to the Romans states (Romans 12:1-2).

In conclusion, the theology of the body as understood by St. John Paul II had a very clear focus on the sacramentality of the body in marriage. But if we think of our bodies more broadly as he himself did in his last general audience which was quoted at the outset of these reflections, the problems of suffering and death open up another vista whereby we can understand the spiritual and physical significance of suffering and death. We have seen a balance of accepting our plight in life and imploring the Divine Physician for healing. We have navigated the spiritual significance of suffering of death without making those most directly involved mere signs, but instead real human figures on their journey to healing. The journey to healing is seen as most fundamentally culminating in union with Christ who Himself sought healing and was denied the physical healing of the sake of bringing out the life of the world. Our Byzantine Christine life of prayer resonated completely with this understanding on many levels. Therefore, on a very fundamental level, as Byzantine Christians who have reflected on the theology of the body broken, we are offered a life of prayer which sees God in all things, including our own very broken bodies. We revel in the magnificence of Christ, singing hymns of His victorious resurrection. And yet at the same time, we can look to our flaws and find God in those very flaws as well. It is our prayer that the theology of the body broken as explained here might be the start of a discussion on how the various physical afflictions speak to spiritual realities to understand sin and healing better. More importantly, our prayer is that the theology of the body broken be a vision that accompanies us all to our common destiny of losing our sinful nature and putting on the beautiful vision of divine union with Christ, who Himself was broken that we might have life and healing. Glory to Jesus Christ!

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The Theology of the Body Broken I: The Problem

How should we think about the problem of sickness and death? As Byzantine Christians, we pray about this in different ways in the Divine Liturgy. For example, one of our litanies looks to healing when we ask, “that we may be delivered from all affliction, wrath and need…”, and yet another prays “for a Christian, painless, unashamed, peaceful end of our life…” which also acknowledges quite honestly that one day our life will end. With these mixtures of petitions, our tradition offers us the chance to have a balance of hope for healing of our broken bodies, and the acceptance of the reality of our mortality. Still the problems of suffering, sickness and death remain. We may ask ourselves questions about our illnesses like, “Why has this sickness come to me?” Is there a divine meaning to my affliction? If so, what is it?” Or we may ask questions about our attempts to get well such as, “Why does this medicine work for me and not others? Why does this medicine not work for me? Why did God answer my prayers and give me healing? Why did prayers not bring me any healing?” As we will see, our Byzantine Tradition can guide us to understand this problem and its solution, if we meditate upon the theology of the body broken.

When we hear the term “theology of the body”, the writings of St. John Paul II are likely what come to mind. And yet those writings likely do not stir up images about sickness and death, as the bulk of the material written by St. John Paul II (and those who comment on his work) is focused instead upon how we understand gender and sexuality as Christians, in the context of marriage and celibacy. What then is the theology of the body broken? As we will see, it is another look at who we are as people who are both body and souls, and the open admission that often our bodies are often broken in sickness and in death. But it is also a vision to help us understand that illness and death have real questions that need answering, and they have meaning that can be seen on a spiritual level. At the heart, the image of our union with Christ who is our Divine Physician will guide our understanding of the theology of the body broken.

One question may arise in thinking about the theology of the body broken: is the theology of the body broken something new with no link to the writings of St. John Paul II or our Byzantine Christian Theology? We must answer clearly and say “No.” While the general audiences on the theology of the body are quoted by many scholars and popular theologians at particular places in the addresses more than others, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with part of his very last general audience where he concluded his reflections. There St. John Paul II said the following: “The catechesis of the first and second parts repeatedly used the term ‘theology of the body.’ In a certain sense, this is a ‘working’ term. The introduction of the term and the concept of the theology of the body was necessary to establish the theme, ‘The redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage,’ on a wider base. We must immediately note that the term ‘theology of the body’ goes far beyond the content of the reflections that were made. These reflections do not include multiple problems which, with regard to their object, belong to the theology of the body (as, for example, the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message). We must state this clearly.”1 In this last reflection we see very clearly that the project of the theology of the body is called to extend beyond its main focus to the problems of suffering and death, where the body is in many ways broken. This is where the theology of the body broken comes into focus. It helps us to consider the problems and the solution to suffering and death. What does our Tradition have to say about this problem of suffering and death?

First, it is important to understand the Scriptural view of death and sickness. As mentioned, many times we confront sickness and ask ourselves why we have been afflicted. Very often some people claim that being sick is a sign that God does not favor us, perhaps due to some sin in our lives. Many non-Catholic communities particularly claim that this is the case, and they teach their followers that if one simply prays enough (or perhaps donate enough money to a given ministry) they will receive healing. What do the Scriptures say about this? It is clear that at times some people are afflicted due to sin or disbelief. Take the drama of the Passover and we can read of the plagues in Exodus that God worked to convince the Egyptians that the Israelites should worship. Thus, on the one hand those “faith healers” may seem to have a point. But is that the whole of the testimony of the Scriptures?

There are many reasons to avoid attributing personal sin to all sickness and death. First we have Christ in Luke 13:3-5, describing the death of 18 people who died because a tower fell on them. He makes it clear that those people were not more sinful, and that instead we are all called to repentance. Perhaps even more poignantly, Christ heals a man born blind and His words there are even more telling. In John 9:1-3 we read the following: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.’” Thus we can see that there is sickness not linked to one’s personal sin.

The testimony that Christ healed the man born blind could lead some to believe that while sickness and death may not be our fault, it may be that we have a recourse to pray that is a sure fire way for us to get better. After all, if the man born blind’s healing is a sign to help us believe, why would that not be the case with us as well when we are sick? Again, turning to the Scriptures is helpful for us to see more clearly. Here we can consider one of the preeminent apostles. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us a very intimate story about his prayer for healing. He tells us: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) What is key for us to realize is that while healing does come to some, St. Paul makes it clear that he not only asked for healing from his thorn in the flesh, he was also denied of this petition that he made three times. We read that the Lord explains why Paul was not healed. His experience shows that there are times when we do not receive healing at all and that there is a call to rely upon the grace of God who shows his own strength and glory in our weakness. Our last example of a prayer that was not answered comes from Christ our God Himself. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the sickness of rage and murder was surrounding Him as He approached His own death. At that moment we know Christ’s famous prayer was to say “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) We know how the story goes, for it is the story of the cross. Christ’s prayer is very important to not pass over due to our familiarity with it. His prayer had a very specific clause, that if it were possible he made the request that the cup of suffering be taken away. It was not possible, and of course that was because Christ conquered death by his own suffering and death. Our own sickness, suffering and death are at times not possible to be taken from our lives. Taken together, we can see very clearly that we are not personally to blame for our sickness. It can be healed, but when we do not experience this healing we can see that there is an opportunity for the glory of God to shine in our sickness and even our death.

In our spiritual lives and perspectives on the body broken, it is also possible that we could go in the opposite direction of the “faith healers” who assume we will always be healed and simply accept whatever illnesses come our way as part of the divine mission to be just like Jesus who died for us. After all, one could argue, isn’t that what Paul did? More importantly, couldn’t we ask if that was the message of Christ and His passion. Many times we hear the phrase that we should “offer it up” in times of suffering, which is particularly so among our brothers and sisters of the Latin “lung” of the Church. While there is truth to the idea of offering ourselves, we need to also balance this reality with the fact that both Paul and Christ prayed for healing. Perhaps more importantly, we must also consider the fact that in our Church the holy mystery of the anointing of the sick is offered to us. This is not merely a pious custom but again can be linked to the Holy Scriptures. In the Universal Epistle of Saint James we read: Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:14-16) Again, we can look to our Byzantine Tradition and see this in the mystery of the anointing. Let us consider one prayer from the service: “Master, Lord our God, physician of souls and bodies, You relieve lingering ailments and heal all manner of disease and infirmity among the people. You desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of truth. You do not will the death of the sinner, but rather that he should repent and live…Thus emboldened by Your faithful promises, good and loving Lord, we pray and beseech You at this hour: Hear our prayer, accept it as incense offered up to You, and visit Your servants; and if they have trespassed in word or deed or thought, by night or by day, remit, forgive and pardon them, O God, overlooking their iniquities and transgressions, witting or unwitting…For there is no one living who does not sin, You alone are sinless; Your righteousness is to everlasting and Your word is truth…Moreover, You did not create us to be lost, but to keep Your commandments and to inherit eternal life; and to You we send up glory, together with Your Father Who is from everlasting, and Your all-holy, good and lifegiving Spirit, now and forevermore. Amen.”2 We see here as in other parts of the liturgical life that we have as Byzantine Christians that Christ is the Physician of souls and bodies. Our theology of the body broken includes a journey of healing, and we seek this healing in the mystery of anointing of the sick which puts us in touch with Christ who is our Divine Physician. Note however that the prayer beseeches God for healing and life, just as did Paul and Christ, and yet the ending of the prayer closes with a request for forgiveness, which can also be seen in the epistle of Saint James. Christ is the physician of bodies but he is also (and perhaps most importantly) the physician of souls. When our prayers are not answered to provide us physical healing, our theology of the body broken must include the broader understanding that even if we die we can have a healing of our souls.

Speaking of dying, there is one last aspect of suffering and death which we have not yet addressed. As mentioned above, we are usually not personally to blame for a given sickness as though it were linked to our own sin. Nevertheless, the scriptural testimony is clear that when sickness leads to death, there is indeed a link between sin and death. If we venture back to Genesis, we are reminded that Adam and Eve were warned to not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest they die. More poignantly, Paul makes it very clear how the sin of Adam is fundamentally linked to all of humanity. In one section of Romans we read: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.“ (Romans 6:23) This notion of ancestral sin (known as original sin in Western Christian theology) is a problem that we cannot overlook. While all of our discussion on sickness and healing is important, the inevitability of death is important to consider. Again, we can reflect on how we as Byzantine Christians celebrate someone’s birthday and realize that there is nothing wrong to pray that God grant someone many years, in health and happiness, even if they are very frail and seemingly on death’s door. But how do we understand when we are in the position of Paul or even Christ and this is not granted to us? What reflections can come to us beyond saying, “Well, this prayer was only answered in the healing of my soul, and not my body?” There is more to see when we consider the theology of the body broken. As we move forward to consider our own weaknesses and our own eventual redemption that comes through union with Christ in our own death, the solution will be seen in that His body which was broken for us is the foundation and basis for our ongoing love, vision and hope for a future which transcends our own bodies’ brokenness and mortality. In our union with Christ, our own brokenness can become Eucharistic and offered for the life of the world.

1. Pope John Paul II, Conclusion to the Series on the Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage, General Audience of 28 November 1984

2. Kezios, Rev. Spencer T. Sacraments and Services: The Sacraments Narthex Press 1995

The trouble with my orarion

It has been nearly two weeks since I have received a wonderful gift, the blessing to serve the Church as a subdeacon. In some ways, nothing has changed. After all, our practical reality is that people who are not tonsured or ordained to minor orders very often serve in the capacity of epistle readers or altar servers.

But there is something to be said about that moment of bowing one’s head, having one’s hair cut, being prayed over by one’s bishop. That sense of being ordered towards something is an image that should be true of all of our lives whether this rite of ordination literally happens to us or not; it is an image that what we do in this life is what we are supposed to be doing. So often we feel like we may be going in the wrong direction, or perhaps in no direction at all due to wandering aimlessly.

The imagery above is not my focus du jour, however. Perhaps those thoughts on tonsuring and ordination per se are worthy of another blog post. It goes back to the title of this blog post, and that is the trouble that I have with my orarion. First off, I don’t want to presume that we’re all on the same page and we all know this word. In the Christian West, clergy wear this vestment, though it is more commonly known as a stole. In the Christian East, that word is fine as well but we more often read that a subdeacon or deacon wears an orarion while a priest wears an epitrachelion. They are both essentially stoles, but differ in terms of how they are worn and how they are used. Epitrachelion literally means that which goes on top of (“epi”, think of epidermis as the top layer of skin) one’s neck (“trache”, think of trachea).

This garment is worn around the neck extending downwards towards the front of a priest’s body. It is not held up during the Divine Liturgy, but it is extended in moments such as when a priest places it on the head of the penitent who has come to receive the holy mystery of forgiveness (aka penance, confession). In the prayers of vesting which are normally said privately by the priest while he vests, we hear this prayer: “Blessed be God who pours out his grace upon his priests, like precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, running down upon Aaron’s beard to the hem of his garment.” There is beautiful imagery of grace and blessing that pours down and in that sense the way that a priest wears the epitrachelion is an image of God’s goodness coming to earth, to us, to meet us and bring us to Himself.

The orarion of a subdeacon or deacon is not worn in the same manner. It is the same basic architecture of a stole, though it is not connected between the halves as is seen in an epitrachelion. To its etymological significance there is more debate, it may either be linked to a handkerchief that was waved to show one’s approval of something or it may be linked to the Latin word for prayer. See this link for more discussion on these two vestments as well as the Bishop’s omophorion.

Regardless of the exact origin of the word orarion, when worn by a deacon when he is leading the congregation in prayer, the orarion is held up as he intones a litany. In shorthand, whenever a Byzantine liturgy has the congregation praying Lord have mercy, a deacon will be intoning something just before and this orarion is raised. It is a call to focus our hearts upon his words and also to focus our hearts so that our response given may be genuine.

However, when a deacon is going to help prepare the holy gifts of the divine Eucharist to be received, or when he is preparing to consume the gifts which remain after the divine Eucharist has been received, the deacon changes the orientation of the orarion to the subdeacon’s. Here you can see a subdeacon vested, where the orarion is now in the form of a cross.

Personally, this reminds me of the words of the Gospels, where we read in John 13:3-5 that Jesus removed his outer garments and girded himself with a towel to be able to wash his disciples’ feet. The word deacon means servant in the original Greek, and if we remember what was just said, deacons wear the orarion in this cross manner while serving to give or receive the Eucharist. This scriptural link may or may not be something quoted by various Fathers or Mothers of the Church, but regardless it is true that this is what occurs functionally. It would be too unwieldy for a deacon to prepare and give communion, or to consume the gifts after others have received with his orarion in the position that is helpful to call others to prayer. It is also helpful for the subdeacon to serve at the altar or to do things like wash his bishop’s hands with the orarion in the form of a cross. Thus the link between service and this cross form should be something we all see.

Now, returning once again to this blog post’s title, we can finally all be on the same page and ask, “What’s the trouble with your orarion?”

Here’s my answer.

First, it impresses deeply upon me the call and need for service in the Church, and the entire world. It images directly that I need to lay down my own life and serve you and everyone who comes in my path. That has been an image that I knew was coming, but to have it there before my eyes has been a profound meditation. It is a strong call, which of course is what the word vocation means.

Second, from a very pragmatic angle, I have observed in wearing it now for 4 Divine Liturgies at this point (plus one Vespers-I know, I’m basically a pro 🙂 ) that this orarion can cause a lot of basic physical trouble. You can cinch it into a perfect X, where the 7 crosses along the vestment are nicely parallel where they are paired with each other. Take a few steps, however, and the symmetry can be lost. The evenness of the middle cross can sway to the left or right. At first I thought about being a bit OCD about it (who, me?).

But then this trouble of my orarion became an even deeper reflection, in a sense. Just as I have argued that the theology of the body from St. John Paul II can extend into the brokenness of the body, I looked at this trouble and realized that this is part of reality. We never cease striving for perfection, but we will fall short. My desire to serve should not be quenched by my shortcomings. Rather, each day can be a step towards having fewer troubles with my orarion, and each day can be a step towards serving with fewer troubles. To what extent am I not symmetrical with my love for my neighbors? To what extent am I crooked with my passion to help this particular person? How am I straightening out my relationships, just as I straighten out this orarion?

My trouble with the orarion has been a beautiful image of the ongoing journey to perfection, and I know that though it has only just begun, it is a journey that I will take with God’s grace, and through the prayers of my brethren.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Liturgy as an Irreplaceable Treasure

“Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God, broken yet not divided, ever eaten yet never consumed, but sanctifying those who partake thereof”-Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

Some say that you never know what you have until it’s gone. From my personal experience, I know what I have in terms of the liturgy because it was gone for so much of my life. I grew up in a family of two religions which were never really practiced (Protestantism and Islam), and as such I had no sense of what I should believe about God. When I met some devout Evangelical Christians, I heard the stories of Christ and salvation which brought me a sense of coherence and meaning to life on earth and into the great beyond. Nevertheless, there were many strong moments of cognitive dissonance which left me feeling incomplete. While being taught that the sacrifice of Christ was so complete that my own contribution to salvation did not exist, I began to hear that message as incomplete with regard to my own existence living out my faith, and with regard to the testimony of Scripture. By thinking about a faith that lacked liturgy, I realized the importance of why we have the liturgy even prior to celebrating it.

Being an argumentative person, after professing my faith in Christ in an Evangelical context, I set out to write an apologia pro vita sua. Defending the simplicity of faith in Christ alone, I wrote an attack on praying the Lord’s Prayer. Seeing tradition as the antithesis of sincere faith, praying anything not queued by conscience alone was considered contrived and inauthentic. The whole Catholic/Orthodox schema of uniting one’s self to something greater than one’s self through the liturgy in particular seemed inimical to the practice of doing something because it was what I wanted to do, as well as being in contrast to the finished work of Christ. The idea that sacrificing one’s self to God seemed to displace Christ from the supremacy of His own sacrifice on the Cross. As such, the start of my life of believing in God included much that was more about denying certain practices, as opposed to embracing a faith life tradition.

This tension between Evangelical Christianity and Apostolic Christianity comes to a headway when we reflect upon the prayer quoted at the start of this essay, which comes from the Divine Liturgy as the Priest divides the Eucharistic lamb into four pieces. What we see is that liturgically there is an appreciation of the paradox of Eucharistic life. God is seen as one who is broken and yet not divided, ever eaten yet never consumed. The limitlessness of the divine is juxtaposed with the limit-bound mortal reality where we need to be further sanctified is undeniable when we consider human experience. However, what is denied by Evangelical Christianity is the idea that our limitations are connected to our salvation. By exalting the salvation of our God, Evangelicalism places us in a world where we are afraid to see God as ever eaten. More strikingly, we are afraid to see ourselves as in need of being constantly sanctified by ever partaking the Body of Christ. How is this the case?

First, the notion of the “finished work of Christ” hinges upon an idea that we are not saved as a process. Salvation is a one time event of “accepting the Lord”. Returning to my initial attack upon the Lord’s Prayer, there was actually a school of thought which found that asking God to forgive us our trespasses (or debts) was not at the heart of our life in Christ. Our forgiveness was instead tied to simply saying “thank you” to God for having forgiven us. As Watchman Nee wrote in the Normal Christian Life, “The work is done. There is no need to pray but only to praise. God has put us all in Christ, so that when Christ was crucified we were crucified also…Your sins were dealt with by His Blood, and you were dealt with by His Cross. It is an accomplished fact. All that is left for you to do is to praise the Lord that when Christ died you died also; you died in Him. Praise Him for it and live in the light of it.” (1)

I tried to be faithful to the writings of Watchman Nee, as they reflected the sermons from my pastor who taught that liturgy and tradition got in the way of the Cross. I would even pray with the structure of the Lord’s Prayer by emphasizing Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication, (the ACTS mnemonic that can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer itself) and reflecting on my sins would often correct myself by saying something to the effect of, “No Lord, I don’t ask that you forgive me for this sin. Instead, I thank you that you have already forgiven me of this sin through the Cross.” Try as I may have, I saw the huge gap between the biblical reality of the Lord’s Prayer as a concept (even if I mocked using the exact words of Christ), and the words of a theology of salvation that would not even use the concepts undergirding it. My prayer life was wounded by the theology of a liturgy-less existence. I wanted to cry out, “Lord have mercy.”

Furthermore, my life of understanding salvation became challenged by my emphasis on devotion to the Holy Scriptures. There were passages such as Ephesians 2:8 that expressed that we have been saved, in a sense. The past tense of our salvation could be seen which would seem to undergird a theology where we did not ask for forgiveness or make offerings to God. And yet the words of our Lord which warned us that we would not be forgiven if we did not forgive others (Matthew 6:15) showed the truth that is expressed so clearly in the letter to the Hebrews, where it states quite clearly that we are being consecrated (Heb 2:11), and that we are his house “if only we hold fast our confidence and pride in hope” (Heb 3:6). We “have become partakers of Christ, if only we hold the beginning of the reality firm until the end.” (Heb 3:14) The fact that I continued to sin at times cried out with passages such as these, testifying to the view that salvation is a process of reaching out to God continually for His merciful hand to save me. And that is where we return to the idea of the grass being greener.

Becoming an Apostolic Christian affirmed my existential and Biblical understanding of salvation as a journey to union with Christ. Instead of holding to salvation as only in the past and not connected to crying out for mercy constantly, the life-creating acts of Christ to save His people came to the forefront of my heart. Through the liturgy, the precious gift of the Eucharist came into my view, helping me understand that in the midst of my failures, the success and love of Christ permeated my being continually. Liturgy has shown me my deep need for prayer that reflects where I am at currently, and where I hope God will take me through His grace.

Works Cited

1) Nee, Watchman. The Normal Christian Life http://www.ccel.org/ccel/nee/normal.txt

Fasting as an All-Encompassing Reality: Internal, External, Man and the World

(St. Nilus the Faster)

In a world obsessed with fitness and health, a proper diet can be a sign of wealth and wellness. What wellness actually looks like has varied throughout the ages, such that many portraits of the beautiful would appear portly in the light of modern “standards”. More importantly, there is the matter of how our bodies relate to our spiritual condition. Prayers at Vespers use Psalms pointing out the providence of God giving us nourishment with the plants of the earth, bread, oil and wine. The Promised Land for Israel is a place where milk and honey flow and grapes are larger than anywhere else. At the same time, people who live in both physical and spiritual wellness are called by God to fast and sacrifice. To be deprived through fasting is a sign of humility and openness towards God. In being emptied, we can be filled. If we never fast, can we truly feast? These sorts of reflections are the fodder for many sermons, but could a study of the words translated into fasting shed more light on this subject? How do the etymological, lexical, and textual uses of fasting emphasize what fasting brings about? As we shall see in this study, fasting is not a matter of fulfilling legal obligations, placating God or arousing His mercy. Instead, the entire world is oriented towards God in fasting, which is seen in the accounts of Jonah and Judith in ways which may not be familiar but are powerful images of how salvation comes to the world.

The words used for fasting in the Old and New Testaments invoke the same ultimate truth all the while having distinct emphases. The Gesenius dictionary for the Old Testament Strong’s entry for H6684/H6685 emphasizes that the Hebrew word for fasting is linked etymologically to the mouth and it being closed. On the other hand, the Aramaic word listed with Strong’s notation as H2908 is based on the word meaning twist, referring to the stomach’s twisting in hunger. Both of these words are centered around the person who is fasting. They cannot eat if they have closed their mouths, and if they have not eaten, the inevitable twisting and turning of hunger pangs comes upon the person who is fasting. In contrast, the various Greek words used for fasting (Strong’s notation G3521-3, G777) are all linked etymologically to the absence or negation of food, as Thayer’s lexicon informs us (1). Considering these meanings, we find a fascinating contrast between the Hebrew and Greek worlds. If we compare the words in Hebrew and Aramaic to the Shema of Deuteronomy, this may shed light on the Hebraic focus. We hear in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” (Deut 6:4-5) The Shema is a central prayer in the Jewish Tradition, and as these words are uttered, we speak to ourselves and our neighbor. We ask ourselves to hear deep within and love God to the fullest. The Jewish worldview thus has a strong sense of internal focus and prayer, as seen with the Shema and from a basic sense of the words for fasting that are used in Hebrew and Aramaic.

If we consider basic perspective of the Greeks, much of the greatness of its philosophical and religious tradition matches the etymological focus of the words used for fasting. As said above, these words focus upon the absence and/or lack of food. Philosophically, Greek writers focused on understanding the actions of the gods and the cosmos in general, dwelling upon basic questions that are largely external. For instance, there is the question of change. Zeno’s paradox questioned whether the world changed ever in a true sense because motion cannot truly happen. If an arrow travels towards its target, that trajectory can be comprised of an infinite number of “halfway points” towards the target. But since we can continue dividing numbers by two, does the arrow ever actually arrive at its destination? Or is there an infinitesimally small distance to the target that keeps it from truly arriving? Conversely, Heraclitus considered the cosmos as constantly changing. Reflecting upon the constant flow of water down a river, he posited that change was the one constant in the cosmos. One can see that with this viewpoint, the thoughts about fasting that would resonate most with a Greek mind would relate upon the food which is external to me, and how I relate (or do not relate) to it.

As we consider these distinct views of fasting from a basic sense of etymology and worldview, we can go further and consider how fasting is used in the Scriptures. We can consider foundational texts such as Matthew 6:16-18 to understand from a Biblical context that fasting is ultimately about being humble before God, and that it is something wholesome and important for spirituality (2), but for the purposes of this word study I want to focus on something that was previously unfamiliar and equally intriguing as the more familiar passages. As I read the various passages about fasting, clear messages about its link to prayer emerged. For example, we see it linked to prayer in passages such as Jer. 14:12, Neh. 1:4, Ezr. 8:21, 23, Esther 4:16, and that prayer is especially penitential in 1 Sam. 7:6, Joel 1:14, 2:12ff, Neh. 9:1ff, Jon. 3:8. Because the Blue Letter Bible does not link to Deuterocanonical texts, I read through these other books in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles to look for critical passages on fasting that may be complementary to the more familiar books shared between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. In so doing, I found a fascinating account in the Book of Judith. Repenting over their sin and asking for mercy from God to save the people from the attack of the Assyrians, we read this in Judith 4:9-11: “All the men of Israel cried to God with great fervor and humbled themselves. They, along with their wives, and children, and domestic animals, every resident alien, hired worker, and purchased slave, girded themselves with sackcloth. And all the Israelite men, women, and children who lived in Jerusalem fell prostrate in front of the temple and sprinkled ashes on their heads, spreading out their sackcloth before the Lord. The altar, too, they draped in sackcloth; and with one accord they cried out fervently to the God of Israel not to allow their children to be seized, their wives to be taken captive, the cities of their inheritance to be ruined, or the sanctuary to be profaned and mocked for the nations to gloat over. The Lord heard their cry and saw their distress. The people continued fasting for many days throughout Judea and before the sanctuary of the Lord Almighty in Jerusalem.”

This passage links fasting to prayer, both in terms of crying out to God with their voices and also with regard to their bodily cries. Wearing sackcloth and ashes on their bodies and upon the altar, they fasted whether they were faithful residents or aliens, adults or children, and this process even included animals. Even animals and the altar “repented” by wearing sackcloth, which creates such a vivid image of the fact that everything was subsumed into repentance through this event.

The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary states that Judith fasted for the sake of humility. Noting the cultural ramifications of this fasting, the authors state: “Humility is not considered a positive virtue in Greek thought; it is understood as a negative idea of humiliation or shame in the continuum of honor and same. In Hebrew thought, there is a positive tradition of God watching over the humble…” The context of this humility includes the striking observation that in Judith, “it is not only the men and women who are draped in sackcloth, but also the children, resident aliens, slaves and cattle! Is this a symbol of the completeness of Israel’s penitence, or is it intended to be as humorous to the ancient reader as it is to the modern.” (3).

We see quite clearly that this may appear humorous to our modern minds, but I would argue that the image seen in this passage is a completeness of repentance, a fullness of fasting. This is not a humility that is base or shameful, it is a positive appreciation of God’s providential care for the whole world. And as such, the whole world repents.

Returning to our lexical analysis of fasting provided by the Blue Letter Bible, there is a very similar passage to Judith 4 that can be seen in the prophecy of Jonah. Despite having read this book many times, I had overlooked something about fasting that had been there all along. There we read a similar account that is possibly even more surprising than what we see in Judith in Jonah 3:4-10: “Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish. When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” (Emphasis added)

There is much in common about the fasts in Judith and Jonah, but one thing made more explicitly clear is the fact that the animals did not only participate through wearing sackcloth, they clearly are fasting alongside the humans. This fast is so total that they do not eat or even drink water, leading them to pray in their own way as they called out for food.In the JPS Bible commentary, we read that the fasting described in Jonah seems almost too austere to be true. The authors state, “The repetition of ‘man and beast’ is associated with the obligation to don sackcloth; since this seems somewhat ludicrous with regard to animals, some propose deleting the words as an accidental transfer from the previous verse. There is no textual evidence to back up this conjectural emendation, however. What is more, the repetition of ‘man and beast’ has a literary logic, emphasizing that the king of Nineveh attaches great importance to the animals’ participation in the effort to be saved.” (4)

Not only may this passage seem humorous as mentioned in the Judith commentary, the idea of animals fasting is called seemingly ludicrous by the JPS commentary. If not a textual emendation, is this a valid practice to have animals fast in addition to humans, whether they be Israelites or not? Should this be part of our next fast? This issue is taken up in the commentary’s section on the previous page, where the phrase “man and beast” is considered. We read two sources of Jewish tradition that look at this event in different ways. First, in terms of opposing the practice of including animals in the fast, we read: “The inclusion of animals in the acts of mortification is quite extraordinary. The sages saw it as a grave misdeed-causing pain to animals in order to arouse divine mercy for their owners: ‘Rabbi Shimon ben Levi said: The repentance of the Ninevites was fraudulent. What did they do? Rabbi Honeh in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta: They put calves inside and their mothers outside; foals inside and their mothers outside; and these bellowed from here, and those from there. They said: ‘If you do not have mercy on us, we will not have mercy on them.’ (J. Ta’anit 2,1 [65b]). ” (4)

Here the passage from Jonah is portrayed not only as fraudulent, but it is arguably sadistic. The image of the separation of young cattle and horses evokes sympathy and a question of whether this was indeed a simple ploy to arouse God’s mercy on the Ninevites. Whether a textual addition or not, does this activity make sense in terms of what fasting should be? Or is it better to focus on the penitent and his/her personal devotion to fasting? One could ask these questions and feel justification in condemning this practice of having animals fast. However, there is support for the Ninevites, and the practice of Judith and her people. The commentary continues: “According to the peshat, however, their action seems reasonable and even appropriate and justified, since it is anchored in the Scriptural view that human beings doomed the animals and birds to destruction by the Flood (Gen. 6:5-7); what is more, the deliverance of the human race from that decree involved the animals as well, and the end of that fatal cataclysm depended on divine mercy for both at the same time. ‘God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark’ (Gen. 8:1). By the same token, we find that when the earth withers, both man and beast are affected (Hos. 4:3), that its conquest by the Babylonians means that ‘I even give him the wild beasts to serve him’ (Jer. 27:6), and that deliverance is not complete if it does not comprehend the animals as well: ‘man and beast You deliver, O Lord (Ps.36:7). When Nineveh is overturned, man and beast will perish together. Accordingly the story expresses no reservations about compelling animals to participate in the fast (by not pasturing and watering them; cf. Judith 4:9-11) so that they will call on God in their hunger and thirst (for the notion that the bellowing of animals is a sort of prayer, compare: ‘The very beasts of the field cry out to you; for the watercourses are dried up’ [Joel 1:20]; ‘who provides food for the raven when his young cry out to God and wander about without food?’ [Job 38:41]).” (4)

It is very clear that in this second approach to understanding this phenomenon, animals are viewed not as merely external objects, part of the cosmos to be manipulated and forced into hunger. They are fellow voyagers on the path to the salvation of the world. Again, in Hebrew thought and etymology, fasting is an internal reality of my own emptiness, whereas in Greek terms, fasting is an external reality of the food that I have not consumed. The fullest truth, it seems from this passage, is when fasting represents a totality of repentance and humility, opening both the internality of our hearts and the externality of the world itself to God. This is what is largely brought forth by the passages which agree with the peshat. We have a totality of the world’s condemnation through sin, and not simply humanity’s own culpability. And at the same time, we have a redemption that comes from man’s leadership and turning all people and all creation back towards God. And for that, God holds His hand away from punishment towards mercy.

Looking to the Church Fathers, we can see that this point of including animals and the world in general was appreciated by St. John Chrysostom. He did not question the canonicity of these passages, but instead had a vision of beauty to share by reflecting upon this reality about fasting. In his homilies on Genesis, he says this about fasting: “Recall that Daniel, passionate man though he was, spent many days fasting. He received as recompense an awesome vision so that he tamed the fury of the lions and turned them into the mildest of sheep, not by changing their nature but by diverting their purpose without loss of their ferocity. The Ninevites too made use of the remedy of fasting and won from the Lord a reprieve. Animals as well as human beings were included in the fast, so that all living things would abstain from evil practices. This total response won the favor of the Lord of all.” (5)

At this juncture let us reconsider the basic meanings of the words used in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek for fasting. It appears that there is a Hebrew perspective and Greek perspective, one which would support fasting on the part of the penitent person, and the other focused upon the world’s reorientation towards balance and harmony. In this case the peshat and St. John Chrysostom share a mindset that encompasses both the Hebrews and the Greeks with regard to fasting, as the importance of the faithful person’s internal fasting in the Hebrew mindset is no less or more important than that of all people, and even animals and the altar who represent the external world (the Greek mindset) in their repentance. Thus, the Biblical perspective is informed by the Hebrew and Hellenistic worlds, appropriates both, and is big enough to affirm both. Fasting is an experience that transcends the person who is repenting, and can affect the whole world.

There is much that can be gleaned from this expanded view of fasting. Many times, the faithful see the progress in the liturgical year with its unique fasts, feasts, songs, vestments, icons and the like, and the way in which the world is oriented to repentance and salvation is not so clear. Being more informed about why our own temples have unique sackcloth (or colors, for that matter) can put our life of peace and repentance into better context. Also, there is the matter of the degree to which we try to sanctify our world. We may not raise cattle and horses, but we have our “secular” world of work and the family. Does that remain completely untouched by fasting, or is our repentance integrated into our work, and not just our diet and liturgical lives? Are we overly lax with our children because they are too young to truly repent? To what extent does this totality manifested by the books of Judith and Jonah not exemplified by our life of fasting and asceticism?

Conversely, we could “externalize” and become akin to fundamentalists who impose their religion upon others. To what extent does the example set forth by Judith and Jonah need to be tempered by the distinct way of life that Christianity manifests, as compared to the nations of Israel and Nineveh? Many issues of tact, not being judgmental (returning to Matthew 6 and the call for somewhat secret fasting), and the like present interesting questions about the vision of making fasting holistic and yet not Pharisaical come to mind, which go beyond the scope of this study. A brief suggestion for further discussion would be that when the world is sanctified by us, that it comes from within us as people helping and loving the world to reorient it towards harmony and love, not by drawing the lines in the sand to get others to join us.

In closing, fasting discussions so often revolve around what can be eaten, how much, when and the like. However, taking the full literary and linguistic context of this word in the Biblical context, a grand picture emerges where fasting is a broad approach to committing ourselves, one another and our whole lives to Christ our God. As such, it is critical for our openness to God and the salvation of the world. By seeing its relevance in our own lives and in the world that is “outside” us, we become more and more like our God who is everywhere present and filling all things.

Works Cited

1. Concordance and lexicon information obtained from blueletterbible.org, all Biblical citations are from the New American Bible translation

2. Brown, Raymond E, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. G. Chapman, 1990. Print. Matt. 6:16-18 p645

3. Klein, Ralph W, Mount St Scholastica, Allen, Leslie, Willis, Lawrence, and Kaczmarczyk, Nancy. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume III, Kings-Judith. 1999. Print. Pages 1113-1114

4. Simon, Uriel. JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah. 1999 Pages 31-32

5. Ferreiro, Alberto, ed. The Twelve Prophets: The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. 2003. Page 143

Dealing with Scripture and Tradition (and things in between)

I will never forget when I had first read through the Bible in its entirety as a high schooler. My stepfather (who was not a Christian) asked me, “Well, are you done now that you’ve read that book?” As a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, this was unthinkable. The Word of God is living and powerful (Hebrews 4:12), it is a lamp unto my feet (Psalm 118/9:105), and I was sure that God would speak to me and guide me more and more clearly the more that I devoted myself to reading the Bible. There was so much truth to discover in the Holy Scriptures. That is why I was dismayed when I heard about Catholics and Orthodox and their traditions. It was as if that clear message from the Bible was obscured by the “traditions of men” (Col 2:8), something which Our Lord Himself decried again and again in talking to the Pharisees (Mar 7:9). However, I grew to learn that this was something that I now believe to be a false distinction. Instead of pitting tradition, the Church, icons, and the like as the enemies of the Scriptures, I came to see the Scriptures and tradition as threads woven from the same loom. God was working through history and His people to bring salvation and the truth to the world through these various and harmonious truths. But how did this journey of faith come about for me?

To think about this more clearly, let’s state the obvious: Catholics and fundamentalists do not agree on everything. We disagree on many points about salvation, the saints, how we should pray, how the church should be organized, and more. Much of this disagreement arises precisely through the fact that Tradition is a strong influence on Catholics, and Martin Luther and others decried this appeal to Tradition against the Bible. After the Protestant Reformation, both sides of this divide have accused one another of heresy. Both feel that they are on the right side of history, and that the Word of God is their ally to demonstrate this. We may feel that we are at an impasse when such strong words of opposition are spoken. But is that truly the case?

If we are honest with ourselves and each other, we must confess that even Catholics and fundamentalists do not agree on everything among themselves. Recently, there was a synod in Rome discussing the Catholic Church’s pastoral approach to issues surrounding the family, and it is clear that some parties disagreed with one another, which is nothing new in Church history. On the fundamentalist side, there are also disagreements about how we should live our lives in union with God, which is one reason why there are so many denominations even within the group of Christians who are fundamentalists. Depending on how strictly we define ourselves, there may be more or less diversity and agreement in how we understand our faith in God, but suffice to say we have flavors of both Catholics and fundamentalists. Let’s dig deeper to particular Christian communities and consider that even within a specific congregation, we have our pastors and we are commanded by Scripture to submit to them (Heb 13:17). And yet, as we journey through our faith we will come to see ourselves disagreeing with one another as congregants, and with our leadership. We can submit to someone of course, and yet disagree with that person. But the Scriptures give us an even higher calling. The Apostle Paul urges us to be of one mind and judgment (1 Cor 1:10). In the case of Catholic Christians, Tradition influences our understanding of the truths of the Bible and all of life. Part of that Tradition includes the belief in the Divine Inspiration of Scripture. The Papal Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu opens with these words: “Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order ‘to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.’ This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals.”

In the case of fundamentalist Christians, the Bible itself is the final court of appeal both to life and to understanding the Bible’s meaning. Scripture interprets Scripture, through the whole context of the Bible. This can only be possible if we hold to what is known as the perspicuity of Scripture. When Martin Luther objected to some Catholic practices, he felt that his ultimate court of appeal was the Bible. We could argue about which principle of understanding the faith is better in that it is more Scriptural, more consistent, more logical, and the like. There is much to be said in that area, but I would like us to focus on the idea of agreement.

In my journey of faith, my first strong disagreement over Biblical interpretation was the nature of the rapture. When I presented my first pastor with my disagreement over how to understand the passages used to advocate for a pretribulational premillenialist perspective, I will never forget his response to me. “Jonathan, just ask yourself. Did Paul teach a ‘pretrib’ view? If he did, then we have to hold to this perspective.” I was stunned because my whole point in challenging this perspective was from within the framework of asking asking the same questions: What did Paul really think? What did the Bible as a collection teach with regard to eschatology? I knew in my heart of hearts that I had searched the Scriptures to see what was true, just as the Bereans had done (Acts 17:11), and yet I was no longer won over by the arguments that the Bible taught pretrib eschatology. This experience was amplified and repeated on multiple occasions in my own life, and in reaching beyond the small community in my childhood town I came to realize that Christians who hold to the Bible alone do not come to the same conclusion on a multitude of topics.

Let’s shift gears and consider a different example, where I’ve experienced discord in a Catholic context. As Catholics we do not hold to the Bible alone as our guide for the truth. With St. Paul, we consider the Church to be the pillar and ground of Truth (1 Tim 3:15). The Church has given many things held in common by Protestants and Catholics, such as the most basic Creeds which come to us from the earliest councils, the Canon of Scripture (with some Old Testament books not fully agreed on), basic calendar understandings surrounding Christmas and Easter, and more. But of course there are additional things taught by the Church’s Tradition not held to by Protestants. Nevertheless, if I am fully honest I must also include the fact that the Tradition must be interpreted. One poignant area of difference that is worth considering is the issue of married Priests. In the East, this was upheld by and large, with Eastern Catholics living outside of the East being a key exception. This difference of whether men called to the priesthood should live as celibates was so dividing in the U.S. that thousands of Eastern Catholics left communion with Rome when told that they could not have married priests. Agreement is not guaranteed for those who hold to the Bible alone, or to those who hold to a Tradition which includes the Bible.

Thus, the issue is not that one of us (the Catholic) has a guide that leads us to perfect unity and the other (the Protestant) is doomed to disagree. This is something that some apologists have arguably exploded in trying to draw some Protestants to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But if we step back, we realize that as people on a journey of faith, hope, love, and truth, we are all at different places. We open our hearts to those whom we trust, and respond to God’s call to grow on this journey towards perfection in Christ. When a Catholic or Orthodox Christian trusts Tradition, we not only trust our pastor, we trust Councils and decrees that come from the same group of Christians who gave us the Bible. When an Evangelical Christian trusts the Bible, they likewise trusting their pastor and their pastor’s interpretation of the Bible. We could doubt each other and in cynicism (or sincerity) accuse one another of being heretics on the road to damnation. The Catholic Church’s calling to unity in documents such as Lumen Gentium won my heart and mind over. When they broached the topic of agreement and union, the description of the world was complicated and that description matched my own experience of my life in Christ perfectly.

In closing, the journey to Biblical truth can be oversimplified, but if we do so we miss the goodwill of many. The Catholic recognition of spiritual life outside the confines of Her visible communion speaks to the complexity of life. Tradition is part of the framework of historic Christian faith, and if we see that as part of our interpretive grid, we will not see it as a foreign intruder. Instead, Tradition is a guide to uphold and magnify the Holy Scriptures that fundamentalists and Catholics alike extol.

(Part of) What we think about when we think about the Holy Trinity

“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.”-The Trisagion

The Holy Trinity is upheld as a central Christian doctrine by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike. At the same time, the Byzantine Tradition has a distinct manner of prayer not seen so often by Western Christians such as Roman Catholics and Protestants, and this is exemplified by the Trisagion Prayer quoted above. When we think of the Holy Trinity in the prayer life of Byzantine Christians, references to the Trinity predominate, and we may ask why that is the case. Is it just to reinforce the dogma of the Trinity, or is there a spiritual message which speaks to our hearts? As we shall see, the latter is more often true. In reflecting upon this, we can not only understand why the Byzantine spiritual traditions have this characteristic, we can also find a message worth meditating upon and practicing in our life of prayer that we are all called to as Christians.

Let’s start by thinking about the sign of the cross. Western and Eastern Christians alike use this gesture to unite ourselves physically to the historic event which wrought our salvation, and while this is most clearly linked to the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the sign of the cross tends to come to us in the liturgy when the Trinity is named. Thus, in the Latin Rite it is said at the beginning and end of Mass, when we hear the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Additionally, this action is done by many at the absolution and at the Holy Gospel, where words of life, healing and forgiveness take us to the same cross. In the Byzantine Tradition, the sign of the cross comes to us even more frequently in the Divine Liturgy, but there is a similar spiritual source and inspiration. Beyond personal preferences or recollections during the liturgy that lead to making the sign the cross, we make the sign of the cross as a community when we are especially penitential (e.g., at the pre-communion prayers as we say ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner…” and ‘Remember me, O Lord…”) and when we sing or hear “Father, and Son and Holy Spirit”. But there are other occasions when the Persons of the Trinity are not explicitly mentioned, and yet the Trinity can be seen. Sometimes this is a simple fact that a prayer is repeated three times, which points us to the ‘Threeness’ of the Trinity. For example, we make the sign of the cross each of the three times that we sing ‘Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Glory to you, O God!”, and there is both a triplicate nature to those three acclamations, just as there are three Alleluias in each acclamation. Here, we see oneness in the three Persons of the Trinity because we praise each Person of the Trinity with the same words. Another prayer with a different message would be the Trisagion, where the one Holy God (Father), Holy and Mighty (Son), Holy and Immortal (Spirit) is called upon in what could simply be three dimensions of who God is, but is actually a reflection of the three Persons of the Trinity. The Father is not solely God, nor is the Son the only Mighty one, and the Spirit is not the only Immortal Person of the Trinity. But we emphasize these dimensions of divinity and may arguably see that the three persons of the Trinity manifest the words God, mighty, and immortal in their own ways and emphases. God the Father is Father for the Trinity and all of creation. Thus, as the “head” of the Godhead we see God uniquely in the Father. The Son is the one who conquers (IC XC NIKA means “Jesus Christ conquers”) sin and death. The Holy Spirit is the one who dwells within us and brings life to the world. So while we profess that each of the three Persons of the Trinity are God, mighty, and immortal, we see the Trinity’s complexity and uniqueness in the sequence of prayers known as the Trisagion. The way that we pray as Byzantine Christians makes both explicit and implicit references to the Trinity on many occasions and in many ways. These references point us to the oneness and Threeness and bring this truth to life, when we reflect upon our prayers.

Let’s step back to an even more basic consideration with regard to an explicit reference to the Trinity. When we pray the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, do we meditate upon the singularity of the word “name”? This comes to us directly from the Bible, where Christ utters the same words in the context of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). There are three persons who have one name! The Byzantine response to this mystery of the Holy Trinity is that we should revel in this mystery that can be seen on so many levels. What does this cause us to do for our spiritual life? I would like to consider two consequences of this view of the Trinity.

First, we are called to pause and see God in all of life. When God is not viewed as the Father, we do not have a loving leader who brings us guidance. When God is not viewed as the Son, we do not have a condescending love who rescues us from our deepest distress. And when God is not viewed as Spirit, we lack that transcendent love who is “everywhere present and filling all things”. Each of these aspects come to us in the Trisagion, however. The word “Holy” unites the three Persons of the Trinity into the one holy Godhead of the undivided Trinity. And yet the words God, Mighty, and Immortal distinguishes them. As complex beings, we yearn for a King who is mighty and life giving. Dwelling upon God who is enthroned on high, God who is saving us by death, trampling death, and the God who is everywhere present meets every need of our own complexities. We will see God in tragedy because He is a King who will judge the world to make things right. We will see God in sin because He has ultimately conquered it. We will see God at all times and in all places and all people because He abides in all places.

Secondly, meditation upon the Trinity will bring us to realize that mystery is everywhere. So often our analytical approach to life robs us of the fullness of truth in life. As just one example of many, consider church governance and structure and the Nicene Creed, which calls the Church “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”. In the Byzantine Tradition, we often hear of the Church described in both a singular and a plural sense. One example would be the standard Ambon prayer which states, “Preserve the fullness of your Church…Grant peace to your world, to your churches…” For many, the idea that the Church could be one flies against the diversity and disagreements of history. We are not all uniform, nor should we be. But if we see uniqueness and yet absolute unity in the Trinity, this will not be so unsurprising. For others, the idea that the Church include an element of “many-ness” is unattractive or confusing, particularly among some who want a monolithic hierarch, or among Protestants who think that they are the only ones who interpret the Bible correctly. Particularly for many Eastern Christians, this complexity is somewhat second nature. We think of our own particular Church’s history, and we not only commemorate other leaders but we understand that our roots are complex. Bishops coming into and falling out of communion with others is a vivid experience, and our diversity of liturgical practices, musical styles highlights that while there is much in common even among Byzantine Christians, there are many unique features within Byzantine Christianity, and yet we can still see the oneness of our faith. Worshipping the undivided Trinity calls us to have that vision of seeing oneness and “many-ness” at the same time, and gives us a more nuanced view than a simple either/or mindset. This issue of complexity can be extended to questions of science and faith, mercy and judgment, celibacy and marriage, lay people and clerics, masculinity and femininity, and so much more. In each case, worshipping the Trinity is the answer because we are drawn towards mystery and away from an either/or mentality.

In conclusion, the Byzantine manner of prayer calls our attention to the Trinity not because this is a strict dogma, nor is it a way of bringing confusion. Instead, this is our grid of understanding God in His deepest mysterious being, and it is our path to best understand ourselves, our neighbors and the world at large. By delving deep into the spirituality of the Byzantine Churches, we are brought to the threshold of a complex reality that makes sense of most difficult issues that we face, and provides hope for our future where these problems are conquered by the God who is Holy, Mighty and Immortal. Glory to Jesus Christ!