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Orthodoxy and Politics

by Fr. Basil Biberdorf

Our American political season is reaching a fever pitch in this final month before election day. We can expect to be bombarded with robo-calls and television advertisements, each candidate vilifying the other and attempting to make gold from the base metal of his own career in an attempt to sway our votes. We will not be able to avoid hearing of the daily ebbs, flows, and floods of the campaign.

What perhaps makes this more difficult for us is the desire of many candidates to present their positions as uniquely Christian. America has a long history of organizations arising to defend particular positions as “Christian” in matters of slavery, alcohol, arms control, tax policy, sexual behavior, and free speech, to name just a few. Consider some of the groups focused on these causes: the Moral Majority, the Christian Left, Focus on the Family, the Manhattan Declaration, and the Evangelical Climate Initiative.

From an Orthodox perspective, some make their cases better than others, articulating points in agreement with Christian belief and our moral tradition. Nonetheless, the reality we face is that the political realm operates according to the rules of a fallen world. It is a world where scarcity prevails and not everyone can have everything, where one wins and another loses, where motives are impure, and where the worst aspects of the fallen human nature —preeminently greed, lust for power, and pride—corrupt the best intentions of many candidates.

The political process itself, in whatever form, is a manifestation of sin in the world. After all, God established the judges to govern ancient Israel, only to see them rejected by his people in favor of kings and princes, with tragic results. “And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:18; read the entire chapter). Indeed the kings of Israel are divided into good and bad, with the bad far outnumbering the good.

“Thirsty for More?”: Chapel of the Holy Spirit members served 800 bottles of free water to passersby at the Selinsgrove Market Street Festival last month. Each one was labeled with information about the active Beavertown mission.

The Christian encounters this fallen world and must engage it and seek to transform it through the softening of the hearts of men and their return to God. Nonetheless, the Christian must never forget that his own world has little to do with this one. As Christ tells Pilate before his crucifixion: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). We confuse Christ’s kingdom (of which we are a part) with the world’s at our peril.

In the first place, we risk confusing the message of the Gospel: God became man, submitted to death, and overcame death in order for all men to live. What can the political process do about this? Surely we must remain free to speak openly and pointedly about sin and redemption and we should fight the political battle to do so. We must also seek to end gross injustice and the willful violent loss of human life, as each one bears the image of Christ. Yet the Gospel endures in spite of persecution by the state, just as it endured the first century Jews, the Roman emperors, Islam, and the Communists.

We must also not allow an interest in politics to corrupt our mission. Our aim as Christians is not the transformation of the state into some kind of imagined “Christian realm,” but the salvation of souls by uniting them with Christ and his Church.  While many contemporary denominations attract members by promoting a political bias, Orthodox Christians do not “recruit” on the basis of political affinity, but rather guide men, women, and children to pursue and cling to Christ, receiving the life and love that flows from Him alone. We must not present ourselves as conservative or liberal Christians, but always as authentic Christians.

Authentic Christians cannot transfer their obligations to the state. If it is our obligation to care for our neighbor (“When did we see you hungry…?” Matthew 25:31ff), it does no good to transfer our responsibility to politicians and bureaucrats. It is our calling, not someone else’s, especially if “someone else” isn’t a Christian at all.

Authentic Christians also cannot focus on one issue at the expense of another, as often happens with matters of abortion and war, where a given candidate supports one and deplores the other. Unjustified killing is unjustified killing, after all.

Finally, as authentic Christians, we must be careful not to despise our neighbor on the basis of his political beliefs. While some positions are quite clearly wrong (e.g., abortion), Christ says to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Our political discourse often leads us to dehumanizing our opponents, thinking less of them, or considering them stupid. The Gospel ultimately relates to a world restored in Christ rather than one run by politicians. Our Christian calling does not mean we must be politically apathetic, but it limits our expectations, reminding us “put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146). For that, we can give thanks.

The Abolition of Death by Christ

by J. Mark Barna & Elizabeth J. Barna

Saint John of Damascus teaches that “since the enemy snares man by the hope of Godhead, he himself is snared in turn by the screen of flesh.” God accomplishes this, moved with great compassion for man, that in His goodness and justice, He would not, by His might, simply snatch man from death, not give the victory to another.

No, in His great wisdom He delivers a “most fitting solution to the difficulty.” He bends the heavens to descend to earth, to take on flesh, not instantly or magically, but completely; receiving His flesh in His pure but human mother’s virgin womb, with all the cares and travail that come along with it. God, Who is perfect, becomes perfect Man, the new Adam, that through the flesh of man and the power of God, the power of death may finally and utterly be destroyed. He made him who “had become through his sins the slave of death, himself once more conqueror and rescued like by like, most difficult though it seemed…” (St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book III).

When God the Son, the Creator of all things, chose to enter His own creation, He made all things new. The uncontainable One, who holds the whole universe in His hand, chose to lower Himself, to be contained. What greater thing is there than that God should become man? He chose first to be contained in the womb of a virgin mother and then, wrapping Himself in the garment of our own flesh, He chose to be contained within a body of flesh just like our own.

His incarnation makes it possible that, “in Him,” all men may live and become truly human, and once again become by grace what God is by nature. The promise of Paradise is restored.

St. John Chrysostom teaches us that the symbols of our defeat in Paradise were the virgin, the tree and death. Eve was the virgin, for she had not yet known Adam. The tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Death was the result of Adam’s disobedience. Now again we have a virgin, a tree and death; the symbols of defeat now become the symbols of victory! For instead of Eve, we now have the Virgin Mary. Instead of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have the tree of the Cross. Instead of the death of Adam (separation from God), we have the death of Christ, the God-Man. Death was defeated using the same means by which it had prevailed: the Virgin, The tree and death! Thus, the circular nature of all creation focused on a single point, the Cross of Christ.

Through His ministry, Christ shows God’s continuing love for mankind. He illustrates the kingdom of heaven to those who would see, and He gives instructions as to how God expects men to treat each other. Through His transfiguration He shows His divinity and illustrates definitely that the soul and body continue on after death, as He is seen conversing with Moses and Elijah. He Himself is raised in the body, bearing the marks of His passion.

Christ and the prophets preached repentance and a return to God… However, man did not only sin, but through his sin, he chose death. Saint Gregory of Nyssa teaches that, “As the beginning of death came through one man and was then transmitted to human nature, in a similar way the beginning of the Resurrection came through one, the God-Man, and then was extended to the whole of humanity” (Catechetical Homily 16).

Satan, through death, held captive the souls of all those who lived since Adam. He held them as “treasures in darkness and hoards in secret places” (Is. 45:3). But Christ came to save all mankind. The only way to reach them was to descend to them. The only way to do that was through death. Satan saw to it that Christ’s death was perhaps the most… torturous death yet invented: death on the cross. Evil presumed it had triumphed over the King of Glory when, in reality, it had only played a part in the glorious plan of salvation.

St. John Chrysostom teaches that the only digestible food for death is sin. Through Christ suffered all the temptations of the flesh and spirit that Satan could throw at Him, He triumphed over sin and died a sinless death, without spot or stain…

In His godliness, He submitted to the hate, scourging, humiliation and finally the most hideous death on the cross, outside the gates of the city, with thieves and murderers. We see in this God’s ultimate sacrificial love for mankind. In His humanity, He sinlessly submitted to the same de-gradation. In this we see mankind’s perfected love for God. Here the two are joined and revealed in victory. Here is revealed the same all-encompassing, overflowing love that created the universe. Here is the revelation that this is the moment of creation. This is the ultimate victory from which all of salvation, both Old and New Testament, flows.

Mankind was never created to be a slave of death. Christ, by being raised bodily, establishes how unnatural death really is to man. In all of human history, only one man, Jesus Christ, was created to die. Human nature, which, from Adam to Christ, was defeated again and again by sin, through Christ, received a unique, universal victory. This new man, free of spot or stain…, sacrificed in love for God and Man, restored God’s image and likeness, and could not be held captive as His ancestors were.

Hell took a man and encountered God. Christ died and descended into Hell first that “He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” and to destroy and annihilate completely the authority of death and Hades. He preached the Gospel of salvation to those who, since the beginning, were captives of sin, in this way liberating and redeeming as many of them as would receive His Gospel (1 Pet. 3:19-4:6). As sin is the only food suitable for death, Hell convulsed violently, much as creation had at the fall; and as Christ destroyed its power, it vomited out all those who had received His Gospel (Hos. 13:14).

All the while, Christ also remained in the tomb. His divinity and humanity were never divided, nor were His soul and body. All this was accomplished in an ineffable manner by Christ our God. When He rose bodily, His Resurrection was the confirmation and fulfillment of His Incarnation as the restoration of true life to human nature and the final revelation of Christ as the Logos, the Word and Power of the Holy Trinity.

Editor’s Note: The preceding essay was taken from A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition by J. Mark and Elizabeth Barna. Copyright (c) 2011, Divine Ascent Press.  

On the Exaltation of the Cross

by St. John Maximovitch

This month, we will sing the well-known hymn, “O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victory to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries, and by the virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.” St. John of Shanghai (+1966) explains its meaning.

The beginning of this prayer is taken from the twenty-seventh Psalm. In the Old Testament the word “people” designated only those who confessed the true faith, people faithful to God. “Inheritance” referred to everything which properly belonged to God, God’s property, which in the New Testament is the Church of Christ. In praying for the salvation of God’s people (the Christ-ians), both from eternal torments and from earthly calamities, we beseech the Lord to bless, to send down grace, His good gifts upon the whole Church as well, and inwardly stren-gthen her.

The petition for granting “victory” … (i.e., to the bearers of Supreme auth-ority), has its basis in Psalm 143:10 and recalls the victories of King David achieved by God’s power, and likewise the victories granted Emperor Const-antine through the Cross of the Lord.

This appearance of the Cross made emperors who had formerly persecuted Christians into defenders of the Church from her external enemies, into “external bishops,” to use the expression of the holy Emperor Constantine. The Church, inwardly strong by God’s grace and protected outwardly, is, for Orthodox Christians, “the city of God.” Heavenly Jerusalem has its beginning.

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Various calamities have shaken the world, entire peoples have disappeared, cities and states have perished, but the Church, in spite of persecutions and even internal conflicts, stands invincible; for the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18). Today, when world leaders try in vain to esta-blish order on earth, the only dependable instrum-ent of peace [is the Cross]… “the guardian of the whole world.” Before the time of Christ, the cross was an instrument of punishment; it evoked fear and aversion. But after Christ’s death on the Cross it became the instrument of our salvation.

Through the Cross, Christ destroyed the devil; from the Cross He descended into hades and, having liberated those languishing there, led them into the Kingdom of Heaven. The sign of the Cross is terr-ifying to demons and, as the sign of Christ, it is honored by Christians.

Why Fast for Dormition?

by Daniel Manzuk

In a detail of the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos, Christ in His Divine Glory looks upon His departed mother. The small child clothed in white represents the soul of the Virgin Mary. (Photo credit: iconsnunanastasia.com)

So why do we fast before Dormition? In a close-knit family, word that its matriarch is on her deathbed brings normal life to a halt. Otherwise important things (parties, TV, luxuries, personal desires) become unimportant; life comes to revolve around the dying matriarch.

It is the same with the Orthodox family; word that our matriarch is on her deathbed, could not (or at least should not) have any different effect than the one just mentioned. The Church…gives us the opportunity to come to that deathbed and eulogize and entreat the woman who bore God, the vessel of our salvation and our chief advocate at His divine throne. And as, in the earthly family, daily routines and the indulgence in personal wants should come to a halt.

Fasting, in its full sense (abstaining from food and desires) accomplishes this. Less time in leisure or other pursuits leaves more time for prayer and reflection on she who gave us Christ, and became the first and greatest Christian. In reflecting on her and her incomparable life, we see a model Christian life, embodying Christ’s retort to the woman who stated that Mary was blessed because she bore Him: blessed rather are those who hear His word and keep it.

Mary did this better than anyone. As Fr. Thomas Hopko has stated, she heard the word of God and kept it so well, that she of all women in history was chosen not only to hear His Word but give birth to it (Him). So while we fast in contemp-lation of her life, we are simultaneously preparing ourselves to live a life in imitation of her. That is the purpose of the Dormition Fast.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of The Word magazine and is featured here with the permission of the author.

Our Calling to Evangelize

The Church is not a museum for historical nostalgia. Nor is the Church an archeological site from the time of Justinian. The Church is indeed the living body of Christ. She is dynamic and always permeated by the power of the Holy Spirit who descended on the disciples like a mighty wind. The Church must live with the conviction that She is always sent. Therefore, we must “go” and never stop until the end of time… [As] the Perfect Missionary our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ [said], “lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for harvest” (John 4:35).

Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) of New York

 

Sex Isn’t Sin!*

by Fr. Barnabas Powell

As we enter a month popular for marriages, Fr. Barnabas Powell explains that sex isn’t sin… * as long as it is practiced within a sacred context.

Few topics are more guaranteed to offend than sex. I probably needn’t go any further. Merely seeing the word in print has surely offended someone already. That squeamishness is a good place to begin.

Negative views of sexuality in Western Christendom go back at least as far as Augustine, who reacted to his own, youthful transgressions with a Manichaean starkness that filtered into Latin positions and impacted doctrines as wide-ranging as original sin, clerical celibacy and birth control.

Eastern Christianity, by contrast, doesn’t view sex as inherently profane. Opponents of homosexuality cheekily observe that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Let’s not overlook the fact that God didn’t merely create Adam, either. If sex were inherently tainted, a good God would have created us to reproduce asexually, like snails.

Far from such Puritanism, Genesis refers to God’s handiwork nine times as “good.” The first “not good” refers to man being alone. Enter Eve. Leaving little room for subtlety, God tells the new pair to “be fruitful and multiply” (and not with a calculator). He says this before they sin, so none can claim sex is merely a manifestation of the Fall.

Nevertheless, since the world is fallen, sex has become subject to corruption. Probably the best definition of idolatry I’ve heard is “the worship of something good rather than the God who made it good.”

Given the amount of time, effort and emphasis we devote to sex, it has become one of the most worshipped idols in our culture. Treating the topic as taboo will no longer suffice as responsible Christian teaching. Progressives attempt to compensate for historical Puritanism by claiming that anything’s permissible as long as there’s mutual consent, but this policy is no less distorted.

The East gave Christianity monasticism, but our parish priests are usually married. We venerate the Virgin Mary, but also celebrate her Conception by Joachim and Anna (whose icon includes a bed). These aren’t inconsistencies, but a continuum whose common theme is chastity.

Why are you blushing [about my mention of sexual intercourse]? Leave that to the heretics and pagans, with their impure and immodest customs. For this reason I want marriage to be thoroughly purified, to bring it back again to its proper nobility. You should not be ashamed of these things. If you are ashamed, then you condemn God who made marriage… [It] is a mystery of the Church!

— St. John Chrysostom

Chaste sexuality begins with a proper context, and the Eastern Church has only ever recognized one—heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Enlightened minds will no doubt be repulsed by the first of these three conditions, but bear in mind that in the Eastern tradition, homosexuality isn’t singled out for any greater condemnation than premarital or extramarital sex (i.e., fornication and adultery, to dispense with euphemisms).

In fact, biblically speaking, adultery is the quintessential symbol of apostasy and betrayal of sacred covenants. Homosexual advocates are right to point out the hypocrisy of opponents who ignore the child abuse and extramarital escapades rife among Christians (the clergy being “Exhibit A”).

There are and always have been priests, monks, bishops and even saints who’ve struggled with attraction to members of the same sex. These men and women are more zealous believers than I will ever be, given their struggle. Beyond that, I’ll not patronize anyone by offering unrealistic expectations of moral revisionism.

Even within marriage, there is no free license to do as you wish when you wish. As anyone subject to the discipline of monogamy can affirm, sensitivity to your spouse sometimes means not getting your way. Force and coercion are acts of exploitation that can only lead to division, rather than union. Rape is rape.

Monogamy also is a matter of thought as well as deed. “Mental porn” violates the marriage bed, and includes not only conventional pornography, but memories of unions with previous partners. These destructive images may come unbidden, which must have something to do with the studies indicating that virgins enjoy better relations than those who enter marriage with notches already carved into their bedposts.

As with eating and drinking, sexual temperance isn’t meant to keep people from getting their jollies, but to make the joy of sex real by liberating it from slavery to passion. Sex shouldn’t merely be illicit. It should be sacred.

 

Editor’s Note: Fr. Barnabas Powell, a 2004 graduate of St. Vladimir’s (and former roommate of Dn. Alexander), has spent six years ministering in Colorado, regularly contributing in the Pueblo Chieftain. This month his family will move to lead a mission in Kirkland, WA.

 

Nothing Half-Naked

by Fr. John Reeves

I recall seeing a sign outside St. Nectarios’s Monastery in Aegina, Greece. Advising pilgrims about attire, the sign read in English “Nothing Half-Naked.” At the entrance, there were obligatory wraps for female and male tourists who had ventured there without being forewarned about what this meant.

With winter virtually over for a few months here in Happy Valley, it might be worthwhile to revisit what would be inappropriate attire to wear to Holy Trinity (at any time): halter-tops—or other revealing blouses/shirts—and shorts on anyone over ten years of age. If women need to wear slacks to church, they must be loose fitting (as opposed to formfitting); otherwise, skirts should cover the knee.

These are minimal standards of modesty to underscore the holiness of worship and to keep from distracting others in prayer. After all, when we worship, we stand before the King in all His Glory and He should be the only One on our minds. Our attire needs to reflect that “we get it”, so, “nothing half-naked,” at a minimum. Thanks!

 

On Enduring Through Grief

When a person—crushed with grief—sins, then what benefit does he receive from this grief? The point is that the reason why we sin is because we are impatient and do not want to endure anything that goes against our will. However, God would never send us anything beyond our strength, just as the Apostle says: “God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able” (1 Cor. 10:13). But we do not have patience, do not want to endure even a little, do not attempt to accept everything with humility and therefore become overburdened. And the more we attempt to avoid these attacks, the more we suffer from them, get exhausted and are unable to rid ourselves of them. When a person endures temptation with patience and humility, it passes by without harming him. If he starts to be fainthearted, agitated and begins to blame others, then he will be burdened needlessly, inflicting upon himself even greater temptations without receiving any benefit.

— Abba Dorotheos of Gaza

 

The Passions and Our Tribulations

Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from letters Abbot Nikon wrote to his spiritual children in the 1940s and ’50s while suffering in exile in a Russian prison camp.

If you sincerely want to follow Jesus Christ, then there is no other way but the one He indicated—the path of external sorrows, physical illness and never-ending battle with the passions which reveal themselves in many different ways. There are obvious passions: hedonism, despondency, anger, vanity, pride, disbelief, jealously, judgment of others, etc. The disciple of Christ must fight against each one of these passions in succession, to be vindicated and to vindicate.

This requires great effort and patience. It is often a real trial, a cross from which one cannot run away. There are only two choices–either a person succumbs to the passions and betrays Christ, preferring the world and the life it offers, or he fights and suffers, and through this process spirit-ually he matures.

The demons, although their minds were darkened by their fall, retained much of the reasoning powers and other capabilities endowed to angels. They have a masterful knowledge of both the physical and psychological aspects of human nature, and they have access to the body, nervous system, and brain of a person; always acting on behalf of evil, they also work upon the characteristics and manifestations of the soul, trying to destroy it.

Since a person is aware of obvious passions, and the harm which can result from them, the devils try to confuse everything, trying to belittle the significance of some passions, and making others seem very attractive. There is no end to their craftiness, malice, lies and countless methods of tricking and subverting a person.

As inexperienced beginners lacking spiritual guides, we must know one thing: we alone are not able to conquer the passions and the demons. We must, however, fight them according to our strength, and cease not to ask for the Lord’s help when they attack us (cf. Psalm 117:11). You cannot overcome them by your own strength; still less can another person do it for you. The Lord alone can provide the help you need.

Consequently, you must pray more with rever-ence, with a contrite heart, confessing before the Lord yours sins, your passions, your weakness, asking for forgiveness and help. By doing this you will quickly feel calm and peace enter your soul, along with a measure of humility and the resolve to endure everything for the sake of the Lord and your salvation.