Monday, September 19, 2011

Our Journey into Orthodoxy

Our journey into Orthodoxy took exactly a year, from our first visit to an Orthodox church until our chrismation.  This video chronicles our journey, starting with the day we became catechumens. You'll see scenes from baptisms, a visit from St. Nicholas, church fellowship and holy week.

 The music is by the Smalltown Heroes, an Indiana folk group made up of Orthodox Christians. You can find out more about the group at their website. You can purchase a copy of their CD "Lo, the Hard Times" from their website, or if you prefer an mp3 download, click on the Amazon link below:

How to make Prosphera (Orthodox Holy Bread)

The bread used in communion is a special  bread, that is baked every Saturday in preparation for liturgy.   It is stamped with a special seal before it is baked. Here is what I learned at a recent prosphera baking workshop.

  • 1 package yeast (or 2 ½ teaspoons yeast)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • Holy water

First cross yourself and begin with a prayer. Pour a little holy water in the bowl and make the sign of the cross in the bottom of your mixing wold. Then pour a half a cup warm water in the bowl and add the yeast and salt. The salt preserves the prosphera and is food for the yeast.  I was surprised that there was no sugar in this bread, since I’ve always used sugar as food for yeast, but salt is enough food to get the yeast started. When  the yeast is softened, add the other cup of warm water and begin to add the flour one cup at a time. Save ½ cup for kneading.
Begin to knead the dough in the bowl, then turn it out on a floured surface and knead thoroughly, adding more flour if needed. Knead in a prayerful manner. Start with the Jesus prayer and go on to pray for your loved ones and members of your church while kneading.

When the dough is dense, but still workable, make it into a ball and place in the bowl. Make the sign of the cross into the dough with the side of your hand, and cover it with a damp cotton towel. Let rise until double in a safe, warm place. This should take about an hour and a half. It’s important to keep the dough moist so it doesn’t develop a crust on top.

When the dough is about doubled in size, punch it down and prepare your bread. 

Large loaves are more common in the Greek Orthodox churches. To make a large loaf, line a 9-inch cake pan or pie pan with parchment paper. Lightly roll out the dough until it is just smaller than the size of the pan. Place dough in pan (lined with parchment paper), dust top with flour and press the seal into the dough. Let dough rise about a half an hour, then bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

Small loaves are typically used by the Russian and Slavic Orthodox churches. To make small loaves, take about 2/3 of the dough and roll the dough out.  Use two canning lids or cookie cutters, one slightly larger than the other. Cut five large circles out of the first piece of dough, then take the remaining dough and cut five smaller circles.

Place the large circles on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Place a small amount of holy water in a bowl. Dip your finger in the holy water and make the sign of the cross on each circle. Then place a small circle on top of each circle. NOTE: Do not throw the holy water down the drain.  You can either drink it or pour it on a plant.
Press the small end of the seal onto the top circle. Then take a toothpick and pierce four holes through both layers, starting at the middle of the top of the square, then in the middle of the bottom, the middle of the left side and the middle of the right side. Let rise about a half an hour and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
The small loaves look a little like the swiebach my mother used to make, but that is food for a future post.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Acts 3:1 - 8:2

Why do I have an icon of Joshua as the illustration for a Bible study about Acts?  I learned something new: Twice in the book of Acts, Joshua is described as prefiguring Christ.

In Acts 3:22 Peter quotes Moses, who said “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you.” (Quoting Deuteronomy 18:15.) Who was Moses talking about at the time?  Joshua, of course, but it was also a prophecy of the coming Messiah. Stephen quotes the same verse in his defense before the Jews, in Acts 7:37. What we fail to understand is that in the Hebrew language, Joshua and Jesus had the same name.  It was the name “Yeshua,” and it meant God saves.  The great theologian Justin Martyr was the first to write about this connection.  Sadly, it’s one we miss today.

Here are some other interesting tidbits from this passage. In the book of Acts, persecution is almost always followed by church growth.  In chapter 4, Peter and John are arrested and put in prison.  What happens next? Verse 4: “Many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.” In chapter 6, following some internal struggles with the church, we see verse 7: “Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”  It’s interesting that these were still Jewish priests and Jewish believers.  They continued to worship in the temple in the same manner, but their worship took on a new dimension because they believed Jesus was the Messiah. The new believers also met on the first day of the week for communion and discussions about Jesus, but they also continued their Jewish worship. Finally, in chapter 8, immediately following Stephen’s martyrdom, there arose a great persecution against the church.  What happened? The believers scattered to Judea in Samaria.  Hmmm . . . Sound familiar?  Jesus explicitly told them they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria.  The persecution is what precipitated the Gospel being taught in the places that Jesus predicted.

In chapter 4 and 5, the Sadducees spoke against the apostles.  The Sadducees only accepted the Torah and they did not believe in the resurrection. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, and they accepted the entire Old Testament as scripture. The Sadducees were the ones who spoke against the apostles.  In chapter 5, a man named Gamaliel speaks to the Sadducees. He tells them to leave the apostles alone and let God sort things out. He concludes, “If this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lets you even be found to fight against God.”  Who was Gamaliel?  He was a Pharisee who was accepted into the council of Sadducees because of his wisdom. He was also Paul’s teacher. According to tradition, Gamaliel later became a Christian and was baptized by Peter and John.
On Chapter 6 the church encounters a problem. The Hellenists complain that their widows are not being taken care of.  Who were the Hellenists? They were Jews who had moved to other areas and spoke Greek.  At the time, there were three types of Jews: those who spoke Aramaic, those who spoke Greek and the proselytes, or people from other countries who converted to Judaism.  The disciples appointed the first deacons to care for the widows.  It’s interesting that the first deacons were Hellenists and even one proselyte.

In this passage we also see the first Christian martyr: St. Stephen.  Stephen knew he was going to be killed. He quoted from Daniel 7:13 when he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” In this prophecy Daniel was referring to a new kingdom, which is the church.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Acts 2

What is Pentecost?  Most of us think only of the coming of the Holy Spirit. But Pentecost was originally a Jewish celebration.

The Israelites celebrated three main feasts. The first, Passover, occurred in late spring and coincided with the celebration of the barley harvest.  At Passover they remembered how God freed them from physical and religious bondage. Now Christians celebrate “Pascha” (Orthodox Easter), to remember how Christ has saved us from the real enemy: death.

The second feast was Pentecost, so  named because it was 50 days after Passover (think Pentagon). It was celebrated in the summer and coincided with the wheat harvest. Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. They received the Word of God, which was the Bread of Life.

The third feast was Sukkot, or the feast of booths, which was celebrated in fall and coincided with the harvest of fruit and nuts. They remembered the way God dwelt (or tabernacle) among them, so they made mini tabernacles and lived in them.

Many of the devout Jews made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover and stayed for Pentecost. That is why there were so many Jews in Jerusalem at the time. Pentecost was a joyous feast, but it was also a reminder of failure, for at Sinai the Jews worshiped the Golden Calf. It has been called the second fall. Three thousand men were killed because of their false worship. But when Peter preaches at Pentecost, three thousand are saved.  Luke assumes that we will understand the parallel here, but few of us do.

When the people asked Peter, “What shall we do?” he answered, “Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” These three steps were repeated throughout the book of Acts. Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit refers to chrismation, or anointing with oil (holy chrism), the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The new converts stayed in Jerusalem, sold all they had and lived together communally.  They “had all things in common.”  Is this how we are supposed to live?  If we want to live like the early church, should we sell all we have and join a commune?  Well, consider this: The only place where the Christians did this was in Jerusalem.  Why did Paul ask for donations for the Christians in Jerusalem? They were living in fear. Jesus had predicted the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24. He told them to be ready. The Christians in Jerusalem were awaiting the coming tribulation and persecution. When it did happen in 73 AD, history tells us there was not a single Christian in Jerusalem. They had fled, as Jesus told them to do.

The chapter ends with the statement, “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”  The word saved refers to both spiritual and physical salvation.

Ancient Christianity

Years ago I was reading a blog about a family who were lighthouse keepers on an isolated island.  The mother wrote the blog, and I enjoyed the posts. It listed one of her interests as "ancient Christianity."  That struck me.  I liked the term. There was something there that seemed to strike a nerve, seemed to satisfy some unknown hunger. But what did it mean?

I did a google search on "ancient Christianity" and found only information about Orthodox Christianity.  "That's lame," I thought.  I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that.  I had no desire to learn about Orthodox Christianity, so I dropped it.

If I'd read some of the websites, I might have found that Orthodox Christianity is indeed ancient Christianity. It is the faith of the Apostles, preserved for 2,000 years.  It really was what I was looking for, but I had no idea at the time.

Acts 1

The Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke to “Theophilus,” which means “God lover.” Was this a person’s name?  Possibly, but it could also be a general term for the audience.  Instead of “gentle reader,” Luke wrote to “God lover.”

When Luke wrote the book of Acts, he assumed that his readers had an extensive knowledge of the Old Testament.  Therefore, he didn’t go into great detail to draw parallels or to explain the significance of the Old Testament to what he was writing.  He just assumed that the readers would “get it.”  But today many people read the New Testament alone, with no knowledge of the Old Testament. We often miss a lot.

When the book of Acts was written, Israel had been in chaos for 500 years. The apostles were still asking Jesus, “Are you going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?”  They didn’t understand that the Kingdom of God is the church.

In Daniel 7, the fifth kingdom is described. It talks about one like a son of man.  This is talking about the Kingdom of God, the church.

Jesus' last words commanded the Apostles to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  This outlines the book of Acts.

It's interesting that the icon of the Ascension also depicts Jesus coming again.

After the Ascension the disciples are gathered in the same upper room where they had the Last Supper. They are listed in the same order. This shows the hierarchy of the church.  The women disciples are also mentioned. They were an important part of the early church.  In fact, according to tradition, Mary Magdalene took the Gospel all the way to Rome.

Who else was there? Verse 14 states that Mary the mother of Jesus was there with His brothers. Who are His brothers?  I always believed this meant His biological brothers, or rather half-brothers, born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus was born.  But the Greek word for brothers can mean cousins – or it can also mean any close relationship.  In fact, that same Greek word for brothers used in verse 14 is used in verse 15 and translated “disciples” (NKJV) and in verse 16, where it’s translated “brethren” and refers to the people gathered there. 

When Luke speaks to the brethren, he quotes form the Psalms. His audience included Pharisees, who only accepted the Law and the Prophets as the Word of God. Quoting from the Psalms demonstrated Peter’s acceptance of the Psalms as the Word of God. The verse he quotes refers to Ahithophel, who turned against King David.  Ahithophel is a parallel to Judas. Ahithophel also hanged himself.

Verse 18 states that Judas purchased a field and fell headlong and burst open in the field and his insides gushed out.  This seems to contradict the Gospel account, which states that he hanged himself. I thought this meant that after he hanged himself, his body fell on the ground and his insides gushed out.  This very well could be what it means, but it could be a metaphor for the way the soul of a sinful man will be spilled out in the day of judgment.  It also could be drawing a parallel to Antiochus Epiphanes in the book of Maccabees, who also burst open.

Verse 20 states “Let another take his office.”  This word “office” is episcopos in the Greek. Take away the first and last part of the word, and you get piscop.  From this we derive the word bishop.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Our Chrismation

On April 23 my husband and I were chrismated.  This ancient ceremony is often done immediately following baptism, but because we had already been baptized, we only needed to be chrismated.  In this ancient ceremony, we were anointed with oil (or holy chrism). All the newly chrismated church members, along with their sponsors, held hands and sang, "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (from Romans 6:3).