Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review of Fyodor Dostoevsky Biography

As a recent convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I was interested in learning more about Fyodor Dostoevsky, an Orthodox Christian writer who lived in Russia from 1821-1881. I admit that I’ve never ready any of Dostoevsky’s works, but my daughters list his Crime and Punishment among their favorite books. I decided to read this biography to learn more about him.

As is true of many artists, Dostoevsky was a tortured soul, in more ways than one. He suffered from epilepsy and other ailments, experienced profound loneliness at times, and was unfaithful in marriage. Because of his political views, he was sent to a prison camp in frigid Siberia. It was there that his faith took root, and this faith became a central part of his novels. Though he achieved success as a novelist, he struggled financially all his life. The final chapter tells of a moment of victory he experienced during a speech he gave honoring the Russian poet Pushkin.

The author uses fiction techniques to tell the story of Dostoevsky in an interesting way.  The story comes out in bits and pieces, through conversations, recollections and flashbacks.  I found myself confused at points, and more than once I wished the author had told the story in a chronological, linear format.

I found Dostoevsky a fascinating character, and I learned a lot about a little-known period of Russian history. Perhaps it’s my turn to read Crime and Punishment.

NOTE: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Booksneeze. The opinions expressed are my own.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels with shepherds glorify Him,
the wise men journey with a star,
since for our sake the Eternal God is born as a Little Child!
(the Kontakion of the Nativity)

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
has shone to the world the light of wisdom;
for by it those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star,
to worship Thee the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high;
O Lord, glory to Thee.
(The Troparion of the Nativity)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Old Calendar Orthodox – Why Some Orthodox Celebrate Christmas on January 7

It’s confusing.  Especially around Christmastime, when I tell people that in our church we celebrate Christmas (which we call the Feast of the Nativity) on January 7. 

“Oh, that’s because of the 12 days of Christmas, right?”


“So you celebrate Christmas Eve on Epiphany?”

To add to the confustion, some people have heard of something called “Old Christmas,” which is celebrated on January 6.

Closely related is the question of why we celebrate saints’ days on different days from Western liturgical churches.  For instance, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 19th instead of December 6. 

When people asked me about this, I would usually mumble something about the “old calendar,” but I never really understood it myself.

Enter Father Joseph Honeycutt and his podcast, “Orthodixie.”  (No, I did not misspell that word.  Father Joseph’s program is called OrthoDIXIE” because he lives in the South.)  I love his off-beat humor, and his programs are often thought provoking.  In this podcast called “Meletius Metaxakis Makes A Maalox Moment,” Father Joseph finally helped me understand what “Old Calendar” means.

Until the time of Julius Caesar, the calendar year was organized around the phases of the moon, which didn’t work very well.  So Julius Caesar, with the advice of his astronomers, instituted a new calendar based on the sun.  The problem was that they overestimated the length of the year by 11 minutes and 15 seconds, which comes to one day every 128 years.  So by the 16th century, the calendar was 10 days off.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII corrected the calendar by taking off the extra 11 minutes and 15 seconds from the year and adjusting the dates.  His new calendar is often referred to as the Gregorian Calendar.

Protestant England did not want to follow a calendar instituted by the Pope, so they continued with the old calendar. By the middle of the 18th century, England was 11 days ahead of the continent.  Then in 1751, England passed a calendar act, which brought England into line with the Gregorian Calendar. So September 14 followed September 2 that year.  Many people didn’t understand and complained that the government had stolen 11 days of their lives.  There were riots with shouts of “Give us back our 11 days!”

Before the calendar act, England celebrated Christmas on January 6 (by the Gregorian calendar). After the reform, January 6 became known as “Old Christmas.”  Some Americans of British descent also referred to January 6 as “Old Christmas,” and some customs surrounding “Old Christmas” still exist in Appalachian communities.

The Orthodox countries were also slow to adopt the Gregorian calendar.  Russia used the Julian Calendar until 1917, and Greece used the Julian calendar until 1923. Many Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar to mark their liturgical year.  Our church is one of them.  By now, the Julian calendar is 13 days off the Gregorian calendar.  Hence we celebrate Christmas on January 7.

Personally, I like celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on a separate day from the day of gift giving and other festivities.  The Nativity Feast is day focused on the Incarnation and worship. 

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

I Corinthians

The Corinthians were famous for their philosophy and logic. Many in the Corinthian church didn’t respect Paul because he didn’t use fancy rhetoric in his preaching.  The letter to the Corinthians was written in response to this and also in response to some problems the church at Corinth was having.

In I Corinthians 1:5, Paul states that in Christ they had been enriched in “all utterance and knowledge.”  Later in verse 17, Paul states, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.”  Note that Paul did baptize people. He just got done stating that he had baptized Crispus and Gaius – and later adds that he also baptized the household of Stephanas.* But he is stating that baptism was not his role. His role was to preach the gospel.
Paul goes on to describe the importance of true godly wisdom and how that differs from worldly wisdom. In chapters 2 and 3, he talks about the wisdom of the Spirit, wisdom in the apostolic ministry, wisdom in Christ’s church, and wisdom in spiritual fatherhood.

In chapter 8, Paul tackles a problem that was facing the Corinthians. In their culture, nearly all meat, wine, oil and wheat was offered to Zeus first. The best meat was served in the temples, and even in the marketplace, many of the food items had been offered to a god first before being brought to eh market. The Corinthians liked the meat, especially the meat in the temples, and so they reasoned it away – saying that it was okay to eat the meat because they didn’t believe in the idols.  And in addition to eating the meat offered to idols, they visited the temple prostitutes.

The Corinthians were implying that Paul was not smart enough to teach them. Paul essentially uses their own methods of argument against them.  He tells them that, even though they know that the idols are not real, if a new believer sees the church members eating at an idol’s temple, it may confuse them. The young believer may think that the church members actually believe in the idol and think it’s okay to worship in an idols’ temple.  Paul tells the Corinthians to avoid the idol’s temple, but instead to buy their meat at the marketplace. However, if someone at the marketplace tells them that the meat has been offered to idols, they should not eat it.  The same is true if a believer is invited to an unbeliever’s house for a meal.  They should go ahead and eat the meal without questioning it.  But if someone offers the information that the meat has been offered to idols, then they should abstain.

 *This passage reminds us that this is, after all, a letter, that was probably dictated.  Quite possible, the scribe, who might have been Luke, interrupted Pau at this point and said, “You also baptized the household of Stephanus,” so Paul added it.  Note also that this is yet another reference to an entire household being baptized, which quite probably included infants and children.) 


Paul was angry when he wrote the book of Galatians. When he visited the church at Galatia, he saw that they were being influenced by the Judiazers, who taught that the Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Jewish law if they were to become Christians. They also were questioning Paul’s authority as an apostle.

In most of Paul’s letters, he starts out with a greeting and talks about how thankful he is for the people he’s writing to. But Paul starts the letter to the Galatians by laying out the reason for his authority, since the Galatians were questioning his apostleship. Then he does say the traditional “Grace to you and peace,” but there are no other words of thanksgiving.  He immediately says, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel.” (Gal. 1:6). The Galatians were going along with the Judaizers so they wouldn’t be persecuted.

Paul packs a lot of information into this chapter. He says, in essence, “I outrank the Judaizers because I was taught by Jesus, like Peter, James and John.”  (The Judaizers claimed to have learned from Peter, James and John.)

In chapter 2 Paul relates how when he brought Titus, a Greek, with him on a missionary journey, that Titus was not compelled to be circumcised.  He also talks about a time when he opposed Peter to his face. Peter was eating with the Gentiles regularly.  This may have been referring to the Eucharist, since it was originally served at the Passover meal.  Paul also ate with the Gentile Christians. But then when certain men came to visit, Peter walked away from the Gentiles and ate only with the Jews. Peter was implying to the Gentiles that they should keep Kosher.  Paul confronted Peter about this and told him he was wrong.

In Galatians 2:16, Paul states that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  The works of the law he is referring to here are the Jewish law—keeping Kosher and being circumcised.  He is saying that if these things save you, then there is no nee dfor Christ.

In verse 20, where Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ,” he is alluding to baptism, since baptism is a way to identify with Christ in his death and resurrection.  (The Orthodox practice immersion for all, even infants.  In fact, they immerse three times – in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.)

Jesus is the fulfillment of Abraham.  In Gal. 3:6, Paul reminds the Galatians that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness before he was circumcised.

Several other times in the book of Galatians, Paul refers to the problems caused by the Judaizers:
  • 4:10: Observing days and months and seasons and years
  • 5:1: The yoke of slavery (Mosaic law)
  • 5:4: You have become estranged (severed) from Christ – graphic language that refers to circumcism)
  • 6:13: Even the Judaizers do not keep the whole law themselves.

Paul ends with a familiar greeting, but he is still disturbed about the beliefs about the Galatians.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Acts 15 (continued)

In my previous Bible study post, we talked about the first church council. The question was how to handle the new Gentile converts.  James responded that the church should request that they abstain from four things:
  1. Things polluted by idols,
  2. Sexual immorality
  3. Things strangled
  4. Blood

The people agreed with him. Why was his proposal so convincing?  He quoted from the book of Leviticus.  In Leviticus 17:1-9, God commands the Israelites to worship the one true God and not idols. Then in verse 10, God tells the Israelites not to eat blood. In verses 14-16 it describes how to treat animals that died naturally or were torn by wild animals (things strangled): they should wash their clothes, bathe in water and be unclean until evening.  Then in Leviticus 18:6 God speaks about sexual immorality, specifically incest.*

Here James repeats these four things, but in a different order. He is speaking from memory; so he starts with the first thing, then the last thing (often the easiest to remember) and then the two middle items. Note that when the church leaders write the letter to the Gentiles, they write the four items in the correct order.  Probably they consulted the law before writing the letter.

Judaizing was a big issue in the early church. The epistles to the Romans and Galatians were written to deal with this issue.  It later became less and less of an issue and was replaced by the problem of Gnosticism.

In Acts 16 we read how Paul left for his second missionary journey.  The purpose of the journey was to strengthen the churches and deliver the decisions of the council. He went to Galatia again and discovered that they were forcing the Gentiles to be circumcised and practice Jewish laws. His letter to the Galatians is a reaction to this.  (More on this in a future post.)

Then the Spirit told him to go to Macedonia.  Note that Luke was with them, because he says “we.”  Whenever  “we” is used, it is because Luke was accompanying them at that time.

Paul had to leave Thessalonica in the middle of the night, and so he was not able to finish catechizing them. In catechism, the last lessons taught are about the resurrection and future things.  Because Paul didn’t have a chance to finish teaching the Thessalonians, he wrote them a letter explaining the importance of the resurrection and also describing future events.  This letter is First Thessalonians. In reading this epistle, one would think that Paul was obsessed with the resurrection and future things. But it was just that he hadn’t finished teaching the Thessalonians and still needed to cover these last two subjects.

* Incest was a particular problem at this time. In the Roman Empire, there were no taboos against a man marrying his sister, stepmother, aunt, etc.  This offers an interesting insight into Christ’s response to a question about divorce.  In Mark and Luke, it records that Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”  But in Matthew (which was written to the Jews) the phrase “except for immorality” is added.  (Matthew 5:32: “Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery.”)  I was told that this meant that a man could divorce his wife if she had been unfaithful.  However, in those times, when incest was common, it was necessary to make it clear that a husband and wife who were in an incestuous relationship were to be divorced.  I had never looked at this passage in that light.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Trisagion Prayers

The Trisagion Prayers are the "bread and butter" of Orthodox worship. We say these prayers as part of our morning and evening prayers. It's good to memorize these prayers. There is power in the ancient words. I have them taped to my wall, next to my icons.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who are everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of good gifts and giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us of all impurity and save our souls, O Good One.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have mercy on us. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on us. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages, Amen.

Most Holy Trinity, have mercy on us, O Lord wash away our sins, O master, pardon our transgressions. O Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities, for Thy Name's Sake.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages, Amen.

Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages, Amen.

Acts 11-15

NOTE: I missed Bible study on the days we studied Acts 9-10.  I was sorry to miss the part about Cornelius.  It’s summarized here, but I know there is so much more.

Cornelius was the first uncircumcised Christian. Up until this time, all the converts were Jews. Cornelius was a “God fearer” – someone who worshiped the one true God but was not circumcised and did not keep Kosher. Up until this time the church had not baptized any God fearers, even though some believed in Christ. The Christians didn’t know if Gentiles could really be saved. God answers the question by causing the Holy Spirit to fall on the uncircumcised and unbaptized.

In Acts 11:25, Luke tells us that the disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch.  The term “disciples” is used here to talk about all believers, not just the 12 disciples. Believers were also called “The Way” and “Nazarenes.”

In the early church we also see the following Greek words to describe the church leaders:

  • Episcopos, meaning “overseer.”  This word is where we get our word “bishop.”  It came from the center of the word, “piscop.”
  • Diaconos, meaning servers.  It’s easy to see what word we get from this: Deacon
  • Presbyteros, meaning elders – This word is actually where we get the English word “priest.”  I always thought that it came from the Old Testament priest, but actually it was a New Testament word.  

In the end of Acts 11, we read about the death of the second martyr: James, the apostle (the son of Zebudee and brother of John).

In chapter 12 we read about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. In some ways his escape parallels the Exodus (and it happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread).

Peter went to the house of Mary, but this was not the mother of Jesus. Mary was a common name among Jewish people, because it was actually the name Miriam, the sister of Moses.

The “John Mark” mentioned here was actually Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark. Often when people have two names in the Bible, it’s because one name is Hebrew and one is Greek.  This is the case with Saul/Paul. Saul was the Hebrew name, but as he began to reach out to the Gentiles, he went by Paul, which was his Greek name.  (And I always thought he changed his name when he became a believer.)

Paul, Barnabus and John Mark went on the first missionary journey. When they first arrived in a city, they went to the synagogue. They always went first to the Jews in a city. For one thing, Paul believed they had the right to hear the Good News first. Second, they were looking for the Messiah, and they needed to know that Jesus was the Messiah. Also, they had a foundation for faith in Christ, since they already believed in the resurrection (at least the Pharisees did), and they had read the Law and Prophets. You’ll notice that when Paul preaches to the Jews, he starts with the prophets, but when he speaks to the Gentiles, he has to go back to the basics, even to creation.

When Paul went into a city, he went to the synagogue and sat down.  Because he was dressed like a Pharisee, the people often would ask him to share something. He would take this opportunity to talk about Christ.

The first converts were almost all Jewish.  Towards the end of his visit, Paul would speak to the Gentiles as well, and there were a few Gentile converts.  However, when he returned to the cities on another journey, he found that the church was mostly Gentiles  because of the many new converts.

In Acts 13:46 Paul said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourself unworthy of eternal life, behold we turn to the Gentiles.” Some people have interpreted this in a global sense, but really it is just talking about this city.  It was the way Paul typically preached when he went to a new city: to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles.

When Paul, Barnabus and Mark returned, they reported that a door had been opened to them to share the Gospel with the Gentiles.  This was good news, but it caused a problem. In chapter 15 we read that some of the Jewish Christians taught that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised. The people called in Paul and Barnabus to talk about this “question” (interesting choice of words). This was the first church council.

Peter spoke first, telling about how God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles.  In verse 9, he states that the Holy Spirit purified their hearts by faith.  Note that faith and purity go hand in hand. There is no contrast between what you believe and what you do. Next Paul and Barnabus spoke, declaring how God had worked miracles among the Gentiles. But through all this, the people remained silent.

Next James got up to speak. We know that this is not the Apostle James, the brother of John, since he was martyred.  Was this James the brother of Jesus, or another James?  We aren’t sure here.  We do know that he had authority in the church, since the people listened to him. He stated that circumcism is only for the descendants of Abraham (and he quotes from the Old Testament to prove his point.)

He suggested that the church should write to the Gentiles and tell them to abstain from the following: things polluted by idols, sexual immorality, things strangled and blood.

What did he mean by "things polluted by idols"? In the culture where they lived, many people worshipped idols. When a farmer brought his herds to the market, he would first stop at the pagan temples and offer his entire flock to the false god. The priest of the temple would choose some for sacrifice and the farmer would take the rest to market. But all of the animals had essentially been offered to idols.  The idols’ temples became restaurants, where people could eat the food that had been used in the ritual sacrifice.  It often was the best meat in town. This meat was seen as polluted by idols.

The sexual immorality mentioned here was not only adultery and fornication; it also referred to incestuous marriages, which were common among the Greeks and Romans.

When an animal was killed by strangling, the blood remained in the meat. The Jews always butchered their animals, so the blood would run out. The Jews did not drink the blood because it is the source of life. Pagans, on the other hand, used blood as part of their ritual worship because they believed that drinking blood was taking the life force of the animal into yourself.

When James spoke, the people listened.  This is because he quoted from the Law.  More on this next time.

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).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pascha – Eastern Orthodox Easter is a Celebration Extraordinaire

Everyone should experience Pascha. Even if you’re not Orthodox. Even if you’re not Christian. Even if you don’t care anything about religion. Pascha is beautiful.

Orthodox Lent

Lent precedes Pascha, of course. Lent is a time for introspection and repentance. It’s no accident that it starts with Forgiveness Vespers, a beautiful service in which we ask forgiveness of every member of the congregation Lent is also a time of fasting (that means being totally vegan for the faithful), and solemn services with prostrations. We repeat the prayer of St. Ephrem:

O Lord and Master of my life
Take from me the spirit of sloth
lust of power
and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity,
and love to thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King
grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother;
for Thou art blessed unto the ages of ages.

We also sing this beautiful prayer:

Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.
Holy Week Starts with Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday features a procession around the church with palm branches. I love processions. Our church is on a busy street, and it’s funny to see the reactions of drivers during a procession.
During Holy week there are services every morning and every evening, and some of them are very long. Remember, Orthodox traditionally stand for their services, though there are pews for those who can’t stand the entire time.

Good Friday Burial Vespers

On Good Friday (which we call Holy Friday) we have another procession, this time with a cloth painted with an icon of Christ’s body taken from the cross. We sing a beautiful, haunting melody:

Noble Joseph
Taking down Thy most pure body from the tree
Wrapped it in fine linen and sweet spices
And laid it in a new tomb.

We lay the cloth, which represents the shroud of Christ on a frame decorated with flowers.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is an amazing day. Traditionally, the church reserves that day for baptisms and chrismations. Chrismation means anointing with oil, or holy chrism, and is the final step in becoming fully Orthodox. This year eight people (including my husband and myself) were chrismated, and we were the first to receive the eucharist in the service that followed.

Orthodox Pascha!

And then comes the great Pascha service. The service starts at about 9 p.m. with the chanting of the book of Acts, but most people come in at about 11 p.m. That’s right – p.m., as in evening. We start with prayers and the lighting of candles. Then, just before midnight, we begin a solemn candlelight procession. Using the same tune as we did for “Noble Joseph,” we sing:

Thy resurrection O Christ our Savior,
the angels in heavens sing.
Enable us on earth
to glorify thee in purity of heart.

This year, as we were processing, a passerby paused, removed his hat, and waited while we finished. It was very touching.

Once we’ve processed around the church, we begin to sing those glorious words of resurrection:

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Then the priest bangs on the door with a cross, and then the doors are open wide. Light streams out, bells ring, and we continue singing as we enter the church.

What follows is a joyous celebration of music! The priests shout “Christ is risen!” and we reply, “Indeed He is risen.” We repeat this in several languages.

Following the praise service comes another liturgy and then—at about 2 a.m—we go downstairs to a big feast. It’s time to partake of everything we’ve been fasting from – so there’s plenty of meat, cheese and even wine. We finally get home about 4:30 a.m.

But that's not the end of the celebration. There's agape vespers the next day. (This year we celebrated with the Greek Orthodox Church, which included another feast. And then we keep on celebrating. For the next seven weeks (until Pentecost), we greet each other with "Christ is risen" "Indeed He is risen!" and continue to sing the joyous songs of Pascha.

Here is a video of our church’s celebration:

And just to show you how Pascha is celebrated in other countries, here is a video of a celebration in Ghana:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Our Orthodox Church Choir Singing Doxology

Recently the choir of our church (St. John of Kronstadt Eastern Orthodox Church) sang in an ecumenical concert. Here they are singing "Doxology"

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thoughts on the Baptism of Jesus: Matthew 3:13-17

(NOTE: I’ve been attending a Bible study at the local Melkite Community, an Eastern Rite Catholic Church, which is similar to Orthodox in many ways. From time to time, I’ll be sharing what I learn through that study.)

I always knew the Old Testament prefigured Christ, but I’m finding that more and more through this study. For instance, the Creation mirrors Christ’s baptism in several ways: God speaks, and when He speaks, he says similar things. In Creation He says, “It is good.” In Jesus’ baptism He says, “I am well pleased.” In Genesis the Spirit of God hovers over the waters, and in Jesus’ baptism the Spirit of God alights on Christ. God makes man in His own image and likeness, which is prefigurative of the Sonship of Christ. (Christ is the New Adam.)

Think of Israel crossing the Red Sea. Israel goes through the water and into the wilderness for 40 years. Christ goes into through the water and into the desert for 40 days. Of Israel, God says, “Out of Egypt I have called My son,” speaking again of the Sonship of Christ. (Christ is the New Israel.) And how are the waters of the Red Sea parted? By “a wind from the east” (which speaks again of the Spirit.)

Note that in both of these Old Testament passages, there are hints of the Trinity, as both speak of the Sonship of Christ, though indirectly, and both hint of the Spirit. (And remember in Genesis, God says, “Let US make Man in OUR image.”) And in the baptism of Jesus, we see the first “official” mention of the Trinity in the Bible, when God the Father’s voice speaks from Heaven, saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” and the Spirit of God descends like a dove and alights on Christ.