Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Theotokos - Part 1

The 1st of August marks the beginning of the fast, leading up to the great feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God ( 15th ) - and so throughout the next week I will be writing two posts centred around the Virgin Mary. Today's post will be a general overview, ending with a small list of relevant Old Testament Prophecies - and this list will carry on through my upcoming posts (at the end of each piece of writing, there will be more examples of where and how the 'Mother of Light' is found in the Old testament scriptures) I hope the following pieces of writing will be of interest, and a very blessed, prayerful and healthy month to you all.

Mary, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ is referred to as the 'Theotokos' in the Orthodox Church -  meaning God-bearer. The Virgin Mary is the person who gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Christian theology highlights that Christ is indeed fully human, and fully divine - and therefore if it was not for her giving birth to the Lord then we would not have the human nature of Christ which is of paramount importance to our salvation. ( Christ, being both fully divine and fully human bridges the gap between God and man, meaning that we are able to have communion and an eternal relationship with our Creator )

The Virgin Mary's life is indeed an example to us all, as she completely accepts the will of God and is fully devoted to this. Throughout her whole life on earth she willingly took part in , and actively carried out, the work of God. For this reason, Mary is certainly the greatest example that we have, as servants of Christ. Her life is an enduring, sustainable path of faithfulness, obedience and devotion to God, and His holy will. Furthermore, her life gives us the path of humility; the sidelining and removal of self-centredness, with concentration on the other person and of course the grace and will of God.

The Theotokos had the most extraordinary and holy function; which was to bear and give birth to the Incarnate God, and as a Mother protect and support Him. Consequently, and perhaps even more importantly, she played a vital role in the salvation of mankind. Her calling, and function on earth was the beginning of a new world. As opposed to Eve, who opposed God's call and ignored His will, Mary indeed accepts it with obedience and humility - opening the doors to salvation, light and life in Christ. It is for this reason that the Virgin Mary is not only one of many Saints, but the 'Παναγία' (All-Holy).

Prophecies in the Old Testament - Part 1
It is well known that the Old Testament is filled with prophecies regarding Christ, the Saviour of the world, and His incarnation. The same applies to His Holy Mother, Mary - who gives birth to our Lord. Here we begin the list of just some of the many relevant links with the Old Testament, and related passages with short explanations:

* The Virgin Mary is prefigured from paradise (Gen 2:8), because here we have God's vegetation without any seeds, just as the Theotokos gives birth to Christ without seed.
* Mary is depicted by Eve ( of course in a way that is contrary ), because Eve takes us away from the goal of paradise and communion with God, and Mary brings us back on this path to salvation (Gen 2:21-23, Gen 2:6-7, Gen 3:20) 
* The God-bearer is depicted from the tree of life in Paradise ( Gen 2:9) in the sense that from her comes Christ, who grants us eternal life.
* The Mother of our Lord is prophesied in the Proto-Evangelium as the woman with the seed. ( Gen 3:15 ) This particular passage was in fact regarded by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus as 'the first messianic prophecy in the Old Testament.' The Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner also describes it as 'the first glimmer of the Gospel.' 
* The Virgin Mary is prefigured by Jacob's ladder - God coming down to earth, as a human being (Gen 28: 10-13)
* The Theotokos is prophesied as 'sprout' in the blessing of Jacob to Judas (Gen 49: 8-9)

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Body of Christ

'The Church is the Body of Christ, which consists of all the believers in Christ, who participate in the first resurrection, having the pledge of the Spirit, or the foretaste of theosis'.  ( Fr John Romanides, who's writings I will use as my guide for this piece, as well as parts of Alexander Schmemann's 'For the Life of the World' )

The Church, which is uncreated and eternal, is both invisible and visible. It consists of those who are on earth, 'fighting the good fight', and those who are in Heaven experiencing the triumph of the glory of God.  The Church, as the Body of Christ is the dwelling place of the uncreated glory of God - and we cannot separate Christ from the Church, nor the Church from Christ. This is why the Church is vital for our salvation - or to put it simply, outside of the Church, there is no salvation.

The ancient Orthodox teaching, is that Christ Himself is indeed entirely and fully present in each local church, with all its members. Therefore, when we celebrate the Eucharist, the entire Church ( Christ Himself, with His Saints, and all the faithful of the world ) is present. Furthermore, when we as individuals partake of the Holy Communion, we receive inside us the whole Christ. During the Divine Liturgy, the entire Church becomes present, and becomes one - a communion under the Almighty God. It is for this reason that the church of a monastery is called the 'katholikon', the place of the whole Church.

The Eucharist
The Church, as joy, has been victorious through history,  and it is through this proclamation, and witness of true joy that Christianity becomes comprehensible, and flourishes. The Gospel of Luke, begins and ends with this great joy : 'I bring you good tidings of great joy' ( Lk 2:10) , 'And they worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy' ( Lk 24:52 ). Within the Body of Christ, the Church, we are given the opportunity to partake of this joy, and 'enter..into the joy of thy Lord.' ( Mt 25:21 ) We have no other means of entering into this joy, except through one action that is both the fulfilment and source of joy - the Eucharist.

The Divine Liturgy, or Eucharistic celebration, is the 'Journey to the Kingdom' as Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou puts it, or 'the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom' as Alexander Schmemann writes. This journey begins from the minute we decide to attend the Liturgy, and leave our homes and 'worldly cares.' It begins when we all, whites, blacks, rich and poor, come together - constituting what it means to be a Church - a communion under Christ. The Liturgy separates us from the world, and all its worries and controversies - and we become one body - the body of Christ. The Eucharistic Liturgy is not of this world - it is a conversion to another reality. Even when the Lord Himself appeared to His disciples, it was no longer sufficient to simply know that He was the Christ, the Son of God - as He is not a part of 'our' world, but rather He gives us the opportunity to be a part of His ! His disciples did not know Him through His physical appearance, as He was unrecognisable - but through entering into a communion with Him. It is only through the mysteries of His Church - and of course in particular through partaking of His Holy body and blood that we know Christ, and can obtain a relationship with Him. As Fr Alexander Schmemann writes 'the early Christians realised that in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit, they must ascend to heaven where Christ Has ascended' - and we do this in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We enter into a new life - a life of the Kingdom. 

The Eucharist as a Sacramental and Sacrificial Act
The Holy Eucharist is a transforming act - transforming the words of the Gospel, into the very Word of God, and the manifestation of the Kingdom. It is an all-transforming act, involving the whole Church. The offering of the bread and wine is offering the totality of our lives to God - and partaking of the Eucharist, is the our very fulfilment as human beings, as it is a transformation of life and a communion with our Creator and God. Christ offered Himself completely, in total obedience and love - and so this offering that we unworthy servants offer to God, is on behalf of the whole world - it is life. We offer the world and ourselves to God in Christ. Man is a spiritual - and therefore sacrificial being, as love is sacrificial - as it puts the very meaning of life in the other , and gives life to the other; and it is through this that we find true joy and meaning.

Christ, through His sacrifice offered everything that there is to offer to God, and has performed once and for all the Eucharist of life and love. In Him was ( and is ) Life, for all of us - and the Church is all those who have been accepted into the eucharistic life of Christ. We do it in remembrance of Him, as we offer and continuously offer our lives, and the entire world to God. Each time we experience Christ in His Eucharist, we realise that there is nothing else to be offered but Himself, the life and fullness of the world. We bring, and sacrifice ( give to God ) what He has indeed given to us. 

When we receive Holy Communion - the Lord's body and blood, it is a restoration of joy and love within us, and indeed a restoration of the entire cosmos. It raises us to Heaven, and to His 'holy and immaterial altar' 'above the heavens' , and is our Divine food. It is the 'door into the Kingdom.' This remembrance and thanksgiving, is Christ's self-offering. The whole point and goal of the Eucharist is to transform and ascend us out of this world, and we are then partakers of the 'joy to come.' It is the Holy Spirit Who manifests the bread as the body and blood of Christ - it is the epiclesis ( invocation of the Holy Spirit ) that performs the transformation.  To be in the Spirit, means to be in Heaven, as the Kingdom of God is 'joy and peace in the Holy Spirit'. 

Therefore in the Eucharist, 'it is He who seals and confirms our ascension into Heaven, who transforms the Church into the Body of Christ and therefore manifests the elements of our offering as communion in the Holy Spirit.' 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Apostolic Church Tradition and Holy Scripture

Part one, of two pieces of writing , written with much help and guidance from the late professor Fr John Romanides. They will be generally centred around ecclesiology and the Holy Scriptures. Part 2 will be titled 'The Body of Christ' , and should be posted within the next two days. I hope they are of interest and enjoyable.

The deposit of the Holy Orthodox faith is the shaping power of Holy Tradition. This deposit of faith is seen through the prophets and people of God throughout the Old Testament, even though death dominated the Church. Christ destroys death, and makes this participation in the Glory and Kingdom of Christ, through prophets and believers permanent, clear and whole.

The Divine Logos, who manifested Himself to the prophets and the Apostles, who in the Spirit manifested Himself God the Father, born as man from the Theotokos, is Himself the deposit, which the Hierarchy transmits from generation to generation at the Holy Eucharist to the Bishops and Presbyters at the time of their ordination, so that through the clergy it may be kept and transmitted for the sanctification and theosis of the believers. Christ Himself (Ο Μέγας Αρχιερεύς) is He who transmits the deposit, with His angels and saints. He is the Vine, the Church, which God planted and with which destroyed death. The souls are the branches of this Vine, and God is the Vinedresser. God, through the Incarnate Logos,  in the Holy Spirit, makes possible the fruitful growth of the branches with man's cooperation and synergy.

The true believers - the Prophets, Saints and Apostles do not hold some imagination or philosophy about God, but believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - in the Lord of Glory, who by His Spirit revealed in Himself the uncreated glory and kingdom, in a discarnate manner in the Old Testament, and in the flesh in the New Testament. These holy people of God were not necessarily intellectuals, but were eyewitnesses of the Godhead, Kingdom and Glory of Christ. After Pentecost, the Apostles were led into the whole and pure truth by the Spirit - and for this reason those who are sanctified, the fathers of the Church who follow them, do not theologise in an intellectual way - but in a spiritual manner. They partake in revelation, and as faithful Christians we are participants of the same deposit, which is hidden in symbols and images. It is the uncreated grace and energy of God, the work of the Holy Spirit , that infallibly enlightens the saints, prophets and apostles - and all the faithful in turn, passing on this charisma and sanctification leading to theosis. Holy Scripture, and the liturgical life of the Church in the sacraments are manifestations of the energy of God and guide the faithful on this path of deification and holiness.

The deposit of Holy tradition was revealed to the Prophets in the Old Testament, and was consecrated through the incarnation of the Word. It is active in the purification, illumination and theosis of the faithful in the Church - and the Holy Tradition is not different or separate from the scriptures, but contained in them. However, the deposit of true faith and the Holy Tradition only exists within the Church - since the Church is the bride of the bridegroom Christ, and Christ is the vine in which the branches abide and bear fruit. Therefore, Christ exists and is fully present in the Holy Scriptures only when they are read and interpreted within the Church. Scripture is interpreted by the Church, and indeed by those deified within it - who experience,  and receive the revelation and Divine Glory. Divine glory and participation in it, transcends intelligence and sense, and so someone who employs scientific, philosophical and rational methods to reading scripture will only distort the meaning of the Holy Scriptures. Surely one cannot interpret Holy Scripture correctly if they have no idea about the revelation of the Glory of Christ to the Prophets and Apostles, and consequently to the whole Church. Scripture, and its interpretation belongs to the Church, and to its Holy Tradition. Not any given scholar or reader, who is often ignorant of the way that leads to the participation in the Divine Glory, and of the existence of this participation in general, can fruitfully read the Scriptures.

Holy Scripture outside of the Church, is no longer infallible as the interpretive operation of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit ( that has guided and continues to guide the prophets, apostles and saints of the Church) is not there to lead to the pure and whole truth. A person that is outside of the communion of God ( in other words the Church ) and does not follow its teaching, is ignorant of the key of the Holy Scriptures.

Why put so much emphasis on revelation, guidance, and participation in Divine Glory through the Prophets, Saints, Apostles and fathers?

Neither in the Old Testament, nor in the New Testament or in the Church is there the sense of holy servants of God being called to their position by themselves, or criticising the teaching and catechetical method of those who are in a state of sanctification and theosis, in order to decide for themselves what to do and what to throw away or keep.Throughout the Bible, we see that there are people who have been granted 'to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven.' The mysteries of the Kingdom which are seen and experienced through Scripture are the Mysteries of the Church - and are known because of the eye-witnesses, the believers who are guided by the Spirit, and catechised by Spiritual fathers who possess the charisma and have experienced the Glory of Christ. Those who wish to live according to Christ, place themselves under the guidance of a father, who is able to teach the manner through which one becomes a participant in the mysteries of the Church.  How else would the Church continue evangelising and bringing great saints and martyrs? It is this passing on of the Holy faith and tradition, through the Prophets, Saints and Apostles,  continuing on to the spiritual fathers of each generation - guiding and teaching the truth of the Gospel.

Holy Scripture and the Church infallibly teach us about God, because the Holy Tradition in them are identical. In the centre of this Tradition, we have the friends of God - in other words His saints, prophets and apostles. Faithful Christians participate in this truth of the Holy Church's Tradition, through the Bishops ( as long as they remain faithful to the Orthodox theology )

This is why Apostolic Succession is not only about the unceasing succession of ordination from the Apostles, but also the true teaching of the word of God, and spiritual life. The patristic teaching tells us that this true teaching is the fruit of the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, which is manifested to the world in its friends of God, who are in theosis. Several fathers of the Church emphasise that the main way of being able to know whether the Church is true or not, is if it produces Saints, and also if miracles occur.  We can see through history that it is when groups interrupt this Holy Apostolic succession, and fall away from the true Church that there is a clear absence of saints and miracles.