Excerpts from this month's newsletter will come throughout the following weeks. Today's excerpts:
The Apostles’ Fast
Having rejoiced for fifty days following Pascha (Easter), the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostles began to prepare for their departure from Jerusalem to spread Christ's message. According to Sacred Tradition, as part of their preparation, they began a fast with prayer to ask God to strengthen their resolve and to be with them in their missionary undertakings. . . . The Fast is thought to have been instituted out of thanksgiving to God for the witness of the apostles of Christ. With this Fast, believers express their thanks for the apostles' endurance of persecution during their mission.
The fast of the Apostles begins on the second Monday after Pentecost (June 8th, this year) and concludes on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29.
The Orthodox year has a rhythm, much like the tide coming in and going out – only this rhythm is an undulation between seasons of fasting and seasons (or a few days) of feasting. . . . . Our modern world has lost most of its natural rhythm. The sun rises and sets but causes little fanfare in a world powered and lit by other sources. In America, virtually everything is always in season, (anything can be eaten at any time). . . .The rhythm of the Church does not seek to make us slaves of the calendar nor does it treat certain foods as sinful. It simply calls us to a more human way of living. It’s not properly human to eat anything you want, anytime you want. Even Adam and Eve in the Garden initially knew what it was to abstain from the fruit of a certain tree. Orthodox do not starve when they fast – we simply abstain from certain foods and generally eat less. At the same time we are taught to pray more, attend services more frequently, and to increase our generosity to others (alms).
Who Do You Trust? Fr. Andrew
Trust is one of the most precious gifts we can give to each other. It is the very foundation of solid marriages and deep friendships. When trust is fractured and begins to be lost, everything becomes shaky and uncertain, we feel lost and betrayed and flounder like a rudderless ship. This is especially true when it comes to our trust and faith in God. Throughout the scriptures we are called to trust in God, for He alone is always trustworthy. He alone perfectly knows and loves us and desires to bring us into true communion and transformation through Christ. As we come to know God and to trust Him with every fibre of our lives, we slowly grow in our ability to truly trust that all things are working out for our good. This in turn gives us the ability, when those we love and trust behave badly, to still be able to maintain our trust that God is faithful, and forgive and hold our hearts open.
It is important that we choose carefully where we put our trust. Today’s advertising culture, and all of mankind’s history is littered with people who have made it their mission to win our trust that they might benefit themselves. The entire goal of the multi-billion dollar advertising industry is to win our trust and secure brand loyalty to build their sales. Often any type of manipulation or half truth is considered to be acceptable, as long as it drives sales. We are inundated with self-proclaimed “experts” in every field who assure us that they are indeed trustworthy and if we just “trust” them and buy their recommended product or follow their plan, our lives too can be as wonderful as theirs. It is even considered fair game to choose well known celebrities to promote any given product or brand, as after all wouldn’t we like to be like them? I mean if you can’t trust Dr. Oz or Oprah who can you trust?
Unfortunately, much of this cultural “trust me” craziness overflows into the most important area of in our lives, into our spirituality and connecting with God. How do we choose the church and the community we wish to join, as we seek to be united with the true God? We are wired for community and understand at the deepest level of our being that we must be connected and part of a faith community, and we cannot stay isolated and successfully draw near to God. In 1 John we are told “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” But who do we trust? Should we flock to the most charismatic preacher? Does Tom Cruise and scientology have it right? How about the latest Guru? Is the truth in the latest innovation? What about the group that promises the best earthly rewards and guarantees God’s abundance, now that sounds appealing???
Our unity exists only in Christ; but which Christ? Christ Himself said in Matthew “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ, and will deceive many…Then if anyone says to you , ‘Look, here is the Christ’ Or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” And the apostle Paul tells us “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.”
These days we hear many descriptions of Jesus, all of the same heresies that the early Church dealt with are still very much alive and kicking today, although usually with different labels. Some are quite obvious, the Jehovah Witnesses for instance are classic Arian’s denying the divinity of Christ and claiming He was actually the archangel Michael. The Mormon’s were started by their supposed prophet Joseph Smith who had one of the visitations that Paul describes above, where Satan transforms himself into an angel of light. This “false Christ” gave Joseph “secret knowledge” like Jesus is actually Lucifer’s brother and Father God was also a man and had sexual relations with Mary resulting in the birth of Jesus Christ and many other fantastic things, making the Mormon’s a mixture of Arianism and Gnosticism. These are pretty straightforward aberrations which all three major branches of Christianity – RC’s, Protestant, and we Orthodox - would agree have a very different definition of Christ than we do.
But what of some of the more accepted “Christian” protestant sects. Many in the “mainline” churches would now feel that Christ’s divinity, His virgin birth, and even the reliability of the scriptures, are now optional beliefs. Many would seem to be more secular than Christian. Baptism in the accepted Christian formula; “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” has become in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” Many of the other more Baptist or evangelical Protestant sects would not give any sacramental validity to Baptism at all, and would consider it a mere “profession of faith” – thereby also eliminating infant and children from partaking, as they can’t yet profess for themselves. They would not even accept communion as having any sacramental value, and if and when they had communion at all, it would be done somehow only as a sort of reflection linked to their own mental process, but not whatsoever to the sacramental power and grace of God. This non-sacramental view of the church is a very recent development which would have been absolutely and vigorously dismissed by any historic Christian for the first 1500 years after Christ established His Church - including Martin Luther and the early reformers.
So why do we have such a multitude of differing beliefs about who Christ is and what the Church is? I often hear people tell me “What’s the difference? We are all united in Christ.” This is a nice sentiment, and I believe very well intentioned, but if we are truly united in Christ, then it becomes critical that we carefully define which Christ it is we are united in. When we start to compare, we quickly discover that often we really aren’t describing the same Christ, and our longed for “unity” vanishes into a cult of personality resulting in thousands of different denominations.
So who gets to define who Christ is and what the Church believes? The early fathers who were instructed by the Apostles and first generations of Christians are a good place to start. The seven ecumenical councils were called to define exactly who Christ is – and isn’t. We trust that these men were led by God to define this. They were all part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church – our mother, the Orthodox Church. St. Vincent of Lerins writing in the 5th century said we must follow that faith which has been believed "everywhere, always, and by all”
In 367, St. Athanasius in his 39th Festal letter gives us the first complete list that we have of the 27 books of the New Testament. One of the few things we can completely agree on within all of Christianity is that St. Athanasius got this right. Even the most obscure section of the protestant church would not dare to add or subtract any books of the New Testament. If all of the Christian groups could all agree to go back and trust the fathers and the ecumenical councils regarding the Church and who Christ is - after all we are already trusting that they got it right in giving us the 27 books of the New Testament - what giant steps toward Christian unity would occur.
So who do we trust to deliver the fullness of the faith that Christ delivered to the Apostles? If you take any of the more than 30,000 Protestant denominations and unaffiliated churches and trace back their history to their founding, you will find someone disagreeing with someone else and starting their own denomination. You can do this with any Protestant denomination right back to Martin Luther; who started the whole Protestant reformation around 1513 by disagreeing with the pope of Rome; who had disagreed with the fathers of the 1st and 2nd ecumenical councils and thereby the rest of the Church by changing the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, 500 years or so before Martin Luther was born. The pope unilaterally changed what had been accepted by the entire Church for the first 1000 years and then started down a new path on his own, changing much of what had been believed “everywhere, always and by all.” Martin Luther and the reformers recognized that Rome had added much that was never in the early Church and rightly attempted to remove these additions. However, by taking the authority to correctly interpret scripture away from the Church and placing it in the hands of every individual believer, and then throwing out Church tradition which had given the Church the scriptures themselves, they set the stage for thousands of individual “popes” each having a perfect right to start their own denomination based on their own private “revelations.” Fast forward 500 years and we have the Christian chaos and disunity we see all around us.
Who do you trust? The Orthodox Church has no “Pope” who is infallible and who speaks directly from God (even when this contradicts an earlier “infallible” pope). The Orthodox Church can trace her founding to no individual, but rather directly back to Christ and His Apostles, and to the thousands of faithful men and women, the saints and the martyrs throughout every generation of history, who all held the same faith in common, and often gave their lives to preserve it intact and pass it faithfully down to us. Yes, we claim to be the visible Church which Christ said “the gates of hell shall not prevail against.”
But we say this in all humility with no arrogance or anything but love for our brothers and sisters who are not in her fold. We make no pronouncements upon how God will ultimately treat any of His creation except that it will be in complete love. A friend of mine, Fr. Dan Suciu compares the fullness of the faith in the Orthodox Church to a full 12 slice pizza. Fr. Dan explains that the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries added a few extra slices that were never part of the original pizza, so their pizza is up to a 16 slicer – very impressive looking. These extra slices however will give you severe indigestion should you partake of them. Our Protestant brothers and sisters rightly removed these offending pieces but then kept on going and removed some of the essential original 12 pieces as well, so they have only a few slices of pizza left. So we can congratulate ourselves here in the Orthodox Church that we still have that original 12 piece pizza completely intact without any additions or subtractions. We have jealously guarded and protected the fullness of the faith passed down to us by the bishops and the saints through every century from the very beginning. However, to really receive nutritional value from our pizza, we have to actually eat it. It really doesn’t do anyone much good, just to keep it on display under a nice glass cover. Some of our protestant brothers and sisters may only have 3 or 4 pieces, but dig in and really consume them with gusto! I suspect they may be much better off than we; if we don’t dig in and actually eat our wonderful 12 slice pizza.
God is concerned with our hearts. Having access to the fullness of the faith and the wisdom of all the saints throughout the ages is really only of value if we allow this to soften our hearts to create an inviting place for Christ and the Holy Spirit to reside as we cry; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Let us place all of our trust in Christ and in His Church – the bride of Christ - to faithfully lead us to our Bridegroom and our wedding feast!