Frederica Mathewes-Green on St Romanos’ Kontakion of the Nativity

Video

St Romanos the Melodist

Saint Romanos the Melodist (Greek: Ρωμανός ο Μελωδός. lived c. 490-556), was one of the greatest of Byzantine Greek hymnographers, called “the Pindar of rhythmic poetry”. He is the patron saint of all church singers. Baptized as a young child and originally from a Syrian Jewish family, he served as a sacristan and deacon in Beirut and then at the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. His most famous masterpiece, the Kontakion of the Nativity of Christ, came to him in a miraculous dream in which the Theotokos instructed him to swallow a scroll after he had, earlier that day, performed terribly while attempting to chant in the cathedral. Since Romanos normally chanted poorly, when he chanted his beautiful new competition on the Eve of the Nativity, all those in attendance were astonished, both at the new-found beauty of his voice and the profound theological depth of his hymn. Romanos flourished during the sixth century, which is considered to be the “Golden Age” of Byzantine hymnography.

Khouria Frederica is an acclaimed Orthodox author, whose work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, the LA Times, First Things, Books & Culture, Sojourners, Touchstone, and the Wall Street Journal.

She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, a commentator on the Hallmark TV network, a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, Her podcast “Frederica Here and Now” is carried on Ancient Faith Radio.

She has published 9 books, including The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God (Paraclete, 2009), Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (HarperCollins, 1997) and The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation (Paraclete, 2001). Her essays were selected for Best Christian Writing in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006, and Best Spiritual Writing in 1998 and 2007. She has published over 700 articles.

She has also appeared as a speaker over 500 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont; at the Smithsonian Institute, the Aspen Institute, Washington National Cathedral, the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, the American Academy of Religion, the Veritas Forum, the Family Research Council, and the National Right to Life Committee.

She has been interviewed almost 700 times, on venues including PrimeTime Live, the Diane Rehm Show, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, CNN, NBC, Fox News, and by Time, Newsweek, the New Republic, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Times.

She lives with her husband, the Rev. Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Baltimore, MD, where he is pastor and she is Khouria (“Mother”) of the Maryland parish they founded, Holy Cross Orthodox Church.

Sources:
http://www.frederica.com/bio/
http://www.holycrossonline.org/our_parish/khourias_corner/

Here is a YouTube link to another rendition of the beautiful kontakion, performed at St. Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church on December 12, 2010 under the direction of Bill Attra by the combined St. Romanos Chorale.

Advertisements

2011 Archpastoral Letter from Metropolitan Jonah on the Feast of Christ’s Nativity

To the Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Monastics, and Faithful of The Orthodox Church in America

Nativity Icon

Dearly beloved in the Lord,

Christ is Born!

I greet you with the love, joy and hope that is so graciously granted to us with the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Today, we celebrate the “Winter Pascha,” proclaiming that God is indeed with us! Today, the only-begotten Son of God takes on our human nature, enabling us to become partakers of His divine nature. Today, the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled as, in the “fullness of time,” the long-awaited Messiah ushers in that peace which is beyond all understanding!

And today, we celebrate that for which we have prepared during the Nativity Fast. Our fasting, intensified prayer, and almsgiving find their meaning and fulfillment in the Mystery of the Incarnation: All that we have is a gift from God, given to us as faithful stewards, that we might proclaim God’s very presence in our midst. Our calling is to “incarnate” the Incarnate Word into our lives, our actions, our very being, at all times, and in everything we do. This, to be sure, is not easy. The world will challenge those who embrace “The Way” at every turn. Yet, it is the world that, in its self-proclaimed emptiness, precisely reveals its thirst for “something more,” a “sign” or “reality” that gives meaning to life beyond the superficial trappings of the “holiday season.”

In rendering thanks to God for His manifest love for His People, and in strengthening ourselves to proclaim the Incarnation in our lives, it is crucial for every member of the Church to discern his or her gifts and to employ them for the building up of the Body of Christ. How? One of the Nativity hymns gives us a clue.

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sake has appeared on earth as man?
Every creature which Thou hast made offers thanks.
The angels offer Thee a song. The heavens, their star. The wise men, their gifts. The shepherds, their wonder.
The earth, its cave. The wilderness, the manger.
And we offer Thee a Virgin Mother!

It is the Mother of God, the Theotokos, who is the very model of stewardship, of discernment, of embracing all that the heavenly Father called her to do. Where the first Eve said “no” to God, she responded positively. And in so doing, she embraced all that her Son accomplished by His birth in time and space, becoming an example for us.

As we continue our celebration, let not our faith be “shelved” with our ornaments and seasonal decorations. Let not the flame of our commitment wax cold. Let not our devotion to serving the Incarnate Word, even as His Mother served Him. May the grace and peace from above, so abundantly given by our all-merciful Savior, remain with us throughout this most glorious feast, and be strengthened within us in the days, weeks and months beyond!

Let us glorify Him!
Faithfully yours in Christ,

SIGNATURE
+JONAH
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

Image

Sourcehttp://oca.org/holy-synod/statements/metropolitan-jonah/nativity-of-christ-2011

Link

Urgent call for donations to assist ROCOR’s Holy Trinity monastery

Please spread the word, especially those of you studying in seminary or recently graduated!

“According to diocesan secretary Archpriest Serge Lukianov, the reason the monastery’s problems have thus far remained out of the spotlight can only be seen in the modesty of the brethren: “These monks are extremely humble and because of this, they do not share their problems with the rest of the world, and instead they bear their crosses in silence,” he explained. “But the time has come for all of us to step up and help our monks.””

Here is an important link which takes you directly to the monastery’s Fund for Assistance.

Holy Trinity Seminary and Monastery, raised to the Glory of God in 1928, is in dire need of financial assistance to make critical infrastructure repairs and restoration.

Holy Trinity Seminary and Monastery, raised in Jordanville, New York to the Glory of God in 1928, is in dire need of financial assistance to make critical infrastructure repairs and restoration.

A joyous feast day of Saint Nicholas!

Image

A joyous feast day of Saint Nicholas!

A blessed feast of Saint Nicholas to all those celebrating on the Julian calendar!

St. Nicholas (270-346), also called Nikolaos of Myra, was a historic saint and Greek bishop of Myra in Lycia (southern Asia Minor). He attended the First Ecumenical Council convened at Nicaea by St. Emperor Constantine I in 325, where, according to Church tradition, he struck the heretic priest Arius across the face during a heated debate.

399284_4363551640327_1548364315_n

Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Widely venerated throughout the Christian world, he is especially revered among Russians, Greeks, and sailors. His treasured relics have miraculously streamed myrrh many times in the past.

Troparion (Tone IV):
In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,
an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;
your humility exalted you;
your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Nicholas,
entreat Christ our God
that our souls may be saved!

Kontakion (Tone III):
You revealed yourself, O saint, in Myra as a priest,
For you fulfilled the Gospel of Christ
By giving up your soul for your people,
And saving the innocent from death.
Therefore you are blessed as one become wise in the grace of God!

St Nicholas of Myra

Holy Father Nicholas, intercede with Christ God for us that He might save our souls!

Thoughts on the grace of God in our lives and the transforming power of His love

How this suffering world would be transformed if we could more freely acknowledge to each other the real presence of God in our lives! Think of how society would be transformed if more of us could understand and connect with each other on this deep spiritual level! These moments, which so deeply transform and illumine us, are little theophanies, moments of revelation of divine love and whisperings of God’s grace by the Holy Spirit.

These manifestations of our Savior’s love for us touch the very soul and warm the heart of the man or woman open to receiving them. It is these moments which serve to convert and orient one’s soul towards her Creator, which can and should inspire us to seek after God with all our being.

How transformational and glorious these manifestations of divine love and grace are in the lives of those who discern them! If men and women felt free to acknowledge to their fellows this abundant grace of God and manifestations of His love in their lives, the whole world would realize how much more united in His love it actually is. They would see how, in the words of St. John of Damascus (675-749), “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God”. The Lord who has created all existence, who has painted this icon of His children whom He has fashioned in His image, works with human soul in tapestries of grace and love, His Spirit like a fire warming the noetic hearts of the faithful.

If only more people in the Church felt that they could share their experiences of divine grace, which can come upon any person at any time when they have opened themselves to receiving it! This grace, always a miracle when it visits a person by the power of the Holy Spirit, is bestowed on the heart and soul of someone who seeks after God daily and at all times, who discerns Him as that which is “everywhere present and fillest all things”. Those who have discerned this grace know what it is to live and believe the words of Blessed Augustine (354-430) even if he or she has never heard them: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance.”

Such a person who truly loves Him and discerns His presence in their life constantly remembers the Lord’s chief command, both to those of the Old and New Covenant, to the blood of the House of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to the new Israel of the New Dispensation, that we must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and all our might (Matthew 22:37-40). The person who remembers the Lord’s commandments, truly endeavoring to love God with all their being, is on the path to that mystical union with His divine energies and love which shines in the faces of the saints. Such a person is immersed in the lifelong process of theosis: the miraculous and mysterious awakening and transformation of the noetic inner heart and soul of man in union with God’s loving grace through which he or she is divinized.

“God became man so that man might become God”, wrote St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (296-373) in his treatise On the Incarnation. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (130-202), who died almost a century before St. Athanasius’ birth, wrote similarly, “In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is.” This teaching is a universal witness of the early Church, present in all the writings of the earliest Fathers who knew the apostles of Christ or who were trained by their disciples and their disciples’ disciples, and so on.

How can man become God when he is so clearly imperfect? St John Climacus (“John of the Ladder”), St Isaac the Syrian, St Silouan the Athonite, Elder Cleopa (Illie) and so many other holy men and women write of the process of salvation and divinization- for man can only be divinized to the degree that he allows himself to be completely opened to the saving and transformative loving grace of God- as a ladder of gradual, lifelong spiritual ascent. Elder Cleopa (+1998) offers beautifully clear instruction on the ladder of ascent in prayer and spiritual introspection and communion with God here.

The ladders of spiritual growth and increasing discernment through prayer, fasting, repentance and love for God are mutually interconnected to the point of pursuing the same end, reaching for the same transformation in and through and by Christ. First comes the recognition and aversion to sin as anything which separates us from God’s grace and love of the other. Then comes the ceasing of sin and the promptings of repentance, turning away from sinful mindsets and actions, and turning anew to the love of God, With this increasing discernment comes the ability to pray with the lips and the mouth and gradually, the mind; that is, to remember how to pray and what one wants to pray, and to increasingly understand the significance and meaning of what one prayers. Still, this is not the highest level of prayer, which the saints call “prayer of the heart”, the deepest level of communion with God when one’s mental comprehension of what one prays, one’s psyche, descends into the nous, the spiritual eye or the inner heart of one’s soul. Without a lifelong cultivation of ceaseless prayer (1 Thess. 5:17) and repentance, we may mount the ladder rungs again and again, but never truly begin to ascend in prayer.

We cannot become God by our very essence, which is created, no more than a child can ever become identical in essence to its parent, but we are gradually transformed as our noetic heart and soul open more to the energy and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Man can thus mysteriously and miraculously  become united to His Creator by the most intimate adoption of sonship. Insofar as man, a created being endowed by God with an immortal spirit, can be united to Him through immersion and participation in His illuminative grace and love, he can be transformed and made divine.

Anti-Jewish sentiment in Christian history and Europe today

A shameful part of early and modern European history, Christianity was historically used to justify antisemitic sentiment and violence.

While there is nothing intrinsically anti-Semitic in Orthodox Christianity or any other Christian communion, I have encountered a surprising and disturbing number of professed Christians over the years who have expressed that they have a strong dislike for Jews. Growing up with many Jewish friends in a very religiously diverse area of Long Island, New York, I have also known many Jews who have developed a very negative opinion of Christianity in general because of their encounter with either 1) the historical reality that many Christian people and rulers throughout history have been responsible for hateful actions, even murder, against Jews, or 2) a Christian person living today who holds anti-Semitic views.

Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I never heard anything in church or read of any doctrines which could be construed as hateful toward Jews, and the same has held true since my conversion to Orthodoxy. I sometimes invite friends to Vigil or the Divine Liturgy if they are interested, and these have included non-religious/agnostic, atheist, Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, and Jewish people. Whenever any Jewish friends have attended Vespers or Liturgy with me, they are always struck by and comment on the remarkable similarities between Orthodox chanting and that of Hebrew cantors, especially in the chanting of the Psalter.

The few anti-Semitic individuals I have encountered among Orthodox people I have met are, without exception, Eastern European immigrants who happen to be less educated. As you will sadly find in almost every historically Christian European country, not just the Orthodox ones, such people tend to blame others – often, historically, Jews – for their personal economic woes or the mismanaging of their country’s finances.

This casting of blame where none is due is not because they are Orthodox Christians, but because of any combination of their own ignorance, popular antisemitism in their neighborhood, family upbringing, or local culture, etc. Today, antisemitic opinions (distinct from opinions critical of the policies of the Israeli Government or its Defense Forces) are normative, and rising, throughout Europe. I have found this through research, as well as just talking with many ordinary Europeans in my travels.

One example which comes to mind is from two years ago, when I met a young, educated Russian man here in DC named Vasily, a friend of my Russian godfather Misha. Vasily referred to the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which purports to describe a Zionist attempt to control and undermine all the world’s governments) as if it were a credible book. I had never met someone who, in modern times, actually considered the forged account to be a legitimate plot.

However, among many other Russian immigrants I have met, there is a strong affinity for Jews because both Russian Christians and Jews suffered horrifically at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War, with the Nazis considering both Christian and Jewish Slavs subhuman and targeting them for organized mass-murder.

It is important to realize that anyone who dislikes or hates Jewish people does not feel this way because of his or her Christian faith, though sometimes, and often historically, people have tried to cloak their anti-Semitism in zeal for Christ. This is a huge tragedy and misunderstanding of the core tenets of the Gospel. For centuries, Jews throughout medieval and early modern Europe were subject to random and arbitrary violence often at the hands of the local peasant populations who blamed the local Jews for failed crop harvests, disappearances of children, and even alleged well-poisonings during the Black Death, etc.

Since Christians were forbidden by the Church from lending money at interest (usury), and Jews were forbidden by Christian rulers from inheriting land and passing it on through lineal descent, often the only trades open to them were as money-lenders and traders, leading Christian peasants to label all Jews as cheats and local rulers to intermittently protect and expel them (using local Jews as sources of money, they often then betrayed them when they did not want to pay back their loans, as Edward I of England did in 1290). For more insight into the intermittent persecution Jews faced in early modern Europe, I highly encourage you to read the fascinating Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln (lived 1646-1724) and the Life of Judah, an autobiographical account written by Leon Modena, a leading seventeenth century Venetian rabbi (lived 1571-1648).

Image

Glückel of Hameln (1646-1724) was a wealthy Jewish businesswoman and diarist, whose account of her family life and financial endeavors to support her children after her first husband’s death provides scholars with an intimate picture of German Jewish communal life in the late-17th-early eighteenth century.

Notorious charges of alleged Jewish child-killing connected to the ‘blood libel’ myth persisted well into the twentieth century in some places, even in the United States with the 1928 Massena case in upstate New York. Blood libel refers to the myth that Jews in their synagogue rituals used the blood of Christian children for their Passover bread, and peasant superstition and antisemitic fervor has led to local hysteria against Jews throughout central and eastern Europe irrespective of the religious establishment of the area.

One Ukrainian Cossack who remains a national Ukrainian folk hero today, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, led his soldiers in massacres of tens of thousands of Jews in Galicia and what is today southern Poland and western Ukraine, devastating the area and causing the subsequent migration of many Ashkenazim Jews to live near mostly Sephardic communities in the Holy Roman Empire’s and Dutch cities.

Image

Equestrian statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky in a main square in Kiev (Ukrainian: Богдан Зиновій Михайлович Хмельницький; Polish: Bohdan Chmielnicki; Russian: Богдан Хмельницкий, tr. Bogdan Khmelnitsky)

At the onset of the First Crusade in 1095, the “People’s Crusade” on their way to the Holy Land, following in the wake of the Christian kings and nobles who traveled by sea, massacred most of the Jews in the Rhineland of what is now eastern France in Alsace-Lorraine and western Germany. Upon their capture of Jerusalem in 1099, the Christians put most of the non-Roman Christians in the city — including Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians — to the sword.

Hatred of Jews existed at the highest echelons of early modern European intellectual society, with the humanist and polymath Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus infamously quipping to his English correspondent Thomas More (later canonized as a martyr in the Roman Catholic Church after his martyrdom at the hands of Henry VIII) that “if to be a good Christian is to hate the Jews, then we are all good Christians here”.

Image

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian. Erasmus was a classical scholar who wrote in a pure Latin style.

Many Roman Catholic popes and all the Protestant Reformers – very highly educated men– espoused anti-Jewish views in their writings. Martin Luther’s vulgar 1543 diatribe On the Jews and their lies, a 65,000 word treatise, catalyzed popular Protestant German violence against Jews for centuries after his death. At their 1933 celebratory games in Nuremberg the Nazis prominently displayed an original copy of Luther’s treatise, which they marched past in formation.

Incensed when Jews did not convert to his “purified” and “reformed” Christianity, Luther’s treatise urged German Christian princes to treat Jews as a plague and vermin, and burn their scriptures, forbid their rabbis from teaching, seize their property and stores, and expel them from their domains. Does this sound familiar? Luther essentially urged everything short of full-scale Holocaust. The Holy Roman prince-elector who sheltered Luther from Emperor Charles V, for instance, eventually expelled the Jews who lived on his territories at Luther’s urging.

Image

Martin Luther (1483-1546), father of the classical Protestant Reformation, was formerly a Catholic Augustinian monk and priest, continuing even after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church as a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg.

Along with many contemporary European intellectual figures, Luther held often deeply contradictory impressions and opinions about Jews. In his first treatise, Jesus Christ was a Jew (1523) he excoriated the Roman papacy for its harsh treatment of Jews, wondering why any Jew would ever convert to Christianity when he saw Christians failing at practicing the basic elements of their faith. He initially called for Christian rulers and Church leaders to treat the Jews better.

They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life. .  I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs.

They will only be frightened further away from it if their Judaism is so utterly rejected that nothing is allowed to remain, and they are treated only with arrogance and scorn. If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles. Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them. For even we ourselves are not yet all very far along, not to speak of having arrived.

When we are inclined to boast of our position we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood, the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are, as St. Paul says in Romans 9[:5]. God has also demonstrated this by his acts, for to no nation among the Gentiles has he granted so high an honor as he has to the Jews.

For from among the Gentiles there have been raised up no patriarchs, no apostles, no prophets, indeed, very few genuine Christians either. And although the gospel has been proclaimed to all the world, yet He committed the Holy Scriptures, that is, the law and the prophets, to no nation except the Jews, as Paul says in Romans 3[:2] and Psalm 147[:19-20], “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; nor revealed his ordinances to them.

It is almost impossible to believe that the same man wrote both treatises. Yet tragically, when German Jews did not embrace his reformed Christianity, the acid-tongued Luther turned against them.

In the Russian Empire, contrary to the Western European kingdoms of France, England, Castile, Aragon, and Portugal which had at various points expelled their Jewish populations (France and England in 1182 and 1290, respectively, and the late fifteenth century in the Iberian peninsula, with los reyes catolicos Fernando II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile issuing their edict of expulsion in 1492), Jews were never expelled by official decree. Beginning during Empress Catherine II’s reign, Ashkenazi Jews were, however, required to live in a restricted agricultural zone in what is today Belarus, Moldavia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and western Russia known as the Pale of Settlement.

Image

Map depicting the area known as the Pale of Settlement in the western lands of the Russian Empire.

As Western European states gradually secularized and democratized in the nineteenth century in the wake of the tragic and complicated French Revolution, giving Jews initially partial and then full rights as citizens (though popular dislike of Jews remained strong in these societies), Jews in Western Europe suffered less direct violence than what they continued to suffer in the officially Orthodox Eastern European provinces and countries under Russian rule. Yet the horrific phenomenon of pogroms against Jews, often spurred on by priests’ preaching during Holy Week which was either emphatically hateful towards them, or misunderstood as such by the mobs who claimed they were killing those they considered “Christ-killers” in the name of Christ, were historically as much a part of Catholic and Protestant Western Europe as they were of the Orthodox East. Without exception, all the pogroms against Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took place in mainly Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) parts of Ukraine.

Even in Eastern European countries with historically high rates of anti-Jewish pogroms and popular sentiment, countries which still show high rates of popular anti-Jewish feeling, there is no real connection between anyone who claims to hate Jews because of their Christian faith, and the actual tenets of Christianity. During the Holocaust, for instance, many European rulers such as Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Queen Mother Helen (Elena) of Romania, and most famously King Christian of Denmark actively intervened to protect Jews from slaughter in whatever ways they could.

Image

Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark (1896-1982) was the wife of King Carol II of Romania and the mother of King Michael of Romania. She held the title Queen Mother of Romania. . For her efforts to rescue Romanian Jews from the Nazis, she was awarded the status of Righteous Among the Nations and a plaque commemorating her efforts stands at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

One Russian bishop who followed in Metropolitan Anthony’s footsteps, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, was the late Bishop Basil (Rodzianko). He was my godmother’s spiritual father, and, according to her, he often told his parishioners and spiritual children that it is a grave sin to ever hold or act upon an anti-Jewish view or impulse, since Christ Himself, the Mother of God, all the apostles, etc, belonged by blood to the house of Israel. Bishop Basil reposed in 1999, so this shows that the phenomenon of Russian Orthodox hierarchs opposing anti-Jewish sentiment continues.

Image

His Grace, the late Bishop Basil Rodzianko (May 22, 1915-September 17, 1999).

Talking to Muslims about Jesus

The need for a respectful approach

I have many Muslim friends whom I love and respect very much. Throughout my interfaith service work and dialogues all Muslims I have met and worked with were very kind, charitable, and community-minded individuals. Many have repeatedly told me that they feel freer to practice their faith here in the United States than anywhere else. How do we as Orthodox Christians go about talking about our faith with Muslim friends or colleagues? What is the best way to go about doing this?

I have only discussed theology with a few of these Muslim friends, and whenever we talk about Jesus in Islam and Christianity, they of course tell me they do not believe Jesus was God, and ask, “How could you believe Jesus (peace be upon him/”PBUH”) was a god?”

One thing you will notice right away is that Muslims always attach this honorary suffix to Jesus’ name, as well as any person they consider a prophet other than Muhammad, their final prophet, to whom they say, “May Allah honor him and grant him peace”. On the internet you will see “peace be upon him” often abbreviated by English-speaking Muslims to “pbuh” or the Arabic transliteration into Roman letters, “A.S”. That this suffix should be given to Jesus (Isa in Arabic) should immediately strike Christians as a positive thing.

Image

            It is very important to recognize in someone the common ground you share, and reaffirm your respect for them before you begin to civilly discuss your differences. A lot of people are very ignorant about Islam and are unaware of both its commonalities with many Christian teachings, and its many differences. There have been many cases since the September 11 attacks of Muslim American citizens being brutally attacked for their faith, as well as Americans of the Sikh faith being attacked because the attackers erroneously thought they were Muslims.

Having a respectful dialog with a Muslim can really go a long way in giving them a positive impression of Christianity in the event that they feel negative towards our faith. It is also an important part of the Christian Way to condemn violence and hatred wherever it is found, whether it is directed against those of our faith, as is often the case throughout the Middle East today where Christians endure severe persecution and restrictions on their basic liberties, or those outside our faith.

One area we have in common with Muslims is that we both accord Jesus a very high place of honor. In fact, someone cannot be a Muslim if she or he does not believe Jesus was a prophet of God and among those “nearest to Allah” (Sura 3:45). (Allah is the Arabic word meaning ‘The God’, the only God). Thus, if a Muslim ever insults Jesus during your conversation or speaks disparagingly about any of His miracles (many of his miracles are mentioned in the Qur’an, as well as some alleged ones which the Bible does not mention) do not be surprised if his or her Muslim friends rebuke or chide them.

Jesus in the Qur’an: in some ways similar, in many very different from Jesus in the Bible

The Qur’an repeatedly and emphatically states that Jesus was only a Prophet of God (4:171, 5:17, 5:75). It goes further, saying that at the Day of Judgment Jesus will emphatically deny before Allah that he ever claimed divinity (5:116, 5:72, 3:55). This is a direct refutation of Christian claims that Jesus was the Son of God and God Incarnate. Islamic jurisprudence considers shirk,  (شرك‎) that is, making partners to God, the sole unpardonable sin: “Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the garden [Paradise] and the Fire will be his abode.” (5:72). In Sura (chapter) 5:17, those who believe Christ is God are condemned as living “in blasphemy”. Make special note of these passages, since many Muslims today raised in Western countries may not actually be familiar with them.

Image

            Islam thus incorrectly assumes that Christian belief in the Trinity is tritheism, belief in three gods, and therefore the unpardonable sin of shirk. In effect, the Qur’an teaches that Christians were misled or deluded into making Jesus and Mary ‘gods’ beside Allah (9:31, 19:88-92). This view of course ignores that Orthodox, Catholic and some Protestant Christians honor and venerate (see Luke 1:46-55, the scriptural text of the Magnificat), but do not worship Mary, and consider Jesus to be fully God, not God’s ‘partner’ or a separate god beside Him.

Interestingly, the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be directly revealed from God, holds that Jesus performed many miracles (5:110, 3:49), but by Allah’s power, not his own. Jesus in the Qur’an is only God’s servant, His prophet. Curiously, the Qur’an refers to Jesus indirectly and by name almost one hundred times in fifteen suras (chapters), far more than it refers to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Qur’an holds Mariam (Mary) in very high regard. In Sura 3:42 the Qur’an calls her “chosen” of God and “pure”, the virgin whom God has “preferred above all the women of creation”. The only woman mentioned by name in the text, it mentions Mary far more than the New Testament does. She is highly honored throughout the book (21:91, 23:50), which affirms her annunciation from the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) and her virgin birth (19:19-22).

Image

            The Qur’an also promises Jesus’ Second Coming (43:61), yet ironically, Prophet Muhammad is not expected to return to earth. Muslims believe Jesus was a devout Muslim (one who submits to Allah), was the Messiah sent to preach to the people of Israel, and heralded the coming of the Prophet Muhammad.

In its view of Jesus, the Qur’an can be considered an antithesis or attempted refutation of the Christian Gospel. It explicitly denies the Crucifixion (4:157) and thereby the Resurrection, claiming instead that Jesus was assumed bodily into heaven without death. Prophet Muhammad, by contrast, died and was buried at Medina, Islam’s second holiest city in modern day Saudi Arabia, where he and his first supporters found refuge after the Meccans expelled them.

Image

Correcting two major misconceptions which Muslims tend to have about Christians

1)      “Don’t Christians believe in three gods?”

The Qur’an accuses Christians of believing in three gods. This shows a clear misunderstanding of the Trinity. If the person or group of Muslim friends you are talking with wants to learn a bit more, then you can discuss the Trinity with them, but it is important not to get bogged down in complicated theology. You should share that the only people who claim to be Christians who worship anything resembling three gods are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons, known among themselves as “Latter-day Saints” or LDS). Technically, Mormons are not tritheists, but henotheists because they believe in a possibly infinite number of ‘exalted’ beings who become gods through a process called exaltation, but they only worship the ‘Godhead’ of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Latter-day Saints are tritheists in the sense that they reject the Trinity, believing instead that the ‘Godhead’ of Father, Son and Holy Ghost are three ‘separate beings [gods] united in purpose’. This will likely horrify or shock your Muslim friends, since it fits the very definition of shirk in Islam. You can also share that Mormon prophets historically taught, and many Mormons still believe, that God the Father was once a man who they believe progressed through a process called exaltation to become God, and that He has a tangible body of flesh and bone.

This will horrify Muslims, as it horrifies you. Muslims are strict monotheists, so in establishing common ground with Muslims, you can repeatedly reiterate that you believe Mormons beliefs about God/gods are not yours.

2)      “Don’t Christians worship Mary?”

This is an area where many Orthodox and Catholic Christians struggle in convincing evangelical and some mainline Protestant Christians that we do not, in fact, “worship” Mary. You should make clear that while you venerate and honor Mary as the Virgin Mother of Christ, and therefore the Mother of God Incarnate, (God come into the flesh among Men), you absolutely do not worship her, for she, while exalted and made holy by the power of God, is still human, a created being, and therefore not deserving of worship.

 Image

The Discussion: Planting doubt in a Muslim’s mind that Jesus was only a Prophet

1)      If Jesus never claimed He was God, but the Qur’an says that at his Second Coming Jesus will insist to Allah that he was merely acting as His prophet and servant, why does the Qur’an put Christians (along with Jews) in a relatively protected status as “People of the Book”? Our Holy Book, the Bible, transparently supports Jesus’ divinity, which is considered the sole unpardonable sin of shirk, that is, ascribing ‘partners’ to God. Why then does the Qur’an considers the Christian Scriptures, which, it claims, so distort Jesus’ true message heralding the coming of Muhammad, worthy of honor?

Why, if Jesus truly never said the things about Himself which the New Testament preserves about Him (His repeated claims to divinity and the path to salvation only through faith in Him), would Muhammad order his followers to leave Christians alone, when what we believe about Jesus is the very antithesis of what Prophet Muhammad taught about him, deserving of eternal “fire” (5:72) due to our “blasphemy” (5:17)?

From Islam’s perspective, Trinitarian Christians commit “shirk”, that unpardonable sin of making “partners” to the One God (Allah), so why then does the Qur’an often put us in a more positive light than it does Jews, when Jews are strict monotheists, closer to Islam’s standard for monotheism, than we Trinitarians?

2)      Islam claims to be the fulfillment and correction of both Judaism and Christianity, but nowhere in the Qur’an are Muslims urged to read the Torah or any of the books of the New Testament. The latter makes sense, given that the New Testament clearly lays out that Jesus is the Son of God and God Incarnate, but how can the Qur’an claim to be the fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity when its ‘predecessor’, Christianity, included the Jewish holy scriptures into its canonized scriptures (the Holy Bible) as the Old Testament, and yet Islam does not make any actual use of the Jewish scriptures or Christian ones? Also, given that Muslims mirror Jewish dietary practice by consuming only halal foods similar to Jewish kosher rules of slaughter, and see the Old Testament prophets, especially Adam, Moses, Elijah, and Ishmael, as forerunners of Jesus and Muhammad, why do Muslims still not use the Hebrew Scriptures?

3)      In the Qur’an, Jesus ascends to heaven by bodily assumption, he never dies, and he is foretold to return to earth at the Second Coming. Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, died and was buried, did not ascend to heaven, and will never return to earth. Muslims at the Day of Judgment believe that Jesus will deny before Allah that he ever claimed divinity, yet Jesus alone of all the prophets in Islam was assumed bodily into heaven and will return to earth close to the Day of Judgment. Somehow, despite his bodily ascension, his miracles, his birth to a virgin, and his foretold return, Jesus is still considered only God’s servant, the same as the Prophet Muhammad or earlier prophets. This does not make sense when you consider that all other prophets, believed to have acted and performed miracles through Allah’s power and grace, died, were not born to virgins, did not ascend bodily to heaven, nor will any of them come again to this earth.

Ultimately, from a Christian perspective, the claims of the Qur’an about Jesus only being a Prophet come off as an attempt to ignore Jesus’ divinity or cover up the claims He made in the Bible, while limiting the miracle-performing parts of Jesus’ life, as well as his true role and scope as Messiah to the people of Israel. The result is a kind of ‘hybrid’ Jesus who is plainly greater than the other prophets given all the unique things the Qur’an teaches about him, but he is still emphatically not considered divine. Why thus did Islam’s greatest and founding prophet Muhammad die, never to return again, yet Jesus in the Qur’an never died, but is to return again to earth? Surely this means Jesus is greater in Islam than the Prophet Muhammad- yet such a statement outrages and offends devout Muslims!

4)     In the Qur’an Jesus’ mother Mariam (Mary) is held in very high regard. In fact, she often appears with the suffix “peace be upon her”, the only woman honored in this way by name in the Qu’ran. In fact, an entire sura (19) is named in her honor. In the text, Mary is a righteous virgin who is astonished when the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) appears to her and reveals that she would conceive Jesus not by a man, but by the “holy spirit of God”. Islam honors Adam, Abraham, Elijah, Ishmael, Moses, and most of the Old Testament prophets, yet no prophet’s mother, not even Muhammad’s, conceived virginally or by the “holy spirit of God”! In the Qur’an, Jesus also miraculously spoke at his birth (19:22-33); not even the New Testament has Jesus speaking at birth! Surely, a mere prophet does not speak from his cradle and proclaim himself, at birth, to be a prophet!

5)      A common explanation I’ve heard among Muslims for why Jesus could not possibly be divine is that in the Qur’an, there is a verse attesting that Jesus and Mary both had to eat food for sustenance.

“Christ, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. . .” (5:75).

This is a really weak argument. If Allah, the One God, deigns or chooses to  become Incarnate in His infinite grace and love for the world, then why should He not, if He deigns to take on humanity, then eat? Why should He not do so? He is God, capable of all things, of anything He commands or wills! Why should He not partake of a small part of His creation, of some food? Just because God deigns to eat does not mean He needs to eat for sustenance!

Thus, Islam argues, the Christian understanding of Jesus must be some kind of weak or flawed ‘god’—a god who needs to eat, what kind of god can that be? Christianity sees Jesus as fully man and yet fully God, who loses none of His divine majesty and transcendent power by choosing to take on our humanity.

This is what befuddles Muslims more than anything, since they reject the Incarnation entirely, and so once you plant doubts in their mind about Jesus’ role as only a Prophet in Islam, you can hopefully begin to start talking to them about the Incarnation and how everything the Christian Scriptures ascribes to Christ, and indeed, the miracles recorded in the Qur’an, make much more sense as the accomplishments and will of God Incarnate, than a mere Prophet.

The Great Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple

Video

Today, December 4 N.S. (November 21 on the Julian calendar) marks the celebration of the Great Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple at Jerusalem.

According to Church Tradition (found in the writings of many of the early Fathers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa and Patriarch St. Germanus of Constantinople, as well as in the Protoevangelion of James), this feast day commemorates the occasion when the pious, elderly parents of the Virgin Mary, Sts. Joachim and Anna, fulfilled their vow to the Lord and entrusted their miracle daughter to the care of the Temple high priest Zaccharias, who later became the father of St. John the Baptist.

On this day, one year ago, His Beatitude Metropolitan +Jonah, then serving as the primate of the Orthodox Church in America, received me into the Orthodox Church by chrismation and the laying on of hands at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

My Chrismation 5 (2)

My family was really kind and supportive, driving down from Long Island to witness the ceremony. This meant so much to me!

My family was so kind and supportive, driving down from Long Island to witness the ceremony. Their presence meant so much to me!

My chrismation took place on Sunday, December 4, 2011 at St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington.

My chrismation took place on Sunday, December 4, 2011 (November 21 Julian calendar)

This Great Feast is one of the most ancient and joyous of the Church, as this detailed article and this one both explain.

Entrance of the Theotokos icon

Here is the beautiful choral Troparion (tone IV) for the feast sung by Archangel Voices:

Today is the preview of the good will of God,
Of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
The Virgin appears in the Temple of God,
In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice,
O Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation!

Entering into the mind and the heart of the Faith

“The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” – St. John of Damascus (675-749)

Since before I can remember, I have always been passionately interested in the study and history of world faiths and religious traditions. The shelves of my amateur ‘library’ in my bedroom at my family home are filled with books on ancient, early modern and modern European, Middle Eastern, American, Chinese, Japanese and Indian history, and books detailing the beliefs and histories of different world religions and philosophies, especially Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Bookshelf

(Not my actual library.)

When I was home in New York over this past Thanksgiving break, I took what I intended to be only a few minutes and ended up losing myself for hours pouring over dozens of these magnificent books which marked my intellectual growth and absorption of knowledge as a child and teenager. It was a beautiful experience, transporting me back to the very pages which opened my mind, like a window, to the peoples, beliefs and practices of times ancient, medieval, and more recent.

As I looked through several books on Christianity and the history of Rome, Tsarist Russia and the Byzantine Empire, I became absorbed in the pages where my exposure to the teachings, spiritual life, and beautiful liturgy and aesthetics of Orthodoxy first began at a very young age: coffee table books such as Brian Moynahan’s The Russian Century or Rick Smolan’s A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, heavy art history books from the Smithsonian and the Hermitage about St. Petersburg and Moscows palaces, churches, convents and monasteries. All of these books which marked my entry into Orthodoxy, at least intellectually and in my imagination, were gifts from my grandparents, one of my father’s colleagues, and one of my uncles who had traveled to Russia.

russian_land

These books transported me to two very different places: the art history books and photographic histories ushered me to a magnificent bygone world of lavish Courts, opulent palaces, solemn liturgies, cozy-looking villages and beautiful monasteries perched on lakes and the edge of great rivers, while the books on twentieth century Russian and Soviet history made me aware- often through their wordless, graphic images – of the almost unspeakable horrors which millions of peoples of Eastern Europe endured in the past century. It seemed incredible to me that Orthodoxy had somehow managed to survive at all under an unimaginably cruel, repressive and totalitarian regime dedicated to the cause of militant atheism and the abolition of all religion, considered superstition incompatible with the basic principles of revolutionary socialism and Marxist-Leninism.

Years later, I would learn of just how savage the persecution of Orthodox Christians and Eastern-rite Catholics had been under the Soviet period, especially  during the first years under Lenin, and then Stalin’s dictatorship prior to the Nazi invasion of the USSR and the Khrushchev years. A regime which dynamited ancient cathedrals, churches and lavras, sent spies to monitor priests and their congregations, and which first symbolically lined up icons and sentenced them to death, then followed with hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, monks, and hierarchs, and untold millions of faithful laity.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in Moscow in 1839 in memory of Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon. Stalin ordered the Cathedral's demolition in December 1931, and he proposed to build a " Palace of Soviets " on the ground of the demolished Cathedral. Instead the site became host of the world's largest public swimming pool.  The rebuilt Cathedral was completed in 1997 following exact specifications to ensure its obedience to the original building. It stands now as a symbol of the endurance and triumph of Orthodoxy over the Soviet regime which sought to destroy it.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in Moscow in 1839 in memory of Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon. Stalin ordered the Cathedral’s demolition in December 1931, and he proposed to build a “Palace of Soviets ” on the ground of the demolished Cathedral. Instead the site became host to the world’s largest public swimming pool.

This exposure, both to the beauty and richness of Orthodoxy, and the incredible suffering of Eastern Christians in the past century, deeply touched something in me long before I ever worshiped in an Orthodox temple, finding myself immersed in the timeless grace and ethereal majesty of the Divine Liturgy. I felt an inexplicable connection to the history of the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian people, and wondered what it was about their faith that could have so threatened or outraged the Soviets that they attempted to completely eradicate it from the earth. How could anyone endure what so many Orthodox Christians had endured, how could people hold onto their faith when millions of their fellow believers went to their death for it?

Christ the Savior Cathedral

After the end of the Soviet Union, the rebuilt Cathedral was completed in 1997  following exact specifications to ensure its obedience to the original building structural design. Once again a major feature of the Moscow skyline, it stands now as a symbol of the endurance and triumph of Russian Orthodoxy over the Soviet regime which sought to destroy it.

After centuries of existing as the only official State faith of the Russian tsars (a position which enabled the Russian Church to produce some of Christianity’s most eloquent and brilliant theologians and holiest saints, but which also led to institutional corruption, entrenched political factions, and the abuse of the basic freedoms of non-Orthodox religious minorities, especially Jews), how then did the Russian Church endure a complete reversal of fortune when it became the prime target of a militantly atheist communist State committed to its destruction?

Because of my intellectual introduction to Orthodox history and my familiarity with the twentieth century traumas to so many of the Orthodox peoples (Greek, Serbian, Georgian, Russian and Ukrainian especially), when I first experienced the Byzantine Liturgy, while I was astounded to have found myself having stepped into what seemed like an ancient royal court or an entirely new world, the heavenly realm itself, I still felt inexplicably at home. Amid the chanting of the ancient psalms, the ethereal singing of the choir, the censing of the church, her beautiful, expressive icons, and her worshipers, I became absorbed in not just the rich aesthetic smells and sounds and sights of the worship- the vestments of the priests, chanting, the bows and prostrations, and heartfelt prayer litanies- but I became aware of a grace, the presence of God, which was stronger than anything I had ever before encountered.

liturgy

In my spiritual journey, I had visited many different Protestant churches, attended different Catholic parishes, and also read widely on non-Christian faiths and attended several of their services and meditations. But when I encountered Orthodoxy, stepping into the light of the Liturgy’s eternal banquet, I experienced a kind of awe-inspiring awakening which confirmed not only God’s existence and power, but His unspeakable, transcendent majesty and timelessness, and His deep concern for me and all the world.

I realized the reality that worshiping the Trinity which created us should be the core purpose for our existence. For, if there is truly a God who created all that is, if we truly believe that, and if He loved us so much that He chose to become incarnate so that we might enter into mystical union with Him through the divinization of our very being, then how can we not make Him the center of our lives? By extension, how can we be Christians unless we love every person on this earth as a unique creation made in His image?

7womensconf_2