Open Letter to Archbishop Demetrios of America on Matthew Heimbach

We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ.

– Article I of the Decree of the 1872 Council of Constantinople

“Do you consider yourself a racist?”

“Sure! So what?”

– Matthew Heimbach to an interviewer in the video clip here.

To: His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, Exarch of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Chairman of the Holy Eparchial Synod of Bishops, and Chairman of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America.

CC: Ms. Marissa P. Costidis, Department of Communications, Coordinator, Managing Director of GOTelecom, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Your Eminence, bless!

I consider it the greatest blessing to be part of the Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ which has produced so many holy men and women and Saints over the centuries. In particular, it is a great source of inspiration to me and so many of my Millennial generation that we have the prophetic words of the 1872 Council of Constantinople which, possessed of a divine vision for the inherent dignity of all humanity, condemned phyletism and other forms of racism decades before the national Civil Rights movement arose. I consider it a great honor and blessing that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in particular was blessed with so courageous a hierarch and Primate as the late and ever-blessed Archbishop Iakovos, who marched at Selma with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in 1965. I am aware of Your Eminence’s own recent commemoration of this momentous event in the life and history of our nation.

My conscience obliges me to report to Your Eminence that a white supremacist named Matthew Heimbach, who claims to be a practicing Orthodox Christian, has unfortunately been receiving major media coverage from ABC News in the wake of the recent Charleston shootings. Only yesterday, an article appeared in ABC News in which Heimbach was interviewed while wearing an Orthodox cross. Mr. Heimbach has publicly claimed that the suspected shooter in the Charleston attach is a “victim” of a culture which, supposedly, hates and oppresses white people. Mr. Heimbach has claimed, and continues to claim –falsely– that his racist views somehow are in line with those of Orthodox Christianity. He further claims, despite having been excommunicated for his views by Bishop Anthony of the Antiochian Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest, to be an active Orthodox Christian in good standing. While his constitutional rights to free speech allow him to do this, I and a number of my friends from across Orthodox jurisdictions are greatly concerned that Mr. Heimbach’s views will cause non-Orthodox members of the public to associate the Holy Church with his radical, un-Orthodox views. He is furthermore presenting a false narrative, claiming himself to be an active member of the Church when in fact he is excommunicated. I am especially anxious that the memory of your illustrious predecessor Archbishop Iakovos not be profaned by the shameful association of such an ignoble man with Holy Orthodoxy.

I and so many of my generation appreciate Your Eminence’s loving and strong message of support for and solidarity with the victims of the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting. It is a joy to have such a conscientious hierarch as yourself to express such sentiments which reflect the timeless Orthodox teaching on the inherent dignity of all human life. I am writing now to Your Eminence in your capacity as Chairman of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, with the fervent hope and prayer that, in your wisdom and charity, you will urge your brother bishops, both in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and in the Assembly itself, to 1) reiterate that Matthew Heimbach is an excommunicated person outside the Orthodox Church and 2) to issue a statement from the Assembly bishops condemning the Charleston shootings for what they were: a racist, hate-motivated terrorist attack.

Yours faithfully in Christ,

-Ryan Hunter (Christian name “Silouan”)

P.S. I have also written to His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese here.

Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes’ Lamentation for the Fall of Constantinople

Video

Tomorrow, June 11 (which is May 29 on the Julian calendar) we remember the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”) on May 29 in 1453, 560 years ago.

Using the haunting text of Psalm 79, Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes (Greek: Μανουὴλ Δούκας Χρυσάφης, active from 1440–1463) composed this profoundly transcendent lament for the fall of the Great City, the “Eye of the World”. Most historians regard Chrysaphes as the most prominent Byzantine musician of the 15th century. He was a singer, composer and musical theoretician who served as a master choralist at the courts of the last two Byzantine emperors, John VIII and Constantine XI. His surviving treatise, “On the Theory of the Art of Chanting” is an invaluable guide to Byzantine music and the evolution of Byzantine singing in the late Palaiologan period. The Portland, Oregon-based Byzantine choral ensemble Cappella Romana sings this otherworldly lamentation. Here is a review of Cappella Romana’s performance of the lamentation by The Oregonian’s Barry Johnson.

One of the most traumatic events in Christian history with lasting repercussions to this day for Greek-speaking people in particular, Constantinople’s fall to a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic army led by Sunni Muslim Turks was also one of the pivotal turning points in Western and Ottoman history.

While the city had declined in population, power and prestige to become a shadow of its former self, and was in fact little more than a series of loosely connected villages huddled behind the ancient Theodosian walls when Mehmed’s forces breached them, its fall came like the crashing of a giant in the Christian consciousness.

With the death of the Emperor Constantine XI on the walls of the city, the Empire whose citizens had simply called themselves ‘Romans’, whose official name was Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, the Roman Empire, or Ῥωμανία, ‘Romania’, came to an end after 1100 years. When one thinks of the city’s repeated attacks and sieges by the Huns, Persians, Arabs, then-pagan Vikings and Russians, Bulgars, Crusaders, Seljuk Turks, and finally the Ottomans, it is remarkable that, until its first sack by the Crusaders in 1204, Constantinople presided over an empire which achieved an extraordinary integration of three main influences.

Byzantium synthesized an extraordinary ancient cultural and philosophical legacy from classical Greece and the Hellenic kingdoms with that of Roman law, political theory and imperial government structure, preserving thousands of classical and legal texts which would have likely been lost in the West. Crucially, Constantinople’s endurance of many centuries of external pressure, including intermittent hostility with the northern Italian mercantile states after 1204, especially Venice and Genoa, served to prevent major Muslim expansion into Europe..

From an Orthodox perspective, Constantinople’s stature as the patriarchate second in honor as the New Rome after the Old caused it to become the center of what came to be called Byzantine, or Greek, Orthodox Christianity with a vast contribution in liturgical tradition, homiletics, theology, and phronema. The fall of the city profoundly shocked all of Christendom, especially Rome, as the ancient patriarchate which had been second in honor in the Christian oikoumene was now transformed into the capital of the most powerful Muslim empire.

The Ottoman Turks finally gained the prize which they had been encircling for over a century since they conquered most of Anatolia and expanded behind Constantinople into Thrace and the Balkans. Unsurprisingly, historians traditionally date the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of Byzantium, from which they also mark the official opening of the Renaissance and the early modern era as Byzantine refugees poured into Italy.

Awareness of God: Thoughts on theism vs. atheism

“The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God. They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one. The Lord hath looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there be any that did understand and seek God.”

– Psalm 14:1-2 (Douay-Rheims Bible).

“The Lord loves us so dearly that it passes all description. Through the Holy Spirit alone can the soul know His love, of which she is inexpressibly aware. The Lord is all goodness and mercy. He is meek and gentle, and we have no words to tell of His goodness; but the soul without words feels this love and would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.” 

St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938).

The divide between atheism and theism ultimately reduces to a question of whether one believes and is aware of the existence of another world, a spiritual dimension, or whether one does not believe such a dimension exists. Belief or disbelief in a higher power, in a force or dimension directed by something beyond what our cognitive rational mind can recognize, is a natural and logical consequence of where one falls in answering this question.
 
Ultimately, as decent as we can and should be in our dialogues and day-to-day encounters with those who differ from us in this regard, we have to recognize that we as theists adhere to a fundamentally different worldview and understanding of existence compared to atheists. We should remember that our particular worldview and understanding of existence as Orthodox Christians especially sets us apart in Western society from atheists whose primary engagement with Christianity is with Roman Catholicism and the vastly different Protestant denominations. 
 
At the core of who they are by their declared belief that Goes does not exist, atheists must inevitably think that those of us who believe in a spiritual dimension and who avow prayer as a means of communicating with the divine are hopelessly deluded. Likewise, all theists, but most especially we as Orthodox Christians, have to recognize with sadness that atheists are blind and deaf to the spiritual reality of God’s presence, of which we are intimately and experientially aware, for God is “everywhere present and filling all things”.
 
Thanks be to God that His design for all people to come unto Him and to know Him by His love – the will of the Father through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, communicated to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit – can and does illumine the hardest of hearts. As much as many of the recent sacrilegious public acts by those promoting militant atheism and other radical ideologies horrify us as Orthodox believers, we must remember that no theist can become an atheist without first losing trust in those whom they have seen speaking for or acting on behalf of God. We should be moved out of genuine love for their souls to pray for atheists – many of whom are kindhearted and fundamentally decent people – but we must always strive to answer the hatred of militant atheists with love, with silence when we are mocked, and kindness when we are scorned.

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Metropolitan Jonah’s 2011 Pastoral Letter at the start of Great Lent

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Dearly Beloved in the Lord:

      The beginning of another Lenten season is upon us, and with it comes the opportunity for us to cast aside those things which have distanced us from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Like a wise mother, the Church provides this period of time as a means for us to prepare for receiving the joy of Pascha and Christ’s holy resurrection.

      This same joy and blessing was granted to us at our baptism, when the following prayer was read:

      “Grant that he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed; that he may put away from himself the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him, he may receive the prize of his high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

       Our baptism in the waters of regeneration enabled us to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to use the upcoming season of Great Lent to return to those baptismal waters. For this transformation to take place, we must first have a desire for a change of heart. Do we want to turn aside from the passions of our flesh? Carnal thoughts or deeds, idle chatter, gossip, lying, selfish acts, greed, and gluttony are all things which separate us from Christ. Isn’t it time to stop these destructive habits? Simply put, we know our passions stand in our way of entering into the heavenly kingdom. Now is the time to cast them into oblivion. Instead of tearing each other down, let us build each other up, as the Gospel commands. Instead of slander and accusation, judgment and condemnation, let us encourage and love our neighbors.

      If we truly desire to return to God, then let us do so in a spirit of humility. Let God transform our minds and hearts through true repentance, the fruit of that humility. We live in a society which encourages us to have an opinion or comment worthy of posting or tweeting about everyone and everything, but as Orthodox Christians it is time for us to stop thinking we have all of the answers. Let us turn off the rhetoric and excuses while rejecting our arrogance and pride. Denial of self is not easy. Yet we can echo the example of our Savior, who silently, and with meekness and humility approached the cross. When we take up our cross and follow Him, He will make our burden light.

      When we have reacquired a sense of humility, it is possible to more clearly recognize our sins and repent of them. Admission of our sins through repentance will not only help us as individuals, but also as communities of Orthodox Christian throughout North America. The effects of a broken and contrite heart can have a great impact on every relationship in our lives. True repentance replaces discord with harmony, and frustration with love. Individually and collectively, our lives should and need to reflect the love found in Jesus Christ.

      Great Lent is an excellent time for us to rediscover the importance of loving one’s neighbors. If, as Orthodox Christians we are the Body of Christ, then we have a responsibility to ask forgiveness for our failings, while banishing our grudges and egos. It means sharing the love of Christ with those in need, whether they are in our parishes or on the street. Putting an extra ten dollars in the basket is an excellent start. Or try to actually tithe your income (10%) to the Church during Lent. Taking it one step further to make a connection with someone by providing them with a meal or charity can make Christ present in their lives and so fulfill the law of God.

      The joy and radiant light of Pascha will quickly be here, and it is imperative that we make use of the time available for us during Great Lent to work on our spiritual health. It is time for us to cast off the works of darkness, as the Apostle Paul says in his epistle to the Romans. The services, prayers, fasting, and acts of charity we do during Lent are merely tools to help us return to God. Be careful, my beloved ones, that these tools do not become stumbling blocks for us, or that we use them to cause others to sin.

      I believe it is possible for each of us to turn from our sins and draw closer to our God the Father by redirecting our lives through Christ. What a joy it will be if each of us begins taking those first steps in love on the narrow path leading back to God. Our collective journey through Great Lent will bring us closer together as a community of love, and as the baptismal prayer says, may we become partakers of the Resurrection. Let us keep a sober mind to properly prepare for that moment on Pascha when we boldly and confidently may proclaim: Christ is Risen!

      In the many ways while serving as your archpastor, if I have failed or wronged you, I humbly ask for your forgiveness. May the Lord forgive us all!

      With my prayers for a holy season of Great Lent,

       With love in Christ,

      +Jonah

Abbot Tryphon on “Christian Pharisees”

Christian Pharisees
The Orthodox Faith is Nothing Without Transformation of Life

If your spiritual life is concentrated only on external practices and traditions, but does nothing to bring about real change, you have gained nothing. Too many people think as long as they keep the fasting rules, do their prayers, and attend the services, they are good Orthodox Christians. Yet if there is no love, no charity, and forgiveness of others, and your life is filled with gossip and judgement, your Orthodox Christian faith is worth nothing. 

Christ condemned the Pharisees not because they kept the law and attended to the traditions of the Jewish faith, but because they did so while filled with pride and arrogance. Without sincere repentance and holiness of life, their encounter with God led to an emptiness of heart.

Because our Orthodox faith is one of tradition and liturgical structure, it is easy to fall into the trap of being nothing more than a Pharisee. Being strict in one’s observance of Orthodox practices can easily lead to pride and arrogance. If you find yourself feeling better than others and proud of your piety, you have gained absolutely nothing. The external practice of the Orthodox Christian faith without heartfelt humility and repentance leads down the road of spiritual ruin. 

The Church is the hospital of the soul, but healing can only come if we put effort into it. If your doctor prescribes a medication for your condition but you fail to follow your doctor’s orders, you will not get well. The Church has all that you need for spiritual transformation, but healing only comes if you cooperate with the healing process. 

The goal is holiness (wholeness) and is the direct result of our having submitted in all humility to a life of repentance. When you do this Christ changes you. If you simply go through the motions of your Orthodox faith, you are no better off than the Pharisees whom Christ condemned.

Love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

ImageThe Very Reverend Igumen Abbot Tryphon is the spiritual leader at All Merciful Saviour monastery located on Vashon Island in Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington State. The monastery is within the canonical jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The monastery’s widely acclaimed and popular Facebook page can be found here. Abbot Tryphon’s popular blog can be accessed here.

Thoughts on the sanctity of all life

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Why do I have the right to be alive right now writing this? Why do you have the right to be alive now reading this?

Ultimately, if you defend any means of artificially ending life – the death penalty, abortion, suicide, or euthanasia of the elderly or of the disabled – as ‘situationally variable’ (as sometimes morally justifiable, and therefore intrinsically ethical or right in certain situations), then you have to deny that anyone has an absolute right to existing at all. If you believe that, in certain circumstances, it is morally justifiable to end a life, then life itself can have no inherent meaning as sacred or intrinsically worthy of protection.

If you believe that you have the right to terminate a developing life in utero, or execute a convicted criminal whom a court and society judges to be of no value, or euthanize an elderly person who is judged to be a burden to his or her caretakers and to broader society, then life itself can have no intrinsic meaning for you beyond what you subjectively get out of your own life or hope others get out of theirs. Thus, your life matters to you and those people in your life, but ultimately your life doesn’t actually have inherent worth to the world or to existence. Thus, your life matters to you, and the lives of your friends and loved ones have real value for you, but Life itself is gray, neutral, of no certain worth or value.

Why then do you have the right to be alive and thinking the thoughts you are thinking right now, and someone else who was aborted, executed, or euthanized doesn’t have that same right? If you defend the notion that some developing lives aren’t worth their cost or burden to the would-be mother, then why should your mother have ever borne you? If you defend the notion that some elderly people are a burden on their families and society, and that we should mercifully hasten their end, then why shouldn’t this be done to you when you are old and vulnerable, even if it is against your will?

These are major existential questions, and the confusion and internal struggle which they evoke in someone unsure of how to answer them can only be avoided by affirming that either everyone has the absolute right to life, or no one does.

If you believe the latter, then why fight for your right to live as you please in any way, since what you do with your life, and your life itself, doesn’t actually have any inherent worth or meaning whatsoever? This kind of thinking is the seed of nihilism and the inevitable consequence of taking the moral relativist position that not all lives are worth protecting.

The above image, taken at yesterday’s March for Life here in Washington, D.C., has been circulating widely on the internet, especially on Facebook. It makes use of a popular Facebook meme. Abortion (while on my mind due to the March occurring here yesterday) is not the principal focus of my thoughts here. The image featured above prompted me to engage with the much broader, deeper question of the value – objective or subjective – of life itself.

The sign which the marcher holds contains just four simple words. These words convey a very powerful witness: “Respect ALL the life!”. But what does this really mean? To me, it’s a whole philosophical worldview. Believing that abortion is a terrible tragedy, the loss of a developing life, is just one part of it. Babies developing in utero, infants whose babble we can’t understand, the physically and mentally disabled, the psychologically impaired, the dying elderly, and even murderers who might in our eyes deserve death: all deserve life. All received life from God, or from Providence or “Nature”, to use the Enlightenment language, but no one receives life from any laws or government.

All of us received our lives without any part in the process other than simply coming into this world. So what right have any of us to say who should be allowed into this world and who shouldn’t? Or when someone should be sent out of this world, and when they should be sent in? If we entertain these notions, we risk taking on the role of God. This thinking produces tyrannies beyond measure.

The foundation of the idea that life is a mystery and a gift which is not ours to dispose of when unwanted, or to take away when inconvenient, is thus the foundation of a civil and decent society. What is the alternative? A society in which people desperately want their lives to matter, but have no basis for them to actually have any inherent worth. Ultimately, in a society where life has no inherent meaning because people have agreed that lives can be morally ended at certain points, in certain circumstances, no one can actually justify their existence, their very living, as anything beyond sheer luck and fortune in time and circumstance.

Why am I alive writing this? Why are you alive reading this? If you believe that human life can legitimately be ended by artificial means ,whether through abortion, suicide, euthanasia of the elderly or the dying, or state-sponsored execution, then you really can’t answer that question except with an acknowledgement that your mother decided to bring you into the world. If you truly believe your mother could have been morally justified in, for whatever reason, deciding not to have you, then ultimately you cannot believe there is any real foundation for your existence, or that of anyone else in your life, or in this world. Life is either inherently worth protecting in all its forms, or it is inherently worthless in all forms. Which position would you rather take?

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.

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            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.

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            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).

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            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.

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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.

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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.

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?

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Please pray for Metropolitan Jonah, his family, and the departed soul of his sister

Laurie Paffhausen, the kind, beloved younger sister of Metropolitan Jonah, reposed at 9:45 on Sunday morning, November 18 (Julian calendar November 5). Before her passing, she was received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation with the name Laura, in honor of St Laura the martyr at Cordoba (d. 864). Please pray for her soul and for the Lord and His Saints to comfort her grieving parents, Louise and Jim, and her brother. May her memory be eternal!

O Master, Lord our God Almighty, who willest that all men should be saved and should come to a knowledge of the truth; who desirest not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn again and be saved: We pray thee and beseech thee, deliver thou the soul of thy handmaiden, Laura, from every bond, free it from every curse. For thou art he who delivereth them that are bound, and guideth aright them that are cast down, O Hope of the hopeless. Wherefore, O Master, command that the soul of thy handmaiden, Laura, may depart in peace, and may rest in thine everlasting mansions with all thy Saints; through thine Only-begotten Son, with whom thou art blessed, together with thine all-holy, and good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.