Living In and Through Sacred Time

At this time, John has begun writing his thesis, and wrapping up the last bit of data collection on the last (and, naturally, most challenging) chapter of said thesis. And of course, mechanical issues have arisen with our anaerobic chamber so that this data will not present itself willingly.

Kristen continues to heroically wrangle children who have clearly inherited their mom’s looks (praise God) and their dad’s temperament (Lord, have mercy). Charles Maximus will undergo outpatient surgery on February 28 to remove a branchial cleft cyst, which is a small pocket of cells on his neck that he has had since birth. The vet school has a program that provides small children with Josh, a stuffed Golden Retriever, who comes with a children’s book that explains the process of undergoing surgery at a level that small children can understand and (hopefully) be comforted.

We’re putting together a small book that will provide a visual outline of our work – who we are, what we hope to do in Mekelle (and why), how we hope to do it, and how others can partner with us and help us accomplish this vision. I fully expect that those reading this will see this presentation in the near future.

As we fulfill our duties in preparation for our move to Mekelle, we take joy and solace in the calendar’s reminder of those events that have already occurred in salvation history that we are called to relive and participate in on a cyclical basis. I can’t express how deeply participation in the calendar has helped me know Christ in unique and truly life-changing ways.

Two events this week stand out.

First, today (February 2) is exactly forty days after Christmas, and thus the day that the Torah requires firstborn sons be presented to the Lord in his Temple in Jerusalem. This event is recorded in Luke 2:22-40, in which St. Simeon, who was told he would see the Messiah before he dies, takes Jesus in his arms and proclaims:

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have beheld your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people. A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of your people Israel.

This morning I read two prophecies of this event in the Minor Prophets, which simply amazed me. The first was Haggai 2:1-9, in which Haggai is encouraging the Israelites to get off their butts and rebuild the temple now that they’ve returned from the exile in Babylon:

For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake the nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. . . . The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of  hosts.

In Malachi 3:1, we read, “And the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”

Ours is a God who keeps his promises.

intampinarea-domnului_greek

The icon of the Meeting of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple. Mary hands Jesus to Simeon, as Joseph and Anna look on.

The second event marks this week as the week of the Publican and the Pharisee, in preparation for Great Lent. This story, found in Luke 18:9-14, was read this past Sunday, as it is always read annually on the third Sunday before Great Lent.  Here, a Pharisee is praying, thanking God that he’s not like other, less pious people (because he fasts, tithes etc.), while a tax-collector stands quietly, beating his breast, and praying over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus finished this story: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one how humbles himself will be exalted.”

As we prepare for this great Fast (in which prayer and giving to the poor are amplified, and we eat no animal products, and less of everything else), we read this story to remind us that ascetic endeavor (or any other good thing we can do) avails us nothing without humility; that is, reliance on the mercy of God. Last week, with Zacchaeus, we saw that the first step towards our on-going reorientation toward and return to Jesus is our desire to see him; this week, we see that genuine and radical humility comes next. We also begin using the service book that leads us up to Pascha (Easter), which we call the Triodion. During morning prayers, we begin (and continue throughout Lent) singing:

Open unto me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life: for my spirit goes early to the temple of your holiness, coming in the temple of my body, wholly polluted. But because you are compassionate, purify me by the compassion of your mercies.

Icon-Publican-and-the-Pharisee-3

The icon of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Advertisements

The Orthodox Church and Mere Christianity

e98fc5d3f05160eead0d35d9c4845397--byzantine-icons-orthodox-icons

In our last post, we wrote about how we came to learn about and join the Orthodox Church. Today, we’re writing to explain what the Orthodox Church shares in common with other Christian churches, as well as unique aspects of the Orthodox Church that tend to stand out. Again, this is written from the perspective of our unique context, and written for our friends, family, and other potential supporters.

C.S. Lewis, in the preface to his book Mere Christianity, describes how he wrote this book “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” However, later in the preface he goes on to express his concern that readers might misconstrue this effort and “suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.” He goes on to describe a hall containing doors that open into a number of rooms. “Mere” Christianity can be found in the hall, which is “a place to wait in, . . . not a place to live in.” The rooms are the various Christian traditions and churches (where “there are fires and chairs and meals”), of which one must ultimately choose, if one is serious about following Christ.

Rooms may be chosen for a number of reasons – some good, some bad. Our reason for choosing the Orthodox Church, as we stated in last week’s post, was because we had become convinced that it offered the fullest, most thorough, most accurate means by which we might come to know, follow, and be united to Jesus Christ, eternally. Note that we do not say it offers the only way. We don’t dare make that presumption.

Mere Christianity

Here we will do our best to explain the hallway: the mere Christianity that Lewis describes in that fantastic book, from our perspective as relatively recent (~seven years) Orthodox Christians. If you’re really interested, we highly recommend that you peruse Mere Christianity itself (or read it again if it’s been a while).

We are firmly convinced that the most important question that Christians must be able to answer is that one that Jesus asks his disciples in the Gospels: “Who do you say that I am?” Understanding who Jesus is, is a necessary prerequisite to understanding what he has done, and what we are to do in response. The answer to this question is the foundation of “mere” Christianity.

This question predominated the first few centuries of Christian history, and was most significantly addressed in what are known as ecumenical councils. In these councils, bishops (and others) met to discuss debates about who Jesus is, as well as any number of other issues. Essentially all Christians agree with the fundamental conclusions of the first three ecumenical councils, which were held between 325 and 431 A.D. The most significant statement to come from those councils was the Nicene Creed (which we highly suggest you take the time to read, if you’re not familiar with it).

The fourth council, held in Chalcedon in 451, produced the first split of lasting significance in Christianity. The Chalcedonian Definition (another good read) contained the statement that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, that he was one person in two natures (i.e., human and divine), and that this occurs “without confusion, change, division, or separation.” What is commonly known as the Oriental Orthodox Church disagreed with this statement, believing that the concept of two natures was unacceptable (however, recent dialogue has indicated that this may be largely an issue of wording, rather than actual Christology). Essentially all Protestants, Roman Catholics, as well as Eastern Orthodox Christians, hold to the Chalcedonian Definition.

Thus, mere Christianity agrees that God has revealed himself as Trinity: three Persons, one in essence, and undivided; that Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity; and that Jesus is one in essence with us according to his humanity, and one in essence with God according to his divinity. In addition, we agree that the Son became human “for us men and for our salvation.” Salvation is a purpose and result of God becoming human, often referred to as the Incarnation.

Unique Aspects of the Orthodox Tradition

This section will be brief (there are much better treatments of all these topics in the resources listed in last week’s post). Our goal here is to address some of the most common questions people have about the Orthodox Church. Most of these arise because of differences in Catholic and Protestant thought – issues that have only come up as the Orthodox Church has had to interact with the debates of Western Christianity.

Scripture in Tradition

While Protestants hold to the doctrine that the authority of the Bible outranks tradition (Sola Scriptura; the Bible is the spring, and traditions are rivers that stream from it), and Catholics speak of two sources of authority in Scripture and Tradition (two rivers that weave together), Orthodox Christians tend to speak of Scripture in Tradition. Here, Tradition is the river, and the Scriptures are the current that drives the river.

For the Orthodox Church, authority comes from Jesus, and from what he taught his disciples, which they handed down to us. The Scriptures are the primary source for these teachings, but not the only source. One Orthodox bishop produced a helpful list (pp. 205-08) for prioritizing sources of apostolic teachings, such as councils, hymns, and the writings of the Church Fathers. Note that no teaching will contradict Scripture, but that these teachings are the means by which we correctly interpret Scripture.

Salvation

Salvation as typically presented by the Orthodox Church has two emphases: rescue, and theosis, or deification. The idea of rescue is manifested by the hymn we sing over and over at Easter: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

Theosis is the idea that as we become increasingly more like Jesus, we become increasingly more like God (since Jesus is God). Thus salvation is being rescued from death by Christ’s death and resurrection, and subsequently becoming increasingly like him for eternity, because he became like us first. It is not becoming God; just as we cannot become Jesus by becoming more and more like him (or anyone else, for that matter), we cannot become God by becoming more and more like him.

This is one of my favorite Orthodox prayers, asking God to save us.

The Sanctification of Matter

The sanctification of matter is the fundamental explanation for a number of unique teachings and practices in the Orthodox Church. When the immaterial God became a human being (i.e., matter), it changed what it means to be matter. Matter became a vehicle that God uses to bless us, and we can experience his grace through material things. This includes the matter that comprises the sacraments (e.g., water, oil, bread, wine, etc.), visual depictions of Christ and his saints (typically called icons), even the bodies of devout believers who have died (called relics).

It also ties into why we honor the saints in the Orthodox Church. What we’re doing when we honor the saints is drawing attention to the myriad ways that individuals throughout history have allowed Christ to shine through them. The golden circle that surrounds a saint (their halo) in an icon is meant to represent the uncreated light of Christ shining through that person.

15334022087_ee08fbd519_b

We realize that this is barely skimming the surface of this immense topic. Please feel free to contact us if you have questions or concerns; we’re glad to talk, and aren’t easily offended. I (John) plan to discuss the concept of the sanctification of matter, along with humanity’s role in creation (especially as that pertains to veterinarians and their patients), in future posts.

e98fc5d3f05160eead0d35d9c4845397--byzantine-icons-orthodox-icons

What is the Orthodox Church (and Why Did We Join It)?

IMG_0131

The Coatneys at Pascha 2017.

I’m writing today’s post in response to a handful of inquiries from friends who have expressed a desire to come alongside us in support of our work, but aren’t sure what it means for us to have joined the Orthodox Church. In some cases, friends (understandably) want to know where we (and the Orthodox Church) stand in terms of our Christian faith before they can make the decision as to whether to support us.

This is much too large a topic to cover adequately in a (relatively) brief blog post. I’ve decided to cover this in two posts; in this post, my goal is to explain how I (John) learned about the Orthodox Church, why it appealed to me, and how Kristen came on board, after some hesitation. Next week I’ll discuss what the Orthodox Church shares in common with other Christian churches, as well as some of the things that members of other traditions identify as being unique to the Orthodox tradition.

Again, my purpose here is to introduce the Orthodox Church to our (potential) supporters. Thus it is a contextual introduction, written from our unique experience of the Orthodox Church, to those in their own contexts, which tend to be evangelical and/or Church of Christ, or agnostic/atheist/none. It is not an encyclopedic, comprehensive introduction, nor is it meant to disparage other Christian traditions. I will provide links at the end of the post to resources for those interested in learning more.

How We Discovered the Orthodox Church

IMG_2134

Charlie at our home’s prayer corner.

When I was in Iraq in 2008-09, I would attend Sunday worship services based on my schedule, the location of the service, and how I was feeling. On a whim, I decided to attend the Orthodox Liturgy. It was led by Fr. Stephan, an Air Force Chaplain, with three Iraqi women who worked on base as translators and one service member (besides me) in attendance. Even in its simplicity (e.g., a folding table and two chairs on which sat two small icons), two things struck me: the beauty of the service, and the Scriptural foundation of the prayers. I was intrigued, and Fr. Stephan was gracious enough to spend the next few months teaching me about the Orthodox Church.

I learned that the Orthodox Church claims apostolic succession, as do the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church (the Orthodox and Roman churches split in 1054 for reasons I’ll discuss next time). This means that the bishops of the church were ordained (by the laying on of hands) by earlier bishops that go all the way back to the laying on of hands by the Apostles in the first century. The claim is also meant to affirm that these bishops have consistently maintained the same faith held by the apostles (I will discuss what that means in the subsequent post).

I also learned that the Orthodox Church is conciliar; i.e., decisions are made by groups of bishops in council, and then approved or rejected by the entire Church following these councils. Because decisions are preferably made at the most local level, the Church has developed along ethnic and linguistic lines, such that the Greek Church, the Russian Church, the Antiochian (e.g., Syrian and Lebanese) Church, etc., come together to make up the (Eastern) Orthodox Church. In the U.S. and other countries in which the Orthodox Church is not native, the situation is further complicated: as Orthodox Christians have immigrated to these areas, they have brought their own priests and bishops who speak their own native language and are accustomed to their native traditions (which are not necessarily part of the greater Orthodox Tradition).

Thus in the U.S., for example, we might have Greek, Serbian, and Romanian churches under the jurisdiction of three different bishops in the same city. Efforts are being made to determine how the Orthodox Church might be unified in these areas, so that there might one day be an American Orthodox Church, an Australian Orthodox Church, etc. However, this is likely still a very long way from being realized.

Now, I had learned about the Roman Catholic Church in a similar manner when I lived in Vicenza, Italy, and while that had given me a much greater and more nuanced appreciation for Catholicism, I had not been compelled to consider membership in the Catholic Church. Like many people, I sort of (mis)understood the Orthodox Church to be the eastern version of the Roman Catholic Church, so I was quite surprised when I found certain Orthodox practices appealing, especially as I struggled with being in Iraq, and being away from my wife during our first year of marriage. I began to adopt some Orthodox practices, such as praying from an Orthodox prayer book (and primarily from the book of Psalms), incorporating icons into my prayers, and routine fasting.

I felt a profound connection to Christians throughout history, and learned a great deal about Christians who had been killed as a result of their faith (something particularly compelling as I met a number of Iraqi Christians who had friends and family members in this group). I began to realize that being part of this body would likely have profound effects in terms of knowing Christ better and becoming more like Him.

Unfortunately, Kristen was back in Chicago, hearing me talk about what I was learning and experiencing, but unable to relate to what I was going through, and especially how Orthodox worship and practices were helping me cope. When I got back to Chicago, we began to attend All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church. Kristen was (understandably) uncomfortable with many of the unique aspects of the Orthodox Church (to be discussed in next week’s post), and was hesitant about joining. After about two years of observing these practices, and getting to know many who observe them, she acknowledged that these people loved Jesus and worshipped God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone. At this point, she recognized, along with me, that the Orthodox Church offered the most compelling means by which we could follow Christ, and become increasingly more like Him. As I had already joined the Church on September 14, 2010, she followed on Pascha (Easter), 2012.

IMG_1032

Charles Maximus (the screaming one) and two others being presented following their baptisms. (Photo by Steve Kellar)

Again, I’ll discuss my understanding of similarities and differences between the Orthodox Church and other churches in our next post; in the meantime, here are some potentially helpful resources for those interested:

Additional References

Be the Bee

This is a fantastic series of 5-10 minute videos, put out by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministries, about how Orthodox Christians are to live out our faith. There is also a playlist of selected videos specifically curated to act as an introduction to the Orthodox Church.

If you’re going to watch just one of these videos, watch this one.

Books

Welcome to the Orthodox Church, by Frederica Mathewes-Green

My favorite introduction, but perhaps a little long. There is another that is a little shorter, and considered the classic introduction.

A Journey of Fear and Joy, by Oswin Craton

Written by a former member of the Restoration movement, this does a very good job of showing where the Orthodox Church is similar, and where it differs from the churches of Christ. It is written from the perspective of someone who has decided that the Orthodox Church fulfills many of the goals that the Restoration movement sought to achieve, so it’s worded somewhat strongly in some places.

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick (also a podcast)

This book is intended to show similarities and differences (from an Orthodox perspective) between the Orthodox Church and other traditions (both Christian and non-Christian).

Podcasts, Etc.

Ancient Faith Radio

Part of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, there are a plethora of great (free) resources here.