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“Sing, People Of The Tower Of Anor!”

May 7, 2013

resurrection2One of my favorite audio clips, from a collection of recordings of J.R.R. Tolkien reading exerpts from The Lord Of The Rings, is from the chapter in Return Of The King, titled “The Steward And The King.” It is the scene where the great eagle delivers the news to Gondor that their king is victorious over the realm of Sauron:
“And before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a Great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying:

Sing now, ye people of the Tower of  Anor,
for the realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
and the Dark Tower has been thrown down.

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
or your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you all the days of your life.

And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.

Sing all ye people!

And the people sang in all the ways of the City.”

When I hear this read by J.R.R. Tolkien himself on a recording from before the books were published, I feel very moved. I wish I could share it with you, but alas, I am too cheap to upgrade my WordPress account.

The very obvious parallel is to the Hymn of the Resurrection during Paschal Matins:

“Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered; and let them who hate him flee from before his face. 

Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us. A new and Holy Pascha. A mystical Pascha, a Pascha worthy of veneration. A Pascha which is Christ, the redeemer. A blameless Pascha of the faithful. A Pascha which has opened for us the gates of paradise. A Pascha which sanctifies all the faithful. 

As smoke vanisheth so let them vanish away 

Come from that scene O women bearers of glad tidings and say to Zion: receive from us the glad tiding of joy of Christ’s resurrection: exult and be glad, and rejoice O Jerusalem, seeing Christ the king who comes forth from the tomb, like a bridegroom in procession. 

So the sinners will perish before the face of God, but let the righteous be glad. 

The myrrh bearing women at breaking of dawn drew near to the tomb of the life giver. There they found an angel sitting up on the stone, he greeted them with these words: Why do you seek the living among the dead? Why do you morn the incorrupt amid corruption? Go proclaim the glad tidings to his disciples. 

This is the day which the Lord hath made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it. 

Pascha of beauty! The Pascha of the Lord! A Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us! Pascha! Let us embrace each other joyously. Pascha, ransom from affliction! For today as from a bridal chamber Christ has shone forth from the tomb. And filled the women with joy saying: Proclaim the glad tiding to the Apostles!

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit: 

Both now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen. 

This is the day of Resurrection! Let us be illumined by the feast! Let us embrace each other! Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry: 

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life”

This is from the Praises in Tone 5, following Ode 9.

I don’t know about any of you, but after the words, “So let us cry:” followed by the solemn singing to the Paschal Troparion (Christ is Risen), I can’t sing the first few words because it chokes me up. It is such a powerful thought. Embrace one another, and our enemies, proclaiming Christ is Risen.

Far from a fictional set of Black Gates or Dark Tower, our Lord has broken Hades and despoiled it! This is the victory proclaimed by the “great eagle” of the Gospels, Scriptures, Church Fathers, Saints and Holy Tradition and Prayers. This victory we not only celebrate, we participate in it. But first we suffer:

“Yesterday I was buried with thee, O Christ. Today I arise with thee in thy resurrection. Yesterday I was crucified with thee. Glorify me with thee, with thee, O savior, in thy kingdom”

These words have an especially powerful meaning to me since my three daughters had in fact just died “yesterday” with Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism, and been raised again in His Resurrection. Having participated in His Crucifixion, they experienced the Glory of His Kingdom in the Eucharist. This is something they have been waiting for a long time. My younger two daughters would wonder into line for Communion before this, always to be disappointed with the reality that they had to wait. It was a pure joy to finally receive the Holy Body and Blood of Christ with them, instead of retrieving antidiron for them.

But not only was this particularly special because my girls were received into Holy Orthodoxy, I was able to fully participate in Holy Week like never before. This year I really felt the transition from Lent to Holy Week very sharply. It was more solemn, yet brighter. More intense, yet this made it the greater a joy. The participation is not just in a ceremony or ritual, but in the life of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. I could describe the physical setting of the candles, the low lights, the beauty of our parish singing as one choir, but that does not convey the joy and sorrow that Holy Week worked in me this year.

One of my goals is to help my girls find this joy in holy sorrow that leads to repentance (as St Paul tells us), that they may be able to proclaim the words of the Holy Pascha with the Church, from the heart.

Along with my three girls my parish received in 9 others; 2 whole families and one single man. Wait a joyous Pascha 2013 was for my family and I! So let me end this post with one of my favorite proclamations from the Paschal Matins:

“Rejoice, O Virgin, rejoice; rejoice, O blessed one; rejoice, O glorified one; for thy Son is risen from the tomb on the third day. 

O Christ, the perfect, most exalted Passover; O wisdom of god, his word and his power. Grant that we may partake of thee more perfectly, in thy kingdom’s day which setteth not. 

The angel cried out to the Lady full of grace: O Pure Virgin rejoice and again I say rejoice; behold thy son is risen from his three days in the tomb. 

O Shine, O Shine, O Shine thou new Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord is dawning upon thee. Exult and be glad O Zion, and O Virgin Theotokos, be radiant in the rising of thy Son.”


Christ Is Risen! Truly He Is Risen!

Orthodox Marriage & Its Misunderstanding- By: Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

April 16, 2013

Milk & Honey


The love that exists between a man and a woman is an important theme in many books of Scripture. The Book of Genesis, in particular, tells us of holy and pious couples, such as Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. A special blessing, bestowed on these couples by the Lord, was made manifest in the multiplication of their descendants. Love is praised in the Song of Songs, a book which, in spite of all allegorical and mystical interpretations in patristic tradition, does not lose its literal meaning.

The very attitude of God to the people of Israel is compared in the Old Testament with that of a husband to his wife. This imagery is developed to such an extent that unfaithfulness to God and idolatry are paralleled with adultery and prostitution. When St Paul speaks about marital love as the reflection of the love which exists between…

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Priestly Vestments

March 31, 2013

2000.06.11.31 I have been engaged with an ongoing discussion with a friend about the Papacy, the Catholic Church and the role of Tradition in our understanding of the Scriptures, and who has the authority to interpret them. The large portion of my friend’s opinion of Catholicism is shaped by the famous work of Alexander Hislop: “The Two Babylons” which is the go-to reference guide for all things anti-catholic. Beyond the litany of reasons why the new Pope and the Catholic Church will eventually usher in the one-world religion of the False Prophet in Revelation, my friend contends that the Pope is full of pride. The title “Vicar of Christ” is the main point of contention. But among the complaints not explicitly expressed by my friend, I am willing to guess that vestments and the like are a big part of that opinion.

Not on my friend’s radar, until I brought it up, is the Eastern Orthodox Church. But what does that have to do with my dialogue with my friend? Maybe nothing, but in my mind, I think any contentions Protestants have with the Catholic Church, they would level those at the Orthodox as well. One of the things that I associated with pride and pomp within the Catholic and Orthodox Church, were the vestments. Wasn’t all that stuff spoken against in Scripture? Did the early Church have any of that? If not, why do we have it now? Maybe my connection is a stretch, but if it is, forgive me.

When I first set foot in an Orthodox Church, my Protestant mind thought that all those vestments screamed, “Look at me! I have holiness and authority!” Forgive my ignorance, but that was the upbringing I had. I have come to see just how ignorant that mindset is/was. I have come to see that they are no such thing. They are not intended to make the priest or bishop “look holy” or “cool”. They are meant to draw people’s attention to Christ. Not only do they not point to the priest or bishop as such, they are put on with prayers and recitation of Psalms, in great humility. Fr Thomas Hopko does a 7-Part series on “Vesting For Liturgy” in his podcast called Worship in Spirit and TruthDefinitely worth the listen.

I also found a transcript of the prayers themselves:

   The priest blesses his own robe:

“Blessed is our God always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

He vests himself with the robe, saying:

“My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of gladness; as a bridegroom He has set a crown on me; and as a bride adorns herself with jewels, so He has adorned me.”

He blesses the stole, and says as he vests:

“Blessed is God, Who pours our His grace upon His priests, as myrrh upon the head, that runs down the beard, the beard of Aaron, that runs down the border of his robe.”

He blesses the belt, and says as he vests:

“Blessed is God, Who girds me with strength and makes my way blameless. He made my feet like hinds’ feet, and set me secure on the height.”

As he puts on the cuffs, he recites the following:

Right: “Thy right hand, O Lord, has been glorified in power. Thy right hand, O Lord, has shattered the enemies. In the greatness of Thy majesty Thou hast overthrown Thy adversaries.”

Left: “Thy hands have made and fashioned me. Give me understanding that I may learn Thy commandments.”

If he has been awarded the shield, he puts it on, saying:

“Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O Mighty One, in Thy comeliness and in Thy beauty. Go forth and prosper and reign, because of truth and meekness and righteousness. Thy right hand shall guide Thee wondrously always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

He blesses the chasuble (phelonion), and says as he vests:

“Thy priests, O Lord, shall clothe themselves with righteousness, and Thy saints shall rejoice with joy always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

The priest then washes his hands, saying:

“I wash my hands in innocence, and go about Thy altar, O Lord, singing aloud a song of praise, and telling all Thy miracles. O Lord, I love the beauty of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwells. Do not sweep my soul away with sinners, nor my life with blood-thirsty men, men in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes. But as for me, I walk in my integrity; deliver me, and have mercy on me. My foot stand on level ground; in the churches I will bless the Lord.”

Far from pomp and pride, these prayers are very humble. These prayers definitely give me an appreciation for my priest, my bishop, and the clergy in general. Far from being a position of “lording over people”, these vestments show them to be the “Servants of the Servants of God.”

One more resource I found interesting, is a link about the meaning of the color of vestment. It’s from a blog called Orthodox Christian Education. Not only does every symbol on the vestment point to Christ Himself, but the color of the vestments tell us what we are celebrating in our salvation and what season we are in. As with everything in our Church, we see the vestments as an icon of Christ, pointing us to Him; an icon of His extreme humility.

Preliminary Thoughts on the Eucharist, on Sola Scriptura and on Icons (Un-Protestantism 101)

March 29, 2013

This is a concise summary of what we Orthodox believe and how it differs from Protestantism. The author came from the same tradition as myself. His posts are well worth a read.

Luminous Darkness

The Eucharist

The center of the Faith, as we know from Scripture and from 1,500 years of Church history (i.e., until things changed during the Reformation for some Western Christians), is the Eucharist. All Christians gather together around the Body and Blood of Christ. The Liturgy revolves around it.

The liturgyEucharist is where our “eyes are opened” in the “breaking of the bread,” (Luke 24) for “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6).

That is why all the fathers of the Church, the very disciples of the apostles, emphasized it as such. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch (AD 50 –…

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Canon of St Andrew and Orthodox Worship

March 13, 2013

beforethycrossI was recently listening to a “children’s worship” song, from a VBS compilation. Here are a portion of the lyrics:

“Let’s sing about the LORD, the greatness of our God
For He’s the King of everything.
We’re wild about His love and all the He has done
For He’s the King of Everything.

I know God, I talk about Him every single day
I pray to Him at all times, He’s the only way
I love Him, He loves me, no matter where I go
And everything I do will be for God and God alone”

Something struck me as I heard these words. These are dishonest lyrics. What do I mean? Let me first share that these lyrics brought me back to another song that was a regular part of my “worship”, when I was an Evangelical, attending Calvary Chapel. Here are the words of the chorus:

Amazing love, how can it be
That you, my King, should die for me?
Amazing love, I know it’s true
And it’s my joy to honor You.
In all I do, I honor You.”

I will admit that the chorus I just shared and the song above have great truth in them. God is the King of Everything. He loves us, no matter what. It’s amazing to think that the King of all creation died for me, because of His love. There is no arguing with that. But here is the problem, a lot of what follows is not true about ME.

I remember when I first learned the words to Amazing Love, I sang it with joy. But then came the words “‘In all I do, I honor You.” I immediately realized I was obviously singing a lie. Truth be told, 1% of my actions, words and thoughts honoring God was a pretty exaggerated estimate of my piety (especially back then). I remember being sick to my stomach when I would sing those last words of the chorus. I simply stopped singing that line. While it is a joy to honor God, I rarely do it.

I had this conversation with my friend Jonathan, who posted about it on his blog, The Prayer Of Saint Ephrem. We talked about how innately dishonest the modern worship songs tend to be. Not because they are attempting to deceive people, or speak heresy, but because they seem to convey great lyrics, rather than great humility. My friend does a better job than I at communicating the conversation we had. We agreed that much of what is sung in the modern Praise and Worship genre suffers from emotionalism, egoism and a false sense of security in a one-time confession of Christ salvation.

This is obviously a broad overview and does not reflect the fact that there are many, many songs of deep, humble devotion to Christ and are not only based on Scriptural ideas, but are sometimes adaptations of Psalms. Even though I know that I desired to worship God in Spirit and Truth, and do not doubt the heart of anyone I worshipped with, I would always find myself saying to myself, “I sing these words, but they are not even close to being true in my life. Lord help me!” I found it distressing and discouraging

One thing my friend and I also both agreed on, was how refreshing we find our Orthodox worship to be. I should say Apostolic, because the Orthodox are not the only ones with such prayers and worship. I especially remember my first time attending the services with the Canon of St Andrew. I finally felt like I could connect with the prayers and hymns I was singing and hearing. These were not high ideals I hoped to one day live up to, these were broken-hearted confessions of failure to live up to even the least of God’s Commandments. These are pleas for God’s mercy. Refreshing, to say the least, and words I could finally say without feeling like a hypocrite.

Beside the specific beauty and humility of the Canon of St Andrew, my friend and I also mused on the more general humility in our weekly worship. We plea, “Lord have mercy” ceaselessly, as well as ask God to, “Grant this, O Lord.” The prayers of preparation for communion are humble as well. And I am always amazed by the prayers of the daily Matins, and their powerful exhortation to give up sinfulness and sloth, in favor of living a life in obedience to God.

I know that all prayers and hymns have an element to them that reaches for an ideal, and doesn’t necessarily reflect to lowly present state. Even the Psalms are full of such imagery and poetry. To be sure, I still have much hypocrisy in my life, but I no longer have the sense that my words of worship have no business coming out of my mouth. Yes, none of us is worthy to worship God in and of himself, but anyone can say the words, “Lord have mercy!”

With the Great Fast just a few days away, I am glad for these prayers and hymns during the Bright Sorrow.

Of Roast Mutton And Unmasked Conspiracies

March 9, 2013

britain-ireland-sea_25698_600x450.jpgI was recently thinking about the beauty and wisdom of this season of preparation we are in for the Great Fast of Lent. I have been thinking about it more keenly than the last few Lenten seasons, because this Lent be the final countdown for the baptism of my three daughters on Great and Holy Saturday. I want to help them participate in the fast, but not just because we do it. I want them to understand the spirit and meaning of it. Unlike poor Bilbo, who was thrust into his adventure unexpectedly, we are prepared for our journey by degrees, much like Frodo and his “conspirator” friends.

The first of the three Parables that prepare us for Lent is the Parable of The Publican and the Pharisee. Beside the obvious lessons of the parable itself, (don’t trust in your own righteousness, don’t judge others, but rather stand in repentance and humility before God) the Church shows us that we are not to trust our own righteousness (“I fast twice a weak…”) by specifically telling us to not fast the usual two days during the week. Also, the icon of the parable itself shows us the final words of Christ, that if we humble ourselves we will be exalted, but if we exalt ourselves, we will be humbled. And just when we are tempted to judge the pharisee, we are reminded that even though we are just as arrogant as he, we are not even nearly as righteous.

The second parable is the parable of The Prodigal Son. We are shown the reality of our lives to be that of the prodigal son, who took what was given by his Father, wasted it and returned to him in humility, only to received warmly. The prodigal son himself seems to me to be an expanded illustration of the Publican, from the prior parable. Realizing what a sinful state he is in, he returns to the Father in humility, expecting nothing, but receiving everything. But even if we have not gone astray, we have the prodigal’s brother as a warning. We need to rejoice at the repentance of others, not judge them. I like that Jesus leaves the parable open-ended. He doesn’t say whether he relented and went in to the feast, or whether he refused. Or, even if he refused to rejoice that night, did he finally come around? Just as Jesus never gave us the answer in the story, He leaves the ending up to us. What will we choose? Unlike their father, my girls have not lived foolishly like the prodigal, but are like the faithful son. I make it a point to show them that they have a place in the parable too. That they have access to all that is the Father’s, and that they should not deprive themselves of it by not forgiving others (especially each other).

Thirdly is the Parable of The Last Judgement. In this parable I learn that every person is a living icon of Christ, and that how I treat them is really how I treat Him. A great reflection of this parable stated that goats and sheep act in opposite manners, in relation to their owners: Sheep follow their master, rely of him (or her) and give back in the form of of wool and milk, while goats are willful, eat whatever they can get their mouths on, and are generally takers. What’s more, given the opportunity, they can lead a sheep into a dangerous area. For, while a goat is quite nimble and sure0footed, sheep (domestic sheep) are not suited for rocky environments.  What a fitting picture of the two camps we could potentially be in. What a reminder to my family and I, that whenever we encounter our neighbor, we not only encounter ourselves, but Christ.

Lastly is the Sunday of Forgiveness. I have to admit, due to my work schedule, I have not been able to be at Church on any of these Sundays (I am a fireman) since I have begun attending Orthodox services (catechumenate, as well as after baptism). The Sunday of Forgiveness is one I am particularly looking forward to. Forgiveness Vespers sounds like a wonderful way to begin the Lenten Struggle; for this is the crux of the matter: forgive, as you are forgiven. I don’t know exactly what to expect (other than what I have been told about it), but I am excited for myself and my girls.

When I piece the flow of the preparation for Lent together, I see it as one, powerful exhortation: We should not congratulate ourselves on our own righteousness and look down upon others, but remember that we are sinners, who have squandered the Father’s gifts to us, and are in need of repentance. Even if we do not stray from God, we should rejoice at the repentance of our brothers and sisters, and not refrain from the feast out of jealousy. More important than all the acts of religious piety, is to see Christ in everyone around us, and to treat them accordingly, not withholding our hand of mercy in time of need. Finally, we are to forgive. Forgive from the heart and let the burden of offenses done to us, or by us, be left at the foot of the Cross. I hope that my life and my words communicate that truth to my daughters. Obviously I need to learn it for myself first, but in doing so, I want to take seriously the charge to nurture them in the most holy faith.

A great podcast that speaks about the preparation period before Lent begins, and communicating that to our children and youth, is called Raising Saints. The three most recent podcasts (Parables that prepare Parts 1&2 and Teaching Why We Fast) are particularly excellent, and illustrate what I have said in this post with far more eloquence and simplicity. More than all the rules of fasting itself, is the need to pass on the spirit of the fast and how it leads us to reliance on God’s grace, focuses our attention on prayer and showing the love of God to others, in a way that is a little more deliberate than we might be prone to do most of the year. As we teach this to them, we are bound to learn it for ourselves.

Illustrating this point of not viewing the fast as a food restriction only, is a statement my oldest daughter made when she heard someone say how people act distraught, when they realize Lent is almost upon us. She said, “How can anyone not be excited about Lent? It leads to Pascha!” She doesn’t know it, but she gets it. The joy of the journey is in the destination. If we miss the opportunity to draw nearer to God, be kind to others, pray, etc, etc, because we are focused on staying away from foods and being bitter about it, then we have missed everything. Even worse, as I realized this past Wednesday, when I found myself speaking ill of others and acting like a general grump while fasting, we participate in the “fast of demons.” Not that we can’t repent, but it’d disappointing to realize that I have missed the point entirely.

Even though, regardless of whether or not this journey is simply thrust upon us or not, it is still fraught with danger, as were the journeys of Bilbo and Frodo, we are given this wonderful heart-check before Great Lent. I am truly grateful for the wisdom God has given us in His Church. Maybe it’s just the excitement (as I mentioned before) of knowing my this is the final countdown to my girls being received into the Church, but I relish this season of preparation more than before.

One final note. I know that in past posts I have mentioned that my wife has chosen not to convert with us. I have also mentioned that, following my spiritual father’s wisdom and guidance, I came into the Church a little over a years ago, though no on else did at the time. This has been a challenge for us as a family, but, through patience, grace and love, God has brought us through to a good place. While my wife is still not interested in converting with us, she has been excited with me about the girls being received this coming Pascha. What’s more, she is going to participate with us in the fast, though the Presbyterian Church she works at is fasting on the Western calendar. I am blessed by her willingness to participate with us and for her supportiveness during this time.  This season is and has been a great preparation for our whole family.

God grant us strength for this Lenten journey, which is about to begin…

Misty Mountains

January 18, 2013

I took my girls to see the new Hobbit movie a few weeks ago. When this song came on, my 7 year old said, “Daddy, that sounds like our songs at the Orthodox Church!”
I have been hearing my 3 year old chanting “Allelujah” around the house lately too.
I love that we sing our prayers in Church, as well as speak them. I don’t know if my three girls get everything they hear during the Liturgy, or other services. Whenever I hear them singing the hymns of the Church though, I hear their love for the things of Christ.