Entries with tag sacraments .

“Why Good Priests Matter”

I lost my patience recently. Then, I lost my temper. These are two things that I rarely experience, and, as self-flattering as this pronouncement may appear, they are behaviors I would like to believe would not be associated with me by those who know me. Yet, under the escalating weight of a host of professional demands and other pressures that had been building for several weeks, I reacted with anger and indignation at two young men, both of whom are my juniors in age and station, and both of who unfairly suffered my misdirected frustration. My immediate embarrassment and my subsequent apology to these two young men were genuine and sincere, but I remained very upset and disappointed with myself. I shared my distress with a Greek Orthodox priest and friend who himself was privy to the situation that had produced my pique. In so doing, I was reminded why priests—good priests—matter.

I have been a steward, and, in some cases, a parish council member, of Greek Orthodox communities in places as diverse as a predominantly working-class, immigrant parish in an industrial city in northern Indiana; an enormous suburban church in New Jersey; an affluent, professional congregation in Manhattan; and a large, once-thriving parish in a Boston area town. One thing that I found to be a constant in all of these different congregations was the decisive, determinant role that the priest played in shaping the life and character of the parish community. Priests clearly at peace with themselves and happy with their pastoral ministry tended to lead communities that were united, whole, and spiritually alive. To what extent each—priest or parish—had either a positive or negative influence on the other could be debated. Nonetheless, what was clear and recurrent in my experience was the simple, and perhaps not surprising, fact that priests who were in harmony with their calling not only deepened the unity and well-being of their parishes, but, in those instances where churches had experienced strife, they were able to restore health and love to their communities. Conversely, priests in personal crisis, whose calling was imperiled, inexorably exported their own crises into their parishes.

We are all “priests.” Indeed, Orthodox Christianity proceeds from the understanding that inasmuch as the whole body of the faithful—His Church—forms a holy and royal priesthood, we, the people of God, are all priests. Nonetheless, it is recognized from the time of the Apostles that within the universal priesthood of believers there is a special, sacramental priesthood, hence the distinction between clergy and laity. The sacramental priest—known originally and formally as presbyteros (from “elder,” as in the Jewish rabbinic tradition)—is established through the sacrament of ordination. Ordination, which invests a new priest with the ecclesial authority to administer sacraments, is performed by a bishop, with the consent of the people of God—meaning, in practice, a congregation which completes the ordination by shouting “Axios, Worthy!”

Dispensing the sacraments—holy rites, mysteries, in which Orthodox Christians experience the reality of God through the enacting of His Grace—are the exclusive responsibility and prerogative of the priesthood. Nonetheless, the effectiveness and fullness of the sacraments are not dependent on the personal virtue or character of the administering priest. Precisely because the sacraments are understood to constitute the presence of Christ acting through the Holy Spirit, the priest, despite considerable popular misunderstanding among Orthodox faithful (and even among some priests), is neither a vessel nor an intermediary between God’s Grace and God’s people. Instead, Orthodox teaching explains that the priest is an icon of Christ. His role is weighty, a fact reflected in every aspect of a priest’s life, both public and private, both pastoral and non-ministerial.

The priesthood is a calling, meaning a dedication to a way of life, not merely a chosen profession. In short, this means that a man has been called by God to commit his life to serve God’s Grace. The priest assumes throughout his life the responsibility of uniting all the people of God together in Christ and sacramentally manifesting the presence of Christ in the Church.

In carrying out his calling, the ordinary parish priest must do extraordinary things: he must preach the message of Christ; promote love and peace; enrich the religious and theological literacy of his communicants; deepen his community’s understanding of the teachings of the Church; and foster awareness and respect for the Orthodox Church’s history and traditions. Furthermore, he has to accomplish all this in the midst of answering the day-to-day needs and demands and challenges of a parish community. Above all, the priest must live a life that is always unwaveringly centered on Christ’s love, and that is consistent with the principles, morality, and ethics he—the priest—preaches. I recall from my youth, a visiting priest at my parents’ Sunday table confiding to my sympathetic father that the priesthood is simultaneously both the greatest blessing and the greatest cross to bear. Truly, only a genuine calling can lead to the making of a priest capable of facing and fulfilling such imposing, yet stirring, responsibilities.

I have known many extraordinary priests. Few among us have not had our lives blessed or have not been inspired by a great priest. All the same, Orthodoxy correctly affirms that priests do not manifest the presence of Christ through their talents, charisma, knowledge, or other personal attributes, but through their sacramental function, which is not affected or influenced by a priest’s qualities. But what is also clear is that a priest’s imprint extends beyond his sacramental functions. In that sense, and in that sphere of life in the Church, we most often encounter the benefit and grace of a good priest.

The priest in whom I confided my recent story of pressure, anger, and regret is an extraordinary priest and a good man. He responded to me with this liberating Christian perspective:

Aleko, I understand. Just know that there is so much love in the world, that no matter what others say to us it can never diminish God's love for us. Try to focus and search for this love even in the most trying circumstances. You will see that you will find joy in even the uncomfortable times and with the most difficult people. God loves you, as do I.

In my friend priest’s earnest words to me I sensed the presence of Christ’s message of love, and so I was reminded of why good priests matter. Their commitment to live according to God’s love, along with their ability to fervently convey that love to the world, is what makes priests not only important, but also, good.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Searching for God in a World of Pokémon - Pop Culture Espresso Shots

I’m going to come out and say it: I totally love Pokémon Go.

I really do.

I’m a little embarrassed about it, but I can’t help it. I can’t help but open the app whenever I run out to the store or happen to be in a public area with restaurants and movies theaters. I just have to see if any of those little pocket monsters are anywhere nearby.

While the game has come under some criticism due to some users going to extremes of jumping out of moving cars and falling off cliffs in order to catch ‘em all, I actually think that the game has done a lot of good in some ways.

I’m not the first to suggest this. Some have pointed to Pokémon Go’s effect on an increase in neighborliness. Some have observed that people who might otherwise be stuck inside playing video games are actually going out into the light of day to play video games instead. And yet others have suggested that the game has led to an increase in people’s awareness of meaningful public spaces.

In his article on The American Conservative, Alexi Sargeant writes, “PokéStops fight back against the flattening of the cityscape. Players of the game are being trained to orient themselves towards the sort of monuments and ‘decorations’ that ennoble our habitat.” It is this re-enchanting quality of Pokémon Go that fascinates me most.

Most of the time, many of us are preoccupied with the concerns of this world: making money, saving for a house, getting schoolwork done, etc. We try to carve out a meaningful life for ourselves within the scope of what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame.”

Philosopher James K.A. Smith helpfully describes Taylor’s immanent frame as “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence.” This immanent frame suffocates all of us, regardless of what we believe. The immanent frame is concerned more with how we believe.

This means that even those of us who are Christians often believe in the same way as those who are not. We tend to think of our faith as that which leads to a meaningful life as opposed to that which gives us access to the transcendent reality of God’s Kingdom. Often our narratives of Orthodoxy are rooted in history (“Proclaiming the Truth since AD 33”) rather than eternity.

Indeed, the transcendent is something that tends to be lost on those of us who inhabit a world following the Enlightenment. While we may not go so far as the New Atheist types so as to say that only that which is “natural” is “real,” we often differentiate between the “earthly” and the “spiritual.” We very rarely see these things as able to coexist, or at least we are very uncomfortable with the idea of it.   

For example, while we can read the Old Testament and hear about God speaking to Moses through a burning bush, most of us would prefer that our bushes remain trimmed and quiet, not ablaze and speaking. And even if our bushes spoke to us, we would be more likely to assume that we were hallucinating, that we were either sick or dehydrated, in need of more rest, than we would be to assume that we are hearing from God Almighty.

This is what it means to be suffocating within the immanent frame. That our immediate reality is a closed system, cut off from participation in the transcendent here and now. Bread and wine are just bread and wine; any significance must be fabricated, “remembered” or “felt.” Things no longer are both earthly and heavenly. In the immanent frame, we all lose our sacramental imagination.

Enter Pokémon Go.

Using real world locations Pokémon Go leads users into to practice a crypto-sacramental way of inhabiting the world. Places can be both parks and Pokéstops. Gamers are able to practice keeping one foot squarely in the visible world while also looking beyond this world to see another one.

Now, I’m not saying that Pokémon Go is a gateway to the Kingdom of God, but I do think it has the capacity to form its users into being certain kinds of people, people who can imagine a world beyond our own, a world that cannot be seen but can nonetheless be experienced, touched in some way beyond the physical.

If turning on our phones and calling the local mall a “Pokégym” is possible, then it might be possible to grasp that the humble elements of bread and wine are also the very Body and Blood of Christ. If around every corner a Pikachu could be lurking, then it may be feasible to see a ragtag group of people as the very manifestation of God’s Kingdom.

Pokémon Go has filled the world with wonder again, and people now inhabit the world differently than they did two months ago. And while Pokémon Go may not be the goal of our journey toward God’s Kingdom, perhaps we can acknowledge it as a divine Pokéstop of sorts, where we are able to pick up some tools as we practice inclining our hearts toward the invisible God who became a human being in order to catch us all.

Photo Credits:

House Pokémon: Depositphotos

Mall Pokémon: Depositphotos

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his first MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Three Common Misconceptions about Confession

“Why can’t I just confess my sins to God, alone? Why do I have to talk to a priest about them?”

You’ve probably heard, and maybe even asked, these questions about Confession. It’s a sacrament that is misunderstood by many people, including many Orthodox. Growing up as a Baptist, I didn’t understand the role of Confession. I thought that people confessed because they didn’t trust that God could forgive them, that they could somehow only receive pardon from a priest instead of from God.

Once I became Orthodox, in my teens, I discovered that this warped vision of Confession was based on my own misunderstanding about sin. Subconsciously, I had seen sin as breaking one of the rules of Christianity’s long list of dos and don’ts. But the Orthodox Church doesn’t see sin as the breaking of a rule, a violation that needs a pardon. Instead, it sees sin as sickness that needs healing.

So our whole approach to Confession and healing from sin becomes less about “who can pardon my sin” and more about “what spiritual medicines has God given us to heal?”

Confession is one of the gifts that God has given us through the Church. So let’s look at three common misconceptions about Confession, and the Church’s answer to each.

1. “Can’t I just pray to God by myself?”

Yes, you can! We have a God who desires an intimate relationship with each of us. There is no longer any dividing wall between us and Him (Ephesians 2:14). He has torn the curtain that once separated the Holy from His people (Matthew 27:51). We no longer need Israelite priests to atone for sin through sacrifices, because Christ offered Himself for all of us (Hebrews 7:27, John 3:16). Now, we can approach God the Father directly.

Each day, we can approach God and ask forgiveness for our shortcomings. Like we talked about in “Three Things that Make Faith Personal (Yet Not Private)”, our personal spiritual lives work together with the spiritual life of the community. Just as we are called to ask forgiveness from God and pray our personal prayers at home, we are also called to come to Confession and to pray together in the Liturgy. It isn’t “either, or” when it comes to personal repentance and Confession; it’s “both, and”. The two build off of and support one another.

For our daily personal repentance, we have the blessing to use the prayers of the Church from prayer books, the Psalms, and our own words spoken to God from our heart. One of the great psalms of repentance is Psalm 50 (51). Steve talked about this psalm and how it helps us get in the right spirit for Confession.

Repentance should be a daily part of our lives. Like we discussed last week, forgiving others and asking for forgiveness are the results of living lives of honesty and self-reflection. When we take this process seriously, living each day to grow closer to Christ and to those around us, it’s easier to be more aware of our sin and to trust in God’s mercy.

And since self-reflection is so important, we need to be sure we see ourselves clearly. There are a lot of lies we tell ourselves over and over again, without realizing it. We try to balance between humility and self-deprecation, pride and healthy self-esteem. So when we’re alone praying to God about the sins we struggle with, it’s all too easy to focus on some things and ignore others. We might not have the vision to clearly see where our struggle really lies and why we keep repeating the same things time and again.

So yes, we can talk to God directly. Yet we also need help to fully examine our hearts. We need someone more experienced than ourselves to guide us back on the path to Christ.

2. “Ok, but do I really need to confess my sins to a priest?”

“After all, doesn’t God forgive me when I confess my sins to Him directly?” Absolutely, but repentance is more than simply asking for forgiveness; it is about a real change in our life and a return to God.

It’s easy to make promises to God in the quiet of our own rooms. Promises that we later break. Confession helps us to open up, like opening up a window that we have kept closed for far too long. When we come out of our isolation and shed light on our struggles before another person, we’re able to see ourselves more clearly in the light.

Scripture reminds us that our repentance isn’t really a private affair. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). There’s something special that happens when we open up to someone we trust. We don’t go to just anyone to talk about personal things, and that’s why we don’t confess to just anyone in the Church. We speak with a priest because he’s trained to guide us back to the path towards Christ. He is trained to listen to us without judgment and to give us the advice we need to make lasting change in our lives.

It’s recommended to go to Confession with one priest (like we have a primary healthcare provider), so that he will better know how to help you in your personal struggles. If you aren’t comfortable with that yet, just find a priest you are comfortable with and make an appointment with him.

Aside from being a time for pastoral advice, Confession is a sacrament. It’s a moment when God gives us grace in a unique way, through the prayers and blessing of a priest. Because we don’t actually confess to a priest. We confess before a priest. The priest facilitates our connection to God rather than offer grace or healing by himself.

3. “Ok, so when should I go to Confession?”

That’s a hard question to answer in the abstract, without knowing a person directly (and that’s why having a spiritual father is such an important part of our lives in Christ). Yet what’s clear is that when we’re sick, we go to the doctor. When we feel burdened by our actions or thoughts, we go to Confession.

Different traditions apply this rule in different ways. In some Orthodox countries, it’s common to go to Confession once a week. In others, people usually go during the fasting periods of the Church, especially during Lent, Dormition Fast, and Nativity Fast. We go to Confession during fasting periods because these are times of increased vigilance and focus on our relationship with God and with those around us.

However often you end up going to Confession, depending on the advice of your spiritual father, keep this in mind: Confession is like getting a health check-up before a sports season, cleaning the house before an important visitor comes, or getting a haircut before going to see family you haven’t seen in a while. They’re things we might not want to do initially, but the results pay off and we’re better off in the end.

*****

If not taking Communion is like running a race without food or water, then not going to Confession is like ignoring the doctor’s office when you have a life-threatening disease. Confession is something each of us needs, and probably more often than we’re getting it. And it works together with personal prayer and repentance, not in replacement of them. 

Do you regularly go to Confession? If not, what keeps you away? Does fear or pride keep you from the healing grace of Jesus Christ?

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

 

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Reconsidering the Sacramental Break Between East and West: Canons, Crusades, and Context

Orthodox Christians living in the United States are generally aware of the fact that outsiders cannot receive the sacraments of the Orthodox Church.  The only exception to this rule—and it is a recent exception—is that Christians from other traditions can marry an Orthodox Christian in a ceremony led by an Orthodox priest or bishop so long as the incoming partner has been baptized in the name of the Trinity.  In canonical terms, this exception is precisely that—an exception made on account of pastoral necessity (i.e. oikonomia), it is not a change in dogmatic policy.  But that begs the question, how exactly did it come to pass that the Orthodox Church forbid sacramental union (baptisms, marriages, the Eucharist, etc.) with Western Christians in the first place?  A careful reading of the historical sources reveals that the canonical grounds for refusing sacraments to Western Christians are more tenuous than most recognize.  Equally problematic is the extent to which the modern reflection on these canonical and ecumenical questions has been hindered by a combination of intellectual stagnation and an ecclesiastical super-structure that, in the post-Byzantine world, has largely failed to resolve important theological questions.

The Ecumenical Councils and writings of the Church Fathers that form the basis for Orthodox canon law all predate the schism between East and West by hundreds of years.  As a consequence, specific canonical interpretations about the legitimacy of the Western Christian traditions (and whether or not any Western doctrines qualify as “heresy”) are always an attempt to adjudicate a theological question on the basis of older, pre-existing regulations that were prompted by different theological concerns.  Thus, even the most well-known questions that differentiated the Orthodox and Roman Catholics in the Middle Ages (such as filioque or Purgatory) were never explicitly addressed by canon law.  The one exception to this, of course, is the debate over papal authority but there are so many conflicting canonical precedents dating to the fourth and fifth century that the appeal to canon law in this regard has always failed to resolve the issue.

Because the application of canon law is an exercise in interpretation, it is important to note that the very history of interpretation can be almost as important as the actual canonical regulations because it is through the process of interpretation that a legislative ideal becomes a practical reality.  And it is here, in the Byzantine interpretation of canon law, that we find the initial interpretive precedents that prevent sacramental union with Western Christians.

Although the Byzantine period was rich in canonical reflection, there was only one interpreter, Theodore Balsamon, who explicitly forbids giving the Eucharist to “Latins.” Balsamon was Chartophylax (i.e. head of the canonical court in Constantinople) during the latter part of the twelfth century.  Responding to a specific question from the Patriarch of Alexandria about whether or not Orthodox clerics could give the Eucharist to Latin soldiers who had been captured in battle, Balsamon judged that they should not unless the prisoners were willing to renounce those doctrines and customs “that are different from ours.” Balsamon did not offer any specific theological reason.  The contextual key to understanding Balsamon’s unprecedented ruling, of course, is the fact that he was writing during the Crusades, when cultural and political animosity between Eastern and Western Christians were reaching their peak.  Balsamon was, himself, personally affected by the Latin colonization of the Eastern Mediterranean—he was elected Patriarch of Antioch in 1185 but was never able take possession of his See because Antioch was, at that time, a Crusader kingdom.

The second influential medieval canonist who took up questions concerning sacramental union with the Latins was Demetri Chomatenos, who was Archbishop of Ochrid during the 1220’s.  With respect to the Eucharist or even praying alongside Latins during a worship service, Chomatenos’ record is mixed.  He discouraged monks on Mt. Athos from communing with any monastic houses that commemorated the bishop of Rome (Ponemata #54), but he may have also judged (the authorship is disputed) that each Orthodox bishop is able to decide for himself whether or not he will give the Eucharist to Latins (Response to Constantine Cabasilas). The fact that these questions were even put to him at this time, approximately 170 years after the schism of 1054, demonstrates the extent to which there was a great variety of opinion and practice (even among monastic communities) with respect to Western Christians.  Perhaps the most problematic and precedent-setting of Chomatenos’s rulings, however, concerns marriage and divorce.  In the wake of the Crusader capture of Constantinople in 1204, many Byzantine aristocratic families aligned themselves with the Latin ruling party rather than the various factions of Greek resistance.  For the case in question (Ponemata #22), a leading member of the resistance sought an ecclesiastical divorce from his wife on the grounds that her father had hidden his allegiance to the Latins and that she had, in sympathy to her father’s cause, attempted to poison him after the marriage.  Chomatenos grants the divorce, arguing that it could never have been a legal marriage in the first place because the wife had not entered it in good faith.  To be sure, this was a divorce between two Orthodox Greeks.  Nevertheless, the ruling (wrongly) served for a long time as a canonical precedent that prevented Orthodox/Catholic marriage on the grounds that such a marriage could not be entered in good faith.

There is far more at stake in revisiting these episodes than simply bringing to light little-known canonical opinions from the era of the Crusades.  At stake are the very foundations of modern Orthodox assumptions about the restrictions preventing sacramental unity with Western Christians, especially Roman Catholics.  Historians have long known that the pronouncements of excommunication leveled by papal and patriarchal officers in 1054 had little practical impact on sacramental co-mingling between Latins and Greeks in areas with mixed populations (including Mt. Athos). But the implementation of a canonical interpretation was of a different order than a general excommunication because it had the potential to exert real change in the way that Christianity was lived by ordinary people. It is precisely for this reason that the canonical opinions of Balsamon especially, but also Chomatenos, are so important for the subsequent development of Orthodox posture vis-à-vis the West. 

It is often asserted in populist histories of the Byzantine Church that it was the Crusades, not the Schism of 1054, that caused the permanent rift between Christian East and Christian West.  The role played by Crusade-weary Balsamon and Chomatenos partially  bears-out such a thesis.  But it should be noted that the real impact of Balsamon and Chomatenos’ rulings was not felt during the Byzantine period when the Patriarchs of Constantinople typically pursued efforts of reconciliation with Western Christians.  Rather, it was in the wake of the Ottoman captivity of the Orthodox Church, beginning in the fifteenth century, when Ottoman sultans deliberately selected anti-unionist clerics to lead the Christian community that these Crusade-era canonical restrictions against sacramental union with Western Christians began to take hold in the Orthodox imagination.  With the collapse of Byzantium, the richness and varied nature of Orthodox canonical debate gradually fell into a steep decline—a decline from which it has never recovered.  And it was in this period of intellectual decline that Balsamon’s legacy gained a disproportionate hold on subsequent canonical assumptions in Orthodox canon law.  As an example, we might note that in the year 1484 the Church of Constantinople (under pressure from the Ottoman government) passed a conciliar decree officially adopting Balsamon’s restriction against sharing the Eucharist with Latins.  That conciliar degree remains in effect today.

To be clear, there are theological questions that will need to be addressed before sacramental unity can be restored.  But it is truly unfortunate that Balsamon’s and Chomatenos’ canonical opinions, which now dominate our approach to Western Christianity, both failed to offer precise theological or canonical arguments for their proscriptions against sacramental unity.  Instead, these interpretations emphasize political and cultural animus against the Crusaders and those Greeks who conspired with them.  When we combine this lack of theological engagement with the fact that the Orthodox ecclesiastical structure has not successfully organized an authoritative gathering of its autocephalous members in more than twelve hundred years, one wonders when, or even if, the questions surrounding sacramental unity with Western Christians will receive the honest and prayerful treatment they deserve.

 

George E. Demacopoulos

Professor of Theology

Director, Orthodox Christian Studies Center

Fordham University

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