Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Byzantine Gospel Tract


Several years ago, the Melkite Patriarch expressed the need for us to communicate the gospel in an uncomplicated way. He understood how complex our faith could be and recognized that other religions have an advantage over us in this regard. Over the years, I have thought about what he said and have tried to discover ways that we Byzantines can communicate our faith effectively. The following Gospel tract (trifold) is one of those ways. I took the following three points that we emphasize in our tradition:(incarnation, the victory over death, partaking of the divine nature) and presented them in a simplistic way. The tract is geared toward the unchurched person, so I tried to avoid any inclusive church language. Typically, in our culture people recognize that Christians use the bible as an authoritative source, so I reference the bible in that fashion. I presented the points in the tract so that the person reading can make a decision to accept what Christ has done for them.  However, unlike what is seen in most protestant tracts there is no prayer to accept Jesus as the savior. Saying that kind of prayer might be a good start, but I truly believe that God communicates the fullness of his love only through the Church, so I make the final point about seeking membership in a Catholic Church. This tract I hope can be a good guide for a brief presentation of our faith. You never know who might pick it up and start the journey of faith. Its fully editable if you want to change the content. I am using them for my parish so you might want to change the back if you are going to use them for yours. I know there are better ways to do this but if you can use this feel free to download the Microsoft publisher version (here) or pdf  version (here).




















Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Argument of Ancestral sin vs Original sin


When I first started studying Byzantine theology I was deceived. I believed in a false tradition called Ancestral Sin. The term itself is not false, many fathers use the term. What is false is how some Eastern Christians have used it in the past 50yrs. The term at some point was hijacked by a tradition of apologetics that is based in the Orthodox Church. It’s now used to contrast what is called Original sin, which is said to be an invention of St. Augustine. The argument states: “the Eastern Church, unlike its Western counterpart, never speaks of guilt being passed from Adam and Eve to their progeny, as did Augustine. Instead, it is posited that each person bears the guilt of his or her own sin”. The problem with this argument is that it’s totally dishonest.

The dishonesty for this argument is found in the assumptions it makes. First, there is the huge assumption that the argument represent all of the Eastern Church. As I said, the argument represents a tradition of apologetics and not the Eastern Church. Next, there is the assumption that the Western Church was the only one to have a doctrine of inherited guilt. It’s true that St. Augustine developed “original guilt” far more systemically than any Church Father in the West. On the other hand, even the noted Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware himself admitted “the notion of an inherited sinfulness can be found, at any rate in a rudimentary form, in more than one Greek writer”. Last of all, there is the assumption that the Western Church had only one way of understanding sin. It might be true that St. Augustine played a major role in the catechesis of the West, but this catechesis was by no means universal. In fact, the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church leaves the notion of inherited guilt total open. In terms of inherited guilt, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following, “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand(404)”.

This dishonest argument is usually further exaggerated with the following distinctions: “the doctrine of ancestral sin naturally leads to a focus on human death and Divine compassion as the inheritance from Adam, while the doctrine of original sin shifts the center of attention to human guilt and Divine wrath. It is further posited that the approach of the ancient church points to a more therapeutic than juridical approach to pastoral care and counseling”. When I hear Eastern Christians make these distinctions it makes me wonder why they are ignoring so many Greek Fathers. For example, St. Gregory Palamas had this to say about the so called shift to “human guilt and Divine wrath” , which is not the “ancient church”: “Yet God is also a 'jealous God' (Exod. 20:5), a just judge who takes terrible vengeance on those who dishonor Him, who disobey Him and who scorn His commandments, visiting them with eternal chastisement, unquenchable fire, unceasing pain, unconsolable affliction, a cloak of lugubrious darkness, an obscure and grievous region, piteous gnashing of teeth, venomous and sleepless worms - things He prepared for that first evil apostate together with all those deluded by him who became his followers, rejecting their Creator in their actions, words and thoughts”. This quote was taken right of the Philokalia, the most beloved book for the so-called, “therapeutic than juridical approach to pastoral care and counseling”.

The biggest problem I see with people that promote “Ancestral sin vs Original sin” is that they are creating a false dichotomy between the Eastern and Western traditions of the Church. On the subject of sin the fathers of the Church had diverse positions. This diversity is witnessed in the many forms of catechesis that can be found in Church history. Its even possible, as St. John Paul the Great said, to have one tradition of catechesis express the mysteries of our faith better than others. With this in mind, we should take advantage of the different forms of theological expression in the Church. Just like what the Roman church did when it changed its catechesis on sin, which now reflects what is emphasized in the Byzantine churches.  The Roman church’s current catechesis on the effects of sin now fits more organically into their tradition as opposed to the Augustine views of the past. Like the Roman church, we should discover what best helps our own tradition organically develop. Not by seeing how we are not like the other, but by truly learning how to “breathe with both lungs” of the Church.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Consuming the Flesh of the Mother of God


Recently, I was accused of putting too much emphasis on the Mother of God and the activity of the Saints.  My response was that my emphasis is important in understanding our relationship with Jesus Christ. St. Macarius said, “human free will is an essential condition, for without it even God himself does nothing”. It is true that our salvation comes from Christ alone, but he would not be here without our consent. This is important for us to realize because our actions do matter. There are wonderful things that God wishes to do with us, but without our participation we end up grieving the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30).

The Greek theologian Panagiotus Trembelas once said, “From the beginning to end, in the work of man’s conversion and sanctification there run side by side two lines: divine grace and human free will. Continually these two lines converge and touch each other, and so together they contribute to our salvation….Yet at no moment and at no point in the development of this work does the one line obliterate and cancel out the other”. In terms of these two lines mentioned there is a whole history of their convergence in the saints of the Old Testament. Without the Old Testament saints, we would not be where we are today. There would be no Church. God set apart certain people and worked with these people in mediating his divine grace into this world. Through them, he was preparing the world for salvation through Jesus Christ.

Just as we can grow in experiencing divine grace, the Old Testament saints could as well. However, their growth was through many purifications and acts of divine condescension, God coming down to our level and bringing us up to his. These purifications and divine condescensions had a purpose and climax. God was creating for himself a most perfect and pure temple in which the fullness of divine grace could enter our world. In other words, God was perfecting our humanity by working with the O.T. saints, returning human nature to its purpose, a purpose that became obscured due to sin. It was through the conception of Theotokos that the purpose and climax of Old Testament sanctity was achieved.

God at any time could have picked anyone to become the Theotokos. However, as St. Macarius said God can do nothing without us. Our choices matter and the Theotokos would not be with us without the response of the saints of the Old Testament. Her conception was the height of what was possible in terms of human perfection. For this reason, the Church rightly honors her as the Immaculate Conception and the Panagia, "the All Holy". As the Russian Theologian Sergei Bulgakov taught, the life of the Theotokos is a series of gifts of grace given to us by the Holy Spirit, beginning with Her conception. She received naturally through her cooperation with God what we all receive now through our participation in the life of the Church.

St. Symeon the New Theologian said that when we partake on the Flesh our Lord, in the Eucharist, we at the same time partake of the flesh of the Theotokos. God took his flesh from the Theotokos. God became what we are through her. He could not have become what we are without us. The fiat of the Theotokos represents a long history of God working with us in order to bring about our salvation. In terms of our salvation, we can now have everything that God is. This is all thanks to the people that have worked with God, which includes both the saints of the Old and New Testaments. Without them we would not be where we are. This is a truth that we need to make our own. God is not done saving the world. There will come a day when God wipes away every tear (Rev. 21:4). This is a day that God is now calling us to work with him to bring about. It’s a mystery, but God truly is trusting each of us with the salvation of the world.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Attack of the Jehovah Witnesses


In the past month, I have had a visit from the Jehovah Witnesses every weekend. I admire them for their zeal and I wish that my fellow Byzantine Catholics would show more effort in reaching out to others like them. However, if they did I don’t think most Byzantines would know what to say. Unlike, what we see in the Roman church there is not much out there in terms of teaching people how to evangelize. Most of our resources seem to be focused on preserving our identity. Consequently, when we get opportunities to evangelize we sometimes end up talking more about ourselves than the Gospel. With this in mind, there is something that I noticed this month from the JWs in their efforts to convert me, which is that they keep it simple. For this reason, I wanted to share a simple outline for communicating the Gospel from a Byzantine perspective.  This is an outline that I use myself and I find it very fruitful. Be aware, its not to be used word for word, it’s just a guide. Also, keep in mind it’s not perfect and I am sure there are better presentations out there. If it’s used, it can be a quick and simple way to share what we believe. Sometimes the opportunities we get require it to be quick and simple, so I hope this can be of use to many.

1.  The Introduction

Introduce an idea that something is wrong with the world, that God seems to be missing. It can be as easy as saying, “did you see what happened on the news”. In coming to an agreement, you can make the point that there is a reason for this apparent absence. At this point, mention that the scriptures teach that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23)”. Make the point that things are the way they are because of us and that there is really nothing we can do about it. Now that you have given them the bad news, make it known that God has done something about this. Tell them that the son of God became one of us. Share with them the scripture “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Philippians 2:7)”. Say with emphasis that Jesus Christ is God and that he is also one of us. Tell them that in Christ, the separation from God that we see has been overcome for man and God are one in him.

2.  The Basic Message

After introducing them to the idea that the division between man and God has been overcome. Make it known that this was not the only thing that God has done for us. Bring up in some way that we are all going to die. Tell them the scriptures even say this, “the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23a)”.  Bring to their attention that we sin and because we sin we die. Tell them it’s a cycle that no one has ever been able to break. Share with them that because we sin, if death were to come for us we wouldn’t be able to escape it. At this point, emphasis that there is however one who did escape, Jesus Christ. Tell them that Jesus Christ met death, like every man will, at the cross, but, death met God. Tell them you cant kill God and bring up the fact that he rose from the dead. Let them know that this is good news for us because there is now a way to defeat the power of sin in our lives that leads to death. Tell them that the scriptures even say that at the cross of Christ the “body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin”(Romans 6:6”).

3.  The Conclusion

At this point, see if there is an interest in what you have been saying. Tell them that God has given us as the scripture says, “very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, (2peter 1:4)”. Tell them that God wants to overcome anything that separates them from Him and that he wants to give them the power to overcome death. Bring up again what you just read, that God wants to make us to be partakers of the divine nature. Tell them that when death comes for us it can be defeated like it was on the cross but only if Christ dwells in you. Tell them that Christ can give them eternal life with God. Ask them if this is something that they want. At that point, tell them that what they seek can only be found in the Church. Tell them that Christ started the Church 2000yrs ago and that he has continued to offer himself to the world through the Church. Mention the scripture that the Church is,  the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1Timothy 3:15)” and invite them to, as the Church teaches, to have faith in what Christ has done for them and to come participate in the gifts that God has given the Church that will make them a partaker of the Divine Nature.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Union for the End Times

In the history of the Church, sometimes marriage has been portrayed as a lesser path of spirituality as compared to those that practice celibacy. Even though this understanding does not exist in the catechesis of the Catholic Church, it does exist as a prevailing mindset among many people. From time to time, we of the Eastern churches get to see this mindset since we have continued the tradition of married clergy, which was started by Jesus Christ.  Often when such negative distinctions arise it has nothing to do with the mystery of Holy Orders. Most of the time, it always goes back to an inferior spiritual understanding of marriage.
Paul Evdokimov once wrote, “The Gospel in its totality is addressed to each person; everyone in his own situation is called to the absolute of the Gospel. Trying to prove the superiority of one state over the other is therefore useless: it is an abstract, because impersonal, process. The renunciation at work in both cases is as good as the positive content that the human being brings to it: the intensity of the love of God”. As Evdokimov points out, the state that we are in has no bearing on the depth of our spirituality. Whatever state that God has called us to is the means by which we can best love God. On the other hand, to be called to certain state is to be called to make God known in a unique way. As Evdokimov would also teach, Christian celibacy and Christian marriage are both given a prophetic character in revealing the kingdom of God.
In regards to the prophetic character of Christian marriage, Pope Francis, in his ever popular Amoris Laetitia, called marriage the, “inexhaustible mystery”. When I read this, I wondered how many people considered their marriage in this way. I wondered how many people see their marriage as the object of encounter with God. I personally have heard marriage described in many ways. However, rarely have I heard it being presented as the means for participating in the divine nature. Most of time, its been taught as a foundation for procreation or the means of escaping, as the Apostle Paul said, the burn of passion.
In the beginning God created marriage for us to be like him. In other words, marriage was as a path for our deification. As the scripture teaches, we were created in the image of God and called to be like God.  Among many things, he called our Ancestors to become one flesh. By becoming one flesh they were becoming like the one who created them. As we all know, God’s plan for our Ancestors was not fulfilled. Consequently, marriage became many things, but a path to God it was not. It needed to be redeemed.  Thankfully, by Christ becoming one of us, in the words of St. Maximos, “God bestowed once again on human nature the supernatural grace of deification”. Now, as scripture teaches, marriage in Christ has become a Mysterion (Eph 5:32). Not only has marriage been redeemed it can make present the reality to which it is called.
There is an eschatological reality in marriage and it can only be experienced when we love like God. In a marriage the love shared can become eternal, it is a love that becomes God’s very own love. Concerning such love, St. John Chrysostom said once that, “marriage is a remedy to eliminate fornication”. This of course is often taken out of context by those that read him. Marriage becomes a remedy because it helps us to love the other person. It helps us overcome things that objectify the other person, like unchastity. Such a remedy is only possible when we let God love the other person through us.
We can all love others, even in a divine way, but only married people can make present in our world a love that all will see at the end of time. Concerning such love, there is even a whole book in the Old Testament dedicated to it, the Song of Songs. In this book it makes known a love that can only be described with the most poetic words. It is a love that Christ has for his Church. Outside of being poetic there really is no other human way that can express this love. However, there is a way, as I have been saying, to experience it.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Jesus Prayer Seminar 2018


The invocation of the name of Jesus Christ is not like calling upon an ordinary name. The name of Christ is the only name connected to the creator of the universe. Woe to those that take this name in vain. Woe to those that treat this name like it’s a common thing. With the name of Christ we can invoke blessing but also a curse.  This is no simple name. It’s a shame that there are those in our day that are dedicated to the destruction of the name of God. They wish to take the name of our Lord and dismantle its meaning. They call this process being historical and make for themselves what is called the Jesus of history. However, this Jesus that they create for themselves is no more than a product of their own vanity. A Jesus whose name has no power and no life.

The invocation of the name of Jesus Christ has the power to transform us. It is the surest means for spiritual growth. By invoking the name of Christ we stir up the energies of God that are at work with in us, the power of the Holy Spirit.  The scripture teaches that whosever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). This is a promise that does not require much effort. Also, this promise is one that is not based on our merit. It is an invitation to encounter God at any time, no matter who we are or what we have done.

By invoking the name of God we will never be the same. Jesus said that he was the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one could come to Father except through him (John14:6). By calling upon him we enter into a communion with him and the Father. There is no limit to the extent of this communion. We can continue to grow in this communion and by calling upon him we have the surest way to do so. God will never refuse those that seek communion with him in this. For everyone believes in the power of the name of Jesus Christ he gives them the right to be a son or daughter of God (John1:12).

There are many traditions that involve the use of the Jesus Prayer. If I could add one, it would be to “just do it” and do so with the desire to know God. There is a great simplicity to the prayer and a depth. It can be mastered by a child and it can offer a continual source of divine life for the experienced. Some traditions emphasize that you should focus on the words of the prayer. I would say that such focus is not always reasonable. I would say just keep “doing it” and focus when you can. However, keep doing it knowing that you are letting God work in you, trust in the power of the name.

If you want to know the simplest way to God start to invoke the name of Jesus Christ. Call out to him saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. Let this invocation be what takes up most your day. Say it with you mouth and learn to say it in your mind. Say it while you work, while you rest, and let it be a part of your every activity. Also, learn to trust in the power of the name of Jesus Christ. This is no ordinary name. Just by saying it you are allowing God to work in you, so that he can fulfill his purpose in you (Philippians 2:13). In terms of his purpose there is no end to the remarkable things that God wishes to do in us. All we need to do is to learn to call out his name.