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  • Dcn Joseph Suaiden 9:43 pm on December 30, 2004 Permalink | Reply  

    Letters on the Virginity of the Theotokos, True Orthodox and the Canon of Scripture (From One of the Old Sites) 

    Last Updated: 12/30/04

    I scanned/read your essay, which was very good, and think (but am not sure) you may have missed the point about her virginity. As you know, whenever you see an icon of her, there are three stars on her garment; one on each shoulder and one on her forehead. This of course signifies that she was a virgin before, *during*, and after the birth of Christ. An icon withgout this should be destroyed. The part I believe you *may* have missed was the point that Christ had a miraculous birth, never passing through the birthing canal, but miraculously appearing outside her body.

    Many people today think this is ridiculous or “fanatasy”, but it is important as it ties into the first sin of Adam and the pain of birth thereafter…

    Anyway, since I didn’t have time to read the whole article, if you did mention this, then just ignore this note! 😉 

    John  (Note: John is himself an Orthodox apologist)

    Actually, I did not mention this, and it was a mistake on my part to miss it.  Thanks for pointing that out; I will correct it.  While I don’t think the texts indicate Christ suddenly appeared outside the body of the Theotokos, but close (the texts I have looked at indicate that the birth canal was unruptured but indicate that Christ did pass through the birth canal) the simple fact is that Christ’s incarnation from conception to birth is a great mystery. — JS

    From the Vespers of the Nativity of the Theotokos: She is the only gateway of the Only-begotten Son of God, who passed through this gate, yet kept it closed: and having ordered all things in His own wisdom He has wrought salvation for all mankind.


    From a reader of the page:

    I saw the link to the True Orthodox Churches, which I figured were Old Calendarists since they were few in number and had weird names. I wonder, why is there such a controversy over this? I go to a Greek Orthodox (goarch.com) Church and an Albanian one when I visit my dad, which is a part of the Orthodox Church in America, but I have no beef with new or old calendars.

    By the way, do the Orthodox believe the Septuagint as we have it today is innerrant, as in there are no copyist errors? I’m not exactly sure what the Orthodox view is on the innerrancy of biblical writings.

    In answer to your question, Orthodox who know their faith well are locked in a pretty nasty struggle against ecumenism, which has been anathematized as a heresy a number of times individually by some of the Church’s hierarchy, but not in an altogether “official” fashion.  The difficulty was based primarily in historical circumstance– in Greece, the Old Calendarists formed in the midst of governmental power struggles, whereas the Russian Church found itself liquidated by the Revolution.  Most of the Orthodox Church numerically is in those two Churches, so their witness is of relevance.

    On paper, the official Orthodox Churches and the True Orthodox Churches held identical views on matters of faith until very recently.  So if you are reading, for example, a catechism that was put out by the OCA 30 years ago, chances are everything is fine.  One good way of seeing real changes is by looking at the differences in published texts in later editions, such as “The Orthodox Church” by Kallistos Ware.  What you will notice is a subtle modernization of doctrinal viewpoints incompatible with Orthodoxy, such as new teachings on birth control, et cetera.  As well, since then Saints have been added to both calendars that are not recognized by the other side.

    Given the Orthodox propensity towards Tradition in general, there really is only one way to go after a while, and having been baptized in a True Orthodox environment and then living in official Orthodoxy for over a year before returning, I can say from my own experience that the situation is changing rapidly enough in official Orthodoxy that it’s very unclear as to which way they will head.  Many people want True Orthodoxy– the hierarchs want whatever the world will offer them.  (To be fair, many people also like the status quo and are people I would have a hard time doctrinally referring to as Christians, let alone Orthodox Christians.)

    This divergence has been dealt with in a variety of ways, between baptizing official Orthodox, et cetera (which I think is incorrect if the people in question were properly baptized, although even the form is changing in many official Churches) to simply allowing the official Orthodox to confess, et cetera, provided they don’t return to the New Calendarist Churches, which is really preferable given the circumstance.  Some communities recognize both official Orthodoxy and True Orthodoxy as valid.  While this is done out of pastoral kindness, it’s heretical.

    In general, all I can say is that if you want to see the difference, you have to find a good, established True Orthodox parish.  Then visit as many World Orthodox parishes in your area as possible.  You’ll begin to see the difference.  So at least on the question of Old or New Calendar– it’s ultimately a matter of conscience on our part.  While the best thing for a new convert would be to simply start and end his life as an Orthodox in a True Orthodox parish, we believe in a merciful God who wills all to salvation in His name.  Every Orthodox Christian who seeks the truth will have to make that decision on his own.  After all it was only recently that our hierarchies began to organize in a better fashion.  Time will tell how this plays out.

    Now onto your second question, which is actually a question that there is no definitive answer to because it assumes that Orthodoxy has an official version of Scripture.  The answer to that question comes from the understanding the Scriptures in the light of the Church’s living tradition.  Thus, the authoritative version of the Scriptures varies from national Church to national Church.  Technically, all of the Church’s Scriptures are inerrant insofar as their translators should ideally be masters of noetic prayer themselves (thus having the inspired understanding to *read* the Scriptures, let alone to translate them, as well as competency to translate the Holy Books.  This doesn’t always happen.  And because this isn’t happening with English translations today, we aren’t seeing much progress in the way of Orthodox Scriptures in English.

    Thus, there is only one Septuagint for the Greek Church and one Slavonic Bible for the Russian Church and one Peshitta for the Syrian Church and one Vulgate for the former Orthodox Church of the West, et cetera.  (However, none of the Bibles I have listed have the same number of Old Testament books!) The Septuagint takes primacy in the mind of many Biblical students in Orthodoxy, due to the history of Orthodoxy being heavily intertwined with the history of the East Roman Empire.  I don’t share such a view, however, and don’t believe the Church even requires it, or that there are any Fathers who require one to believe such a claim (as they do, for example, with the commentators on the Church’s canons) except within their own national Churches.

    Now to answer your question directly; within that full corpus of Scriptures is the innerancy of the Church which then manifests in Her Holy writings.  To be sure, copyists make mistakes by hand– and many such mistakes, for example.  But those mistakes get corrected over time through consistency with other Orthodox Biblical versions, and so the substance of the texts is the same, save for an occasional spelling error that gets corrected.  Thankfully, there are no mistakes in the Orthodox versions of the Scriptures that cause any doctrinal disagreement, though occasionally there are differences that also help shed light on the Orthodox teaching.  But the occasional mistranslation that *does* occur in a version of the Scriptures (remember, these books are used officially and liturgically) is usually flatly corrected by the mind of the Church, and after a hundred years or so of use, the translations which bear the approval of the Church are usually quite clean.

    While it is good to read all the Scriptural texts in the Old Testament, the occasionally disputed deuterocanonical books cause no harm to the reader.  While there is now work on an Orthodox version of the Old Testament in English (there are actually three such projects) I have found no problems personally with using the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims and ignoring the footnotes, as it is a fairly strong and consistent English translation of the Vulgate, even though it is missing the books of Esdras (the Vulgate itself, however, does include them).  A slightly more complete and traditional form (though there are some problems with it) is a complete 1611 KJV (yes, they are available and actually rather cheaply) that contains all the Septuagint texts, though I trust nothing that references the heretical Masoretic text at all.  And of course, there is the Bagster House translation of the Septuagint.  The “Ecumenical Study Bible” RSV (which contains *all* the books of *all* the Scriptures) is decent, but to be frank, is not worth the money, in my opinion.  In general, the rule of thumb is to avoid heretical liberal translations (NRSV, for example) and to avoid heretical conservative translations (“New World” edition put out by the Jehovah’s Witnesses), since those do not simply add heretical footnotes, but actually alter the words of the Scriptures themselves.

    I hope that answers your questions!– JS

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  • Dcn Joseph Suaiden 9:51 pm on December 26, 2004 Permalink | Reply  

    The Mysteries: Gateways into the Kingdom 

    The Mysteries, sometimes called Sacraments in the West, are the central part of an Orthodox Christian’s life.   They bring us into direct contact with God through being part of His Body.  Christ being God and Man, the Mysteries are those direct and indirect points in the life of a Christian where the wall between God and Man have become destroyed.  Prayer is, in some way, linked to the Mystery: during the Mystery, God responds. This Divine/Human union is a reflection of the nature of Christ Himself.

    The Mysteries are the perfection of the Law: they are beyond and outside of her, and they are the perfect fulfillment of the Law.  In this sense, they are all linked directly to the power of Christ’s Death and Resurrection, which is, itself, the ultimate Mystery.

    The choice of the word “Mystery” to describe these Divine and human interactions is important for a number of reasons, the first being that we don’t really understand how a Mystery works (hence, they are “mysteries”).  In the West after the great schism, the Mysteries became viewed a sort of mechanical action on the part of the church for the sake of our salvation, which the Protestant Reformers rightly began to deride as a mechanical formula.  As well, stupid questions began to arise as to which “Church prayers” are “sacraments”, and which ones create “sacramentals”, or effects of the sacraments or “sacrament-like prayers”.  This incredibly ridiculous mode of thinking forgets the central part of the Mystery: the Church is the Body of Christ!

    In a sense, to an Orthodox Christian, everything good after the Mystery of Baptism can become, in some way, united to Christ.  This is why we bless our food, why we bless our families, why we bless our homes.

    St John of Damascus, one of the greatest teachers of his age, writes this concerning the Holy Mysteries:

    Man, however, being endowed with reason and free will, received the power of continuous union with God through his own choice, if indeed he should abide in goodness, that is in obedience to his Maker. Since, however, he transgressed the command of his Creator and became liable to death and corruption, the Creator and Maker of our race, because of His bowels of compassion, took on our likeness, becoming man in all things but without sin, and was united to our nature. For since He bestowed on us His own image and His own spirit and we did not keep them safe, He took Himself a share in our poor and weak nature, in order that He might cleanse us and make us incorruptible, and establish us once more as partakers of His divinity. For it was fitting that not only the first-fruits of our nature should partake in the higher good but every man who wished it, and that a second birth should take place and that the nourishment should be new and suitable to the birth and thus the measure of perfection be attained. Through His birth, that is, His incarnation, and baptism and passion and resurrection, He delivered our nature from the sin of our first parent and death and corruption, and became the first-fruits of the resurrection, and made Himself the way and image and pattern, in order that we, too, following in His footsteps, may become by adoption what He is Himself by nature, sons and heirs of God and joint heirs with Him. (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV.xiii.)

    Thus, if we look to the meaning of the Mysteries with post-Christian, post-modern eyes, we will demand categorization.  This is a mistake.  We need to see the Mysteries in the sense of our life in Christ and in the sense of the people he preached to, and those who received His Word, and in the sense of Christians being in the world, but not of it. Outside of this mindset they will make little sense.  The mysteries are not signs, they are not testimonies, they are not magical actions that give grace but the Living presence of the Holy Spirit moving through out the Church, a mighty wind that began on Pentecost.

    The Temple and the Mysteries

    The typical Church building in Orthodox Christianity has always been called the Temple, thus perfecting the old Temple.  The Church is the community, not the building.  This confusion in English usage has rightly led to many non-Orthodox condemning the idea of having a building, lest it replace the thought of the Church as the Body of Christ. A Temple is a building, and in our day, many are constructed in people’s homes (albeit temporarily).

    The Temple rites and prayers that were found in the Old Testament are perfected in the New.  The sacrifice of animals has been replaced by the perfect sacrifice of Christ which suffices for all mankind.  Certain Mysteries take the place of the Old Law, and in this sense have a limited value.  We can briefly the most prominent of these here, bearing in mind that the Mystery is something beyond our categorization, and that these Mysteries are only a part of the great Mystery that is Life in Christ.

    The Mystery of Baptism and Holy Chrism: The Entry into the Temple

    Holy Baptism is the central moment of change in a Christian’s life; he is separated from the world and united to Christ.  The addition of Holy Chrism to a baptized person was a confirmation of the person’s standing in the Church; the Baptism becomes, as it were, sealed with the Holy Spirit, as the text of the Mystery itself states.

    In our post-Christian understanding, the Mystery of Baptism has become understood to be two Mysteries that work apart from each other.  This notion developed through historical circumstance, but it is a misunderstanding.  In the West, the Bishop, being the successor to the Apostles, applied the chrism after the priest performed the Baptism.  In the East, the Bishop authorized the priest to carry the chrism himself as his representative.  Both came from a perfectly normal understanding of Baptism, but the historical growth of Christianity in the West led to the problem of the Bishop being present at every Baptism.  Thus, the Bishops came once a year during pastoral visits to complete the Baptisms.  This led to an understanding of chrismation apart from Baptism, when in reality the chrism was actually the sealing of the Baptism itself.  It is a “double sacrament”, or sealing, in the words of the Church Fathers.

    Baptism is commanded in the Holy Scripture:

    Jesus answered, and said to him: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
    Nicodemus saith to him: How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born again?
    Jesus answered: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit, is spirit.  Wonder not, that I said to thee, you must be born again. (Jn 3:3-7)

    The Mystery of the Eucharist: Partaking of the Sacrifice

    St John of Damascus writes this concerning the Holy Eucharist:

    For when He was about to take on Himself a voluntary death for our sakes, on the night on which He gave Himself up, He laid a new covenant on His holy disciples and apostles, and through them on all who believe on Him…having broken bread He gave it to them saying, Take, eat, this is My body broken for you for the remission of sins. Likewise also He took the cup of wine and water and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it: for this is My blood, the blood of the New Testament which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do ye in remembrance of Me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the death of the Son of man and confess His resurrection until He come….And now you ask, how the bread became Christ’s body and the wine and water Christ’s blood. And I say unto thee, “The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought.” Further, bread and wine are employed: for God knoweth man’s infirmity: for in general man turns away discontentedly from what is not well-worn by custom: and so with His usual indulgence He performs His supernatural works through familiar objects….But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit. And we know nothing further save that the Word of God is true and energises and is omnipotent, but the manner of this cannot be searched out.  (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, III.xiii)

    The Scriptures on this are extremely useful for understanding.

    Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me.  (Jn 6:54-58)

    The word used for “eat” in Jn 6:54 is actually a verb used for animal eating, “munch” or “gnaw”, et cetera– and is said by Our Lord to increase emphasis on the need to eat His flesh.  This was so strong a doctrine of the early Church that the Roman Empire in which they lived made martyrs out of many Christians on the charge of cannibalism, mistakenly assuming that they were eating random body parts of Jesus like His hands or feet.

    Other Mysteries

    The two mysteries above (Baptism and the Eucharist) are the central aspects of the life of an Orthodox Christian.  Baptism opens the door through which one enters the Church.  The Eucharist, the “medicine of immortality”, gives life to the Christian to continue his days.  Other mysteries, each a revelation of the Divine but less visibly than the mystery of the Eucharist are listed below.  There is no precise list to work with on precisely what a mystery is, though attempts have been made through the Church’s history.

    The Orthodox Church teaches that when one falls through sin after baptism, he can be healed through the confession of his sins, and the prayer of the Church restores him to communion with Her.  This is done through the mystery of repentance, or confession and is either done before a priest of the Church, or the entire community (the latter being considerably less popular for obvious reasons.)  As well, the Church uses holy oil to anoint those who are sick for the healing of their illnesses. The other mysteries are mysteries which seal the identity of the believer in question and include ordination to the priesthood, marriage (some also include monastic tonsuring, and this makes sense in terms of a sort of marriage parallel).

    Life in Christ as a Mystery

    In the end, life in Christ is itself a part of the life of the Mystery of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.  In the Orthodox Church, virtually everything in a Christian’s life is blessed in a tangible manner, from the food we eat (meal blessings) to the cars we drive (any object we use in everyday life can be blessed by the Church) to the water we sprinkle and bless the walls of our homes with (done once a year on the feast of the Theophany).  Through the Incarnation, creation is renewed and death is defeated.  The Holy Mysteries are the way we participate directly in the process of uniting to God our Father and live our lives as restored children of God, having lost communion with Him through Adam’s sin, and having regained it in Christ.

    Related Pages

    St. John of Damascus: on the Eucharist

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