Sunday, 9 March 2014

Recently I was asked the question "The practice of veneration of the Saint's still gets me. I am Protestant and I have been trying to understand better the veneration of Saint's. I've talked to both Catholic's and Orthodox Christians and studied the topic on my own but still have problems with it. Can you explain it some more."

This is the response I gave:

The very basis of veneration in this sense is not to revere the person or object as a God (we do not have a Golden Calf in Orthodoxy) but to revere what it represents. The word Proskynesis itself comes from the Persian concept of showing veneration to those of higher rank, as opposed to a form of worship.

We venerate Saints for the Holiness they attained and lives they led through serving God, not as demigods or equals of God in either place of Worship (Laria is for God alone). As Professor Serge Verhovsky famously stated multiple times in his classrooms “The Holy Fathers are not Holy Spirits.” We accept that these people are humans and worked within the limits that they were given in their human nature, yet they are given these veneration (Proskynesis) which is "paid to all those endowed with some dignity" (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 3) for the Holiness that was granted to them and in doing so we glorify God himself. for what he did through them.

If one can celebrate the life of a great thinker in the secular sense, for their contributions to society, we can certainly celebrate the life and contribution of a Saint and also venerate (through Proskynesis) them for gifts of God they produced for us. These people guided the Church through God’s will and we respect that as one would respect anyone who was a vessel for God’s work, remembering that he alone works all things.

As well as this, the lives of the Saints are a witness to the amazing place of the Holy Spirit in our lives and this is not simply a view of the Saints of the ancient past. We hear stories of modern Saints and Martyrs who have worked wonders and some who are not yet named as Martyrs by the Church. These people are venerated (Proskynesis) for their work through the Holy Spirit and not for their own sake. I would personally say that they would themselves be utterly opposed to anyone venerating them for their own sake, rather than for the way in which the spirit worked through them.

The place of asking Reposed Saints for intercessory prayers is also a logical matter of the Saint being a conduit for the worship of God rather than an end in itself. Interestingly, the word Cemetery (a term which came from Early Christianity) means ‘sleeping ground’ and this concept is common in Orthodox prayers for the departed which speak of those being ‘given rest’ or bring ‘in a place where the just repose.’ Saints who were great and showed their philanthropy in life are also motivated to charity in the next and thus we ask them to pray to God for us in the same way that we would do if they were alive also.

To quote the Blackwell introduction to the Orthodox Church (McGuckin), The Orthodox regard it as natural that the Great Saints should continue to exercise loving benevolence in this way since "it shows in a very practical way that Christ arranges our salvation not in a narrowly individual manner, but in a way that is deeply interconnected with the family of souls around us with whom we live and interact." That which St Symeon the New Theologians called ‘the Golden Chain’ of Charity between those in the Church.  It is because of this that we ask for their prayers.
It is through God that these people did their works and we grant Him all worship (Latria) for this. That fact does not mean that we cannot grant those he worked through a manner of veneration (Proskynesis) for what they did, as they served us and were gracious in the way their lived their lives which makes them a model for our own lives.

I hope this answers your question in some way.
Dcn. Daniel

Converts, Idolatry and the Icons issue.

It is always an interesting situation when people first enter an Orthodox Church. Many see people kissing Icons or praying before them and ponder, others will be worried about Idolatry. Recently I received a question from someone who was concerned about this. The following is from my response: 

Since the Apostolic Era, Icons have played prominent roles such as in procession and the sacraments. This is not in a worship based role but in representation.  When a liturgy happens it is not just a liturgy on Earth but one in Heaven, making the representation of the saints important since they are in attendance n the Divine Liturgy to receive the portion of Christ as we do on Earth. We also see this with the use of the icon of Christ in the sacrament of Confession, with our confessions addressed to Christ through his Icon, as he receives out
confession alone through the priest as an Icon of Christ in himself. To put it simply, the role of the Icon in the Church is vital.

The issue over the veneration of Icons usually comes from the ignorance of many of not understanding the difference between the two types of demonstration of respect. Latria (Worship of God) and Proskynesis (Veneration of those more important than us), The same can come into play when discussing the term Father for a Priest, where some will argue that we see the priest as God. Although he is only the Icon of Christ and thus deserving of our Proskynesis which is shown when we kiss his hand without taking Latria (Worship) away from our Lord in His heavenly abode.

Referring to the creation of the Icons, John of Damascus reminds us that "under the Old Covenant God commanded images to be made: first the tabernacle, and then everything in it." Indeed God orders Moses to build the Ark and detail it with “two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover.” Even detailing greatly as to the direction in which these should face. We know that the Ark was venerated for its contents but God had ordered Moses to have craftsmen design icons of heavenly beings.
The reason given in tradition that Moses was accepted in this task, apart from it being directly from God, is simply since it was not worshipped in the place of God, thus given Proskynesis and not Latria. This is the same with Icons. John of Damascus also explains this, he says “I do not venerate the matter but I venerate the Creator of matter, Who became matter for me, Who condescended to live in matter, and Who, through matter accomplished my salvation; I do not cease to respect the matter through which my salvation is accomplished.”

To venerate an icon for what it represents is not Idolatry, unlike worshipping an item for what it is. Through icons we see the heavenly forms of Christ as well as our saints and Martyrs. Through asking the saints to pray to God for us we are not worshipping them but praising the holiness which God has bestowed upon them in the same way in which one might show Proskynesis (Veneration)before an Icon or even kiss the Cross or Gospel book. This is not worshipping the Icons or metal of the crosses but those who we venerate through them.

Through this veneration of the Saints we are also inspired to holiness and to emulate those that came before us and to wish to live up to the example of another or ask them for assistance is not Idolatry.  As Saint Polycarp said to the centurion before his Martyrdom “For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher.” Thus there is a great difference between Latria and Proskynesis.

It is always important to keep these key points in mind when you are in the Church, remembering that each time you kiss the Icon of our saviour, you are not kissing an Icon for the Icon’s sake but confessing your faith in Christ in the same manner in which you bow before a cross for the sake of Christ and not the wood it is made of. In the same way, to venerate an Icon of a saint is not to worship an Icon but to show Proskynesis (veneration) towards those it represents.

 This way, God Willing, the act of Proskynesis (Veneration) before an Icon of our Lord or the Saints will not seem so uncomfortable or feel like an attempted usurping of the full Latria (Worship) of God alone.
To what, in such a manner, do you my Christian bow,
When you, O my Christian, venerate the icons?
Before the Living God the Creator, I am bowing down,
With all my soul, heart and mind, I bow down to Him.
Mortal am I and, am unable upon Him to gaze,
Therefore, before His image I bow;
What, my Christian, do you so fervently reverence,
When, the icon O my Christian, you kiss?
Christ the God and Savior, I am kissing,
The choirs of angels, the saints and the Mother of God.
Mortal am I and, therefore am unable them to touch,
But when their images I kiss, my heart is at ease.
From the Prologue of Ohrid.
God Bless and keep you,
Dcn. Daniel

Orthodox Christianity and Contraception

Whenever I discuss Orthodox approaches to Ethics with Catholic friends at work, I am amazed how they react to the concept of contraception. After they state their views they will always ask "what do the Orthodox think?" expecting me to support them, but the fact is that there is no authoritative Orthodox view on the matter. Many local Synods have released statements on their views, the vast majority of which make it clear that it is down to a question of motive and circumstance.

The Church does not condemn the use of contraception as many will use artificial birth control for beneficent reasons such as not wanting to bring up a child in an environment which means that they cannot financially or emotionally support them. If the union of love and a shared life is one of the main motives of Christian Marriage, as opposed to the Old Testament Judaic sense of a simple realm of childbirth, it is only fair that any life brought into the world is brought into a loving and stable home.

As the Theologian John Meyendorff stated in his book Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, "If the ‘life’ given by the parents to their children is to be a fully human life, it cannot involve only physical existence, but also parental care, education and decent living." This means that there are factors in the world which require an openness to the use of contraception to prevent bringing a life into existence without the means to care for that life.

There is admittedly an issue of selfish uses of artificial contraception, where it can be seen to make sexual relations nothing more than a game without consequences and love becomes reduced to sexual pleasure. Regardless of this fact, this is not always the case. The Church appreciates the complexity of this issue and therefore has no direct statement on the matter for the sake of granting the flexibility for circumstance that is needed.

An example of this prevailing view comes from the Orthodox Church in America’s statement on ‘Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life’ during the Tenth All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, 1992. The Council supported the idea that "Married couples may express their love in sexual union without always intending the conception of a child, but only those means of controlling conception within marriage are acceptable which do not harm a fetus already conceived." At the same time, the Russian Synod make a clear statement that “The deliberate refusal of childbirth on egoistic grounds devalues marriage and is a definite sin.” Here we see this flexibility in which there is no condemnation of prevention of Childbirth if the reason itself is not contrary to Christian morality.

On this topic, Meyendorff again stresses that "it has never been the Church’s practice to give moral guidance by issuing standard formulas which actually require a personal act of conscience" and in such situations it is the couple’s personal decision as to the motive for using contraception. In this, they must accept their Christian commitment with ultimate seriousness.

To conclude. The Church has no official position as to the use of contraception, as it is not an issue which has a standard response but is rather one which is based upon conscience and circumstance. If someone is using it for selfish means then their selfishness is sinful itself, though one cannot condemn the use on contraception for all based upon the selfish nature of the few. In such instances, your Spiritual Father is always the best source of advice as he can give you help on a personal level, which is something that a blanket statement could never do.

God Bless and keep you,
Dcn. Daniel

Sermon for the 2nd Saturday of Lent: Enter Through the Narrow Gate

Sermon for the Second Saturday of Lent 08/03/14

"Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

"Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. (
Matthew 7:13-21)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

The Gospel today speaks of three negatives and three positives. We are warned against the wide gate, false prophets and false disciples whilst at the same time being told to look for the narrow gate, true prophets and true disciples amongst the faithful. These three choices almost make up a three step guide to finding the path of our Salvation in Christ through his Apostolic Church.

The first of these choices that we approach is the warning of the wide gate of destruction, compared to the narrow gate of life. At first glance, this choice already seems problematic to us since, as humans, we would naturally head to the easiest and quickest gate rather than the difficult one. We would not queue for a checkout when another is open, we would not walk through swamps to a friend’s house when there is a path, so the concept of heading to the narrow and difficult gate instead of the wide one seems almost alien to our modern sentiments. 

Though it defies worldly logic, it is a common message of our faith. It is in this that we hear an echo of Christ telling his disciples that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it,” which again defies all worldly logic. Why would trying to save your life mean that you lose it? Though in our daily life we follow this path of seeking spiritual fulfilment by denying the world’s offers of lifestyle and fulfilment.

In a way, the message becomes most relevant to us during this time of Lent, when we are called to take our minds from physical fulfilment in exchange for spiritual fulfilment. Saint Basil the Great speaks of the value of this fast when he calls it “food for the soul” as opposed to food for the body. In this he reminds us that taking the narrow and difficult path by denying the easy fulfilments in life, such as raiding the fridge, is to be prepared to receive the bounties of the Kingdom of God.

When we struggle in our difficulties, it also is important to remember that there are those who took a far more difficult and narrow path, and lost their lives, with many more doing it in the modern day. Saint Stephen the Protomartyr and all those since him could have easily denied their faith and walked through the wide gate, denying Christ and facing destruction. Yet they took up the ultimate sacrifice. Their willingness to die for their faith defied all worldly logic, though was not in vain, since as Father Matthew the Poor reminds us “Every Martyrdom carries with it a resurrection” echoing today’s message that the most difficult gate is often the one which leads to life.

The second part of the Gospel this week makes the comparison between the false prophets who are “ferocious wolves” that willcome to you in sheep’s clothing” and the true prophets of God. This warning also comes with advice on how to recognise these, giving a metaphor to explain these two and their works.

The Metaphor explains that “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” reminding of that the practice and doctrine produced by someone in the name of God is a likely indicator of whether they follow their own path. This was a clear cut method of recognising God’s work in the first Century, as we see in both the Book of Acts; when Gamaliel tells the Jews to judge the Apostles by the success of their mission, sharing the sentiments of today’s Gospel that “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” We also see this applied in the Didache when they list the traits of someone who is a false prophet based on their approaches to their mission. 

Throughout the Church there have always been false teachers, the many writings against heresies have demonstrated this. We have seen the teachings of Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches and others try to strangle the Church, only to be condemned by the true teachers of Orthodoxy such as Athanasius, Cyril and Severus. The fruits of these vines speak for themselves in the manner that the Gospel states, drawing us to seek them for our spiritual food instead of the false teachers of the world. It is by this fruit that we see that the Orthodox faith is indeed supported by the True teachers of the faith, helping us to know that it is the True Bride of Christ and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” 

In our own lives, we also need to make sure that what we produce is the fruit of good labour and that we are not the thistles and thorn bushes which Christ warns of. During our fast we need to make sure that we do not become like the Pharisees who wore their faith on the outside but had little fruit to show for it. When fasting, we should take the advice of Abba Isidore and remind ourselves that during Lent “It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself." If we hold the fast but do not gain from it, then we may as well not fast. This leads us to our final crossroad on this threefold Gospel reading, the true and false disciples. 

Of the three topics, this is easily the most difficult to approach and the personal to write about. The first looked at our lifestyles, the second at our influence and now the third speaks of us. As well as this, there is no warning or metaphor or explanation to guide us on how to know the true follower, simply the point that the true follower is “only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

When seeking to understand God’s will for us, we have a number of sources we can search. We can look in scripture to find inspiration, we can seek the words of the Church Fathers, we can ask our own clergy or we can pray on the matter, hoping that of those who cry “lord, lord”, we will be amongst those who find the Kingdom. This is again a struggle we will face and can be tempted to avoid though, as the Russian writer Philaret of Moscow write, “If you live without struggle and without hope of becoming holy, you are Christians only in name and not in essence.” Remembering this fact we must seek God in all humility, following the narrow path and the true teachers of his faith. Only then will we understand how to be Christians in truth and not just in name.

In this Gospel message we learn three important pieces of information to guide us through our lives. Firstly we are told that the path of the Christian faith will not be easy and that we should expect to be burdened. We are then told that not all of the advice we are given will be true, that many will try to sway us from God. Lastly we are told that in order to find the Kingdom of God we should do God’s will and contemplate the meaning of this in our prayers and actions.

Rest assured, if we plan our spiritual life as we would any long journey by accepting to carry the weight we are given, seeking good guidance and following the path we are shown, we will reach our goal of being able to call ourselves true followers of Christ in substance and not just in name. 

Sermon by Dcn Daniel on 2nd Saturday of Lent 2014. St George & St Paul the Hermit Orthodox Church, London