The 7th Ecumenical Council and the Importance of Icons

Yesterday, October 11, the Orthodox honored the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council who affirmed that icons are necessary for proclaiming the incarnation of God.  David Bell explains:

“The iconoclasts have forgotten the Incarnation and the fact that at that stupendous moment the bodiless and invisible God became embodied in visible humanity: ‘In former times God, who has no body and no form, could not be depicted in any way. But now, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among human being, I depict God who can be seen. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who deigned to dwell in matter and who brought about my salvation through matter. I will never stop honoring the matter through which my salvation was brought about.’ (John of Damascus)

An icon of Christ, therefore, is not merely something to remind us of our Redeemer, but a true symbol of the incarnation. As God revealed himself in the created stuff of flesh and blood, so he may reveal himself in the created stuff of wood and paint. An icon is a revelation of God through matter just as the Incarnation was a revelation of God through matter, and the fact that one was a perfect revelation while the other is imperfect does not negate the basic principle: they are both images. In summary, therefore, John of Damascus makes four main points: (i) evidence for images can be found in the Old Testament itself and they are extremely useful for teaching an illiterate population; (ii) an image need not be identical to its prototype in order to be called an image; (iii) the true worship of God and the veneration (or ‘relational worship’) of images are quite distinct; and (iv) images of Christ bear eloquent witness to the New Dispensation and are clear testimony to the reality and importance of the Incarnation.” (Many Mansions, pp 273-274)

Marriage: To Help Your Spouse Grow

“Because marriage is such a wonderful type of relationship, confrontation within the marital relationship is very important. You are a central delivery system for grace and truth in your spouse’s life and vice versa. You have a responsibility to both care for and confront one another. You are an agent for change and growth in each other. Love does not blind either of you to the other’s problems; in fact, love demands that you pay attention to them so that you can help resolve them. Who is better qualified to understand and speak to someone about a problem than the person who is living life right next to him? You are intimately involved with him. You see the real person, imperfections and all. His ways and actions affect you; you are not dispassionate about him.

More than anyone, a spouse should be able to see what her partner’s true problems are. This idea, however, is foreign to some people. They have the notion that their spouse’s job is to make them happy. Then when they are not happy, they think their spouse is not doing what he should be doing. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Marriage is not about making each other happy; it is about growing and helping one’s spouse to grow. Good marriages are a large part of how the body of Christ ‘grows and builds itself up in love’ (Eph. 4:16). Happiness can and does come to a good marriage. Happiness, however, is a byproduct of growth and life. It is not the goal.” (Dr. Henry Cloud, Boundaries Face to Face, pp 192-193)

Godly Mourning

St. Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth:

“For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it.  For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while.  Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance.  For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing.  For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication!  In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.”  (2 Corinthians 7:8-11)

Abba Poeman in the Desert Fathers teaches us about this godly sorrow:

“A brother questioned Abba Poeman, ‘What ought I to do about all the turmoils that trouble me?’ The old man said to him, ‘In all our afflictions let us weep in the presence of the goodness of God, until he shows mercy on us.’” (Poeman in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 185)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)

Pride and Prayer

“I had a talk yesterday with Tom about prayer, or rather about the contemporary obsession with the ‘problem of prayer’. I am sure that this contemporary prayer is rooted in the same old pride. The essential in it is missing – one’s submersion into God. A person praying like this is affirming himself in prayer, is searching for himself, is loving himself, is proving something to himself. Then he becomes interested in prayer and studies its technique. O Lord, how much in religion makes me….sick!” (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p 128)

Our immediate goal when we pray is to put ourselves in the presence of God.  Then it is to know God.  In prayer, we are not searching for our self, we are always seeking God.  We don’t aim to make God the servant of our will and wants, but to make ourselves God’s servants in order to do God’s will.  Prayer is thus always relational – it is not about technique, but about maintaining one’s relationship with the Living God.

The Lord Turned My Mourning into Dancing

Yesterday morning, I had my first CT Scan since completing the chemotherapy.  The scans will be done vigilantly every few months for the next several years to search for any sign of the cancer returning.  Yesterday afternoon, I received a call from the oncologist’s office that the scan found no sign of cancer.  This was the hoped for news, and it brought joy to my heart.  Of course this scan was done but a few short weeks after the chemotherapy, and so I was expecting good news.  Thanks be to God!   At least for the next few months I can be thankful for the good news I received today.


The Blessedness of Answered Prayer

I will extol You, O LORD, for You have lifted me up,
And have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O LORD my God, I cried out to You,
And You healed me.
O LORD, You brought my soul up from the grave;
You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.


Sing praise to the LORD, you saints of His,
And give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name.
For His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for life;
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.

Now in my prosperity I said,
“I shall never be moved.”
LORD, by Your favor You have made my mountain stand strong;
You hid Your face, and I was troubled.
I cried out to You, O LORD;
And to the LORD I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my blood,
When I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise You?
Will it declare Your truth?
Hear, O LORD, and have mercy on me;
LORD, be my helper!”

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

Note that as in Psalm 103, the Lord’s anger does not last forever, but only for a moment.   Here we see that God is love.  Unlike some of us who are angry all the time and keep grudges and never forget or forgive, God does not stay angry or displeased forever.

The Lord Jesus taught:

“But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.

Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  (Luke 6:32-36)

In Praise of the Creator of Beauty

Sirach 43:1-12 offers praise for God the Creator of the world.

The pride of the higher realms is the clear vault of the sky,
as glorious to behold as the sight of the heavens.
The sun, when it appears, proclaims as it rises
what a marvelous instrument it is, the work of the Most High.
At noon it parches the land,
and who can withstand its burning heat?
. . .
Great is the Lord who made it;
at his orders it hurries on its course.
It is the moon that marks the changing seasons,
governing the times, their everlasting sign.
From the moon comes the sign for festal days,
a light that wanes when it completes its course.
The new moon, as its name suggests, renews itself;
how marvelous it is in this change,
a beacon to the hosts on high,
shining in the vault of the heavens!
NASA Photo
NASA Photo
The glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven,
a glittering array in the heights of the Lord.
On the orders of the Holy One they stand in their appointed places;
they never relax in their watches.
Look at the rainbow, and praise him who made it;
it is exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.
It encircles the sky with its glorious arc;
the hands of the Most High have stretched it out.

Sitting at the Right Hand of Christ

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus, and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  (Mark 10:35-40)

“The disciples, not knowing what they asked for, wanted to be on the right hand and the left hand of Jesus when he comes in glory. What such a request actually entails is revealed when we see Jesus positioned, or rather enthroned, between two thieves, one on his right hand and the other on his left, on the Cross. Christ comes into his glory on the Cross. This demolishes all our conceptions of what glory is, all our assumptions about honor and power. Indeed, it turns on its head our image of who and what God is: God is not a despot who exercises his power by imposing his will, who glorifies in the subservience of his subjects, or who responds to their petty requests.

No, God reveals his power in weakness, his wisdom in folly, his glory on the Cross, and his irresistibly will in the love he makes manifest in this way. … Jesus specifically says: the Son of man came to serve and give his life as a ransom for all, and so whoever would be the first must be the slave of all. (Matthew 20:27-28” (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycle of the Year, pp 46-47)

The Salvation of the World

Christianity does not exist just for Christians.  Rather Christianity – the Church – exists to be a light to the world and to be the salt of the earth.  Christianity exists for the salvation of humankind.  In the Church we need to consider all of those lines in the Liturgy which speak in one form or another about “all mankind” or “on behalf of all and for all.”

“How can Christianity relate to culture when Christians are supposedly ‘in the world but not of the world’? Certainly the dismissal of any ecclesiastical attitude towards humanity that might emanate from an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality would be a step in the right direction.  [Archbishop Lazar] Puhalo’s entire theology of culture rests upon the premise that Christ did not come to create barriers but to remove them.

Co-suffering love knows no boundaries and this very fact alone demonstrates that the Gospel ‘is about the fate of all mankind (and) not just about Christian and their institutions. That the Son of God took on an earthly life and interacted with the world around him means that this is the only possible path for the Orthodox Church as well. According to Leonid Ouspensky, Christ’s own example to the Church means that ‘the Church will continue until the consummation of the ages to collect all authentic realities outside of itself, even those which are incomplete and imperfect, in order to integrate them into the fullness of the revelation and allow them to participate in the divine life. In the North American context, this has been demonstrated best through the Orthodox encounter with native cultures.

Matthew 11:28

Puhalo’s own emphasis of the pre-existence of the Church in the pre-eternal will of God must certainly mean that it would be inconceivable to think of the Church as a reality existing only on the periphery of humanity. According to Maximos the Confessor, since man’s very creation implies salvation, the very possession of the human nature also implies incorporation of man and his activities into God’s plan, i.e., his Church. The road for mankind to deification can only pass through life on this earth and all of the struggles that accompany that life. Creation in God’s image already signifies an ecclesial identity. As Puhalo puts it, ‘All mankind is born with the grace to know that God exists and also, with the grace to know that one must seek God.’” (Andrew J. Sopko, For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love, pp 134-135)

Orthodox Chapel at Dachau

A Historical Look at the Vespers Service

Vespers is the evening prayer service in the daily cycle of liturgical services.  It can be done every day of the year and is designed to be done at sunset each day. Archbishop Job Getcha offers us some idea as to when the various elements in our current Vespers service became part of the rubrics for Vespers.

“In the sung office, Psalm 103 followed Psalm 85 at vespers on Sunday evening. We do not know precisely when this psalm entered […] the first allusion to it appears in the seventy third of the Great Catecheses of Theodore the Studite (8th c.) […] During Psalm 103, the priest silently recites the presbyteral prayers taken from the Constantinople Euchologion, a reform introduced in the fourteenth century through the Diataxis of Patriarch Philotheos. […]

One thing we can note is that throughout history, Orthodox liturgical services have undergone changes.  Some changes were introduced for practical reasons, some for pastoral reasons.  After the 14th Century, many changes occurred in Orthodox liturgical rubrics as monastic practices replaced long standing liturgical practices in non-monastic parish churches.  The hymns and rubrics which make up our current services entered into the services in different centuries and reflect the changing nature of liturgical services.

Psalmist & Prophet David

Then follows the singing of the lucernarium – the evening psalms (140,141,129, and 116), the first of which formed part of the evening office already in the ancient Jewish Temple. It contains an allusion to the incense offered during the evening prayer and asks that this prayer may rise to God like incense. It is attested as well in the Account of John and Sophronios (7th c.) […] We note the presence of a refrain for the first two verses of Psalm 41:

Lord I call upon you, hear me. (Ps. 140.1)

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.

Lord. I call upon you, hear me. Receive the voice of my prayer when I call upon you. (Ps. 140.1)

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.

Let my prayer rise like incense before you, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.


 […] Vespers then continues with the evening hymn, ‘O Gladsome Light’, a hymn already referred to by St. Basil as very ancient. […] The Jewish tradition, in which is rooted the prayer of the very first Church of Jerusalem, also had the practice of offering thanks for the artificial light that was lit at sunset. The Book of Exodus in the Old Testament already witnesses to the fact that the Jews observed a ritual connected to the evening light: at the evening sacrifice, when the lights were lit, incense was offered to the Lord. The incense did not have the banal sense it has today (of ‘incensing’ objects), but was used only to symbolize the offering that rises towards God. The lamps were lit from a candle that burned permanently inside the Tent of the Covenant (see Lev. 24.1).

 It is interesting to note that this evening ritual was preserved by the Jews even after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem: the Talmud reminded them that it is God himself that they praised and glorified in performing this ritual. The Church of Jerusalem inherited this tradition, and after the construction of the Anastasis complex around 335, it became customary to keep a lamp burning permanently in the Holy Sepulcher, from which all other lamps were lit at the proper moment in the Lucernare. […] This custom, originating from both Jewish and pagan antiquity, was thus taken up by the ancient Christ tradition. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225), in speaking of a Christian meal, indicates that, after the light is brought in, each Christian is to stand and sing a hymn to God, either taken from the Holy Scriptures or inspired from his heart. The Apostolic Tradition, attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215) indicates that at the evening office the deacon brings a lamp, and the bishop says a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the illumination from the immaterial light through his only-begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330- c. 395) in the Vita that he composed of his sister, St. Macrina, also mentions a hymn connected to the bringing of the light during the evening prayer. It is therefore in this ancient custom of giving thanks during the lighting of the lamps at sunset that the hymn was composed and became the hymn of Byzantine vespers. […]

The prayer, ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord’, follows, already attested to at this point in the service by the Account of John and Sophronios (7th c.).[…] Then the Canticle of Symeon (Lk. 2.19-32) is recited. … it is possible that this canticle was chosen in connection with the dismissal of vespers.” (The Typikon Decoded, pp 87-91)

“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:29-32)

The Greatest Form of Love: To Love One’s Enemies

“The highest expression of love, and the surest criterion of Christian truth, is love of enemies, says the Saint [Silouan the Athonite]. True love cannot suffer a single soul to perish. For Christ there are no ‘enemies’, for the very word implies rejection. They are brothers and sisters who need our love and prayers. Christ prayed for those who crucified Him. Saint Stephen the First Martyr prayed for those who stoned him.

So we must urge ourselves to love those who revile or injure us. If we can not love, at least let us not revile. A person who reviles or despises those who are against him, brings spiritual injury to himself and shows that an evil spirit is working in him. But divine love cannot be attained by human beings without divine grace. We cannot love our enemies without having the Holy Spirit. When we humble ourselves and pray for those who affront us, God works the impossible things in the heart.

On one occasion Silouan states that the soul is so wounded by divine loves that it ‘loses it wits.’ Even devils can rouse its pity because they were once God’s creatures now fallen from the good.” (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, The Way of Christ: Gospel, Spiritual Life and Renewal in Orthodoxy, pp 122-123)