Monday, 31 December 2012

Review: Journey to the Kingdom

An Insider's Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church

If you buy this book hoping for an explanation of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, you will not be disappointed. In a style that is fresh and approachable, Fr. Vassilios takes the reader through every step of the Liturgy, explaining in detail their primary themes, their meaning and purpose. However, I have to disagree with the author when he writes that “this book could be regarded as a form of liturgical catechism.” It should be regarded as a form of catechism, for that is precisely what it really is. Already by the third chapter, the reader has been provided with a concise and wonderfully clear exposition of Orthodox Triadology, Christology, and the incarnational theology behind icons (the major themes of the 7 Ecumenical Councils), as well as the role of the laity and bishop in forming the Church’s catholicity, among other things. An overview of Church history is obviously beyond the scope of this work, but that aside it is as complete a catechism as any other. What makes this book so much more engaging than other catechisms or introductions to the Orthodox Church, though, is that, being structured around the Divine Liturgy, it is connected to something dynamic and tangible, to sights and sounds, ‘smells and bells’. It thereby avoids the theoretical abstractions and dry formalities that put so many people off the study of theology. This book is theology in action. Fr. Vassilios presents the teachings of the Church in a way any reader can relate to, and shows us that they are not irrelevant philosophies contained in dusty old books, but are deeply practical and meaningful to every Christian. Through the prayers and structure of the Liturgy, he also brings out the major themes of Christian spiritual life – love, humility, sin, repentance, etc. – presenting the timeless wisdom  of Orthodox spirituality in a way that, once again, is engaging and relatable. His explanation of the traditional Orthodox understanding of ‘temptation’ – a word most of us probably think we know the meaning of - in his chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, for example, is one many will probably find surprising and refreshing.

Furthermore, one of the things that have always irked me about many introductions to the Orthodox Church is that what these books and articles really concern are the obvious differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and/or Protestantism – veneration of icons, intercession of the Mother of God and the saints, conciliarity vs. papacy, etc. – rather than what Orthodoxy actually is: a living and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. While Fr. Vassilios addresses all those issues, this book, by approaching the Orthodox Church through its worship, shows you Orthodoxy on its own terms, rather than in comparison to something else. It is therefore much more balanced than many other works, never allowing itself to be sidetracked by exotic peculiarities and lose sight of the ‘one thing needful’. In a time when people are increasingly unaffiliated with any kind of Christian confession, this is very important indeed.

Those who are already familiar with Fr. Vassilios’ essays and articles will know that he has a talent for presenting difficult and complex subjects in a way that is simple, but not simplistic. This book is no exception. Everything he writes is expressed in a way that is clear, straight forward and easy to understand, but without any sense of ‘dumbing down’. Each of the 20 chapters is short – around 10 pages – which makes it easy to get through without feeling tired, and makes it particularly well suited for use in catechism classes. A good way to get the most out of the book would be to sit down with the text of the Divine Liturgy and read the relevant sections after each chapter. I also really liked the use of caption boxes to explain words and concepts mentioned in the text, rather than relegating them to the forbidding realm of bulky footnotes. The beautifully drawn treasure map on p.7 provides the reader with a wonderfully original way of learning and remembering the structure of the Liturgy, while the photographs that accompany each chapter will be particularly helpful for inquirers who have yet to attend an Orthodox service.

In short, this is an excellent book, equally suited to inquirers and lifelong Orthodox Christians, and one I have already recommended to several people belonging to both those categories.

For more information, sample pages, and other reviews, please see the entry.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Encountering the Word of God

After reading a recent blog on biblical inerrancy, I began thinking about my first encounter with the Bible. I had intended to use this highly subjective anecdote as part of a longer blog post, one with an argument, a point, a conclusion: sacred reading as a form of prayer (the listening part rather than the speaking part we normally make due with) was one topic that came to mind. Perhaps another time...

Growing up as a nominal, non-practicing, cultural 'Christian' my only experience of the Holy Scriptures had been through my occasionally perused illustrated children's Bible, which was no Bible at all, but merely a superficial retelling of the main narratives of the Bible in the form of 365 short stories. I was familiar with some of the more well known sayings of Christ - the Sermon on the Mount, 'Go sell all ye have', and so on - but I was entirely ignorant of even the basic tenets of Christianity and had never even heard the words 'Trinity' or 'Incarnation'. That Christ is God was an idea entirely foreign to me, and so I understood His words to be those of a holy man, a prophet who bore the title 'son of God' merely as an honourific one, not the words of God. I still remember the first time I opened a real Bible - a leatherbound copy of the Authorised Version I had received at school aged 11. While I remember well receiving it, I don't recall exactly when I first attempted to read it. Having then only been in England for a few months, still trying to get the hang of 20th century English, I was not quite ready for the 17th century English of the KJV! In any case, I remember turning to one of the Old Testament prophets and coming across the words 'Thus saith the Lord'. Reading the words of God Himself - something I never realised I could find in what I thought was little more than a story book - gave me goosebumps, made my hairs stand on end, and filled me with such an awe that I had to close the Book after just a few lines. The words themselves did not matter at that time - I, dust of the earth, had heard God speak: He was knowable, He was personal. Only later when I came to learn about His Incarnation ('the reason for the season') did I realise just how personal!

Monday, 17 December 2012

AXIOS! HH Yohanna X of Antioch

His Eminence John (Yazigi), Metropolitan of Western and Central Europe has been elected to become the new Patriarch of Antioch, following the recent repose of His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius (Hazem) IV a couple of weeks ago. May God grant the new Patriarch strength, particularly now with the unfolding tragedies in Syria, where his flock is facing a period of persecution and martyrdom!

From the Orthodoxwiki entry:
His Eminence Metropolitan John (Yazigi) heads the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Western and Central Europe headquartered in Paris, France. Before his election and enthronement as Metropolitan, he had been titular bishop of Pyrgou (al-Hosn), Syria. He was also formerly the dean of the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology (Tripoli, Lebanon), the patriarchal seminary attached to the University of Balamand.

His Eminence has a Degree in Theology from the Balamand seminary (1978), a Diploma in Byzantine Music from the Byzantine Music Conservatory in Thessalonica (1981), and a PhD. in Theology with a specialization in Liturgics from the University of Thessalonica (1983). While at the Balamand, he served as Professor of Liturgics (1981-2008), as well as in the abbacy of St. George Al-Humayrah Patriarchal Monastery (1993-2005) and the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand (2001-2005).

His Eminence is also the author of numerous books and articles on Orthodox theology and liturgics.

Christ is born! The Katavasies of Christmas in English

Chanted by the Romeiko Ensemble

Ode One.
Christ is born; therefore, glorify! * Christ is come from heaven; encounter Him. * Christ is on earth; arise to Him. * Sing to the Lord, all you who dwell on the earth; * and in merry spirits, O you peoples, praise His birth. * For He is glorified.
Ode Three
To the Son, begotten * without flux, of the Father, before the ages, * and who was lately made incarnate * of the Virgin without seed; * to Christ God now let us cry aloud: * You have exalted the horn of our strength. Only You are holy, O Lord.
Ode Four
Jesse’s root produced a branch, O Christ, * and You its flower blossomed forth, * from the Virgin who by H√°bakkuk prophetically once was called * overshadowed, dense mountain. * From her who knew not man You came incarnate, * the immaterial God. * Glory to Your power, O Lord.
Ode Five
God of peace and Father of mercies, Your Son * You have sent unto us as Your messenger, * the Angel of great counsel who is granting us Your peace. * Therefore having been guided to the light of godly knowledge, * waking from the night to dawn, we sing Your glory, O Lover of man.
Ode Six
Such as it received * Jonah as an embryo, the sea beast disgorged him from its bowels intact. * With the Virgin, though, when the Logos had dwelt in her taking on flesh, * He came forth from her preserving her yet incorrupt. * For from her no fluxion suffered He, * and He kept her unaltered in childbirth.
Ode Seven
The children nurtured piously together, * with contempt regarding the impious king’s decree, * intrepidly faced the threat of holocaust, * and while standing in the midst of flames they chanted thus, * saying: O God of our fathers, You are blessed.
We praise, and we bless, and we worship the Lord.
Ode Eight
Babylon’s bedewing furnace bore the image * of an extraordinary wonder. * For it did not burn the youths it accepted, * nor did the fire of Divinity consume the Virgin’s womb wherein it went. * So let us melodiously chant in praise: * Let all creation bless and extol the Lord, * and let it exalt Him supremely to the ages.