Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Do we always honour God by following His commandments?

Yesterday, someone came into the church and asked me where she might be able to buy unleavened bread. I told her she’d be better off trying a Jewish shop if she was on the lookout for matzos, but wondered why she was so keen to get her hand on some.  She replied: “I was reading the Old Testament and saw that God wants us to eat unleavened bread. If God says something, we should do it. If I can praise God by eating a different type of bread, isn’t it a good thing to do?”

This is a good example of what happens when someone just picks up a Bible and reads a random verse or chapter without any consideration for the context. However, the relationship between Christian life and the Old Testament Law is something many seem to struggle with. Christians are often called hypocrites or accused of cherry-picking by secularists because they consider homosexual or pre-marital relations a sin while they happily chow down seafood, also called abominable in the book of Leviticus. This is not helped by certain fundamentalist pastors (mainly in the U.S., but not only) who call for homosexuals to be put to death as a Biblical answer to the AIDS epidemic (as featured in the news this month). The latter example is extreme and limited (not to mention silly), but the underlying problem – not understanding the proper Christian attitude to the Law of Moses – is common. That it should be so is unfortunate since it is a dominant theme running through almost all the books of the New Testament, and so one has to conclude that these people have only read these superficially, if at all.

St. Paul is very clear: “the law was our guardian [the Greek word here is probably better translated “tutor” or “nanny”] until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:24-25). The Law is not simply disregarded, but was given to a specific people for a specific reason and until a specific time. Truth will always be truth, falsehood will always be falsehood. But a precept applicable to one time and place will not necessarily be applicable in another. A parent who forbids his underage child to consume alcohol has not changed his mind if he allows the same child to drink after he turns 18. The rule has not been ignored, but has been fulfilled. Hence Christ says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17).

Thus, in order to answer the original question, “If God says something, shouldn’t we do it to honour Him?” one must first ask “Why did He say it? When? and, To whom?”

If your spouse or a dear friend has to go away for several months and they give you a photograph to keep with you until they return, you can honour them in their absence by keeping the picture in a particular place, looking at it, perhaps even kissing or talking to it. However, if when they return you pay no attention to them, but instead continue staring at the picture, this former sign of affection becomes a dishonour.

An example: Before the coming of Christ, God was honoured by the keeping of the Passover and the keeping alive of the memory and symbols of things to come. Now that Christ has come, God is honoured by us keeping the Christian Passover (Pascha), where we celebrate the realisation of these symbols. If we continue to celebrate the Israelites’ redemption from Pharaoh and slavery, but not our deliverance from the devil and sin; if we celebrate the lamb’s blood smeared over the doors, but not the Blood of the Lamb poured out for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins; if we celebrate the Israelites being led to the Holy Land by Jesus (Joshua) of Navi, but not Jesus the Son of God opening up to us the doors of Paradise, then we do not honour God by our observance.
There is much more to say on the subject, but I felt like sharing this little incident since it is a question that seems to trouble many sincere and devoted believers. In the end our visitor decided not to continue on her matzo-hunt, but instead to join us for a service in the near future.

Monday, 14 July 2014

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite and a life of purpose

Today we celebrated the memory of one of my favourite Fathers of the Church, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite. His written work, which is extensive, is characterised by a wonderful talent for synthesis. When reading his works, one hears not only the voice of St. Nicodemos himself, but that of St. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Nilus, and other pillars of the faith. The Hagiorite was blessed with an extraordinary memory, and quotes at length from these texts which he knew by heart, word-for-word. His works are therefore a great entry point for anyone wishing to familiarise themselves with the wider patristic corpus.

What I particularly love about St. Nicodemos is his insistence that everything be done with purpose. The Kollyvades movement, for example, of which he was a part, opposed the practice of conducting memorial services on Sundays, the day of the Resurrection, instead of the Sabbath (Saturday), when we remember those who have gone to their rest in the Lord, and of course the Lord’s own burial and descent into Hades. For St. Nicodemos, the moving of memorials from Saturday to Sunday undermined the theological significance of both those days, as well as the memorial service itself. Not only this, but the habit of moving things to the nearest Sunday so as to accommodate those who do not attend church during the week risks making Christianity a Sunday-only religion, rather than an integral part of ones daily life. Indeed, in his Christian Morality, the saint laments how laypeople in his day only attended church twice or thrice a week, rather than twice a day (for Vespers and Matins) as had always been the norm for pious Christians since the early Church.

Yet this tendency is also what makes St. Nicodemos, like many of the other Fathers, unpalatable for some modern readers. They find him overly harsh for calling condemnable everyday things that most of us consider perfectly harmless. He is dismissed as a fanatic, a monastic zealot, not suitable for lay readers. Yet his apparent fanaticism stems precisely from this insistence that all we do must have purpose and meaning. It is the very antithesis of the pharisaism and legalism of which he, and those like him, are often accused. A Pharisee is one who does things for their own sake, without care for or to the detriment of their actual purpose or meaning. St. Nicodemos strict approach, however, stems from his desire to avoid precisely such an empty and meaningless observance of ritual and rules. For him, conducting memorials on Sunday for the sake of convenience, for example, is a pharisaic act, reducing the memorial to an empty ritual by removing it from its theological context.

As men of constant prayer, the Church Fathers made no real distinction between the religious and secular. God must stand at the centre of all aspects of life. For this reason, St. Nicodemos’ insistence on purpose extends beyond what we normally think of as exclusively religious. He condemns, for example, the playing of board games, secular music and dancing. He does this not because they are in and of themselves wicked things, but because they are distractions and a waste of time, time given to us for repentance, for drawing nearer to God, time which we will never be able to regain once lost, precious hours, minutes and seconds those who died without repentance would give anything to get back. Had he lived today, I am confident the longest chapters in Christian Morality would have dealt with all the time wasted on YouTube and social media. If something cannot bring us closer to God, then it is void of purpose, and if it is void of purpose it is ultimately destructive, no matter how benign a thing it may seem to be in and of itself. If we are offended by such admonitions, it is ultimately because we view the call to repentance, the call to a closer relationship with Christ, as something negative. Rather than seeing this as a positive call to lay aside our earthly cares to make room for something deeper and better, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, we staunchly cling to the various comforts and addictions from which we derive temporal pleasure, and interpret any attempt to call us out of our complacency as an unwarranted attack on our person.

The extent to which we apply his words to our own lives is naturally a matter of personal discretion and requires the discernment of one’s spiritual father. As with any spiritual text, including the Divine Scriptures, caution is needed, as many fall prey to “temptations from the right”, attempting to do too much too soon, burning out and falling into despair or faithlessness as a result. Nonetheless, when we analyse our reaction to his words, we see that they become a mirror in which we can catch a glimpse of our true spiritual condition. When the saint calls us to this higher, more purposeful way of life, it is one thing to answer “I’m not ready” or “I’m too weak” in honest humility and quite another to proudly dismiss the call as foolishness or backward extremism. We seem to forget that it was not a zealot monk, but the Lord Himself, who said, “If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.”

May the prayers and wisdom of our holy father Nicodemos help us lead a life of greater purpose and to meet the call to turn to Christ with enthusiasm and joy, not prideful resistance.