Modesty and Girl Power

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I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want: for modest, feminine beauty to be appreciated as it once was and for women to stop rating themselves and each other based on sexual desirability. I know, it’s a goal which is highly idealistic, but I believe women can snap out of it and not only get over the need to turn heads, but also learn the great value of modesty and humility.

In Western culture, up to World War I, women of any sort of social respectability wore extremely modest clothing that left relatively little skin showing.  After the war, hemlines got higher and dress style became less restrictive. Women were gaining more rights and independence and this meant they had more freedom in their choice of clothing.

As times changed and our society moved from Modernism to Post-Modernism, women’s fashion became more and more sexually provocative.  For some reason the move toward sexier clothing was attributed to women’s liberation and the sexual revolution.  But this kind of “liberation” only ended up perpetuating the objectification of women. Although we were no longer tightly laced into corsets, we became constrained by something worse: the pressure to always look young and sexy.

Today there are hardly any social expectations when it comes to modesty. You could walk down the street in little more than your underwear and most people would hardly bat an eye. And according to most magazine covers, it is considered a major achievement for a woman to look great in a bikini – especially a woman who has either lost weight or had children and now has regained a toned abdomen worthy of showing off. Is this evidence of our liberation? Does being more sexy give us more control and equality? Should having a great body to show off really be considered such a great accomplishment for a woman? Because I think the fact that we see this as some kind of ultimate goal only demeans us.

That said, the prevailing attitudes about female beauty pose quite a challenge to Orthodox Christian women because our faith takes humility very seriously. The Gospel teaches us that true power comes from humility and warns us of the deceitfulness of vanity. Even so, when we walk through the mall and see the latest fashion trends on display, we can easily forget that certain clothing, although socially acceptable, is not appropriate for Christians to wear. And Christians really need to be careful not to compromise their piety for the sake of dressing fashionably.

The Orthodox Christian faith teaches that in order to worship God, we must first put aside our earthly cares, vanity and pride. Orthodox Christians, as you are being mindful of your life: to pray, fast and give alms, be mindful about letting the clothing you wear reflect a humble heart. Do it out of your personal desire to honour God, as well as out of respect for those around you.

I know it’s not the 1800’s anymore and no one expects a woman to cover herself from the top of her neck to the tips of her toes.  But Orthodox ladies, I’m going to be very blunt right now: we don’t want or need to see your thighs, midriff or cleavage. We don’t want to be able to see the outline of your every curve through your Lycra blend clothing. We don’t want to see your breasts on display, as if served up on a platter. Please spare your Christian brothers and sisters the awkwardness and embarrassment of seeing too much of you.

What I really, really want is for women to reclaim their beauty in all its wholeness and goodness, to respect it and be wary of how easily anyone can fall into the sin of vanity. There are so many temptations in this world; why should we add to them?  God gifted women with beauty.  Of the two sexes, let’s face it, we are the pretty ones.  But God didn’t give us beauty so that we could seduce everyone around us, or please the lustful eyes of others; he gave us beauty to glorify Him.  Sure it feels good to be told you’re attractive and if “you’ve got it” society says you should flaunt it. A scantily clad woman may be able to attract men like moths to a flame, but for a Christian, it is far better to attract the grace of God.

St. Isaac the Syrian said

Even devils in their craftiness and beastly manners and with their arrogant minds; they become like dust when they face a modest person.

And St. Anthony the Great had said,

I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”

Many times we are admonished in the Scriptures to put certain things on while taking other things off. For example, in Colossians chapter 3 we are told to put off anger, wrath, malice and blasphemy and instead put on tender mercies, kindness, humility and meekness. Then Paul writes “but above all these things put on love.” Ah yes, the first and most important commandment: love. This is the key to humility. By contrast, without love, there can be no humility.

We work so hard sometimes to look great on the outside and forget to work on the true substance of who we are, the part that is eternal, the part that God sees. So as St. Peter says:

Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.

So, put on love…and for goodness sake put some clothes on too.

On Marriage and Family Life – Royal Martyr Alexandra Fedorovna

Today we remember the July 17th, 1918 martyrdom of Tsar Nicholas of Russia and his family. In honour of their memory, I wanted to share an article which I found extremely helpful and inspiring. It shares a collection of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna’s writings on marriage and family life.

FamilyTsar

 

On Marriage and Family Life

Excerpts from notes made by the Royal Martyr Empress Alexandra Fedorovna

Matrimony is a blessing from God

The divine design is to have marriage bring happiness, to have it make the husband’s and wife’s life fuller, so that neither of them would lose, but both would gain. However, if the marriage does not bring happiness and does not make life richer and fuller, the fault lies not in the matrimonial ties, but in the people who are bound by them.

Marriage is a divine rite. It was part of God’s design when He created man. It is the closest and the most holy union on earth.

The anniversary of marriage must always be remembered and must be distinguished among other important dates in one’s life. It is the day whose light will shine upon all other days until the end of life. The joy arising from entering into matrimony is not turbulent, but calm and profound. Over the wedded pair standing before the altar, when hands are joined and sacred promises are made, angels invisibly stand and quietly sing their songs, and afterwards they cover the happy pair with their wings, as the newlyweds’ mutual life begins.

Without God’s blessing, without His sanctification of the marriage, all the congratulations and best wishes of relatives will remain an empty sound. Without His daily blessing of married life even the most tender and true love will not be able to fulfill the spouses’ hearts. Without the blessing of heaven all the beauty, joy, value of married life may be destroyed at any moment.

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Marriage and True Love

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Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together today. Marriage, that blessed arrangement: that dream within a dream….and love, true love will follow you forever….

These words of wisdom were spoken by The Impressive Clergyman in the movie The Princess Bride and they are a good way to introduce today’s topic. 

So what do you think? Is marriage just a sentimental notion of true love and dreams come true? Do people still live happily ever after…or did they ever? What should we even expect when it comes to marriage? If over 50% of marriages end in divorce anyhow, why should we even bother getting married in the first place? In our modern times, is it even realistic to expect to be with the same partner for life?

Although it is surely not as popular as it once was, marriage continues to be a valued institution in North America and is still more prevalent than common-law relationships. However, the trend over the past decade has been a gradual decrease in marriages and an increase in single-parent homes and common-law relationships. At least, this is what is happening in my home country of Canada. According to the 2011 national census, the number of married couples in Canada only rose by 3.1% between 2006 and 2011, whereas the number of common-law couples rose by 16.7% and the number of single parent homes rose by 16.3% within the same 5 year period. As of 2011, only 63.6% of children aged 14 and under lived with married parents. In 2001 the percentage was 68.4.

In light of these statistics, I want to now turn our focus to marriage as a sacrament in the Orthodox Christian Church. To begin, I want to read you Matthew 19, verses 4 to 6, which shows us what Jesus Christ taught about marriage:

Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.

St. Paul teaches us in Ephesians 5: 28-31 that marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ, the faithful bridegroom laid down his life for his bride. Christian marriage is a living image of this relationship. He writes:

…husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Here Christ and Paul are both alluding to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 2, which tells us how God created mankind. The Bible reveals that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit: an eternal communion, “one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” And it is this eternal, undivided God-in-three-persons who created humanity in His own image and likeness. First He made a man and then out of the rib of the man he formed a woman, the man’s perfect mate and counterpart. The two were made of the same flesh, yet they were two persons; they were co-equal, yet unique in gender.

When Adam and Eve desired to be independent of God, they ceased to be all that God had made them to be and the image of God in them was darkened. The communion with God, which created and sustained them was interrupted. The world became distorted. Knowledge of good and evil did not enlighten them. Independence did not free them.

Outside of the garden, Adam and Eve had to struggle to get by and to live with the tarnished image they now bore. However, they still had a creative mandate from God to “be fruitful and multiply” and to be stewards of His creation.  

This is where the teachings of the Orthodox Church come in. Every teaching is meant to restore the darkened image of God in us to its intended glory and to bring us back into full communion with God.

First of all, Orthodox Christianity teaches that marriage was created and designed by God and is a mystery, otherwise known as a sacrament, through which a man and a woman become “one flesh.” Through this communion, which reflects the image of the Triune God, human beings procreate in order to populate the earth, in cooperation with the creator.

Marriage is a picture of unity and love, reconciliation and co-operation and it can be redemptive, if we seek Christ in it. It is not an end, rather it has been given to us as one way to work out our salvation. Not everyone will be called to marriage, so the decision to do so should be made very carefully. However those who are married must remember that it is indeed a calling and its purpose is for the image of God to be manifested more in us. 

In the Orthodox wedding service, the bride and groom have crowns placed upon their heads. These crowns have several symbolic meanings. First of all, they are like the crowns of athletes. In ancient times crowns were given instead of gold medals in athletic competitions. St. Paul compared our life in Christ to an athlete running a race to receive a crown, although the crown we receive for perseverance in faith is eternal. Secondly the crowns symbolize that the husband and wife are now the king and queen of their own little kingdom within God’s kingdom, which is their family. Thirdly the crowns are associated with martyrdom and the calling of the husband and wife to die to their own selfish motives and instead to love and serve one another. Just as martyrs offer their lives to God, a husband and wife should love each other sacrificially. 

What motivates anyone to get married these days? Is our culture just too jaded to believe nothing can stop true love – not even being mostly dead all day? I don’t think so. I think something deep within us keeps hoping for an unseen ideal, longing for happily ever after. I believe this is because God created us this way and he created marriage to be holy and good. I also believe that if we look to God, the source of life and love, we will find the motivation and the strength to form healthy marriages which last into eternity. It won’t always be like riding off into the sunset, of course. Sometimes you may find yourselves in a fire swamp being chased by a rodent of unusual size. But marriage, by its very nature will always be blessed by God. Whether It feels like a marathon, a martyrdom or a monarchy, marriage crowns us with glory and honour.

I’ll end with a quote from the Royal Martyr Empress Alexandra Fedorovna:

When the beauty of the face fades, the shining of the eyes dims, and with age come wrinkles, or when illnesses, sorrows, and cares leave their traces and scars, the love of a faithful husband should remain just as deep and sincere as before. There are no measurements on earth that are capable of measuring the depth of Christ’s love for His Church, and not a single mortal can love with the same depth of feeling, but nevertheless each husband must do it to the extent that such love can be recreated on earth. No sacrifice will appear too great to him for the sake of his beloved.

Sure, that sounds a little bit like a fairy tale, but it’s one that rings true. True Love is God’s love and you could not ask for a more noble cause than that.

God’s Mom

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Last time I talked about fathers and the Fatherly love of God. This week I am going to talk about a very important mother: Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. I occasionally meet non-Orthodox Christians who are uncomfortable with the place Mary takes in our worship of God and our life of faith. 

The purpose of this podcast is to briefly shed some light on two of the major points of contention and hopefully add some clarity and historical perspective to the debate. The first objection that often arises is that, even though Mary is Jesus Christ’s mother, she was still just an ordinary woman who doesn’t deserve an elevated status in the Church.

Many non-Orthodox Christians object to prayers to Mary, making icons of her and celebrating her feastdays. Orthodox Christians would argue that no ordinary woman could give birth to God’s Son, that she was chosen by God because she was a holy young girl whose will was aligned with His Will. She was ordinary only in the sense that she was a human being like the rest of us, but her submission to God set her apart for the most important job any mere human was ever given.

Now, from the early days of Christianity, Mary, Christ’s mother was called “Theotokos” or God-bearer. This title was confirmed at the Third Ecumenical Council in the year 431. Because Christ has two distinct natures, he is fully God and fully man, the council concluded that Mary can therefore be called The Mother of God. Think of it this way: prophets were chosen by God in the past to deliver God’s words to His people; by comparison, Mary was chosen by God to bear the Word of God in her womb and physically deliver Him. There is no Christianity apart from the incarnation of God and Mary played a vital role in it, not only by carrying God in her womb, but also by giving Him flesh and bones of her flesh and bones. This is why we call Mary the New Eve: in the way that Eve came from Adam, the New Adam, Christ, came from her. As the Early Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in Against Heresies:

The Lord, coming into his own creation in visible form, was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. His obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary, a virgin subject to a husband, undid the evil lie that seduced Eve, a virgin espoused to a husband. As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.

The next objection I will address is aimed at the Orthodox belief that Mary is a perpetual virgin and Jesus Christ is her only child. Many Protestants think that the Bible contradicts this belief. In actuality, the belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity is entirely Biblical and well supported by Church tradition. Church fathers such as Athanasius, Epiphanius, Jerome, Augustine and Cyril taught that Mary is ever-virgin and The Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical Council 553-554) twice referred to Mary as “ever-virgin.” Even many early Protestant leaders asserted the same. For example, John Wesley wrote in a “Letter to a Roman Catholic” that “The Blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as when she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin” (In This Rock, Nov. 1990, p.25). We can also see in the Bible that Jesus Christ is Mary’s only child. The strongest example of this is in John 19:26-27

When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

If Mary had other children, Jesus would not have had to entrust his mother to his disciple at the time of his death. And if Mary had other children, this act by Christ would have made no sense whatsoever. This scene at the foot of the cross only makes sense if you conclude that Christ asked John to care for his mother because He was indeed her only son.

But one of the most powerful arguments in defense of the ever-virginity of Mary is simply to consider what kind of madness it would have been for Joseph, a devout Jew to dare touch a woman who had given birth to God. Joseph knew what had happened to Uzzah when he had touched the ark of the covenant – he died instantly. That only held tablets on which God had written. Mary however, is a living ark, which had held God in the flesh. Joseph would never have viewed her as his conjugal partner because of this. He would have certainly kept her pure and cared for her as a father-figure and guardian.

Some will point to the passages in Scripture such as Matthew 12:46, that speak of Jesus having brothers and sisters as proof that believing Mary is “ever-virgin” is unbiblical. Well, the Greek word translated “brothers” in those passages is “adelphi,” which is a translation of an unknown Aramaic word that is then translated as “brothers” in the English. “Adelphi” can mean brothers, or sisters, but also cousins or kinsmen. It is the word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot, who were uncle and nephew. Since the term is not as precise as simply saying “brother” or “cousin” in English, it must be understood according to the context of the given passage in the full context of the entire Scriptures.

Orthodox Christians would not interpret “adelphi” in Matthew 12:46 to mean Jesus’ brothers by Mary. The word “adelphi” in this passage is more than likely used to describe cousins or other relatives in Christ’s extended family. These “brothers” might also be children Joseph may have had from a previous marriage. Either way, there is substantial evidence to support the historic Christian belief in Mary’s ever-virginity.

From the earliest days of Christianity, the Theotokos has been honoured in the Church. The Ecumenical Councils upheld and crystallized Christian teachings about Mary, the Mother of God that had been part of the life of the Church for centuries as Apostolic tradition. Even major figures of the Magisterial Reformation, such as Luther and Calvin retained some traditional Orthodox beliefs about Mary. But as Protestantism developed, the role of Mary in its churches diminished. Some more radical sects rejected all devotion to Mary (and continue to do so to this day). But is it fair, or more specifically, is it wise to discard the first 15 centuries of Christian teaching about Mary? And if not, what role should Mary have in our Christian faith and worship?

The Orthodox Church reveres the great faith and holiness of Mary – she is truly a blessed and glorious woman, more honourable than any other. We sing her praises only because this brings glory to God – nothing she did was for her own glory – and we pray, asking her to pray for us because we know her will is aligned with God’s and that it is for the salvation of the whole world.  Her life amplifies the ancient refrain of the Gospel message that echos from Eden to Gethsemane. She is the quintessential Christian disciple, a beautiful example of faith, humility, long-suffering and selflessness. She loves us all very much and I assure you, it is ok to love her back. It is ok to ask the Mother of our God to pray for you because she always points us to Christ. Feel free to embrace her as a true friend and spiritual mother. Yes, we can approach God directly and with boldness. Loving Mary doesn’t diminish that fact. But she’s God’s mom. Let her be our example of how to welcome the Lord into our hearts without the slightest hesitation. Let us strive to be so intimately united to God. And let us ask the Most Holy Theotokos to pray for us in this regard.

God, Our Father

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Parenting is hard. Actually, it may be the hardest thing out there. As a mother of three growing girls, I can attest to this. Parenting can be as grueling, demanding, exhausting, heart-wrenching and exasperating as it can be wonderful, joyous and rewarding. The physical effort alone that is involved in rocking a crying baby for 2 hours, or chasing a toddler while pregnant, or lugging a stroller, a diaper bag and a 5 year old around a shopping mall is exceptional. Add to that the emotional weight a parent carries and you have a role that is uniquely challenging.

Recently I watched a video online called “The World’s Toughest Job”.  In the video, an interviewer explains to several candidates that this job requires a mandatory 135+ hours of work per week, during which the employee would be on call at all times, day or night. The job also is physically demanding, requiring the employee to stand for hours, do heavy lifting, move almost constantly and function on little to no sleep. In addition to these demands, the position includes no medical or dental benefits, no pension and no paid holidays…in fact, the job provides no salary whatsoever! The interviewees are shocked and indignant when they are told the expectations of their potential employer. Then the interviewer lets them know that thousands of people already hold this same position: mothers. At this point everyone break out in warm fuzzies and the interviewees tearfully express how much their moms mean to them.

In John’s gospel, Chapter 15, verses 12 to 13 Christ says: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. “

Parenting is a laying down of oneself for another person. It’s a role in which we can become a little bit more like Christ. And if we approach this weighty task with humility and a willingness to admit when we are wrong and try better, we will do well by our children. Hopefully we will show them what true love is. Hopefully we will shine the light of Christ.

My dad has always been my hero. When I was little I thought he was practically a giant and surely the strongest and smartest man on earth. He was always there for me: there on weekends and there every evening for family dinner. He taught me to ride a bike and drive a car. He got me my first job. He walked me down the aisle when I got married. He never let me down. When I was about 7 years old, during the recession of the 1980s, my dad lost his job. My parents never let on about how difficult things were, even when Dad was working whatever jobs he could to make ends meet. One summer he took a job in Thunder Bay, which was a 17 hour drive from home. Even so, my mom drove my brother and I that great distance to visit him for a week. To me it was an exciting summer vacation. For my parents it was just the kind of thing you do for your kids. One of my all time favourite pictures of me and my dad was taken during that trip. I am standing beside him with that “This is MY Dad” look on my face and he is smiling as if life couldn’t be any better. He, without a doubt spent many hard days doing grueling construction work just so that I could have a worry-free life in the suburbs with skating and swimming lessons, boating and camping trips and basically everything a kid could ever want.

Isn’t this just what grace is? Isn’t this just what God wants us to understand about Himself as a Father? That He will always care for us and that we, in return should trust Him like little children?

God reveals himself to us in many ways. Sometimes it’s in the natural love a father has for his children. In a Christian family, the father is to love his wife and children as Christ loves the Church and in doing so to become an icon of Christ. Many fathers have failed in this area and instead of pointing their children to God have caused them to either fear or mistrust him. Because you see, it is through Christ that we come to the Father, we see the Father and we call the God of the universe “Our Father.” But if human fathers do not take up the calling to be Christ to their families, they will not lead their children to the true God and may in fact foster a distorted understanding of our Heavenly Father.

But here is the real scoop on who God the Father is according to the Bible:

2 Corinthians 6:18 reads:

I will be a Father to you,
And you shall be My sons and daughters,
Says the Lord Almighty.

and Paul writes in  Galatians4:6

And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!”

Psalm 27:10 states

When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me.

And finally we read the words of Christ in Matthew 7:7-11

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!

I came to the Orthodox Church at first simply to find a place for my family to live out our life of faith, but I stayed because I felt and experienced there the fierce love of God. In the liturgy, in the faces of the icons, in the sweet aroma of incense, I feel God embracing me, holding tightly on to me, just like a father. This is a mystical experience that is hard to describe in words. All I can say is that in the Orthodox Church, the Scriptures come fully alive, God is there and one feels and knows that He is very real and His word is very true.

For this reason, I know I shall never be alone. God is MY Dad. For me, this is the bottom line, the true meaning of life.

I’ll close with the words of St. Silouan the Athonite, who describes the fatherly love of God so beautifully:

The Lord loves us so dearly that it passes description. Through the Holy Spirit alone can the soul know His love, of which she is inexpressibly aware. The Lord is all goodness and mercy. He is meek and gentle, and we have no words to tell of His goodness; but the soul without words feels this love and would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility for ever.

Why I Hate and Love Religion

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Today I am going to address some listener feedback and give an answer to a claim that is often made about liturgical churches. The listener writes:

I am Orthodox and my Evangelical Christian friend thinks the Orthodox Church cares more about “being Orthodox” than having faith in Christ. He has problems with a lot of the Divine Liturgy that, when you get down to it, really doesn’t promote a saving relationship with Christ. Reading of the Scriptures has opened his eyes to Jesus, yet such knowledge is rarely conveyed or encouraged during Sunday services (look at the lectionary — many key readings on faith are not read on Sundays or are read when everyone is out for the summer!). Music in the Divine Liturgy seems unnaturally and unnecessarily difficult. Litanies appear overly redundant. My friend thinks the human soul is naturally trying to get to know Christ in a personal and deep way and the Orthodox Church systematically prevents that.

This statement highlights some major differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and the modern western lifestyle. When someone asks me why all the good Bible readings are during summer vacation, or why our prayers are so repetitive, I pause and scratch my head. Because in order to answer this question accurately, I have to take a step back and first explain some context.

In the West, we are used to a certain rhythm of life: a five day work week and a two day weekend. Church happens typically only on Sundays, summertime is for vacations and equals low church attendance. Generally speaking, in the West, time is “our time” and it revolves around our needs and goals, our work schedules and school semesters.

By contrast, Orthodoxy’s daily, weekly and yearly rhythms demand more attention and effort. In the Church, time is God’s time and we are required to align ourselves with it. Our yearly cycle of fasting and feasting reflects this. Our weekly cycle of services and fast days reinforce our daily walk with Christ and our daily prescribed prayers keep us ever moving within God’s time. And by the way, there is no summer “break” in the Orthodox Church, in fact, we celebrate two important feasts in the summertime.

And yes, everything we do is repetitive. But your breath is repetitive, and your heartbeat is repetitive, just likes so many other things in nature. Repetition is there for a reason: it keeps us moving always nearer to God and when we drift away, it pulls us back. You see, we believe, as the Bible teaches, that being a Christian is like being an athlete; it’s like running a race and it takes discipline and endurance. An athlete needs to practice and exercise daily to remain in peak condition. And if you ever watch an athlete practice, you will see her repeating the same thing over and over and over again until it is ingrained in her and the movement eventually comes naturally and automatically.

So that’s the context; now let’s talk about Scripture readings. We do have prescribed daily Gospel and Epistle readings as well as other readings for different services and occasions. This is an ancient tradition of the Orthodox Church, which keeps us reading the Scriptures on a daily basis. Yes, it just so happens that the letters to the Romans and Corinthians are usually read during the summer, but this isn’t because the Church doesn’t acknowledge their importance, it’s because the Church thinks all the Scriptures are important and useful for instruction. The Orthodox year is an unbroken liturgical cycle during which 12 major feasts and hundreds of minor ones are celebrated. There are regular fast days and also four extended periods of fasting, which punctuate this yearly rhythm. So for Orthodox Christians, there is no “off time.” In fact, we see our movement within God’s time as experiencing the Kingdom of God now, an eternal participation in Christ’s life: the tomb, the cross, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension to the right hand of the Father and the second and glorious coming.

As for our hymns, each jurisdiction has it’s own musical style and there are different kinds of chant, but yes, the music in Orthodox Churches is generally more complex than the sort of praise and worship music used in Evangelical churches. I won’t go into hymnology in any detail right now because it’s actually a pretty big topic, but I will say that Orthodox hymns are essentially Scripture put to music. If they don’t quote Scripture directly, they are explaining the Scriptures to us. There is much deep theology and spiritual truth in Orthodox hymns because the Bible itself is the song book. I also want to add that challenging music does not impede experiencing Christ in the liturgy and for many people, it’s quite the opposite. It depends on what you are used to. It also depends on if the liturgy and hymns are in a language you understand. For some this is a really big challenge. If you need the liturgy to be in your own language, then find a parish that offers that.

I understand that there may be a perception that Orthodox Christians are just going through the motions and “phoning it in” each Sunday. This may be an accurate observation – since any person can fall into that type of habit – or it may just be due to a lack of understanding of cultural differences. I remember when I first started attending my Orthodox church, I wondered why everyone looked so dour during liturgy – why wasn’t anyone smiling, or at least clapping along with the music? Some people looked downright sullen. I later learned that the somber expression, which my husband and I jokingly call “the Antiochian smile” tends to come naturally when one is immersed in the divine liturgy, focused on the prayers and hymns and humbly reflecting on one’s own heart. I remember in the past I felt the pressure to put on a happy face at church, to show everyone that I had the joy joy joy joy down in my heart.  However, in the Orthodox Church I can expose my pain, I can get real about my struggles. No one expects me to be all pulled together because our faith teaches us that nobody is. You see, it’s not wrong, it’s just different.

A couple of years ago a young Evangelical named Jefferson Bethke posted a spoken word poem to YouTube called “Why I hate Religion but love Jesus”. It now has had over 27 million views. In it he states that Jesus came to abolish religion. He claims “religion is just behaviour modification, like a long list of chores.” He says “Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums” and calls religion “a man made invention”. Although this poem says many good things, it also shows how many have a misconception about Christian religious practice. So I’ll tell you why I both hate and love religion:

If by “religion” you mean
the mindless following of arbitrary rules
in order to elevate my soul to a higher status
or trying to earn God’s love and approval
through deeds I decide are good
If by “religion” you mean
an identity that makes me feel culturally special
and entitled to shun those I think don’t belong
If by “religion” you mean a mask
that makes me look like something I’m not,
like, a holy person
If by “religion” you mean some people are in and some people are out
and if by “religion” you mean God can be all figured out
If by “religion” you mean getting into heaven is all about knowing the right formula

then I hate religion too.

But… if by religion you mean
daily
consistently
painstakingly
faithfully
humbly devoting your life to God
If by religion you mean saying prayers 5 times a day, no matter what, even when it’s hard because I
love God so much and want to be close to Him
If by religion you mean beating my mind and body and will into submission
so that Christ’s love can flow through me
If by religion you mean holding on to what I know is true
and living by it daily even though I constantly make mistakes
If by religion you mean falling down and getting back up
and then falling down and yet still getting back up again
and still trying and still hoping and still loving in spite of my inadequacies
because I know the love comes from God and not from silly old me.

then I love religion. And I dare say God loves it too.

Titus 2:11-14 reads:

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.