Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thoughts on Cremation and Burial: A Response

I wanted to share my response to a discussion on cremation:

When the topic of cremation came up the other day, realizing that I held a contrary opinion than everyone else, and, since I was whopped tired, I thought it best to stay out of the discussion – I am learning slowly that it is often best to remain silent. Since, you wish to know my opinion regarding cremation and burial, which is not strictly mine but a tradition held  by the Church since the first century – and one can say dates back to the ancient Hebrews – I will give it. 

The early church fought vehemently against succumbing to the philosophy of the day. Yes, they adapted terminology but never full concepts and actual practices. One of the reigning philosophies was Platonism (and the subsequent Neoplatonism) which viewed the body as a cage or prison for the soul. Matter (or Creation) was seen anywhere from being a mere shadow of the real world, or essentially evil. The Church Fathers saw that this pagan philosophy could be the bane of catholic Christianity, which centered on the Incarnation of Christ. If matter (creation) was unimportant, or evil, then why would God become man, what would it mean for salvation? And there were many futile attempts at marrying Christianity with Greek philosophy, and they all denied at least one crucial tenet of Christianity. Many modern theologians have no qualms with Christ’s humanity, yet they have trouble accepting classical conceptions of Christ, viz His divine nature.  The early church struggled with those who had no problem accepting that Christ was God (or divine of some sort) but denied his humanity. The exact opposite of the problem we have today. 

The Church Fathers stressed the roll that the body plays in salvation. After all, man – the whole man, not only the soul – was created in the image and likeness of God. If this is so, the whole man is saved, not just the soul. In Christ the whole man was united to God. This is why having a correct understanding of the Incarnation is so important. Jesus was not simply God living in the shell of a human body that he controlled, like how we sit in a car and steer it, and when we no longer need it we exit, or when it exceeds its usefulness it is discarded for a new shiny one.  In the person of Christ we see the fullness of man united to God. Christ assumed (or took on) all of what makes us human persons in order to save us and heal us, “for what has not been assumed has not been healed”. If the body no longer serves a purpose after death (like a car no longer needed), then Jesus would not have risen from the dead, His disembodied soul would have floated to Heaven; the contrary, He rose from the dead with His body, albeit His resurrected body, but a body nonetheless. In Christ the body is also saved. 

The Orthodox teach that man is a “psychosomatic one”, when baptized the human person is reborn and renewed in Christ, a harmony of the nous (or the eye of the soul, the heart) and body. The Christian’s whole life becomes a journey to salvation: the deification of the whole person; and the body becomes the battleground for spiritual warfare. Misunderstandings arise from the Greek word used in the New Testament which is usually translated to flesh. The Greek word is sarx, which means carnal, or according to the self. Most Christians assume flesh means flesh, the physical body, so the body is seem as a source of evil (which is gnostic) and the body needs to be freed from it, remember Plato? Translating this concept to Christian lingo: when a person dies physically they are free from sin.  But when we read the word “flesh” in the New Testament what we should be taking from it is that the Scriptures are referring to the carnal self (the sinful man) and not strictly the physical self…this changes things. It’s not the body that causes us to sin but something else; we call this something else the passions. The passions—pride, anger, lust, etc--cause us to sin and the inner man becomes subjected to every fleeting desire or appetites of the body. These things are not sinful in themselves, but sinful when done outside the will of God.  So the body is not the source of sin. The body is neutral. 

As I said earlier, the Christian life is warfare and the body is the battleground. Our bodies can be used to sin, or to glorify God. As the Christian participates in practices and adheres to teachings of the Church, he or she will become more Christ-like; the body is set apart for Him and becomes holy. Remember the word holy means to be made whole. The person is “reconfigured”, in a sense:  we pray with the mind in the heart and the body is now in its proper place.  The whole person is holy.

So, back to burial and cremation. The Church has always respected the body. The pagans burned bodies because they did not honor and respect it. In a tradition dating back to the Hebrew patriarchs, the Church has always buried the reposed. Not just for respect, but always as a symbol for awaiting the resurrection, just as Christ was buried and resurrected. Touch your arm: we believe that it is this body, the one we have, that is the one that will be resurrected – yes, anew! There’s those jokes that pastors make that say: oh, I’m gonna be taller, or thinner, or less bald when I get my glorified body, usually meaning a brand new, shiny body, like getting a new car; and many Christians don’t even believe this, they believe we’ll be some spirit floating around on a cloud in heaven; but this is absurd and downplays the roll of the body in salvation. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit. As in baptism we are buried with Christ and are spiritually resurrected, entering into Christ and the Church, so too with burial we await the glorious resurrection -- baptism is both a sacrament and a foreshadowing for when the people of God and the cosmos are recreated. The person we are, the body-soul unity, will be resurrected and glorified. In burial we believe the body is like a seed which on the day of resurrection will sprout forth and bloom!

This is why I don’t believe in cremation.

Monday, April 28, 2014

In Light of Pascha: Reflections from Lent and Holy Week (Part 2)

We go up to Jerusalem. We witness a man donning grave-clothes. And a clamouring crowd with palm branches. Passover is near. The whole city is frenetic.

Something is happening.

Unlike the the first century crowd, we know what's happening. We've heard the story most of our lives. Even many who aren't Christians know the basics of the gospel story. However, much like those first century eyewitnesses we don't know what this last week of Christ's earthly life will bring, we're unsure what His Passion will work in us, the Body of Christ, this year. We know that His Passion will conquer our passions, that His Death will conquer death, but what this means for each person, one will only discover as each bears their cross down that arduous path that leads to Golgotha -- to death. From our experience we know this leads to life. But reaching the end of the road necessitates one heeding the Master's call: take up your cross and follow me.

We approach Holy Week. We've done our best, but it is never good enough, we are not the Master. A couple of stanzas from George Herbert's emotive poem "Lent":

It's true, we cannot reach Christ's forti'eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour's purity;
Yet we are bid, 'Be holy ev'n as he, '
In both let's do our best.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul. 

We approach Holy Week. After fasting and prayer we go up to Jerusalem -- for more fasting and more prayer. We serve the Divine Liturgy on Lazarus Saturday. This is a powerful service because Lazarus' resurrection foreshadows The Resurrection. Christ proclaims: I am the resurrection and the life. As we take up crosses and follow the Master, do we truly believe this, or do we amble under onerous burdens to our inescapable deaths? Do we really believe that we will be raised to life? The story of Lazarus tells that we will.

The Master enters Jerusalem on a donkey...followed by his ragtag group of disciples. Are we packed tightly into the vociferous crowd? Or do we stand off to the side and simply observe, a spectator? But, either way, if we were there, by the end of the week we'll be yelling: crucify!

We grow weary. We're tempted to give in. Maybe take a snooze. But we must keep our lamps lit, the Bridegroom comes. Bridegroom Matins is an amazing service. We pray many psalms and anticipate the coming of Him. We are the Church: the Bride of Christ. It's imperative that we hold vigil and not be found sleeping. Can we stave off drowsiness? Only by grace, because at this point we have nothing left. We're enveloped by darkness, yet several lamps remain aflame, and we begin to see through the thin veil, glimpses of heavenliness. We chant the Six Psalms -- the End is near.

The Church in her wisdom has placed an Unction service in the middle of the week. The anointing is for healing, both spiritual and physical (mostly spiritual). As we approach the end of Christ's Passion, and if we have truly taken up our cross, we go to our death. As a priest administers the sacrament of unction to the sick and dying, so we to are anointed as we approach Golgotha with our Master.

We really start to get to the heart of Holy Week with the reading of the Twelve Passion Gospels. It's a lot of reading. This service brings us all back to the reason we're in church so frequently during Holy Week: Christ's Passion. When "He gave up the spirit" is uttered followed by the pregnant pause -- hauntingly unsettling quiet -- it's especially poignant when one makes the sign of the cross in the moment. The God-Man has given up His last breath. We are left breathless, immobilized. Nonetheless, the tired participants go to their homes knowing full well that the Burial Service approaches.

 Our Lord and Savior's Body is taken down from the Cross and the Epitaphios is placed in the tomb. Reenacting the Burial of Christ is one of the most intensely emotional times of Holy Week, which is why the Lamentations is served and in many traditions the Psalter is read over the Tomb through the night. The fatigued Christians one-by-one venerate the Epitaphios, as though it were the Body, some bowing, some prostrating, but all sign themselves and kiss the Epitaphios. The reverence -- and dare I say, dread -- is tangible. How did the Jesus' disciples feel? His Mother? Darkness passed over it passes over us. Yet there is solidarity because there is an "us" -- we go through this together.

We enter the dark night.

Monday, April 21, 2014

In Light of Pascha: Reflections from Lent and Holy Week (Part 1)

Within four months of being chrismated, I got to experience Great Lent. I attended a few services last year but didn't really immerse myself in the season. It is truly a time of ascesis. If one doesn't feel the strain, as an athlete does, then something is wrong. Now, I'm not saying that I did Lent "right", by no means; I set a plan for myself, did the best I could, and enjoyed the ride. It's the day after the Resurrection, Renewal Monday, and I'm attempting to grasp all that I experienced. I would like to share some of my thoughts.

Forgiveness Sunday -- well, there isn't anything I can say about this day that hasn't already been said. To face one another and ask forgiveness, to forgive one another -- the Dostoevskian forgive all for everything -- is not only a fresh start into Lent but it's incredibly humbling. It's no coincidence that the Church has the Rite of Forgiveness on the fore of the Great Fast. "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (Gospel of St Matthew 5:34-24). The Rite is the entry point into Lent; we must pass through. Christ says that He is the Gate (Gospel of St John 10:9); we must pass through Him to be saved. And did not Christ forgive all? -- Father forgive them for they know not what they do -- so we must do as the Master. Even if my fellow brother in Christ sinned not against me directly, his sinful actions are done in and to the Body of Christ, we are all one in Christ. Each person brings his or her passions into the Church, because we are the Church. We must forgive all for everything. Father hammered this into our thick heads during the preparatory weeks that Forgiveness Sunday is one of the most important services of the year -- after making the journey to Pascha, I see just how right he is.

Another theme for Forgiveness Sunday is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. This theme not only reminds us of why we need forgiveness but it places us outside Eden, which is fitting for the beginning of Lent. Adam laments (side note: listen to Arvo Part's composition Adam's Lament, it's not canonical but it should be required listening during Lent). We are acutely aware of our condition. This leads me to the next Lenten service I attended this year, the Liturgy of the Presanctified, which is just an inexpressible service, one of my favorite -- simultaneously somber and yet filled with expectancy and anticipatory joy. Being that Presanctified is essentially a merging of Vespers and Liturgy, the Royal Doors are shut for a while as we sing the Psalms -- no Epistle, no Gospel -- we are in the days before Christ, the doors to Paradise are closed! Then after more Old Testament readings, we hit the floor and say the humbling and repentant Lenten prayer of St Ephraim, then and only then, we enter into more familiar territory of the Liturgy. We are not left in our ontological estrangement from God, we are reminded that we have been brought into His Kingdom, yet we await the fullness of it to come. We are on the road to Pascha; we carry our cross and renounce the world.

I attend a mission parish, so we are limited in what we can do, in spite of this we still held many services. One of the traditional ones we didn't do is the Canon of St Andrew; hopefully, as we grow we'll be able to. 

The second service was the Salutations to the Theotokos. I had the chance to attend a couple of these last year, and looked forward to participating in these again. My Protestant buddies will have trouble with these services, why? Because we remember and praise the Mother of God, which she's not only Jesus' mother but the Mother of the Church. All generations will call her blessed. She carried God incarnate in her womb. There is much in the Old Testament foreshadowing her roll in salvation -- now, of course, Mary does not save us, Christ saves us, but His flesh comes from her. The Body He assumed, walked this earth with (and "in", but not in an Apollinarian sense), took to the Cross, and Resurrected is from Mary -- the God-bearer. This is her role in salvation. And the Church teaches that she is a great intercessor to her Son. So we ask for her intercessions.

After surviving the first week of Lent, we come to the Sunday of Orthodoxy. I don't have much that I want to say about this day. It's an encouraging Sunday though. Many of us get geared up for Lent and then after the first week...we're like: whoa! not sure if we can keep this up. The second week begins with the celebration of the triumph of Orthodoxy. What a great Sunday! Drawing our attention from ourselves we are faced with our forebears: we remember the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which was the Church's victory over the Iconoclasts, and remember how the Church has triumphed over the centuries. The theme of triumph flows into the following Sunday in which we honor St Gregory Palamas, he is mostly known for his debate with Barlaam over hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer. St Gregory also teaches us that we must practice the prayer and silence.

To this novice Lent is divide into two halves, the first is more encouraging -- well, the Sundays at least. The first two I've previously mentioned, the third, the mid-point, is the Veneration of the Cross. We often need to be reminded that we must take up our cross and follow Christ. Follow Him to our death. And the Cross is victory. The first half of Lent there's a theme of victory in spite of our struggles. But, it is not a victory as the world defines it. Lent is about dying to oneself. And the upcoming Sundays of Lent (the second half) give us examples of how we live the cross in our lives: St John Climacus and St Mary of Egypt. Are we ready to climb the ladder of self-denial, climbing the steps of virtues? Are we ready to cross the Jordan with a few meager loaves? To enter the desert? To run the race? To enter the ascetic struggle? Are we ready to go up to Jerusalem?

Wearily and joyfully we enter Holy Week.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Concerning Despondency

Lent approaches. Many of us are making changes in our lives to make room for more prayer and reading and services. But it is easy to slip into shame or despair or despondency when our plans are interrupted--or we just flat out fail! We must be ever watchful. Most of us are not monks or hermits, but we can, by grace, strive for nepsis. 

I hope this post helps:

Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy: Concerning Despondency: In a recent parish retreat, the theme of spiritual despondency was raised, highlighting what Fr Stephen Freeman has discussed as " the...

Monday, February 24, 2014

On the Table and Tea: Thoughts on Theology and Direction

It's been way too long since I posted. And I apologize. My wife and I have been remodeling our kitchen--alas! it's been an arduous and painstaking task but we near the end.

And, frankly, I've been at an impasse. There's several directions I could take this blog. Originally, this blog was (and is) primarily about my journey to the Orthodox Church, and now that I've been chrismated, do I continue sharing the story of my theological wanderings, or should I start afresh with my journey as an Orthodox Christian? I could attempt to include a multiplicity of topics and themes, but it runs the risk of loosing coherence or transmogrify into a self-indulgent web-diary.

I love discussing and writing about theology and philosophy; however, much of my intellectual pursuits and rovings are in the past, they got me to where I am now, but part of me wants to leave it in the past and not keep rehashing the same ol' same ol'. I had planned to do a few posts on Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Lyotard, Derrida, et al, but there are other blogs out there on the interwebs that will cover these philosophers much better.

I've gotten the chance to serve at the altar during Liturgy the last couple of weeks. My first time we concluded Liturgy with a panikhida for my grandfather -- which was truly an inexplicable experience.  The reason I tell you this is because all theology must bring you to the Table. We must fall on our knees in awe and wonder and worship. We must plead for mercy. If theology doesn't accomplish this, it's an idol. As Jean-Luc Marion once penned in his famous work "God Without Being":

       For theology consists precisely in saying that for which only another can answer -- the Other ab-
      ove all, the Christ who himself does not speak in his own name, but in the name of his Father.
      Indeed, theological discourse offers its strange jubilation only to the strict extent that it permits
      and, dangerously, demands of its workman that he speak beyond his means, precisely because he
      does not speak of himself. Hence the danger of a speech that, in a sense, speaks against the one 
     who lends himself to it. One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology. In all sense.

Those are powerful words. And where does one obtain forgiveness, healing, mercy? The Eucharistic Table. Communion. Lord's Supper. Marion believes that the only thing that really saves us from nihilism is the Eucharist; the unfathomable and dread Mystery is the one "thing" that, for lack of better words, bridges the gap between the corrupted Adam and the Second Adam.

So what does this say about our feeble attempts at theology? Theology is to be lived in prayerful repentance and childlike awe, yet we brazenly approach the One and feebly try to cram Him into frangible constructs. When one encounters Christ in the Sacrament everything else pales in comparison. Theology becomes, then, the application of our encounter worked out in the life of the Church, and doctrine operates twofold: 1) a formalized expression of beliefs that regulate how we speak of God both in the Church and 2) where Church intersects with culture.

This is my dilemma: Should I continue in my frail attempts to theologize? I believe every honest, thinking Christian will, at some point, peer over the edge of certainty into the void, the unknowable, the Divine darkness. It's edifying for us because it gives us perspective. We just don't know anything at all. In the words of Elder Sophrony, "Stand at the edge of the abyss until you can bear it no longer. Then have a cup of tea."

True theology starts and ends with the Eucharist.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Honey and Hemlock: The Pop-Culture Wars, Music, and Character Formati...

What does music have to do with society and politics?  Everything.


Honey and Hemlock: The Pop-Culture Wars, Music, and Character Formati...: The Pop Culture Wars By Carson Holloway October 13, 2009 If we take seriously what is said by Plato and Aristotle, then we must also pay...

Part 2

Honey and Hemlock: The Pop-Culture Wars, Music, and Character Formati...:
Continued from part one... What's Really the Matter With Pop Music?
By Carson Holloway October 16th, 2009 Popular music shapes us...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Post-Chrismation Dialogue: Where's all the Youngsters?

For the few of you who follow this blog, in my last blog post I announced that my chrismation into the Eastern Orthodox Church was on December 29th. I was blessed enough to have my wife, brother and sister-in-law there, along with my aunt and uncle, who came up from Florida, who are also Orthodox, my uncle was my sponsor.  It was a beautiful ceremony and celebration. Not only was I chrismated, there was another guy, a few years younger than me, who was brought in through baptism and chrismation. Truly was a wonderful day. 

About a week after my Florida family went back home, my uncle sent an email checking up on me. He also asked an interesting question, which sparked a rather verbose response. He asked how we can get more of the younger generation into the Church. How do we translate the language of the Church to them? As one who was involved in “college-age” ministry in the past, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. The baptism and chrismations that happened just the week before attest to the fact that Orthodoxy does speak to the younger generation, just many of them are unaware of our existance. I tweaked my response to make it more blog worthy and copied it below. Any thoughts and questions please share!


My generation is a tough one (and the upcoming one is probably even more difficult to reach). I truly believe in the universality of the Spirit, He's working in all places and all people to draw all to Him. This is where the other Christian traditions, specifically the Protestant, in America will work both to our advantage and disadvantage. Like how Father says: "We can say for sure where the Church is but we cannot say where the Church isn't". Even though we see everyone else as heterodox—and I use the word carefully, since most of my family and friends are considered this—we can say with certainty that all Truth is God's Truth, no matter where it is manifested. St Justin Martyr taught about the logos spermatikos and connected this with the wisdom spoken of in the book of Proverbs. St. Justin along with other early Church Fathers truly believed that the Logos was present in other cultures—pre-Incarnate Word Hellenism, specifically. If Creation is filled with the knowledge of God, that Christ is in all places and fills all things, we can say that God is always working to draw all men to Him. Now the fullness of the Christian life is found in the Orthodox Church, and it took me years to get to the point I'm at now.

Modern American Christianity will either leave people desiring something more or will scare people off entirely. I think it's interesting that during the heyday of liberal Christianity (18th and 19th centuries) there was a resurgence of paganism. After the Enlightenment project desacralized religion and the universe, many, desiring something inexplicable and mysterious, started adopting mystical practices and paganism. Wicca was birthed during this time. So fast forward to our time, the modern church and its reductionary practices have continued in this tradition of demythologizing the world: there's nothing sacred or mystical. Essentially, modern Christianity is deistic. I've been saying it for years: Western Christianity is spiritually bankrupt. So, we have a generation that has been a part of a mass exodus from the modern church, or won't touch it with a ten foot pole. Why? Because they’re fed up with churches and suspicious of religious institutions; they’re sick and tired of the shallowness, closed-mindedness, and hypocrisy of many Christians. This is where I've been trying to get to: they want something real, something genuine, and something they feel like they can worship—something beyond themselves. Something is missing in modern Christianity.

So, the modern church as an institution can scare away many. I don't blame them. These churches pride themselves on being "alive in the Spirit and not dead in tradition." So, why would a seeker even bother trying Catholicism since it has so often been demonized by Evangelicals and Protestants (and Orthodoxy is even more obscure and intimidating for them). But for those, like me, who didn't want to except the status quo and had bit of a rebellious disposition, and didn't want to walk away from my faith will try going elsewhere. If they can't find it in their churches—the genuineness, mysticism, or whatever—hopefully they'll be led by the Spirit. Sometimes the heterodox plant the seeds that come to fruition in Orthodoxy.

We also are enslaved to the "secular" and consumer culture. Religion is no longer seen as vital and integral to society. It is either seen as oppressive or as a mere accessory. We're raised being told to do what makes us "happy"; we translate this to "meeting our every fleeting and whimsical desire and feeding our appetites" (passions). If we have a need or desire we shop around to find something that fulfills that. No need, no shopping. Until one sees a need for religion they won't even consider it. And when they do, they enter the market place of spirituality. And way too many churches fall into the marketing/branding snare. They use the world’s methods. They become in this world and of this world. We Orthodox will do well not to play the market game. We'll be seen as just another religion proffering the same ol' BS, or just a different take on Christianity but really no different. The Church is simultaneously counter-culture and true culture. We create true culture: art, music, theology, etc. But because this is in stark contrast to the world, we are counter-culture. For those, like me, who always went against the grain of society, loved this about Orthodoxy; it is counter-culture; it says Death to the World! We want no part of the corrupted world of men! We want something hardcore! We want the renewed beauty of Creation.  We want the Church in all its goodness, beauty, practices, dread, glory, mysticism. We want Christ! We want something that'll demand all of who we are, and to crucify all that we think we are, and be raised anew! But this is something we cannot turn into an advertising campaign or agenda (because no one wants to hear that, most people want something that'll make them feel better). Once we comes undone and loses its potency.

And there's no amount of persuading that can be done to convince my generation that they're wrong. There are no gimmicks or ploys that will get them in the Church, that's the very thing we find so contrived and trite in the contemporary churches. Even though my generation will shop around for spirituality, we don't want to be sold something. We don't want an agenda thrown in our faces. We want to make the decision on our own, no forcing or coercing. We're inundated with agendas and advertisements all day, and the modern church has used these methods in hope of reaching the "youngsters" but it doesn't work.

After my mini dissertation (sorry), my answer to your question is: The Orthodox need to keep doing what we're doing, but just be open and welcoming to whoever strolls through the doors.  And live what we preach. And most important: pray. As St Seraphim of Sarov said: Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation. This is the genuineness that they're looking for. They want to see Christians live as Christ.

Kyrie eleison