Thank you to everyone who sent in questions. Keep up the good work.
The reading for next week: John 1:29-34
I apologize that I have not yet posted Parts 3 &4, as I explain in this session, cleaning up the audio on these sessions has proven to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. I pray that they will be out sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, I wanted to turn this session around quickly because so many people were kind enough to send in questions about the reading covered this week. So that we keep this momentum and participation going, I decided to publish this prior to Parts 3 &4. I hope that is not too much of an inconvenience and that this whole exercise is fruitful.
Thank you to all who did take the time to answer questions, please keep up the good work.
Next week we will discuss John 1:24-28.
Given that the concept of race and ethnicity has become a focal point in the U.S., both culturally and politically, I thought it would be helpful to share some of my own thoughts and experiences as well as a Christian perspective on the subject. To that end, I would like to introduce two men to you.
The first is my father. Ethnically, he is Welsh, born of Welsh parents. Culturally, however, he is American. We have family from his maternal side that have been in this part of the world since the 17th century. We know this because his mother (my grandmother) was an amateur genealogist that had traced our family tree back to the 12th century. There was, however, one bit of controversy within the family, because there is evidence that suggests that some of my ancestors hail from Germany. Thus, I thought it was a good idea for our family to give my dad a genetic marker test from the National Geographic Society as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago. Shockingly, while there were no German markers in his profile, there were Greek ones. A lot of them. It turns out, my dad is half Greek.
The second is an NBA basketball player by the name of Γιάννης Αντετοκούνμπο (Giannis Antetokounmpo) who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. He also plays for the Greek National Team because he was born in Athens, Greece. He lived his entire life there until his success in basketball took him out of the Sepolia neighborhood of the Greek capital. His parents are both from Nigeria.
I have a very serious question for all of those out there who think race and ethnicity are so important that they should be a large factor in our cultural and political experience: Which of these two men are Greek?
For all practical purposes there are only four ways to answer this question:
If both men are Greek, then race, ethnicity and culture are all relative. Anyone can be Greek. Anyone with any affiliation genetically or culturally could claim to be Greek. For example, 17% of my genetic markers are Southwest Asian (as are all of those who have European ancestry). Asian cuisine, philosophy, cinema, television, technology, language, etc. are vital to who I am today. If both these men are Greek, by what criteria can I not be considered Asian? This renders race and ethnicity largely meaningless.
If neither men are Greek, then the two main criteria for understanding race and ethnicity — genetics and culture — are no longer legitimate means of determining race and ethnicity. Again, this renders race and ethnicity largely meaningless.
3. My dad
If my dad is Greek and Αντετοκούνμπο is not, then using culture as a means of determining ethnicity and race is bunk. Thus, black and latino culture are not attributes of race. Anyone can claim elements of these cultures as their own because racism based on culture isn’t a thing nor is cultural appropriation.
If Αντετοκούνμπο is Greek and my dad is not, then genetics do not determine race, only culture does. Thus, either there is no such thing as an African-American because culturally they are all American or anybody who lives in an African-American neighborhood, goes to a traditionally black college or black church, or anyone who adopts the language, clothing and music of the African-American culture is ethnically and racially black.
I hope this illustrates that any close examination of race and ethnicity reveals how fluid, subjective and fallible these concepts are. Indeed, I would argue that they are largely artificial. Due to environment and circumstances, different groups of people have developed different ways of explaining the world around them and using that which was given them. All of these people, however, are people and their experiences and ideas can be shared and used and adapted by anyone who finds them useful and/or inspiring.
I am confident of this view of humanity because it is beautifully expressed by St. Paul, not just once, but twice (meaning that this was something he was repeatedly preaching during his apostolic journeys):
Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scyth′ian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all. — Colossians 3:11
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. — Galatians 3:28
God made humanity according to His image and likeness. Christ took on humanity in nature, not as race or ethnicity but as a whole. He preached to women, men, Jew and Gentile alike. The first person He revealed Himself as the Christ to was a Samaritan woman.
Thus, Christ went to the Cross and died so that everyone can share in His eternal life, despite the various ways we like to separate and divide ourselves from each other. In other words, I am a human being, not a race or an ethnicity.
Our parish recently began a weekly Bible Study focusing on the Gospel of John. One of the goals of this ministry was to make it available to members of the parish whose schedules prevented them from participating. As such, we will be recording these sessions and posting them here for general consumption.
Please note: this is the first time we have done this and the audio isn’t as good as we’d hoped. As this series continues, we will be trying various ways in which to improve the sound quality. In addition, occasionally there will be background noises of children and babies. Please bear with us as we try to balance the needs of those participating and the needs of recording these sessions. Thank you.
From a liturgical point of view, one of the most important sections of Scripture are the Psalms. They are read in their entirety over the course of one week during all of the services the Orthodox Church has during the week. During Great Lent, the entire Psalter is read twice.
The reason for this liturgical emphasis can be seen in the Letter to Marcellinus from St. Athanasius the Great (quoted here). The Psalms offer us everything that the rest of Scripture does with that “very special grace” of imbuing Scripture with the full width and breadth of human emotion. St. Athanasius tells us that we are then able to see ourselves in the words of the Psalms — we are able to make the words of the Psalms our words. In so doing, we then allow the Holy Spirit — He who inspired these words — to form us according to the pattern He has given us in the Psalms.
Usually, however, one only sees the reading of the entire Psalter at monasteries because the burden of doing every service of the Orthodox Church over the course of a week is too much for a parish. While true, this reality need not stop us from experiencing the “very special grace” of the Psalms.
Great Lent is upon us and our fasting regimen, if done within context of its original intent, is supposed to give us more free time to spend in prayer and in reading the Scriptures. This year, I propose we take up the challenge of this original intent and find time within our busy schedules to read the entire Psalter.
Thus, this Great Lent I will be encouraging all of us to undertake what I will call The Psalms Challenge. The goal of this challenge is for all of us to read the entire Psalter, not just once, but over the course of one week. This will allow all of us to experience the Psalms as they are intended to be: the foundation of our prayer life, not something we only occasionally read.
To that end, here is a suggested schedule for getting through the entire Psalter in one week:
I invite everyone who is up to taking this challenge to comment below so that we may all share our experience of reading the Psalms, our struggles and our questions. Good Strength!
Quoted from the Letter to Marcellinus:
All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction [2 Tim 3:16], as it is written; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure. Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message: the Pentateuch, for example, tells of the beginning of the world, the doings of the patriarchs, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the ordering of the tabernacle and the priesthood; The Triteuch [Joshua, Judges, and Ruth] describes the division of the inheritance, the acts of the judges, and the ancestry of David; Kings and Chronicles record the doings of the kings, Esdras [Ezra] the deliverance from exile, the return of the people, and the building of the temple and the city; the Prophets foretell the coming of the Saviour, put us in mind of the commandments, reprove transgressors, and for the Gentiles also have a special word. Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest.
You see, then, that the grace of the one Spirit is common to every writer and all the books of Scripture, and differs in its expression only as need requires and the Spirit wills. Obviously, therefore, the only thing that matters is for each writer to hold fast unyieldingly the grace he personally has received and so fulfill perfectly his individual mission. And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.
As a way to wrap up this annual exercise of spending time with one of the Church Fathers in preparation for the Nativity, I would like to follow up on yesterday’s post with a reminder that St. Gregory isn’t the only one who brings up suffering and death at Christmas time. On December 26th, the day after Christmas, the Orthodox Church reads the story of Herod’s anger and his slaughtering of all the male children two years and younger in the environs of Bethlehem. Three days later, on December 29th, the Orthodox Church officially commemorates these victims with the Feast for the 14,000 Holy Innocents.
It is a reminder that though we are called to leap for joy, sing praises to God and stand in awe of all that will be accomplished by Christ through His Nativity, the world continues to be filled with suffering and death. There are those who are today slaughtered by their fellow man for no good reason what so ever. Every year we have far more than 14,000 innocents who succumb to a death brought about by their fellow human beings.
Thus, in the midst of all this joy and all this celebration — for we Orthodox Christians do not stop celebrating Christmas on the morning of December 25th — we must remember all of those who died before ever knowing Christ. Remember all of those who died before they really ever had a chance to live. Remember all those whose lives that were cut short through the selfishness and cruelty of fallen humanity.
This is our burden and also our hope. During the liturgy, the priest says these seemingly innocuous words:
Remember also, Lord, those whom each of us calls to mind and all your people.
Then, as the priest is placing all of the crumbs that are left from the Body of Christ on the paten into the Cup he prays:
Wash away, Lord, by Your holy Blood, the sins of all those commemorated through the intercessions of the Theotokos and all Your saints. Amen.
By these two prayers, and our active participation in them we have the opportunity to ask God to not only remember but to forgive and grant everything that He gives us, His children, to those whom we bring to mind. Thus, the Church lifts up to God all those babes killed by Herod before they ever had a chance to live life or to know Christ. In turn, she invites us to lift up to God all of the innocents who have been killed throughout the ages.
May God, through our prayers, be as loving and merciful as we dare to hope. Indeed, may He marvelously exceed all of our expectations. Amen.
Section 18 is the last in St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38. Despite the challenges posed by the polemics of Sections 14 & 15, this last part of St. Gregory’s homily on Christmas may very well be the most provocative, especially for those of us who live in the relative luxury of 21st century America. St. Gregory exhorts us to intimately identify ourselves with Christ. That in and of itself isn’t very shocking; however, the kind of intimacy he demands is.
Be stoned? Get interrogated by authorities who might kill us? Seek torture? Taste gall? Seek spittings? Accept beatings? Get crowned with thorns? Get crucified and die? At first glance, St. Gregory sounds as if he wants us all to turn into suicidal masochists.
For those of us who live in societies that are relatively tolerant of Christianity, St. Gregory’s words are metaphor. The proof of this is when he asks us to “be crowned with thorns through the harshness of a life in accord with God.” Though he might be speaking of the ascetical practices of Orthodox Christianity, the sacrifices we must make in our time and treasure for a life in Christ as well as the hardship that accompanies trying to do the right thing, here is a dirty little secret: life is harsh whether you are a practicing Orthodox Christian or not.
We are all doomed to tragedy, decay and death. We will be assaulted by natural disaster, emotional turmoil and disappointment. We will all see the dreams of our youth fade into the harsh realities of adulthood and old age (that is, if we aren’t molested by some disease or accident which makes old age look like a luxury).
Thus, St. Gregory really isn’t asking us to seek trials and tribulations because we are going to have to go through them whether we like it or not. Rather, St. Gregory is asking us to go through all of our pain and suffering with Christ at our side. He does so with this litany of sufferings that Christ went through Himself to demonstrate that Christ is intimately familiar with our suffering. We do not have to go through the harshness of life alone. We do not have to shoulder all of this pain on our own.
Christ tells us His burden is light, because He has the strength to shoulder all of the pain and all of the suffering that humanity has ever, will ever and is going through. If we allow ourselves to identify with the suffering Christ went through for us, we, with Christ not only at our side but within us, can power through even the most horrendous of tribulations. Witness the martyrs.
In the end, all the pain, the suffering and the death that world can throw at us are powerless in the face of of the resurrection. This is our hope, this is our strength, this is our victory and it is all made possible because Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 18:
You should hate only one of the events surrounding the birth of Christ, Herod’s murder of children; but rather, revere this sacrifice of those of the same age as Christ, who are sacrificed before the new victim. If he flees to Egypt, be willingly banished with him. It is good to flee with the persecuted Christ. If Christ delays in Egypt, call him forth from Egypt, where he is worshipped well. Travel blamelessly through all the stages of Christ’s life and all his powers, as a disciple of Christ. Be purified, be circumcised, that is remove the veil that has surrounded you since birth. After this teach in the temple, drive out the traders in divine things, be stoned if it is necessary that you suffer this; you will escape from those throwing the stones, I know well, and you will flee through the midst of them like God. For the Word is not stoned. If you are brought before Herod, do not answer for the most part. He will revere your silence more than the long discourses of other. If you are scourged, seek the other tortures. Taste the gall because of the taste [of the forbidden fruit]. Drink vinegar, seek the spittings, accept the blows, the beatings; be crowned with thorns through the harshness of a life in accord with God. Put on a scarlet robe, accept the reed, and the worship of those who mock the truth. Finally, be crucified with him, die with him, be buried with him willingly, so as also to be resurrected with him and glorified with him and reign with him, seeing God as far as is possible and being seen by him, who is worshipped and glorified in the Trinity, whom even now we pray to be manifest to us as clearly as is possible to prisoners of the flesh, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and sovereignty unto the ages of ages. Amen