Saturday, December 23, 2006

Three Holy Youths

Within Orthodoxy these three friends of Daniel have become an integral part of hymnology and theology. You may know them as Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. Yet these were their Babylonian names. Their Hebrew names were Hananiah, Mishael, & Azariah.

We first find them in the beginning of Daniel refusing the kings food for more simple vegetables. They did this out of obedience to God to avoid those things sacrificed to idols. Rather than making them weaker, their diet made them stronger than their Babylonian counterparts. This was a testimony to the power of God in their lives. Within Orthodoxy, this retelling is found in the hymnology leading up to Lent. We are about to give up meat for a period of time as we prepare our hearts for the Passion of Christ.

The next story of the three youths is used constantly in the Church. This is the account of the fiery furnace. These young men refuse to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol and are then thrown into the fiery furnance. It was made so hot that the executioners stoking the fire died from the heat. However, the three were seen in the midst of the fire praising God and a fourth mysterious figure was seen with them. Nebuchadnezzar speaks from astonishment about the fourth person and says “the form of the fourth is like the Son of God (Daniel 3:25).” We know that person to be the pre-incarnate Jesus. The boys were removed from the fire and not even a hair on their head was singed.

What makes this story so important gets missed in the West. In the LXX, there are two hymns of praise included at this point and are missing in the Hebrew version we use. These hymns are an essential part of the Church’s hymnography. They are part of the 9 Biblical odes forming the Church’s liturgical consciousness. In this case, the hymns are Ode 7 and 8.

Often in Bibles that include the Apocrypha the two hymns are lumped together and included in one chapter entitled “The Prayer of Azariah”.

Ode 7 is Azariah’s prayer and is found in verses 3-22. This is ode is a song/prayer composed by Azarias when he and his other two friends were thrown into the fiery furnace.

In this prayer, Azariah takes responsibility for the sins of the nation as he praises God. Rather than blaming God for their circumstances, he praises God. This is amazing considering all the evil befallen upon Azariah. He was deported from his homeland, and now has been seemingly martyred for his faith. Yet in spite of it all he does not blame God but cries out in repentance. There is a sense of radical responsibility here found among all the OT prophets. Rather than blame others and God, they also see their own sin as contributing to the evil around them.

Ode 8 is found in verses 29-68 yet it is the hymn of all three. It is a hymn of praise bringing all creation together in praise of God. This is characteristically Orthodox. Man is the union of matter and spirit, and part of man’s purpose is to be the “priest” for all creation. He is the voice and representative for all creation in praise to God.

Here are a couple hymns highlighting the importance of these three in the life of the Church.

Vesperal hymn. “The youths of God walking forth amidst the flame, rejoicing in the dew of the Spirit as though they were in a garden, did go before and foreshadow therein the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ. And in that they were wise men they quenched by faith the power of fire. And as for Daniel the righteous, he did appear closing the mouths of the lions. Wherefore, by their beseechings we plead with thee, O Savior and Lover of mankind, to deliver us from the everlasting and unquenchable fire, and to make us worthy to receive thy heavenly kingdom”

What does this teach us?

1. foreshadows the Trinity (another hymn: Let us praise the divinity of three flames, one light shining from a single nature in three persons. The Father without beginning, The Word who is of the same nature as the Father, and the consubstantial Spirit who reigns with Him. O youths, bless your Creator and Redeemer, praise Him, you priests, and all you people, exalt Him forever!)
2. foreshadows the Incarnation (the fourth man in the fire)
3. power of faith over evil.
4. deliverance from eternal fire. (the Babylonian executioners died from the heat of the fire)

Vesperal hymn “Thy holy youths, O Christ, when they were in the furnace of fire, as though in dew, did go before and foreshadow mystically thy coming from the Virgin, which hath illuminated us without burning. And righteous Daniel, wonderful among Prophets, when he went before and explained plainly thy divine Second Coming, did shout, saying, And I saw the thrones placed, and the judge sat, and the river of fire came before him. Wherefore, by their beseechings, O Master, deliver us.”

What does this teach?

1. Foreshadows Christ’s coming from the Virgin. (another hymn: We the faithful recognize in you, O Theotokos, the spiritual furnace, and just as He saved the three youths, the Most high has renewed the entire world in your womb. For He is the Lord, the God of our ancestors, worthy of all praise and glory.) This and the burning bush of Exodus is often seen as image of the Theotokos. Mary contained the fire of the Godhead in her womb and was not burned. The Church is enthralled by this mystery.

There is a lot of content here. One day I would like to go back and explore some of the themes mentioned in Odes 7 & 8. Let me know your thoughts.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Daniel and the coming Christ

This Sunday (Dec. 17, 2006) we had finished our journey through Philippians, so rather than starting Ephesians I took a side trip.

Throughout the Nativity season multiple OT prophets are commemorated. This is no accident because they all point in some way to the coming Christ.

This particular Sunday, Daniel and his three friends are commemorated. The discussion centered around how they pointed to Christ and what role they played in Orthodox theology.

Rather than summarizing the story of Daniel here. I want to point out three major prophecies of Daniel that point to Christ in a dramatic way.

Daniel 2:34-35: "Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were made of iron and clay and broke them into pieces…and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth" (Daniel 2:34-35). This prophecy comes straight from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. In summary, it is a dream about a statue made of four major elements that represent four different empires (Babylon, Persia, Greece, & Rome). Both Daniel and Isaiah prophecy about this stone. The prophecy about the stone in Daniel is for pagans and the prophecy about the stone in Isaiah is for Jews. The Lord Jesus Christ is that stone which is laid first, in the foundation of God's entire creation, for He is the Word of God and the Wisdom of God; second, as the foundation of the Old Testament as the preparation and third, as the foundation of the New Testament as the fulfillment. It was during the Roman Empire that the stone appears and begins the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Also, this passage refers to the virgin birth. The stone is cut without the aid of man. Often within Orthodox hymnology you will see Mary referred to as the Uncut Mountain.

- Daniel 7:13,14. Another prophecy as a result of a dream. This time the dream is from Belshazzar. Rather than a statue like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, this dream is made of four beasts. Yet they represent the same four empires. Belshazzar sees the “Ancient of Days” which is God and then the “Son of Man”. The Son of Man is Christ and this title is used frequently in the gospels. The Son of Man is given an eternal kingdom.

-Daniel 9:24-27. This is an amazing prophecies that pinpoints the Incarnation perfectly. The prophecy uses 70 weeks to designate times in the near future. Weeks in Jewish thought is merely a group of seven. In this case, the group is seven years. So 70 weeks would be 490 years. Daniel prophecies that after the decreed for the restoration of Jerusalem there would be 69 weeks until the coming of the Messiah. He will suffer for his people in between the 69 and 70 weeks. The decree for the restoration of Jerusalem was issued by the Persian king Artaxerxes of the dynasty Archaemenidae in 453 BC. In accordance to the prophecy, the Messiah was to suffer for the cleansing of human sins in the period between 69 and 70 weeks. If one adds to the year of the issuance of the decree of the restoration of Jerusalem 69 weeks, i.e. 483 years, then this equals the 30th year of the Christian method of numbering years.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Philippians 4:4-23 Rejoice! Redux.

Phil 4:4-23 Rejoice! Redux.

4. Paul again returns to the theme of rejoice or to have joy in the Lord. He even repeats it twice. Then it seems that he begins a list of things that are intended to help support our ability to rejoice in the Lord.

5. “Let your reasonableness be known to all men” Reasonableness or forbearance- (always ready to yield, gentle, mild, reasonable, it is the opposite of returning evil for evil). It is the ability to bend and not break. This is greatly important for the Philippians because they were experiencing both persecution and betrayal in their midst. In order to secure joy in their lives, they had to lean on Christ and not necessarily take matters into their own hands.
The second half of the verse states that the “Lord is near” not necessarily that the Lord is coming soon but that He is closely present with us. We can afford to be gracious to everyone because Christ is with us (Farley).

6. “Stop being anxious” but with prayer and entreaty with giving thanks let your requests be known. Anxious is the same word used of Martha in Luke 10:41. Paul adds thankfulness as an important element to eliminating worry. Thankfulness is important because it fills the heart with gratitude and strengthens our faith.
Giving of thanks is at the heart of our worship as humans as within our Liturgy. The Eucharist means to give thanks. Our offering to God is ultimately an act of thanksgiving. In the anaphora, the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord”

7. The result of thanksgiving is that the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.

8. Paul then gives us a great list of virtues and thoughts that will help in keeping joy in our lives. Thoughts are vitally important to the Christian and often form our spirituality. There is a whole Orthodox teaching on intrusive thoughts and the battle with them. However, it is enough here to point to two verses - Prov. 23:7; 2 Cor. 10:5.
Farley, “We should see life sacramentally as being crammed with the gifts of God and discerning God’s glory in the world.” The great example here is Paul’s example in the Philippian jail. Paul had just been beaten and unjustly arrested yet he offers thanks and praise to God.

9. Paul reminds again to follow his path. It is the sure path to bring God’s peace.

Verses 4-9 are the epistle reading on Palm Sunday. Why? As one member of our class stated, we are about to enter one of the darkest times of the Church. We are brought to the lowest point, yet we must not despair because joy is still available and will be poured out in its fullness on Easter Morning.

10. Paul begins to thank them for his gift.

11-13. Paul speaks to the needs that he has. He does not want to appear to be complaining about lack for he has learned to be content in whatever circumstances he is in. The reason is that Christ empowers him no matter what circumstances he finds himself. Contentment is not due to outward conditions but on the Lord.

14-23. He is letting them know that what was given by them was worthy of praise. Their gift has
benefited them more than it has him. It has given the Philippians the following:
1. Share is his afflictions. 2. fruit to their account. 3. offering to God (a sacrifice was given with hope of receiving divine blessing). 4. God will fill all their needs.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Are You Saved?

As a former Evangelical Protestant this was a hugely important question for me. Almost all my religious services were directed at leading a person to a decision about their salvation.

Upon becoming Orthodox, I found that salvation is viewed much differently and that this question is rarely asked. For one thing, salvation is viewed as a process rather than a point in time. I heard recently of an Orthodox seminarian being asked this question by another man. He did not know how to answer and finally answered: "I have been saved, I am being saved, and hope to one day be saved." I am sure this created as much puzzlement with well-meaning evangelist.

For me, wrapping my head around the Orthodox concept of salvation has been a challenging part of my journey. Mostly, because of the difference of vocabulary and definitions. I found that a lot of former Evangelicals have the same difficulty. Then once they "get it", translating it back for the benefit of their Evangelical friends and family becomes a challenge.

I saw all this because Fr. Stephen of St. Anne's in OakRidge, Tennessee addresses this question in his blog. Fr. Stephen is also a convert and because he is ministering in the South, he has to deal with these issues as they are part of the cultural fabric. He does an incredible job communicating these deep truths. I am sure the light bulb will go off for many Evangelicals and converts when they read this, and those raised in the church will just say "Duh, that's what we've been saying!".

Here's the link:

Friday, December 08, 2006

Philippians 3:17-4:3 Pitfalls on the Journey

Phil 3:17-4:3 Pitfalls of the Journey

17. Paul begins this section asking the Philippians to follow his example.
What is his example? Farley suggests that it is to “conform to apostolic pattern; the pattern is the apostolic teaching and example (Rom 6:17)”. Paul readily admits in previous verses that he has not arrived, yet he presses on. His example then is not so much every aspect of who he is but to follow him on his journey. It is the way which is the example--the journey toward Christ. This is what he is confident about. This path is sure and true and will lead to communion with God.
Paul also says to look at others who walk this way and follow their example. Who are those who we can follow their example? Today there are many faithful Christians who are on the path, but the church upholds the Saints for this reason. Here are men and women who have gone before us and have attained the prize. Their life is worthy of modeling. This should encourage us to read their lives and listen to their path.

18. There are many who followed this path but have fallen away. This brings Paul to tears. He is speaking again of the Judaizers. Why did they fall away? They stopped pressing forward; possibly they felt they had attained the prize; they got comfortable at their level of growth. This is why the church always call for repentance. The Church provides for us multiple opportunities to reflect and repent. The fast of the Church are there for us to re-evaluate and repent.

19. Paul gives characteristics of those who left the faith and danger signs for us. 1. Their god is their appetite Ambrose-“impeding the salvation of the faithful by raising questions about the eating of or abstinence of food.”
-What does he mean by this? (Rom 16:18; 1 Cor 6:13; Hos 4:7; Jdg 6:32; Gal 1:15) Chrys “Your belly is given to you to nourish it, not so that it may burst. Your body is given to you that you may rule it, not so that you may have it as a mistress, it is given that it may serve you.” There is a slight pun here. The Judaizers were insistent upon retaining and enforcing the dietary laws of the OT. Paul ridicules them somewhat by saying that what they eat has become their god. Also, it can be extended to the passions in general. Life’s purpose for these people have become the satisfaction of physical desires rather than God’s glory.
2. Their glory is their shame. Farley says their “glory is their shame; Paul’s is the maturity and holiness of the churches he fouded (1 Thess 2:20”. What they purpose to do will ultimately lead away from Christ thus becoming shame to them.
3. They set their mind on earthly things. Once again Farley states, “The Judaizers insisentence on circumcision makes the Cross irrelevant (Gal. 6:12)”.

20-21. Paul now gives motivation to continued growth. The Christian’s citizenship exists in the heavens; remember that the Philippians were proud of their Roman citizenship (Farley). Clement of Alexandria “we know that this is well said, for we ought to live as strangers and expatriates in the world…not using the creation to satisfy our passions but high-mindedly and with thanksgiving.”

4:1-3. Paul encourages them to stand firm. Marius Victorinus says that they are to be “united as one, thinking in harmony”. Paul makes his exhortation very practical by mentioning a situation in the church. His exhortation is to two women in the church; Paul does not take sides; Yet he encourages his yokefellow and the other Christians to work with these women for reconciliation and unity. Who is this yokefellow? Some even in the early church (Clement of Alexandria) suggested St. Paul’s wife because of the marital language that yokefellow suggests. Farley suggests that is was the husband of one of the women and maybe the brother of the other one. This is Chrysostom’s theory as well. Marius Victorinus suggests the yoke fellow is Epaphroditus. He also mentions Clement in this passage who is to become a later bishop of Rome. Ultimately this reminds us that we are to help each other on the race – we are not lone ranger Christians.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Philippians 3:1-16 A Call to Rejoice

Philippians 3:1-16 A Call to Rejoice

Here is a brief summary of Phil 3:1-16. I will update it with more detail.

Paul issues another call to rejoice almost as if he is ending the book. Then he becomes concerned about those who would steal the joy of these Christians, by establishing a standard other than Christ.

Paul is reacting against a group of people within the church known as the Judaizers. The whole epistle to the Galatians is a defense against them. Judaizers were Jews who embraced Christianity, but felt the need to enforce the Mosaic regulations upon all who were Gentiles. The Gentiles were to be Jews first before they could become Christians. Paul reaction is that to enforce Judaism is to diminish what Christ has done.

He begins his argument here by stating that if anyone could uphold themselves before God through a strict standard of Judaism it was himself. Paul was from the right tribe, studied in the right Jewish schools, and performed all the actions of a zealot. Yet he counted all this as “crap” (see Farley’s text), when held up to the person of Christ.

Jesus himself reacted against this standard of holiness when he encountered the Pharisees. Jesus’ reaction was to be “perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” This is a much more exacting standard than the outward focus of the Pharisees, yet because of its “impossibility” it forces the seeker into a relationship with God in order to attain it.

Paul then upholds the way to God as the way of faith and not by upholding Jewish ritual. However, this way of faith is not necessarily an easier road to travel, and in fact may be more difficult. Paul explores the depth of this communion of faith in 10 & 11. Those who walk this path of faith not only experience the resurrection of Christ, but are called to experience the crucifixion and death of Christ. There is no Easter without Good Friday. To deny the experience of Christ’s suffering in ones life is to deny the path of faith.

In verse 12-16, Paul reaffirms that this path of faith is not instantaneous transformation, but a journey. This is amazing considering the dramatic Damascus road experience Paul encountered. Yet to never move beyond that experience would have caused a stagnant faith that may never have grown. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we hoped to one day be saved. Paul calls the people to remember not to look at any spiritual attainment but only at the distance between yourself and Christ and to keep pressing onward.


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