“Do you really think that you are doing nobody injustice by plundering so much?”

August 31, 2010

I have greatly enjoyed reading posts from Macrina Walker’s blog A Vow of Conversation. Here is a recent gem:

H/T: A Vow of Conversation:

Basil’s social doctrine was grounded in the conviction that all people are equal and share the same human nature. The poor, the rich and the emperor are all companions in slavery, that is, they are all dependent on God.[1] Moreover, human beings are social creatures and communal life and interaction with one another require a generosity that can alleviate the needs of the destitute. The scriptural command to “Give to anyone who asks” (Mt 5,42) calls us to a sharing and a mutual love that are characteristic of human nature.[2] The Acts of the Apostles (4,34-35) teaches us how this is to be put into practice. In the first ecclesial community of Jerusalem, the Christians sold their goods and gave the money to apostles to distribute to those who needed it.

St. Basil the Great praying over the gifts

Basil encouraged the faithful Christians of his time to respond to the Gospel injunction: “Sell your possessions and give to those in need,” and “give to the poor” (Lk 12,33; 18,22).[3] Basil had himself long ago responded to this call and had committed himself with all his heart to a life of voluntary poverty. In the Acts of the Apostles, the giving away of one’s possessions is presented as a free choice, and in the Gospel it is seen as a condition of perfection. However, Basil became even more radical and saw it as a rule of life for all Christians. Moved by the extreme social needs of the population, and enlightened by the scriptures, Basil insisted that the produce of the earth was intended for all. While God the Creator had indeed distributed it unevenly, he had done this with the intention that the rich should share with the poor. Basil simply swept aside the usual objections.

“To whom am I unjust when I keep what is mine, asks the rich man. – Tell me, which things are yours? Where did you get them from at the beginning of your life? It is like someone who has a seat in the theatre, and who objects when others also take their places. He claims that he owns what is for the common use of all. So too with the rich. They claim in advance that which is common property and make themselves the owners of it. Moreover, if everyone acquires what they need and leave the excess over for the destitute, then there will be no rich and no poor. Did you not come naked out of your mother’s womb? Are you not going to return naked to the earth? Where did you get your present possessions from? If you say ‘from fate,’ then that makes you an atheist who neither acknowledges your Creator nor gives thanks to your Benefactor. If you acknowledge that they came from God, then tell me the reason why He gave them to you. Is God unjust that He gives the things of life to people unequally? Why are you rich while another is poor? In any case, is it not so that you can receive the reward for good and faithful stewardship, and the other can receive the reward for his patient effort? But you, who grasps at everything in your insatiable greed, do you really think that you are doing nobody injustice by plundering so much? Who is the greedy one? The one who is not satisfied with that which is enough. Who is the plunderer? The one who takes that which belongs to all. Are you greedy? Are you a plunderer? The one who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them.”[4]

“Nice words, but money is nicer,” thought the rich in reaction to Basil’s harsh charge. Basil viewed the goods of the earth as a gift of the Creator. God had entrusted their stewardship to a number of people who were intended to share them with others. With this theory of stewardship, Basil went beyond the prevailing and biblically rooted understanding of almsgiving, and laid a new foundation for the Church’s social work. We can see in this a plea for the recognition of what we might call human rights, although Basil also goes further than this. In situating the inequality between rich and poor in God’s ordering of salvation history, so that the former are called to love of their neighbor and the latter to patience, Basil clearly saw that there is no such thing as private ownership in the strict sense. And, there should really be no such categories as rich and poor. This radical approach sounds revolutionary in the face of corruption and excess. But it is an evangelical radicalism that we are meant to strive for nonviolently. This is not so surprising considering that Basil upheld the one same ideal for all Christians. He was realistic enough to realize that not everyone would follow that ideal, but it was lived out among ascetics and in monastic communities. Even Jesus and the scriptures held up certain ideals to which all were invited, but to which not all would respond.[5]

In keeping with the biblical precedent and with the teaching of other Fathers of the Church, Basil emphatically rejected the practice of lending money for interest. He urged the poor not to ask for loans and said that it was better to lose everything than to lose their freedom. While they should obviously try to find a way out of destitution, this should be by their own work, for people are capable of more than ants and bees.[6]

K. Duchatelez, o.praem. Basilius de Grote. Een Evangelische Revolutionair, (Averbode, 1999) 110-112. My translation.


[1] Hom. ‘On detachment…’ (Quod rebus mundanis) 8; Hom. ‘I will pull down my barns’ 4 (PG 31, 556 A and 264 C); Shorter Rule 127 (31, 1168 C) etc. According to Giet (Les idées, pp. 32-33), Basil’s frequent use of the word ‘homodoulos’ characterizes his approach to the equality of persons.

[2] Hom. Ps. 14-a, 6 (PG 29, 261 C – 264 A).

[3] Mor. 47 (PG 31, 768 B).

[4] Hom. ‘I will pull down my barns’ 7 (PG 31, 276 B – 277 A).

[5] With his theory of stewardship, Basil transcended the prevailing understanding of almsgiving and laid a foundation for Christian social concern. See W-H. Hauschild, “Christentum und Eigentum. Zum Problem eines altkirchlichen ‘Sozialismus,’” in Zeitschr. f. Evangel. Ethik 16 (1972) 44; K. Koschorke, Spuren der Alten Liebe. Studien zum Kirchenbegriff des Basilius von Caesarea, (Freiburg, 1991) 81; and Chapter 13, p….

[6] Hom. Ps. 14-b, 1, 2 and 4 (PG 29, 265 AB, 269 AC and 276 AB).


Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions for Minors

August 29, 2010

The following article is based on a paper I wrote for a college class touching on an issue from my past as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was written with the wider public audience in mind. I have tried to add links where I could without changing too much of the original paper, which was written using MLA formatting.

Blood Transfusions: Parental Rights and the Rights of Children

On Wednesday, November 28, 2007, a Superior Court Judge in Skagit County, Washington ruled that fourteen year old Dennis Lindberg was a “mature minor” and could refuse blood transfusions to treat leukemia, even though his non-custodial parents wanted him to receive blood. According to the Seattle Post-Intellingencer, doctors had given Dennis, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a 70 per cent chance of survival for five years if he received the transfusions, which would have strengthened him to survive cancer treatment. Sadly, Dennis died later that evening in a Seattle hospital (Black).

Jehovah's Witnesses are known for refusing blood transfusions.

Courts have generally respected the right of adults or a “mature minor” like Dennis to refuse medical treatment, even in the face of death.  However, courts are more likely to intervene when younger children are at risk. In January 2007, the British Columbia provincial government obtained court orders to permit blood transfusions for three premature sextuplet infants whose parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses  (Macqueen 34). In non-emergency scenarios, objections to medical treatment based upon religious convictions ought to be respected as long as the child’s welfare is not threatened. Still, a parent’s religious belief should not endanger a child’s life and the welfare of the child trumps parental rights. This may necessitate intervention in some emergency situations to protect a child from a well meaning, but misguided religious zeal.

A 1994 Awake! magazine (published by Jehovah's Witnesses) recounted how 26 children had died for refusing blood medical therapy.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position against blood transfusions is a religious belief drawn from biblical passages against eating blood, reasoning that transfusions would be similarly condemned. Such interpretations and policies are decided upon by a ruling body of church senior elders who reside at Watchtower headquarters in New York, known as the Governing Body. This ruling council is “the primary spiritual authority among Jehovah’s Witnesses” (Penton 163). The Governing Body proscribes whole blood or “red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets or plasma” (How Do I View Blood Fractions? 3). However, it permits other medical procedures, including organ transplants, fractions made from blood, and various bloodless alternative therapies. This position is adhered to even in emergency situations. For example, an internal Witness publication urges members to

“be firmly resolved before any emergency to refuse blood for yourself and for your children” (Our Kingdom Ministry 3).

The number of members who have died in obedience to the blood taboo is not known. However, in 1994, a Witness publication headlined the pictures of 26 youths who as “mature minors” had died refusing blood (Youths Who Put God First 1). Many Witnesses have survived with alternative therapies, helping to pioneer new bloodless therapies with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, emergency room situations may not allow the luxury of using alternative regimens, particularly a sudden blood loss. Treatment of newborn and premature infants also raise concerns because of the lower amount of blood volume overall and the greater risks from decreased oxygen levels if blood volume is lowered (Macqueen 37).

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website states “the State can and should step in to protect a neglected child,” but argues that the situation is different when Witness parents refuse blood for minor children. It cites the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case Parham v. J.R.:

“Simply because the decision of a parent [on a medical matter] involves risks does not automatically transfer the power to make that decision from the parents to some agency or officer of the state” (You Have the Right to Choose).

Attorney Kerry Louderback-Wood critiques their interpretation of Parham in an article in the Journal of Church and State, referring to the landmark Supreme Court case Prince v. Massachusetts (1943).  She counters that

“the relevant facts in Parham did not involve the parents’ refusal to accept medical treatment on religious grounds. Indeed, concurring Justice Stewart wrote that a state would have constitutional grounds to preempt the parent’s decision, and defended this position by referring to a seminal case against a Jehovah’s Witness parent who mandated that her minor niece engage in selling [Watchtower] Society magazines in violation of the state’s child labor laws” (Louderback-Wood).

The principle from Prince v. Massachusetts is clear:

“Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”

The Witness publication Our Kingdom Ministry also cites Prince and denies it applies to Witness parents who might deny blood to minor children:

“Witness parents have no intention of ‘martyring’ their children. If they did, why would they take their children to the hospital in the first place? On the contrary, Witness parents willingly seek medical treatment for their children. They love their children and want them to have good health….They want their children’s health problems managed without blood” (Our Kingdom Ministry 4).

This is where the Watchtower Society’s argumentation breaks down. On one hand, Witness “mature minors” who have died for need of blood transfusions are eulogized in Watchtower publications. Yet, on the other hand, the Watchtower Society denies that their members might be making martyrs of their younger children in similar situations.

One reason Witnesses may not think they could be risking harm to their children is because many of them believe bloodless therapies exist for nearly all situations involving blood. Witness publications are replete with information on such alternative treatments and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been directly responsible for the growth of this field of therapy. Still, bloodless therapies do not always work, especially in emergency situations.  Louderback-Wood cites this as an example of misrepresentation by the Watchtower Society. She notes that Watchtower publications cite physicians who promote bloodless therapies, falsely implying these physicians oppose the use of blood:

“It builds a case that other doctors wish all surgeons would become bloodless surgeons, when in fact those doctors recognize the benefits of blood transfusions for those who are in desperate need” (Louderback-Wood).

Witness parents may have the right to reject potentially life-saving treatment for themselves. However, a child’s right to life and security is not dependent on the choice of their parents. Nor should a parent’s religious belief be allowed to make a martyr of their child. In non-emergency situations, the courts and doctors should be flexible to permit alternative therapies to blood, while at the same time monitoring their success. Witness children should not be forced to take blood just because it may be viewed as the best treatment available. However, if blood is the only thing that may save a child’s life or if an alternative therapy poses too great a risk, this supersedes the right of a parent to determine what is best for their child. In such situations, the courts should authorize the necessary treatment to protect the child’s welfare. When the child becomes a “mature minor” or an adult, it may choose to risk death than to accept a blood transfusion. No one else can make that choice for another, not even a parent.

Works Cited

Black, Cherie. “Boy dies of leukemia after refusing treatment for religious reasons.” Seattle Post Intelligencer [Seattle, WA] 29 Nov. 2007.

“How Do I View Blood Fractions and Medical Procedures Involving My Own Blood?” Our Kingdom Ministry (Watchtower), 1 Nov. 2006:3.

Louderback-Wood, Kerry. “Jehovah’s Witnesses: Blood and the Tort of Misrepresentation.” Journal of Church and State (5 Sep. 2005):

Macqueen, Ken. “The Sextuplets: Whose Babies Are They?.” Macleans 28 Feb. 2007: 1.

Penton , M. James. Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Our Kingdom Ministry (Watchtower) 1 Sep. 1992: 3.

“You Have the Right to Choose.” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. 30 Nov. 2007.

“Youths Who Put God First.” Awake! 22 May 1994: 1.

Further Reading:

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions from JWFacts

Blood and Life, Law and Love by Ray Franz (former member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses)

Jehovah’s Witnesses & Blood Transfusions by T.L. Frazier

The Watchtower’s Handling of Blood by Doug Mason

What’s Wrong with the Witnesses

A Memorial to a False Prophecy

 


Evlogetaria for the Dead

August 28, 2010

Evlogetaria for the Dead, Tone 5

Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes.

The choir of the saints has found the fountain of life and the door of
Paradise. May I also find the way through repentance, the sheep that
was lost am I, call me up to You, O Savior, and save me.

Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes.

You who did fashion me of old out of nothingness, and with Your
Image Divine did honor me; but because of the transgressions of Your
commandments, did return me again to the earth from whence I was
taken; lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of Your
likeness.

Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes.

I am the image of Your unutterable glory, though I bear the scars of
my stumblings. Have compassion upon me, the works of Your hands,
O sovereign Lord, and cleanse me through Your loving-kindness; and
the homeland of my heart’s desire bestow on me, by making me a
citizen of Paradise.

Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes.

Give rest O God to the souls of Your servants, and appoint for them a
place in Paradise; where the choirs of the saints, O Lord, and the just
will shine forth like stars; to Your servants that are sleeping now give
rest, overlooking all their offenses.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

The triune radiance of the One Godhead with reverent songs
acclaiming, let us cry; Holy are You, O eternal Father, and Son also
eternal, and Spirit Divine; shine with Your light on us who with faith
adore You, and from the fire eternal rescue us.

Now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Hail, O gracious Lady, who in the flesh bears God for the salvation of
all; and through whom the human race has found salvation; through
You may we find Paradise, Theotokos, our Lady pure and blessed.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia; Glory to You, our God. (3x)


The “He Who Does Not Sleep” Icon

August 25, 2010

This is known as the “He Who Does Not Sleep” icon. It sometimes shows the infant Christ with eyes open and sometimes with eyes closed. It is also known as Christ Anapeson or Christ Reclining.

It’s central message is this: God is in control. He has power over life and death. More on the icon can be read here.

A description of this icon by Nick Papas (iconographer) at Saint Michael’s Orthodox Christian Church in Greensburg, Pennsylvania given on August 15, 2010:

Behold he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand… The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore. (Psalm 121:4-8)


Eastern “Blind Spot” or “Cross-Pollination”?

August 24, 2010

A Coptic Orthodox icon of Jesus and the Apostles at the Last Supper

Awhile back I wrote about what I’ve come to refer to as Protestantism’s Eastern “blind spot.” When Evangelical Protestant apologists usually discuss the development of historical Christian theology they often characterize sacramental theology (Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Confirmation or Chrismation, Confession and Absolution, etc.) as “Roman inventions.” In that blog post I cited the specific example of the Coptic Orthodox Church as demonstrating the falsity of that view. In 451 AD, the Coptic Church was separated from the bulk of Christendom — from what is now known as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church but maintains to this day a strong sacramental theology. (The Coptic Church belongs to what are known as the Non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox Churches.) The reality is that a full sacramental theology can be traced back to Christian antiquity — to the Early Church Fathers. I concluded:

Much of Protestant apologetics against liturgical and sacramental theology has traditionally focused on a historical approach against “Catholic inventions,” which is manifestly flawed. More recent Protestant responses to Eastern Orthodoxy often assumes that by the year 1054 AD (the year traditionally given for the East-West Schism) the Eastern Church had had plenty of time to fall into apostasy. The Coptic Church demonstrates that a liturgical and sacramental theology permeated the Christian Church 600 years before the East-West Schism. At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away.

One Protestant blogger said that I had

overstate[d] the separation of the “Coptic Orthodox” both from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. His idea is to suggest that when Coptics, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics agree on something, it proves it goes back to 450 A.D. This kind of idea is naive at best, for it ignores the very real interaction and cross-pollination that exists amongst those three groups, as well as between those groups and other groups, such as the Assyrian Church of the East or the Ethiopian Orthodox.

First, I want to point out that to speak of “real interaction and cross-pollination” between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in this context makes little sense. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was administered by the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959. They are essentially the same Church but now have separate Patriarchs. But, then, even many Eastern Orthodox are not that knowledgeable about these Churches.

There’s no denying that traditions grow and develop or that influences can be discerned at times. However, if there’s any naivety here, it’s the assumption that the liturgical and sacramental theology in all these various Eastern Churches (Coptic and other Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) can be accounted for by “real interaction and cross-pollination” instead of just admitting that they pre-date the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Besides hurling anathemas against each other throughout history these Churches were often persecuted (sometimes violently) by the other. To assume the common sacramental theology can be accounted for because they somehow learned these things from each other is ludicrous. More on that in a moment. My Protestant friend then changed the subject from sacramental and liturgical theology to trying to find sola scriptura arguments in the Church Fathers. I’m going to stay with the subject of a common sacramental theology in these Eastern Churches and not go down that rabbit trail. For those interested, this article by Joe Gallegos gives a balanced view of the Church Fathers on that subject, though I would not agree with Joe’s final conclusion.

Back to the idea of “real interaction and cross-pollination.” How did the Coptic Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox get along after the Council of Chalcedon in the Byzantine Empire? This Wikipedia entry describes the situation accurately:

Copts suffered under the rule of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire. The Melkite [Greek Eastern Orthodox] Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as both spiritual leaders and civil governors, massacred the Egyptian population whom they considered heretics. Many Egyptians were tortured and martyred to accept the terms of Chalcedon, but Egyptians remained loyal to the faith of their fathers and to the Cyrillian view of Christology. One of the most renowned Egyptian saints of that period is Saint Samuel the Confessor.

Does it make sense much “cross pollination” occurred between the Chalcedonian Orthodox and the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox during the time the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox were under such repression? What sources is this Reformed blog writer relying on to establish that the liturgical and sacramental theology that developed in these disparate Eastern Churches who were not in communion with each other was due to some sort of “cross-pollination”? Rather, doesn’t the fact these bitterly separated Churches maintained very similar beliefs on the sacraments show a parallel development, one that comes from a common root before their separation at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD?

Details of the poor relations between these Churches after their separation can be read in the book Muslim-Christian Relations and Inter-Christian Rivalries in the Middle East by John Joseph on pages 10-11 (see link for the reading). What is even more interesting is the fact that the author explains that these persecuted non-Chalcedonian Orthodox welcomed the Muslim Arab conquerors because it offered them relief. Again, there is little indication that these separated Churches enjoyed interaction and that this allowed a cross-pollination between them which would explain common sacramental theological beliefs.

As an aside, let’s consider the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the different Eastern Churches during this period of history. Could this common sacramental theology in these various Eastern Churches be a result of Catholic influence? Hardly. During the era of the Crusades Latin Catholic missionaries encountered the various Eastern Churches (Oriental and Eastern Orthodox and the Assyrian Church) and their interaction was primarily one of debate.

Debates characterized meetings between Western & Eastern Christians during the Crusades.

However, later Latin Catholic missionaries amongst Eastern Christians did meet with some success. This can be seen in the formation of various Eastern Catholic Churches (in full communion with Rome) in the centuries that followed. One historian explains:

During periods of Moslem persecution, the autonomous Christian sects of the east obtained support from the Church of Rome, but often at the price of obedience to Rome. Agreements were made whereby in return for recognition of the Pope as head of the community, local usages in doctrine and ritual were permitted to continue. Hence a number of eastern Christians broke away from sects such as the Jacobites [Oriental Orthodox] or Nestorians [Assyrian Church of the East], and formed what are known as the Uniate Churches–i.e. Communities with practices that differ widely from those of the main Roman Church, but which nevertheless accept the supremacy of the Pope. There have thus come into existence the Armenian Catholic, the Greek Catholic, the Syrian Catholic, the Coptic Catholic, and the Chaldean (Nestorian) Catholic Churches. (The Middle East: a Physical, Social, and Regional Geography by William Bayne Fisher.)

The formation of these Eastern Catholic Churches (dating from the 1500s to the 1800s) were, for the most part, accompanied by bitter reactions from their mother churches in the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox from which they broke away with, each considering the other as heretical. As a result, the view of most Eastern Churches towards Roman Catholicism became embittered. Just as there was no “cross-pollination” between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox with regards to their sacramental theology, there would be even less here.

This chart shows the timeline of the separation of the Ancient Christian Churches. Click for better view.

But, back to this common sacramental theology in these Eastern Churches. Let’s take another look at the Coptic Orthodox Church which was separated from Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in 451 AD.  I cite them as in the past thirty years there has been a great migration of Coptic Orthodox from Egypt throughout the world and they are often easily found throughout most Western countries nowadays. Thus if someone doubts the presentation here, it would be quite easy for them to visit a local Coptic Orthodox parish to verify it.

Fr. Tadros Malaty’s Introduction to the Coptic Orthodox Church is probably the best place to start. On pages 316-317, he enumerates the Coptic Orthodox view of the sacraments:

SACRAMENTS AND CHURCH LIFE

I am delighted to write here about church sacraments, for in fact practising church sacraments gives us enjoyment through the exceeding love of God and the free divine grace. Such are the practical gospels in the actual church life, that through them believers discover the mystery of the Gospel.

In brief I can say that the sacraments grant us the following blessings:

 

1. Practical divine grace: If teaching the divine grace is the heart and center of the Gospel, we attain this grace through the sacraments, as it is written in the Holy Bible:

In the sacrament of Baptism, we attain the rebirth, not of our own merit nor by a human hand but by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-5; Tit. 3:5). We also receive God’s adoption (Gal. 3:26, 27), attain the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) and sanctification (Eph. 5:25-26).

Through “Chrism” (Mayroun) we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who teaches us, guides us and sanctifies us, so that we may attain the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Acts 8:17; 19:5,6).

Through penance and confession, the Holy Spirit grants us the remission of sins (Matt. 16:19).

In the Eucharist, the church is lifted up as if to heaven so that she meets her heavenly Savior, participates with the heavenly host in their hymns, and partakes of the Body and the Blood of the Lord to be united with Him, established in Him and to live forever with Him

 

(John 2:3 5,55; Matt. 26:27,28; 1 Cor. 10: 17).

Through the Sacrament of holy unction, the sick who accepts to be united with Christ in His sufferings attains the remission of sins (by repentance). and the healing of his body (James 4:14; Mark 6:13).

Through the Sacrament of marriage, the couple are united together, and the Holy spirit sets their home as the holy church of God…

Through the Sacrament of priesthood, Jesus Christ, the Unique Chief-Priest acts in those whom the Holy Spirit grants the grace of priesthood (Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:11; Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1: 16).

These exceeding divine acts are the free grace of God offered to believers through His Church.

Do these sound familiar? Now, if you were counting as you read the above, you could count seven sacraments. In the East, that’s usually (but not always) the conventional numbering given.  What is essential here is not the numbering of the sacraments but how they are understood theologically. Their theological understanding comes from how their liturgical books present these “mysteries.”

But let’s just concentrate on one of the sacraments or mysteries that the Churches of the East (both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) interpret similarly, the Eucharist:

Coptic Christians believe the eucharistic bread and wine is changed into Christ's Body and Blood during the Divine Liturgy.

Coptic Orthodox Bishop Mettaous, Bishop and Abbot of St. Mary Monastery, El-Sorian in Egypt discusses the Coptic view of the Eucharistic Real Presence here:

Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Christians agree that the bread and wine truly and actually become
the body and blood of Christ. They have in general refrained from philosophical speculation, and usually
rely on the status of the doctrine as a “Mystery,” something known by divine revelation that could not
have been arrived at by reason without revelation. Accordingly, they prefer not to elaborate upon the
details and remain firmly within Holy Tradition, than to say too much and possibly deviate from the
truth. However, they do speak clearly of a “change” (in Greek μεταβολή) or “metousiosis” (μετουσίωσις)
of the bread and wine. Met-ousi-osis is the Greek form of the word Tran-substantia-tion.

After discussing theological and logical considerations, the article then gives historical reasons for believing in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. This Coptic Orthodox Bishop makes the very same point I am making about the historical significance of the universality of the view of the Eucharist in the various Ancient Churches:

1. All apostolic Churches universally agree about the real presence of the Lord in the Sacrament of the
Eucharist in spite of their disagreements on many other issues.
2. All Eastern and Western Church Fathers have agreed, without exception, that the words of the Lord
about this Holy Sacrament are to be understood literally.
3. Martin Luther himself could not dare to deny the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist (although his view was still heretical) and it wasn’t until later that Zwingli came up with the heresy of real absence which
most of the Protestants believe today.

Remember, when we say “Ancient Churches” we are not just talking Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. We are also including the Oriental Orthodox (who were separated from the rest of Christendom in 451 AD) and also the Assyrian Church of the East. A quick look at the Assyrian Church’s view on the Eucharist further shows the antiquity of Christian belief in the Real Presence.

Liturgy at an Assyrian Church of the East parish in India.

The Assyrian Church of the East is the church which descends from those Christians who did not accept the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. It only accepts the first two ecumenical councils: the First Council of Nicea and the First Council of Constantinople. To suggest there was “cross-pollination and real interaction” between the Assyrian Church and the other Eastern Churches (either Oriental Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox) is also ludicrous. They also were persecuted by the other Christian groups. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Assyrian Church of the East decided to remove anathemas towards other Christian groups from their liturgy.

The Assyrian Church of the East describes their belief regarding Sacraments and the Eucharist:

The Church of the East has a sacramental system which resembles the sacramental systems of the Greek and Latin traditions. The Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are primary, and the Sacrament of Holy Orders effects the other Sacraments. Confirmation is administered with Baptism, and Absolution is a benefit of the Eucharist, though Absolution is also administered separately during a common service of Absolution, and is also administered to individuals, with penance, in the case of serious sin. The Sign of the Cross, Unction, and “Holy Leaven” are defined as additional Sacraments. The central feature of the worship life of the Church of the East is the Eucharist, known in the Syriac language of the Church as the “Qurbana Qaddisha”, or “Holy Offering”. The liturgy of the Eucharist is attributed to “the Apostles, Addai and Mari, who discipled the East”. The liturgy consists of a service for the catechumens and a service for the faithful. The Host is a leavened loaf, and the cup is an equal mixture of wine and water. The baptized faithful receive the body and blood of Christ under both species of bread and wine, and the “real presence” of Christ is understood in the elements. A priest ordained by a bishop in the apostolic succession is required for the Consecration, and a deacon is required to assist the celebrant. A community of worshipping believers must be present at the celebration.

As noted above, the Assyrian Church (whose liturgical language is Syriac — a form of Aramaic, the language many believe was Christ’s native tongue) has a mystery related to the Eucharist known as Holy Leaven. This is explained in a few places but this explanation given in a Vatican document describing the differences between Catholic and Assyrian practices is probably the most lucid:

The Assyrian Church of the East also practices the so called sacrament or mystery (Rasà) of Holy Leaven. From times immemorial, the Assyrian tradition relates that from the bread Jesus took in his hands, which He blessed, broke and gave to his disciples, He gave two pieces to St. John. Jesus asked St. John to eat one piece and to carefully keep the other one. After Jesus’ death, St. John dipped that piece of bread into the blood that proceeded from Jesus’ side. Hence the name of “Holy Leaven”, given to this consecrated bread, dipped into the blood of Jesus. Until this day, Holy Leaven has been kept and renewed annually in the Assyrian Church of the East. The local bishop renews it every year on Holy Thursday, mixing a remainder of the old Leaven within the new one. This is distributed to all parishes of his diocese, to be used during one year in each bread, specially prepared by the priest before the Eucharist. No priest is allowed to celebrate Eucharist using eucharistic bread without Holy Leaven. This tradition of the sacrament or mystery of Holy Leaven, which precedes the actual Eucharistic celebration, is certainly to be seen as a visible sign of historic and symbolic continuity between the present Eucharistic celebration and the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus.

Thus, not only does the Assyrian Church of the East share the high view of Real Presence with the other Eastern Churches, in a very graphic and literal way the Assyrian Church of the East believes their Eucharist is connected to the first Eucharist in the Upper Room and also to the Blood Christ shed on the cross.

A look at one of the prayers from the Assyrian liturgy called The Order of the Hallowing of the Apostles shows their highly developed eucharistic theology. After the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest prays:

Let us all with awe and reverence approach the Mystery of the precious body and blood of our Savior. With a pure heart and true faith let us recall his passion and consider his resurrection. For on our behalf the Only-begotten of God took from men a mortal body and a rational, sentient, and immortal soul, and by his life-giving laws and holy commandments brought us from error to the knowledge of the truth. And after all his dispensation for us, the First-fruits of our nature was tested by the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. And he committed to us his holy Mysteries, that by them we might recall all his grace toward us. Let us, then, with overflowing love and a lowly will, receive the gift of eternal life, and with pure prayer and manifold sorrow, partake of the Mysteries of the church in the hope of repentance, turning from our offenses and sorrowing for our sins, and asking for mercy and forgiveness from God, the Lord of all. And the priest speaks softly in his heart, saying: You are blessed, O Lord God of our fathers, and exalted and glorious is your name for ever, for you have not acted toward us according to our sins, but in the multitude of your mercies you have delivered us from the dominion of darkness, and have summoned us to the kingdom of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. (Through him you have loosed and destroyed the dominion of death, and have given us eternal life which is indestructible. And now that you have made us worthy to stand before your pure and holy altar, and to offer to you this living, holy, and unbloody sacrifice, make us worthy in your mercifulness to receive this, your gift, in all purity and holiness. And may it not be to us for judgment and vengeance, but for mercy and the forgiveness of sins, for resurrection from the dead, and for eternal life. And may we all serve your glory, and be made pure sanctuaries and holy temples for your dwelling, that when we have been united to the body and blood of your Christ we may appear with all your saints at his great and glorious manifestation, for to you, and to him, and to the Holy Spirit belong glory, honor, confession, and worship, now, always, and for ever and ever.)

In conclusion, instead of attributing this common sacramental theology in these separate and distinct Eastern Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church) to some sort of cross-pollination and interaction (which was practically non-existent because of viewing each other as heretical), their common witness to sacramental theology and a high view of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist testifies to a common root dating back before the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD. This is something many Evangelical Protestants usually have not taken into account when discussing the historical development of Christian theology, a veritable “blind spot” in Protestant apologetics.

Further examples from Ancient Churches which were separated from the rest of Christendom in the fifth century:

Part 1 of the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy in English, televised from Egypt. The Eucharistic prayer is in parts 7, 8, 9, 10. The text of the liturgies used in the Coptic Church can be read here. A Coptic liturgy in English from a parish in California can be seen here:

The dedication of an Assyrian Church of the East parish in California, showing its liturgical character. The language chanted is Aramaic which many think was the language Jesus spoke. An explanation with pictures of the Assyrian Mass or Liturgy can be found here. The liturgical text can be read here.

Liturgy in Aramaic by a Syriac Orthodox (Oriental Orthodox) Bishop in Jerusalem. The Syriac Liturgy or Mass is explained in English here. Liturgy texts for the Syriac Orthodox Church can be read in English here.


The Great Feasts in the Orthodox Church

August 19, 2010

A new video from an Orthodox parish in the Philippines. A couple of grammatical errors but still worth watching. The new Church year starts September 1st:


Out of the Mouths of Babes

August 19, 2010

Recently, I was at Vespers at my parish. Father was being assisted by a server who has grown children. Partway during the service one of his children came in with two of his grandchildren. The older one escaped from Mom and quickly ran towards Grandpa serving at the altar. Grandpa saw him coming and picked him up and returned him to Mom. The server was apologetic when I commented on the beauty of the moment. I told him he needn’t be. I love it when children are children at church. Granted, there has to be some control but I lean towards the side that rejoices when children come to church with their parents and are cherished and acknowledged as our future. God loves to hear them!


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