Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Published in the Post and Courier on 12.24.06 originally as The Nativity has two focuses

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
(Part IV of IV)
Our journey to Bethlehem through the images in St. Andrei Rublev’s Nativity finishes at the center—a center which has two foci: Mary, the Virgin Mother, and the somewhat less obvious (because of his size) newborn Christ (who, biblically speaking, is not “Jesus” until he is named on the 8th day—see Luke 2:21.)

Mary—the Theotokos, or God-bearer, as she is known in the Church—is the most noticeable figure in the icon. One’s eyes are immediately drawn to her, not only by her central location, but by her relative size and the bright red color of the bed on which she lays. The ever-virgin Mother’s body faces our Lord, yet her eyes gaze into the distance, as she keeps all that which the Shepherds told her, “pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary’s geometrically central position in this icon points to the reality that she herself is the gift which we human beings offer for this redemptive event. Recall the hymn we’ve been singing:

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks, The angels offer a hymn; The heavens a star; The wisemen gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger. And we offer Thee a virgin mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

“We offer Thee a virgin mother…” Mary is the pure offering of humanity, known in the Church by many of the names given to the instruments of worship in the Old Testament, and supremely, “the Temple” itself—Her womb being the actual dwelling place of God-made-man. The Theotokos is not for us the great exception, but rather, the great example. She was chosen and prepared by God, and by her consent—her ‘fiat’, bore Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The Church chants this beautiful hymn as from the lips of the Mother of God:

‘Thou, O my Son, art the all-perfect God, Yet Thou didst accept the form of Adam! In my hands I hold Thee, yet Thou dost hold all creation! How shall I wrap Thee in swaddling clothes? How shall I nourish Thee, O Food of Life? How shall I wonder at Thine ineffable poverty? How shall I name Thee, since I am Thy servant?’ Thy mother cried: ‘I can only sing and bless Thee, For Thou dost grant the world great mercy!

Indeed, as evidenced here at the Nativity, Mary is the first and most important Christian, as described in a beautiful hymn we sing of her. She is “more honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim.” As we contemplate the Nativity of Christ, we can hardly overlook her who gave birth to God the Word. We are obliged by gratitude and joy to fulfill her prophetic hymn, “all generations shall call me blessed.” Indeed, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our souls!”

Now, in the silence of the black cave, at the tips of the noses of the curious ox and ass (who recognized their maker), and resting gently no longer in, but just outside the womb of his most-pure mother, we find our Lord, according to the Scriptures, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. What are these swaddling clothes? Much more than just some rags that happened to be at hand! Those familiar with the icon of the raising of Lazarus from the dead will recognize that the infant Christ is wrapped, more specifically, in a burial shroud. Even in his nativity, hinted at also with the gift of myrrh, the purpose for his incarnation is made manifest: born to die for the sins of the whole world.

In the icon, as in life, our Lord is ‘findable’ but must be sought out. Have I looked? Have I found the One whom the angels today hymn? Have I found the One, worshiped by the Magi who learned of Him from the stars? If we don’t know where to look by ourselves, we can follow the star, the magi, the shepherds, the animals. They all know where to point us. “Seek and you shall find.”

Once having found and recognized Him as the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One, Emmanuel, have I asked the resounding question, “What shall I offer Thee, O Christ, who hast appeared on Earth as Man?” What can we offer him besides true worship and obedience? “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us!”

Especially for Nativity of Christ, Orthodox Christians have a special “call and response” greeting. Beginning this evening, one joy-filled Christian greets another, “Christ is born!” and the other responds, “Glorify Him!” Such a greeting is exchanged during the many days of this feast which commences, not ends, at the Vigil of the Nativity.

With the angels, I greet you, and bring you “good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). And with jubilation, I salute you with the blessings of the feast. Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at or by phone at 843-881-5010.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Strange Pair draws near to the Newborn Christ (Part III of IV)

By Fr. John Parker

The Angels are rejoicing and proclaiming the Good News. The Magi, journeying from afar, bear their gifts foreshadowing the divinity, sovereignty, and humanity of Christ. The shepherds, the first Jews to believe, explain what they have seen and heard, leading others, too, to wonder!

As we make our way, as if in a spiral towards the center of Rublev’s Nativity, we are greeted by a strange pair. A couple we wouldn’t expect to find so attentively gazing on our Lord. Two that are as close to Christ in proximity as the Virgin Mother.

Two well-known carols in the Western Christian tradition reference these two animals who by their eyes direct ours to our infant Lord in the manger. Perhaps you remember the tunes:

Why lies He in such mean estate / Where ox and ass are feeding? / Good Christian, fear: for sinners here, / The silent Word is pleading. (“What Child is This?”)

Ox and ass before him bow / And He is in the manger now. / Christ is born today! / Christ is born today! (“Good Christian Men, Rejoice!”)

But where do this ox and this ass appear in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity? Every crèche displays them. We sing about them. Christians paint them into the Nativity. And yet searching high and low through the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke, we don’t encounter them. Why? Because they are not found in the New Testament! The ox and ass put us humans to shame, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, nearly 800 years before the Holy Advent of our Lord:

“The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).

The birth of the Messiah, Emmanuel: God with us, Jesus the Christ, is truly an awesome event—in the classical sense of “awesome”. So marvelous is it, so utterly extraordinary—the heavens and the stars recognize Him. The earth itself recognizes him. “Foreigners” recognize him. Even “dumb” animals worship Him! Once again, we return to the Orthodox Christian hymn:

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks, The angels offer a hymn; The heavens a star; The wisemen gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger. And we offer Thee a virgin mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

In fact, one of the theological reasons we celebrate Christmas at the Winter Solstice (just a few days later on our present calendar…) is because of the point made by the universe at this time. What is that point?

The Solstice is the shortest day of the year. Each day thereafter, light increases on the Earth. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The true light, Jesus Christ, has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome him. For Christians, Christmas is a festival of the Light, Jesus Christ who announced, “I am the light of the world.”

The heavens demonstrate it; the stars point to Him; the ox and the ass gaze upon Him, showing us with their devotion what they cannot tell us with words. And we are left with the question Jesus later asks Peter and his followers, “Who do you say that I am?”

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at or by phone at 843-881-5010.

Originally printed in Charleston's Post and Courier on Sunday, December 17, 2006 and online at

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Journey to Bethlehem Continues (Part II of IV)

The Journey to Bethlehem Continues
(Part II of IV)

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks, The angels offer a hymn; The heavens a star; The wisemen gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger. And we offer Thee a virgin mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

Last week, we began our “Journey to Bethlehem” through Rublev’s stunning Icon of the Nativity. We encountered St. Joseph, tempted by the devil, as well as the nursemaids giving our Lord his first bath; and we learned of the critical meeting of the divine and the human in Jesus’ birth.

According to the hymn I have shared above, the angels offer a hymn, the heavens a star, the shepherds—their wonder. What hymn do the angels offer? The very hymn sung still today in the Orthodox Churches as the “Small Doxology” in the Matins (morning prayers) services, and known in many Western Christian Churches as “the Gloria”: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men, with whom he is pleased.” We introduce this angelic hymn with a theological praise: “Glory to Thee, who hast shown us the light!”

The angels, glowing with the light of Christ, “the glory of the Lord,” also greeted the wondering shepherds. According to the Scriptures, these Jewish shepherds went and found the announced Savior, born as a child, and told all what they had seen and heard from the angels. Not surprisingly, “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” What was the wonder? Quite surely the very same wonder uttered by Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another” (Luke 7:20)? More on the answer to that question when we speak about the ox and the ass who gaze into the manger.

While the shepherds were among the believing Jews, the “three” Magi, or wise men (not numbered in the Scriptures, but know traditionally in the Church as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), represent the offering of salvation to the “rest of the world”, known biblically as “the Gentiles”. The promise of salvation was not given strictly to the chosen Jews, even seen clearly in God’s words to the Patriarch Abraham: “…I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3, LXX). How shall Abraham “be a blessing,” and how is it that through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed?” Because Abraham is the forefather of King David, who is the forefather of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, this promise is fulfilled, and for this reason the star appears, the Angels rejoice, and the shepherds wonder!

These gentile astronomers offered prophetic gifts to the Infant King: gold foretelling his royalty; frankincense (a fragrant incense), his divinity; and myrrh (a fragrant ointment/oil especially used to prepare corpses for burial) foreshadowing his death. Equally as beautiful as their gifts and their representation of the salvation of the gentiles is what they learned from this experience. Consider this Orthodox Hymn of the feast:

Thy Nativity O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom / for by it those who worshipped the stars, were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness / and to know Thee, the Orient from on High, O Lord, Glory to Thee!

The magi (not magicians or kings, but astronomers) who “worshipped the stars” were “taught by a star” to adore Jesus Christ.

The Lord of Creation and King of Glory uses all that he has created to point each and every one of us, in our own unique way, to know him, Emmanuel, God with us.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at or by phone at 843-881-5010.
Published online as "The Magi followed the Light to Bethlehem" at
And in the Post and Courier on Sunday, December 10, 2006.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Journey to Bethlehem Begins

By Fr. John Parker
(note: first in a series of four)

About seven hundred years ago, St. Andrei Rublev or one of his disciples painted perhaps the most memorable and beautiful icon of the Nativity of Christ. The 14th century icon is warped and cracked, but is in remarkable shape despite its age and history. It tells us, in earthen pigments bound to the gesso plaster, the story of the birth of Jesus, each facet of the good news surrounding the Virgin Mother Mary and the newborn Emmanuel—“God with us.” It teaches us with paint what we sing in one of the many traditional Orthodox hymns of the Nativity:

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks, The angels offer a hymn; The heavens a star; The wisemen gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger. And we offer Thee a virgin mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

During this season—as it is most widely known “Advent” (from the Latin, “coming”)—of preparation, please join me on a four Sunday journey around this holy marvel, on a theological pilgrimage to the birth of Jesus Christ.

We’ll start with the two scenes on the bottom. On the left sits an old man with an evident halo (a saint) confronted by a crooked fellow in a dark, hairy coat. St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus Christ is being tempted by the Devil to divorce Mary. Joseph is an old man, who, according to the tradition of the Church, was a widower obligated by his relationship to Mary to betroth her and care for her, who had been set apart as a temple virgin to bear the eternal Son of God in the flesh.

According to the Scriptures, “When [Jesus’] mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:18ff).

The temptation was to “send her away quietly” so as to not draw attention to a pregnant, unwedded teenager betrothed to an old man—even though Joseph and Mary never ‘knew’ one another, that is, they never slept together. Joseph may have had good intentions to protect young Mary, but God had other plans for him. He was told by an angel that this pregnancy was, in fact, a miracle and nothing to be ashamed of; rather, it was to be celebrated as the fulfillment of God’s promises, especially through the Prophet Isaiah, to save the world through a son, born of a virgin, in the lineage of King David.

If the images of St. Joseph and the Tempter narrate the miraculous birth of the divine Jesus Christ, the scene in the lower right shows the humanity of the birth of the Son of God. Jesus was not dropped onto the earth by an extraterrestrial ship, nor did he simply ‘appear’ as a created being. Rather, as the beginning of the redemption of all humanity and the whole world, he entered just as every single one of us does: through the womb. The birth of Christ is totally extraordinary in conception—“of the Holy Spirit” as the Angel told Joseph, and yet it is totally ordinary in its accomplishment. And so, here, we see two nursemaids doing what is done at every birth: receiving the newborn child and washing him to present to his mother. O strange wonder: God is made man. Heaven and earth meet. O come, o come Emmanuel!

Today the Virgin gives birth to the transcendent one, and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable one! Angels with shepherds glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at or by phone at 881-5010.

printed in the Post and Courier, December 3, 2006, and online at

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Salvation has many facets

Salvation: all the facets of a single diamond
By Fr. John Parker+

Author's note: This is the unedited version of my article published in the Post and Courier on SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2006 entitled, "For Christians, salvation has many facets"]

When an Orthodox Christian is asked the question, “Are you saved?” we don’t exactly know how to answer. It isn’t that we don’t know Jesus Christ; we’ve known Him from the beginning. It isn’t that we have a lack of understanding about salvation—history and theology books are filled with our teaching on these matters. We don’t know exactly how to answer because it is not a question with which we are familiar. In fact, we would say that the question raises a deeper question: What is salvation?

Consider these scenarios:

A sailor falls overboard into the swirling, stormy sea. His shipmates have their eye on him as they make preparations to recover him. In a shrill voice, muffled by the storm, he cries out to them, “Save me!” If they are not able to get to him in time, he will be regarded “lost at sea”.

A vibrant young tennis star is involved in a terrible car accident which crushes her right arm. Once at the hospital—things are looking grim—she musters a question for the surgeon amidst sobs mixed with pain and fear: “Can you save my arm, Doctor?” If the skilled medic is unable to perform such a medical miracle, she will lose her limb.

A wealthy woman is taken hostage. To spare her life, her captors demand a million dollars for her return. The cash is delivered to the drop site, and the relieved woman is set free.

An evil enemy is striking fear into the hearts of many and wreaking havoc on a certain people. Troops are sent in, the enemy is put down, victory is clear, and life returns to ‘the way it is supposed to be.’

Salvation is rescue, healing, ransom, and victory reflecting equally together [editor, please leave italics] what it is ‘to be saved’. The rescued man is saved. The tennis star’s life is saved. The hostage’s life is saved. The victory in and of itself is a salvation. These are all facets—the carefully fashioned sides—of a single diamond called salvation.

The man overboard is like St. Peter, called to walk to Jesus on the water. The wind and the tumultuous sea around him caused him to take his eyes off of his Lord, and to sink. “Save me!” he cried out, and stretching out his hand to raise him up, Jesus saved him.

The maimed tennis star is like the crippled man who was healed by St. Peter. “’I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.” Later, Peter and John were questioned about the means by which this man was saved (most English translations say ‘healed’ but the verb is ‘saved’). The means was a person: Jesus.

The hostage is like any one of us held captive in sin and death. We are bound up, and a ransom is necessary for our release. Jesus paid the ransom, saving us. But we must be very careful! We are not tied up by God, who made us Himself and loves us. Jesus did not pay off His Father by His own death—to assuage the “wrath of a justly angry God”. Nor is the Devil paid. To offer money to him would be to give him power equal to God, and we are not dualists. Rather, the ransom is paid to death itself. Our self-inflicted wound (running away from God) results in death. God died to release us from it. He beat death to save us from its eternal grasp.

The evil enemy in the fourth scenario is death. Death strikes fear into the hearts of men and women. No one is spared physical death, but Orthodox Christians believe that we are saved from the finality of eternal death, singing our belief about Jesus’ victory, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” St. John Chrysostom said this another way—in his homily which is preached in every Orthodox Church in the world on Pascha (Easter). “Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see…Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!”

Salvation is the fullness of life. It is sanity, health, communion with God. It is a return from rock bottom to the sure foundation made of stone. It is a rescue from eternal death. It is a restoration, in fact, of all creation, a renewal of the whole cosmos. Are we, can we be, saved in a particular moment? Surely! But it must be this moment…because this moment is the only one I have. I am not living five minutes ago or five days ago or five years ago. I am living in what some call the eternal now. Salvation, like life, is at once a process and a moment.

Timothy Ware, perhaps the most well-known Orthodox writers in the world (he wrote The Orthodox Church, one of the Penguin Classics), was once asked, “Are you saved.” His answer is the only one we can give, if we take salvation in the fullest, most ancient Christian way as I have described. His answer, “I was saved. I am saved. I am being saved.” Are you?

Fr. John Parker is Priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community of Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at or by phone at 843-881-5010.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Study confirms pastor's mind on same-sex issues

Published as "Same-sex claims contradict Bible" in the Post and Courier here:

Like Jack Rogers [“Study changes pastor’s mind on same-sex marriage”, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2006], I have been an evangelical all my life, and I too, have dedicated my career to serving the Church: first as a volunteer, then as a youth pastor, as an Episcopal priest, and finally as an Orthodox Priest. Pastor Rogers has written a book on homosexuality, and so have I, for what it is worth—in the form of a thesis for my MTh.

Like Pastor Rogers, I too have reflexively opposed same-sex issues of all sorts. He noted, “It is just what I thought good Christians were supposed to do.” (That is, be opposed to these relationships and their extrapolations.) He changed his mind after serving on an investigative committee; but my studies have led me to embrace what Christians have always believed—in this case, that marriage is divinely ordained only between one man and one woman, and that any sexual activity outside of the bonds of marriage is sinful.

In fact, I learned that the whole task of a Christian is to believe what has always been believed. This is true about each facet of the faith, everything from who Jesus is to how a Christian is to act and behave in response to that claim. And not statically or in some dusty, stuffy, doctrinaire, or fundamentalist way, but rather by submitting myself to the “faith once for all delivered to the saints”. What I believe is consistent with 2000 years of Christian teaching and is therefore congruent with the teachings of Jesus Christ, who is “the same yesterday and today and forever.”

After studying the Scriptures in his committee, Pastor Rogers ‘discovered’ that there is more than one way to interpret them. We must say that the battle over any topic can never be left to bowshots of proof-texting from one book of the Bible or another. Even Martin Luther, probably with reference to the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, said, “Even the devil can quote scriptures to his advantage.” We must read the Bible with the whole in view.

While there have been differing levels of interpretation (literal, allegorical, spiritual, etc.) since the beginning, his ‘discovery’ is only possible if the task of Christianity is not as I have described it above. But since the task of the Christian is to pass on what has always been the faith, then any investigation into any topic must start with, “What has the Church always taught about this?” and “In light of the whole Biblical corpus, what do we believe?” In fact, there are teachings on homosexual activity from the earliest days of Christianity as well as sermons from 1600 years ago, available in English on the shelves of the Charleston County Library (not to mention online).

Christians also profess that the whole canon of Scripture is about Jesus Christ. Writing about the so-called “eight passages which speak about homosexuality”, Rogers notes, “None of these texts is about Jesus, nor do they include any of his words.” How could it be that the ‘proper way’ (as he describes it) to interpret the Bible, does not take for granted that the whole Bible is about Jesus? St. Augustine is credited with this little bumper sticker: “The New is in the Old contained; the Old is by the New explained.” To be sure, we must be very careful in our interpretations of the Old Testament, but even Jesus himself, when on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets…interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Christians from the beginning have never believed that the only “Scriptures” are those words attributed directly to the lips of our Lord.

As a side note, Pastor Rogers made the following false claim: “A focus on the supposed homosexual aspect of the Sodom story only comes later in nonbiblical literature.” In addition to 2 Peter 2, Jude speaks directly to this aspect in his epistle in the canonical New Testament. “Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” Again, this needs to be interpreted, and carefully, but the suggestion that the sins of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah were solely acts of inhospitality—and not mentioned in any other way in the Bible—is not accurate—and let’s not forget the very ancient (back through Latin and Greek to Hebrew) cognate, “sodomy”, which does not mean “inhospitable.”

When he says that the lens through which we interpret the Bible is the lens of Jesus, he shares the Orthodox approach to the Scriptures. But his own clarification of this simple point betrays a deeply flawed presupposition. He says, in other words, “we are to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus' redeeming life and ministry”. This is misleading. We, rather, are to read the Bible through the lens of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no Christianity without the Cross and Resurrection.

To talk about the ‘redeeming life and ministry of Jesus’ is to talk about ‘love’ without defining it. The Biblical definition of love is humble, self-denying crucifixion, and not a warm fuzzy feeling I get when you walk into the room. To talk about a “redeeming life and ministry” is to talk about life as if there is no sin. It is to quote Jesus speaking to the woman caught in adultery saying, “Nor do I condemn you;” without completing the quotation, “Go and sin no more.”

Having (at least attempted to) address Pastor Rogers’ claims point by point, does my demonstration of the Orthodox Christian Faith matter? No and yes.

No, if we have predetermined that gay marriage is the illumined way. That is, no, if we bring the answer to the question before the question is asked. No, if as Christians, we bring “my experience” to the table and demand that “my experience” somehow counts more than God’s own self-revelation to mankind and more than the collective experience of millennia of Christians. In short, no, if we are self-centered and prideful.

But yes if, first of all, we want to evaluate ‘all the evidence’ in clarity and in truth. Yes, in fact, if we are interested not in ‘my wants and desires’ but rather in what is ‘good, right, true, and holy,’ none of which, we believe as Christians, can be defined apart from the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short, yes, if we are willing to be humble and humbled, and to be seekers of the Truth rather than demanders of a way.

To top it all off, we must put into context this incredible struggle. Not everyone who is ‘in favor’ of legitimizing gay relationships is militant about it. In fact, there are surely countless scores of folks who wrestle with this at a deeply profound and personal level which neither you, dear reader, nor I may ever know or comprehend. This does not ‘excuse the sin’ but it roots the matter in Gospel terms. Remember, the same Lord Jesus who said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” also said, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” and was foreshadowed in Isaiah as one who would neither snuff out a dimly burning wick nor break a damaged reed.

Because of the Christian faith and the way it is handed down, we simply cannot call homosexual acts anything other than sin. Same-sex attractions, as one of my professors puts it, “are a cross to be borne, and not a gift to be celebrated”. And still, Christians are obliged to show mercy and compassion to everyone, which, as this same priest has taught me, “would certainly include defending the civil rights --- like equality before the law, equal housing opportunities, visitation rights and privileges to people in hospitals and institutions, loving care for children, and unconditional condemnations of ‘gay-bashing’ in any form.”

Finally, as Christians, we cannot agree with the questionable conclusions of the various medical associations which report that “gay and lesbian parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide healthy and supportive environments for their children”. But how many of us in this debate squash the rebellion as twice or thrice married men or women? And if not, then as adulterers or as fornicators—sleeping around outside of marriage? Again, the same Lord who said, “go and sin no more” also said,” first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

Lord, have mercy.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at 843-881-5010 or at

Christian life is not maintenance-free

Published in somewhat edited format in the Post and Courier here:

“Virtually maintenance free.” This is the claim on so many products these days—everything from the newest automobiles—promising “no tune up for 100,000 miles”—to building material for decks and fences. One retailer promises this: “…[N]ow the allure of a wood fence can be attained with virtually no upkeep”. The routine life of caring for everything from cars to clapboard has been reduced perhaps to a once in a lifetime purchase or touch up.

Not long ago, it was common routine to set aside once or twice a year for painting, cleaning, and general maintenance of house and home. The glazing on the window panes would grow old and crack and need replacing. Now many would ask, “What is glazing?” The blinds would get covered in dust and need to be vacuumed. Now they are sandwiched between pieces of glass in doors and windows. Boards on the dock or the deck would age, arch, splinter, and disintegrate. Now they are just as shiny 10 years later as they day they were screwed down.

Is it possible that these advanced technologies have crept into our understanding of the Christian faith? Do I operate on the assumption that no “spiritual tune-up” is ever necessary?

The Christian life is not reduced simply to the moment one is baptized. Yes, the Christian life begins there, but just like that last day of high school or college, it is but a commencement, the ‘first day of the rest of your life’. And this life consists in doing basically one thing: repenting.

Repentance is to love God with all your soul, mind, and strength. How? By turning back to Him. By begging His forgiveness (which He freely offers). By telling Him, “I recognize that I have abandoned you and your ways.” And by asking Him to receive me back (which He quickly does). The most striking biblical portrayal of this is the parable of the Prodigal Son—who wished his father dead, took his inheritance and squandered it in ‘loose and riotous living’ (sound familiar?), could only get a job feeding animals his religion forbade him even to touch, realized he was far from his true home, and returned—repented in both senses of the term (change his mind and reorient himself). His father wasn’t sitting in a chair at home pretending his son wasn’t gone; nor was his welcome one offered with an “I told you so” wagging of the finger. Rather, the son’s return was celebrated with all the joy of discovering that “My son who was dead is alive again. He was lost, and now he is found.” Who among us squanders his inheritance just once in a lifetime? Repentance is the maintenance of the Christian life.

Repentance is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. How? By offering to my neighbor no less than God Himself offers to me. By humbling myself to say, “Forgive me for stealing from you…or lying to you…or slandering you…or gossiping about you.” By correcting the correctible when I have transgressed. Or by doing the right thing even to my enemy—remembering Jesus’ words, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” This repentance—change of mind—is seen best in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, a man was beaten and left in the street for dead by robbers. Two of the man’s fellow countrymen—and the most religious—passed by on the other side, apparently too busy or self-interested to assist him. A foreigner, and relative enemy, happened upon the beaten man, saw only a suffering and dying human being, dressed and bound his wounds, and took him to a place of healing. To top it off, he paid for the man’s lodging in advance and promised to return to pay for whatever extra expenses might have arisen. This is an act of extreme humility and return to living the Godly life. Who among us passes by such a suffering person but a single time in 74.5 years? Repentance is the maintenance of the Christian life.

This maintenance takes two forms: confession and amendment of life. According to the Scriptures and the life of the Church, every Christian is obliged to confess his or her sins to another person—and not ‘just to God’. And there is a practical reason in addition to the spiritual ones: naming our darkest sins to another takes the power out of them. It is a movement from darkness to light, from death to life!

Amendment of life is this: Cooperating with the grace of God to turn from the sinful, evil, wicked ways to holy, good, just ways. It is the living out of Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

We human beings are not the newest automobiles, nor are we composite building materials. Rather, we are the pinnacle of God’s creation—even though we have squandered our inheritance. To assume that I am ‘maintenance free’ once baptized is to live in darkness and un-confessed sin. To trust that ‘God will forgive me’ without cooperating with God to change my ways is to make a mockery of the Cross. Perhaps our best tactic ought to be to take the time we have saved in not having to paint the house, clean the blinds, and tune the car, and spend it on spiritual maintenance. It is never too late to have a new beginning. As St. Paul says, “Now is the day of salvation.”

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community in Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at or 881-5010.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

True Church Growth

"Church Growth about Change, not bigger numbers"
Originally appeared in Charleston, SC's "Post and Courier

“Grand opening.” When we see such an advertisement for a store, we think low prices—bargains. More likely than not, we don’t think about the flip-side. When retailers advertise for these and other special events, their eye is almost solely on the bottom line. Let’s get the most people we can in here in order to maximize sales. Every person through the door represents a certain percent chance of a sale, and therefore a certain percentage of today’s income. The math is fairly simple: a product people want plus the people who want it equals growth (profit, then ordering more, then selling more).

This plan works great for capitalism, but it is a disastrous scheme and a horrible ‘model’ for Christianity. The Christian faith is not a commodity, though there is a ruthless effort from within—of all places—to make it so. Models and methods for “explosive church growth” and “true community” are as overstocked as every American diet craze. Here today, gone tomorrow. Self-professed experts, who have little, if any, connection to the ancient church, offer their solutions to propel your church into the 21st century, for a nice price.

Everything is marketed, packaged, niched, and for sale. A now-dated example is the Prayer of Jabez, a ‘prayer’ never ever prayed by Christians in 2000 years, which was all the rage packaged as a book and fiercely marketed with options such as “Jabez Study Bible”, “Jabez Journal”, “Jabez for women”, “Jabez prayer shawl” (yes, really), Jabez pencils, notebooks, bracelets, small group studies, videos, etc. Where is Jabez now?

Nearly every facet of “American Christianity” takes this approach. The “radical” new concept. The book. The study guide. The video. The tie-in bibles, notebooks, bumper stickers, bible covers, key chains, and dvds for men, women, children, teens, many special interest groups. The list has no end. And it is all exported, like any consumable. And then, like the so-called rapture (also not a part of bona fide Christian teaching from the beginning): whoosh! It’s gone, making room for the next one.

Nor, in the history of Christianity, is the Faith about getting massive numbers of people through the doors to make a simple ‘faith commitment’. Yes, it is true, that “thousands” were added to their number in single instances, as recorded, for example, in the Acts of the Apostles. The Orthodox Churches can tell us the names of many of them who went on to be burned, tortured, beheaded, beaten, and otherwise brutalized and put to death for their faith. They are our family members. But trust me, in the first three centuries, few, if any, ‘became a Christian’ because of peer pressure or because it fit in with their particular social scene. Christianity was a life or death decision then, these martyrs choosing temporal death for eternal life.

Church growth always includes increased numbers, but is likewise coupled with a deep, significant spiritual struggle and change. The teachings of the Church expressed in the writings of the New Testament call for a casting off of “the old man” and the putting on of Christ. No more lying, cheating, stealing, fornication, apathy, greed. No more lust, idolatry, personal interpretations of sacred teachings, gluttony, divorce. This is not moralism, by any means. This metanoia—repentance or change of mind—is not so much about certain behaviors (though outwardly that is the case). It is rather conformity to the likeness of God in Jesus Christ. This was the same call in the first century, the fourth century, the fourteenth century, and still is today.

But what happened when the Faith became fashionable (read ‘legal’)? Until the 4th century Christianity was illegal. But with the Edict of Milan, the Emperor Constantine called for an end to the persecution against Christians, and here is what happened: entrance into the Church became more difficult. More difficult. Conversions that seemed to have happened in a moment in the Acts of the Apostles were now lengthened to 3 years. Why so long? So people could learn the teachings of the Church and begin to rearrange their lives and ‘lifestyles’ to conform to Christ and His commandments. This helped to establish bona fide church growth in an age when many had all the comforts of the day. They practiced and showed the members of the church their living commitment to lay down their lives at least figuratively (if not literally like their martyr forbearers) by serving those in every kind of need and in so doing, radiating the holy light of Jesus Christ from the inside of their existence, outward.

And what about today? If the early Christians took growth not only as a long-term process, but one which had to be proven by a visible, concrete, regular, and often significant life-change, why do we treat it as if it is something that can be bought in a video package, and completed in a 40-day or 15 session course? The divorce rate among self-professed Christians already speaks volumes about our commitment to this radical life of faith—not to mention all of the other ways in which contemporary, American Christianity looks no different from American religious-less existence.

On the whole, while there may be more warm bodies in the sanctuary on Sunday morning (or whenever people serve services these days), we must ask ourselves, “Am I presently and at all times laying down my life for the love of God and neighbor?” If the answer is no—and mostly this is the answer—then it is time to repent, again, to start anew, and to lay my life down now. Otherwise, I’m just filling a pew in the church. A warm statistic. But the Lord does not call for quantities and sums of people (though very specifically, according to Ezekiel, He desires the death of no one, but that all should turn and live). He also had some hard words related to lukewarm faith (see Revelation 3:15ff). Rather, He calls us each to repentance and return; He calls for broken hearts and changed lives.

Church growth, ultimately, is about holy lives. We are not made holy in a flash or a moment. The ever present image of the vine and the gardener comes to mind. An acorn does not magically spring from a speck to a great oak overnight. Rather, the soil must be cultivated and fertilized. The seed must be planted. It must be watered and cared for. The new growth must be checked for disease and pruned. This takes time, and it is painful. But it is the only way. In fact, it is The Way, and has been from the beginning. If we truly desire to be Christian, and involved in the growth of the Holy Church, best we return to the writings and ways of those who paved the way. We must avoid at all costs the winds and tides of contemporary schemes and models. Then hopefully, in the end, we each might be welcomed into the fullness of the Kingdom of God with the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Fr. John Parker is the Priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at 843-881-5010 or by email at

Monday, July 10, 2006

Guide for the Cineplexed

found online at:

John Parker on Churches That Give You What You Want, But Not What You Need

With fifteen movies playing at the local multiplex cinema, each playing six times during the day, I have ninety options. One chosen, ticket purchased, I enter the building and am directed to Theater 14, on the right past the concession stand. The concession stand is like a food court; I might as well have arrived an hour earlier and eaten dinner here. Gone are the days when popcorn, soda, and Mike-and-Ikes were about the only options.

Every conceivable genre of movie, every conceivable type of food. Every hour of the day and evening. Who would ever have thought that churches might take this as their model for operation?

I once served at a church that wanted to buy an old theater, positioned perfectly along the main thoroughfare in our town. The rector was a keen student of pop culture. He had read every George Barna book published. He went to conferences on church growth. He even loaded up our staff of nine in a rental van early one weekday morning for a road trip to a distant city for a Barna church growth conference.

The cinema concept was already in place at the church on Sundays: early-morning “traditional” Communion service with no music in the neo-gothic historic chapel, with the celebrant in cassock and surplice; a 9:00 “contemporary” Communion service in the parish hall, complete with praise band and torchiere lighting to set the mood, and the service projected on the wall; a concurrent 9:30 prayer service for children and their families in the old church, with the celebrant only in an alb; an 11:00 traditional Eucharist with full, vested choir in the chapel, with the celebrant in chasuble; and a concurrent free-flowing 11:15 service, which went beyond contemporary, with bands, skits, and so forth, and definitely no vestments. The concept was this: We’ve got something for everyone, and at every standard Sunday morning hour.

So it was a natural conclusion that our parish should pursue buying the old Cineplex. It would give us more space and more options. It would give us more visibility. It would give us a space that “didn’t look like church,” so those who were not comfortable with “organized religion” would feel comfortable coming through the doors.

Add to this picture another local church, which purchased and refurbished a dilapidated old restaurant and opened its doors to the town. This church spent thousands of dollars direct-mailing local residents three or four times. Their most common mailer listed the top ten reasons why someone should attend their church.

Among them were the standard church-growth enticements: You can dress however you want; we won’t ask you for money, because giving is for members, not for visitors; we will treat you like family. Near the top was this surprise: “We serve great coffee at the coffee bar, which opens fifteen minutes before the service. Come a bit early, get a cup o’ joe, find a seat, and enjoy the music and the message.”

No Suitable Place
Consider a third local church. For years, they have worshipped in their gigantic auditorium. It is already a theater, though not a multiplex (though it has multiple local “campuses” where a variety of different demographics—youth, gen-x, etc.—have their services). They pop popcorn in the lobby. This is not surprising, given the genre of church. But the reason is shocking: because studies show that the smell of popcorn pleases people—it puts them in a good mood.

Until now, this church has never had a place “suitable” for “that special day.” Who wants to get married on a stage? In a warehouse? In a theater? So few, if any, that even secular wedding chapels are shaped like neo-gothic churches, only without the hindrances, “baggage,” and “trappings” (like a pastor or priest) of a church. Folks are willing to worship in a big metal building, but for that special day, they want a church.

Thus, this church is building a “traditional wedding chapel” next to their auditorium. It is described in the online video update as having “a center aisle,” “traditional architecture” and seating for 250—“perfect for that special day.” The video update concludes with chamber music and the gonging of church bells, two sounds never heard in the history of that place.

This church also has a Sunday evening service at 5:00, “for families.” Presumably, these folks have soccer, baseball, or football games that preclude Sunday morning attendance. Another local congregation holds a Sunday evening service of Communion marketed towards twenty- and thirty-somethings. One wonders about the reason: Is Sunday “my only day to sleep in”? Or is it that late night partying has taken its toll on the Lord’s morning? Other local churches offer Saturday night services to give their congregants the option of having all of Sunday free.

A Wanting Church
What force is driving these four churches? It is the market. They are market-driven churches. Now, a good pastor must know “the market.” Indeed, St. Paul taught that we should become all things to all people, that by all means we may save some. To the Jews as a Jew in order to save the Jews, to the Gentiles as a Gentile to save the Gentiles, to the Romans as a Roman . . . (cf. 1 Cor. 9:20–22).

But he was speaking of evangelism, not catechism, and certainly not worship. In these churches, Sunday morning has at once a very distinct audience and none at all. The gathered are at once considered faithful and seeker, saved and lost. It is evident in the preaching, and more evident in the growing numbers of churches that invite “anyone who loves God and is drawn to Jesus” to Communion—baptized or not, believer or not.

The marketed church offers just what everyone wants: the music I want (or don’t), the time I want, the length of service I want, the type of language I want, the style of music I want, the amount of intimacy and responsibility I want, and in some cases, even the pastor I want. But is the gospel a message about the satisfaction of wants?

The marketed church confuses Sunday worship and catechism with evangelism and outreach. What is the difference? Mere Christian Sunday worship has always been for the Christian community (the baptized) to offer thanks to God, to sing his praise, and to feed on the Word. Evangelism has been done by conversation in the marketplace, preaching in the public square, but even more, simply by the witness of increasingly holy lives.

In the Orthodox tradition in some parts of the world, even the catechumens preparing to be baptized are still dismissed before the Nicene Creed is said. As it was in the early Church, they are not permitted to be in the church during the Eucharist. This may be seen as extreme today (and is, even within the Orthodox tradition), but it makes clear who is the “audience” of Sunday morning services: God, not the gathered. The baptized faithful come to offer their thanks to him, to be transformed by him, not to be convinced that he is Lord.

The market-driven theater church can ultimately pit Christians against Christians and Christians against seekers. It pits Christians against Christians by dividing the body on Sundays. Rather than worshipping one Lord, in one Faith, by one Baptism at one Table, they choose based on desires: Do I want loud music today or a quiet meditative atmosphere? Do I want to hear pastor A or pastor B preach today? Or they choose according to schedules: What time is the soccer tournament Sunday morning? Am I going golfing or surfing early—or should I attend at eight o’clock so I can hit the beach at 11, nearer to high tide?

Likewise, which group of the many “wins” on a church retreat where there will be just one service? Whose desires get served and whose do not when the reduced summer schedule is introduced? Whenever a decision has to be made, who gets what they want and who doesn’t?
Resentment builds when services are perpetually dumbed down—when many services, even the most common and regular, become like talk shows (“Hey, I’m Pastor Mike and I am going to be your celebrant today!”) or instructional videos (“Now we are going to sing. Please open the blue hymnal and turn to 304”). Every moment of every service every Sunday becomes a repetitive catechism, and it is assumed that no one ever learns.

Sunday Outlet
The Church needs, indeed, to have many outlets, ways, and means to share the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But the Church universal, until very, very recently in a small section of Western Christianity, has always distinguished between Sunday worship and welcoming newcomers or visitors.

What may have been an innocent, unstudied effort to “bring in more people” has turned into an institution (and market) of its own. “Baptized believers” now make their desires known about what they do and do not want in churches.

The Church from its inception has never been “market driven.” By divine institution, it cannot change according to the whims of society, the drive of the market, the desires of the people. Indeed, it would be spiritually dangerous to do so. The Church is gathered to worship together as a community of faith, and to go forth into the world to present the gospel to all who will hear, that on the last day, we each may enter and be seated at that Great Heavenly Banquet on the Never-Ending Day of his Kingdom.

John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, a mission parish of the Orthodox Church in America, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. He earned his MDiv (2001) at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and his MTh (2004) at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2006 the Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.

Man takes steps to embrace ancient faith


The Post and Courier Staff

"Truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." - John 3:3

Thick air forewarns rain as a streak of bicyclists zips through the streets of I'On, that hallmark of Mount Pleasant with its million-dollar takes on Charleston's old carriage houses.

Rock music thumps, a blimp hovers high and a wailing firetruck arrives to help an injured bicyclist. It's Saturday morning in suburbia.

Just inside the neighborhood's main entrance, tucked within a strip of shops on a brick-paved sidewalk, sits a church with a bookstore front. Here at Holy Ascension Orthodox, the flock led by Father John Parker traces its faith back to Christianity's earliest fathers.

Inside the glassfront windows, in front of a few dozen worshippers, Rodney Russ has begun his own personal Easter. The Orthodox Rite of Baptism brings a man to God, to Jesus for new life in the forgiveness of his sins.

Russ turns from the altar, faces west, rejects Satan three times and spits at him. Then he turns to face east, toward the altar, and accepts Christ three times. He does this in jean shorts and Birkenstocks.

Russ, a good union-backing, textile-working guy, is committing to his faith at age 47.
He stands alone. He's not married and has no kids. And he just lost the mother he loved and cared for until her final day on Earth. Russ had put off his baptism, hoping she miraculously would heal and join him.

She didn't heal, not in the flesh anyway. But Russ is sure as he stands before his family in faith that she is, in fact, with him at this moment.

The Lord is with him, and he's sure of that, too. Russ thinks back to all the churches he's been to over the years: Baptist, Methodist, Holiness. But it wasn't until 2004, during a trip to the Ukraine after being laid off his textile job of 17 years, that he stepped foot into an orthodox church.

For the first time, Russ felt the presence of God.

He felt it, too, when he came to Holy Ascension a year and a half ago. So did his mother, a faithful Southern Baptist. As cancer marched her toward death, she asked that Father John Parker preside over her funeral. He did.

The glass bookstore doors open, and the group files out and follows a tall cross. Incense wafts as they walk near the bike race. Father Parker steps ahead in a purple and gold robe that flares out behind him. He leads a small flock, as were the flocks in the earliest days of Christianity, when there were no megachurches, no praise music, no Vacation Bible Schools.

They sing softly as they head toward a pond in I'On. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord..."

Their chant continues with centuries-old determination past the pounding rock music. They finally reach a wooded area where songbirds rejoice in the promise of rain and the sidewalk gives way to a damp pine needle carpet.

After the woods, they reach a large pond surrounded by homes that look like Charleston's Battery. They stop at a short, wooden boat ramp.

"Blessed is the kingdom, of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever ?" Parker begins.

It's an ancient rite. But whereas Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, Russ stands inches away from Westlake and a sign that warns "Swim At Your Own Risk." A C-17 cargo jet roars overhead. Across the pond, a row of SUVs and minivans await their next trip.

A man dressed in slacks, a dress shirt and tie, stands beside Russ holding a white towel. The heat builds as Father Parker dips the cross into the blessed water.

"Show this water to be water of redemption," he prays.

A goose honks loudly. A man jogs by, his feet crunching on the gravel. Zhwisk, zhwisk. Zhwisk. A woman in a straw hat stops to watch from a discreet distance.

Russ' face grows flushed with the heat and the attention.

Father Parker turns and rubs oil onto Russ' forehead, onto his hands and feet tucked into sandals as, perhaps, were Jesus Christ's himself.

Russ stands quiet, eyes cast down, hands folded humbly in front of him. He and Chuck Bates, the church's parish council president and the man in the suit, walk to the water's edge. They wade down a boat ramp into dark but clear water.

He breathes deep, ready. The chill laps against Russ' legs, his knees, his waist.

But the ramp, he realizes, is slick with muck. He must yank up his sandals with each sloshy step. He turns worried.

I'm going to slip.

Russ and Bates turn to face Father Parker standing above them.

"The servant of God, Rodney Russ, is baptized in the name of the Father ?" Parker says.
Russ dunks his head once, twice, three times. But he is 6 feet tall, and he's in water only up to his waist. He must lean way over to submerge his head. His feet slide in the sediment. He wobbles.

I'm going to slip in front of God and everyone.

Russ pops up, shaky and disoriented. Bates grabs hold of him and helps him trudge back up the slimy ramp. Back on ground, Russ regains his balance, smiles big, stands straight and looks around for a moment.

This time, Russ will lead the procession back. Soaking wet, he holds his head high and strides back along the path, feeling his mother's love and the presence of God guiding the way.

"Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come." - II Corinthians 5:17

Is Charleston really the Holy City?


By Fr. John Parker

Editor's Note: Last week Faith & Values wrote about different theories for why Charleston has the nickname "The Holy City."

An airplane tour is not necessary to notice the multitudes of churches on the Charleston peninsula. From the tip of Sullivan's Island, one can see the steeples of many, including St. Philip's (the oldest), St. Matthew's and others. Some report "more than 60 religious institutions" on the peninsula - others "over a hundred houses of worship."

No matter how one counts, Charleston has come to be known as the "Holy City" predominantly as a result of the tourism of recent times, specifically connected to the number of spiritual edifices (how is that for PC?) located within the bounds of the city.

But the quantity of churches in a place no more makes it automatically holy than a gathering of 10 random people on asphalt instantly makes a basketball game.

We might even make the argument that the so-called diversity of churches on the peninsula contributes to the opposite of holiness, witnessing to fractured Western Christianity with its increasing "believe whatever you want" spirituality.

It is likely that we will see even more of this "diversity" - possibly as soon as this summer - as a number of national church bodies attempt to change the Christian teachings on who is ordained to oversee his earthly work.

This point is made all the more clear by the existence of two proverbial churches: the church I attend and the one I don't.

What is it that would truly make Charleston "the Holy City"? Well, according to the Scriptures, holiness is directly related to loving God and keeping his Commandments. Holiness is a manifestation of the grace of God in the life of those who most cooperate with this gift. Holiness is living life as God intended it - as he has revealed it to us, supremely through the life and witness of his only-begotten son, Jesus Christ. Holiness is the result of becoming, by grace, what God is by nature.

Holiness requires an ascetical struggle. Ascesis is a fancy Greek word meaning "training" or "practice," as for a contest. The New Testament is filled with examples of the pursuit of holiness described in terms of completing a race. No runner wins a marathon without first running short distances, and then increasing endurance. The runner also needs to train in the heat and the cold, on hills and in valleys, well-nourished as well as thirsty. By this training, there are no surprises or insurmountable obstacles in the race.

The same is true in the spiritual life. No one becomes a saint simply by reading a book or by accepting a dogma. Rather, once baptized, one must learn to fast as well as to feast. In addition to knowing the Scriptures and living the sacraments, one must practice patience and endurance, periods of silence and long periods of various forms of self- denial, all with the aim of accepting God's will as his own.

Holiness can be attributed to a city when, of one mind, its inhabitants share this struggle in a sincere desire to love God and neighbor. A city becomes holy when its churches do not compete with one another for "warm bodies" by clever marketing, brand awareness, or worse - by catering to the temporal desires rather then the spiritual needs of the people. Charleston lives into a name such as "the Holy City" when it seeks, above all else, to honor Christ in every facet of its life: its tourism, its government, its social life, etc. In addition to true worship, this is most excellently demonstrated, as Jesus himself indicated, in the caring for the poor, the needy, the sick, the imprisoned - those whom Christ called "the least of these my brethren."

Charleston becomes the Holy City when its attitude is that of Abba Sisoes, a fourth-century desert-dwelling monk. Considered to be a very holy and venerable man himself, many drew near to Abba Sisoes while he was on his death bed. In his last moments, he saw choirs of angels and archangels, not to mention prophets, Apostles and saints. Wondering what was going on, those gathered around him asked, "With whom are you speaking, Abba?"

"With the angels," he replied, and indicated that he was seeking to do penance before he left this life for the next. Knowing his holiness, one friend said to him, "You have no need for penance, Father." Abba Sisoes replied, "I have not yet begun to repent." When in our city we realize our spiritual state (regardless of how far we think we have progressed), and can say with true humility, "we have not yet begun to repent," then Charleston will have made a beginning toward becoming the Holy City.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Christianity from the Beginning

Christianity from the beginning
By Fr. John Parker

"Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start; when you read you begin with A-B-C; when you sing you begin with DO-RE-MI ..."

Thus sang Julie Andrews, introducing us to one of the most memorable show tunes of all time. It is not often, I am sure, that this song is offered as a theological lesson; but if we do not "start at the very beginning," if we have no living, active, organic connection to the very beginning, we are guaranteed to be missing something. Any time we are trying to discover what Christians have always believed and why, we must start at the very beginning.

Of course, this is also the case when we are faced in modern times with the resurgence of ancient heresies such as Gnosticism, a religion of secret knowledge found in the so-called Gospel of Judas, in pop culture with a lethal dose of religion, as in "The Da Vinci Code," or a mix of these in postmodernism, summarized beautifully by Tom Hanks' character, "The only thing that matters is what you believe."

Pass it on
In the beginning, in the first decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, the truth about Christ was taught essentially by word of mouth.

Primarily Christ was preached by those eyewitnesses to his resurrection, and then by those who were taught by those same eyewitnesses. The teacher-disciple relationship was not new with Christianity, and this form of oral teaching is not questioned in other venues.

At some point, with the advent of false teachings from without and sin from within, St. Paul and others began to write letters and accounts of what they had seen, heard and been taught. The Epistles (Letters) were, for the most part, written first, and the Gospels later.

What was the task of these writings, which we now know as the New Testament?
They served at least a three-fold purpose:

--To interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Christ crucified and resurrected.
--To correct false teaching
--To pass along (tradition) "that which was from the beginning."

It is this final purpose about which we all need some education, especially to sort through the present Hollywood and News Magazine-hyped muck.

There are two excellent New Testament examples that highlight this purpose, one from the Gospel according to St. Luke, and the other from St. Paul's writings to the Thessalonians.

St. Paul records the following: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." (2 Thess. 2:15).

St. Luke reports in the first verses of his Gospel, "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed."

In these two examples, there are three words that are of critical importance: tradition, eyewitness and beginning.

A witness to the gospel
The Christian Gospel is "from the beginning;" that is, since the advent of Jesus Christ.

St. John demonstrates this important feature in his first epistle, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life ? we proclaim also to you. ?"
Nothing is added. Nothing is subtracted.

John was among the first disciples called by Jesus Christ. Of the 12, he was in the "top three" and was allowed to witness the most miraculous events. Together with Peter and James, he was present on Mount Tabor when Christ was transfigured. The same three were taken into the room wherein Jesus brought a little girl back from the dead. This same John was at the foot of the cross as Jesus was dying, and, while there, was directed by Jesus to care for his own holy mother, Mary. John knew the beginning because he was there from the beginning!

The next important point is that John and many others were eyewitnesses to Jesus' life, death, resurrection and ascension. Take Peter for example, who wrote the following in his second epistle:

"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the majestic glory, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,' we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain."

He is talking about the Transfiguration. They were there. They did not invent what they wrote. They saw it. They were eyewitnesses.

Delivering the 'package'
Finally, we must understand "tradition." Tradition means "to hand down, to deliver." Luke makes it clear that this truth has been "traditioned," that is, "delivered to us."

St. Paul instructs the church in Thessalonica in the same fashion. It is to hold, believe and pass on "the traditions," which in this case were taught in writing and by word of mouth. Its task was to take what was given and pass it along intact. As I have written before, this process can be compared to a FedEx delivery. The teachings of the eyewitnesses are put in the "package" (the Gospel), sealed (by their authority as eyewitnesses) and delivered ("traditioned") to the next generation of Christians.

Neither the FedEx man nor the recipient may add to or take from the package. The task is intact delivery! The package is not the package without its contents. And the tracking of the pack-age allows us to either: 1) trust its successful arrival or 2) know who made changes, where and when.

The early Christians, who learned directly from Jesus Christ, taught those who followed them. Here is a perfect first-century example. John, who wrote one Gospel, three epistles, and the Revelation, taught a man whom history knows as Polycarp. Today, we can read the very moving account of his martyrdom.

Polycarp "traditioned" what he was taught "by word of mouth and epistle" to Irenaeus, who lived and ministered in Lyons, modern-day France. It is this Irenaeus who already condemned the so-called Gospel of Judas. How did Irenaeus and these others know this so-called gospel was bogus? Because his "grandfather" in the Christian faith was the very "beloved disciple" John, who put his head on Jesus' breast at the Last Supper. He was there!

By this time in history, many such false gospels were disseminated. They were quickly squashed and condemned precisely because no one had ever "seen," "heard" or "touched" anything remotely related to these writings "from the beginning."

They didn't match the teachings of the "grandparents" in the faith. And the way that the Gospel was further maintained was by keeping careful record of who learned from whom, which we call "apostolic succession." This is the "tracking" I refer to in my example above.

Line of succession
Irenaeus carefully illustrates one such line, the succession of bishops of Rome. Eusebius compiled the first bona fide "church history" of the early centuries in writing at the turn of the fourth century. He made a careful list of all the bishops of Jerusalem, starting with James in Acts 15.

To be considered Christian, the teaching, as well as the source of the teaching, had to be traced to the beginning. The teachings of the Gnostics and other heretics simply didn't match up to "that which was from the beginning." And they still don't.

Curiously, "sola scriptura," the Bible alone as authoritative, was already a troubling factor at this time, even though the Bible as we know it today was not yet "published."

The Gnostics and other heretics used the same writings the Christians were using to defend their teachings. But here, Irenaeus offers a brilliant word painting to describe their efforts.

"Their manner of (teaching) is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed ? and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king." (Adversus Haereses I:8:I).

No writings were authoritative in and of themselves. Critical are the author, content and link to the first Christians.

Also, a trustworthy interpretation was always required, and only those who had seen Jesus personally, or whose spiritual lineage was "from the beginning," could be trusted for such a holy task. And this is still true today.

All of this is the context for this simple position: The great and present frenzy, with reference to the "newly discovered" Gnostic texts, such as the so-called Gospel of Judas, and the release of the controversial "Da Vinci Code," don't really shake the boat of orthodox Christianity.
Generally speaking, we won't have sermons devoted to these sideshows. It is not the place for such an effort. We won't have seminars analyzing it all. We won't write books disputing them. Why? Because these battles have already been fought and won. The books are already written. And we assume that if there is a question, we'll look to what has already been said.

The Preacher said it best: "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

In the end, "those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it." But those who know and live "from the beginning" Christianity are not easily moved by tides of heresy and madness, whether ancient or modern.

The truth is that which is from the beginning, which has been delivered to us by those who saw Jesus with their own eyes, heard him with their own ears, touched him with their own hands ? believe it or not.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I'On community. He can be reached at or by phone at 881-5010.

Monday, April 17, 2006

4th-century homily best exemplifies Pascha

SUNDAY, APRIL 16, 2006 12:00 AM

4th-century homily best exemplifies Pascha


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last of four columns by Fr. John Parker leading up to Easter.

At first, all is quiet, dark. The church is lighted nearly entirely by candlelight. Stillness and solemnity fill the air. The faithful gather for peaceful prayers and hymns, which mount with joy. Robed in his brightest vestments, the priest enters into the midst of the congregation and chants boldly and beautifully, "Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on Earth, to glorify Thee in purity of heart!" All then go in procession around the church, singing the same all the while.

It is now nearly midnight - Holy Saturday is turning into Pascha Sunday. We announce the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead with joyful and fervent singing, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"
The celebrant opens the doors of the church, and all enter into the brightness of the paschal celebration. The lights are all on. Bells are ringing. Once sleepy children have come back to life and sing along with youthful gladness.

We then celebrate the morning service followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy (Holy Communion). The services are quick, but not rushed. They are voluminous, but not loud. The wonder of the feast is upon us. Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!

And we don't wait until Sunday afternoon for our parties. Immediately after the service, the priest blesses dozens of baskets, each of which is filled with the rich foods from which we have fasted for the past 40 days: meats and cheeses from around the world. Breads that are artfully made. Ruby-red eggs.

And with the blessing, we then feast well into the night, going home at 2:30 or 3 a.m. to get a few hours sleep before our next service, which is at noon Sunday. This is Pascha (this year on April 22/23) in the Orthodox Church.

If the reader has been keeping up with these columns, he'll remember that this marvel follows a full eight days of daily and more-than-daily services in preparation. We have walked with Christ into Jerusalem and up onto Golgotha, and now we are celebrating his empty tomb.

The main question pastors ask themselves at this holy juncture is, "What do I preach?" This is the easiest question in the world for Orthodox priests on this day, because we all offer the same homily every year, decade after decade, century after century. It was preached best in the fourth century, and so St. John Chrysostom's homily has become the sermon in every Orthodox Church in the world on Pascha.

With the joy of the feast, I offer it here to you today, greeting you with the Paschal greeting, Christ is risen!

Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom (circa 400):
"Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Is there anyone who is a grateful servant? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Are there any weary with fasting? Let them now receive their wages!

"If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward. If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first. To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

"Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness! Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

"Isaiah foretold this when he said, 'You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.' Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

"Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took Earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life is liberated! Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be Glory and Dominion unto ages of ages. Amen!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 881-5010.

This article was printed via the web on 4/16/2006 9:37:29 PM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Sunday, April 16, 2006.

Fr. John ParkerPriest-in-ChargeHoly Ascension Orthodox Churchwww.ocacharleston.org843-881-5010 parish and fax843-810-9350 cell

Monday, April 10, 2006

Time for only one thing during Holy Week

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of columns leading up to Easter.

There is no experience like Holy Week in an Orthodox Church (this year April 15-22). The ancient hymns are deep and rich. The atmosphere of the church changes with the day's commemorations: joy in the air, in the decor, in the incense, in the singing for Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.

Warning and sobriety early in the week during the services of Bridegroom Matins. Amazement at the betrayal on Wednesday. Divine nourishment with the Last Supper on Thursday. Fasting, exhaustion and sadness with Christ's crucifixion and entombment on Holy Friday. Eager expectation for a not-yet-risen Christ on the morning of Holy Saturday, along with the marvel of baptism following the most ancient practice. Sheer splendor, joy, brightness, wonder and feasting with the first proclamation, "Christ is Risen!" as the clock turns from Saturday to Sunday.

Because we human beings are not simply brains attached to a slavish body, the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the emotions, the exhaustion, the joy, the fasting and the feasting are all integral parts of the full march with Christ from Lazarus' stench-filled grave, through the streets of Jerusalem, into the upper room, up onto Golgotha, and finally to Jesus' empty tomb. God created us to experience him in this plentiful way. To treat Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) any other way would be, at many levels, to deny our humanity and our relationship to God, as well as to miss the full power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Many of us were raised to "go to church" especially on Sundays and other important days such as Palm Sunday, Easter and Christmas. This is good Christian discipline. But scores of us fall out of that practice because worship is seen as "a thing to do" like any other appointment. As we permit the busyness of life to increase, gradually "going to church" gets squeezed out, especially since these special days are simply "remembered" as some events a long time ago. In fact, this is contrary to our nature, since we were designed to worship God. Worship for human beings is not simply a task such as shopping or going to the post office. Rather, it is a way of life, in this age and the next. This way is fully experienced during Holy Week, especially in the Orthodox Church, for those who commit themselves to the entire cycle of services.

When we change our existence from "human doing" back to "human being," we see and experience time differently. When we celebrate Palm Sunday, for example, we don't sing about "back then." We literally sing: "Today the Savior comes to Jerusalem, fulfilling the Scriptures ." The first three nights of Holy Week we sing, "Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight ." Later in the week we chant, "Today, the curtain of the temple is torn in two ..."

For us, the feast is now. Today. This midnight. The experience of Holy Week is an entering into ancient time in the present. It is not a dusty memory but rather a living moment. It may be even better put like this: We exit time and in our worship enter into the timeless existence of God. This is true on every Sunday and at every service, as it is also true during this sacred week.

To be sure, Holy Week means commitment. Schedules have to be changed. Soccer games are missed. TV programs are skipped. Time is rearranged, literally and theologically. In fact, we say "time is turned upside down," and we wind up serving the morning services in the evening and the evening services in the morning!

To quantify it, the faithful are in church for four separate services on Palm Sunday weekend (six total hours), Monday-Wednesday night 1 1/2 hours each, Thursday for two services, totaling 3 1/2 hours, Friday twice totaling 3 1/2 hours, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday morning, and 10:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning. There is no time for anything else! But should there be? This is the holiest time of the year for Christians, and has been since Jesus actually hung on the cross.

This is not madness or overkill; rather this is what we were created for! There is no golf or boating in the life to come; in the Kingdom, there is worship of the One True God. If immersion is the best way to learn a language, it is surely the best way to worship God in spirit and in truth, and once again especially at this holy time.

A popular bumper-sticker slogan reads, "God gives you the week, give Him the hour." From an Orthodox perspective, this is a minimalist view and clearly compartmental thinking. We are not very good with bumper stickers, since so little can be fit on them, but we might say it this way, "Jesus gave His life up for you, give yours up for Him."

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. E-mail him at or by phone at 881-5010.

This article was printed via the web on 4/10/2006 8:50:25 AM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Sunday, April 09, 2006.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Intimate link between Attendance and Communion

The canons of the Orthodox Church declare that one who “has no very grave necessity nor difficult business so as to keep him from church for a very long time, but being in town does not go to church on three consecutive Sundays—three weeks,” he “should be repelled from communion”. “If he is a cleric (clergy) let him be deposed, but if a layman, let him be cut off”. What are we to make of this?

The canons are not missiles which we hurl at one another, but rather exist for the good order of the church. It is also important to note that the canons are typically given not as preventative measures, but because there is some abuse of Christian living being acted out.

The regular life of a regular Christian should be regular! It is assumed that the baptized love God and would do anything for him, mainly ‘keep his commandments’. Of the two which Jesus summarized as the greatest, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” comes first, and this is what we do together, in worship. It is true that we are to love God at all times and in every place, but we do have a specific way of loving him and thanking him with reference to his Holy Resurrection, and that is Sunday worship.

In the old days—when these canons were penned—“difficult business” surely included days of travel by foot, on an animal, or by boat, and possibly to areas where there was no church. Today, there is very little excuse. In Charleston, most of us are within 25 minutes of the church. And even if I travel regularly on the weekends for business, every major city and many good-sized towns have an Orthodox Church, even in North America.

Difficult business did not mean, “I work too much.” or “I am tired”. Working too much is a personal/spiritual problem, perhaps an addiction. And if I am tired, let me hear the words of our Savior, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Surely “very grave necessity” included sickness and disease. Then and now, there are those to whom the church goes since they are unable to come to church. In fact, this was one of the tasks of the first deacons.

The question remains, “Do I love God?” If the answer is yes, what will I do to be in church and on time? As I mentioned in church two weeks ago, we may not know the day and the hour of Christ’s second coming, but the day and the hour of our services are always the same, and written in every publication of our parish! Everyone misses church for some reason sometimes. But regular tardiness and regular absence require attention. Reading the canons, apparently this problem is centuries old. Now as then, returning to communion in these cases requires repentance and confession, since it is by our own will that we keep ourselves from God.

Homo Adorans

Jesus Christ is the sum total of our existence. We live and move and have our being by His grace (Acts 17:28). Every thing we have belongs to Him (1 Chronicles 29:14). Every power or strength we have is given to us by Him (John 19:11). We are created, as Fr. John Breck shared with us on Sunday night, “homo adorans”, that is a worshipping people, a praying people. Our two main tasks in life are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. After summarizing the whole law into these two “Great commandments”, Jesus also went one step again and said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

So, every single facet of our lives is to be marinated in this love of and for God, and by extension to the neighbor. Consider how this plays out in everyday life. Why not ask ourselves these questions:

With boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé/spouse/ex: What words do we use when speaking? Are they words which build up or tear down? Are we speaking as if to Christ Himself?

With children: What example are we setting? Do we treat them with dignity and respect? Are we acting as if to Christ Himself?

With neighbors: Are we kind and loving? Do we help them as if helping Christ Himself?

With money: Are we generous? Do we give and spend with Christ in mind? Do we offer our first and best to Him and take care not to spend frivolously and selfishly?

With possessions: Do we treat our things as if they belonged to God Himself (since they do!)? Do we share them with those in need without possessiveness?

With punctuality: Do we arrive on time for church services? Do we treat business appointments, soccer games, music lessons, or movies with more care than appointments with God who gives us life?

With animals, plants, and the environment: Do we take care to see that all of creation is God’s and to treat it as such?

Great Lent is a time to re-orient (literally, ‘to face east again’!) ourselves to God. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not yet here. God grant us today to love him and our neighbor, and at the last, God grant us His Kingdom!

Science and faith meet on the date of Easter

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SUNDAY, APRIL 02, 2006 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of columns leading up to Easter.

Science and faith so often are pitted against one another. The polarization does not come from one direction or the other alone, but rather often from both sides.

Many scientists claim that faith is simply a blind exercise in futility in which the "believer" seeks to impose some unintended meaning on his life, or to console herself with unprovable prayer. Most of these folks fail to recognize that science can never quantify or prove "love," for example.
On the other hand, numbers of "faithful" claim that science is a sham, especially with regard to the heated debates about creation.

Most of these folks fail to understand, for example, that Genesis 1-11 is neither textbook science nor textbook history, and therefore have very little, if anything, to do with the number of "actual" days God took to make the Earth and everything in it.

The Christian faith has to do with the truth, and we Christians believe first and foremost that Jesus Christ is the truth. He said, "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6). For us, then, the truth is the most important quest, and facts, when we have them, contribute to that knowledge and understanding, and in and of themselves expose further the majesty of God, who is way beyond our grasp and comprehension.

But science and the Christian faith always have been related. At least in the West, science has been an incredible effort to find out how God's creation works and is ordered. With respect to the feast near at hand, most people, I think it is safe to say, are unaware that Pascha (Easter) is dated at least partially according to science - astronomy, to be more precise. When asked, "How do we know the date of Pascha?", some might even reply, "We ask Hallmark!"

In fact, Pascha is dated for scientific reasons, which tell theological truth. In the early days of Christianity, the Resurrection was celebrated in two differing ways. The first was the way of the Quartodecimans (a term which means "14-ers"). This group commemorated the resurrection of Christ on the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of what day of the week that was. The Passover was celebrated on 14 Nisan, a date according to the Jewish calendar, established with Moses (see Exodus 12). Since Christians believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Passover, this feast was "Christianized" in this way. The second group celebrated Pascha on the first Sunday after the Passover, since Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. So in this view, Sunday is the new Lord's day, on which Jesus conquered death. These two varying celebrations lasted until the fourth century, at least officially.

By the year 325, Emperor Constantine saw the church bombarded by various heresies, and the lack of a unified celebration of Pascha was a poor witness to the pagan world. So, at the First Ecumenical Council, a decisive meeting of all the bishops of the church, the universal dating of Pascha was established to be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox -"Sunday," with reference to the Resurrection and Lord's day, and "full moon after the vernal equinox" because this was the "Passover" moon. (The Jewish calendar was lunar; our present calendar is solar.) To this day, Pascha is calculated according to this reckoning.

Besides the scientific data used to calculate Easter, which are directly related to the biblical dating of the Passover, astronomy teaches very important theological truths, which are made evident in the Gospel reading for Pascha in every Orthodox church in the world on this feast of feasts: John 1:1-17.

This Gospel lesson is read at Christ's resurrection with special reference to Jesus' eternal existence with the father and his being "the light."

"The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world" (Verse 9), and, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Verse 5).

At Christmas, astronomically speaking, the "true light ... was coming into the world" as we celebrate the nativity of Christ just after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Thereafter, light literally increases with each passing day, pointing to Christ, now increasing on the Earth from infant to man.

At Pascha, the darkness no longer overcomes the light. At the vernal equinox, day and night are the same length, and thereafter, each passing day contains more light than darkness. Consider the passage again in that light: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us remember always how great God is! Indeed, the Scriptures show us the Word written, and "the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1).

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. E-mail him at or at 881-5010.

This article was printed via the web on 4/3/2006 2:48:11 PM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Sunday, April 02, 2006.