Sunday, March 30, 2008

Placing the Gospel upside down at the end of the Liturgy.

....I was told that at the end of the Liturgy, after the "Upright having partaken..." I must place the Gospel book upside down on the antimension as a sign that the Liturgy if finished. It seems like an odd practice, and I have served in other churches where this is not done. Can you explain this to me?

....There is no question but that there is symbolism in the Divine Liturgy. Some of it developed out of purely practical things. The angel fans (rapide) are an example. Their original use was practical, but because of their shape and placing behind the Holy Table, they clearly open up an awareness of the continuity from the Old to the New Testament. We have discussed this before. Your question, however, is one of local custom. I will tell you how I think this custom began. Next time you finish reading the Gospel and blessing the people with it, turn and place it on the Holy Table as usual, and then take a look at it. Chances are you will be looking at the "back" of the Gospel rather than the front. It is just coincidental that, after blessing the people with the Gospel, you turn in the opposite direction and place it with the back facing outward. Then, at the end of the Liturgy, you likely will not turn it around so that you are facing the front of it. You may pick it up and place it on the antimension just the way it is standing. So the custom of placing the Gospel book upside down on the antimension at the end of the liturgy is in all likely- hood simply accidental. Since it "caught on," some people created a "symbolism" for it, and it became a "sign that the Liturgy if finished." In actual fact, it does not mean anything.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Morality and moralism

In one of your lectures at Trinity Western University, you spoke of morality as a heresy and criticised moralism. I remember your explanation, but since you asked for question I thought this would be a good one to answer online. What is the difference between morality and moralism, and when is morality a heresy.

(Please note that the elipses at the beginning of each paragraph do not have a meaning. The programme does not provide for proper indentation of paragraphs, which some readers have complained makes the text a little more difficult to read).

....Moralism is false. It is based in fear and anger, and is often a cover-up for one's own vices. Morality is based in love and advocates the concepts of morality given us by Christ because we understand that what we are taught by Christ and the Apostles is given for our benefit and salvation. It is not filled with fear and anger, but rather it offers a better, safer and more fulfilling life to mankind, and the hope of the Kingdom of God.
....Morality can become a heresy because it can become a substitute for a life in Christ. One can begin to fulfil any given moral code and forget about the struggle for the transformation of the inner person, of the heart. When morality becomes a substitute for a life in Christ, it also leads one into a self-centred and self-entertaining form of worship. There is a moral code and a "worship service" that is centred on pleasing and entertaining yourself, with some vague references to Christ. This is, for example, one of the main heresies of Evangelical Christianity. The so-called worship services often consist in rock and roll bands, torch singers, sometimes in dancing around the altar like witches around a culdron, holding hands in prayer as with a Medium or "spirit channeler" at a seance but refusing to follow the first century Christian practice of making the sign of the Cross on oneself. All is focused on self and self entertainment rather than on pouring the soul out to God in genuine worship. One can speak of "praising the Lord" without ever coming to a sincere repentance or truly pouring out the soul in humble worship, praying with hearfelt repentance and struggling for the transformation of the heart.
....We have studied the subject carefully over the years, and observed the unfolding of ultra-conservative fundamentalists and other "moralists." I want to assert that ultra-moralism is form of pornography and self-hatred. There will be more to say about it later, but it might be a good idea for those who are interested in the subject to look back over history and examine this question. It has been taken up before. Nathaniel Hawthorne touched upon it in the story of THE SCARLET LETTER. The parson on the coach with Moll Flanders is another examination of this phenomenon. We have had so many examples of it in North America in the past few decades, that there are plenty of living examples to examine, even to Jerry Falwell's public denial of the principle of mercy, when he appeared on Larry King's television programme. Yet our Saviour commands us to "go and learn what it means, 'I will have mercy and not sacrifice'."

Fear of the Toll Houses

I read that the reason Christ is shown taking the soul of the Virgin, in the icon of the Dormition, is that she was terrified of the demons of the toll houses. It says that she begged Christ to personally escort her soul through the toll houses because she was afraid she might not make it. If the Holy Virgin had to be afraid that she might not make it through the toll houses, then there is not hope at all for the rest of us and we might as well just give up now. Also, if the Virgin was terrified of the demons, then why do we bother to pray to her to helps us against them?

Point well stated. I have heard many such questions over the past several years. Let me first indicate where this story about the Dormition came from. There is a Gnostic document called "The Bandlet of Righteousness." It is also often called "An Ethiopic Book of the Dead." This story about the Virgin fearing the demons and the toll houses come from that book. In this Gnostic document, the Virgin is given the "secret names" of Christ. She can pass the demons by saying one of the secret names of Christ. Most of the text of this document is taken up with endless "secret names of Christ," all of which are worshipped (like the "Holy Name" heresy on Mt Athos in the 19th Century), and all can help get one past the "aerial toll houses." This is classic Gnostic spiritual cosmology, and is all so common among reilgions emanating from ancient Chaldea and Egypt. Indeed, the entire myth of the Aerial Toll Houses comes from the Gnostic/pagan sources. Many of these Gnostic writings and other pseudo-epigraphica were taken seriously by elements in Russia. For example, the tale of "The Descent of the Virgin Mary into Hell," which is simply a re-write of the Babylonian myth of the descent of the goddess Iannana into Hell, was often quoted in Russia.
..Hopefully, all Christian people will eventually learn to disregard these Gnostic/pagan fables and turn to the Holy Scripture as the touchstone of faith. Put the notion of these imaginary aerial toll house and demonic judgments out of your mind completely. Such stories can only be propagated by a diseased mind, and one that assimilated little from the Gospels and the holy fathers.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Part Two: The Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian.

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Video Description

A continuation of the discussion on the famous Lenten Prayer.


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An explanation on the Lenten Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian in response to questions

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sunday of Orthodoxy Sermon, 2008

Archbishop Lazar.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
[People: Unto the ages of ages. Amen!]
Glory to the Holy Spirit!
[People: Amen!]

Brothers and sisters, it is by the grace of the Holy Spirit that we can come today to celebrate this feast day for the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Let us think together a little about the meaning of this feast. At the end of this service we will read from the Synodikon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. In that document,we will be told that the Church of God does not consist in buildings, but in the faithful who come together to worship God in those buildings. The Kingdom of God is manifested first and foremost in the hearts of the faithful, in the community of the faithful who have opened their hearts to one another.
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy we think celebrating the triumph of the holy icons. We recall those years long ago when people wanted to destroy the icons and remove them from the churches and from people's homes. But what was the real problem in those times? What is it that we finally triumphed over, in that this Sunday is called "the Triumph of Orthodoxy?"
It was, of course a victory over all of the ancient heresies; but all of those ancient heresies and most of the modern ones can be seen in the actions of those who were against the holy icons.
A major part of the problem was that some people had begun to think that the material universe, the things that were created were somehow evil or in opposition against the spiritual. Even the human body, some of them thought, was evil and was in opposition to the soul. They began to teach that the soul is somehow a prisoner in the body, that the body is a prison which opposes the salvation of the soul and tries to keep it in bondage. They forgot that God had created all of material things. Some people misused the Scripture and mixed it with pagan philosophies to teach that the soul is a prisoner of the body, and many thought that the creation of the material universe was either a mistake or an act of malevolence. Not all the iconoclasts were members of the Gnostic sects that taught these things, but their opposition to holy icons was inspired by them to some degree.
Among those early false teachers, some wanted to destroy all of the ancient medical literature, because they considered it a sin to treat the body with medicines. They thought that the sooner the body was destroyed, the better because then the soul would be free from the body. So they did not want to have medicine, and some of them considered medical doctors to be evil.
It was through the efforts of the monastics and teachers of the early Church that all of this ancient medical literature was copied and preserved for us. A medical system began to take shape within the Church already in the time of the Holy Apostles.
The understanding given to us by the holy icons is that all those things created by God are good and that God created the material universe also. He created the human body and therefore the human body is not evil and not the enemy of the soul, but it is the partner of the soul, to work together for the mutual salvation of each, something like the way that a husband and wife are supposed to work together for their mutual salvation. The body and the soul work together as one for the salvation of the whole person.
We understand then that the created material universe has the blessing of God and that our love and respect for the created material universe is taught to us by the holy icons. You see when we reverence an icon, we say that the veneration that we give to the icon passes over to the one who is portrayed in the icon. Since man is created in the image or icon of God, the veneration of icons teaches us that, since every human being is the icon and likeness of God, we should have a reverence for every other human being. We must have this reverence regardless of what race, nationality or religion the person is. It may be that the image of God is more darkened in some than in others, but our attitude toward other humans, like our veneration of icons, passes over to the prototype, to God Himself. Thus, if we have hatred or condescension toward another human being, this attitude is reflected upon our relationship with God. If we have love and compassion toward other human beings, this also passes over to the prototype, to our relationship with God. But this reverence is not just for human beings. Those who were opposed to the icons did not want any material representation of the saints or of our Lord Jesus Christ. But our Saviour had appeared in a material, physical body. And we are told by the Apostle that we see the things of God in the things that are created [Rm.1:20]. "The heavens," the Prophet says, "proclaim the glory of God" [Ps.19:1-4]. Every created material thing can reveal to us something about God, about His love and about His compassion. When we see the spring blossoming of flowers and all the beauty of nature around us, surely we are seeing an icon of God also in this beauty and in the grace of this beauty that touches the earth.
So when we talk about the triumph of Orthodoxy, we are not just speaking of the victory of those who wanted to keep the icons and understood that the icons were also a form of the Holy Scripture, rather, we are speaking also of the understanding that the icon teaches us that matter itself can be grace-bearing, that God can bestow His grace upon and through material things. From this we understand that the human body is sacred as are all the things God created.
This is really what the Triumph of Holy Orthodoxy is about: to teach us to understand and reverence all the things that God created and to reverence our fellow human beings as icons of God. We are called to the realisation that God sometimes works miracles through material things, so that we do not forget that He was the One Who created them in the beginning, and that He blessed them and said they were very good.
This feast testifies to us and reminds us that God sometimes works His miracles through holy relics in order to confirm the Resurrection of the body, and through icons in order to teach us so that we not fall into the heresy of thinking that the human body is evil. Moreover, the material universe is not evil nor may we misuse and abuse the things that were created in this universe. Rather, we should treat them like a sacred trust.
All that God has made, both the spiritual and the material, we should reverence and use with care and with diligence. This is the greater reality of what the Triumph of Holy Orthodoxy and the re-establishment of the holy icons is about. Icons are also a testimony that our Lord Jesus Christ truly took on the flesh and became the Son of Man, although He was the Son of God, in order to reunite us with God. We portray Christ our God in icons because He appeared in the flesh and took on the material body, and so blessed and sanctified it and taught us that the human body is also blessed and sanctified.
Let us, then, venerate the image of God in our fellow human beings and not merely offer an empty veneration of holy icons simply as something that we are enjoined to do when we enter the church. To worship God in Orthodox fashion is to open our hearts to humanity and to cherish and nourish the world in which we live.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Spiritual bodies and depraved humanity

I was recently asked to elaborate on a statement I had made in a spiritual talk. The question arose about the source of the Augustinian/Calvinist teaching that "mankind is totally depraved." Sometimes this doctrine is expressed as "essentially depraved." I had responded that the teaching arose from early Gnosticism.
Indeed, within the dualistic ideas of Gnosticism, we find the notion that the "divine spark," the "spiritual body" is trapped in a physical, material body. Since the material world was considered to be the malevolent creation of a god who was either stupid, wicked or both, the human being was completely evil because he was in a material, bodily form. His salvation consists, the Gnostic system teaches, in his inner "subtle body" or "divine spark" being liberated from the body. While this teaching was "Christianized" by eliminating the idea that the world was created by a malevolent deity, it retained the idea that the fallen man was totally depraved and could not even desire what was good without the intervention of a special species of created grace.
At least one of these Gnostic sects, the Sethians, also believe that Adam and Eve had "spiritual bodies" in Eden, and would never have procreated, and certainly not have had a sexuality, had it not been for the fall into a material, physical body. They held that when God said to "multiply," He was speaking only of some form of "spiritual multiplication" not actual child bearing. Of course, the idea of sexuality is physical, and the production of children would only entrap more "divine sparks" in a material body. Some modern Christians agree with the Sethian Gnostics that marriage is essentially a "venial sin," (one of Augustine of Hippo's heretical teachings also) and that sexual relations in marriage are "suspect" at best, wicked more likely. Sexual procreation, then, is contrary to God's will, since he would have provided for a non-physical form of procreation had man not fallen. Of course, in that case, cloning and in vitrio fertilisation should be "sacraments" because they give man a way of fulfilling what Gnostics believe to be God's original will.
We will say more about this later.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Video Interviews with Vladika Lazar

Fr James Matta interviews Vladika Lazar Puhalo.
Past the above http into your navigator for streaming videos of these interviews.

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Video Description

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo continues his discussion on the Orthodox and Baptist Churches.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Red Eggs.

I read once that, in China, when a son is born, there was the custom of dying eggs red and distributing them. I thought that Saint Mary Magdalene was supposed to have invented that custom.

I do not believe that the original story of St. Mary of Magdala suggests that the invented the custom, only that she used it, as an already know symbol of life. She took an existing custom, which would have been know and understood by all, and used it to illustrate her testimony about the Resurrection of Christ. The custom of using red eggs in connection with life and new life is very ancient and certainly predates St. Mary of Magdala. It was indeed, and likely still is in many provinces, a custom to distribute red eggs when a son is born. I suspect that when a daughter is born there is mourning instead of celebration; such is the structure of the society. It was certainly more useful for the Magdalene to use an illustration that everyone would understand rather than one that no one would understand.
Both the Easter eggs and the rabbits are part of the pagan cult of the goddess Easter, because both are symbols of fertility and the goddess Easter was the pagan goddess of spring fertility. Young maidens were sacrificed at Easter and their blood sprinkled on the fields in some pagan religions. Of course, Orthodox Christians do not celebrate Easter, but Pascha, the true and perfect Passover. Pascha is a dogmatic term, not simply another name for Easter, the goddess of fertility.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


There are some interesting, but distressing, explanations for the excessive height, remoteness and density of the iconostas, and we have been asked to address one of them in particular.
For a long time, I was opposed to "minimalist" iconostatses, but also uncomfortable with the remoteness, density and sometimes "darkness" of many of them. Also disturbing to me has been the meaningless opening and closing of the royal doors [gates] and the curtain during the Divine Liturgy (except for the Pre-sanctified, where it does have a meaning). In fact, I have come to appreciate the more "minimalist" iconostatses, so long as the concept of the separated altar as a type of paradise, and the ability to open and close the royal doors, as part of that revelation, is maintained.
The particular explanation for the denseness and closing of doors and curtains during the Divine Liturgy that we want to discuss is this: Someone asked an Elder why the iconostas was so remote from the faithful, and so dense, and why the doors were closed for much of the Liturgy. The Elder replied that it was because the first century Christians were much more holy that later Christians, so they could be closer to the holy things. As Christians became less holy, they had to stand further away from the holy things, and the holy things had to be made more remote from them.
Such an answer is completely unconvincing, particularly when one reads Apostle Paul's epistles to the Corinthians. What is more likely is that over-embellishment of the iconostatsis ran away with various architects. The height of many iconostases just became more and more exaggerated over time as one tier was added to another. The Solea and Amvon were heightened in part so that the Liturgy, the readings and the sermon could be heard by everyone in the church in an era before microphones and speakers. The reading of the Epistle and Gospel would have been heard only by those near the front of the church if they were read at "floor level." This elevation, which served a perfectly practical purpose did make the altar appear more remote from the people, but this appears to have had a practical reason rather than a spiritual one. It is obviously not necessary in our own era to have the solea so high that a proper Great Entrance cannot be made. The solea and altar area are not "stages" but focusses of the Liturgy, and it is the focus of the congregation that should be brought into the meaning of the Liturgy.
One might also suspect that the loss of the role of the laity (as a "royal priesthood") in the Liturgy has had something to do with the "remoteness" and closedness of the iconostas and the altar. Over the past few years, I have come to appreciate the restoration of single-tier iconostases (something that the followers of Abba Justin in Serbia have advocated), and ones that are more open to the congregation. My appreciation of the moderately "minimalist" iconostases has only been increased by hearing some of the explanations for the dense and remote forms.


I have come across a so called "letter that fell from heaven," in Greek. A lot of people take it seriously. Can you tell me anything about it?


There have been a number of this sort of thing over the centuries. I have ascertained from you that you are speaking about the one that warns that if people continue to break the Sabbath, God will send wild beasts to eat their children, and other miscellaneous unpleasantries. True, like the "aerial toll houses," a lot of people claim to take it seriously, but to nothing at all to change their way of life, keept he Sabbath any better, or follow a more diligent spiritual life. Every year, we receive around 100 enquiries about "the letter that fell from heaven." Indeed, there was just a discussion of it raised a one of my Meleti (spiritual talks). In the past, some Romanians, Greeks and Serbs have even asked us to translate and publish "this extremely important letter that God sent from heaven." It has appeared in every language in Eastern Europe, and is published, sponsored and distributed from Mount Athos. Some of you may have encountered it, others may not have encountered it yet, but sooner or later you will.
Before telling you exactly where this document originated, let me give you the usual (though not consistent) story of its origin (i.e., the one that is about the Sabbath, there are a host of others).
"A pious priest saw a stone fall from heaven. Realising that it must have some great significance, he took it to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Elias. Patriarch Elias place the stone on the Holy Table and during Vespers it popped open. Inside was a letter from God. The letter warned that if people did not keep the Sabbath, bad things would happen.
`Earthquakes, famine, fire, locusts, ravens, mice, hailstorms and numerous ward. I have sent all this to you because you have not kept the Sabbath holy. Since you will not hearken to the words of my voice, I will send you much pain and trouble, and allow wild animals to devour your children. I swear to you by My right hand, by My divine power and greatness, that I will completely wipe you out if you not keep the Sabbath....'
"This warning is sent to all so that they might hear the threats of the Lord God and begin to keep the Sabbath, and all the other things that are commanded, and so escape from the horrible wrath of God.."
And this comes from the people who give us the Gnostic myth of the Aerial Toll Houses as if it was a dogma of the faith.
Now, let us see exactly where this "document" actually did come from. During the Middle Ages, and particularly following the Black Plague, self-flagellation became popular among monks and nuns in Western Europe. Indeed, flagellation was the source of many of the "spiritual ecstasies" claimed by Western saints. This is reasonable since flagellation is a form of masturbation. It very quickly becomes a form of sexual addiction. There are many contemporary accounts of the ecstasies aroused by flagellation, especially among nuns. Often, monks would flagellate themselves into a trance and, wounded and bleeding, begin to proclaim revelations they thought they had received from God. A chronicler in Strasbourg left us the message above, which was delivered by a mendicant monk, dripping with the blood of his flagellation, in 1349. It is this message that somehow found its way to Mount Athos and was re-labelled as "The Letter that fell from heaven."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Note on Great Lent

The Holy Prophet said, "Let the four fasts of the year be joy and gladness to Israel." Truly, it is a time for repentance. But repentance is a joyous experience, a lifting of burdens, an illumination of the heart,. and experience of Paradise. If Great Lent is truly a period of repentance, then how could it be other than joy and gladness in the midst of extra temptations, a foretaste of Pascha, a sense of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, because true repentance brings all these into the heart of the believer.
Archbishop Lazar.


The purpose of this "blog" is to discuss the Orthodox Christian faith in the context of the 21st Century. In this blog, we will discuss the way in which many old superstitions, the invasion of Fundamentalism into Orthodoxy from North American sectarian surroundings and other modern phenomena are creating divisions in the Orthodox Church. We are interested in coming to grips with the realities of our era, facing new developments in physics, neuro-biology, genetics and epi-genetics, and how they effect our Orthodox understandings of humanity and the universe.