The Geography of the Underworld

When the Scriptures speak about the underworld, the realm of the dead, they use identical terms to those used by the surrounding culture.  This includes the names Sheol or Hades, as well as references to the realm under or beneath the earth.  This is not just the use of certain borrowed words or terms or even analogies.  In the ancient world, there was a well-developed sense of the underworld, of places in this world in which it became present, and of points of access in this world which led there.  Again, this sense did not consist of an ever-increasing series of metaphors and analogies or of cleverly-spun symbolic tales.  The ancients firmly held that their descriptions of the underworld in…

How is the Holy Spirit Like a Dove?

Christ’s baptism by St. John the Forerunner in the Jordan is narrated in all four Gospels.  One element of the telling of this event found in all four is the descent of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).  In each of these cases, the Spirit’s descent is compared to a dove.  Possibly because this comparison is conveyed in traditional Orthodox iconography through the depiction of a literal bird, it is often misunderstood.  The text is not meaning to convey that the Spirit turned into a bird or made some sort of bird manifestation.  In some less traditional iconography, the Spirit is even depicted as a bird in other generalized settings.  Two details, however, are here…

The New Year

This week, most of the contemporary world will celebrate the beginning of a new calendar year.  In the ancient world, a variety of calendars were used by different peoples to organize time in a manner held to be sacred.  This produced different beginning dates for the annual cycle in addition to years of different lengths and often, as with the modern leap year, periods of time inserted as corrections.  In ancient Israel through the Second Temple period, two overlapping calendars are in evidence and both are described in the Torah as well as in the practice of the people throughout the era.  Corresponding to these two calendars are two different beginnings for the annual cycle.  There were, in essence, for…

St. Ignatius, the Nativity, and the Heavenly Host

“And hidden from the ruler of this age was the virginity of Mary and the one born from her, and likewise the death of the Lord. Three famed mysteries which God worked in silence. How then was he made manifest to the ages? A star in heaven shining beyond all of the stars and its light was ineffable. And its great newness brought about wonderment. The remaining stars with the sun and moon became a chorus for that star. And it exceeded, with its light, them all. And there was confusion: from whence did this great newness and strangeness come to them? By this, all magistry was destroyed and every evil chain disappeared. Ignorance was taken away. The ancient kingdom…

The Offering of Incense

The offering of incense in Orthodox Christian worship is likely the most misunderstood element of that worship.  Worship, in general, outside of the Orthodox Church in other Christian traditions is widely considered to be a matter of preference.  If not merely taste, worship ‘styles’ are seen to resonate differently with different people and this resonance is taken to be spiritual experience rather than nostalgic or aesthetic experience.  Many communities profess to offer the same worship in a variety of styles on a given day, implying that the connection between the details of worship and its content or experience is loose and variable.  In this way, ritual is reduced to language.  It is a vehicle for communicating certain content to an…

The Rich Man, Lazarus, the Afterlife, and Asceticism

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is often treated quite differently than Christ’s other parables.  None of the others have the history of being taken quite so literally.  This parable is often mined for details and cited authoritatively in regard to concepts of the afterlife or at least of the intermediate state of souls between the time of a person’s death and the general resurrection at the time of Christ’s glorious appearing.  In some cases, this goes so far as an argument that this story may not even be a parable as it is not identified as one in the text.  Arguing against this last assertion is the fact that the Parable of the Good Samaritan…

The Antiquity of Hell

Popular conceptions of heaven and hell in the modern world have been deeply shaped by Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Specifically, the conception of hell has been deeply shaped by the Inferno. which has enjoyed a far wider readership and fascination than the corresponding sections on purgatory and paradise.  In fact, Dante’s particular vision of hell has had so profound an impact that debates over universalism in the present time tend to take for granted that anyone who accepts historic Christian teaching on eternal condemnation believes in some variation of Dante’s hell.  Perhaps no other work of literature has so transformed Western Christianity’s popular understanding than Dante’s, with the possible exception of Milton’s.  Both of these authors, however, were composing works of…

The Bodies of the Saints

One element of the practice of the Orthodox Church that is particularly troubling to many of those who are outside, particularly in contemporary Western society, is the veneration of relics.  This is true even for Christians of Protestant background.  In part, the relics of the saints produce either a fascination or an aversion due to the denial of death ubiquitous in our modern cultures.  Long gone are the days in which the bodies of departed family members would lie in the home for visitors to pay their respects, then to be solemnly buried with prayers on the property of the family or the church where their graves would be seen and visited continuously by the family and community.  Rather, our…

On Circumcision and Baptism

Contrary to modern misperception, every element of the Torah, the law of God, is still in force and relevant to the life of the Christian faithful today.  There can be no clearer or more authoritative testimony to this fact than the word of Christ himself (eg. Matt 5:17-19).  Despite its contemporary caricature, the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 represents a strict reading and application of the Torah to the situation of Gentiles entering into the assembly, the Church, of Christ.  St. Paul fiercely defended himself against the charge of seeking to abolish the Torah or promote its violation throughout his missionary journeys as described in the Acts of the Apostles and in his own epistles (eg. Acts 21:20-21; Rom 3:31). …

The Bread of Heaven and the Blood of the Covenant

The Eucharist has always stood at the center of the life and worship of the Christian Church.  The sacrifice of the Eucharist is the preeminent act of Christian worship, the central focus of Christian life, and the constituent element of the church as community.  Sacrifices are meals, meals shared together by the community with the community’s God.  Several past posts have focused on the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and its nature as a meal.  There is also much to be said about the elements themselves, the food which constitutes this meal.  Beginning by at least the seventh century and especially in the West, there has been considerable discussion and debate as to how the body, blood, and indeed the…