The Oak of Mamre

The episode at the oak of Mamre, recorded in Genesis 18, is one of the strangest and most mysterious in the scriptures.  It has long been depicted in Orthodox iconography as the Hospitality of Abraham.  Beginning with Andrei Rublev, a detail of this scene has been the only approved Orthodox iconographic depiction of the Holy Trinity.  This Trinity icon is used by some local Orthodox churches as the icon for the feast of Pentecost.  The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost marked the conclusion of the revelation of the Holy Trinity to humanity.  The episode of the oak of Mamre, in many ways, represents the beginning of that revelation. Genesis 18 begins by stating that Yahweh appeared to Abraham…

Creation and Ascension

The feast of Christ’s Ascension represents one of the most important liturgical moments of the Christian year.  It is, unfortunately, generally under-appreciated.  Due to where it falls in the cycle of feasts, it is sometimes seen as a sort of epilogue to Pascha.  In our modern life, it falls in the summer which has become a time for vacations, time off from work and school and even sometimes church.  It falls in mid-week, which in the modern working world makes its participation more difficult for many people.  For ancient people, however, the feast of the Ascension of Christ would have been intuitively the most important.  The Ascension represents the culmination of the gospel which was proclaimed throughout the world by…

Calendars Old and New

One piece of recent Orthodox history and continued current controversy that often strikes those first learning about the church as odd is the controversy between the old and new, or Julian and revised Julian, calendars.  For those outside the church, and even some inside, this controversy may seem odd.  The difference in celebrating the immovable feasts two weeks earlier or later may seem almost irrelevant.  The tenacity with which people hold to one calendar or the other and the vehemence which the arguments between them can reach may seem strange or misplaced.  The idea that it is one date for everyone else in the world and a different date at church in an old calendar parish may even seem fanciful…

Christ Our Passover

In 1 Corinthians 5:7, St. Paul states that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.  Though St. Paul’s identification is incredibly clear and straightforward, the identification of Christ as Passover lamb and of his death and resurrection as a new Passover are ubiquitous in the scriptures.  In Orthodox liturgical practice in English, we tend not to translate the word Pascha.  Pascha is simply the Greek word for Passover wherever it occurs liturgically.  Therefore, we call our festal celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection ‘Passover’ on a regular basis.  The Old Testament establishes patterns of God’s working with humanity and in his creation, including our redemption.  These patterns are then taken up and fulfilled, i.e. filled to overflowing, by Christ. …

Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates – Psalm 24 and the Harrowing of Hades

Psalm 24 (23 in the Greek collection) is a Psalm deeply immersed in the religious world of ancient Israel.  The Psalm represents a specific polemic against the pagan beliefs of her Canaanite, Phoenician, and Syrian neighbors.  This Psalm mocks the pretensions of the demonic being whom they have chosen to worship directly and specifically.  The means for understanding the context into which Psalm 24 was written and the beliefs against which it was directed lay buried in the sand in Lebanon for more than 3,000 years.  Nevertheless, the original meaning of this Biblical text was maintained in the Orthodox Church until the present day through its liturgical usage.  This text is, therefore, not only a prime example of the way…

The Testament of Jacob

In preparing his Latin translation of the scripture, St. Jerome translated the Greek word “diatheke” and the Hebrew word “berith” with the Latin “testamentum.”  From the latter word, the English word “testament” is derived.  The original Hebrew term, “berith,” refers most commonly to treaty documents, and in its usage in the Torah particularly refers to a particular type of treaty, that issued by a suzerain to a vassal at a king’s accession to the throne.  This usage is in view in the New Testament in every instance of its usage but one.  To convey this usage, the word is generally translated “covenant.”  The translators of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek translated the word with the Greek “diatheke” which is likewise…

Samson and the Origins of Monasticism

The principles of monasticism are deeply embedded within the scriptures.  The call to monasticism is twofold.  It represents a call to adhere strictly and without compromise to the commandments of God.  It also represents a call to asceticism, to the sacrificing of material goods in this world in favor of spiritual goods in this world and the world to come.  Ascetic practices are performed by figures throughout the scriptures, in the form of fasting and prayers and vigils.  There are also, however, individuals called to whole lives of consistent asceticism, both as individuals for the benefit of their communities and communities as a whole.  The first person whom we see receive a monastic calling, a calling received before his very…

Jacob’s Ziggurat

Genesis 28:10-17 describes a vision which Jacob had in a dream at the place that became known as Bethel (v. 19).  Throughout the patriarchal narratives in Genesis 12-50, altars are set up by the patriarchs at various places, not coincidentally at 12 sites within the later territory of the 12 tribes of Israel.  These narratives regarding the patriarchs represent the collected traditions of the 12 tribes regarding their forefathers.  Bethel would be a cultic site for centuries, notably one of the two sites of Jeroboam’s apostate religion in the Northern Kingdom.  The legacy of Jacob’s dream, however, in Second Temple Judaism and Christianity was untethered from the place where it occurred, and refocused upon the symbolism of the vision itself. …

Cursed is Everyone Who Hangs on a Tree

It is significant in understanding the ways in which the scriptures function as a whole that our Lord Jesus Christ not only died, but specifically died by crucifixion.  As an instrument of torture and death perfected by the Romans, the cross is an odd choice to be the primary symbol of a religion.  Not only does it represent a terrible death for which the word “excruciating” was coined to describe the pain involved, it was also a means of public humiliation.  Crucified individuals were crucified naked, exposed to the elements, and left to die over the course of what sometimes took days.  The Romans often then left the bodies where they were to decompose, only throwing them into massive graves…

The Hosts of Heaven

As modern people, when we think of the sun and the stars, we think of masses of incandescent gas; gigantic nuclear furnaces in which hydrogen is transformed into helium at, literally, astronomical temperatures.  When we think of the moon, we think of a large dusty rock which orbits around the earth every 27 days.  At some level, we are aware that ancient people did not think of them this way.  We believe that our modern understanding is superior because it is based on mathematics and scientific observation.  Ancient explanations and descriptions are viewed as quaint folktales and myths now supplanted by real knowledge.  This creates a difficulty for modern readers of the holy scriptures, as those scriptures are quickly seen…