Every Sunday is the Lord’s day, the day of the resurrection; but today, Sunday, April 8, 2018, is, for millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, the day of the resurrection par excellence, the feast of feasts, holy day of holy days, the Lord’s Pascha. Yesterday evening and earlier this morning, I experienced this feast in a new way: for most of the past month I have been conducting our church choir in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, our official choir director being incapacitated due to a recent hip replacement. So, although I have sung in many Easter services, today was the first time in my life of some 59 years that I conducted one. Thanks be to God, our singers sang well, we acquitted ourselves of our task with jubilation, and, I think, helped the congregation to pray and to focus their minds and hearts on the glory of God, which is what a choir is supposed to do.

Whether it is this novel experience of directing a church choir during an Easter service that has awakened these reflections, I don’t know, but I think it is right, on this feast day, to speak of joy. What is the joy that characterizes the life of a Christian? A Christian is, like other human beings, subject to innumerable ups and downs, a Christian is not, any more than anyone else, continually floating on a cloud of earthly and material bliss, and, even in spiritual matters, a Christian is acquainted with the grief first of all of his or her own sinfulness and the estrangement from God and man that sin entails, and secondly, with the grief of living in a fallen world in which might frequently triumphs over right and falsehood over truth. Nevertheless, the life of a Christian is characterized by joy. How is this possible?

It is possible, I think, because of the resurrection. The resurrection contains the entire message of Christianity, and, if we are to understand what makes the life of a Christian what it is, it is there that we must look. On the cross, Christ broke the power of sin, the demonic forces that tyrannize human life, and provided, for all time, an infallible key for escaping spiritual imprisonment; by rising from the dead, Jesus showed us that death is not the final reality, he showed himself the victor over death and corruption, and gives us the possibility of sharing in his victory and in newness of life. That is what Christian joy is all about; it is the response of one who begins to live in the light of the risen Christ, who has overcome the world. And Easter, as it is the feast of Christ’s resurrection, is preeminently a feast of joy — a joy, not in ourselves or our accomplishments, but in Christ who gives us the victory. It is the communal joy of Christ’s redeemed people. If the singers at a liturgy, by their voices, are able to communicate this joy to the congregation, they have done their part in proclaiming the gospel.

May God grant the readers of this blog a joyous Easter. Christ is risen!

Poem on Moses

March 13, 2018

My seventh-grade Old Testament class reached the end of the Pentateuch today, after several hard weeks of slogging through the Sinai desert. Some while ago, one of the students observed that, instead of drawing pictures (which is what I let the students do when their attention spans wane, which happens not infrequently), we should write songs on selected Old Testament themes. I approved of the suggestion, and proposed that, for extra credit, they each write a poem on Moses; I did not anticipate that what some of them would come up with would be rap songs. Below is my own contribution to the class project.

When Moses through the wilderness
the people once did lead
with manna fallen from the sky
their hungry frames he’d feed
thus teaching them that man does not
survive on bread alone
but by each word that comes from God
we feed our flesh and bone

But stiff-necked were the people and
his guidance they did spurn
and for Egyptian flesh-pots they
incessantly did yearn
So God sent them such flocks of quails
that meat dripped from their noses
and thousands died of sickness there
as sacred writ discloses

Then Dathan and Abiram raised
their heels in dire revolt
and from the rule of Moses
they encouraged men to bolt
but God procured a remedy:
beneath their sullied feet
a sudden chasm opened wide
wherein they death did meet

So we also, if we complain
about God’s laws and ways
shall find ourselves in gloomy pit
of hell one of these days
But whereas we a Savior have
who shows us life and light
let us our whole hearts turn to him
and learn to do what’s right

From Martin Gerbert, Scriptores ecclesiastici de musica sacra potissimum, Tomus I. (1784), pp. 2-4.

Ὁ Ἀββᾶς Παμβῶ ἀπέστειλε τὸν μαθητὴν αὐτοῦ ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ, πρὸς τὸ πωλῆσαι τὸ ἐργόχειρον αὐτῶν. Ποιήσας δὲ ἡμέρας δεκαὲξ ἐν τῇ πόλει, ὡς ἔλεγεν ἡμῖν, τὰς νύκτας ἐκάθευδεν ἐν τῷ νάρθηκι τῆς ἐκκλησίας ἐν τῷ ναῷ τοῦ ἁγίου Μάρκου. Καὶ ἰδὼν τὴν ἀκολουθίαν τῆς ἁγίας ἐκκλησίας, ἀνέκαμψε πρὸς τὸν γέροντα. Ἔμαθε δὲ καὶ τροπάρια. Abba Pambo sent his disciple to Alexandria to sell their handcrafts. During the sixteen days he spent in the city, he slept at night (as he himself told us) in the narthex of the church, in the shrine of St. Mark. After seeing the order in which services were done in the holy church, he returned to his elder. (Now, he also learned troparia.)
Λέγει οὖν αὐτῷ ὁ γέρων· Ὁρῶ σε τέκνον τεταραγμένον, μή τις πειρασμός σοι συνέβη ἐν τῇ πόλει; λέγει ὁ ἀδελφὸς γέροντι, Φύσει Ἀββᾶ ἐν ἀμελείᾳ δαπανῶμεν τὰς ἡμέρας ἡμῶν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ταύτῃ, καὶ οὔτε κανόνας οὔτε τροπάρια ψάλλομεν. Ἀπελθόντος γάρ μου ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ εἶδον τὰ τάγματα τῆς ἐκκλησίας, πῶς ψάλλουσι, καὶ ἐν λύπῃ γέγονα πολλῇ, διατὶ καὶ ἡμεῖς οὐ ψάλλομεν κανόνας καὶ τροπάρια. The elder therefore says to him: Child, I perceive that you are troubled. Did you encounter any temptation in the city? The brother says to the elder, Indeed, Abba, we spend our days in this desert negligently, singing neither canons nor troparia. For, when I was in Alexandria I saw the order of the church, how they sing, and it made me very sad that we do not also sing canons and troparia.
Λέγει οὖν αὐτῷ ὁ γέρων· οὐαὶ ἡμῖν τέκνον, ὅτι ἔφθασαν αἱ ἡμέραι, ἐν αἷς ὑπολείψουσιν οἱ μοναχοὶ τὴν στερεὰν τροφὴν τὴν διὰ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ῥηθεῖσαν, καὶ ἐξακολουθήσουσιν ᾄσματα καὶ ἤχους. Ποία γὰρ κατάνυξις, ποῖα δάκρυα τίκτονται ἐκ τῶν τροπαρίων; ποία γὰρ κατάνυξις τῷ μοναχῷ, ὅταν ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ ἢ ἐν κελλίῳ ἴσταται, καὶ ὑψοῖ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ὡς οἱ βόες; Εἰ γὰρ ἐνώπιον τοῦ Θεοῦ παριστάμεθα, ἐν πολλῇ κατανύξει ὀφείλομεν ἵστασθαι, καὶ οὐχὶ ἐν μετεωρισμῷ. Καὶ γὰρ οὐκ ἐξῆλθον οἱ μοναχοὶ ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ταύτῃ, ἵνα παρίστανται τῷ Θεῷ, καὶ μετεωρίζονται καὶ μελῳδοῦσιν ᾄσματα, καὶ ῥυθμίζουσιν ἤχους· καὶ σείουσι χείρας, καὶ μεταβαίνουσι πόδας. Ἀλλ᾽ ὀφείλομεν ἐν φόβῳ πολλῷ καὶ τρόμῳ δακρυσί τε καὶ στεναγμοῖς μετὰ εὐλαβείας καὶ εὐκατανύκτου καὶ μετρίας ταπεινῆς φωνῆς τὰς προσευχὰς τῷ Θεῷ προσφέρειν. The elder therefore says to him: Woe to us, child! for the days have arrived, in which monks will forsake the strong nourishment spoken by the Holy Spirit, and will follow after songs and “tones.” For what sort of contrition, what sort of tears are produced by troparia? What kind of contrition is there in a monk, when he stands in church or in his cell and raises his voice like cattle? For if we are standing in God’s presence, we ought to be standing there with great contrition, and not with our heads in the clouds. For, indeed, we monks did not go out into this desert in order to stand before God and be raised up on high and make melodious tunes and measure out tones (modes), and wave our hands, and move our feet. But it is with great fear and trembling, with tears and groans, in reverence and repentance and with a moderate, humble voice, that we ought to present our prayers to God.
Ἰδοὺ γὰρ λέγω σοι τέκνον, ὅτι ἐλεύσονται ἡμέραι, ὅτε φθείρουσιν οἱ χριστιανοὶ τὰς βίβλους τῶν ἁγίων Εὐαγγελίων, καὶ τῶν ἁγίων Ἀποστόλων, καὶ τῶν θεσπεσίων Προφητῶν λεαίνοντες τὰς γραφὰς τῶν ἁγίων· καὶ χυθήσεται ὁ νοῦς εἰς τρόπους καὶ εἰς τοὺς λόγους τῶν ἑλλήνων· διὰ τοῦτο καὶ οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν εἰρήκασιν, ἵνα μὴ γράφωσιν οἱ ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ταύτῃ ὄντες καλόγραφοι τοὺς βίους καὶ λόγους τῶν γερόντων ἐν μεμβράναις, ἀλλ᾽ ἐν χαρτίοις· μέλλει γὰρ ἡ ἐρχομένη γεννεὰ λεαίνειν τοὺς βίους καὶ λόγους τῶν πατέρων, καὶ γράφειν κατὰ τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῖς. For I tell you, child, that the days will come when Christians shall corrupt the books of the holy Gospels, and of the holy Apostles, and of the divine Prophets, erasing the writings of the saints; and their mind will be dissipated on rhetorical figures and on the discourses of the Greeks. That is why our fathers also have said that those who are calligraphers here in this desert should not write the lives and words of the elders on parchment, but on papyrus. For the coming generation is going to erase the lives and words of the fathers, and write as it pleases them.
Καὶ εἶπεν ὁ ἀδελφὸς, τί οὖν ἀλλαχθήσονται τὰ ἔθη καὶ αἱ παραδόσεις τῶν χριστιανῶν· καὶ οὐκ ἔσονται ἱερεῖς ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ, ἵνα ταῦτα γένηται; καὶ εἶπεν ὁ γέρων· ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις καιροῖς ψυγήσεται ἡ ἀγάπη τῶν πολλῶν, καὶ ἔσται θλίψις οὐκ ὀλίγη ἐθνῶν. And the brother said: What then? Are the customs and traditions of Christians going to be changed? And the elder said: At such times the love of many shall grow cold, and the nations shall be afflicted in no small way.

Postcard to Ahed Tamimi

January 23, 2018




A Christmas present: links to the texts of The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, a series of commentaries, critical in perspective but intended for the general reader, published mostly in the decades leading up to the First World War. I have read some of them over the past few years; they have been useful to me in my capacity as a teacher of Old and New Testaments at The Lyceum near Cleveland. I believe this is a complete list, though there may still be gaps; e.g., it is possible that volumes were published on other books of the Apocrypha besides First Maccabees, but I have been unable to find them. The Wikipedia has further links and information on the series.

An Introduction to the Pentateuch: A. T. Chapman (1911).
The Book of Genesis : Herbert E. Ryle (1914). [Not whole view of book. See full text at HathiTrust.]
The Book of Exodus : G. R. Driver (1911).
The Book of Leviticus: A. T. Chapman and A. W. Streane (1914).
The Book of Numbers : A. H. McNeile (1911).
The Book of Deuteronomy : George Adam Smith (1918).
The Book of Joshua : G. A. Cooke (1918).
Earlier edition:
The Book of Joshua : G. F. Maclear (1880).
The Book of Judges : G. A. Cooke (1913).
Earlier edition:
The Book of Judges : J. J. Lias (1884).
The Book of Ruth : G. A. Cooke (1913).
The First Book of Samuel : A. F. Kirkpatrick (1880).
The Second Book of Samuel : A. F. Kirkpatrick (1894).
The First Book of the Kings : J. Rawson Lumby (1890).
The Second Book of the Kings : J. Rawson Lumby (1889).
The Books of Chronicles : William Emery Barnes (1899).
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah : Herbert Edward Ryle (1907).
The Book of Esther : A. W. Streane (1907).
The Book of Job : A. B. Davidson (1889).
The Book of Psalms: Book I (Psalms I-XLI) : A. F. Kirkpatrick (1891).
The Book of Psalms (whole) : A. F. Kirkpatrick (1906).
The Proverbs : T. T. Perowne (1899).
Ecclesiastes : E. H. Plumptre (1898).
The Song of Solomon : Andrew Harper (1902).
The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel : A. B. Davidson (1892).
The Book of Daniel : S. R. Driver (1900).
Hosea : T. H. Cheyne (1892).
The Books of Joel and Amos : S. R. Driver (1897).
Jonah : T. T. Perowne (1879).
Micah : T. K. Cheyne (1882).
Haggai and Zechariah : T. T. Perowne (1902).
Malachi : T. T. Perowne (1890).
The First Book of Maccabees : F. Fairweather and J. Sutherland Black (1908).
The Gospel According to St. Mark : G. F. Maclear (1879).
The Gospel According to St. Luke : F. W. Farrar (1910).
The Gospel According to St John : A. Plummer (1896).
The Acts of the Apostles : J. Rawson Lumby (1891).
The Epistle to the Galatians : E. H. Perowne (1900).
The Epistle to the Ephesians : H. C. G. Moule (1902).
The Epistles to the Thessalonians : George C. Findlay (1908).
The Epistles to Timothy and Titus : A. E. Humphreys (1895).
The General Epistle of St. James : E. H. Plumptre (1901).
The Epistles of S. John : A. Plummer (1906).
The Revelation of S. John the Divine : Rev. William Henry Simcox (1891).

The other day a friend of mine, Jesse Anderson, posted a video of a speech that was recorded three years ago at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas, given by a Syriac priest from Mosul, Iraq, Fr. Bashar (it’s unclear to me what his last name is; it sounds as though he is introduced as Fr. Bashar al-Sham Sham Shamadi, but it’s possible that the person introducing him is stuttering). Although the video is three years old, it deserves to be watched; it is a powerful statement of what the Christians of northern Iraq have had to endure under the hegemony of the Islamic State. Although I do not usually post videos on this website, I will make an exception here, because I think Fr. Bashar’s speech deserves a wide audience.

Origen on Adam and Eve

September 15, 2017

Origen, De Principiis, iv. 16 = Philocalia Origenis, p. 24. (Translation, with original text on facing side, in H. M. Gwatkin, Selections from Early Christian Writers, London 1897, pp. 136-139.)

What intelligent person would fancy, for instance, that a first, second, and third day, evening and morning, took place without sun, moon, and stars; and the first, as we call it, without even a heaven? Who would be so childish as to suppose that God after the manner of a human gardener planted a garden in Eden towards the east, and made therein a tree, visible and sensible, so that one could get the power of living by the bodily eating of its fruit with the teeth; or again, could partake of good and evil by feeding on what came from that other tree? If God is said to walk at eventide in the garden, and Adam to hide himself under the tree, I fancy that no one will question that these statements are figurative, declaring mysterious truths by the means of a seeming history, not one that took place in a bodily form. And Cain’s going forth from the presence of God, as is clear and plain to attentive minds, stirs the reader to look for the meaning of the presence of God, and of any one’s going forth from it. What need of more, when all but the dullest eyes can gather innumerable instances, in which things are recorded as having happened which did not take place in the literal sense? Nay, even the Gospels are full of sayings of the same class: as when the devil takes Jesus up into a high mountain, to show him from thence the kingdoms of the whole world and the glory of them. Who but a careless reader of such words would fail to condemn those who think that by the eye of flesh, which needed a height to bring into view what lay far down beneath, the kingdoms of Persians, and Scythians, and Indians, and Parthians, were seen, and the glory men give to their rulers? Countless cases such as this the accurate reader is able to observe, to make him agree that with the histories which literally took place other things are interwoven which did not actually happen.

Note that the above passage is cited in the Philocalia Origenis, an anthology of Origen’s writings made by Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian with the intention of defending Origen’s essential orthodoxy. Compare Gregory the Theologian, Poem 1.1.8 “On the Soul,” lines 97-111 (PG 37, 454-455):

But when the imperishable Son had formed for himself a man,
in order to have new glory, and so that, in the last days,
leaving the earth, man might journey from here to God, as god,
he neither left him at liberty, nor utterly
bound him. But he placed a law in his nature, and engraved good things
in his heart, and set him, thus, in the vales of an ever-verdant
paradise, evenly balanced, observing which direction he’d incline.
Naked he was, without the form of evil and duplicity.
And, as for paradise, it is the heavenly life, it seems to me.
So this is where he placed him, to be a farmer, cultivating his words.
He kept from him one plant, a most perfect one,
having within it a perfect discrimination between good
and evil. For what’s perfect is suited for grown-ups,
but not for beginners; since this would be as hard to take
as were some very powerful dish to infants.

When St. Gregory says here that, “as for paradise, it is the heavenly life, it seems to me” (Ζωὴ δ᾽ οὐρανίη πέλεται παράδεισος ἔμοιγε), and that Adam spent his time cultivating God’s λόγοι — i.e., contemplating the eternal forms of things (cf. orat. 38.12, PG 36.324 B: Adam was placed in paradise “to till the immortal plants, by which is meant perhaps the Divine Conceptions, both the simpler and the more perfect”) — it seems clear that the Theologian basically accepts Origen’s interpretation of Adam and the Garden, as a kind of parable and not as something to be read strictly literally.