Category Archives: Sacramental and Liturgical Life

The Origins of Anti-Jewish Rhetoric in the Hymns of Good Friday

by George Demacopoulos | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

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The oldest-surviving Christian hymns designed exclusively for Holy Week are a set known as the Idiomele.  In the modern Orthodox Church, they are sung during the Royal Hours service of Good Friday morning (the final hymn is sung during two additional services). Apart from their antiquity, the most noteworthy feature of these hymns is that they were the first to blame “the Jews” for the death of Christ. Not only is this accusation historically misleading, it constituted a dramatic break from earlier hymns that reflected on the crucifixion. Based on recent historical research, we are now able to link the introduction of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Idiomele to precise events in Palestine at the time of their composition. This historical evidence further accentuates our need to address the theological incoherence of the anti-Jewish rhetoric of these hymns and others composed in later centuries.

The Idiomele may be the oldest Holy Week hymns but they were not the first to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Approximately one thousand hymns emphasizing those very themes predate the Idiomele. Those earlier hymns were composed for an eight-week cycle of Sunday services, known as the Octoechos, and survive in a text known as the Jerusalem Georgian Chantbook. While a few of those hymns do contain negative statements about the Jews, on balance they consistently position the whole of humanity as responsible for the death of Christ, precisely because Christ’s death and resurrection save the whole of humanity from death. In other words, our earliest evidence of Christian Liturgy instructs us that, week after week, Christians sang of themselves as the ones most responsible for the death of Christ. It is both historically and theologically significant that the earliest Christians in Jerusalem did not assign blame for the death of Jesus outside of their own community.

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The Exhortation of Jesus Invigorating Spiritual Life

by V.K. McCarty

bread of life

Look not at the things which are seen, but at those which are not seen;
for the things which are seen may be timely, but the things
which are not seen are for eternity.
(Cyril of Alexandria, Homily 104)

Jesus offering the parable of the great feast awaiting us, as one step in our Orthodox Advent pilgrimage, calls to mind the recovery experience of coming back from the Pandemic, even with our fears about the virus now and in the future. It has been a sweet excitement and relief, even a celebration, beginning to go back to all the different events and places that were closed for so long. Each return—to the theater, to libraries, sports events, to shopping places—has been exhilarating, with a sense of community reunion to it. But we come back somewhat changed, don’t we? In some ways now, it’s easier to just talk about going back to events, rather than to actually get off the couch and go to them, even if safety is no longer the whole reason for isolating ourselves.

It is easy to hedge on actually doing much of anything. It is easy to stall on getting out there, even with things opening again. I hear myself saying: “I said I’d see you there today?” or “Goodness, does it say that zoom event is this afternoon?” I feel like a toddler who’s just learned to play “Don’t See Me.” My friends, it is going to take the grace of God to get our motivation and social disciplines back. The same thing can be said about motivating our spiritual lives. The Gospel is speaking to us today.

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Celebrating Archangel Light

by V.K. McCarty

Commanders of the heavenly hosts,
we who are unworthy beseech you,
by your prayers encompass us beneath the wings of your immaterial glory,
and faithfully preserve us who fall down and cry to you:
Deliver us from all harm, for you are the commanders of the powers on high!
(Troparion for the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers, Tone 4)

As the angels are gathering for the great Feast of the Synaxis of the Archangels, those of us wary of believing in angels at all may question their very nature. Yet we are standing as close to a mighty explanation as Psalm 104:4, and to Psalm 103:20-21 for the powerful efficacy of their ministry revealed. God who “makes his angels spirits and his ministers a flaming fire,” as the Psalmist says, is both terrifying and gorgeous to behold. That the angels of God “excel in strength, do his commandments, hearken to the voice of his word…and do his pleasure,” identifies them as front-facing essential workers in the economy of Salvation and in our lives among the faithful.

“Take a close look at a branding iron,” Basil the Great teaches us, “and the nature of angels’ holiness will become plainer: Remember that fire is required to heat it; yet, we would not claim that the branding iron and the fire are the same substance. The angels are a similar case; they are essentially aerial spirits, composed of immaterial fire, as it is written, ‘He makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flaming fire’ (Ps 104:4). Angels exist in space, and when they are seen by those who are worthy, they assume an appropriate physical form” (On the Holy Spirit, PG38.138A). For us then, in our deepest prayer and praise, we are able to see the divine illumination of angelic appearances in the same manner as viewing, perhaps, a rainbow, which can truly appear visually and radiantly upon occasion, and can powerfully signify God’s promise in Scripture, but has no physical body.

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Encountering the Mandylion Icon of Christ

by V.K. McCarty | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Icon of Christ

“The indescribable glory of His face was changing through grace”—Menaion for August.

Since the feast-day of the Mandylion Ikon of Christ, memories of encountering it have been galvanizing my prayer, recalling an extraordinary encounter meeting it on pilgrimage many years ago. The Mandylion Icon “Not Made by Hands” occupies a central place among Orthodox images of Christ, although its origins are shrouded in mystery. The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787 gave attention to it, and to commemorate the triumph of the holy images, it is this icon of Christ which is venerated at the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The expression “not made by hands” derives its meaning from its Gospel context: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made by hands” (Mark 14:58). The term acheiropoietos in the Greek and spas nerokotvornyi in the Russian describes icons carrying the heritage of being created not by the mere agency of icon-painters, but by the tradition of direct impression of Our Lord’s body; they claim to derive from the first example and thus be genuine and pleasing to God.

The Mandylion Icon of Christ is displayed in a prominent place in the church, censed during the Liturgy, and often carried in procession. It is traditionally seen over doorways and gateways; and it is also often present, symbolizing Christ’s invisible presence, when the penitent and priest stand together in the church for the Sacrament of Repentance. Witnessing this icon for the first time was a jolting experience for me, at once unsettling and yet startlingly infused with love. One evening, during a memorable Russian pilgrimage, as we made the rounds of several Vespers services, we were joined by a Russian Orthodox nun, Sr. Galina. Even with no shared language, we became fast friends because we are both red-headed. Trailing behind her, I learned to circumnavigate the church and venerate the icons.

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