Divine Dove

 

"When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (peristeran) and alighting upon Him." Matthew 3:16
"When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (peristeran) and alighting upon Him." Matthew 3:16

I recently came across an interesting little fact. Before I share it with you, I have to tell you that although I love anything mathematical, I am not generally a great fan of Biblical numerology; the study of mathematical patterns in the text of the Bible. However, this one is interesting…

In the Gospel accounts of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus by St John the Baptist, the original Greek word used for the dove that appeared above Him is “PERISTERAN”. Now the evangelists tell us that this apparition of a dove was actually a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

You may be aware that in written Greek (the original language of the New Testament), numbers do not have their own unique symbols, but are represented by the letters of the alphabet. The same is true of Coptic. Thus alpha, the first letter, represents the number one, beta, the second letter, is ‘two’, and so on. Once you get to ten, the next letter is twenty, then thirty, and so on to a hundred, then two hundred  etc.

Now it turns out that if you take the numerical values for all the letters that make up the Greek word “PERISTERAN” and add them up, you come to a total of 801.  What’s so special about that?

Well, 801 = 800 + 1.

The number 1 written in Greek is the letter alpha, the first letter of the alphabet. Care to guess what letter represents the number 800?

Omega, of course, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. I quote for you two verses from the Book of Revelation and leave you to put the rest together for yourself:

The Father Said:

Rev 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

And the Son said:

Rev 1:11 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,”

And the Holy Spirit didn’t need to say anything…

Fr Ant

Christmas for Overactive Minds

 There are people in this world who are blessed with the gift of simple faith. They are the ones who see the truth in what they believe and are happy to accept it wholeheartedly and without reservation, much like a young child.

 Then there are those whose minds just won’t stop thinking. These are the ones who must examine and delve and pull apart and understand things. For better or worse, God made me one of the latter. So for those readers who share my affliction, here are some thoughts on the incredible miracle of the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ…

 Did Jesus have to be conceived within a virgin? Why couldn’t He have just been born normally and then filled or ‘soaked’ with divinity afterwards?

 In many ways this would have made the story of His life easier for people to accept. Today, there are theologians and clergy in the Churches of the West who cannot accept the concept of the Virgin birth of Christ, because it isn’t natural. They will point to examples of pre-Christian faiths that include virgin births, such as the Egyptian gods Isis and Horus, to show that the Christian one is just one example of a common phenomenon in religions.

 I see this as being a faulty argument. The existence of fakes in no way means that there cannot be a genuine article somewhere. Imagine if someone told you that all the so called Rolex watches sold at the markets are fake, and that therefore there IS no such thing as a genuine Rolex watch. You show him your watch, bought from a reputable jeweller complete with documentation, but he refuses to accept it. Nope, he’s seen too many fakes, so this one can’t be real – why, it looks just the same as all the other fakes!

 The Virgin birth wasn’t just a trick to show off God’s power. There are reasons for the Incarnation to have occurred from a Virgin birth rather than a normal one. Had Jesus been born to a normal couple, we would be missing one of the most important pieces of evidence that He really was God Incarnate rather than just a very holy prophet.

 And that’s not just because He was born miraculously. There are numerous miraculous births recorded in the Bible. Isaac was born miraculously to Abraham and Sarah, many decades beyond childbearing age. Similarly, St John the Baptist was born to an elderly couple after a miraculous announcement by the Archangel Gabriel. It is no surprise that the birth of God Incarnate should also be in miraculous circumstances, but the added extra here is the nature of the miracle itself.

 A virgin mother can only contribute half the DNA necessary for the conception of a new human being. Normally, the other half must be contributed by the father. Where there is no human father, God must have created that DNA miraculously in order for St Mary to conceive.

 Now amongst the bewildering variety of life on earth, you will find examples of “parthenogenesis”, the making of a new individual without this mingling of DNA from two separate parents. But the conception of Christ could not have been a natural event, since His mother did not possess a Y chromosome. All humans possess two sex chromosomes, named, imaginatively, X and Y. Females have two X chromosomes, whereas males have an X and a Y. Each parent contributes one of their sex chromosomes to the child. If both parents contribute an X chromosome to their child, they have a girl. If the father contributes his Y instead of his X, then they have a boy. St Mary had no Y to contribute, so where did the Y that made Jesus male come from?

 It must have been a miraculous creation, and the source must have been the Holy Spirit that overshadowed her and caused the conception to occur in her womb. In this way the Virgin birth points, by its very nature, to an inescapable conclusion: the male child born of St Mary was, in a very real way, truly, the Son of God. He owed His very genes to two parents, one human, the other divine. The mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos, God becoming a true man, is embodied in the event we call the Virgin birth.

 Beautiful, isn’t it? But of course, all that analysis is not what Christmas is really about (and no, it’s not chocolates and presents either). Having exercised an overactive mind sufficiently, one is freed to approach Christmas the way it should be approached: with the love and simplicity of a child…

 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

 Wishing all readers a happy and holy Christmas and a blessed 2010.

 

Fr Ant

Is Ecumenism Evil?

Thank you for your responses to the recent post on the challenges facing our Church in the coming decades, but I feel there may be some misconceptions about the current state of the involvement of the Coptic Church in the ecumenical movement.

My understanding is that the vast majority of the Eastern Orthodox community has accepted that we Oriental Orthodox are in Orthodox in faith and not Monophysite heretics. However, a small section based mainly on the influential Mt Athos monastic community refuses to accept that we are Orthodox. They insist that the proof of our Orthodoxy must include condemning Pope Dioscorus as a heretic and renouncing him, dropping him from our doxologies, synaxarium, commemoration of the saints etc. They also insist that we must accept the Council of Chalcedon (where the split happened in 451AD) as legal or canonical, plus the other three Coucnils that came after it. We currently only accept the first three COuncils as canonical, they accept seven (The Roman Catholics are up to 22 I think, including Vatican II as the most recent).

As far as I know, no one is suggesting that the Oriental Orthodox change their rites or submit to new authorities (except the Catholics who insist the Pope of Rome has absolute authority over all Christians). Even within the Eastern Orthodox community, the Ecumenical Patriarch, based in Constantinople, has no authority over the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, for each one has its own independent Patriarch and Synod. Further, there is a wide variety of rites, languages, cultures, liturgies etc within the existing Eastern Orthodox community, as there is in the Oriental Orthodox. None of that needs to change.

So in summary, the only thing keeping us out of communion with our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters is this insistence by a stubborn but powerful minority that we rewrite our view of history to agree with theirs.

Nor is this merely a theoretical matter. I can think of at least two reasons why re-establishing communion between us is important and worth pursuing. Firstly, the very practical matter of inter-marriage. In the diaspora, we must accept that more and more of our youth will wish to marry Christians of other denominations. The lack of communion causes incredible heartache and tribulation, sometimes even destroying what might otherwise have been a very successful relationship. The second is the command of Christ that we be one in Him. We believe in the same basic Truths – why should we be separated from each other in this way? I do not think it was ever Christ’s intention that His flock be so divided one against the other. Surely we have a responsibility to do all we can to come together?

Fr Ant

Love, Liberty and Lies

“Love God, and do whatever you will”
– St Augustine

This brief quote from one of the most eloquent Christians in history is a profound description of the liberty of the spirit that has truly known God. Our Lord Jesus Himself described this person’s freedom of spirit poetically when He said:

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

A true Christian lives by the law of liberty. I do not believe that genuine Christianity is about living your life inside a cage of rules and regulations.

“Thou shalt not…” was the baby sitter of our infancy, charged with protecting and teaching us in our vulnerable spiritual childhood. But now we have grown up, we live thus; “All things are lawful to me, but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12). There is no real disagreement between these two. They both direct us to the same goal, humble obedience to God, albeit by different paths. The main difference is that the first is forced upon us, while the second is our own choice.

This liberty means the whole world is mine – there is nothing I need to fear. All doors are open to me, all knowledge is available to me. This marvellous universe God has lovingly created for me is mine to experience and to enjoy. But with liberty comes responsibility, and liberty must be used responsibly if it is to be of benefit and not harm. “All things are lawful to me, BUT not all things are helpful … not all things build up … I will not be made a slave to anycontinues St Paul (see 1 Corinthians 6:12 & 10:23).

The second part of St Augustine’s words will not work without the first part being in place. Our liberty comes about and may be practiced safely and with benefit because we love God. To those who do not love God, but love the world or themselves above all else, liberty becomes the means of their destruction.

Sadly, there has always been a temptation to misuse this beautiful liberty throughout the history of Christianity. From the time of the Apostles, groups developed who squandered this precious gift and fell far from God (e.g. The Nicolaitans in Revelation chapters 2 & 3). Even today, cults develop that pervert the message and joy of Christian freedom.

And we as individuals commit the same sin when we justify our sins and say, “There’s nothing wrong with that! Who am I hurting?” or “He deserved it!” We also abuse it by allowing ourselves to get into tempting situations that are too hard for us. “I can listen to that violent music all day without being affected by it!” is a clear example of abuse of God’s liberty. I am using it to drag myself away from Him – how sad…

May God grant us the wisdom to use this great gift of liberty effectively and safely.

Fr Ant

A Painful Subject

Ah, the Pain, the Pain!
– Dr Zachary Smith in Lost in Space

Why did God create us to be able to feel pain?

Pain is one of the most unpleasant experiences a person can go through. We do everything we can to avoid pain. Just think of your fear of the dentist’s chair, or of stepping on a rusty nail, or getting your fingers caught in the car door as it closes … OUCH!

Of course, pain has a very important role to play in our lives. Without pain, we would all be a lot sicker, or perhaps even dead. Pain is the body’s alarm system – it goes off when there is danger. Pain is the first half of our pain reflex. When you touch something hot, the message shoots up to your brain, and without you consciously thinking about it, the brain shoots a message back to your muscles saying “Get out of there right now!” You pull your hand away and save yourself from a nasty burn. The pain in your tummy warns you that your appendix is infected and may be about to rupture, spreading germs throughout your abdomen and possibly killing you. So you take your sore tummy to the doctor who kindly removes the offending appendix.

You get an idea of how important pain is in our lives when you see what happens who lose their sense of pain. For example, long term diabetics may have their nerves so damaged by their diabetes that they no longer feel pain; or anything, at their toes and fingertips. This kind of diabetic must never walk around barefoot, for if she does, she won’t know that she stepped on an old drawing pin. She will continue to walk around with the pin stuck in her foot, banging around and ripping up her sole, opening up wounds that fill with germs and dirt. Some diabetics end up getting gangrene and losing their whole foot just from a simple thing like an old drawing pin; all because they cannot feel pain.

Yes, there are worse things in life than pain.

Pain plays a similarly important role in our spiritual and emotional lives. It is often the sign that something is wrong, and it invites us to investigate and find out what it is. When a disagreement occurs between two friends, the situation may be described as ‘painful’ in the emotional sense. To ease this pain, they will need to forgive each other and reconcile with one another.

The sting of sin is another example of this non-physical pain. That guilt you feel when you’ve done something wrong is like the dull, constant ache of a rotting tooth. You have to see your spiritual dentist (confession father) to have it cleaned out – perhaps, even to have the whole thing extracted! Yes, some pain is actually good for you. No one enjoys going through pain, but we understand that there are times when going through some pain today will save us from much worse pain tomorrow.

Every athlete knows the old adage, “No Pain; No Gain”. Without the constant pushing of the body to its limits, the athlete will never build up the muscles and skills they need to perform at the very highest level. So there are sane people who actually seek out pain, and that for very good reasons. As spiritual athletes, there may be times when we too may seek out certain types of emotional or spiritual pain for the higher goal we wish to attain. I would put fasting into this category, for it involves a ‘painful’ level of self denial, preventing one’s body from having the foods it desires and craves. Yet this pain is building spiritual muscles. It is conditioning the body to understand that the spirit is in charge, and the teaching the spirit to take charge of the body and control it. No pain, no gain.

Life might possibly be more pleasant without pain, but it would also be an awful lot less interesting. People would become lazy and complacent and lose many of the motivations that drive them to achieve and extend themselves. No longer could we speak of things like character, nobility or self-sacrifice. And, like spiritual diabetics, we might end up harming ourselves badly. Should we ask that pain disappear from our lives?

No.

Thank You God, for the gift of pain.

Fr Ant
www.stbishoy.org.au

What Might Have Been…

For all sad words of tongue and pen;
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been’.

Thus wrote John Greenleaf Whittier, to which Bret Harte replied:

If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, ‘It might have been’,
More sad are these we daily see;
‘It is but hadn’t ought to be!’

It is interesting to contemplate on what might have been. Often a person will day-dream of opportunities lost and paradise averted. Much useful time can frittered away in this manner, and there are cases of whole lives destroyed because of an obsession with ‘what might have been’.

We would be better served contemplating not on the good things we might have had, but on the bad things that might have come upon us. As the famous 19th century poet said upon seeing someone in a terrible state, “But for the grace of God, there goes Robert Barrett Browning.”

This principle applies on a larger scale as well. Consider for example, what the Christian Church today mught have been like had Arius and his heresy won the day back in the 4th century AD. Imagine us belonging today to the Coptic Arian Church, instead of the Coptic Orthodox Church. What might have happened?

To begin with, I don’t believe we would have had a Church by the 21st century. Arius, you will recall, denied the divinity of Christ, claiming Him to have been a mere man who was simply imbued with a larger dose than usual of the power of God. Thus, the One who died on the Cross was not God, but a man like us. What difference does it make?

Quite a lot! This mystery of God made man is one of the main engines that drives the faith of the Christian. That the Creator of all the cosmos should so humble Himself as to take vulnerable flesh is astonishing; astounding; mind-blowing! It sets Christianity apart from all mere ‘philosophies’ which tend to be theoretical and academic in nature, for this is a reality, Truth embodied and enacted. It sets Christianity apart from other religions, for none has the granduer and vision of this mystery.

What increases the distance between Christianity and other beliefs is the central role of love. For the Incarnation of Christ was not a party trick, it was no sign intended merely to astound and entertain, it was an act of unimaginable love. If love gives, then the Incarnation was the giving to end all givings. One cannot imagine any expression of love greater than this one. Yet, all of that falls by the wayside if Christ is not God.

It’s like the engine falling out of the car. Sure, sheer momentum will keep it rolling for some time, but sooner or later it must come to a stop, with no hope of moving again, until an engine is restored. The Christian faith, I think, would have dwindled gradually until it petered out altogether.

Can you imagine the glee of the Muslim who finds an ally in the Arian, for both belief systems deny the divinity of Christ and proclaim Him only to be a particularly good man. Can you imagine how easy it would have been for Arians to slip smoothly into Islam, with its denial of a Holy Trinity? An Arian Christianity would have been one without its main motivation to resist the innovations of Islam, and who knows what the history of the world might have been?

And if the Church had survived till now, can you imagine an Arian Church trying desperately to face the challenges of 21st century Western society, standing upon this weakened and empty base? Instead of a living, risen Saviour, a Saviour who united us with God and who dwells in us daily, we would have only a ‘very good man’ for our inspiriation. We would not have seen the face of God made flesh. We could not say that God had dwelt among us, so that by His sacrifice on the Cross, and His daily sacrifice on the altar, He dwells not only among us, but inside us, in our very bones and muscles.

The Christian Church had a very close shave back then, in the 4th century. There was a time when Pope Athanasius was warned that he stood alone against this whole world, to which he offered his own famous reply:

“One with God is the majority.”

We owe him a deep, deep debt of gratitude.

Fr Ant
www.stbishoy.org.au

The Unknown God

Who Is God?

Our lives as Christians are meant to be built upon a personal relationship with God. Our Lord Jesus came down to earth to reveal to us the nature and personality of God in a way we could accept, and to dwell among us without destroying us with His unbearable glory. Daily we pray to Him. We strive to run our lives according to His commands and we seek to do that which pleases Him. Ask anyone in church, even the naughtiest of kids, “Do you love God?” and with even hesitating, a confident “yes!” will be the response.

Yet, who is the God we love? St Augustine repeatedly asks this question in his Confessions, giving some beautiful answers, but I am trapped in the 21st century, in the age of logic and reason and the scientific method. Can these tell me anything about God?

I think so. Let’s see how far it can take us…

I mentioned in a comment following a recent post that the theory of a Big Bang forces the 21st century seeker for truth to admit there must have been a beginning to the universe. Some have begun to look for ways around this, but to my mind (and that of many others, including atheists) none of the attempts are worth taking seriously. If you must have a beginning, then you must have a beginner, a First Cause that is itself without a cause. Thus, cosmology plus a little basic logic leads to the conclusion that the uncaused First Cause, whom we call ‘God’, is actually essential, is necessary, if anything is to exist at all. And we think we exist, since we are here, asking the question (cogito ergo sum*).

But beyond that, it is surprisingly difficult to really know anything specific and with certainty about God. Without ‘special revelation’, that is the Bible and the Church traditions we have recieved via the Apostles, ‘general revelation’, that is, what we can see in our universe, reveals only faint hints, glimpses, as it were, “in a mirror, dimly” (I Cor. 13).

We deduce that God is great from the hugeness of this universe that surrounds. We further deduce that we are but a tiny, tiny part of that creation, making the fact that God loves us little specks of dust even more incredible. But how big is God? The answer is, He isn’t. He is neither big, nor small. He is neither short or tall, wide or thin. The usual description we use is that God is unlimited in space, yet this is, strictly speaking, not true either. As far as we can understand, God cannot be measured using the three dimensions of space we are used to, for He created that three dimensional space, and He Himself existed when it was not, and exists now “outside” of space, whatever that may mean. If you try to characterise God using the language and concepts of three dimensional, or even n-dimensional space, you cannot succeed.

Neither is it possible to define God in terms of time. How old is God? We usually say that God is eternal, and clarify that by saying that He has no beginning and no end. But that inevitably implies that God exists ‘inside’ time, He is actually on the timeline, so to speak, and differs from everything else in that they have a beginning (and sometimes an end) whereas He does not. But this is wrong. God made time. He exists without time. He existed ‘before’ time began, whatever that may mean. Any description of God that involves time will therefore be inadequate and inaccurate. And we have no language that does not depend on the concept of time. Try it now. Try to make a sentence that describes God (or anything else) without using a time-dependent word or concept.

“God is love”?

‘is’ denotes the present, as opposed to the past or the future, and is thus a time-dependent concept.

What kind of being is God? We usually call God, “He”. In recent times, the feminists have taken great umbridge to this sexism and Bibles have been published referring to God as “She”“Our Mother who art in heaven”, and so on. Traditionalists are outraged by this modern editing of a text over 3,500 years old in some places. Who is right? Strictly speaking, neither. Gender is a characteristic of physical living beings – animals and birds and reptiles and fish. Humans have gender because they need to reproduce, but angels have no gender. Thus did our Lord answer those who asked who in heaven would be the husband of the woman who had married five men during her life by saying, “They neither marry nor are they given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven”.

Sure, we use masculine words to express God’s superior strength, or feminine language to communicate His gentle nurturing love, but all these are human words applied to One who is far, far beyond humanity, infinitely far, in fact. ‘He’ and ‘She’ are thus woefully inadequate. ‘It’ sounds downright rude, lowering God to the level of a senseless stone or a coffee table. We have no other pronouns in our language! Perhaps we should invent one, to be reserved especially for God and for Him alone? ‘Thee’ perhaps, echoing the Greek root word for God, theo?

I could go on.

The disappointing fact is that God is just so far beyond our imagination, experience or comprehension that we simply cannot know Him. Everything we think about Him is bound to be inadequate, and thus, strictly speaking, wrong. The Ancient Fathers, especially in the east, recognised this, and some of them insisted that we cannot truthfully describe God using positive terms; saying what He is, but we can only use negative terms; we can only rule out what He is not. You might have noticed that St Gregory’s Anaphora lists a whole lot of negatives: “the ineffable; the unseen; the uncontainable; without beginning; the eternal ; the timeless; the limitless; the unsearchable; the unchanging.”

It is just as well, then, that God Himself chose to tell us about Himself. Of course, He must use limited language that we can understand, but when He does so, He highlights for us the things that are important, the things that matter. It’s a bit like your teacher highlighting the bits that will be in the upcoming exam for you so you don’t have to waste time studying the whole textbook!

And just what is it that God chooses to highlight? Is it e=mc^2? Is it the structure of the electron shells around the nucleaus of an atom? Is it how to accurately predict weather conditions? No, it is none of these. What He points out to us is…

“God is love”.

Our curiosity leads us to try to understand God with our brains, and by and large, we fail miserably. But perhaps that is not the important thing. Perhaps the important thing is to feel God’s love for us in our hearts, and to love Him from our hearts in return. Knowing about God is nowhere near as important as knowing God. The mind can tell us a little about the character of God, but it is in living with God daily, and minute by minute; in feeling that He surrounds us and dwells within us; in ‘touching Him’ when we live by His commandments and ‘meeting Him’ in every tiny act of kindness towards another; in these things do we come to know God.

Even if I knew nothing about God, just knowing Him would be enough.

“To the Unknown God” – the inscription on an altar, seized upon by St Paul to start preaching to the philosophical Greeks. A God Unknown, but Loving … and that is more than enough.

Fr Ant

  • * cogito ergo sum = I think, therefore I am: Descartes.
  • Thoughts on Evolution and Creation

    Thankyou to those who have sent in such interesting and thought provoking comments to my last post. Here is my two-cents worth…

    The Catholic Church and some varieties of Protestant Churches (non-evangelical ones) have moved officially towards accepting the Theory of Evolution as the process God used to create life on the Earth. I would note that even if this turned out to be true, it would still have no effect whatsoever on either the accuracy of the Bible or on our Christian faith, for as Tony points out, the Old Testament has been interpreted allegorically since the time of Origen in the 3rd century BC.

    However, there remain some fatally serious problems with the Theory of Macro Evolution as an explanation for life on earth. Among these are:

    1. How did life begin?

    2. How can huge chunks of very organised information be spliced into an existing genome by mere chance?

    3. How can incredibly complex systems, such as the mammalian eye or the clotting cascade in the blood, evolve gradually when in fact the absence of any one component of that system renders the whole system useless? (This is the basic premise of the “Intelligent Design” movement.)

    And there are others. A recent court case in the USA ruled that Intelligent Design was not science. I believe that ruling was flawed, though, since the case was not really about whether ID is science or not, but about whether it should be allowed to be taught in Science classes in schools. Clearly, there is a much deeper political agenda involved in the second form of the question, since there is a strong backlash against the “Christian Right” raging in the US at the moment. Most people saw this as just one more way that the Christian Right was trying to impose its standards on the very government of the land, and fought bitterly because of that reason. I read the judgment (you can google it easily) and it seems to me quite biased, though framed in perfect legalese of course.

    Atheists in the US have made quite a fuss over this judgement, which they see as some kind of proof that ID is fantasy. Personally, I would not go to a Judge to tell me whether God created the world. Why should he know anymore about it than anyone else? As someone pointed out to me recently, scientists have no more knowledge of philosophy or the laws of logic than anyone else, yet those like Dawkins present themselves as being authorities on questions of religion, which are not scientific question at all, but philosophical ones.

    There are different forms of Creationism, and yes, our Church does not subscribe to the literal form that says the world was created in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago. I would firstly note that any dogmatic assertions about the creation are not to be trusted – none of us was there! And the only One who was there did not give us a modern scientific account of events, but an account intended to help us understand who we owe our existence to. Anything beyond the actual words of the Bible is interpretation, and you will find good interpretation and bad interpretation, but it is in the end, on this matter, nothing more than interpretation.

    Personally, I have no trouble fitting any current scientific theory into what Genesis tells us. There are some discarded theories that I would have certainly had trouble with, such as the Steady State Theory of the universe, that said that the universe has no beginning and no end, but that it has simply existed forever. This would be in direct contradiction to what Genesis plainly tells us: “In the beginning, God created…” The fact that scientists were literally forced by the facts to accept that the universe did have a beginning (rather than existing forever) is to me one of the greatest vindications of the truth of Genesis and of the Bible as a whole.

    All comments welcomed!

    Fr Ant

    Skin Story

    Helping my son in Year 10 with his Science homework can be a bit of a brain strain for an ageing parent! But he recently pointed something out to me I thought was quite beautiful. It has to do with the way our skin protects us from the dangerous radiation of the sun.

    The pigment that gives your skin its colour is a chemical called melanin. The cells in your skin that make melanin are called melanocytes or pigment cells. Built in to this system is a parable of our salvation…

    You see, when you are exposed to ultraviolet light, when you spend a day at the beach without sunscreen for example, the ultraviolet radiation damages your skin cells. Especially, it breaks down the DNA inside them, the genetic “machinery” that runs every cell in our bodies. Now DNA is made up of number of smaller molecules, the ‘bricks’ as it were from which it is constructed. When the UV radiation breaks it down, the bricks get scattered about. One of those bricks is a chemical called Thymine (this is different to the vitamin called Thiamine).

    There are many things that can stimulate a pigment cell to make more melanin, and guess what? One of them is Thymine! So when the scattered Thymine meets the pigment cell, it switches on the melanin factory, and melanin production is speeded up. This melanin is transported up nearer the surface of the skin where it acts as a shield against UV light (that’s why dark skinned people hardly ever get sunburnt – they have heaps of melanin in their skin). The skin gets darker, you get a suntan, and the rest of the skin cells are protected from the lethal UV radiation.

    So in essence, the dying skin cell, the one destroyed by the UV radiation, gave its life in order to save the rest of its fellows from suffering the same fate.

    Isn’t that a beautiful parable of the love that Jesus showed us in dying for us that we might not suffer eternal death? Isn’t it a beautiful illustration of the kind of love that the Christian should live every day, sacrificing him/herself for others? And it’s built right into us.

    Dare I say … it is a message that really gets under your skin

    (sorry)

    Fr Ant

    Coptic Women Priests?

    I recently came across an interesting book by a pretty conservative Eastern Orthodox theologian on the topic of women in the Orthodox priesthood. You can guess that he was against the idea. What struck me about the book, though, was that some of the arguments he used were totally alien to my understanding of the priesthood.

    Especially noticeable was one argument that kept pooping up, whether directly or indirectly, that I might paraphrase as follows:

    Priesthood means authority. Authority means control, power, being in charge.
    The woman is not fit for this role, since she is the man’s helper, not his boss.
    Therefore, we can never have Orthodox women priests.

    I’m not sure what you would make of this?

    I don’t intend to get into the whole “a helpmate meet for him” argument in this post. It just seemed to me that this argument was weak because it was built on one big mistake: Priesthood is not first and foremost about authority; it is about service.

    That this is the teaching of Christ couldn’t be any clearer. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

    HH Pope Shenouda III wrote in his spiritual classic a chapter entitled “Poor Men” (Al Masakeen, I think). In it, he describes his pity for those who are ordained to the ranks of the priesthood, pointing out that they will be judged not only for their own deeds, but for those of the people whom they serve. Imagine, he says, the poor Pope – who will be held responsible for the fates of millions of souls! Perhaps you can guess he wrote this when he was still a layman, before entering the monastery. Prophetic, though, wasn’t it!

    Now that’s the understanding of priesthood (and indeed, any kind of Church position) that I can relate to. The world is all about power and control and advantage and prestige. But those ideas should never be allowed to get in and contaminate the spiritual service. If ever the priest needs to exercise some sort of ‘power’ or ‘authority’ over his flock, it should never be out of a lust to control others, or pride or selfishness. It should be because that is the only avenue left to him to achieve the will of God and the spiritual goals of the Church. It can also only be successful if the people he serves are willingly accepting that authority. Yet it is an authority that any sane man would flee from, for it is very, very dangerous.

    What if he makes the wrong decision? What if those he serves suffer because of his orders? There is a great scope for doing damage here! I recently saw a documentary about the Jim Jones tragedy in South America. In short, an American pastor grew gradually more and more manipulative of his flock. Being very charismatic, his influence upon them grew to such an extent that he was able to take 900 of them to a jungle in South America to build a new country, Jonestown, where everything would be perfect. With a frightening array of tools of psychological manipulation, these people virtually became his slaves. Eventually, the whole thing ended with him making them all commit suicide with him. Scary.

    No, religious leadership is about serving. It is about the genuine needs of those being served – not the needs of the servant. Because of this, it is often a very harsh, very difficult path to follow. Which means that any sensible person would run a mile to escape it. If you have ever seen a Coptic bishop being ordained, you will have noticed that he is brought in to Church with two strong bishops holding him firmly by each arm. Although this is largely ceremonial now, its original purpose was to stop the candidate from running away! Pope Shenouda himself repeatedly refused to be ordained as a bishop, until Pope Kyrollos VI virtually forced the matter by one day unexpectedly placing his hand on his head in the corridor, and saying “I ordain you, Shenouda, Bishop in the Orthodox CHurch of God …” There was no escape.

    Pope Shenouda is famous for saying “Those who wish to be ordained as priests are usually unsuitable, and those who are suitable, usually do not wish to be ordained”. There is a lot of wisdom in this. Only a person who really understands the responsibility and the sacrifice of priesthood is suitable to be ordained. Yet that is the very person who would run away from it because of that huge responsiblity and sacrifice!

    Which seems to me the biggest reason why it is unlikely that we will have women priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church … they are too smart for that 🙂

    But seriously, I think we are very blessed to have a ‘humble’ attitude to service in the Church. We do not see it as authority, or prestige, or position or power. Priesthood is simply one important service among many others. The Church runs through teamwork, joint effort, not through the efforts of any one individual. There is simply a need for one individual to organise that teamwork, and that happens to be the priest. There is a need for one individual to be set aside for the very scary task of administering the sacraments, and that happens to be the priest. It is a frightening thing to approach an altar with the Body and Blood upon it – frightening because we are sinners, and we are approaching an unimaginably powerful Holiness. But the priest does it because someone has to, and because God has called him to be that someone. No one in their right mind would put themselves forward to do it – only those who don’t quite understand what it really means.

    Sadly, in modern life, even Christian Churches have become infected with this idea of power and authority – hence the fight over who is to rule. I hope our Church never loses its innocence. It’s not about anyone ruling.

    It’s all about serving.

    Fr Ant