On Mary and salvation

quick-to-hearflyer

The veneration of Mary, the Theotokos (Bearer of God) is a very important part of Eastern Orthodoxy. She is present in the liturgy of every Orthodox service, and we display her icons prominently in every Orthodox church. We regard her as the chief of the Saints, and both in church and in our private prayers, we ask Mary to intercede to Christ on our behalf.

The Christian church has venerated Mary from very early on in its history. The earliest prayer to Mary comes from a document dated 250 AD– this was a corporate prayer, and thus evidence that the early church included her in their Sunday services.

Nevertheless, Marian veneration made me very uncomfortable at first. Solus Christus– the idea that our salvation comes from Christ alone is a very central part of Protestant theology. Coming from a Protestant background, I wondered why the Orthodox needed to treat Mary with such respect. Worst of all, there was a line in the liturgy- “O Theotokos, Save us!”- that suggested that Mary played a part in our salvation!

Eventually I came to realize that my strict interpretation of Solus Christus was not consistent with how God works anywhere in the Bible. In one sense God alone was responsible for the creation, and yet Adam participated-“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). In one sense, God alone was responsible for delivering Israel for Pharoah’s tyranny, and yet God chose to work through Moses, Aaron and Joshua. In one sense, God alone caused the early church to flourish, and yet the book that documents this flourishing is called the Acts of the Apostles.

In one sense, our salvation is due to Christ alone. Yet Mary, by obediently accepting God’s plan as revealed to her by Gabriel- “I am the Lord’s servant; may your word to me be fulfilled”(Luke 1:38) – is a crucial part of God’s plan to redeem humanity. In a way, she is the first Christian- the first to hear the good news of Jesus Christ’s coming, the first to accept it, and the first to act on it.

I’ve only recently started giving Mary the respect she is due, and this has helped me understand salvation in a more meaningful way. Coming from a Protestant background, I had an overly passive view of Christ’s work in my life. Salvation was something that was done to me- after all, if salvation was due to Christ alone, what was there left for me to do? My participation in God’s plan was limited to telling others about Jesus, so they would allow him to impose this “salvation” on them as well.

Now, though I know that I cannot save myself by my own strength or my own works, I recognize that I participate in Christ’s saving work by doing as Mary did- continually saying “yes” to God’s direction, even when it is difficult and inconvenient. This participation encompasses every aspect of my life, not just in evangelism. And it is not I alone that participates in this salvation, rather I do this with the support of the church past and present, including Mary, the Theotokos who prays for us still today.

To end this post, I would like to share this wonderful crayon drawing of a pregnant Mary comforting Eve. I used to consider Eve’s role in the fall as a deeply uncomfortable part of the Bible, suggesting too strongly that it was woman who brought evil into the world. Once I recognized properly Mary’s part in our salvation, only then did the story become complete. I could finally see the fullness and beauty of God’s plan of redemption in the lives of these two women.

mary comforts eve.jpg
by Sister Grace Remington. Source

 

 

Advertisements

The Soul’s Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (M. Ford)

There are plenty of amusing stories about creative misinterpretations of the Bible. I know a Houston pastor who occasionally talks about a strange conversation he had over email. A stranger  contacted him, asserting that the Bible was clearly telling him to smoke weed. This person was sincerely convinced that several passages in scripture were thinly-veiled references to the benefits of marijuana use. After all, what else could the “burning bush” in Exodus 3 mean?

We also recall the account of Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, where in Matthew 4:5-7 we see the devil deceptively using scripture. In verse 6 the devil is quoting from Psalm 91.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

I was raised in a protestant tradition that strongly emphasized sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible alone is the source of truth. I gladly accepted this as a central tenet of the Christian faith, but it didn’t take me long to come across problems with this idea. A lot of passages in the Bible were confusing and vague, and I found that different people could have vastly different interpretations of the same passage of scripture. I was developing a strong interest in mathematics at the same time, and I could not help but notice the stark contrast between mathematical writing and scripture. The mathematical texts I read contained truths that were clear, precise and unambiguous, and I could not help but wonder why God instead chose to give us a Bible that was a mish-mash of poetry, allegory, history, rhetoric, and so on, so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted.

When I asked this question, the answer I was given was that I need the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible correctly. While this answer is true, it is also unsatisfying. I have met devout Christians who interpret the Bible in ways that are completely different, even though they both felt their interpretation was guided by the Holy Spirit. The reason that most protestant denominations exist is because different groups of people interpret the Bible in contradictory ways, although each group believed they were guided by the Holy Spirit.  I have in the past interpreted the Bible in ways that I now know to be incorrect, even though I believed I was guided by the Holy Spirit at that time.

As an aspiring scientist, I was also drawn toward “scholarly” approaches to interpreting the Bible. Perhaps the correct way to read the Bible was to apply some of the techniques of textual analysis I learned in college. If we avoided presuppositions and arrived at a text as an objective observer, and made sure to understand the historical and textual context of a passage, maybe we could glean the real message that God intended to convey.

I was involved with a campus group called InterVarsity when I was in grad school that used a very rigorous method (called Inductive Bible Study) to systematically and carefully study the Bible. The composition of this group consisted of PhD and Masters students from an elite private university. It was also incredibly diverse in terms of denominational affiliation. Our membership was drawn from all over the protestant spectrum, plus the occasional Roman Catholic. It was an incredibly wonderful community to be a part of, and some of my closest friends are drawn from this group. But it did strike me that this group of incredibly devout, intelligent people, using sophisticated techniques in textual analysis to study the Bible, still disagreed on the correct interpretation of so many passages of scripture. As valuable as careful textual analysis is, it seemed pretty clear to me that you could not necessarily find the true interpretation of the Bible this way.

thesoulslonging

I wish I had encountered Mary Ford’s The Soul’s Longing (St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press) in this time of my life. The book is partly a historical overview of the use and misuse of the Bible over the past 2,000 years, and partly an argument for a traditional, orthodox understanding of how to interpret scripture.

Ford argues that the role of the church is indispensable for interpreting the Bible correctly. In other words, to understand a passage we have to take into account historically what the Christian church, especially the early Christian church believed about that scripture. We do this by, for example, reading the writings of the early Christian saints. Insisting on an individual, rather than a communal understanding of Biblical interpretation is a rather new development in the history of Christianity, and one that leads to a lot of error. The Holy Spirit works in the entire body of Christ, and not just in individual believers.

This book isn’t written as a scholarly work. It is a surprisingly light read given the subject matter, with casual language and frequent use of anecdotes. There are footnotes sprinkled through many pages, but it clearly isn’t intended to be an airtight historical argument. It is however an excellent introduction to different perspectives on Biblical interpretation, for someone who, like myself, was only familiar with protestant ideas on how to read the Bible.

The title- “The Soul’s Longing” comes from an urging in this book to view the Bible not simply as a list of theological ideas to be argued about, but rather as an instrument for fallen humanity to return to God, and receive the fulfillment that can only be found in God’s presence. I strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn a historical perspective on Biblical interpretation. May you find what your soul longs for.

Fasting

Riceandcereal.JPG

Fasting had a scattered presence in my early Christian life, as something I did when I needed a spiritual boost. If there was an important matter that required urgent prayer, or if I was in a season where I felt distant from God, I would give up food for a few days.

In the protestant circles I grew up in emphasized that fasting was not a compulsory thing.  If we felt led to fast, we treated it as a purely individual act of spiritual devotion. In fact, we were encouraged to individualize our fasting. Perhaps rather than giving up food, if I were to feel led I should give up television instead,  or give up  using the computer, tailoring the details of the fast according to our own spiritual needs and leanings.

There were points in my life where I latched on to fasting, consuming nothing but water for days at a time. It seemed important to me how fasting weakened me physically, which was a reminder to rely less on my own strength and more on God’s. I also perceived that the act of giving up food was an act of “small martyrdom”, and this assuaged my concern that sacrifice  was such a non-existent part of my Christian walk even though it was  of great importance in the Bible. Protestant Christianity has a tendency to be overly intellectual, and for this reason I appreciated how fasting made me feel the reality of human weakness and divine power, rather than simply think it.

I never felt any inclination to follow the seasonal fasts of Christianity, even Lent.  I viewed the practice of the Lenten fast as empty, outward devotion. This view started changing when I moved to Houston. My protestant church there was led by a pastor who deeply appreciated the history of the Christian church, and so he encouraged us to follow Lent in some form. His explanation was that Lent was part of the church’s cycle of mourning and celebration, that the fasting we perform at Lent enabled us to reflect on the brokenness and pain in this fallen world, and prepare us to receive the hope of renewal that comes with Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning.

This was my first glimpse of the idea of fasting as a communal practice, something the whole church did in unison, and eventually I transitioned toward an Eastern Orthodox understanding of fasting as something that the church did together as one body of Christ.

Eastern Orthodox fasting rules are rather complex. There are four main fasting seasons in the church calendar. The fast of the apostles occurs shortly after Pentecost and is intended to be a preparation for us to go into the world and do God’s work, as the first apostles did after the Holy Spirit descended on them. The fast of the dormition takes place for two weeks in August, and is a preparation for the feast of the dormition, when the church remembers the day when Mary passed.  The third is the Nativity fast, which occurs for a month before Christmas as a preparation for that great feast. Finally, and most importantly, the long Lenten fast is a preparation for Easter, the greatest of all celebrations.

Together with the weekly fasting days on Wednesday and Friday where we remember Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion,  about half of the year is devoted to some sort of fast. The exact details vary, but typically on fasting days Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, eggs, dairy, wine and olive oil, and restrict the amount of food we eat.

I am very new to the Orthodox manner of fasting, and there is a lot about it I don’t understand very well. But one thing I appreciate already is how the fasting calendar can be inconvenient in a way that the individually tailored fasts I practiced before never were. Frequently, fasting seasons occur when I don’t want to fast, and yet I do anyway. Thus I surrender a little bit of control over my own life and entrust a little more of myself to Christ.

This is not to say that the fasting rules are completely rigid. In every fasting season I have experienced in the Orthodox church the priest has emphasized that we don’t fast out of guilt or legal obligation, but as a way to practice our spiritual disciplines, to grow, and to be healed of our brokenness. As such, there are usually reasonable accommodations for medical issues, or when we are offering hospitality, et cetera. For instance, it is common in American Orthodox churches to exempt Thanksgiving from fasting even when it falls on the Nativity fast, since Thanksgiving is such an important holiday in American culture, and one that involves a large meal with family. Each fasting season normally includes a reminder that we are to be concerned with our own fasting, not anyone else’s and to resist the temptation to judge others’ piety. In my American church, the following cartoon was in the bulletin every week of Lent

plates
Taken from the Pithless Thoughts blog

As grueling as each new fasting season may be, I always end up learning a great deal. By fasting, I come face to face with my limitations and with God’s limitlessness. By fasting, I confront my tendency to judge my brothers and sisters, and experience the fullness of God’s grace acting in the church. By fasting, I mourn the brokenness, sorrow, and poverty that afflict the world today, and look forward in hope to when Christ overcomes it all.