St. Maximus the Confessor Orthodox Church
Diocese of the South, Orthodox Church in America
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Christmas/Nativity | Jesus Christ | Liturgical Worship | Rapture & End Times | Scripture & Tradition


Christmas/Nativity (top)

Question:

Does the Orthodox Church celebrate Christmas?

Answer:
Yes, but the feast is known as the Nativity of Our Lord in the Flesh.
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Question:

Do you observe the period of Advent?
Answer:
The Orthodox has a time of preparation for Nativity which roughly corresponds to the Western Advent. It is a 40-day fast beginning November 15. Then the Feast of the Nativity is celebrated for nearly two weeks until Theophany/Epiphany on January 6.
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Question:

Wasn't Christmas a pagan holiday? Why then do you observe it?
Answer:
Let's assume that Christmas was a pagan holiday as is commonly claimed. Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast because it exalts the entrance into the world of the eternal Son of God as a man through His birth of the Virgin Mary. This birth is "good news (Gospel) of great joy" to the world. The purpose of the Christ's coming proclaimed in the Gospel is the redemption of fallen man and of God's good creation which man corrupted. Should not Christians take a pagan holiday and redeem it? Isn't this what the Gospel does?
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Question:

But Christ wasn't born on December 25!
Answer:
Perhaps not. We don't know for sure. Whether or not Christ was born on December 25 doesn't really matter. His birth and the joy that it brings demands celebration, and December 25 is the ideal time to do it. Then, the time of year reinforces the message of Christ's birth: Christ the Light of the world is born at the darkest season in order to illumine "every man that cometh into the world."
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Question:

Doesn't celebrating Christmas represent a 4th-century paganization of Christianity?
Answer:
Not at all. The celebration of Christ's birth represents not the paganization of Christianity, as some like to claim, but rather it represents the Christianization and redemption of the pagan world.
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Jesus Christ (top)

Question:

What does the Orthodox Church teach about Jesus Christ?
Answer:

Who Jesus Christ is is the fundamental question of the Christian faith. In short, the Church teaches that Jesus Christ is the eternally begotten Son of the eternal Father who, for us and for our salvation, was born in time of the Virgin Mary, becoming fully man of her and the Holy Spirit while remaining fully God. Thus, He is the God-man, God and man joined in one person--Jesus Christ. In His Person, the gap between Creator and creature, God and man, is forever bridged.

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Liturgical Worship (top)

Question:

Why is your worship liturgical and ritualistic?
Answer:
That is how God's people have worshipped from the time of Moses.
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Question:

Clearly worship in the Old Testament was liturgical, but didn't that change after Christ? Wasn't the worship of the New Testament Church charismatic and free, led wherever the Holy Spirit took them?
Answer:
Where do you find in the Scriptures or in the early Christian writings the evidence to support this supposition? In Acts, we see Peter and John and the others still going to the temple to pray, still observing hours of prayer. In Corinth we find a certain charismatic free-for-all, but Paul reproves them for this and says that everything should be done decently and in an orderly manner. He also calls them to something higher than gifts of power, namely love, and told them that if they didn't have true love, nothing else they might have would benefit them. Moreover, they gathered as the Church every Lord's Day to celebrate the Eucharist, not just to hear a sermon, or prohecies or to sing songs and ride an emotional roller coaster. The early Christian documents bear this out, and in St. Justin Martyr's Apology circa 150, we see the shape of Christian liturgical worship that is preserved to this day among Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox clearly described.
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Question:

Is the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, really so important as you suggest? Don't we just do it out of obedience to Christ from time to time as a memorial of what He did for us?
Answer:
The Eucharist is central to what it is to be Christ's Church. True, Christ said "as often as ye do this, do it in remembrance of me", which to some seems to leave up to us how frequently to do it, but we know from the Didache, a first-century document written while some of the twelve Apostles were still alive that Christians gathered every Lord's Day to break bread and give thanks (eucharistein) in he Eucharist. The Early Church also considered the Eucharist to be more than a simple memorial service: Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, termed it "the medicine of immortality" in the early second century. Christ Himself said it was more than a mere memorial service (see John 6). It is, perhaps, not fitting to speak more explicity of the nature of the Eucharist in this public forum, but it should be said that a church could scarcely claim to be like the Early Church without having a weekly Eucharist. Christian worship has always been much more than listening to  a sermon, and certain nothing like the enterainment that passes for worship in our times. 
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Question:

Why are you Orthodox Christians so concerned about worship? Can it not be that there are different flavors of Christianity just as the local ice cream parlour as many flavors of ice cream? Just as some like vanilla, others chocolate, and still others something more exotic, can it not be the same for Christian worship? Some like it contemporary, some like rock, some like old reformation hymns, some like high-church liturgics, and some like the exotic worship of the Christian East?
Answer:
We are concerned with it because God is. "Orthodox" means not only "right faith" and "right belief" but also "right glory" and "right worship". Reread or read the second half of Exodus and all of Leviticus, and try to tell me that God is indifferent to our form of worship. He gave Israel very specific instructions on how they were to worship Him, in what sort of a structure, who was to do what and what they were to wear when they did it. He did not leave them to "make it up" for themselves. God judged them again and again for "their own inventions". When we see them making up their own worship (the golden calf, which was made to represent the God who had led them out of Egypt, Exodus 32), God judged them for it. When David did not move the Ark of the Covenant precisely as God had instructed Israel to move it, Uzzah died for laying his hands on the holy things (I Chronicles 13, 15).
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Question:

Why was God so particular with how Israel worshipped Him?
Answer:
Because all the other peoples of the earth imagined gods for themselves and then made up their own worship of those gods. The true God, wanting to free mankind from idols and self-delusions and imaginations, had to give them a form of worship worthy of His greatness and majesty and which would prepare the way for His Son the Messiah when He should come. Not everythinig a man imagines to do in God's name is worthy of God. When Aaron's two sons Nadab and Abihu presumed to offer "strange incense which the Lord had not commended", i.e., they presumed to make it up for themselves, we are told that God sent fire from heaven and consumed them for their disobedience and presumption in worship, which, if left unpunished, would have corrupted the whole people (Leviticus 10).
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Question:

Very well, but that is all Old Testament. Isn't all that done away with in the New?
Answer:
The Old Testament in its worship presents in types and shadows to prepare the way for the fulfillment which was to come in Christ. Though the particular types and shadows are left behind with Christ's coming, yet the Old Testament forms were not arbitrary: they were according to a heavenly pattern which God had showed both Moses on the mountain (Exodus 25:9, 31-40; 26:30; 27:8; Numbers 8:4) and David by the Spirit concerning the Temple (I Chronicles 28:11-12, 19). From Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4-5 we have a glimpse into the heavenly worship round about the throne of God, and the worship of the Church on earth is to fit that pattern. The New Testament doesn't say this, but the New Testament Church did it, first by participating in the worship of the Synagogue and Temple until they were excluded (and later the Temple was destroyed as Christ had foretold to signify the end of the old and the beginning of the new) and then adapting those Jewish forms to Christian requirements. The basic form of Christian worship has been the same since the first century.
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Question:

But isn't liturgical worship difficult for visitors, especially those who aren't Christians and may find it hard to understand? Isn't it better to have "seeker friendly" service to make those people feel at home?
Answer:
Yes, liturgical worship is difficult for non-Christians to understand. They aren't supposed to understand it. It isn't for them until they embrace Christ. Rather it is the worship of the Church, the illumined, those who through Baptism and Faith have been joined to Christ's body the Church. A 'seeker friendly' service on the Lord's Day, the day of His Resurrection, is a lie. It makes people "feel at home" in a place that is properly alien to them until through hearing the Gospel, through repentance, faith, and Baptism, they put on Christ and are joined to Him. In the early Church, long before Constantine and his supposed corruptions, those who had not been baptized were excluded from the eucharistic portion of the Sunday liturgy. Eucharistic worship on the Lord's day is for believers; the Church has other avenues for reaching "seekers". The daily evening and morning services (Vespers and Matins) are suitable for the unchurched as are classes, picnics, fellowships, etc. But to abandon the early pattern of eucharistic worship for believers on the Lord's Day so that some hypothtical 'unchurched Joe' off the street can understand what is going on is to embrace something that will not be Christian worship, whatever it may be. It is a serious blunder which alienates one from unity with Christ's Church through the ages. We aren't to "make it up for ourselves" in our supposed wisdom!

For sake of argument about "seeker services", imagine that concept in ancient Israel: a Jewish temple worship committee is planning “seeker” friendly worship for "untempled pagan Benhadad." They reason, "All that blood and the stench of burning meat runs ‘em off, and animal sacrifices are expensive. Besides, they feel excluded because they are confined to the Court of the Gentiles. And how can they possibly bear the kosher laws, the washings, the inconvenience of the Feast of Booths...? And those ten commandments are a real hinderance to them coming around because such a 'lifestyle' is so alien to them. It is much too strict. And the tithing! Not to mention circumcision...No one will ever join Israel as God promised Abraham (Genesis 12:3) unless we make it easier for them!"

The Church will not be fully home to you until you are joined to the Church. It will take time for you to get acquainted with Her, Her beliefs, Her practices to the point that you can decide whether you want to be joined to Christ's Body. During that time, we will welcome you and do all we can to overcome that necessary period of 'strangeness.'
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Question:

But isn't true Christian worship to be "in spirit and in truth" and not a matter of external forms?
Answer:
What does it mean for worship to be "in spirit and in truth"? If you are asking this, your emphasis is probably on the word 'spirit' rather than the word 'truth.' Both are needed. But let us examine the context of this text. Jesus is speaking with the Samaritan Woman in John 4. She has just asked Jesus to resolve a contentious question about worship between the Samaritans and the Jews: where is the right place to worship. The Jews say, "in Jerusalem" but our fathers worshipped here in this mountain. Which is correct? Jesus says in effect that the Jews are correct, but that the hour is coming when true worship will not be bound to one place as it was for the Jews. You must remember that in the Old Covenant, God commanded the Jews to have only one altar and one place where He was worshipped. There was one Tabernacle, later one Temple. That was the only place the sacrifices commanded could be offered. Jesus says that time is coming to an end when the worship of the true God is tied to one particular place. Though the offering of incense was limited to Jerusalem's Temple, the Prophet Malachi predicted "For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same My name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of Hosts" (Malachi 1:11). Through Christ, man is freed from a particular physical location to worship God "in spirit and in truth". 'In spirit' speaks of the disposition of the heart and the power of the Holy Spirit, it means worship is more than a mechanical ritual (to which any, regarless of the 'style', can reduce it) but that the governing and highest part of man given him by God fully participates; 'in truth' means worship worthy of and guided by the Truth of who God is and what He has done for us. We have to worship Him as He is, as He has revealed Himself to us, not as we imagine Him to be or wish Him to be. Such worship does not stand in opposition to being guided by a particular form; truth is never given or preserved in a formless abstraction: after all, the Church on earth endeavors, however imperfectly, to enter into the true form of worship of the Church and Angels in heaven.
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Question:

How can the Holy Spirit be present in written liturgical prayers? Does that not limit the Spirit?
Answer:
The Holy Spirit is limited only by the sinfulness, hardness, and inattentiveness of our hearts whereby we quench and grieve the Spirit. Written liturgical prayers that do not change from week to week actuallly free us to enter more deeply into the Spirit of God for several reasons than ecstatic or extemporaneous prayers that are claimed to be "Spirit-guided" in contrast with written prayers.

How can this be?

When prayer is spontaneously pronounced in worship by the one praying, you don't know what is being asked until after it is said. Then you have to evaluate it: Do I agree with this? Does it make sense? Did I understand it? Is is Biblical? Can I say 'amen' to this? Often you may object: "That isn't Biblical" or "I can't say 'amen' to that" or "Did he mean what I think he meant?" The mind is easily distracted by such considerations and one is hindered from entering more deeping into the spirit of prayer.

Written liturgical prayers used in the Church for centuries have no fluff in them; every word is there for a reason; we come to know each word, we anticipate them, already we are in agreement with them, and so our attention is freed to enter into the prayer rather than to be judging it or suprised by it.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth who leads us into truth: when the words are true and the spirit of man is joined to them, the Holy Spirit is present. If the words are false or man's spirit is elsewhere, true prayer and true worship will not be taking place.

You can manifestly see the pitfalls in relying on extemporaneous prayer alone. Some Christians even refuse to use the Lord's Prayer, even though Christ commanded His disciples, "when you pray, say..." (Luke 11:1). Without the guidance or thought and the test of use, our extemporaneous prayer can quickly degenerate into a trite recital of what God already knows and a presumptuous telling Him what to do about it, often full of inaninities such as the insertion of "just" with every phrase {"Lord, we just want to thank you...we just come before you...we just..."). While God may well hear such prayers when produced from a humble and contrite heart that yearns for Him, they are unworthy of corporate Christian worship and a distraction for many. At home, alone, or in the family, one may pray as one can; but Christian worship must rise to a higher level to benefit all gathered.


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Rapture & End Times (top)

Question:

What does the Orthodox Church say about the Rapture?
Answer:
The Orthodox Church says nothing about the so-called Rapture for nothing about it is found in the Scriptures and no such thing was ever believed by Christians until some began to adopt such a belief in the 19th century.
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Question:

But the Rapture is taught in the New Testament! Matthew 24 talks about some being taken and some left, and I Thessalonians 4:15-18 speaks about believers being caught up in the clouds. How do you explain these passages?
Answer:
Are you so certain? Matthew 24, granted, is often used in support of the Rapture doctrine, which says that believers will be snatched out the world quietly before the Tribulation and Christ’s second coming, but let us look at it again. Jesus says that His coming will be as it was in the days of Noah. People were going about daily life eating, drinking, getting married until the flood came and took them away to their surprise—“so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one taken, the other left....” This taking is supposed to represent believers being taken out of the world with unbelievers being left. But the text actually means just the opposite. Who is taken at the time of Noah? The unbelievers: the flood came and took them all away (24:39). In Luke 17, Jesus also speaks of some being taken and some being left. When the disciples ask, “Where, Lord?” He answers, “Wheresoever the body is, thither will he eagles [vultures] be gathered together.” In other words, those taken away are taken to judgment, not to glory. We might also recall the parable of the tares in the field (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). Christ allows the tares to grow until the harvest, when He sends out His harvesters, the angels, who first gather the tares out from among the wheat and burn them, and then harvest the wheat. The tares, ‘all things that offend’, are gathered up out of the kingdom which is left to the righteous. The passage in I Thessalonians (and others like it) speaks only of Christ’s Second Coming in glory, not of a secret return to gather believers, and so Christ’s Church has always understood it. The Rapture doctrine dates only to the 1820s—before then it was unknown to Christians.
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Question:

So is the Orthodox Church not, then, dispensational?
Answer:
We certainly believe in God reaching out to man in various and sundry ways over the ages,  but we do not subscribe to the dispensationalist schema developed by Schofield and others in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of them go so far as to deny that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount now applies to the Church, something the Orthodox Church finds to be utterly inconceivable.

Other questions may be submitted to frjustin@stmaximus.org
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Scripture & Tradition (top)

Question:

Why does the Orthodox Church not hold to the principle of Sola Scriptura, or "Scripture Alone", as the only authority for Christian faith and practice?
Answer:

First, you may search the Scriptures, but you will nowhere find the principle of Sola Scriptura taught in the Scriptures.

Second, you will find that St. Paul teaches otherwise. In writing to the Thessalonians, he commands them to hold to the traditions that they had been taught "whether by word or by epistle" (2 Thess 2.15). Here he makes a clear distinction between what he had taught them in written form and what he had taught them orally in person, but he expects them to follow both types of his teaching, not the written only. (The NIV in this passage translates the Greek word paradosis, or "tradition", as "teachings.")

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Question:

How can you say the Bible doesn't teach the Reformation principle of "Scripture Alone" as the basis of authority for Christians? After all, Paul says (2 Timothy 3:16), "All Scripture is givien by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness..." Doesn't this passage teach Sola Scriptura?
Answer:

No, it doesn't. It teaches that Scripture is "God-breathed", inspired by the Holy Spirit and is therefore reliable and useful to the Christian to perfect him and equip him for good works (v. 17). It does not teach that ONLY the Bible is to guide the Christian, though it is often misused to support that claim.

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Question:

What about 2 Peter 1:21? Some cite it in support of "Scripture Alone." "For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit."
Answer:
This passage teaches that the Old Testament prophets were not merely speaking their own man-made message, but the Holy Spirit was speaking God's words through them. It does not support the claim that the Bible is the only authority for Christians.
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Question:

What does Paul mean when he tells the Thessalonians to "hold to the traditions" he taught them by word or epistle?
Answer:
St. Paul writes: "Therefore brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thess 2.15). The Apostolic Church had no New Testament. They had only the Old Testament and the preaching of the apostles--which was basically the interpretation of the Old Testament in the light of Christ's life and Resurrection. Paul commanded the Thessalonians to hold to the Gospel he had taught them both orally in person and by letter. Oral or written, the teaching of the apostles was to be kept in the Church.
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Question:

But isn't tradition a bad thing that gets in the way of God's truth revealed in Scripture?
Answer:
Apparently the translators of the NIV thought so too, for when the Greek word paradosis, "tradition", is used positively (1 Cor 11.2, 2 Thess 2.15, 2 Thess 3.6), they translated it "teaching(s)", but when it is used negatively to refer to "traditions of men" contrary to God, they translated it accurately. Paradosis simply means "what has been handed over or handed down." It is in itself a neutral concept. It is the content of what is handed down that is determines whether it is good or bad. In St. Paul's mind, the tradition he and the other apostles had handed down whether orally or in writing to the flegling Christian churches was God's truth, not man's invention. As Christians we are called to hold onto the Traditions and contend for the Faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. Only by holding onto the true Apostolic Tradition can we possibly discern the false traditions of men that shut of the path of salvation.
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Question:

But isn't Scripture the only basis of truth for Christians?
Answer:

No. St. Paul, in writing to St. Timothy, says that it is the Church of the living God which is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3.15). Moreover, it is Jesus Christ who said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life..." Christ, a person, is the Truth, and He came not to write a book, but to found His Church against which the gates of hell would not prevail. Scripture is certainly true; it is the primary source of truth for Christians, but it is not the only source. In fact, the Bible is part of the tradition of which St. Paul speaks: it is the written words of the Apostles handed down alongside their oral teaching in Christ's Church, His Body, which is founded on the Prophets and Apostles.

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Question:

What evidence can you adduce to support your claim that Scripture alone isn't the sole authority for Christian belief and practice?
Answer:
Look at the New Testament itself. There are four Gospels which present Christ's life, actions, and words from four different perspectives. There is the Acts of the Apostles, which traces the initial spread of the Gospel. There is the Revelation of John, which speaks of the end of history. And there are 21 Epistles from various Apostles, written for specific audiences. These Epistles are not systematic expositions of Christian belief and pracitce; rather they are occasional letters, written in response to particular situations and problems. You cannot recreate the Early Church from them, as countless attempts to do so have yielded very different forms of the 'New Testament Church'. They were understood by those to whom they were written for two reasons: their faith and pracatice was built on the exposition of the Old Testament Scriptures (the "prophets") peached by Christ's Apostles, who instructed the new Christian communities in right belief and practice. When those new communities failed to live up to what they were taught through sin (the Corinthians), through false teachers (the Galatians), through divisive rivalries and quarrels (Philippians), etc, the Apostles wrote to correct the errors and steer the young churches back onto the path the Apostles had already laid out for them. Hence, the correct understanding of the New Testament presumes the Law, Prophets, and Writingsof the Old preached in the light of Christ and His Resurrection by His appointed Apostles. The Church was flourishing across the Roman empire and beyond well before there was a definitive New Testament. Christ did not give his Disciples a book to follow as Allah did Mohammad; He established His Church on the Prophets and Apostles.
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