Category Archives: Stump the Priest

Why the Daily Office?

Recently, my father was trying to explain the Daily Office to a friend of his.  The Daily Office is a routine set of Bible readings and prayers ordered out in a particular way.  It can be, to say the least, a bit confusing at first.  After explaining his own routine to his friend, the friend responded with a simple inquiry: “Why?”  That brings us to today’s topic…

Let us begin with some brief background information.  Shortly after the Exodus, the LORD consecrated Aaron and his sons to be the first High Priest and the priestly line thereafter.  Following that consecration, the LORD commanded that the priests should offer two lambs every day on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening.  That continued for centuries as the Hebrews passed from the Tabernacle in the Wilderness to Solomon’s Temple.  Some scholars believe that a set of readings from the Torah, Psalms, and the Prophets developed during the Babylonian Exile.  They theorize that, since they could not bring the daily sacrifice of lambs to the altar, they could, in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, bring a “sacrifice of praise” to the LORD.  (Jeremiah 33:11)  By the time of Our Lord’s Incarnation, there were various daily readings in each synagogue, for the morning and for the evening.  As the son of just and upright parents, Jesus would have regularly gone to the synagogues and heard the rabbis recite the readings from the Psalms, the Torah, and the Prophets each and every day.  This, in part, explains why the most oft-quoted book in the New Testament is not the Prophet Isaiah (a distant second), but is actually the Book of Psalms.

During the early Middle Ages, Christians who felt Christianity had been corrupted by the newly converted Roman Empire, isolated themselves and formed religious communities dedicated to prayer.  This was the origin of monasticism.  These men and women developed elaborate systems of readings for the Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament, and the Gospels so that the entire body of Holy Scriptures would be read, in some cases quite frequently, over the year.  As a result, Holy Scripture so infused their lives, that when one looks at their writings, you can hardly tell what is Scripture and what is their own thought. 

Later, the elaborate system of the monasteries was simplified into what we now call the Daily Office.  In consists primarily of a routine for Morning Prayer and for Evening Prayer.  Each office opens with a sentence from Scripture and a introductory Psalm or hymn to “set the mood.”  There is a reading of one or more Psalms followed by one or two passages from Scripture.  After each scriptural reading there is what is called a “Canticle,” or a song taken from Scripture.  The Songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon are some of the best examples (St. Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; 2:29-32), but others are taken from Exodus, Isaiah, Revelation, and various parts of the Apocrypha.  After the readings and Canticles come the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and other prayers that vary by day, week, or season.  There is, of course, time given for free intercession.

So, now, why the Daily Office?  There are four reasons.

1. The Daily Office incorporates Lectio Divina into daily prayer time.  Lectio Divinia means simply “Divine Readings.”  The Daily Office is intensely reliant on a regular progression of readings through the Holy Scriptures.  Throughout the course of the two-year cycle, the overwhelming majority of the Old Testament is read; the New Testament is read each year and the Holy Gospels are read even more frequently.  Beyond that, those who pray the Daily Office do not go skittering about Scripture on a whim; they proceed quite regularly through the various testaments and the Gospel, following one passage after another.  For a few weeks, one might read a chapter of the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel according to Saint Luke.  After a season, one proceeds into the Prophet Jeremiah and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.  Spirit led prayer is a part of the Daily Office.  There is little need for the “Bible in a Year” plans when one already prays the Daily Office.

2. The Daily Office makes heavy use of the very best “Liturgical Music.”  The Book of Psalms is perhaps the most under utilized book of the Bible.  As a collection of hymns, it often goes over-looked.  This should be far from the case.  The Psalms were “Jesus’ Prayer Book.”  It is from the Book of Psalms that Jesus quoted most frequently.  Rather than relying on a nearby hymnal, one who prays the Daily Office reads the hymns on which Our Lord grew up.  The historic Church gave so much esteem to the Book of Psalms that Saint Benedict of Nursia, who some call the founder of Western Monasticism, made it part of his Rule that his monks had to pray the entire Psalter, all 150 Psalms, each week!  As part of the modern Daily Office, the majority of the Psalms are prayed on a seven-week cycle.  In addition to the Psalms, after each reading, as previously states, one reads another song from Holy Scripture.  It might be one of the three already mentioned, but could be the Song of Moses (Exodus 151-6, 11-13, 17-18), The Songs of Isaiah (12:1-6; 55:6-11; 60:1-3, 11, 14, 18-19) or the Prayer of Manasseh.  Again, rather than puttering about for a hymnal, one reads Holy Scripture put to music and, whether said or sung, those songs become a part of one’s being.  I am not one given to quoting long passages of Scripture, but some of the Canticles have become ingrained in my memory that I wonder if I could ever forget them.  Is that not a lofty goal in and of itself?

3. The set of proscribed prayers help drive us into a routine of praying appropriately rather than what we feel at the time.  It is too easy to let the first thing on our mind dominate our personal prayer time.  With the Lord’s Prayer, the responses, the weekly and nightly collects, as well as the prayers for the Church’s mission, we routinely touch on those issue which we ought never neglect in our prayer life: the poor and needy, those in government and justice, those who are sick, those who do not know the Lord, as well as grace and protection for our own walk with the Lord.  Additionally, those rote prayers, so often maligned by the more charismatic Christians, help us develop what I call Spirit Memory.  You have likely heard of “muscle memory.”  It comes when an athlete trains and trains and practices and practices to the point when they can perform certain skills practically blind-folded.  The perfect visual for this is the move The Karate Kid.  In that movie Mr. Miyagi trains Daniel (or Mr. Han trains Dre, depending on your generation) by making him wax his cars, sand his patio deck, and paint his fence (or, again, taking on and off his jacket).  After weeks of this training the young student throws an absolute fit before an impressive display of how what he has learned is truly applicable to Karate.  The same can be applied to rote prayer.  Take a good godly prayer; pray it until it becomes like second nature; when a crisis comes, watch that prayer spring to your mind before you have even had time to think, “what should I do now?”  Rote prayers develop spirit memory just as athletic drills develop muscle memory.

4. The Daily Office is convergence worship.  Obviously, because of its intense reliance on Holy Scripture for its use of the Psalms, Readings, Canticles and response, the Daily Office is an evangelical exercise.  Because of its requisite professions of faith, use of Holy Spirit inspired Canticles and personal Spirit-led prayer time, the Daily Office is a charismatic exercise.  The Daily Office is not a sacrament, but it is sacramental.  The traditional definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  In praying the Daily Office the one who prays is a physical sign of at least three different graces.  First, that we have a God who has bestowed upon us the gift of Holy Scripture; second, that we have a God who has given us the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to assist us in prayer; and, third, that we have a God who listens to our prayers.  As such, the Daily Office is a sacramental exercise.

That is why the Daily Office.

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Why do you “Pray to Saints?”

 Well, I don’t.  When I pray, I pray to the Father through the mediation of Jesus Christ with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  That being said, sometimes, when I find myself facing particularly troubling challenges, I ask others to pray with me.  I confide to a Christian brother or sister, for example, that my great-aunt is very ill, or my friend’s child is getting into trouble at school, or my dear friend does not know the Lord and then, after confiding in them, I ask them to pray for me.  Sometimes I do this with friends that I know here and sometimes I do this with the great saints of the church who have gone before in the Faith. 

What many Protestants disdainfully refer to as “praying to the saints” is really asking the saints to pray for us to the Father.  No one has a problem asking dear sister Winifred, “that saint of the Lord” to pray for them when they are struggling.  That is until she dies, and then asking that same “saint of the Lord” to pray for us somehow becomes taboo.  It was fine to ask her (or any other saintly parishioner) to pray for us as long as they were on the earth, but once they shuffle off this mortal coil and ascend into the heavenlies either we should cease asking or they will cease answering.  Does this make sense?

Now, those who raise this objection are usually well-intentioned and sincere.  There concerns come in large part from two passages of Holy Scripture.  The first is Deuteronomy 18:10-12 where Moses reminds the people,

“There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD…”

This is indeed an abomination, but rather refers to conjuring spirits in a séance along the lines of the Witch of Endor in I Samuel 28.  Later we will discuss how different conjuring spirits in a séance is than the picture of heaven presented bySt. John.

The second primary scripture used against the intercession of the saints is I Timothy 2:5 which states, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus…”  Indeed, this passage is unquestionably true, but there are limitless individuals who may go before Jesus on our behalf and ask Him to pray for us to the Father.  Again, if this passage were applied as some would suggest, asking the prayer warriors in your congregation to pray for you would be pointless. 

An Icon of the Saints surrounding Christ in Heaven

Up until now I have refuted negative arguments, rejecting the reasons “why not.”  Now let us turn our attentions to the reasons why this is a positive aspect of our faith.  In reciting the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds we affirm that we believe in the “Communion of the Saints.”  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1)  Our Lord’s own parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (St.Luke 16:19-31) shows us that those who are in Sheol can ask for help on behalf of their loved ones after their deaths.  In the Revelation of St.John, the Beloved Disciple recounts his vision of Heaven.  At one point he describes, “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (5:8)  Later, the Apostle vividly depicts that “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” (8:4)  Thus, these two passages from the most incredible vision of Heaven inform us that our prayers do rise up before the saints in Heaven as incense which are then brought before the Lord.  Finally, St. James tells us that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (5:16b)  Why would we limit the assistance we receive in prayer to those who are with us.  We can, of course, assume that those who are in Heaven are righteous, so why would we not ask them to pray for us?

Back to the original question: why do I (now correcting the language) ask the saints to pray with me?  Primarily, I do so because I can.  The Communion of Saints is a gift from God and the union of the Church Triumphant (those in Heaven) and the Church Militant (those of Earth) is a mystery of God that allows those of us still here on Earth to benefit from the sanctity of life and the prayers of those who have gone before.  I ask the saints who have gone before to pray for me because their prayers were successful on Earth, how much more effective are they when uttered the very throne of God Himself.  Finally, I ask the saints to intercede on my behalf because I can use all the help I can possibly get!

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Who is Melchizedek?

About a month ago, my mother sent me a question from one of her co-workers.  The question was: “Who was Melchizedek?  Was he a type of Christ or considered to be the Christ?”  That is a great question, but it requires some background to answer.

When most people think of the word “type,” they think of it as a word that describes the various kinds of something else.  For example, they might say, “andouille is a type of sausage,” or “Vidalia is a type of onion.”  Generally speaking, we use “type” and “kind” interchangeably.  Speaking in terms of theology, this is not the case.  When speaking about Holy Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament, a “type” is a person or an event which foreshadows or prefigures some aspect of the life or ministry of Jesus Christ.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples in the Old Testament.  The example of Jonah is probably one of the best because Our Lord mentioned it Himself.

Some Pharisees approached Jesus and demanded that He perform a sign.  To this demand, Our Lord replied, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (St. Luke 11:39-40)  Our Lord makes the comparison quite clear.  Jonah foreshadowed Jesus in that Jonah was held captive in the belly of the great fish just as Jesus was in the tomb for three days.  All the more interesting is the fact that, in the Book of the Prophet Jonah, from the belly of the great fish itself, Jonah prays to the Lord saying,

“I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction,
And He answered me.
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
And You heard my voice.” (2:2)

“Sheol” is the Hebrew name for the place of the dead.  One reading suggests that Jonah was dead for three days.  (For a more thorough treatment of Sheol, click HERE.)

It is incredibly tempting to begin explaining some truly remarkable examples of types in the Old Testament.  Their meanings add such depth to Holy Scripture and bring such richness to the interpretations.  Nevertheless, let us now turn our attention to Melchizedek.  This mysterious figure appears in two Old Testament passages; the first is Genesis 14 and the second is Psalm 110.  In the first passage, we find:

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he [Melchizedek] blessed him [Abram] and said:
          “Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
          Possessor of heaven and earth;
          And blessed be God Most High,
         Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
And he [Abram] gave him [Melchizedek] a tithe of all. (vv. 18-20)

For all of its three verses, this passage is tremendously full of meaning.  First off, Melchizedek’s names means “My King is Righteous” or “King of Righteousness.”  He is both the King of Salem, and earlier title forJerusalem, and a priest to God Most High.  While we call the citySalem, the Jews would have called it something that sounds more like “Shalom,” meaning “Peace.”  Since then, Jesus has been referred as both the King of Righteousness and the Prince (or King) of Peace.  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly refers to Psalm 110, which states,

An Icon of Melchizedek offering the Bread and Wine

The LORD has sworn
And will not relent,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.” (v. 4)

St. Peter used this Psalm in his Pentecost speech as Psalm which prophesied about the coming Messiah.  Verse 1 states, “The Lord said to my Lord…”  Clearly, the “You” in verse 4 likewise refers to Jesus Christ. (See Acts 2:29-36)   Thus, while not of Levitical descent (being of the Tribe of Judah), Jesus was able to serve as our Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14) because He was a priest in the same manner (“according to the order of”) as Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High. Finally, no sacramentalist could ever read Genesis 14 without noticing that Melchizedek brought out “bread and wine.”  Now wine and bread were common in all sorts of religious observances, but if we are talking about a King of Righteousness and Prince of Peace who is both King and Priest, who also happens to bring out the same elements Our Lord referred to as His Body and His Blood at the Last Supper (St. Luke 22:19-20), we can by no means dismiss the similarities. 

So, yes, Melchizedek is a type of Christ in that he very much prefigures the coming of the Messiah who is both Priest and King and who offers Bread and Wine for us.  While this means that Melchizedek is a type of Christ, it does not mean that Melchizedek was Jesus.  We believe that the Incarnation was a unique event.  Jesus did not walk the earth as a man prior to His conception by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.  There may have been many types, even Angelic apparitions (see Genesis 18:1-10), but the Word did not “become flesh” until the Incarnation.  Thus, yes, Melchizedek is a type of Christ, but, no, he is not Jesus Himself.

A mosaic of Abel and Mechizedek offering their gifts to the Lord

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Why Do We Celebrate “Easter” and What Is the Deal with the Eggs?

Keeping in mind that it will still be Easter-tide until the Feast of Pentecost, May 12th this year, it seems appropriate to have an Easter “Stump the Priest” Question. This one comes from unwittingly walking in on a men’s accountability group at a diner one Saturday morning. The men asked, “Where do we get the word ‘Easter’ and what is the deal with the eggs?” Both are very good questions.

 

 The Eastern Orthodox (Greeks, Russians, and various Eastern European Christians) do not celebrate Easter per se. They celebrate Pascha, which is where we get the word “paschal,” as in paschal candle or paschal mysteries. Pascha is a Greek word that is derived from Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. That makes sense and seems easy enough to follow, but if that is the case, where does the word “Easter” come in?

 The origin is very obscure. The best explanation comes from the writings of a famous British monk known as the Venerable Bede. In his eighth century work De Temporum Ratione (or On the Reckoning of Time), the monk wrote,

A very modern drawing of what the goddess Eostre might have looked like, complete with bunnies.

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month,’ and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” (Translation by Faith Wallis, 1999)

Essentially, what Bede is saying is that, the pre-Christian pagans called a month that corresponded to April “Easturmonath” or “Easter-Month” after their goddess Eostre. Once they became Christian and started celebrating the “Paschal Month” (give or take ten days or so), rather than calling the season something like Paschalmonath, they continued calling it Eosturmonath. As the season was still known as Easter-Monath, eventually the name of the Feast was replaced with the word “Easter,” it was “Easter-Month” after all.

Here is the amazing thing about the goddess Eostre. We know virtually nothing about her. Anthropologists and folklorists believe that she was either a goddess of Spring and fertility or a goddess associated with the sunrise. Aside from that, she is a complete mystery. We know that Christians took over many pagan feasts and renamed them. December 25th was the pagan feast of Saturnalia or Yule. November 1st was the pagan feast of Samhain; it has now become All Saints’ Day. Christians take over these previously pagan festivals, perform a baptism of sorts on them and make Christian religious celebrations out of them. In most cases, we retain the knowledge of what the original festival entailed. That is not so with Easter. The Christian take-over of the pagan festival was so complete that only the name remains.

What about the eggs? Surprisingly, they have nothing to do with the bunnies and do have a Christian origin. There are two legends that involve Easter eggs and both center around St. Mary Magdelene. In one story, St. Mary Magdalene was bringing a basket of eggs to the woman who had gone to the tomb of Jesus to finish His embalming. When the risen Jesus appeared to the saint, the basket of eggs miraculously turned the color of Our Lord’s blood. Similarly, another legend tells that, after the Ascension of Our Lord, St. Mary Magdalene left Jerusalem and went west. On one occasion she found herself dining with the Roman Emperor Tiberius (r. 14AD – 37AD). She greeted the Emperor with the words “Christ is Risen” (a tradition to this day among Eastern Orthodox Christians). The Emperor responded with a jaded, “Jesus could no more rise from the dead than that egg you are holding could turn red.” In response to the Emperor’s taunt, the egg, of course, miraculously turned red. This is why, in many Eastern Christian traditions, the only acceptable color to dye is red and why in many icons St. Mary Magdalene is depicted holding a red egg.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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The Unforgivable Sin?

A student recently asked me, what is the “unforgivable sin”?  A simple answer is very easy.  The unforgivable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  What does that mean?  That is not quite such an easy answer.  After all, who knows what “blasphemy” is these days? 

The passage in question actually occurs in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  The version in Saint Matthew’s Gospel reads as follows:

[Jesus said,] “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (12:31-32)

There is a terrifying thought.  I have heard it said that this is the single-most terrifying passage in all of Scripture, not just because of the severity of the punishment and impossibility of forgiveness, but also because of the ambiguity of the crime.  What exactly is “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit”? 

The word blasphemy itself comes from two Greek words meaning “I injure” and “reputation.”  Thus, from a point of view that takes into consideration words origins, injuring someone’s reputation is blasphemy.  Obviously this pertains to a religious context so suggesting that someone cheated on a test would not be blaspheming them, per se, but saying that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God could be considered blasphemy.  Certainly the Jews thought Jesus was blasphemous when he was preaching in Jerusalem.  St. John tells us,

Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” (10:31-33)

Of course, there are men and women today who make a career out of impugning the reputation of God and his people.  Those without credential are called comedians; those with them are called “celebrated scholars.”

So, is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit saying anything negative about the Holy Spirit or injuring His reputation?  That would mean a whole lot of people are going to Hell.  In 2006, a group calling itself the Rational Response Squad began what they called “The Blasphemy Challenge.”  They challenged their internet followers to post on You-Tube videos of themselves committing blasphemy.  They told their subscribers to record themselves saying “God does not exist.”  There were, apparently, at least one thousand people who undertook this challenge.  Fortunately, co-founder of the group, Brian Sapient (not his real name—he took that name, which means wise, to ensure his anonymity) did not do enough rational work to realize, saying God does not exist probably does not make the cut for actual blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  At least, that is not what Jesus was talking about in the passage.  Let us examine the context of the passage.

In chapter 12 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Evangelist tells us,

Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” (vv. 22-24)

Our Lord’s response regarding blasphemy of the Holy Spirit immediately follows the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus was casting out demons because He Himself was demonic.  Therefore, most believe that “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is ascribing to demons or demonic influence the work of the Holy Spirit. 

That could mean some serious trouble for those of the non-charismatic persuasion who, fully believing in God and in the Holy Scriptures, have taught that speaking in tongues is demonic.  “He speaks like that because he has a demon,” sounds frighteningly close to “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”  I suppose that you might, by extension, view those who regard religious phenomena as a psychological disorder as also committing blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  They are, after all, saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is some kind of disease. 

Of course, for me, the more intriguing portion of the passage is the very end.  Jesus tells His listeners, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (v. 32) My mind asks what kind of sins can be and just how are sins forgiven in “the age to come.”  Isn’t that intriguing?

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Why Did Jesus Curse the Fig Tree?

In response to the “Stump the Priest” invite, Paul Creighton asks “Why did Jesus curse the fig tree?”  This is a great question and refers to an event depicted in St. Matthew 21:18-19; St. Mark 11:12-24; and may relate to a parable that Our Lord tells in St. Luke 13:6-9.  For our discussion, we will use the account in St. Mark’s Gospel.

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” And His disciples heard it. …

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.

There are a great many ways this passage can be misinterpreted.  Some people complain that Jesus just threw a temper tantrum and smote the tree because he was hungry and the tree had no fruit even though “it was not the season for figs.”  This is not the case.  Jesus saw that the tree had leaves; he could tell this from afar.  With the particular kind of fig tree, fruit precedes leaves, so, seeing leaves, it was natural to expect fruit even though it was not the season for figs. 

Jesus was clearly teaching a lesson, but it was not to the fig tree.  He was giving His disciples a lesson.  The actual lesson may be a bit hard to pin-point until you notice the way that St. Mark structures the encounter.  While the whole event takes up 12 verses, verses 15-19 seemingly have nothing to do with the fig tree.  When we look at the passage, we see a few verses about the fig tree, a seemingly out of place passage where Jesus cleanses the Temple, and then a conclusion of the fig tree episode.  This is the key to understanding this passage. 

In English literature, we most commonly use rhyme, meter, metaphor and similes as literary devices.  In Greek literature around the first century, one of the most commonly used literary devices was called “chiasm,” or the structuring of a passage to put emphasis on the middle.  An excellent example of this technique is to be in I John 3:9 where the Apostle writes, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.”  This structure may not be clear until the passage is displayed like so:
                        A—Whoever has been born of God
                                    B—does not sin
                                                C—for His seed remains in him;
                                    B’—and he cannot sin,
                        A’—because he has been born of God.
When viewing the passage in this manner, it becomes much easier to see the chiasm that St. John is using.

Saint Mark uses this technique at least nine different times in his Gospel.  He makes such common use of the technique that the chiasm is sometime referred to as the “Markan Sandwich.”  Something else to keep in mind is that, when dealing with a Markan Sandwich, it is always “the meat” that is the heart of the matter.

Moving back to the fig tree, we have an example of a Markan Sandwich.  In this passage we see the events structured like so:
                                    A—Jesus curses the fig tree.
                                                B—The Cleansing of the Temple
                                    A’—The fig tree is barren.
If the meat is what matters, then the Cleansing of the Temple is vital to the understanding of the cursing of the fig tree. 

The fig tree becomes a lesson about the pending doom of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the coming judgment of the Jews.  St. John the Baptist declared,

“Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (St. Matthew 3:8-10)

Later, our Lord echoed those words when He said,

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (St. Matthew 7:15-20)

And finally, while preaching in the Temple, Jesus warned the Scribes and Pharisees, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” (St. Matthew (21:43)

The lesson of the fig tree is this: the Jews of the day were not bearing fruit worthy of the blessings that had been given them so judgment would quickly come upon them.  The fig tree was the object that represented that judgment.  The fig tree did not bear worthy fruit, so it was stricken.  Likewise, the Jews did not bear worthy fruit and so their destiny was sealed.  In less than forty years after the death of Christ, the Roman Empire, growing weary of putting down rebellion after rebellion, finally rolled through Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.  The barren fig tree was a sign of things to come.

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Father, Can You Explain the “Call No Man Father” Passage?

This one comes from a conversation with a visitor I had to our parish lately.  Obviously, as Evangelicals, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that we should model our lives so that they mimic that which in contained in the Sacred Scriptures as much as possible.  While we are also traditionalists, we have rejected some traditions because they do not line up with Scriptural teachings.

With that in mind, why do we refer to our priests as “Father” when Jesus specifically says, “Call no man ‘father’”?

Before you could ever justify why we refer to our clergy as such, we really have to address what appears to be a crystal clear prohibition from Our Lord.  “Look,” says the critic, “He says right there in red letters, ‘Call no man father.’  Where do you get off saying, ‘That’s not what He meant?’”

The particular passage in question is Matthew 23:1-12 which may be found here.  These verses are a small part of a much longer discourse in Saint Mathew’s Gospel where Our Lord has gone into the Temple (after the Triumphal Entry) and has begun to teach the people who are gathered there.  The scene begins at Matthew 21:23 and continues through until 24:3 when Our Lord and the Apostles leave Jerusalem and retire to the Mount of Olives.  During His time teaching in the Temple, Our Lord addresses the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Scribes before, in Chapter 23, proclaiming judgment and “woe” upon the Scribes and Pharisees.

The idea that it is permissible to refer to another man as father, in direct (apparent) contradiction of Jesus’ instruction must be justified by other Scriptures.  Saint Paul tells his disciple Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  (II Timothy 3:16-17)  If all Scripture is inspired by God then it cannot contradict the teaching of Jesus who is “the Word Made Flesh.” (St. John 1:14)  That means that, if, elsewhere in the New Testament, we find passages referring to men as father, then Our Lord did not literally mean “do not call anyone your father.”

Are there such examples?  Yes, there are.  In his speech at Solomon’s Portico, Saint Peter uses the word ‘father’ to refer to their common Jewish ancestors, actually referring to the LORD as “the God of our fathers.” (Acts 3:13)  Saint Stephen begins the speech which leads to his martyrdom by addressing his listeners as “Brethren and fathers” and continues to use the word fourteen more times before he is stoned to death. (Acts 7:2ff) Saint Paul used the phrase frequently to refer to the ancestors, even going so far as to say that Abraham is the “father of us all!” (Romans 4:16-17)  Most strikingly, Saint Paul says to the Church at Corinth, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (I Corinthians 4:15 ESV, see also NIV)  Saint Paul actually has the audacity to say I am a father to you Corinthians!  If Saint Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, told the Corinthians that he (St. Paul) was their father, how could Our Lord have really meant do not call any man your father?  Finally, how are you supposed to obey the fifth commandment to “Honor your father” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) if you are not allowed to address him as such?

So what did Our Lord really mean?  The actual injunction against calling men rabbis, fathers, and teachers comes near the end of a passage which concludes: “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (St. Matthew 23:11-12)  The heart of what Jesus is saying is do not go in for exalted titles.  Do not think of yourself as superior to anyone, do not exalt yourself over anyone, and, most importantly, do not expect to be treated specially because of your job or your title.  Jesus singles out the Scribes and the Pharisees because of their self-righteous and superior attitudes.  Our Lord begins a litany of charges and complaints against them.

Now, that may mean that it might be okay to call some men fathers, particularly fathers in the faith, but if those men maintain self-righteous, “holier than thou,” exalted attitudes which demand special treatment then it should not really matter whether you call them Pastor, Father, or Elder.  They have become modern day Scribes and Pharisees and their title is irrelevant; their hearts are in error.

How ought our priests to behave so that they do not run afoul of Our Lord’s warnings to the Scribes and Pharisees?  Before a man may ever be ordained priest, he must first be ordained and serve a term as a deacon.  The term “deacon” comes from the Greek word meaning “servant.”  We speak of the “ontological change” that occurs when one is ordained, a change in the very nature of one’s being (not unlike how one’s nature is changed when they are married and the two become one flesh).  That change is never undone; our priests always remain deacons.  That is why, as of late, we have had priests substitute for deacons in some of our services.  There is nothing wrong with this practice because the priests are still, in fact, deacons.  I was recently reminded that two of the primates in the ICCEC are known to wear a deacon’s stole under their chasuble as a reminder to themselves that they are still deacons and servants.

In addition, every year during Holy Week, the priests remind themselves and the congregation that they are still servants by following Our Lord’s example.  In the Maundy Thursday service, we repeat Our Lord’s words when Saint John tells us:

So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (13:12-17)

More than simply reading and teaching on this passage, as Sacramentalists, we act the passage out.  Just prior to the foot-washing in the Maundy Thursday service, the Celebrant stands before the congregation and reads:

“Fellow servants of our Lord Jesus Christ: On the night before His death, Jesus set an example for His disciples by washing their feet, an act of humble service. He taught that strength and growth in the life of the Kingdom of God comes not by power, authority, or even miracle, but by such lowly service. We all need to remember His example, but none stand more in need of this reminder than those whom the Lord has called to the ordained ministry.

Therefore, I invite you who share in the royal priesthood of Christ, to come forward, that I may recall whose servant I am by following the example of my Master…”

So, we have seen that Our Lord did not literally mean “do not call anyone your father.”  We have seen that what He meant was be wary of those who seek titles as a means of self-aggrandizement and use their positions to receive special treatment.  We have also seen that our priests, at least in principal, ought to never be engaged in such practices, yet just because a practice is not expressly forbidden does not mean that is should be done.  The question yet remains: why should we call our priests fathers?

The answer goes back to the history of the Jewish relationship with God.  Prior to the institution of the Levitical priesthood, priestly duties were carried on by the fathers.  They were the ones who made sacrifices for their families to make atonement, thanksgiving offerings and the like.  To an extent, we still see this in our wedding services.  We allow the groom, whether he be clerical of lay, to serve his wife Holy Communion on their wedding day in acknowledgment that the father is “the priest of his own household.”  This is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the Book of Judges when Micah invites the Levite to “Dwell with me, and be a father and a priest to me.” (17:10)  The phrase is again repeated in the next chapter.  The point is this: the priests were seen as fathers to the Children of Israel.  The ancient practices were not wholly forgotten and the priest was a father to his people.

Thus, as an heir to the Levitical priesthood, as a spiritual “father in the Lord” to their congregation, as long as they are not running afoul of the warning given in St. Matthew 23, the practices of referring to priests as “Father” goes back to the very institution of the Priesthood and is not forbidden by Holy Scripture.

And, by the way, I want to wish a happy birthday to my Father, whom I have no problem with calling such.  Happy Birthday, Dad!  I love you.

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