When my wife and I decided to travel to Italy, I did not realize the extent to which we would encounter profound and deeply moving spiritual experiences. Certainly, much of my focus in planning the trip was on how to connect with the early Church, but what I didn’t realize was how much of an impact some of these places would have. The journey began well in advance of the trip, as I poured over several books and other sources, including soliciting recommendations of friends, to map out where I could find plausibly authentic* relics of saints, and visit sites significant to early Christian history. I am excited to share a series of posts on our Spiritual Experiences in Italy, beginning with this one about what for me may have been the most moving moment of the whole trip: seeing the incorrupt body of St. Marina the monk, an early Church saint who I grew up hearing about in the reading of the Synaxarion at Church, and who I have always greatly admired as an example for her resilience in humbly, and silently, accepting false accusations, pursuing Christ’s example as the innocent lamb silently led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). Continue reading →
Arguably the holiest week of the year, known simply as “Holy Week” or maybe more preferably “Pascha (aka Passover) Week” is upon us, with the Pascha Feast (the more traditional term rather than Easter) marking the end of the week, but a beginning for all of humanity. As I had written in my previous post about the History of the Great Fast, it is not enough for us to know about or simply participate in religious observances, but we must understand the “why” in order to make it all relevant to us today. Here is a summary of what I could surmise as being the current practice as well as history of the Holy Week, with a particular emphasis on the Coptic Church. (Further below you will also find a PowerPoint presentation that I used to teach about this subject that you may download and use as desired.)
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil … He … fasted forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:1). That is the story we commemorate in the Coptic Church this Sunday as part of the Great Fast readings—”Temptation Sunday.”
The existence of evil spirits—Satan and his fallen angels—is undoubtedly a basic tenant of Christian belief. We read about it in Scripture, and growing up as Orthodox Christians, we often hear of their interactions with humans in very real ways throughout history and until the present. But in the secular world we live in today, where the study of things you can measure and see prevails over faith and belief in the (usually) unseen, I found it refreshing, albeit a bit scary, to have read an article on CNN about a psychiatrist who is called upon by the Catholic Church to help them determine when a person is simply mentally ill or actually demon possessed: for the former he can offer medical assistance, for the latter only God can treat.
Reading the article further validates and substantiates what Christians have known all along; and it is those same evil spirits who will take us to Hades with them after death if we have not been saved by grace and lived a life of repentance.
We are about to embark on the Great Fast (a.k.a. Lent), but as with all worship and rites, it is preferable that we not only understand the what and how of our religion, but also understand why, in order to make it all relevant to us today. The fruit of my research on this topic was intriguing (e.g., there was no “Great Fast” for the first few hundred years), but also at one point I felt embarrassed as I learned the original reason behind what we now refer to as “Preparation Week.” Here is a summary of the current practice and history of the Great Fast, with a particular emphasis on the Coptic Church. Further below you will also find a PowerPoint presentation that I used to teach about this subject that you may download and use as desired.
The Coptic Church today celebrates what is often called “Jonah’s Feast,” after concluding a 3-day fast known as “Jonah’s” fast, which is an observance exclusive to the Oriental Orthodox. But I got to thinking: how did it originate and what is its purpose? I was surprised to learn a number of things I hadn’t really known before, and thought to share with you:
Many may have heard or read of the “laying on of hands,” but how many Christians understand its significance? St. Paul, in listing out what he called the “elementary principles of Christ,” mentions the “laying on of hands” as being as fundamental to Christianity as “repentance … faith … baptisms … resurrection of the dead, and … eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1-2).
Really? As fundamental as “faith” and belief in the “resurrection of the dead?” Yes. Yet, if you are reading this and consider yourself a Christian, do you understand what the laying on of hands is? And for those who recognize this as a familiar practice, I ask you this: is it being practiced by your church the way it was practiced by the apostles and their legitimate successors?
I have never been so excited to stand for 7 hours to praise God and honor His mother during the Coptic month of Kiahk (in our parish it is from 5pm until midnight)! And at our parish we are trying to return to the original method of praise, which gave the Kiahk Praises the alternative title “7 and 4” (you can read more about that here)—we may be the only or one of the quite few parishes in the entire Coptic Church doing this.
I’ve been spoiled here in the United States, where Christmas is a prevalent holiday. However, it is riddled with cultural traditions that are quite secular and have nothing to do with the reason for the season: Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, Light of Light, True God of True God, who existed before all ages, never created but is the Creator with the Father and the Holy Spirit, took flesh from a humble woman named Mary, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, so that the Divine became incarnate.
But I can’t imagine what it was like for the earlier Christians when Christianity was not a prevalent religion, or in places outside of the United States where other religions are the majority, or atheism is rampant. In such places the thoughts and words that come out of people’s mouths and linger in their minds is (and God forgive me for writing these words): “Jesus Christ is just a man, like other good men,” or “Mary did not give birth to God, just to a man that people made out to be God although he wasn’t,” or “There is no God; all of this Christmas stuff is nonsense.”
Is Heaven really that far away? For an Orthodox Christian it can feel so distant, leading us to a frequent sense of guilt and despair, never feeling we have done or can do “enough.”
In a sense Heaven is both far and near. On the one hand we are baptized and bear God inside us, becoming adopted heirs and children of God’s kingdom (Gal 3:26-29), being transformed into heavenly citizens (Phil 3:20) and are ambassadors of Heaven (2 Cor 5:20); also we walk into church and worship among the angels (Rev 7:11) and touch the body and the blood of Christ (John 6:32-70). But on the other hand we read ominous warnings throughout Scripture that tell us plainly of what awaits sinners (Gal 5:19-21); and on top of that, when we talk about people “who made it to heaven” in the Orthodox Church (“the cloud of witnesses“), we almost exclusively hear about only the loftiest of saints as being certain of their eternal place, and rarely hear about “regular people” in Heaven.
While the requirement to strive to enter Heaven and pursue holiness will never go away, from my surveying the afterlife experiences of “regular people,” and looking into Scripture and the Fathers, I think Heaven is a lot closer than we tend to think. Continue reading →
Eclipse-fever is sweeping across the United States as regions in 14 states will be able to experience a total solar eclipse. Some people are scoffing at all the excitement and anticipation, and others like myself are getting prepared for the big event. I bought certified sun-viewing binoculars, and certified paper glasses to make sure I safely view the eclipse.
Why am I so excited? Of course, as with most others, I’m looking forward to the immense beauty and remarkable occurrences that accompany an eclipse (for a few minutes during totality, the temperature drops around 15 degrees, darkness envelops you, stars are visible, and normally unseen outer edges of the Sun which dance around become apparent).
My wife and I had the blessing of visiting Paris as well as various parts of Egypt this year. It was our first visit to both places (I was born in Egypt but hadn’t returned since coming to the U.S. when I was about 4 years old; my wife, Egyptian as well, had never been to Egypt). I encountered a number of expected and also unexpected sights that had a notable impact on me from a religious perspective. Both Paris and Egypt have a lot to offer in that regard, and here are my top 15 experiences: