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?
Here is its history and significance:
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.
The other day in Sunday school, as I was discussing a phrase that the early Fathers often spoke—”There is no salvation outside the Church”—and also spoke about the need to strive for righteousness so we can be ready on judgment day, someone asked: “What is the role of the blood of Jesus in all of this?” “Where is grace?”
“It goes without saying,” I said, “that grace of Christ’s death and redeeming blood is the foundation of salvation.”
But they challenged that assumption and responded: “In the Orthodox Church, it is not spoken of enough.” Is that a fair statement, do you think?
As I was preparing this post, a friend of mine reached out to me because he was challenged with the same type of concern brought forward by some Orthodox Christians, that somehow the Orthodox Church is undermining grace when we emphasize the fact that “works” (being righteous) is necessary for salvation.
I think these questions and challenges often stem from the extent to which Evangelicals and other similar non-Orthodox Christian denominations emphasize “nothing but the blood of Jesus” (as the song goes) and “justification by faith in Christ” as being all that is needed to reach heaven, while excluding the need for the Church and righteousness, although Scriptures teach otherwise. And so, when we Orthodox are continually exposed to this message with such a singular focus on the issue of salvation, many are persuaded that maybe they are right: we are justified to enter heaven by faith in Christ, and that’s all we need.
Last week I had the blessing of speaking virtually to a wonderful group of Coptic youth in Pittsburgh. The servants there asked that I correlate the Afterlife and Christmas, which may seem like an unusual and difficult correlation to make, but in fact not only is there a direct connection between the two, Christmas is even more relevant now. A link to the video presentation / lecture I prepared is provided below. Continue reading
The other day Suzy and I had the opportunity to meet a lovely young lady who asked us: “What are the main differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy?” (paraphrase). Talk about a hefty undertaking!
“Where do I begin,” I thought out loud.
One of the biggest differences is that the Orthodox turn to a slew of Christian leaders over the past nearly 2,000 years to understand the faith, so there is a wealth of depth that has accumulated over time, that is unfortunately overlooked by many Christians today.
To show her what is lost by not having the benefit of thousands years of Christian teaching, I asked her a question that I’ve asked non-Orthodox Christians for years, and I have yet to ever receive the right answer. And when they realize what it is I’m asking, and the answer they are giving, their intrigue is always peaked as they realize something is missing regarding an integral aspect of their understanding of salvation.
Here’s the question:
“Where did good people in the Old Testament go after they died, before Christ’s manifestation in the flesh and the salvation He accomplished for us?”
People like: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Daniel, Solomon, Levi, Moses, Jonah? Adam? Eve? Where did they go when they died?
The answer I usually get:
15 years ago, before the afterlife became mainstream fanfare with books and movies about heaven and the like, my journey to understand what has been taught and experienced by Orthodox Christians for the last 2,000 years about life beyond was just beginning.
During my college years (as my friends can attest) I was living a very sinful life away from God. Think of the typical, worldly college experience: that was me. My eternal future didn’t matter because I was enjoying satisfying my present.
I cannot believe how applicable this second century bishop’s words are to the present time. I challenge all of you to read this and not be at the least intrigued, or like me, be extremely moved by what he has to say.
He teaches fundamental truths that we Orthodox have too often slowly forgotten or are willing to do away with for the sake of being more “accepting.” Acceptance of people does not also require accepting their errant teaching.
To make this Church Father’s writings more accessible, I’ve provided his words in the form of a Question and Answer conversation/interview. Continue reading
Last year I published this article in the Mighty Champions Magazine, a teen magazine produced by the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern U.S.A.. I’m a huge fan of all that superhero stuff (especially my comic I’ve been collecting since the beginning: Miles Morales Spider-man comics—I have every single comic since he came out).
A lot of times superheroes are given “Savior” story lines. That’s what they do. They are super and they are heroes because they do phenomenal things to save people and often the world or even the universe from destruction.
So here I wanted to compare the story of the famed Thor with the story of Christ: who is a cooler super hero? Continue reading