Thursday, August 27, 2015
Question: "Do the Orthodox believe in the Atonement?"
The concept of atonement is found throughout Scripture, and so of course we Orthodox do believe in it. There was in fact a feast in the Old Testament called " The Day of Atonement," which in Hebrew is called Yom Kippur. This was the only fast day specifically called for in the Law of Moses, and was "a most holy sabbath [Shabbat Shabbaton]" (Leviticus 16:31). This is the fast that was alluded to in Acts 27:9, which states that "sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past..."
The English word "atonement" was coined by William Tyndale, and means "to make one" or literally "at one-ment" (taking the two words "at" and "one" and adding the suffix "-ment." This well translated the meaning of the Hebrew word "Kippur," which means "reconciliation" -- specifically reconciling sinful men with a Holy God.
Another term which William Tyndale brought into English is "Mercy Seat". William Tyndale based his translation on Luther's translation into German: "Gnadenstuhl," which literally means the seat of grace or mercy. However, there is nothing in the Hebrew term, Kapporet, which suggests "mercy" or "seat." "Kapporet" is a form of the word "Kippur", and literally means "the place of reconciliation". This was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, and the Mercy Seat was the place upon which the blood of the sacrifice on the day of Atonement was sprinkled, and by which reconciliation between God and men was brought about. The Greek translation for Mercy Seat was "ἱλαστήριον, hilasterion." And we find this word used in Romans 3:24-25: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God." Interestingly we find in that text the word "redemption", which could be translated as "ransom", and the Hebrew word for "ransom" (Koper) is from the same root word as Kippur -- a word used in reference to the Old Testament sacrifices, and which clearly has the connotation of "payment."
Church Tradition directly connects the Cross wih the Ark of the Covenant, because the Ark and the Mercy Seat was the place of atonement, and the Ark is referred to as "the place where His feet have stood" (Psalm 131:7 lxx) and the Cross is the place were Christ's feet stood, when he made atonement for our sins (see Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 86).
There are many contemporary Orthodox writers who wish to deny or downplay a number of concepts that relate to our redemption. They will argue we don't believe Christ had to die in our place, or that His blood needed to be shed to pay the penalty for our sins. They will deny the legitimacy of legal terms, in favor of the idea that the Church is a spiritual hospital. The problem is not that the Church is not a spiritual hospital, but rather that in emphasizing one set of images used to explain our salvation, they deny a whole set of equally valid images that are clearly Biblical. It is true that in the west there was an over emphasis on legal imagery, but the solution to such an imbalance is not a new imbalance in the opposite direction. We can and should speak of sin as an illness, but when we die, we do not go before the final medical exam -- we face the final judgment, which is a legal image if ever there was one. And so we can also speak of sin as a transgression of the Law of God, and of our need to be justified by God, even as we speak of sin in terms of an illness that we need to be healed of.
We reject the idea that Christ's death was a ransom paid to the devil, but that it was a ransom in some sense is confirmed by the Lord Himself, and elsewhere in Scripture (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6). So we simply have to understand that verbal images point to a reality, but are not the reality itself, and we get a better idea of that reality by considering all the Biblical images that point to it -- not by focusing on one or two to the exclusion of the rest, and certainly not by pressing those images beyond the point that they are intended to make.
St. Gregory Palamas, in his Sixteenth Homily (delivered on Holy Saturday: "About the Dispensation According to the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Gifts of Grace Granted to Those Who Truly Believe in Him"), speaks quite a bit about the need for Christ to die in our place. The entire homily is well worth reading, but here are some excerpts:
"Man was led into his captivity when he experienced God's wrath, this wrath being the good God's just abandonment of man. God had to be reconciled with the human race, for otherwise mankind could not be set free from the servitude. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified and sinless priest" (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 124).
"Christ overturned the devil through suffering and His flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim -- how great is His gift! -- and reconciled God to our human race" (p.125).
"For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil's tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)"( p. 128f)."
As is often the case, the proper Orthodox perspective on this question is one of balance. We should proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and not just the parts that we find most appealing. Nor should we overreact to the imbalances of heterodox theologians, and thus fall into a new error, by rejecting important aspects of our Tradition.
Worship at the Footstool of His Feet (Homily on Psalm 98)
Stump the Priest: The Veneration of the Cross
Friday, August 21, 2015
Question: "I was wondering about the Sign of the Cross. What is its significance? Why is it performed when it is? When is it preformed besides after a prayer?"
Making the Sign of the Cross is perhaps the most common act of piety Christians engage in throughout the day, and this is a practice of Apostolic origin. We do it to remind ourselves of the Cross that was the means of our salvation, and the Savior who was crucified upon it. It is the first thing we do at the beginning of the day, and the last thing we do when we lay down to sleep. we do it before we begin any task, and when we conclude it. We make the Sign of the Cross when we are in danger or tempted, and in thanksgiving. By making the Sign of the Cross with reverence, we are strengthen by the power of the Cross, and we confess our Faith in Christ to the world.
On the feasts of the Cross we sing the hymn "The Cross is the guardian of the whole world! The Cross is the beauty of the Church! The Cross is the strength of kings! The Cross is the support of the faithful! The Cross is the glory of the angels and the wounder of the demons!"
St. Cyril of Jerusalem said: "Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils: for He triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the gift; but for this the rather honour thy Benefactor (Catechetical Lecture 13:36).
Much more could be said, but others have already covered very well.
To begin with, I would recommend you read what Fr. David F. Abramtsov wrote on this subject in his classic catechetical book "The Orthodox Companion," which is available here:
For more details on when the Sign of the Cross is made, this is covered extensively in the Jordanville Prayer Book, in an appendix entitled "How One Should Pray in Church." You can purchase a copy by clicking here (and it is an excellent prayer book to have anyway). But a good way to learn when to make the sign of the Cross during the services is to pay attention to what everyone else is doing during the services, and emulate what you see, especially with regard to those who you know are regular and pious members.
You can also read some more quotes of the Saints and Fathers of the Church here:
Stump the Priest: Wearing a Cross
Stump the Priest: Making the Sign of the Cross
Stump the Priest: The Veneration of the Cross
Articles on the Cross posted at Mystagogy
Friday, August 14, 2015
Question: "Is it proper for a parish to have altar girls?"
This is clearly contrary to the Tradition of the Church, and is an unfortunate example of creeping modernism that it is tolerated in parishes anywhere -- but thankfully it is still fairly rare.
It is certainly true that there is not an absolute prohibition against women entering the altar when there is a need for it, and in convents, it is common to have nuns serve in the altar, because obviously in a convent there are not a lot of males available for serving in the altar. However, this is done because it is necessary, not because it is "fair" or to give the nuns "something to do" during the services.
See: The Churching of Boys vs. the Churching of Girls for more on that subject.
Why is this the Tradition? We are not always given a list of justifications along with the Traditions that the Church has handed down to us, and so in this case, one cannot point to the official reasons for it, so far as I am aware. However, where the Tradition is clear, we should simply follow it out of obedience. As St. John Chrysostom put it: "Is it Tradition? Seek no further" [Homilies on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians 4:2].
However, here is what I think explains this Tradition:
Traditionally, clergy are generally drawn from those who first served as altar servers. Altar servers were once classified as minor clergy, and it is still the case that before one is tonsured a reader (which is called "the first degree in the Priesthood" in that service), the individual being tonsured is first made a "taper-bearer" (or "candle-bearer," i.e. an acolyte). Readers, subdeacons, deacons, priests, and bishops have always been men, and so it makes no sense to have "altar girls" entering into a path that they could not follow.
Of course those who oppose this Tradition would at this point ask, "What about deaconesses?" The office of deaconess was never a female equivalent of deacon. It was a ministry that existed for women, and the primary liturgical function they had was to perform the baptisms of adult women at a time when adults of both sexes were baptized naked. Because adults were baptized naked, women and men were not baptized together, and when women were baptized, the deaconesses performed all the functions a priest would otherwise perform, and a priest would say the prayers behind a screen. When Christianity succeeded in gaining at least nominal adherence from most of the people in the countries in which it existed, adult baptism became rare, because most people were baptized as infants, and so the office of the deaconess ceased to have a need to fulfill, and gradually disappeared. Though in our time, adult baptisms are very common, the practice is no longer to baptize adults naked.
See: Voices from St. Vladimir: Deaconesses, which is a conversation between Fr. Chad Hatfield and Fr. Lawrence Farley on this subject. You may also want to read Fr. Lawrence Farley's book on the subject: Feminism and Tradition: Quiet Reflections on Ordination and Communion.
The next question that one may ask is why only men can be ordained as clergy. Again, we first must simply say that this is the Tradition of the Church. Furthermore, the notion that this is based on cultural prejudices of the time of the Apostles, and that perhaps it never occurred to Christ or the Apostles that women might be ordained is belied by the fact that pagan priestesses existed not only during the time of the Apostles, but also throughout the history of Israel. So clearly Christ and the Apostles made a conscious decision that clergy would be males only. This is not because women are not smart, or capable -- because obviously they are -- but because they have other roles to fill.
Being a priest is a fatherly role... which is why priests are called "Father". There are also motherly roles in the Church, and women fulfill them. Then there are roles that are open to "whosoever will," and women fulfill those roles too. And we as families and as a Church need to encourage men to fulfill those roles which are in fact fatherly. Women tend to be more pious than men, speaking generally. Often at lesser attended weekday services, I am reminded of the women at the Cross of Christ, because when I look out at the congregation, I might see the occasional "John", but the women almost always outnumber the men by rather large margins. Men need to be encouraged, especially by women, to take up their responsibilities as spiritual leaders in the home and in the parish. Of course many in our politically correct culture will immediately react to any suggestion that there is a need for male spiritual leadership, but there is empirical data that demonstrates that this is simply a fact of human nature, as God created it.
There was a Swiss study that showed that if both the father and mother attend Church regularly, 33 percent of their children will be regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will attend irregularly, and 25 percent of their children will cease practicing their faith altogether. If the father attends Church irregularly but the mother is regular, only 3 percent of the children will attend Church regularly, 59 percent will attend irregularly, and 38 percent will cease practicing their faith. If the father is non-practicing and mother attends Church regularly, only 2 percent of children will attend Church regularly, 37 percent will attend irregularly, and over 60 percent of will cease practicing their faith. However, if the father attend Church regularly but the mother attends irregularly or is non-practicing, the percentage of children who grow up to be attend Church regularly goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother, and to 44 percent with the non-practicing mother. Clearly this shows that the spiritual leadership of the father, or the lack thereof, plays a crucial role... and that is just the way it is, whether one likes it or not (See: Touchstone Magazine: The Truth About Men & Church, by Robbie Low, you can also listen to a sermon on this topic: Christian Leadership in the Home).
Male participation in the Orthodox Church is generally better than most, but we need to work harder to encourage men to step up to the plate and take on their responsibilities as pious laymen, husbands, and fathers (See: Why Orthodox Men Love: Many men may not love church, but Orthodox men do, by Khouriah Frederica Matthews-Green).
What then should girls and women do during the services? The same thing that men who are not serving in the altar or singing in the choir should be doing -- praying, and worshiping God. That is the first and most important task that we come to Church to perform. And it is not such a small task that one should need something else to do. But some parishes do have some roles they assign to young girls, such as tending the candle stands, or serving the zapivka after the faithful receive Holy Communion. They can also sing in the choir -- and in fact the choir serves a more crucial role than the altar servers, because while a priest can serve without an altar server, if he must, he cannot serve without at least one chanter.
If ever there was a human being (aside from Christ Himself) that was more worthy of any honor the Church could bestow, it would be the Virgin Mary, and yet she was never ordained to serve a priestly role in the services of the Church. However, while she did not preside over the celebration of the Mystery of the Eucharist -- she played a rather crucial part in the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, which made the Eucharist possible. Motherhood (both natural and spiritual) is a great honor and a thing of incredible power, beauty, and worth. Fatherhood (both natural and spiritual) is not a better thing, it is simply different. As most of us have noticed, men and women are different, and our roles are different, but they are complementary. Neither is possible without the other, and both depend on the strength and support of the other. And so we should not allow ourselves to be talked into blurring the lines between the two by a culture that is on a self destructive trajectory, and which has only managed to rob both men and women of the virtues of their sexes.
See also: Stump the Priest: The Priesthood.
Update: On Facebook I was asked why a women cannot fulfill a clerical role?
"When there are no men who know how to read the Epistle at a service it often happens that a women does read it. I would imagine in a convent, if a bishop came to serve, you might also have some of the nuns doing some of the functions of a subdeacon. It is certainly not that women could not perform the tasks in any in terms of their ability. But if you have a normal size parish, the percentage of people serving in the altar are a small fraction of the total. I think these functions are reserved for males, because men need to be encourage to step up to the plate of spiritual leadership, as I mentioned in the article. I have seen Protestant Churches were there are almost no men that attend. It is only women and children, and the Pastor... and in some cases the Pastor is a woman too. Men need women to encourage them to fulfill active, and positive roles, or else men will shirk responsibility and engage in only negative and destructive behavior."
The person commented that it was sad to see such negative expectations of men expressed, and so I responded:
"In my secular job, I am a Child Support Officer, and so I see this phenomenon on display on a much wider scale than in the context of the Church. I have also seen comments from the fathers that confirm the generalization that women tend to be more pious than men. That does not mean that men cannot be pious or that women always are. But if you take a look at the article I linked to on the Swiss study, it is just a fact that male spiritual leadership is needed. Women often fill the role of spiritual leader in a family because the father is not there, but they also do so in many cases because the father will not step up the plate. They need to expect men to fulfill that role, and encourage them to do it. This should begin with their mothers, and should continue with their wives."
In response to this, Rhonda Dodson told a telling story:
"I am so glad to hear a man say that, Fr. John! I've said that myself & received considerable flack.
I was once in a parish where a few women did everything except serve in the altar. I once saw the priest ask 3 men to help him serve in different aspects...just small & short tasks one of which was to hold the communion cloth. All 3 refused stating that we women could do it. One commented that women should be allowed to serve in the altar if the men did not want to & since the priest was not willing to allow us to do that, then the priest obviously did not really need the help. Another even stated that as far as he was concerned, his "duty" to the Church was done when he dropped his check into the offering box. The third stated that he came to Church to relax, not to "work".
Ironically, a 7-yr old boy who had never served volunteered immediately showing himself to be the real man of the group. Overall, the whole day was extremely sad."
Thursday, August 06, 2015
Question: "Does the Orthodox Church teach that the Septuagint is more reliable than the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. If so, why is that?"
In the "Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs" of 1848, which was a reply to the epistle of Pope Pius IX, "To the Easterns," the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, along with the other assembled bishops stated: "Our Church holds the infallible and genuine deposit of the Holy Scriptures: of the Old Testament a true and perfect version, of the New the divine original itself." And so we have always held that the Septuagint is the authoritative version of the Old Testament.
Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) notes:
"...the basis of the Old Testament text in the Orthodox tradition is the Septuagint, a Greek translation by the "seventy interpreters" made in the third to second centuries BCE for the Alexandrian Hebrews and the Jewish diaspora. The authority of the Septuagint is based on three factors. First of all, though the Greek text is not the original language of the Old Testament books, the Septuagint does reflect the state of the original text as it would have been found in the third to second centuries BCE, while the current Hebrew text of the Bible, which is called the "Masoretic," was edited up until the eighth century CE. Second, some of the citations taken from the Old Testament and found in the New mainly use the Septuagint text. Third, the Septuagint was used by both the Greek Fathers of the Church, and Orthodox liturgical services (in other words, this text became part of the Orthodox church Tradition). Taking into account the three factors enumerated above, St. Philaret of Moscow considers it possible to maintain that "in the Orthodox teaching of Holy Scripture it is necessary to attribute a dogmatic merit to the Translation of the Seventy, in some cases placing it on equal level with the original and even elevating it above the Hebrew text, as is generally accepted in the most recent editions" (Orthodox Christianity, Volume II: Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, (New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2012) p. 34).
And in the above quote, I think there may be a translation problem, though I don't have the Russian text, and my Russian would probably be too limited to tell for sure by myself -- but when it says "some of the citations taken from the Old Testament and found in the New mainly use the Septuagint text," it is awkwardly worded enough for me to guess that Metropolitan Hilarion meant to say that most (not just "some") of the quotes of the Old Testament in the New Testament are based on the Septuagint... because as a matter of fact, that is true.
Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy, in his classic catechetical text, wrote:
"...it is clear why the Church prefers the Septuagint and Peshitta translations for the authoritative text of the Old Testament, and principally the first, for the Septuagint text was produced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the concerted effort of the Old Testament Church" (The Law of God: For Study at Home and School (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994) p. 440).
There was a time when many Protestant scholars assumed that the Septuagint was an often loose translation of the Hebrew text, and that when it differed from the Masoretic text, it was due to changes made by the translators. However, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now know that the Septuagint is based on a different, and older Hebrew text than the Masoretic text.
The Hebrew Text that has served as the basis for most translations of the Old Testament into English is based almost entirely on the Leningrad Codex, which dates from 1008 A.D. In comparison to the textual evidence that we have for the New Testament Greek text, this is a very late manuscript. It is an example of the Masoretic recension, which is usually dated to have been shaped between the 6th and 10th centuries A.D. This is well after the Septuagint was translated (3rd century before Christ), the Peshitta (1st and 2nd Centuries A.D.), or the Latin Vulgate (4th Century A.D.). According to Christian tradition, the non-Christian Jews began making changes in the Old Testament text to undercut the Christian use of Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of Christ. In any case, the Hebrew Text that we now have was preserved outside the Church. The Septuagint and Peshitta texts were preserved within the Church, and so the Church believes that the text of the Old Testament was been authoritatively preserved in these textual traditions.
Furthermore, it is clear that the text that Christ and the Apostles used most closely matches the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic text. For example, in Acts 7:43, the Protomartyr Stephen quotes from the book of Amos as follows:
“Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them” (Acts 7:43, KJV).
But when you look this quote up in Amos 5:26 in most translations, you will find that the quotation doesn’t match:
"You also carried Sikkuth your king and Chiun, your idols, the star of your gods, which you made for yourselves.” (NKJV).
Compare the above with the Latin Vulgate:
"But you carried a tabernacle for your Moloch, and the image of your idols, the star of your god, which you made to yourselves” (Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate).
And then with the Septuagint:
“Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Raephan, the images of them which ye made for yourselves” (Sir Lancelot Brenton translation of the Septuagint).
Also, there are several sections of the Hebrew text that are simply unreadable without keeping one eye on the Hebrew text and one eye on the Septuagint. For example, if you look at the footnotes for the book of Habakkuk in the NRSV there are 5 places in which it states that the Hebrew text is uncertain, and 3 times in which they state that they are simply translating from the Septuagint, Peshitta, and/or the Vulgate, because the Hebrew text is so unclear.
Another example of a clearly corrupt reading in the Masoretic text is 1st Samuel 14:41, which reads as follows:
"Therefore Saul said unto the LORD God of Israel, "Give Thummim". And Saul and Jonathan were taken: but the people escaped.”
Several modern translations correct this clearly erroneous text based on the Septuagint and Vulgate to read:
“Therefore Saul said, "O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim." And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.”
The Masoretic text simply makes no sense, and obviously at some point a scribe skipped an entire line or two of the text. This is obvious because of the reference to the Urim and Thummim, which were two objects used by the priest of the Old Testament for discerning the will of God on matters such as that described in 1st Samuel 14.
Another example is the text quoted in Hebrews 1:6 (“And let all the angels of God worship him”) which is nowhere to be found in the Masoretic text, but is found in both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew text in Deuteronomy 32:43.
It should be pointed out that the Hebrew text should not be ignored entirely. Particularly when the Septuagint and the Hebrew text are in agreement, we will better understand the Septuagint as a translation if we compare it with the Hebrew text that it is clearly a translation of. It is extremely helpful to understand the range of meaning of the original Hebrew text (when we clearly have it). For example, it is helpful to know that Hebrew does not have a past or future tense, but only a perfect and imperfect tense… and so just because an English translation is clearly in either the past, present, or future tense, it does not necessarily mean that this is what is implied by the Hebrew original. One often encounters the use of the “prophetic perfect”, where a prophecy of something that has not yet come to pass is in the perfect tense, and so is often translated with the English past tense, e.g. “…with His stripes, we were healed” (Isaiah 53:5), when from the perspective of the prophet, he was speaking of something in the future.
For more information, see:
"Is the Septuagint a Divinely Inspired Translation?" by Gabe Martini
"Masoretic Text vs. Original Hebrew," by Fr. Joseph Gleason
"The Septuagint," by Fr. Andrew Phillips
Friday, July 31, 2015
Question: "What is the Orthodox Church's view of cremation?"
The Orthodox Church does not approve of cremation, because it is a desecration of the body, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. It is also rooted in a pagan worldview which does not see the body an integral part of the human person, and which rejects the Christian belief in the goodness of creation and the resurrection of the body. It is only in very recent times that cremation has re-emerged in what were once Christian cultures. Before Rome and other pagan cultures converted to Christianity, cremation was commonly practiced. The revival of cremation is a sign of the re-paganization of these cultures.
Unfortunately, many Protestants have come to accept cremation in recent years. This is due to their rejection of Church Tradition, which is unambiguous on this issue, and also due generally to their view of salvation, which often sees the bodily resurrection as sort of an after-thought or an anticlimax. Often at Protestant funerals, you will hear people say that the deceased is not in the coffin but with Christ, for example. However, if a person dies in Christ, their souls will be with Christ, but until the general resurrection, their body remains a part of them that will one day be reunited with their souls (though their body will be transformed) -- and as such, the soul apart from the body is not the whole person (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Our faith in the general resurrection is directly linked with the Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) -- it is the Resurrection of Christ that makes our resurrection possible. Just as Christ was buried and then arose again in a glorified body, so too are we to be buried -- not cremated -- but rather, planted in the ground like a seed. As St. Paul says: "But someone will say, "How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?" Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.... So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-45).
This, of course, does not mean that God cannot raise the dead if the body is cremated. In fact, everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected, regardless of the treatment their body received after death -- some raised to life, and some raised to the second death (Revelation 20). However, the willful destruction of the body is a desecration of the human body, a denial of the goodness and importance of the body, and ultimately a denial of our Faith.
It is for this reason that the Church does not allow a Church funeral to be performed for those who are cremated, unless it is clear that this was against the wishes of the deceased. This often happens when an Orthodox Christian has non-Orthodox relatives, and fails to plan their funeral arrangements or to make their wishes known. But some Orthodox Christians decide to be cremated out of ignorance of the Church's teaching, or in willful disregard for those teachings.
It should also be noted that our practice of venerating the relics of saints is antithetical to cremation. If cremation were generally practiced by Christians, we would have no bodily relics.
Probably the biggest reason in our times that people opt for cremation is that the cost of a proper burial has steadily risen, and most people do not plan their own funerals. And so when they die, their family is left with the choice of coming up with between an average of $7,000 to $10,000 dollars for a funeral with a burial, or the much lower costs of a cremation (between $1,500 to $4,000 dollars, depending on how elaborate the funeral is, and whether the ashes are interred or not). But planning ahead greatly eases the burden on your family, and ensure that you will be given a proper Orthodox funeral and burial. There are also ways to economize on the costs of a burial (see: "A Guide to an Orthodox Funeral," by Fr. Alexander (Reichert), as well as the book "A Christian Ending" as well as the Podcast by Deacon Mark Barna). And for those who have been active Orthodox Christians, if there is a need for others outside of the immediate family to help cover the costs, a way to meet the need will generally be found.
Cremation, by Protopresbyter George Grabbe
Decree of the Synod of Bishops of The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia: "On the Question of Incineration of Bodies of the Departed In Crematoria" (August 20/September 2, 1932).
"Burial or Burning," by Protopresbyter George D. Metallinos
"Cremation: Earth Thou Art and Unto Earth Shalt Thou Return," by Fr. Victor Potapov
"Pastoral Guidelines: Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life," by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas
Update: Someone asked about how the above would relate to the question of organ donations, and so here is the pertinent section from The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, § XII. Problems of bioethics:
"XII. 7. The modern transplantology (the theory and practice of the transplantation of organs and tissues) makes it possible to give effective aid to many patients who were earlier doomed to death or severe disability. At the same time, the development of this sphere of medicine, increasing the need for necessary organs, generates certain ethical problems and can present a threat to society. Thus, the unscrupulous propaganda of donoring and the commercialisation of transplanting create prerequisites for trade in parts of the human body, thus threatening the life and health of people. The Church believes that human organs cannot be viewed as objects of purchase and sale. The transplantation of organs from a living donor can be based only on the voluntary self-sacrifice for the sake of another’s life. In this case, the consent to explantation (removal of an organ) becomes a manifestation of love and compassion. However, a potential donor should be fully informed about possible consequences of the explantation of his organ for his health. The explantation that presents an immediate threat to the life of a donor is morally inadmissible. The most common of all is the practice of taking organs from people who have just died. In these cases, any uncertainty as to the moment of death should be excluded. It is unacceptable to shorten the life of one, also by refusing him the life-supporting treatment, in order to prolong the life of another.
The Church confesses, on the basis of Divine Revelation, the faith in the bodily resurrection of the dead (Is. 26:19; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:42-44, 52-54; Phil. 3:21). In the Christian burial, the Church expressed the reverence that befits the body of a dead. However, the posthumous giving of organs and tissues can be a manifestation of love spreading also to the other side of death. Such donation or will cannot be considered a duty. Therefore, the voluntary consent of a donor in his lifetime is the condition on which explantation can be legitimate and ethically acceptable. If doctors do not know the will of a potential donor, they should, if necessary, find it out the will of a dying or dead person from his relatives. The so-called presumptive consent of a potential donor to the removal of his organs and tissues, sealed in the legislation of some countries, is considered by the Church to be an inadmissible violation of human freedom.
A recipient assimilates donor organs and tissues entering his personal spiritual and physical integrity. Therefore, in no circumstances moral justification can be given to the transplantation that threatens the identity of a recipient, affecting his uniqueness as personality and representative of a species. It is especially important to remember this condition in solving problems involved in the transplantation of animal organs and tissues.
The Church believes it to be definitely inadmissible to use the methods of so-called foetal therapy, in which the human foetus on various stages of its development is aborted and used in attempts to treat various diseases and to «rejuvenate» an organism. Denouncing abortion as a cardinal sin, the Church cannot find any justification for it either even if someone may possibly benefit from the destruction of a conceived human life. Contributing inevitably to ever wider spread and commercialisation of abortion, this practice (even if its still hypothetical effectiveness could be proved scientifically) presents an example of glaring immorality and is criminal."
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Question: "Is monarchy the only form of government man can institute that represents both the fullness of the Orthodox faith and the Incarnational reality of Christ?"
If we go back to the Old Testament, there was a time when God ruled the people of Israel through prophets and judges, such as Moses and Samuel, who were specially called by Him. Toward the end of the life of the Prophet Samuel, the people of Israel asked him to anoint a king for them, so that they could be like all the other nations, and no longer dependent on God raising up a judge to lead them, and we are told:
"But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord. And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them" (1 Samuel 8:6-7).
So one could argue that the most ideal form of government is a theocracy, but as the history of Israel up to this point demonstrated, such a theocracy only worked out well for the people when they were zealous to obey God, which very often was not the case. So monarchy is perhaps the second best system of government, but not one without problems... because for monarchy to work out well, you need a king that is pious. God warned Samuel, and through Samuel, the people, of the downside of having a king:
"And [Samuel] said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day. Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles" (1 Samuel 8:11-20).
The subsequent history of Israel, and then the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah show that some kings lived up to the ideal of faithfulness to God, and functioned as icons of Christ, but more often then not, they fell short of this -- and sometimes they were more like foreshadowings of the antichrist. King David was the best example of a righteous King -- and he not only served as an image of the future Messiah, but it was from his line that the Messiah would actually come.
With the coming of Christ and the spread of the Christian Faith, there were kingdoms that became Christian, and so looking to the example of King David, the Church anointed them to rule as Christian monarchs. We have many examples of such kings that are now reckoned as saints of the Church, and when you had a pious king who was also a capable ruler, you had the best examples of Christian government we have ever seen. Unfortunately, the combination of piety and competence is something that was not invariably found in such monarchs.
So is monarchy superior to democracy? St. John of Kronstadt once observed "Hell is a democracy but heaven is a kingdom." However, we live in a representative democracy that has afforded us freedom of religion -- and we are grateful for that. But on the other hand, we have also begun to see in recent years that the problem with democracy is that it only works well for a moral people, and given fallen human nature, it can facilitate a rapid decline in morality. The 20th century, especially in the wake of the two world wars, saw the rise of democracy around the world and the rapid decline in monarchy, and in the course of just under a hundred years we have essentially seen the end of Christendom as a result.
In 2 Thessalonians, St. Paul spoke about the great falling away and the coming of the antichrist:
"Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way" (2 Thessalonians 2:3-7).
So what is the restraining force that holds back the mystery of lawlessness, but will be taken away? St. John Chrysostom and other fathers say that this was the Roman Empire (see Homily 4 on 2 Thessalonians). Now many, especially Protestants, might be inclined to dismiss this interpretation, but consider the words of the noted Protestant New Testament scholar and theologian George Eldon Ladd:
"The traditional view has been that the restraining principle is the Roman empire and the restrainer the Emperor. This view, or a modification of it, fits best into the Pauline theology. In Romans 13:4, Paul affirms that the ruling authority (even though it be pagan Rome is "God's servant for your good"" (A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 560).
The Roman Empire is usually said by westerners to have ended in 476. The East Roman empire continued on until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. However, the Russian Empire, which continued both the religious and political tradition of Christian Rome, continued until 1917, and so it may be that this marks the beginning of the removal of this restraining force. It certainly marked the beginning of both rapid moral decline as well as a time of martyrdom which has surpassed the worst persecutions of the early Church in intensity. Of course, we cannot say for sure that the end has come until we see Christ return.
But while democracy may not be an ideal form of Christian government, since we have the right to vote, we should exercise what influence for good we can and assert our rights as citizens, as St. Paul, who was a Roman citizen, often did.
See also: The Mystery Of The Anointed Sovereigns Tsar Nicholas II & Tsarina Alexandra of Russia
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
You can read his original article here: Orthodox Fundamentalism
You can read my response here: Response to "Orthodox Fundamentalists" by George Demacopoulos
Kevin Allen invited us to talk about this subject on Ancient Faith Today, and you can listen to it here: Orthodox Fundamentalism: what is it and does it exist?
Someone posted a quote that I think well sums up the problem with Dr. Demacopoulos' use of the term "fundamentalist":
"We must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’." -Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: 2000), pg. 245.
One additional point that I would make is with regard to Dr. Demacopoulos' assertion that anyone who uses the phrase "The Fathers say..." has never read the Fathers: Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) is a highly regarded contemporary Orthodox Theologian, and you often find him using the phrase "The Fathers say..." Just googling the phrase, I found it used by St. Dorotheos of Gaza, the Elder Cleopa of Romania, and Fr. John Romanides... and I suspect many more examples could be found. Also, at one point in the discussion Fr. Demacopoulos made the statement: "the fathers believed in the birth death and resurrection of Jesus..." So apparently we can make general statements about what the Fathers believed, and so saying that they as a group would say something is not substantively different.
Also, Dr. George quoted Paul Tillich as saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty. It is true that we do not say that we believe something that we know empirically. A better way to look at this came from a sermon from a protestant minister who spoke about a husband and a wife sitting on a porch watching their children playing. He said that the wife knows that her husband is the father of those children. The husband believes he is the father of those children. Of course the husband's belief is only as good as his wife is trustworthy, but we believe that the Church is absolutely trustworthy... but while we can be certain to a high degree, we will only have complete empirical verification of that when we see Christ face to face.
Friday, July 10, 2015
The Philippian Jailer, before the Apostles Paul and Silas
Question: "What is needed to attain salvation? Verses such as Matthew 7:21-23 concern me greatly, and to help me along the Path, and to put my mind at ease, it would be wonderful to have a concise teaching on the subject that I could study and teach to others."
In Acts 16:25-34, we have the story of the Philippian Jailer. After the Apostles Paul and Silas, who had been imprisoned and prayed all night, there was an earthquake, the doors of the jail were opened, and their chains were loosed. The Jailer, thinking that the prisoners had escaped, and knowing that he would be put to death if that were found to be the case, drew his own sword, and was about to kill himself, when St. Paul called out to him: "Do thyself no harm: for we are all here." Then we are told that "he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." So belief was the beginning, but it did not end there, because we are then told that the Apostles "spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes [the Apostles had been beaten, before being jailed]; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway." So he believed, and was baptized. At the beginning of Christ's preaching, immediately after He was baptized by St. John the Baptist, we are told "Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:14-15). And so while repentance is not explicitly mentioned in the case of the Philippian Jailer, it is certainly implied as well.
However, we cannot simply say that there is a three step process to salvation (repent, believe, be baptized). In the case of the thief on the Cross, he repented and believed, but was not baptized, and yet was most certainly saved. But the Church would also never say simply repent, believe, and be baptized, and that is all that we need to do. For one thing, true faith... works (Galatians 5:6; James 2:22-24). This is not to say that we earn our salvation, but working out our salvation does not end with baptism, that is merely the beginning. As St. Paul said, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). So we never come to a point at which we can say we are done, and can coast along from here on.
But this also does not mean that we have to be in terror that God may send us to hell because He catches us failing to perfectly meet His standards of holiness. This means we should not take our salvation lightly or for granted, but if we live a life of repentance, and are sincerely seeking to please God, we should believe that He will give us the grace and mercy to finish the race of salvation. God desires that all be saved, He is not looking for reasons to send us to hell, but rather is looking for reasons to not send us to hell.
The entire Gospel is summed up in the Jesus Prayer: "O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." If we keep this on our lips, and constantly repent, we know that God will forgive us our sins, and so in this prayer we find great hope and consolation.
Stump the Priest: Imputed Righteousness
Friday, July 03, 2015
Question: "Why does the Orthodox Church not have a Bishop of Rome?"
There is no official answer to this question that I am aware of, but I think there are two reasons for this. Up until relatively recently, any Orthodox bishop who claimed that title would probably have ended in prison at the hands of the civil authorities in Italy, because they did not have anything like a first amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion. The other reasons is that if any local Church established a diocese in Rome, the canons say that this bishop would be the first in the diptychs, and this would quickly become a very divisive issue in the Church. So if there was to ever be a bishop of Rome in the Orthodox Church, I think there would first have to be pan-Orthodox agreement to establish such a see, and an agreement on how that would be understood in terms of the canons.
Thursday, July 02, 2015
One of the best books you can read on the subject of Homosexuality from a Christian perspective is "The Bible and Homosexual Practice," by Dr. Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I found the following videos which provide some of the highlights of that book in lecture format.
The Old Testament
Genesis 1 & 2:
David & Jonathan:
The New Testament
The Witness of Jesus:
The Witness of Paul:
Hermeneutical Relevance of the Bible
Sunday, June 28, 2015
This decision was hardly a shocker, in the sense that the smart money was always on it coming out this way, given that we have 4 liberal justices that never deviate from their agenda, and Anthony Kennedy has come down on the side of homosexual activism every time he has had a chance to. But now the question is where do we go from here? Politically, there are several ways that we can continue the fight, but the bigger issue for us as Orthodox Christians is how do we respond in terms of how we as Christians will deal with this new challenge individually, as families, and as a Church.
Here are some things that I think we will all need to do if we want to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church:
1. Educate yourself on the issue and be prepared to speak up on it:
You will be increasingly challenged on this, and though the polls show a majority of Americans now support gay marriage, a large percentage of those people are simply shifting with the perceived winds of the culture, fanned by the media. That means those people might be persuaded, if they actually heard the case against gay marriage made. Unfortunately, too many Christians have been afraid to make that case, for fear of being labelled a "hater." Christ never promised us that being a Christian would be popular, in fact, he promised quite the opposite... so you need to get over the fear of what unbelievers think, and stand for Christ, regardless of the consequences.
One of the best ways to educate yourself on this would be to read "The Bible and Homosexual Practice," by Dr. Robert Gagnon. Which is a book praised by two of the most highly respected Protestant Biblical Scholars of the last 50 years (Bruce Metzger and Brevard Childs).
You can get a taste of what he has to say here:
The Family Research Council has a Sunday Bulletin insert with useful information here:
They also offer an informative document that provides useful material for sermons on the subject here: http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF15F80.pdf
There are also a number of articles and videos linked here:
There is a very informative video put out by the Roman Catholic media outlet Church Militant:
We also need to be welcoming to those who struggle with homosexuality, but who wish to repent. Homosexuality is not an unpardonable sin. Our issue is with those who say homosexual sex is not sinful, not with homosexuals who recognize that this is sinful, and are seeking the grace and forgiveness of Christ.
2. You need to understand the times we are living in:
Anyone above the age of 30 has to be amazed at the rapidity with which the gay agenda has been advanced, and with the speed that transgender activism has become the new cause of the left. The Left's goal is the destruction of conservative Christianity, in any form. If you don't believe that, you need to read the recent article on the Huffington Post: "Does Legal Gay Marriage Doom Evangelical Christianity?" by Clay Farris Naff, which states towards the end:
"More than two-thirds of young Americans already accept gay marriage. As it proliferates, more will. To come out as anti-gay is already seriously not cool. Increasingly, in high schools and colleges, to be anti-gay will be like coming out as a Klansman."
Given the success rate of the left in advancing the gay agenda up until now, it would be foolish to say "That will never happen." If things continue on their present course, and if Christians continue to cower when challenged on this issue, you can bet your last money that this is exactly what will happen. Of course Klansmen still have the right to exist in the United States, but there are few jobs that they would not be fired from were they known to be such. That is the "tolerance" that they have in mind for us.
And not only will this decision lead to the end of Christian adoption agencies that refuse to allow homosexuals to adopt children, the day may well come in the not too distant future where Christians who do not toe the line on this issue will not be allowed to adopt children, and may even run the risk of having their own children removed from their homes, because leaving a child in such a "hateful environment" is deemed child abuse.
3. You need to seriously consider your options, if things continue on their present course;
There is a Chinese proverb that says "A wise rabbit has three holes." You need to start preparing your second and third hole.
Your job may be in jeopardy, and so you may need to consider what you will do if you lose it. For example, in states that already have had gay marriage, children are being taught that homosexuality is normal. If you are a school teacher, what will you do if it comes to that in your school?
If your children are in the public schools, you need to start thinking about home schooling or private Christian schools.
You also need to let your elected representatives know that they need to deal with this issue, and this needs to be more than a one time phone call or e-mail.
Democracy Is Dying; Persecution Is Coming, by Rod Dreher
Canada legalized gay marriage ten years ago -- Here's what to expect next, America
Friday, June 26, 2015
Question: "Should an Orthodox Christian make donations to the Salvation Army?"
You could certainly do a lot worse with your money than to give to the Salvation Army.
Many are unaware that the Salvation Army is actually a Protestant denomination, rather than just a charitable entity. It was founded in 1865 by William and Catherine Booth. It is part of the Wesleyan / Methodist tradition, and is theologically almost identical in belief to other Holiness denominations, such as the Nazarene Church that I grew up in. It is different from just about every other Christian group when it comes to the Sacraments. Salvationists reject all Sacraments, including baptism and the Eucharist. As their name suggests, they are structured a military model -- with clergy have the ranks of officers, and laity being the enlisted. When you join the Salvation Army, you sign the Articles of War, rather than receive baptism. Their churches are called "citadels" Another interesting feature of the Salvation Army is that married officers are required to have the same "rank" as their spouses. This is in large part due to the high level of commitment that they require of their officers, but also due to their belief that this work requires a team effort on the part of such a couple. The charitable work of the Salvation Army is impressive and admirable. I think that it would be a good idea for the Orthodox Church to encourage people to emulate much of what they do.
But to answer the question, some would argue that because they are a Protestant denomination, we should not give to them because in some traditionally Orthodox regions they have attempted to convert people to their faith. A case could also be made that since Orthodox Christians in America are a small minority, and our own charitable organizations attract a lot less general support, we should support our own charitable works and let the Protestants support the Salvation Army. On the other hand, there are things that the Salvation Army does that no Orthodox charity that I am aware of is currently doing -- for example, I know that in Houston they run a family shelter that tries to help homeless families without splitting them up. So personally, I think if you are donating to some specific purpose like that, there is nothing wrong with that.
My own mother was born in a Salvation Army hospital, and so I am glad that despite their theological shortcomings, they have in practice been such good examples to the rest of us.
Friday, June 19, 2015
Question: "If someone dies without repentance, is it possible for such a person to repent after death?"
Scripture, as explained by the Fathers of the Church, states that this is not possible.
Psalm 6:5 says: "For in death there is none that is mindful of Thee, and in hades who will confess Thee?"
Commenting on this passage, St. John Chrysostom says: "[The Prophet David is] not implying that our existence lasts only as far as this present life: perish the thought! After all, he is aware of the doctrine of the resurrection. Rather, it is that after our departure from here there would be no time for repentance. For the rich man praised God and repented, but in view of its lateness it did him no good [Luke 16:19-31]. The virgins wanted to get some oil, but no one gave any to them [Matthew 25:1-13]. So this is what this mane requests, too, for his sins to be washed away in this life so as to enjoy confidence at the tribunal of the fearsome judge" (St. John Chrysostom: Commentary on the Psalms, vol. I, trans. Robert C. Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998), p. 102).
St. Jerome says: "While you are still in this world, I beg of you to repent. Confess and give thanks to the Lord, for in this world only is he merciful. Here, he is able to be compassionate to the repentant, but because there he is judge, he is not merciful. Here, he is compassionate kindness; there, he is judge. Here, he reaches out his hand to the falling; there, he presides as judge" (Homily on Psalm 105, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. VII, Craig A. Blaising and Carmen S. Hardin, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2008) p. 51).
St. Gregory the Theologian says: "... it is better to be punished and cleansed now than to be transmitted to the torment to come, when it is the time of chastisement, not of cleansing. For as he who remembers God here is conqueror of death (as David has most excellently sung) so the departed have not in the grave confession and restoration; for God has confined life and action to this world, and to the future the scrutiny of what has been done" (On His Father's Silence, Oration 16:7).
St. Basil the Great says: "In like manner they which have grieved the Holy Spirit by the wickedness of their ways, or have not wrought for Him that gave to them, shall be deprived of what they have received, their grace being transferred to others; or, according to one of the evangelists, they shall even be wholly cut asunder, —the cutting asunder meaning complete separation from the Spirit. The body is not divided, part being delivered to chastisement, and part let off; for when a whole has sinned it were like the old fables, and unworthy of a righteous judge, for only the half to suffer chastisement. Nor is the soul cut in two,—that soul the whole of which possesses the sinful affection throughout, and works the wickedness in co-operation with the body. The cutting asunder, as I have observed, is the eternal separation of the soul from the Spirit. For now, although the Spirit does not suffer admixture with the unworthy, He nevertheless does seem in a manner to be present with them that have once been sealed, awaiting the salvation which follows on their conversion; but then He will be wholly cut off from the soul that has defiled His grace. For this reason “In Hades there is none that maketh confession; in death none that remembereth God,” because the help of the Spirit is no longer present" (Treatise on the Holy Spirit, 40).
Blessed Theodoret says: "For this reason I beg the privilege of enjoying the cure in the present life, since I know that no cure will then be granted those departing this life with wounds, as there is no longer any room for repentance. This was exceptionally sound thinking on the part of the divine David: it is not in death but in life that one recalls God. Likewise, confession and reform do not come to the departed in Hades: God confined life and action to this life; there, however, he conducts an evaluation of performance. And in any case this is proper to to the eighth day, giving no longer opportunity for preparation by good or bad deeds to those who have arrived at it; instead, whatever works you have sown for yourself you will have occasion to reap. For this reason he obliges you to practice repentance here, there being no practice of this kind of effort in Hades. He says, in fact, "Since the opportunity coming to me for repentance was lengthy, I am afraid death may precede your mercy, there being no room for confession there -- hence my request for your to be quick with your mercy." Then he instructs the listener that along with God's loving-kindness our effort is required, too: whether we plead weakness or confusion or God's goodness without contributing what is ours, it is of no benefit to us" (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Psalms, 1-72, trans. Robet C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), p. 75).
St. Augustine says: ""For in death there is no one that is mindful of Thee.” He knows too that now is the time for turning unto God: for when this life shall have passed away, there remaineth but a retribution of our deserts. "But in hell who shall confess to Thee?" That rich man, of whom the Lord speaks, who saw Lazarus in rest, but bewailed himself in torments, confessed in hell, yea so as to wish even to have his brethren warned, that they might keep themselves from sin, because of the punishment which is not believed to be in hell. Although therefore to no purpose, yet he confessed that those torments had deservedly lighted upon him; since he even wished his brethren to be instructed, lest they should fall into the same" (Commentary on the Psalms 6:6).
Cassiodorus says: "This may elicit the question, why does he say that in death no-one is mindful of God, whereas then we can be made to tremble more by the imminent anger of God? But when we speak of those unmindful of God, this properly refers to the unfaithful. Isaiah said of them: For those in hell will not praise thee, nor will those who are dead bless thee. When Paul says: In the name of of Jesus let every knee bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, the statement should be taken as referring only to the faithless and obstinate, who deserve to have no trust placed in their confession. So the psalmist rightly hastens to gain acquittal here, since once the sun has set nothing remains except deserved retribution. Who shall confess to thee in hell? We must mentally add "to win pardon." Compare Solomon's words on impious men: For they will say among themselves, repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit, and the rest. Then too we know that the rich man who saw Lazarus settled in peace confessed his evil plight, but he was not heard praying for help because it is in this world that confession connotes also obtaining pardon. To help us realize that some distinction is being made in the words of the verse, in death means passing from life, whereas in hell means hugging the place where souls are known to endure what they have deserved. There is total denial that a confession can be made in each of these situations" (Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms, Vol. 1, trans. P. G. Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press,1990), p. 94f).
We find a very similar passage in Isaiah 38:18-19, which Cassiodorus references:
"For they that are in the grave shall not praise thee, neither shall the dead bless thee, neither shall they that are in Hades hope for thy mercy. The living shall bless thee, as I also do: for from this day shall I beget children, who shall declare thy righteousness."
St. Cyril of Alexandria says: "What is said in the psalm verse contains sentiments similar to this passage, "What value is there in my death if I descend into corruption? Dust will not praise you or proclaim your marvels [Psalm 29:9]." In other words, once dead, and enclosed in the gates of Hades, they will cease giving praise. Nothing further could be added to what has been achieved; instead, they will remain in the condition in which they were left, and will await the time of the general judgment. So he is saying that it is the living, with the power of doing good on receipt of benefits who will bless you, as I do" (Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary on Isaiah, Vol. II, trans. Robert C. Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2008), p. 300).
So here you have all of the Three Great Hierarchs, along with two great Latin Saints, St. Cyril of Alexandria (the preeminent Father of the Third Ecumenical Council), as well as two notable patristic commentators all saying essentially the same thing: the time for repentance is in this life. If you have not repented before death, it will then be too late.
For More Information:
To see what benefits prayers for the dead have, see: Stump the Priest: Prayers for the Dead in the Bible and in Tradition.