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Holy Week commentaries: Friday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 30, 2009

“Church services of Burial Vespers and Lamentations. I missed the Royal Hours services but read them later. I was struck by how many types there are in the Bible of the silver that Jesus was sold for: the silver paid to Joseph’s brothers for selling him into slavery, the warning of Zachariah (Zach 11:10-13), the prophecy of Jeremiah (quoted somewhere in Matt 27:1-56), and of course in the gospel stories themselves. A part of the Third Hour service nicely parallels the quote about Judas I copied yesterday:

‘When thou wast led to the Cross, O Lord, thou didst say, “For what act do ye wish, O Jews, to crucify me? Is it because I have strengthened your cripples? Is it because I raised your dead as from the sleep, healed the woman of her issue of blood, and showed mercy upon the Canaanitish woman? For what act, O ye Jews, desire ye my death?” But ye shall behold him who ye pierced, O law-transgressors, and know that he is Christ’ (501).

“In case we think that Judas and the Jews are to blame for the shedding of the innocent blood of Jesus instead of ourselves, the following Epistle reading (Rom 5:6-10) reminds us otherwise:

‘Brethren, while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (503).

“We who are saved by God are not to number ourselves with the ‘good man’ who would not crucify Christ, but with Judas and the Jews. On the other hand, a frank plea is addressed to those who swear by the laws in the Torah and are among God’s chosen tribe:

‘Do not err, O Jews; for it is he who saved you in the sea and nourished you in the wilderness. He is the Life, the Light, and the Peace of the world’ (512).

“Jumping back to the motif of betraying the innocent God, a quote from the Ninth Hour:

‘When the lawless nailed thee upon the Cross, O Lord of glory, thou didst cry unto them, “Wherein have I angered you? And who before me delivered you from sorrow? And now wherewith do ye reward me? Instead of goodness, evil; for the pillar of fire, ye nailed me on the Cross; for the clouds, ye dug me a grave; instead of water, ye gave me vinegar to drink. I will henceforth call the Gentiles, and they shall glorify me with the Father and the Holy Spirit’ (525).

“I am still confused about the Christian notion of judgment as expressed in Heb 10:19-31: if the law is designed to trip us up and show us that we are sinners, how are we then expected to ‘sin no more’ even after hearing the law of Christ [A study of God’s recurring mercy towards Israel in the Bible – forgiveness being the cornerstone of love – went a long way to helping diffuse this earlier confusion of mine]?

“On to the Burial Vespers service. Here ends the paralleling of the Exodus and Job stories that began in the Orthos services earlier in the week. God shows himself to be a friend of Moses and restores Job’s lost fortune twofold. Both remained faithful to God in their tribulations (cf. entry on [Monday]). The gospel story told during this service strangely cycled through passages from the different gospels. We stayed at church for only half of the Lamentations service. I was intrigued to discover that Eve, Mary, and the Church are intertwined symbols:

‘Thou didst come from a Virgin who knew no travail. Thy side, O my Creator, was pierced with a spear, by which thou didst accomplish the re-creation of Eve, having thyself become Adam. Supernaturally thou didst fall into a sleep that renewed nature, raising life from sleep and corruption; for thou art Almighty’ (586).

“Christ’s days in the tomb are likened to the Sabbath (588-89) – a good argument why the Sabbath should be observed on Saturday rather than on Sunday!? [An argument flatly refuted later on in the Paschal Orthos service on Sunday, p. 724]. The three stases of lamentations are unlike anything I have heard in any other church service: I felt uncomfortable and out of place hearing them sung at church. I do not know why. Jumping back to the motif of Christ addressing his accusers, here is one more beautiful passage:

‘Oh, how the assembly of the law-transgressors condemned to death the King of creation, not being ashamed nor abased by his benevolences, of which he had assured them formerly, calling them to their remembrance, saying, “My people, what have I done to thee? Have I not showered Judaism with wonders? Have I not raised the dead by only a word? Have I not healed every sickness and every weakness? With what, then, hast thou rewarded me? For healing, thou hast inflicted wounds upon me; and for raising the dead, thou dost cause me, the benevolent, to die suspended upon a Tree as an evil-doer; the Giver of the Law, as a law-transgressor; and the King of all, as one who is condemned.” Wherefore, O long-suffering Lord, glory to thee’ (545).

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Holy Week commentaries: Thursday

Posted in Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 28, 2009

This post has been very late in coming (Holy Week – and Bright Week which follows – have passed), but I decided to complete the series anyway. Here it is, from my journal of last year:

“I missed the service of the Twelve Passion Gospels but read it anyway in the service book. The Vesperal Liturgy readings followed the story of Moses and Job, emphasizing their steadfastness with the Lord and the Lord’s faithfulness to them. The gospel readings describe the betrayal of Jesus. The service of the Twelve Passion Gospels is fittingly named: the gospel readings are about the Passion. I remembered a few passages from the service:

‘What caused thee, O Judas, to betray the Saviour? Did he set thee aside from the Disciples? Did he deny thee the gift of healing? Did he eat with the others and send thee away from the table? Did he wash the feet of the rest and then pass thee by? How much goodness hast thou forgotten? Yea, thine unpraiseworthy mind hath been exposed. But his incalculable long-suffering which is beyond all measure and his great mercies are proclaimed with praise’ (435-436).

“That passage emphasizes how ungratefulness is a betrayal of God, while the following text delves into the biblical imagery of the tree:

‘Because of a tree, Adam was estranged from paradise; and the thief because of the Tree of the Cross abode in paradise; for the former in tasting, disobeyed the Commandment of the Creator; but the latter, who was crucified with thee, confessed, admitting to thee that thou art a hidden God. Wherefore, O Saviour, remember him and us in thy kingdom’ (452).”

Holy Week commentaries: Wednesday

Posted in Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 15, 2009

My journal entry for this day last year discussed Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“On Christian Love”) before I commented (briefly) about the Holy Week services for Wednesday. My remarks about the former are more interesting than the latter so I include both below:

“I like the encyclical, especially the first part about romantic love (the second part was about charity). I appreciated his point about the English language not having a robust enough vocabulary to describe love. The Greeks distinguished between eros – an acquisitive love – and agape – a self-sacrificial love – and I agreed with the pope that both are important. The Hebrews, I was surprised to find out, made a similar distinction about love. There is the love called dodim, “a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching”. There is also ahaba, which is similar to agape. I especially appreciated his point that the highest form of love is not only loving the person in exterior action but also liking the person:

‘Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.’

“I was also impressed by the pope’s condescending to address objectives to the faith presented by modern philosophers. The pope wisely responded to Friedrich Nietzsche’s argument that Christianity ruined eros in villainizing it by noting that it was the pagans who were ruining eros (e.g. having prostitutes in fertility cult temples). The pope also objected to the Marxist idea that charity is bad because it supports an unjust social structure and delays revolution by saying that to deny your neighbor of his immediate needs for the sake of a hypothetically-better future is immoral. Very impressive!

“[ . . . ] Before commenting on [the Holy Unction] service, let me talk about the Wednesday service of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. This is the third and last service of such a kind during Holy Week. The first had readings from Exodus, Job and Matthewas the beginnings of deliverance stories. Today’s service does not have readings about the conclusion of those stories. Instead, we are shown the indeterminate middle, when in a way the protagonists face their moment of truth: Moses rejoins the Hebrews, Job does not deny God, and the actions of Judas are contrasted to those of the woman who annointed Jesus’ feet with oil. I must admit that I was confused about the choice and ordering of the readings in the Holy Unction service. [. . .] in Greek, the words for mercy, oil, and annointing sound the same, and I appreciated that connection in the service.”

Holy Week commentaries: Tuesday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 14, 2009

My journal entry for this day was short and bland (apparently, I was in “a rotten mood” this day last year). Here it is anyway:

“The [Bridegroom Matins] service centered around contrasting the Biblical characters of Judas and the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.”

Holy Week commentaries: Monday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 14, 2009

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. This week is our Holy Week preceding Pascha (Easter) on Sunday, April 19. We are a week behind the Catholic Lenten calendar this year. This week I will be publishing a post each day of some notes I wrote last year as I was following along the Holy Week service book. The services of Holy Week fascinate me because they synthesize ideas and narratives throughout the whole Bible – Old and New Testament – to recreate the story of the Passion of Christ.

Here is the first entry from my journal (quotations are from The Services of Great and Holy Week and Pascha published by Antakya Press, 2006):

“Today is the first day of Holy Week and I have begun reading the service book for this week. I was struck, having just read Genesis, by the presentation of Joseph as the first ‘type‘ of Christ:

‘On this day begins the anniversary of the holy Passion of the Saviour, he of whom Joseph of exceeding beauty is taken as the earliest symbol; for this Joseph was the eleventh of the sons of Jacob, and because his father loved him exceedingly, his brothers envied him and threw him into a pit. Then they took him out and sold him to strangers, who sold him in Egypt. He was slandered for his chastity, and was thrown into prison. But finally he was taken out of prison, and he attained a high rank, and received honors worthy of kings, becoming governor of the whole of Egypt, whose people he supported. Thus he symbolized in himself the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and his consequent great glory’ (21-22).

I was also delighted by the readings chosen for Monday Divine Liturgy: Exodus 1:1-20, Job 1:1-12, and Matthew 24:3-35. Why group them together, I thought to myself? Then I realized that they were each the beginnings of deliverance stories. Exodus is the delivery from bondage of a people while Job tells of the delivery of one person from tribulation, which are supposed to give hope (as painful stories you can read about that have a happy ending) to the charge that we are given in Matthew for us to personally stay faithful, through the times of tribulation. Some food for thought.”

Last Jew in Afghanistan

Posted in Asian, Judaism by Alex L. on April 7, 2009

Yesterday, there was an interesting video op-ed on nytimes.com titled, “Last Jew in Afghanistan”. The man interviewed, Zablon Simantov, is perhaps the last member of a 13-century-old community. While watching the documentary, I wondered about the man who sent his family away to Israel while continuing to live alone in his homeland. Was it stubborn pride that stayed his flight? He criticized the other Jews who lacked his courage to stay in Afghanistan. Yet, living behind the abandoned synagogue and caring for the flowers that grow in its courtyard, he seems like a humble man. Zablon appears sincere yet still enigmatic. He harshly criticizes the Taliban and admits that Afghanistan is still in shoddy shape even after their downfall. So what keeps this man there, alone? Maybe Zablon simply loves, like Rhett Butler in the movie Gone With the Wind and any man who has a heart for something on earth, “lost causes once they’re really lost”.

Plato’s “Laches” – is courage choosing faith over fear?

Posted in Greek by Alex L. on April 3, 2009

Plato’s Laches is a dialogue about the nature of courage (literally translated, “manliness”). Socrates and his friends proceed in a manner typical of Plato’s dialogues: Socrates’ companions propose various definitions of courage, and a communal inquiry led by Socrates finds each one of the proposals inadequate. Courage is defined in turn as endurance (189d-192c), wise endurance (192c-194b), knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (194c-199c), and knowledge of good and evil (199c-199e).

While all of those definitions fail to describe the nature of courage, I think the best one was the third one, knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (or, at least, it sparked some thought in my mind). Socrates describes fear as the expectation of future evils. Hope or faith (there is a slight difference in the meaning of the two terms, but I will henceforth refer to “faith” since it more closely parallels Socrates’ definition of fear), then, is the expectation of future goods. Fear is the opposite of faith and faith is the opposite of fear, according to Socrates. Both describe a present relationship with future events, though from opposing perspectives. Socrates’ view differs from how we usually think about courage, cowardice, fear, and faith. “Courage in the face of death” is the usual way people talk about that virtue (as in, soldiers fighting enemies or patients battling cancer). “I have no faith in him” suggests that the opposite of faith is mistrust, not fear (no one would substitute “I fear him” for that expression). Socrates challenges us to examine these things further.

The last two definitions of courage in the dialogue fail because Socrates and his companions Laches and Nicias can not define what type of knowledge constitutes courage. But is not courage more than just knowledge? In a moment of conflict within the individual, isn’t there a sort of choice involved which determines whether his action turns out to be courageous or cowardly? Should we not say, then, that courage is choosing and acting in accordance with faith (that is, the expectation of future goods) over fear (the expectation of future evils)?

Immediately, an objection could be raised to this new definition. What is the difference between this new proposal and just saying that courage is knowledge of good and evil (the fourth definition of the dialogue, which Socrates disproved)? For Socrates, knowledge of good and evil always leads to virtuous action – only ignorance, not individual will, leads to evil. So then isn’t choosing to expect future goods over future evils the same as knowing what those goods and evils are? Well, yes, perhaps my attempt at philosophizing fails there. But maybe my proposal can still be salvaged if we look at courage through the lens of our imperfect world, just as Socrates does about love in the Symposium. Diotima, Socrates’ teacher in that dialogue, says that a lover is “in between being wise and being ignorant” (204b). She goes on to define love as “wanting to possess the good forever” (206a). Once one possesses the good, one is no longer a lover. Love is an imperfect state – the gods, being perfect, are not lovers. Perhaps courage is also a virtue only possible in an imperfect world. In moments of trial or uncertainty, when the fog descends over our understanding and the future seems uncertain, the lover desires the good nonetheless. The courageous man, undeterred, goes no small step further: he chooses to expect it.

Best world war flight sims

Posted in European, Just for Fun by Alex L. on April 1, 2009

Ever since I was little, I have admired the courage of combat aviators in both of the world wars. While aircraft in the First World War buzzed inconsequentially above the front lines where the decisive battles were fought, the pilots who confronted one another – without parachutes, in open-cockpit aircraft that resembled kites more than jets – must have had some large cojones. In the Second World War, a couple of thousand Spitfire and Hurricane pilots (“The Few” as Churchill called them) staved off the conquest of an entire nation in the Battle of Britain.

While my days of hours spent waxing heroic in the online skies of such flight simulators as WarBirds are long behind me, I have caved in to curiosity and decided to research which is the best flight sim for the world wars. The winner for the Second World War category is Battle of Britain II: Wings of Victory. While other sims like IL-2: Sturmovik and Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 3 are more popular due to their multiplayer option, Battle of Britain II is the most realistic (notice how closely the gameplay mimics real guncams from World War II in this beautiful YouTube clip). This game alone also features air battles with up to 200 planes, truly approximating the sorties in the real Battle of Britain. There is a devoted Battle of Britain II online community, where there has recently been talk of adding multiplayer to the game.

The best World War I flight sim is First Eagles: Gold, which simulates air combat in the latter years of the war. Games of this era have never been as popular as World War II flight sims, so I can’t imagine the multiplayer community for First Eagles is very strong. Nevertheless, this is the most recent incarnation of the genre and the gameplay looks decent (see this YouTube video of a Sopwith Camel dogfighting with a Fokker Dr. I). While combat flight sims have declined in popularity since the 1990s and early 2000s when it seemed that every year competing companies were releasing a new hit (Battle of Britain II was released in 2005 and First Eagles in 2006), the genre seems to have at least reached a high plateau with its leading exemplars.