Pascha and a Loaf of Bread

St. Paul wrote about Pascha in the first epistle to the Corinthians: “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new loaf, just as you are unleavened. For even Christ our Pascha is sacrificed for us” (5:7). Here, the Greek word, Pascha is left untranslated from the original of St. Paul. What did the Apostle mean by these words and what does leaven have to do with Pascha? To understand this, we have to go back to Corinth in the first century, and subsequently, to Egypt more than a thousand years before Christ. We also have to understand how they made bread.

St. Paul was writing an epistle to the Corinthian Church. The Church lived in the midst of a modern cosmopolitan and commercial city of the Roman Empire. By being next to an important shipping passageway and stopover between Rome and the Aegean Sea, the city of Corinth had access to many of the physical goods of the Empire, as well as much of its evil influences. Corinth came be to a city catering to sailors and merchants who gladly spent their money on the worldly pleasure offered there. To “Corinthianize” came to mean “to practice fornication”. The Corinthians believed that they were free to experiment in new and different ways of pleasure, to be lax in their spirituality and to generally enjoy the “good life”. Unfortunately, this social attitude began to permeate the Corinthian Church, with a terrible spiritual impact that they were unable to recognize.

The Apostle Paul came to see that the Church at Corinth had multiple spiritual diseases: pride causing factions (1:11-12), thinking too highly of their intellect (1: 18-31), lacking spiritual growth (3:1), judgmental (4:3), satisfied in their riches (4:8), adulterous (5:1), lax (5:2) and legally vindictive (6:6). St. Paul calls the Corinthians “puffed up” (5:2). He uses the word six times in this epistle compared to only once more in another epistle. He wrote this first epistle to the Corinthians to address these points and he did so by going to the heart of the matter: “Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole loaf?”

Leaven is a substance used to make bread puffed up and light. Today, we often call it yeast. Without it, we have unleavened bread which is flat, hard and unexciting. Leaven can come in many forms but a common property of it is that one needs only a small quantity to make an entire loaf rise. In those days, a small piece of previously leavened dough was used to leaven a new loaf of unleavened bread (sourdough bread). Thus, a little leaven could grow without bounds. The analogy for both good and evil is clear.

Christ compared the Kingdom of God to leaven because it would start with a few people and spread to the whole world (Mt. 13:33). Christ also used the analogy in a negative sense when he equated leaven to the doctrine of Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt. 16:6). It only took a little of the false teaching of these religious leaders to penetrate a disciple and to wreck spiritual havoc. St. Paul is taking the negative analogy further by equating the growth of pride with the puffing up of leavened bread. In other words, it only takes a little bit of unchecked self-importance to grow in our soul to the point that we become puffed up with pride, unable to recognize our weaknesses and dependency on God, and subsequently blinded to the infinite worth of our brother or sister in the Church. This pride naturally grows into other areas, including indulging in passions, degenerate speech and behavior and, finally, becoming lax and uncaring about God or his people.

St. Paul instructs how to correct this: “Purge out therefore the old leaven that you may be a new loaf, just as you are unleavened” (5:7). He was saying that the Corinthians needed to become a new kind of spiritual loaf, unleavened by the pride of the world around them. More specifically, this is a reference to the Feast of Unleavened Bread which was celebrated together with the Passover: “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us”. The word Passover is a translation of the Greek word Pascha. St. Paul adds: “Therefore let us keep the Feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (5:8). He was highlighting the spiritual meaning of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. To clarify this, we now have to jump in time more than a thousand years before Christ, and to the nation of Egypt.

At that time, the Roman Empire did not exist and Egypt was a cosmopolitan center of sin. Unfortunately, the Israelites had become slaves in Egypt and, in contrast to the Corinthian church, recognized it and were calling out for deliverance (Exodus 2:23). God, with mighty miracles, delivered them from Egypt and from the ruling Pharaoh. For that point in time, and as a memorial going forward, God provided a special ceremony called the Passover (or Pascha), as well as the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12). The Israelites were to participate in and to commemorate God’s deliverance by taking a Passover (Paschal) lamb, killing it and smearing the blood on their doorposts. This was to be their symbol of protection so the Angel of Death would pass over their houses on his death mission to Egypt. After using the blood of the lamb, the Israelites and their families were to eat of its body. Additionally, the Israelites were to prepare bread without leaven and eat it for seven days, showing their haste in coming out of Egypt, since no one had time to leaven their loaves in the rush to get out.

Throughout the centuries, the days of Passover and of Unleavened Bread (both together simply called Passover or Pascha) became an important commemoration in Israel because they represented freedom from slavery and God’s deliverance. When God became incarnate in Christ, He participated fully in this ceremony by re-enacting it every year with his family at Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-42). Most importantly, as the culmination of what it represented, He became the ultimate Paschal Lamb by being crucified at the same time that the symbolic Passover lambs were being slain in the Temple (John 19:14-18). Christ became our true Pascha (I Cor. 5:7).

Thus, we come back to the meaning of I Corinthians. The Apostle Paul was implying that the Corinthians, without being aware of it, had become slaves to sin, just like the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. They should have been crying out for deliverance from the Egypt of their day, and making haste to leave it quickly. They were admonished to no longer spiritually linger in the Corinthian leaven of self-importance, pleasure and self-satisfaction and thereby become puffed up, with the rest of Corinthian society. Further, they were instructed to purge the old leaven of worldly influence that had already entered their soul and was causing havoc in their congregation. This was the real cause of their spiritual decay.

St. Paul was admonishing the Corinthians to look to the ultimate example of the Person who was never puffed up. Jesus Christ, the real Passover Lamb, took the humiliating position of being publicly nailed naked to a wooden cross for their salvation. The Lamb’s way, if adopted in their lives, was the antidote to the leaven of pride, material interests and uncaring attitude towards their brothers and sisters. The cross was not important to the sophisticated Corinthians who saw themselves as dealing with more important political issues of who among them was the greatest (1:12,18).

The lesson for us today is now clear. We live in a society just as degenerate (if not more so) as that of the Corinthians. Without realizing it, all it takes is a little of its arrogance, pride or self-satisfaction to penetrate our soul, and we are on our way to becoming “puffed up”: self-important, vindictive, uncaring and lax. The only way back is to remove the poisonous leaven and cry out for deliverance from Christ. The humiliating example of our Savior is the antidote and that which gives us salvation from bondage and removes the poisonous leaven. Let us take up His attitude of love for the Church and self-sacrifice into our soul and bodies, thus becoming like the Pascha which we so love, the true Bread of Life and the Paschal Lamb that was sacrificed for us.

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Same-sex relations and the Orthodox Church

There is renewed interest today in the nature of relations between people of the same sex. The relationships that are of interest are not traditional ones of friendship or even self-sacrificing love, but romantic or even sexual ones. Several states have enacted bills that address “same-sex marriage” and the United States Supreme Court has decided to take up the legal issues involved. Many of those around us, including many Christians, increasingly assume that such relations are perfectly natural and in will of God. There is even activism aimed towards various churches and their members with the aim of getting them to accept these positions on the issue with the threatened costs of splitting these churches, removing tax exempt status or denouncing the particular church in the media. It is therefore natural in such a charged atmosphere for Orthodox Christians to ask about the teachings of God and Church on this topic. Is it proper and Christian for couples of the same sex to be romantically involved with each other and how does God view such relations? While the topic is wide, this article will give some general guidelines for a beginning understanding.

The subject of relations between people of the same sex is not a new topic. Given that sexual relations are a fundamental aspect of life which encompass the spiritual, mental, psychological and physical nature of man, the nature of such relations goes back to the very purpose of the creation of man by God. The Church and the Scriptures have long been rich with teachings about the topic. Such teachings are unified and without ambiguity.

Friendship and self-sacrificing relations of spiritual love between people of the same sex have always been considered a blessing by God. For example, the friendship between King David and Jonathan in the Bible was considered by both to be a deeply endearing friendship that was worth one’s life (I Sam. 18 on). Jesus had such endearing and intimate relations with his disciples (John 13:23). Among the Fathers of the Church, a close friendship developed between St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian (of Nazianzus), which continued throughout their life. They regarded themselves as “one soul in two bodies”.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church that romantic and sexual relations are reserved for the purity of marriage between one man and one woman. All sexual relations outside of that marriage are a sin against God. Before we go through some of the references, it is important to put this point in context. Sexual sin, whether homosexual (same-sex) or heterosexual (opposite-sex), or romantic activity, outside of a holy marriage between one man and one woman, is not a worse sin than many other possible sins. Sins can come in many forms and while the Church condemns all sin, she encourages the sinner to repent, confess and receive forgiveness and spiritual healing. God loves those that sin and calls them out of sin. The reason that sexual sins are isolated and highlighted is that the institution of marriage and its associated sexuality was created to mystically capture the relationship of God and his people (Song of Songs, Jer. 11:5, Ezek. 16, Mt. 22:1-14,25:1-12, Heb. 13:4, Rev. 19-7-8). A defilement of this special relationship means that the all-important understanding of God’s love for his people would be marred.

The Scriptures are clear about this topic both from the point of view of what they say and what they don’t say. In the Creation account, God is quoted saying that it is not good that the first created man, Adam, be alone with the animals (Gen 2:18). God proceeded in vss. 21-22 to create a woman, Eve, out of Adam’s innermost body and bring her to him. The Scripture comments in vs. 24 that, in the normal process of God’s purpose for a man, he is to leave his father and mother and become “one flesh” with his wife (i.e. become a husband). This expression refers to a man’s intimate physical union with his wife for the purpose of uniting them to each other and begetting children. It is clear that God’s purpose does not enable two human beings of the same sex to enter into such a relationship because they cannot “become one flesh” in the meaning of that term. The silence of the Creation account on homosexuality (as on many other issues such as pedophilia, bestiality, etc.) shows that the original purpose of God did not involve those kinds of relations.
Later, when God gave his redemptive Law (Torah) to fallen man in the form of the nation of Israel, one of the teachings that He gave them was that “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination” (Lev. 20:13). This was the known teaching of God when Jesus came among Israel to expand the teachings of the Law. Jesus never did away with this principle and only enhanced the teaching of the Law (Mt. 5:18-48). Later, the Apostle Paul, in going outside of Israel to Gentiles who did not know the Law of Israel, had to make this even more explicit: “For this reason God gave them [certain Gentiles] up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1:26-27).
Given the fundamental relation of homosexuality to marriage and the Christian life, the Church Fathers have not been silent on the topic. Contrary to popular belief, such relations are not new to the history of man. Clement of Alexandria wrote of the Genesis account of Sodom (Gen. 13): “The fate of the Sodomites was judgment to those who had done wrong, instruction to those who hear. The Sodomites having, through much luxury, fallen into uncleanness, practicing adultery shamelessly, and burning with insane love for boys; the All-seeing Word, whose notice those who commit impieties cannot escape, cast his eye on them. Nor did the sleepless guard of humanity observe their licentiousness in silence; but dissuading us from the imitation of them, and training us up to his own temperance, and falling on some sinners, lest lust being unavenged, should break loose from all the restraints of fear, ordered Sodom to be burned…”.
St. Basil the Great wrote to certain men: “He who is guilty of unseemliness with males will be under discipline for the same time as adulterers”. Also, “If you are young in either body or mind, shun the companionship of other young men and avoid them as you would a flame. For through them the enemy has kindled the desires of many and then handed them over to eternal fire, hurling them into the vile pit of the five cities [associated with Sodom] under the pretense of spiritual love.” St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the passage of Scripture cited in Romans says, “All of these affections [in Rom. 1:26–27] . . . were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonored than the body in diseases.” Also, “”[The men] have done an insult to nature itself. And a yet more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more shame than men.”
The Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church did not deal with all of the psychological and biological arguments that are made today supporting the right to homosexual relations. These would take too long in this short article to scrutinize in detail. Suffice it to say that the God-given spiritual mind, created in the image of God, and purposed for the likeness of God, is given great powers of overcoming and repentance with the help of the grace of God and direction of a spiritual father. No genetic, cultural or familial pre-dispositions can overcome this principle, when there is a will to come out from under sin.
Apart from these, the very nature of language is being changed around us to favor the sinful directions. Homosexual relations are referred to as “gay”, a word that used to connote a jovial disposition. People that point out the sinful nature of these behaviors are labeled as “homo-phobic” (meaning fearing those who engage in same-sex relations) as though the truth about the nature of the behavior implies a fear or hatred of the people who engage in it. The latest linguistic innovation is “same-sex marriage”. The word “marriage” comes from the Latin meaning to “take a husband”. There used to be in ancient languages a different word for “take a wife”. Marriage is not an act that can be done by a two of the same sex. “Matrimony” means to become a mother in Latin. The meaning was that motherhood was entered with a husband who would enable the wife to bear children, not something that applied to women of the same sex, nor certainly to men.
Given that these kinds of practices and relationships are becoming mainstream, legal and accepted by most of society, we need to be aware of the possibility that they will show up at our doorstep in the form of weakened views on the purity of marriage or in the form of militant actions by those wishing to get us to accept the new points of views. In all these cases, we must exercise the love of God towards all while upholding the teachings of the Church. We must protect our families and our children by upholding the very relations that point towards the infinite love of God towards his people.

The Holy Prophet Isaiah

“I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me!” (Isaiah 1:2) quoted a father against his unruly sons in the country of Israel. Unfortunately, the King James translation above does not do justice to the beautiful poetry of the Holy Prophet Isaiah. The meter and rhythm of the words and their rhyme as quoted in the ancient Hebrew of Isaiah  is not matched by anything in English. The words sounded more like “Ba-nim Gi-dal-ti Ve-romam-ti, Ve-hem Pash-oo Bi!” (syllables in bold receive an accent) and they had the effect of stopping the ear of those of us that heard him.  That father would then go on to quote the rest of the poetic words out of memory and those that heard him would be mesmerized by the words of Isaiah recited live. He had memorized them out of the synagogue lectionary because the words were as haunting and piercing as they were to those that heard them 2800 years ago.

The Prophet Isaiah the son of Amos lived in the latter half of the 8th century B.C. and is presumed to have died early in the 7th. He was called to prophetic service for over 60 years during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Singularly, he is one of the most important prophets to Judaism (ancient and present) and Christianity, and even influenced music and literature up to our age including significant portions of Handel’s Messiah. Overall, there are at least 71 passages in the New Testament in which the book of Isaiah is either quoted, cited or paraphrased. Except for the book of Psalms, no other Old Testament book is quoted or referred to more times in the New Testament. Jesus even began his ministry with a quote from the prophet (Luke 4:16-20). Both Jewish and Christian tradition report him as having been martyred by being sawn in half with a wooden saw which may possibly be the reference of Heb. 11:37. As such, Saint Isaiah is counted among one of the earliest martyrs.

The English transliterated name Isaiah was originally pronounced Ye-sha-ya-hu in Hebrew and means “salvation (is) of the Lord”. In the Greek Old Testament it was transliterated as Esaias which is the name used in the New Testament. His name has significance in relation to the Hebrew name Ye-ho-shu-a (Joshua in English, or Jesus in Greek) which means “the Lord is salvation”. The two names, our Savior’s and Isaiah’s, have exactly the same root words of “Lord” and “salvation”, only transposed. Thus Isaiah’s name was highly prophetic of his role in uttering key prophetic insights concerning the Messiah, as well as of the heavy use made of his book in the New Testament which is about the salvation of the Lord.

The Fathers of the Church agreed that Isaiah was the greatest of the literary Prophets. Isaiah’s poetry, descriptive, lyric, or elegiac is unsurpassed by any other writer of the Old Testament. This was partially recognized by the imagery of the book. But since its poetic impact was partially lost in translation it was not until the 19th century, when there was a growth in appreciation and study of Hebrew poetry, that we now have a deeper understanding of his masterful use of language. The Holy Spirit used Isaiah’s learned abilities to give us writings of uncommon elevation and majesty. He was probably attached to the royal court and was thus educated with a masterful use of the language as well as knowledge the political and moral circumstances of the nation. His language was adapted with care to the occasions and his audiences going from severe austerity to motherly tenderness.

More importantly is the content of the book, some of which may be due to his prophetic school rather than singularly from his pen. Isaiah’s book contains both moral and prophetic warnings to Israel for straying from God, as well as messages of hope and love for the deliverance of the future. He clearly enunciated God’s high expectations of Israel. Israel was to be holy to God and an example to the gentile nations of God’s deliverance, benevolence, and wisdom. However it also becomes clear that Israel did not fulfill that task. Thus in the book of Isaiah there is the rise of a description of the servant of God. That description poetically shifts back and forth from the reference to Israel who had failed as God’s servant to a unique individual who would fulfill the task that was not carried out by Israel. When one reads carefully, one comes to see that this unique individual has unusual qualities, even pointing to divine ones. Suddenly this unique individual becomes a suffering servant, one who suffers for the whole world and bears their burdens and sins. Who could this suffering servant be? The Jewish people said that the servant must be Israel but it is clear from the message that Israel had failed the task. When the gospel came along, the first Jewish Christians perceived the reference of Isaiah and even preached it to the gentiles (Acts 8:26-35). This insight about his writings and many more like it were expanded by the church Fathers.

Isaiah’s book is thus far more than a simple prediction of the future. It is a book of God’s judgment, of the care necessary to give to the poor and downtrodden, of God’s mercy and of God’s love and forbearance for his people as well as God’s promise to restore them in the end with his salvation.

Isaiah also touches the liturgy of the church in important ways. One of the most important comes through his original vision of heaven (Isaiah 6). In this vision Isaiah sees God on a throne which is covered by six-winged Seraphim. Isaiah hears the Seraphim continuously praising God with words that he transcribes and that would eventually end up in St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy as the Trisagion Hymn: “Holy, Holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory”. (For particular reasons, rather than translate “of hosts”, the Greek Bible transliterated the Hebrew word “Sabaoth”, which was transliterated again into the English liturgy).

Thus the Holy Prophet Isaiah, for his unique and poetic contribution as God’s prophet, as one who first heard the Trisagion in a heavenly vision, as one who prophesied of the coming of the Messiah and as one who was martyred in the service of God, is honored by the church on May 9.