Friday, June 24, 2016

Stump the Priest: Two Question on the Origins of Evil


First Question: "This concerns the origin of sin and evil. Since, as we believe, God created everything good, meaning everything created was created in the ontological state of goodness or righteousness, how did Lucifer become evil? Where did the original spark of transgression or rebellion come from? If (as I would answer it myself) it came from Lucifer's free will nature, how is it not also the case that God might also choose against His own nature? This seems to me to be a necessary question arising from our free will doctrine."

Second Question: "Did Adam and Eve know what evil was before they partook of the tree of life?  If they were innocent and didn't know anything of evil, how could they stay away from it or make an informed decision to stay away from it?"

To answer these questions we should first consider what is evil? Evil is not a substance. The Fathers tell us that evil does not "exist", per se... which is not to say that evil does not occur, but rather that evil is a choice. It is not something that God created, it is the choice of a will that is in rebellion against God.

St. Basil the Great tell us:
"Again, it is impious to say that evil has its origin from God, because naught [i.e. nothing] contrary is produced by the contrary. Life does not generate death, nor is darkness the beginning of light, nor is disease the maker of heath, but in the changes of conditions there are transitions from one condition to the contrary. In Genesis, however, each being comes forth not from its contrary, but from those of the same type. Accordingly, they say, if it is not uncreated nor created by God, whence does it have its nature? No one who is in this world will deny that evils exist. What, then, do we say? That evil is not a living and animated substance, but a condition of the soul which is opposed to virtue and which springs up in the slothful because of their falling away from good. Do not, therefore, contemplate evil from without; and do not imagine some original nature of wickedness, but let each one recognize himself as the first author of the vice that is in him" (Hexaemeron, Homily 2:4-5, The Fathers of the Church: Saint Basil: Exegetic Homilies, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), p 28).
St. Diadochus of Photiki says:
"Evil does not exist by nature, nor is any man naturally evil, for God made nothing that was not good. When in the desire of his heart someone conceives and gives form to what in reality has no existence, then what he desires begins to exist. We should therefore turn our attention away from the inclination to evil and concentrate it on the remembrance of God; for good, which exists by nature, is more powerful than our inclination to evil. The one has existence while the other does not, except when we give it existence through our actions" (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, compiled by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, Vol. 1, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 253).
But someone might object, doesn't Scripture tell us that God creates evil? And then they usually will cite Isaiah 45:7, which says in the King James Version: "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things." What could be more clear than that?

The problem is that we are talking about a translation, and so we need to consider the original word that is translated as "evil" here, (רעה / רע ra‛ / râ‛âh). According to Brown, Drivers, and Briggs, the word can mean:
1) bad, evil (adjective)
1a) bad, disagreeable, malignant
1b) bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery)
1c) evil, displeasing
1d) bad (of its kind - land, water, etc)
1e) bad (of value)
1f) worse than, worst (comparison)
1g) sad, unhappy
1h) evil (hurtful)
1i) bad, unkind (vicious in disposition)
1j) bad, evil, wicked (ethically)
1j1) in general, of persons, of thoughts
1j2) deeds, actions
2) evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity (noun masculine)
2a) evil, distress, adversity
2b) evil, injury, wrong
2c) evil (ethical)
3) evil, misery, distress, injury (noun feminine)
3a) evil, misery, distress
3b) evil, injury, wrong
3c) evil (ethical)
So how do we know what sense this word has in this particular passage?

Hebrew poetry is not based on rhymes, but rather on parallelism. There are different kinds of parallelisms, but this is a classic example of antithetical parallelism. The way antithetical parallelism works is that the first line is followed by a statement that makes an opposing point -- which is not to suggest that the first line contradicts the first, but that it makes a counter point. For example, Psalm 36[37]:9 says:
For evil-doers shall utterly perish, /
but they that wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. 
The first line, which states what the fate of evil-doers will be is contrasted by the second line, which states what the fate of those who wait on the Lord -- and those fates are the opposite of one another.

In the case of Isaiah 45:7, you have two examples of antithetical parallelism:
I form the light, / and create darkness:
I make peace, / and create evil
So just as darkness is the opposite of light, the "evil" that God creates is the opposite of peace. Given that, the obvious meaning of that word in this context is something like "calamity"... clearly not moral evil. And if you look at more modern translations, you will find that this is how they usually translate it. Furthermore, if you look at what the Fathers say about this passage, they also understand it in this sense.

So to answer the first question, Satan was not created evil. He was created good, but made the choice to rebel against God, and to do evil.

And while created beings can rebel against God, God cannot rebel against Himself. God is infinite and perfect. Scripture tells us that He is Love, Truth, Light, Good, and that it is impossible for him to lie or to sin, and so it is not possible that He could choose evil.

To answer the second question, Adam and Eve had not known evil, but they did have the power of choice, they knew what God required of them, and they knew the consequences that would follow if they did not obey God. Their knowledge was limited, but the expectations that God placed on them were also very limited, and so they had the power to choose, and it was just for God to hold them accountable for that choice.

For more information:

The God who is Silent about Evil, by Fr. Georges Massouh

The Nature and Origin of Evil According to Eastern Christian Church, by Marina Luptakova

Does God create evil? (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stump the Priest: Liturgical "Fossils"


Question: "What are we to make of parts of the Liturgy that seem to be relics from a time when the Liturgy was closed to the general public? For example: the dismissal of the catechumens: "Catechumens, depart!" "The doors! The doors!" (usually interpreted as 'close and guard the doors'). In the prayers for Communion, "I will not speak of thy Mystery to Thine enemies." I don't like the idea that these phrases are just fossils. How do we understand them today?"

Some History

The practice of dismissing the catechumens generally came to an end in the general life of the Church because most countries in which Christianity existed were almost entirely Christian, and adult converts became a rarity.

There was also a closely related penitential system, that consisted of four groups of people who were guilty of serious sins, and who had been placed under a penance for some period of time: (1) the weepers, who remained outside the church doors and asked prayers of the faithful as these passed into the church; (2) the hearers, who stood in the Narthex of the church behind the catechumens, and were dismissed with the catechumens; (3) the kneelers were allowed into the back of the Nave, but who also were also dismissed with the catechumens; and (4) the co-standers, who were allowed to stand with the faithful in the Nave and attend the entire liturgy, but not receive communion, until they were finally readmitted into communion.

The penitential system eventually came to an end as well. In the early Church, to even join the Church was an act of courage, and thus the level of commitment among the average Christian was very high, and so you could impose strict penitential discipline that might extend for decades, without it being a cause for final despair and apostasy. As time went on, such strict discipline was stronger medicine than later generations of Christians were able to benefit from.

As a result of both of these developments, instead of non-Christians being completely prevented from entering the Church, and catechumens and certain penitents being prevented from entering beyond the Narthex, the Altar area (the area behind the Iconostasis) became the one area that such people were not permitted to enter. This is true at least in general parish practice; however, in some monasteries catechumens and the heterodox are still not allowed into the Nave, and are still dismissed at the time of the dismissal of the catechumens... and so this practice, while no longer common, is actually not entirely a thing of the past.

What does the Dismissal of the Catechumens Mean for the Faithful

The dismissal of the catechumens happens after the Gospel reading, and according to the ancient practice, also after the sermon.

St. Symeon of Thessalonica says that the dismissal of the catechumens represents "the separation of the sinners from the just after the preaching of the Gospel at the end of the ages. For after the Gospel has been preached in all the world as a witness to all peoples, scripture says, "Then the end will come" (St. Symeon of Thessalonika: The Liturgical Commentaries, trans. Steven Hawkes-Teeples, (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011), p 249).

So the point being that this dismissal should be a warning to us that the time we have to obey the Gospel message is limited, and that the day will come when we will have to give an account, and will either be taken away with the sinners, or receive the reward of the righteous.

Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy similarly says that the dismissal of the catechumens "should also be a warning to us... We, the baptized, sin frequently and often without repentance are present in the church, lacking the requisite preparation and having in our hearts hostility and envy against our fellow men. Therefore, with the solemn and threatening words, "catechumens depart," we as unworthy ones should examine ourselves closely and ponder our unworthiness, asking forgiveness from our personal enemies, often imagined, and ask the Lord God for the forgiveness of our sins with the firm resolve to do better" (The Law of God: For Study at Home and School (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994), p. 566).

"For I will not speak of the Mystery to Thine enemies..."

In the early Church, there was a high degree of secrecy. This was not at like the Gnostics, who had secrets that were kept even from their own members, and retained by only a select group. Christians did, however, keep many things secret from those outside of the Church. In St. Cyril of Jerusalem's catechetical lectures, he admonished his hearers to not write down what he taught them. As we have already noted, even catechumens were not allowed to remain in the Church during the Eucharistic portion of the liturgy.  But what does this prayer mean to us today, when non-Christians can attend a liturgy in its entirety, and when books about the mysteries can be read by anyone who is interested that describe the sacraments in great detail? Fr, Michael Pomazansky addresses this question in his "Orthodox Dogmatic Theology":
"This strictness with regard to the revelation of the Christian Mysteries (Sacraments) to outsiders is no longer preserved to such a degree in the Orthodox Church. The exclamation, "Catechumens depart!" before the Liturgy of the Faithful is still proclaimed, it is true, but hardly anywhere in the Orthodox world are catechumens or the non-Orthodox actually told to leave the church at this time. (In some churches they are only asked to stand in the back part of the church, in the narthex, but can still observe the service). The full point of such an action is lost in our times, when all the "secrets" of the Christian Mysteries are readily available to anyone who can read, and the text of St. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures has been published in many languages and editions. However, the great reverence which the ancient Church showed for the Christian Mysteries, carefully preserving them from the gaze of those who were merely curious, or those who, being outside the Church and uncommitted to Christianity, might easily misunderstand or mistrust them — is still kept by Orthodox Christians today who are serious about their faith. Even today we are not to "cast our pearls before swine" — to speak much of the Mysteries of the Orthodox Faith to those who are merely curious about them but do not to seek to join themselves to the Church." (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, trans. Fr. Serpahim (Rose), (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press, 1984, p. 31, footnote 12, emphasis added).
Exactly where the line should be drawn, and when exactly we are in danger of casting the pearls of our Faith before swine (Matthew 7:6) is not something for which one can lay out simply rules, but this is something that we should pray that God will give us wisdom to discern when dealing with those who are not Orthodox.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Sung Response to those hoping for an "Orthodox Vatican II"


Archdeacon John Chryssavgis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is reported to have said that he hopes the council in Crete may have an impact on Orthodoxy similar to that of Vatican II on Catholicism. Here is a sung response from Bishop Bullwinkle:


And then there's this:

Friday, June 10, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Lord's Day


Question: "Which is the Lord’s Day, Saturday or Sunday?"

For Orthodox Christians, the Sabbath remains Saturday, but the Lord's Day is Sunday, and this is abundantly clear from both Scripture and Tradition.

In the book of Acts, we are told that it was "upon the first day of the week [Sunday], when the disciples came together to break bread" (Acts 20:7). Perhaps you might dismiss this as just a random occurrence, except that St. Paul speaks of "the first day of the week" as the day that the Church would come together (1 Corinthians 16:2).

In the book of Revelation, we find the first reference to "The Lord's day" (Revelation 1:10), which undoubtedly is not the Sabbath, because if the Sabbath was intended, it would have been most natural to have referred to it as such. Furthermore, the early Christian understanding the Sabbath, and the Lord's day is still reflected in the Greek names for the days of the week:
Sunday: Κυριακή (Lord's day)
Monday: Δευτέρα (Second day)
Tuesday: Τρίτη (Third day)
Wednesday: Τετάρτη (Fourth day)
Thursday: Πέμπτη (Fifth day)
Friday: Παρασκευή (Preparation day, c.f. Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14)
Saturday: Σάββατο (Sabbath)
The use of the phrase "the Lord's day" in reference to Sunday, as well as references to the fact that this was the primary day of Christian worship are well attested in the earliest writings of the Church. For example:
"And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord; (In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, saith the Lord and My name is wonderful among the nations.)" (Didache 14:1-5, this come from a first century text that is generally considered the oldest Christian document outside of the New Testament itself).
"Moreover concerning the Sabbath likewise it is written in the Ten Commandments, in which He spake to Moses face to face on Mount Sinai; And ye shall hallow the Sabbath of the Lord with pure hands and with a pure heart. And in another place He saith; If my sons observe the Sabbath then I will bestow My mercy upon them. Of the Sabbath He speaketh in the beginning of the creation; And God made the works of His hands in six days, and He ended on the seventh day, and rested on it, and He hallowed it.... Finally He saith to them; Your new moons and your Sabbaths I cannot away with. Ye see what is His meaning; it is not your present Sabbaths that are acceptable [unto Me], but the Sabbath which I have made, in the which, when I have set all things at rest, I will make the beginning of the eighth day which is the beginning of another world. Wherefore also we keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested ascended into the heavens" (Epistle of Barnabas 15:1-3, 5-9, 1st Century).
"If then those who had walked in ancient practices attained unto newness of hope, no longer observing sabbaths but fashioning their lives after the Lord's day, on which our life also arose through Him and through His death which some men deny -- a mystery whereby we attained unto belief, and for this cause we endure patiently, that we may be found disciples of Jesus Christ our only teacher -- if this be so, how shall we be able to live apart from Him? seeing that even the prophets, being His disciples, were expecting Him as their teacher through the Spirit. And for this cause He whom they rightly awaited, when He came, raised them from the dead" (St Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, 9:1-2, 110 A.D.

For more citations from the early Church Fathers, see: Sunday or Saturday, from Catholic Answers.

Saturday retains its significance as the day of creation, and so liturgically we never fast strictly on Saturdays (except for Holy Saturday, and even then, a complete fast is not called for), and even during Great Lent, when we do not serve full liturgies on most days of the week, a liturgy is always appointed for Saturday and Sunday. However, for Christians, Sunday, the Lord's day, is the day of the New Creation, the day of the Resurrection, and so it supersedes Saturday as the primary day of Christian worship.,

See also: 

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, by Fr. Victor Potapov

Sermon Audio: Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy, by Fr. John Whiteford

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Lecture: Singing in Scripture

The Levite Temple Singers, leading the army of Judah

This past weekend I was invited to speak at a music conference hosted by the Patriarch Tikhon Russian American Music Institute (PaTRAM) at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, PA.

You can listen to the lecture by clicking here;

http://www.saintjonah.org/podcasts/lectures/patram_singinginscripture.mp3

or

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/amvon/singing_in_scripture

Unfortunately, the audio does not include the question and answers that followed, because the questions could not be heard at all on the recording.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Prophet Elisha and the She-Bears

Relief from the Arch of Titus

Question: "What’s going on with the she-bears Elisha called up when he cursed the 42 “youths” (more likely young adults) in 2 Kings 2:23-25? Why was it two she-bears?"

It is correct that the impression that these were toddlers is a false impression, and it should be noted that the Prophet Elisha is not said to have called for the bears to attack the children, but rather to curse them. And it may well be that he was pronouncing the curses of the Covenant for those who disobey:
"And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate" (Leviticus 26:21-22).
For more on the background of this story, see "Question...wasn't Elisha very cruel when he sent those bears against those little kids who were teasing him about being bald?"

But to answer the question regarding the meaning of the two she-bears, St. Caesarius of Arles has a very interesting explanation:
"Now according to the letter, dearly beloved, we are to believe, as mentioned above, that blessed Elisha was aroused with God's zeal to correct the people, rather than moved by unwholesome anger, when he permitted the Jewish children to be torn to pieces. His purpose was not revenge but their amendment, and in this fact, too, the passion of our Lord and Savior was plainly prefigured. Just as those undisciplined children shouted to blessed Elisha, "Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead," so at the time of the passion the insane Jews with impious words shouted to Christ the true Elisha, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" What does "Go up, you baldhead" mean except: Ascend the cross on the site of Calvary? Notice further, brothers, that just as under Elisha forty-two boys were killed, so forty-two years after the passion of our Lord two bears came, Vespasian and Titus, and besieged Jerusalem. Also consider, brothers, that the siege of Jerusalem took place on the Paschal solemnity. Thus, by the just judgment of God the Jews who had assembled from all the provinces suffered the punishment they deserved, on the very days on which they had hung the true Elisha, our Lord and Savior, on the cross. Indeed, at that time, that is, in the forty-second year after the passion of our Lord, the Jews as if driven by the hand of God assembled in Jerusalem according to their custom to celebrate the Passover. We read in history that three million Jews were gathered in Jerusalem; eleven hundred thousand of them are read to have been destroyed by the sword of hunger, and one hundred thousand young men were led to Rome in triumph. For two years that city was besieged, and so great was the number of the dead who were cast out of the city that their bodies equaled the height of the walls. This destruction was prefigured by those two bears that are said to have torn to pieces forty-two boys for deriding blessed Elisha. Then was fulfilled what the prophet had said, "The boar from the forest lays it waste, and the beasts of the field feed on it [Psalm 79:14 [80:13]],"for as was indicated, after forty-two years that wicked nation received what it deserved from the two bears, Vespasian and Titus" (Sermon 127:2)  quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. V: 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Marco Conti, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2008) p. 149f).

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stump the Priest: "The Handwriting Against Us"


Question: "What is the “handwriting against us” in Colossians 2:11-15? Is it our sins or the Law or both or neither?" 

The text, as we have it in the King James Version is as follows:
"In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it."
The key word to consider here is the word translated as "ordinances." Some have tried to use this text as if this word refered to the Old Testament Law, and then to suggest that Christ blotted out the Law, however the word in question in Greek is "δογμασιν" (the dative plural of δογμα (dogma)) from which the English word "dogma" is derived -- however, that connection with the word "dogma" is somewhat misleading. The word is used by both Philo and Josephus in reference to both philosophical principles and imperial decrees (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:231). The sense of "decree" is the sense we find this verse taken in both the Fathers and the Services of the Church. It is the handwriting of the decree that was against us, i.e. the righteous sentence of God due to us for our sins which are blotted out, and nailed to the Cross. By extrapolation, some texts speak of it more generally as the debt of our sin, but this is focusing on the penalty of the sentence against us.

St. Irenaeus: “He destroyed the handwriting of our debt and fastened it to the Cross, so that as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, so also by means of a tree we may obtain remission of the debt.” (Against Heresies, 5:17:3).

St. John Chrysostom: "See to it that we do not again become debtors to the old contract. Christ came once; he found the certificate of our ancestral indebtedness which Adam wrote and signed. Adam contracted the debt; by our subsequent sins we increased the amount owed. In this contract are written a curse, and sin, and death and the condemnation of the law. Christ took all these away and pardoned them. St. Paul cries out and says: "The decree of our sins which was against us, he has taken it completely away, nailing it to the cross." He did not say "erasing the decree,' nor did he say "blotting it out," but "nailing it to the cross," so that no trace of it might remain. This is why he did not erase it, but tore it to pieces" (Baptismal Instructions 3:21, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. IX, Peter Gorday, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2000) p. 33

St. Ambrose of Milan: "But Christ was sold because he took our condition upon himself, not our sins themselves; he is not held to the price of sin, because he himself did not commit sin. And so he made a contract at a price for our debt, not for money for himself; he took away the debtor's bond, set aside the moneylender, freed the debtor. He alone paid what was owed by all. We ourselves were not permitted to escape from bondage. He undertook this on our behalf, so that he might drive away the slavery of the world, restore the liberty of paradise and grant new grace through the honor we received by his sharing of our nature. This by way of a mystery" (Joseph 4:19, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. IX, Peter Gorday, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2000) p. 34).

Ambrosiaster: "Having defeated the princes and powers by the death of Christ, God annulled the sentence which had been decreed against us by the sin of Adam, for just as the names of those who act well are in the book of life, so also the names of sinners are in the book of death. Therefore God annulled the sentence by which we were guilty of death both by our own sin and by that of our ancestor, having conquered death in Christ and triumphed over the devil and his puppets in his own flesh" (Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Galatians -- Philemon, Ambrosiaster, translated and edited by Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2009) p. 89).

St. Ephrem the Syrian: “At the birth of the Son the King was enrolling all men for the tribute money, that they might be debtors to Him; the King came forth to us Who blotted out our bills and wrote another bill in His own Name that He might be our debtor” (Hymns on the Nativity, 4).

St. John Cassian: "At the sixth hour the spotless victim, our Lord and Savior, was offered to the Father, and mounting the cross for the salvation of the whole world he destroyed the sins of the human race. "Despoiling principalities and powers, he delivered them over publicly [Colossians 2:15]," and he freed all of us who were subject to and burdened by the record of our unpayable debt, removing it from our midst and fixing it to the trophy of his cross [Colossians 2:14] (The Institutes, 3:3:3, trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (New York, NY: The Newman Press, 2000), p. 60).

St. Gregory Palamas: "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)" (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 128f)."

"Thou hast not imitated the Harlot, O my wretched soul, who took the alabaster jar of myrrh and with tears anointed the feet of the Savior and wiped them with her hair. For this, He tore up the handwriting of her sins" (from the 9th Ode of the Great Canon).

"O God and Lord of Hosts, and Maker of all Creation, Who by the tender compassion of Thy mercy which transcendeth comprehension, didst send down Thine only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, for the salvation of our race, and by His precious Cross didst tear asunder the handwriting of our sins, and thereby didst triumph over the principalities and powers of darkness: Do Thou Thyself, O Master, Lover of mankind, accept also from us sinners these prayers of thanksgiving and entreaty, and deliver us from every destructive and dark transgression, and from all enemies, both visible and invisible, that seek to do us evil. Nail down our flesh with the fear of Thee, and incline not our hearts unto words or thoughts of evil, but pierce our souls with longing for Thee, so that ever looking to Thee, and being guided by Thy Light as we behold Thee, the unapproachable and everlasting Light, we may send up unceasing praise and thanksgiving unto Thee, the Unoriginate Father, with Thine Only-begotten Son, and Thine All-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages" (The prayer at the Sixth Hour).

"O Thou who on the sixth day and in the sixth hour didst nail to the Cross Adam’s daring sin in Paradise, tear asunder also the handwriting of our sins, O Christ God, and save us" (Troparion at the Sixth Lenten Hour).

Friday, May 06, 2016

Stump the Priest: The New Israel, New Jerusalem

Olive Trees

Question: "Is the Church the new Israel? I heard this idea disparaged as "Replacement Theology." Also, how are we to understand the the term "New Jerusalem"? Is it Heaven? The Church? A literal city? All three?"

St. Paul's teaching in Romans 11 is clear that those Jews who rejected Christ are like branches cut off from the olive tree, which represents the people of God -- and that gentile converts are like wild olive branches that have been grafted on to that same tree. The Church is the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), the Israelites formed the Church of the Old Testament, but the New Testament Church is in continuity with the old. However, Romans 11 is equally clear that there is still a future in God's providence for those who are the physical descendants of the Old Testament Israel, who rejected Christ and so have been cut off from the Church, but who will one day be saved. And so we do speak of the Church as the new Israel, but this does not mean there is no sense in which we can still speak of the Israel according to the flesh.

We do not accept the notion of some Protestants that teach that there is still a separate covenant for the Jews, and that they may be saved by the Old Covenant, while Christians are saved by the New. Nor do we believe that the descendants of those who rejected Christ have some special claim on the Holy Land that entitles them to steal land from Arab speaking Christians, many of whom are no doubt descended from those Jews that embraced Christ. Christians are children of Abraham in the truest sense, and as such are the true heirs of God's promise to him:
"Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham" (Galatians 3:7-9).
Because we do not equate the modern state of Israel with the Israel of the Old Testament, some Protestants attempt to argue that this constitutes antisemitism, but we reject this claim. Furthermore, I would argue that this abuse of the label of antisemitism in an attempt to defend even the most indefensible actions of the state of Israel only cheapens the term, and has the effect of providing greater credibility for real antisemitic voices.

As for the term "New Jerusalem," we find this phrase in Revelation 21:2:

Here are examples of what the Fathers say this phrase means:
"The heavenly Jerusalem is the multitude of the saints who will come with the Lord, even as Zechariah said: "Behold my Lord God will come, and all his saints with him [Zechariah 14:5 LXX]" (Apringius of Beja, Tractate on the Apocalypse 21:2, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XII, William C Weinrich, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2005) p. 355).
"By Jerusalem he symbolized the blessed destiny and dwelling of the saints, which he figurately calls Jerusalem both here and in the following passages (Oecumenius, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 20:13-21:2, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XII, William C Weinrich, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2005) p. 355).
"The city is constructed of the saints concerning whom it is written, "Holy stones are rolled upon the land, [Zechariah 9:16 LXX]" and it has Christ as it cornerstone. It is called a "city," since it is the dwelling place of the kingly Trinity -- for [the Trinity] dwells in it and walks in it, as he promised -- and it is called "bride," since it is joined to the Lord and is united with him in the highest, inseparable conjunction" (St. Andrew of CaesareaCommentary on the Apocalypse, 21:2, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XII, William C Weinrich, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2005) p. 356).
We find something similar in Hebrews 12:22 ("But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem"), as well as Galatians 4:26 ("But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all"). In context, both of these passages are contrasting the heavenly Jerusalem with the Old Covenant and those refusing to embrace the New Covenant.

And so, from these passages, and from what the Fathers say about them, I think we can say that the New Jerusalem refers to the Church, to all the saints in heaven, and to heaven itself.

See Also: Stump the Priest: Antisemitism in the Holy Week Services?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Stump the Priest: Out of This World?


Question: "What is meant by the first part of "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil." in John 17:15? St. Theophylact is rather mute on that point."

To understand this verse, you have to read it in the context of the entire chapter, which is composed of what is often called Christ's "High Priestly Prayer." This prayer has three sections. It begins with a prayer for Christ Himself (1-5), then for His disciples (6-19), and finally for all who would come to believe in Him through His disciples (20-26).

Most relevant to the meaning of the verse in question is a theme throughout this prayer of "the world". The word "world" (kosmos) in the New Testament can mean the creation, the people of the world (such as in John 3:16: "for God so loved the world..."), and it can also refer to the fallen evil system of this world. We see all three meanings used in this prayer.

Christ has glorified the Father on earth (4) and now prays that the Father will glorify Him "with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was" (5). Christ has manifest the name of the Father "unto the men which Thou gavest me out of the world" (6). Christ in this prayer, prayed "not for the world, but for them which Thou hast given me..." (9). Christ, who now is preparing for His passion which would soon be upon Him says "And now I am no more in the world, but these [His disciples] are in the world..." (11), While He "was with them in the world," He kept them in the Father's name, and none were lost save Judas "that the scripture might be fulfilled" (12). And of His disciples He says "the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (14). Then we have the verse in question: "I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil" (15). Which is immediately followed by the statement: "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (16). Even as the Father "hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world" (17).And He prays for all those who would come to believe, that they would be one, " that the world may know that Thou hast sent me..." (23), and that they may "be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which Thou hast given me: for Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world" (24).

And so the point here is that Christ was sent into this world, and is about to complete His work, but just as He was sent into the world, His disciples are being sent into the world, that the world may know Him. And so now is not the time for them to be taken out of this world. Their work has only begun. They are in the world, but are not of it. And that is our calling, to fulfill the work that Christ has given us to do in this world, but to keep ourselves from becoming part of the evil  that is in this world.

Here are what two Church Fathers have to say about this verse in particular:

St. Cyril of Alexandria says:
"What, then, is His prayer, after that He has shown that the disciples are hated by those who are fast bound by the evil things of the world? I pray not, He saith, that Thou shouldest take them from the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil one. For Christ does not wish them to be quit of human affairs, or to be rid of life in the body, when they have not yet finished the course of their apostleship, or distinguished themselves by the virtues of a godly life; but he wishes them, after they have lived their lives in the company of men in the world, and have guided the footsteps of those who are His to a state of life well pleasing to God, then at last, with the glory they have achieved, to be carried into the heavenly city, and to dwell with the company of the holy angels. We find, moreover, one of the Saints approaching the God Who loves virtue with the cry: Take me not away in the midst of my days; for pious souls cannot, without a pang, put off the garment of the flesh before they have perfected their life in holiness above their fellows. Therefore also the Law of Moses, teaching us that sinners are visited as in wrath, and by way of penalty, with premature death, often reiterates the warning to stand aloof from evil, that thou diest not before thy time. Besides, if the Saints chose to keep themselves apart from our daily life, it would infer no small loss to those who are unstable in the faith; nay, they could in nowise be guided in the way of righteousness, without the aid of those who are able to lead them therein. Paul knew this when he said, To depart and be with Christ is far better for me, yet to abide in the flesh is more needful for your sake. Christ, therefore, in His care for the salvation of the uninstructed, says that those who are in the world ought not to be left desolate without the Saints, who are men of light, and the salt of the earth; but prays rather for the safe keeping of His holy ones, and that they may be ever untouched by the malice of the evil one, shunning the assault of temptations by the power of His Omnipotent Father" (Commentary on John 11:9).
St. John Chrysostom says:
"...Christ came not to put us to death and deliver us from the present life in that sense, but to leave us in the world, and prepare us for a worthy participation of our heavenly abode. Wherefore He saith to the Father, “And these are in the world, and I come to Thee; I pray not that Thou shouldest take them from the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil,” (John 17:11,15) i.e., from sin"(Homilies of Galatians 1:4).
For more information on this chapter you can read three homilies St. John Chrysostom gave on this chapter:

Homily 80 on John 17:1-5
Homily 81 on John 17:6-13
Homily 82 on John 17:14-26

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Stump the Priest: Laws about Slavery


Question: "Doesn't the fact that the Old Testament has laws that allow for slavery constitute an endorsement of slavery?"

I have previously addressed the issue of why slavery existed during the period of time that the Scriptures were written, and you can read that article for more on the subject generally:

"Stump the Priest: What about Slavery in the Bible?"

But to address this specific question, let's consider the question of whether the fact that there are laws regarding divorce in Old Testament constitute an endorsement of divorce. We are told in no uncertain terms that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Christ was asked by the Pharisees about the issue of Divorce in Matthew 19:1-9, and He stated that divorce should not happen: "What God has put together, let not man put asunder". But when asked why the law of Moses allowed for divorce, Christ answered "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery." Divorce is the result of sin, and the Law regulated it in order to place some limitations on it, but this does not mean that divorce is something that God is in favor of.

Likewise, slavery was a universal fact of life in the ancient world, for reasons that are addressed in the above referenced article. In fact, we still have forms of involuntary servitude even in our current legal system. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, allowed for involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime, and we also still have the potential for a military draft, which is likewise a form of involuntary servitude. And even voluntary military service is somewhat analogous to indentured servitude, because once you make the commitment, you are not simply free to quit, like you would be at a regular job. All this is true, even in our times, in which we have advanced in terms of technology, education, and infrastructure beyond the imaginations of people of ancient times. There is still a social necessity for some forms of involuntary servitude, even now.

It is difficult for us to imagine what life was like during the Old Testament period, but if we want to understand it, we have to make the effort to try. They did not have the United Nations, a prison system, or a much in the way of a welfare system, though there was some provisions made for the poor. However, in those days simply having enough food to eat was a challenge, and for many people, selling themselves into slavery was a preferable option to starvation. The laws we find in the Old Testament provided rights to slaves, and placed limitations on their masters. This was in stark contrast to the pagan world which generally afforded no rights to slaves at all.

So no, the fact that there were laws to regulate something does not at all suggest that God endorsed it as a good thing.

For more information, see:

Does God Approve of Slavery According to the Bible? by Rich Deem
Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (Old Testament), by Glen Miller
Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (New Testament), by Glen Miller
Stump the Priest: What about Slavery in the Bible? by Fr. John Whiteford

Friday, March 25, 2016

Stump the Priest: Communion Spoons


Question: "Doesn't the 101st canon of the Council of Trullo forbid the use of communion spoons? Why are the laity not allowed to receive communion in the hand and from the chalice, as they did at the time of the Ecumenical Councils?"

The canon in question has nothing to do with communion spoons. It addressed the practice of some people who rather than receive communion in the hand, as was the practice at that time, would make vessels of their own, and would receive communion in these vessels, thinking it was more pious than to receive it in the hand. Some may also have used these vessels to take some of the Eucharist to their homes. This practice was specifically prohibited by that canon:
"The divine Apostle loudly proclaims the man created in the image of God to be a body of Christ and a temple. Standing therefore, far above all sensible creation, and having attained to a heavenly dignity by virtue of the saving Passion, by eating and drinking Christ as a source of life, he perpetually readjusts both his eternal soul and his body and by partaking of the divine grace he is continually sanctified. So that if anyone should wish to partake of the immaculate body during the time of a Synaxis, and to become one therewith by virtue of transessence, let him form his hands into the shape of a cross, and, thus approaching, let him receive the communion of grace. For we nowise welcome those men who make certain receptacles out of gold, or any other material, to serve instead of their hand for the reception of the divine gift, demanding to take of the immaculate communion in such containers; because they prefer soulless (i.e., inanimate) matter and an inferior article to the image of God. In case, therefore, any person should be caught in the act of imparting of the immaculate communion to those offering such receptacles, let him be excommunicated, both he himself and the one offering them."
The practice of distributing the Eucharist to the laity with a spoon became the norm because of the practical issue of laity accidentally dropping particles of the Eucharist when communing. If you pay attention when people come up to kiss the Cross at the end of the liturgy, and receive the antidoron, you can't help but notice that there are almost always crumbs on the floor. We should of course make every effort to avoid this, even when it comes to antidoron, but when it comes to the Eucharist, this is an infinitely more serious problem.

The clergy still receive communion in the hand, and drink directly from the chalice -- and they have the benefit of having the Holy Table to do this over, so that if something falls, it falls on the Holy Table, and can easily be consumed. However, even in the Altar, and despite the usual care that is exercised, accidents sometimes still happen. Such things are far more likely to happen outside of the altar.

If we believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, we have to believe that when it makes a change, like the introduction of the use of communion spoons, there is a good reason for it. There are those who selectively advocate some ancient practice be revived because "this is how they did it in the early Church," but they usually do not advocate a return to the strict penitential system that they had in the early Church. Those who joined the early Church did so at a time when doing so could easily result in their martyrdom, and they were held to a very high standard, and so there are practices that made sense in that context that do not work so well in the context of a Church in which many people, unfortunately, grow up in the Church with a much lower level of piety.

We don't have to speculate about the results of returning to this practice in our time. We can look at what has happened in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II when they began to allow laity to receive communion in the hand. The result was not an increase of piety, but just the opposite. I know of a pious Roman Catholic who says more cockroaches receive first communion each week than people, because particles so routinely drop to the floor -- and most people do not seem to be concerned about it, either.

No less than Pope John Paul II observed:
"In some countries the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has been introduced. This practice has been requested by individual episcopal conferences and has received approval from the Apostolic See. However, cases of a deplorable lack of respect toward the eucharistic species have been reported, cases that are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful toward the Eucharist" (Dominicae Cenae 11.9).
The wisest course for us is to humbly accept the Tradition as we have received it, and to trust that what the Church has established is for our salvation.

See Also: Communion and Germs

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Stump the Priest: A Time to Keep Silence


Question: "In the Old Testament we read that there is 'a time to keep silence and a time to speak' (Ecclesiastes 3:7). What is the value of silence and quiet in a time when we are always 'plugged in'?"

This passage is actually speaking about silence in terms of when we should speak. However, your question is more focused on silence in terms of removing distractions from our life, particularly for times of spiritual focus. Both aspects are important to consider.

What Ecclesiastes is saying is that there are times when we should speak, and there are times when we should not. There are times when we can betray God by speaking, and there are times when we can betray God by our silence. When to speak or when not to speak is a question of wisdom, and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

How does one acquire the wisdom needed to make the right choices? One thing we need to do is to inform ourselves by studying the Scriptures, which contain great wisdom. We should also seek wise counsel, and we should pray for divine guidance. And then, you have to make what seems to be the wisest choice, but remaining open to the correction of others and praying that God will correct you, if you have made the wrong choice.

The Fathers say quite a bit about the virtues of silence. One good source to read on this is "The Evergetinos," which is a compilation of sayings of the desert fathers, but arranged topically, by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. In volume 2, beginning on page 353, there is a section entitled "Concerning speech and silence, how and when to make use of them, and that idle talk is a sin." Here are a few excerpts from that section:
"An Elder said: "One man thinks that he is being silent, and yet his heart is judging others; such a man is always talking. Another man talks from morning until evening and yet keeps silence; that is, he says nothing that is not beneficial."
"A brother visited a certain Elder and said to him: "Abba, give me a word, so that I may be saved." The Elder replied: "If you go to someone, do not hasten  to speak before you consider what you are going to say." Filled with compunction at this saying, the brother made a prostration and remarked: "Truly, I have read many books, but never have I come across such learning." Thus edified, he departed."
"Abba Isaiah said: "Wisdom does not consist in speaking; wisdom means knowing the time when you should speak and when to reply as necessary. Make it seem that you know nothing, although you have knowledge, so as to avoid great distress; for he who appears to have knowledge lays burdens on himself. Do no boast about your knowledge, for no one knows anything."
"An Elder sais: "If you acquire silence, do not pride yourself on having attained to virtue, but say: 'I am unworthy even to speak.'""
From St. Diadochos: "Just as, when the doors of the baths are left continually open, the heat inside is quickly driven out, so also the soul, when it wishes to say many things, even though everything that it says may be good, disperses its concentration through the door of the voice. Hence, the soul, deprived of suitable spiritual ideas, loses the strength to struggle against thoughts and babbles with anyone it encounters. Since in this way (through loquacity) the soul drives out the Holy Spirit, it cannot keep the intellect free from harmful fantasies; for the Good Spirit always flees from loquacity, which is the cause of every upset and fantasy. Timely silence is good, since it is nothing other than the mother of the wisest thoughts."
"Two brothers from Sketis wanted to visit Abba Anthony. They embarked on a boat, and with them embarked a certain Elder, whom the brothers did not know and who was likewise going to visit Abba Anthony. As they sat on the boat, the brothers discussed what the Fathers say about the Scriptures and also talked about their handiwork. The Elder was silent. After they had disembarked from the boat and reached their destination, Abba Anthony said to the brothers: "You found good company in in this Elder." Then he said to the Elder: "You had good brothers travelling with you, Abba." The Elder replied: "They are good, but their house has no door; anyone who wants to can enter the stable and untie the ass." He said this in order to show that they said whatever came into their mouths."
Here are some thoughts on the question of distractions:
"There are a number of important things that should be observed by those seeking spiritual development. One of these is physical and mental quiet (hesychia), made possible by living in a quiet place [or turning off the TV at home, the radio in the car, etc.], away from noise, confusion, and distractions. Control of talking is another. Such control helps bring about inner silence, which strengthens a person spiritually, whereas unnecessary talking does the reverse" (Anchored in God: Life, Art, and Thought on the Holy Mountain of Athos, Dr. Constantine Cavarnos).
"Silence greatly helps in spiritual life. It is good for one to practice silence for about an hour a day: to test himself, to acknowledge his passions and to fight in order to cut them off and purify his heart. It is very good if there is a quiet room in the house which gives him the feeling of a monastic cell. There, “in secret”, he is able to do his spiritual maintenance, to study, and to pray. A little spiritual study done before prayer helps greatly. The soul warms up and the mind is transported to the spiritual realm. That’s why, when a person has many distractions during the day, he should rejoice if he has ten minutes for prayer, or even two minutes to read something, so as to drive away distractions" (Excerpts from Family Life, by St. Paisios the Athonite).
We cannot avoid distractions all of the time, but we need to set aside times when we intentionally avoid them, so that we can make progress in the spiritual life. Great Lent is one tenth of the year. We should treat it as a tithe, and especially set this time apart for spiritual focus. This does mean we need to cut down the usual noise, and spend more time in prayer, more time reading the Scriptures and other spiritually edifying books, and more time in the services of the Church.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Stump the Priest: When does a Fast Begin and End?


Question: "Does a fast begin and end at the time of Vespers, or at midnight?"

While the liturgical day begins and ends at Vespers, we begin fasting no later than midnight, and we end the fast at some point after midnight, depending on whether or not there is a liturgy at which we will receive communion.

There are some who argue that we can break a fast after Vespers rather than at midnight, but consider what this would mean for Pascha. It is true that at the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday, we begin to enter into the celebration of Pascha in an anticipatory way (e.g., the liturgical colors are changed from black (or purple) to white at this service); but we do not break the fast. In fact the ecumenical canons specifically forbid breaking the fast before midnight:
"The faithful celebrating the days of the saving Passion with fasting and prayer and contrition must cease their fast about the middle hours of the night after Great Saturday, the divine Evangelists Matthew and Luke having signaled us the lateness of night, the one by adding the words “at the end of the sabbath” (Matt. 28:1) and the other by saying “very early in the morning” (Luke 24:1)" (Canon 89 of the Quinisext Council).
Also, except for infants, or those with health issues, we begin a complete fast from all food and drink from the midnight before the day of the Liturgy at which we will receive communion.

See also: 

The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today (Draft document of the Pan-Orthodox Council, adopted by the 5th Pan-Orthodox Pre-Council Conference in Chambésy on October 10-17, 2015)

On the Participation of the Faithful in the Eucharist (Document approved at the Hierarchal Consultation of the Russian Orthodox Church, February 2–3, 2015 in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow)

Living an Orthodox Life: Fasting

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Stump the Priest: Infant Baptism


Question: "St. Paul tells us that "as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27); and St. Peter tells us that "...baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21). How can an involuntary child "put on Christ" if they had no say in the baptism? In what sense and in what way is baptism salvific if the child is unable to answer God with a good conscience?"

What Saith the Scriptures?

The New Testament does not explicitly say anything about infant baptism, one way or the other. But St. Paul does tell us that baptism is the sign of entry into the New Covenant. He calls it both "the circumcision made without hands" and "the circumcision of Christ":
"In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead" (Colossians 2:11-12).
So in the Old Testament, was circumcision limited to those who were old enough to speak for themselves and choose it, or was it mandated for infants as well? When God instituted circumcision, he specifically stated that it was mandatory for infants:
"And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:12-14).
Note that it not only states that a child should be circumcised on the eighth day, but also states that the child who is not circumcised on the eighth day "shall be cut off from his people..." Why? Because "he hath broken my covenant." A child who is eight days old cannot speak for himself. He can neither compel his parents to have him circumcised, nor does he have any power to resist it if his parents chose to have him circumcised. And yet God tells Abraham that a child who is not circumcised has broken the covenant. This is because the Scriptures do not reflect the extreme individualism of our contemporary culture. Our parents make all kinds of decisions for us. We are connected with them, and they can exercise faith on our behalf. They can also make bad choices that negatively affect us. At some point we either have to choose to continue along with those decisions, or we can choose to chart our own course, but when we are infants, this is clearly not the case.

St. Peter said in his sermon on the day of Pentecost:
"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call" (Acts 2:38-39).
Now one could interpret this to mean that this promise would apply to their children when they came of age at some future point, but given that he was speaking to Jews who had since the time of their father Abraham initiated their sons into the covenant through circumcision on the eighth day, unless infants were specifically excluded by the Apostles, these people would have had every reason to believe that this had a more immediate application, and that baptism was for even their infant children.

Furthermore, there are references in the New Testament to an entire household being baptized (e.g. Acts 16:33-34). While this does not prove that infants were included, there is no suggestion that they were not, and it is very likely the case that they were.

Tradition

The Tradition of the Church is abundantly clear on this subject. One of the earliest Christian writers outside of the New Testament was St. Hippolytus of Rome, and when speaking of how baptisms were done, he says:
“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [written in 215 A.D.]).
And St. Cyprian of Carthage, responding to a dispute about whether children should be baptized on the eighth day or sooner, wrote:
"But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified with in the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man" (Epistle 63:2, To Fidus, on the Baptism of Infants, written around the year 253 A.D.).
And what is very significant here is that no one was suggesting that infants should wait until they were old enough to speak for themselves -- only about whether one should wait eight days, or less.

One could multiply quotes from the Fathers on this subject, but you can find many of them here:

http://www.churchfathers.org/category/sacraments/infant-baptism/

What are Infants Capable of?

Finally, I am not so sure that we can assume that infants have no spiritual awareness, given what we are told about St. John the Baptist in Luke chapter one. We are told that while he was still an unborn child in his mother's womb he leaped for joy when his mother greeted the Virgin Mary who was already carrying the unborn Christ in her womb:
"And it came to pass, that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:41).
And previous to this, when the birth of St. John the Baptist was foretold to father, St. Zachariah, he was told:
"For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink [i.e., he will be a Nazarite]; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15).
This clearly indicates that St. John the Baptist had a spiritual life even as an unborn infant. While St. John the Baptist was a uniquely called and gifted person, nothing in Scripture suggests that his ability to experience the grace of God as an infant was unique to him.

For more information:

Infant Baptism in the Orthodox Church, by Fr. John Hainsworth

Is Infant Baptism Biblical?, by Robert Arakaki

R. C. Sproul (a Presbyterian Minister and Scholar): A Biblical Defense of Infant Baptism: