All posts by Blair Mulholland

Blessed Annunciation!

…actually, because it is nine months before Christmas, today is the day we celebrate God’s incarnation as a man in the body of the Holy Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary!
In Greek this is called, appropriately enough, the Evangelismos.  The Archangel Gabriel was the first evangelist, the first to give us hope and announce the sending of our salvation.

While it is rare that it falls on the date of Western Good Friday, it is somehow appropriate that it does, as we celebrate the very beginning of our salvation in conjunction with the ultimate path to it – the cross.

Meanwhile… Pascha is still five weeks away…

pascha meme

David Bowie

After downloading and listening to Blackstar last week, I remember thinking how marvelous it was that David Bowie was still alive and releasing music.  I fantasized about the next ten years, and the sort of new stuff he would put out and give us.  I’d planned to write a review of the album for the Mulholland Drive blog.  I was going to do it on Monday.

“Where the f*ck did Monday go?”

These best-laid plans all got shattered when my wife came into the bedroom after I had just woken up on that day and told me the terrible news.  This amazing entertainer was no longer with us.

Outside of my faith and my family, I can’t think of a more important presence in my life than the music of David Bowie.  And yet, I’m not even 100% sure why.  What it might come down to is that he was so utterly subversive.  He took songs and genres, and then put little twists on them.  He delighted in undermining straight narratives.  He took shallow things, and made them deep, or even revealed their depth.  Conversely, sometimes he took very serious things and ripped them to shreds.

You can see this in glam rock.  Compare a song like T-Rex’s Planet Queen with Bowie’s own Starman.  They’re both great songs about aliens coming to earth, but Marc Bolan’s is essentially just a silly story.  Not Bowie’s.  There’s something darker and more sinister going on, with an alien who’s afraid to “blow our minds” that only “the children” will understand.  He would also do the same thing with the music itself, melding different styles and genres.  On practically every Bowie album there’s always something musically unexpected – that you wouldn’t normally hear with someone playing a straight bat – from Mike Garson’s bonkers jazz-piano, to Brian Eno’s weird production, right through even to the big band jazz of last year’s single Sue (In a Season of Crime).  More than anyone else, he would give you the thrill of the new, tingling in your spine as you heard something unexpected.

In short, Bowie took Lou Reed’s original idea of turning a pop song into art, and took it through the stratosphere into pop megastardom.  Pop music isn’t supposed to be like that.  It’s supposed to be dumb and shallow so people can dance to it and get laid.  Well, people still danced to Bowie and got laid, but even on Let’s Dance, he’s still singing about the apocalypse, and his heart breaking in two as you tremble like a flower in his arms.  Bowie was clever and subversive.  He invited us all to stop looking at the superficial and dig deeper.  Or even, as on Lucy Can’t Dance (a single written to diss Madonna that he chickened out of releasing at the last minute), to look at something “profound” and realise there’s nothing of substance there.

I think this is why I identify with Bowie so much.  I’ve never liked the superficial, consumerist, simplistic approach.  I want to think, and delve, and dig deeper, and that’s where Bowie and I connected.  Because that’s where the real emotions are – not on the surface, but in the depths.  More than anyone else, Bowie somehow got to those.  And people have written about Bowie’s appeal to the outsider, and yes, that is a big part of it too.  Turns out there are a lot of us outsiders.  “The music is outside”.

It’s so hard to name favourite bits of work, but I will mention a few.  I still think Rebel Rebel is the greatest pop single ever released.  The Top of the Pops Starman appearance that made him a star is without peer.  Sweet Thing/Candidate from Diamond Dogs has so much drama and pathos you want to cry.  StationToStation in its entirety – my favourite album.  Low, his most innovative work, and one of the most innovative albums of all time.  The video to Boys Keep Swinging.  Let’s Dance.  Absolute Beginners.  The bit in the Tin Machine song I Can’t Read where he rages “Andy, where’s my fifteen minutes?!”  Outside, the first Bowie album I ever bought.  Dead Man Walking.  I’m Afraid of Americans.  Strangers When We Meet.  Sue.  Dang it, there’s too much stuff – so much wonderful stuff!  I’ve read a few comments complaining that Bowie lacks real emotion in his work and it was all an act, he was just playing a character.  They must have cloth ears – Bowie played those characters to get to the real man (or woman) in all of us.  His songs are an excavation of our hearts to find the feels.

So long, David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie.  I will be praying for you.  Thank you for all that you gave me, and everyone who loves your music.  You are truly one of the greatest artists of all time.  May your memory be eternal!

…At Least, That’s What I Believe In…

These are dark times in the world.  Evil and hate and corruption are everywhere.  Terrorists shoot up concert halls, blow up aeroplanes and destroy lives.  Politicians spew hate and bile, and the internet is a cesspit of anger and destructive language.  Meanwhile, even love itself is debased through confusion with sexual gratification.  Things that God created as good are corrupted and debased and confused.  God, or even goodness, seems far away.

Whatever one believes about God, or theology, or metaphysics, we know that the world is in bad shape.  It needs salvation of some sort.  There needs to be hope somehow and somewhere.  And we know that this hope cannot come from mere humanity – our humanity is what got us into this mess.  What we need is divinity, one way or another.  We need to reconnect with that part of ourselves that is pure and good and superhuman.  We see this idea even in atheist philosophers like Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Rand.  But in all these cases of seeking to make gods out mortals, humanity has ended up even less divine and even less human.  We are helpless to solve the corruption of the world by ourselves.

nativity-iconIt is into this darkness, the Winter Solstice of the world, right when we cannot see or find Him, that God comes.  And not just invisibly, or metaphorically, or intellectually, or even merely spiritually, but He takes on human flesh from a human woman, a lowly temple acolyte, and becomes one of us.  We cannot be divine, so God becomes human.  He becomes a little baby, real, tangible and present in the world as the God-Man.  And in doing so, He begins His work to restore the world.  Christ is born!  He is here!  He has arrived!  Our saviour has arrived!  There is Hope in all the hopelessness of the world!

I believe that this is why Christmas is so universal and so appealing to the world.  Of course Easter/Pascha is more important – what could be more important than Christ rising from the dead and defeating death?  But there is sorrow there too – Christ must first die.  Christmas, however, has no downside – a baby is born, there is peace on earth and goodwill to all men!  Anyone can get behind that – Christians, atheists, and anyone else in between.

As Stephen Colbert, for all his faults, once sang, “There are much worse things to believe in.”  Christmas is something that can be true for everyone, even if not everyone thinks it’s true.

I’ve seen a lot of crap online lately, from people saying Christmas is just a crude copy of pagan myths (why isn’t it the fulfilment of them?), that it’s just an appropriation of pagan festivals (it isn’t, or the Church would have a Summer Solstice substitute as well – it doesn’t), that it was “invented” by the Roman Catholics (it was always celebrated one way or another), and that the date of December 25th is arbitrary (it isn’t, it’s calculated from the Bible at fifteen months from Zachariah’s vision at Yom Kippur, and was finally universally adopted by the Church in the late 4th Century).  Christmas is real.  God walks with men again.  Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!  And even if you don’t believe that, you can believe in the Hope that Christmas brings.  It’s a Hope that surely has a better chance of saving this sad corrupt world than anything else.

May everyone be blessed this Holy Nativity!

Christ Can Forgive Your Abortion Right Now!

popethumbsupIt’s come to my attention that a certain heretical church leader has been blaspheming God by saying his church can forgive your abortion “next year”.

If you found yourself underwhelmed by that “generous offer”, I have great news!  God through His Son Jesus Christ can actually forgive your abortion, AND other sins, ALL THE TIME!

confession_1All you have to do is pop along to your local Orthodox Church parish and confess your abortion (and anything else) to the Priest, and not only will Christ forgive your sins, but the Priest will bear witness to His forgiveness by offering you the Holy Mysteries according to your relationship with the Church!

And you don’t have to wait until December for it to happen.

Christ forgives sins by our confession, not by clerical declaration at specific points on a calendar.  And thank God for that!

Saints of September

September is a quiet month in the Church.  Technically it is the start of the new liturgical year, and the two prominent feasts are the Nativity of the Theotokos, and the Elevation of the Holy Cross (in commemoration of the discovery of Christ’s Cross by Saint Helena).  But the following Saints are celebrated this month:

SYMEON the Stylite (1st September, 350-459AD)
0901simeon-stylite0009Symeon was badass and hardcore.  Tonsured a monk in modern day Syria, it soon became apparent that he could outfast and outasceticize anyone.  He was literally not meant for this world, and it soon became apparent that he could not live in a community of monks for fear of showing them up.  He withdrew and lived in a well.

Crowds soon flocked to him, lured by his extreme holiness and lifestyle.  Symeon would have none of it.  He decided to escape them, and climbed up a ruined pillar to live.  Here he remained for many years, a man of humility, and yet one whose advice was sought by Emperors and Kings.

After going to such extremes for Christ for 37 years, he reposed, and was removed from his pillar and buried nearby.

SOPHIA, and her daughters, FAITH, HOPE and LOVE (d.137AD, 17th September)
Icon_Sophia-225x300The martyrdom of Sophia and her daughters is one of the most heartwrenching in the whole Church.  The Emperor Hadrian sought the recantation of Sophia, and devised that her three daughters, named for the virtues of the Apostle Paul, should sacrifice to Artemis or be killed so that she might recant.  Her daughters, one by one, were tortured and killed. Sophia herself was not killed, but died of heartache three days later.  It is unimaginable to think what she suffered for Christ.  But now she is glorified, and reigns with Him.

Why I Support Kim Davis (And the Rule of Law at the Same Time)

In a nutshell, if the State asks you to lie, the State is in the wrong.

kimdavisThis is not about bigotry, or denying anyone’s rights.  This is about telling the truth about reality, when the State legislates a lie.

Unfortunately, that makes Kim Davis a criminal, and she is subject to censure by the State.  And I’d never suggest that the State not do its job in that regard.  But nor can I see how Kim Davis could do anything other than what she has done.  I would do exactly the same thing.

Sadly, I’ve seen many good Christians say things like “why doesn’t she just resign?”  I’m afraid I vehemently disagree with that option.  You might have some case to say that had Davis been elected after Obergefell, and not been honest about her stance, that holding her position is untenable.  And certainly in the private sector, I’d argue that if you are someone who doesn’t want, say, gay sex occurring on your property, then maybe you shouldn’t be running a bed and breakfast!  But that argument doesn’t hold when it comes to the government.  I’ve always said that gay “marriage” in itself is something that is none of our business.  There’s no question that a gay couple should have the right to find a church willing to perform a ceremony for them, invite a hundred of their closest friends and make some vows to each other.  But when you start asking the government, an institution that I participate in as part of a democratic society, to positively sanction something and certify it, and furthermore, to misrepresent the truth about it against the beliefs of a significant part of the population;  that discriminates against the truth, and against me personally, as someone who holds to that truth.  You exclude me, and others like me, from even participating.  That violates our rights. Why should anyone have to resign over that?

Of course, as a Christian, I don’t have rights.  I don’t say that ironically or sarcastically, I really mean it.  I should have no expectation of fair treatment from the world at all.  Christ certainly never got it.  But when you are elected to do a job, and the State quite literally makes the honest and faithful exercise of that job illegal, the correct response is not to let the State get away with it, but stand your ground.  In the Book of Acts, the Sanhedrin told the Apostles not to speak about Christ, but none of them resigned.  Instead, they said “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.  For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”  Kim Davis, faced with being told not to speak the truth, can do no less.

I’m sure many will take issue with my view of “the truth” and see it as subjective.  I’m afraid I do indeed believe in such a thing as objective truth, and moreover, that there are few things in life more basic than the truth of what marriage is.  It’s a union between a man and a woman, sure as penises and vaginas fit each other like a jigsaw puzzle.  To quote an obscure first century philosopher…

…from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh.

Marriage only exists because we have two different sexes.  The State wants us to believe and act otherwise.  The State is wrong.  We cannot say otherwise, because that way lies madness. 
And we will take whatever punishment the State deems appropriate for this infraction with gladness.

Saints of the Week (24th to 30th August)

PIMEN the Great (27th August 340-450AD)
pimenThe word pimen is Greek for shepherd, and Pimen the Great was indeed a great shepherd to the Roman Christians of the 4th and 5th centuries.  He is one of the more famous of what are called the Desert Fathers – those ascetics who lived in the Egyptian desert around that period, and whose sayings were collected into a book originally published in Coptic, but later translated into Greek.

Less strict than other ascetics of the time, he is more noted for being a teacher and spiritual father.  He refused to meet with the Governor when his counsel was sought, out of his own humility, and was very concerned with forgiving the sins of others.  “If you see a brother sinning, do not believe your eyes. Know that your own sin is like a beam of wood, but the sin of your brother is like a splinter (Mt. 7:3-5), and then you will not enter into distress or temptation.”

A monk once said to the saint, “I have sinned grievously and I want to spend three years at repentance. Is that enough time?” The Elder replied, “That is a long time.” The monk continued to ask how long the saint wished him to repent. Perhaps only a year?  Pimen said, “That is a long time.” The other brethren asked, “Should he repent for forty days?” The Elder answered, “I think that if a man repents from the depths of his heart and has a firm intention not to return to the sin, then God will accept three days of repentance.”

He was strict in his fasting and sometimes would not partake of food for a week or more. He advised others to eat every day, but without eating their fill.  Pimen heard of a certain monk who went for a week without eating, but had lost his temper. The saint lamented that the monk was able to fast for an entire week, but was unable to abstain from anger for even a single day.

Pimen had copious amounts of wisdom to dispense, and is worth reading even in the 21st Century as the most quoted Saint in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.  He reposed in peace in 450AD aged 110.

MOSES the Black (28th August, 330-405AD)
StmosesIn the fourth century, there was nobody more gangsta than Moses.  Originally an Abyssinian slave in a pagan household, he broke free of his master and lived a life of murder, robbery and loose women, terrorising the Nile Valley with his gang of bandits.  He would egotistically challenge God to show his existence, since he felt that nobody could challenge or better him.

One day this bragging elicited a response – “The monks of Wadi El-Natroun know the real God. Go to them and they will tell you.”  Having thus been dared, and looking for sanctuary from a robbery that had gone awry, he took refuge in the monastery, and was eventually converted to faith in Christ and baptised by Saint Macarius.

Moses spent many years struggling against his old passions and temptations, but finally overcame them through ascesis.  He became one of the great Desert Fathers, leading a monastery of 500 men.  One story attributed to him relates to a monk who had greatly sinned, and Moses was invited to a meeting to discuss an appropriate penance, Moses refused to attend. When he was again called to the meeting, Moses took a leaking basket filled with sand. When he arrived at the meeting place, the others asked why he was carrying the basket. He replied, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” On hearing this, the assembled brothers forgave the erring monk.

Eventually he was ordained a Priest.  The story goes that when he was put forward, the Patriarch feigned racism, expressing shock at his black skin and ordering him to be cast out.  Moses simply obeyed with humility, at which the Patriarch called him back and declared him worthy of ordination!

Moses retained some of his prior fearlessness.  On one occasion, when bandits attacked the monastery, he overpowered them and dragged them all into the chapel, at which they converted!  But he also took to heart Christ’s admonition that those who live by the sword, die by it, and when the monastery was attacked again, he stood his ground, accepting martyrdom from the assailants as the completion of his salvation.

Moses is well beloved by many African American converts to Orthodoxy, as well as many others for his wisdom and transformation in Christ.

JOHN the Baptist (29th August, 1BC-30AD)
JohnforerunnerThe Glorious Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, a wild, desert-dwelling man who urged the Jews of his day to repent in preparation for the coming Messiah.  He preached repentance through baptism, ceremonial Jewish washing which cleansed the penitent of his sins.  When Christ was revealed to him, he baptised Him also, though Christ was sinless, showing baptism as an act that transforms the material world and the individuals in it through the finally-revealed Messiah.  This act was the culmination of all the work of the Patriarchs, Prophets and Moses the bringer of the Law, and John was revealed as the greatest of these, who passed the baton from the Jews to The Jew.

His eventual beheading at the hands of Herod, traditionally held to be on 29th August, is well known from the Gospels.  He is often depicted in iconography as holding his own head on a platter!  He is also traditionally depicted in the resurrection icon in Hades with Christ, acting as a forerunner there also.  In Orthodox churches, his icon is always placed to the right of Christ (that is, on His left hand side) on the front wall dividing the altar from the nave, and he is often given wings to reflect his exalted status in the Church.  He is also the only Saint of the Church whose “feast” day is actually a day of fasting!

Saint of the Week (August 17th to 23rd)

IRENAEUS of Lyons (130-202AD, 23rd August)

irenaeusIrenaeus is the most pre-eminent scholar of the 2nd Century Christian Church.  Born in Smyrna as a disciple of the famous Polycarp (and therefore a spiritual grandson of the Apostle John), he travelled west to become Bishop of Lyons in what is now France.

His definitive text, Against Heresies, does exactly what it says on the tin – it is a voluminous work that rebukes, rebuts and corrects the various heresies of his time, including Gnosticism and Marcionism.  He does this by several means, including quoting from the Old Testament, confirming the validity of only four Gospels, quoting Paul’s epistles, as well as works like the Didache, 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas.  But most crucially, Irenaeus cites Apostolic succession – that his teachings are the same as those handed down to him by the Bishops from the Apostles, and especially from Rome – the See of Peter and Paul.  He places great stock in his claim that what he advocates is unchanged from the Apostles, whereas the heretics have altered teachings.

It is in Irenaeus that we also see a developed Mariology, where she is cited as the New Eve, who restores with her obedience what the old Eve corrupted by her disobedience.  His writings show that, even a mere century after the repose of the Apostles, Church dogma was clearly defined and guarded, and that there was an established Orthodox Church.  It is also as revealing to note what is not discussed as well as what is disputed between Christian sects.

Irenaeus is thought to have been martyred, though details of his death are unknown, in 202AD.

Saint of the Week (9th to 16th August)

MARY the Most Holy Theotokos (15th August, 16BC-48AD)

Mary is the greatest mortal being who has ever lived, a model of human perfection that will remain unsurpassed.  To quote the prayer of Saint John Chrysostom, “It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos, who art ever blessed and all blameless, and the mother of our God.  More honourable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, thou who without corruption barest God the Word and art truly Theotokos, we magnify thee!”

theotokosquicktoheaarWhy is Mary worthy of such accolades?  Because she was found worthy to bear the Son of God, and freely agreed to the task.  Because her virtue never faltered.  Because she carried God inside her body, and was united with Him in communion her whole life without failing.  Because she is the bridge by which God travels to us to save us, the Ark of the New Covenant, the new Mercy Seat, and the new Eve, who restores the communion broken by the old Eve.  She is the greatest of all the Saints, the first of the Christians, the mystical embodiment of Christ’s Church, and through becoming the Mother of God, she becomes our Mother in Christ also.  Giving props to Mary is essential to our Christian walk, and our proclamation and worship of who Christ is, since her role in His incarnation is indispensable.  And with that, as she leads us to her Son, she intercedes for us as a protectress to us all.

For more Mariological reading, here’s a good article on the subject by Fr Peter Gilquist, and here is my own garbled effort.

While there is some detail of Mary in the Gospels (as well as prophecies in the Old Testament, and references in Revelation if you are prepared to look), much of what we know of her life is based on oral Tradition, some of which is detailed in the Apocryphal book The Protoevangelion of James, which, while it is falsely attributed to the first Bishop of Jerusalem, still dates to around 140AD, and is regarded as fairly accurately reflecting the traditional narratives around her.  This narrative tells us that Mary was born in Bethlehem as the only child of two righteous Jews, the elderly Joachim and Anna (though this conception and birth, while miraculous because of their age, was not “immaculate” in the sense promoted by the Latin church).  At the age of three, she was dedicated to serve God in the Temple in Jerusalem, where, to the horror of Zachariah, the High Priest and her uncle, she is supposed to have run into the Most Holy Place and sat on the Mercy Seat!

Having served in the Temple beyond the death of her parents, she reached puberty and thereby became unable to remain in the Temple.  Therefore, someone was required to look after her, and the widower Joseph was chosen by lot to keep her in troth.

dormitionThe story of the Nativity should be familiar to most readers.  Despite her marriage, she remained a virgin (as Saint Jerome compellingly argues), and continued to support Christ even in His ministry.  When Christ charged the Apostle John with her care on the Cross, she remained with John as he traveled, living with him in Ephesus for a time.  However, Tradition holds that she later returned to Jerusalem, where the Archangel Gabriel forewarned her of her repose, and the Apostles were all miraculously translated (in the same manner as Phillip the Deacon was in the book of Acts) to her side.  She fell asleep on 15th August, around 48AD, and was entombed next to her parents at Gethsemane.  To this day, the Dormition of the Theotokos is the third most important feast day of the Church, after Pascha (Easter) and the Nativity.

As the story goes, the Apostle Thomas is supposed to have been translated to Jerusalem three days later than the others, and requested to be able to venerate the body.  However, when the tomb was opened, Mary’s body was not there.  The Church believes that her body was assumed to Heaven to be with Christ, as the firstfruits of our own bodily resurrection in Christ.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!