The purpose of Lent is to engage in enhanced spiritual struggle against “sin in our own lives,” said Deacon Irenaios Anderson, academic dean and church history professor at St. Herman’s Seminary. It involves a type of martyrdom, a dying to self.
“There have been some people in Christian history, namely martyrs, who paid the ultimate price,” said Anderson. They preferred death by sword and crucifixion to safety, self-preservation and renunciation of their Savior.
These martyrs are remembered in an Eastern Orthodox hymn: The martyrs O Lord, forgetting the things of the present life, and despising torture in their longing for the life to come, were granted this eternal life as their inheritance, and now they rejoice with the angels.
Many of the martyrs were killed in the pagan Roman Empire. The 20th century ended up being the most bloody, with millions of Christians being killed under Stalin, Anderson said.
“Now we see more and more Christians being killed by radical Muslim movements such as ISIS, Al Qaeda” and other radical Islamist groups.
The current crisis in the Middle East has prompted Anderson to address the topic of Islam in his first in a series of Lenten lectures, sponsored by Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral. The lectures will take place on Tuesdays, at 7 pm, in the St. Matthew classroom, main floor, at St. Herman’s Seminary. The public is invited. The series begins March 3.
Anderson said the lecture will use an historical approach to the subject.
“This is not going to be a political talk; it’s not going to be politically correct or politically incorrect. It’s going to be a look at history.
“We’re going to talk about Muhammad,” the prophet of Islam and some of the influences and early relationships between Islam and Christianity, Anderson said.
“We’ll try to understand who these people are and why they are attacking specifically Christians and what’s the background for all of that.
“We’re going to see how Orthodox Christianity, which originated out of the East, had times of good relations with Muslims and also times of persecution.”
A prime example of harmonious relationships, said Anderson, is St. John of Damascus, who wrote the first critique of Islam, defining it as a Christian heresy.
“When the Muslims captured Antioch, Damascus and Jerusalem –the main centers of Orthodox Christianity – they soon found that, rather than trying to take over all the administration themselves, (they should rely on) the people who had been in administration. St. John of Damascus had a good head for finances. His father had served in the court. St. John ended up serving the caliph.” For the most part, he had good relationship with him, Anderson said.
In his lecture, Anderson hopes to dispel some of the myths associated with Christianity and its relation to Islam.
One misunderstanding is that “to be Arab is to be Muslim,” Anderson said. “In Egypt, up to 20 percent of the population is Coptic Christian.” Most Arab Americans are Christian, he added.
The entire Mediterranean with its different cultures, including Arab, were predominantly Christian at one time. “There’s a whole history and tradition that hopefully we’ll be able to touch on.
“Before the rise of Islam, from the day of Pentecost, you had Arab Christians (who were instrumental in the) beginning of the Church,” said Anderson.
Another issue Anderson plans to address is the Crusade movement, which came from the West.
“Very often Christians are still blamed for the Crusades,” Anderson said. The recent martyrs, including the 21 Copts beheaded in Libya, were accused of being Crusaders. To say that is “crazy, he said. “We’re going to try to brush aside a lot of the ideas about what the Crusades were.”
Anderson also hopes to clear up some of the fog regarding Muslims.
“I’ve had many friends who are Muslim,” Anderson said. “Not every Muslim is radical. Most are not. We can’t paint with too wide of a brush and say everybody is the same just because they share the same religion.”
Since 9/11 “our experience of Islam is radicalized Islam. The radicals should not be confused with “the family that lives down the road, whose idea of jihad is not holy war, but the struggle against sin in their own life” a concept that applies to Lent, Anderson said
The lecture will address commonalities between Muslims and Christian “and places where there is no hope of compromise,” said Anderson.
“Most people in the West don’t understand the high regard that Muslims have for Christ,” Anderson said. They consider Him one of the highest prophets, second only to Muhammad. They also believe in the virginity of Mary, the Theotokos. However they are “strict monotheists. They have no room to even consider God is Three Persons.”
In their view, Jesus of Nazareth has been Islamicized, Anderson said. “So you’re going to have a different perspective.”
The Muslim faith says that Jesus rose bodily to Heaven, but was not put to death on the cross. They say Judas, His traitor, was crucified instead.
Muslims believe that Christ’s words, as they appear in the Bible, have been twisted by the Christians. They believe He will come again to judge the world. However, He will crush Christianity and destroy the crosses, symbols that are repugnant to their theology.
Muslims confuse the Virgin Mary with Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who lived more than a thousand years before Christ.
Anderson said that the discussion of Islam serves a higher purpose of trying to understand the Orthodox Christian’s esthetic struggle, the meaning of martyrdom and how it applies to Christians in 21st century America.
“I want to apply (the current crisis) to our own spiritual struggle in Lent as we look forward to the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Anderson said.
He compared the Lenten season to an extensive revival meeting in which participants are actively turning from their sins and attempting to live the Christian life to a greater extent. “This is true for other Christians as well,” he said.