Friday, July 15, 2016

God so loved this world

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Remember, never to fear the power of evil more than your trust in the power and love of God." (Apostle Hermas of the Seventy)

In perhaps his most complex, yet theologically-rich Epistle - that to the Romans - the Apostle Paul provides a passage now justifiably famous for articulating his "theology of the Cross."  This passage in many ways stands at the heart of this Epistle and has been endlessly analyzed and commented on throughout the centuries.

St. John Chrysostom's commentaries are known to this day for their multiple insights into this passage and the entire Epistle. A significant part of this passage (which was proclaimed at last Sunday's Liturgy) reads as follows:

While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man - though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him for the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we have been reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.  (ROM. 5:6-11)

We may question the Apostle Paul's characterization of humanity as "ungodly," "sinners," and "enemies" (of God) as unduly bleak or negative; but that may reflect our own unwillingness to look long and hard into the abyss of a fallen humanity engulfed in evil and desperately in need of salvation. Yet, despite that "dark hole" in which we collectively find ourselves - and this regardless of how the brighter side of human nature, reflected in the lives of countless human beings, has always striven to live moral and ethical lives - the Apostle Paul assures us that the love of God, incarnate in Christ, prevailed on our behalf, and thus God acted in order to reconcile us to Himself - a reconciliation that was effected "by the death of his Son."  This is the Gospel, for this is "Good News."

If we turn to the Gospel According to St. John, we hear what is basically the same revealed truth expressed in different language by the Evangelist:

For God so loved the world that he have his only-begotten Son, so that those who believe in him may not perish, but have life everlasting."  (JN. 3:16)

Now for St. John, the word "world" stands for the fallen world of sin and death; of humanity alienated and estranged from God, a "world" both so indifferent and hostile to God's presence that the "giving" of the only-begotten Son culminated in His crucifixion.  Thus, what the Apostle Paul affirms about humanity - "ungodly," "sinners" and "enemies" - is included by St.John's all-encompassing term "the world." But, again, it is this world that God "so loved."  As the New Testament scholar, Andrew L. Lincoln expressed it:

"The force is not, then, that the world is so vast  that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it, but rather that the world has become so alienated from God that it takes an exceedingly great kind of love to love it at all."

Recent events of the most horrific kind imaginable are forcing us to take a careful look at the words of the Apostle Paul and the Evangelist John - both for their negative and positive insights.  The most pressing of these terrible events are, of course, the random mass shootings in our own nation that leave behind nothing but  carnage, mayhem and inexpressible grief.  We are learning the hard way that there are no longer that many "safe" public places that we can resort to, from shopping malls to elementary schools.  Global terrorism seems even more insidious in its utter callousness and disregard for human life, as women and children are killed with a chilling indifference.  The mass murder yesterday in Nice, France, bears this out. These are acts of evil, and they deeply trouble us, as well as make us fearful. We are now facing the renewal of racial tensions in our country. And, as Christ taught, there are "wars and rumors of wars" throughout the world that are further destructive of innocent lives (MK. 13:7-8). Not too difficult to think that our world is spinning out of control. 

The sacred authors of the New Testament saw this with utter clarity. The apostles and evangelists are neither myopic nor utopian. In this they are simply following their Lord and the realism with which he approached human hearts wandering far away from God:  "because he knew all men and needed on one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man" (JN. 2:25) They understood that there are no real limits to the depths to which sin implanted in the hearts of men can plunge the world around us into. This is the way of the world (see I JN. 2:15-17).  In no way whatsoever did they promise that all this would somehow go away with the advent of Christ.

The New Testament witness to this is that God entered into the world of human sinfulness once and for all in the person of Christ.  That He both suffered on the Cross because of human sin, but in the process, as the eternal Son of God, He absorbed all of that sin, death and evil, nailed it to the Cross, and thus overcame it from within.  We were "bought with a price" (I COR. 6:20).  As a Christian, I would say that there are no real "answers" to the human misery around us, but that Christ is our "Yes" to life that comes from God:  "For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him" (II COR. 1:20).

It may get worst before it gets any better.  We need to cling to Christ with faith, hope and love. We especially need to be alive in the Church for in the Church we will preserve our sanity and our basic humanity.  We will learn and receive the grace to lead lives worthy of our calling as disciples of Christ; and to strive to make the world around us a better place for our children and for our neighbors.  We will make every attempt to fight against evil with good.  And, I hope that we will be able to embrace the truth behind these powerful words from an early Christian witness from the ancient Church:  "Remember, never to fear the power of evil more than your trust in the power and love of God."  

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." (II COR. 1:3-4)

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Divine Liturgy: "NOT always easy..."

Dear Parish Faithful,

I recently had an exchange of emails with one of our parishioners who came to the Church from a Protestant background.  I eventually received the response that you will find below.  I then made the request to be able to share this paragraph with the parish at large, and upon receiving permission to do so, I am now forwarding it to you.

I find this quite fascinating, but not just because it clearly favors Orthodox over Protestant forms of worship.  It also speaks of the challenges of the Orthodox Liturgy, as well as the "rewards" which demand some effort on our part as worshippers.

Liturgy does mean the work of the People of God.  All actually flows from the grace of God, but the reception of grace is a synergistic process requiring our attention and capacity to "listen" from within. We always have to "be" there ("lay aside all earthly cares"). 

I never like the question, "What do I get out of the Liturgy?"  But if pressed to answer, I would say, "That depends upon what you put into it."  That seems confirmed below.

* * *

Dear Fr. Steven,

My Protestant upbringing leads me to subconsciously place a lot of importance on the homily - something I feel isn't typical of Orthodox Christians. 
Being a parishioner at a Protestant church is, in many ways, easy.  The music is music of the day, the prayers are just people speaking in their normal voices using words they would use when talking to a friend, the text from the Bible is read in an "updated" translation, and the sermon is made as easy to understand as possible.  It is almost like entertainment. 
I find the Orthodox church to be quite different than that.  I have to work hard to pay attention to the Liturgy as I sing it.  I find it takes willpower to fully listen to the Gospel and the Epistle readings.  For some reason (perhaps my past?) anything that is chanted is much harder to listen to. 
But I LOVE this about our church - I find that our Liturgy much more closely mirrors the experience of a Christian life.  It is NOT always easy, it is not always handed to you.  There are many days and even phases in life where you really have to "work out your salvation."  I am learning this in many ways, but the most prominent is from the experience of Liturgy. 
I find the homily a time to sit and listen, without having to work quite so hard.  And every week, your homilies give me a clear glimpse of the Orthodox Faith. 
I still struggle to "become" Orthodox - there are many years of Protestant faith to undo.  Each week, I feel like I get another small piece of the puzzle, as Orthodoxy becomes more and more a way of life.   

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Saints: Examples of Holiness

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We recently celebrated the Great Feast of Pentecost on June 19.  All of the subsequent Sundays of the liturgical year, until the pre-lenten Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee sometime next year, will be so numbered, challenging us to keep our spiritual sight on the overwhelming significance of Pentecost in the divine economy. 

The New Testament era of the Church began its existence on the Day of Pentecost with the Spirit’s descent as a mighty rushing wind that took on the form of fiery tongues alighting upon the heads of the future apostles [Acts 2:1-13].  The Church has always existed, but the Church as a remnant of Israel that would flourish and grow with the addition of the Gentiles began its final phase of existence with the death, resurrection and ascension of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ Who, seated at the right hand of the Father, would send the Holy Spirit into the world and upon “all flesh” on the day of Pentecost. 

As Saint Epiphanius of Cyprus wrote in the fourth century, “The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ.” 

The simple calendar rubric of numbering the Sundays after Pentecost is one way of reminding us of this essential truth of the Christian Faith.  The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and in and through the sacramental life of the Church we experience something like a permanent pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The first two Sundays after Pentecost are dedicated to the saints -- the first, to All Saints, and the second, to local Saints, in our case, the Saints that have shown forth in North America.  We commemorate all of the saints of the Church – men, women and children -- from her beginning to the present day, including the “patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.”  That is, the entire “cloud of witnesses” that surround us and pray for us while serving as models for our own faith. 

God has revealed to the Church His innumerable saints, and we rejoice in their continuous presence, made possible by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  The divine and co-eternal Spirit, holy by nature, makes human beings holy by grace.  That is why these particular Sundays fall so naturally after the Sunday of Pentecost.

The word we use for "saint" is the Greek word for “holy” – agios.   In a real sense, we are celebrating the presence of holiness in the world, incarnate in actual flesh and blood human beings. The descent of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for human beings to become and remain holy.  Without the Holy Spirit, human beings can be nice, pleasant and even good – but not holy.  And it is the holiness of the saints that is their one common characteristic, expressed in an endless diversity of vocations. 

Every baptized and chrismated member of the Church is already a saint – a person sanctified and set apart as a member of the People of God – and every such member has the vocation to become a saint.  The phrase often used to capture this paradox of the Christian life is “become what you already are.”  This phrase expresses an entire lifetime of striving and struggle to attain, by God’s grace, the highest of vocations – the holiness of a genuine child of God, “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” [John 1:13]. 

Of this we are reminded in the Gospel reading for the Sunday of All Saints: 

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father Who is in heaven...
"He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” [Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38].

We probably have a difficult time relating to such a passage, since we expend an enormous amount of energy – time, talent and treasure -- in order to guarantee for ourselves a comfortable life and the closest of possible family relationships.  God and Church may be a part of that choice, but perhaps only as one compartment of life among many.  At times, the greatest of our goals may be to create a certain form of “domestic bliss,” to the extent that this is humanly attainable.  Nothing else can seem greater or more desirable. 

Jesus, however, makes other claims on us.  And the first of those radical claims is that we must love Him above all else – including father and mother, son and daughter.  This is a “hard teaching.” 

Perhaps it is here that we discover the greatest “achievement” of the saints, and the reason behind the sanctity that they often so clearly manifest.  They simply loved Christ before all else.  And there is nothing that can deflect them from that love. 

But in no way does this diminish our love for our loved ones.  I believe that if we love Christ before all else, then we would have a greater love for those around us, including our very family members.  To love Christ above all else is to expand our very notion and experience of love.  If we live “in Christ,” we can then love “in Christ.”  Elsewhere, Jesus would claim that this would include our enemies!  This is a love that will not disappoint. 

With any other deeper love, there is always the lurking temptation of succumbing to one form of idolatry or another.  Jesus even says that if we love anyone else more than Him, we are not “worthy” of Him!  Clearly, there is nothing easy about bearing the name of Christ and calling oneself a Christian.  Is all of this impossible?  Jesus teaches that “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” [Matthew 19:26].

We share the most difficult of vocations – to live up to our high calling in Christ Jesus.  This is not something that we achieve on our own, but a process that includes the grace of God and our own self-determination, what we call our freedom of choice or “free will.”  There are obstacles that begin with the genetic and the environmental.  There are distractions and temptations too numerous to keep track of.  There is the unbelief of the world around us.  Yet, if we approach this “day by day,” we soon realize that we are simply trying to become genuine human beings, for the glory of God is a human being fully alive, to paraphrase Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. 

As disciples of Christ, we have the “inside track” to allow us to “run with perseverance the race that is before us” [Hebrews 12:1].  So, we thank God for the multitude of the saints who not only set an example for us, but who also pray for us unceasingly in the Kingdom of God.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Reflections on 'National Selfie Day'

Note from webservant: Fr. Steven sent this out to his email list on June 21, but I neglected to post it, and forgot about it until now. Perhaps that was providential, as at the same time, Fr. Steven had posted several important meditations for Pentecost (June 19), which might have eclipsed this unique and important reflection. In any case, my apologies!

Dear Parish Faithful,

Selfie Culture: Sign of the Apocalypse?

Perhaps some of you are aware that today (June 21) is "National Selfie Day."  I just found out more-or-less accidentally. IMHO this is just a bit absurd, but perhaps indicative of  our society's pulse.  For that reason I am providing a meditation that is only about a year old, for those who may be interested in revisiting what I wrote then; or perhaps for those who have never read it, but who are interested in the theme.

Admittedly, this is just one Orthodox Christian interpretation of the whole phenomenon of the selfie, and by extension of the idea of the "self."  The selfie, I believe, is something of an unintended caricature of the search for the "self."  Not really the dark side of the self, but its superficial side.

I was just informed that there now exist "selfie accessories" that are becoming something of a "cottage industry."  There is now a "selfie stick" that one can mount one's camera on and hold about four feet away from one's "self" and thus get a more comprehensive shot! 

But actually, this can lead to a more serious discussion about our self-perception as human persons.  Who am I?  What am I?  What is the purpose of my existence? After all, one of the most famous sayings from Socrates was "Know thyself" (gnothe seauton); and the Church Fathers used those words to lead each human person to the search for God who is the eternal Source of the self. 

Be that as it may, I hope "National Selfie Day"  does not become a national holiday.

Finding our "Self" in the Other

(Originally posted April 1, 2015)

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

What Is a "Selfie?"

As we approach the final days of Great Lent, I would like to turn my attention to a theme that surfaces often in my teaching and preaching in addition to my reflection and reading:  And that is the contemporary preoccupation and obsession with the "self."

From therapists to talk-show hosts and even  "spiritual teachers," we are enjoined to "discover," "get in touch with," or "enhance" our "self."  We now hear of popular personalities actually "re-inventing" themselves as they "move on" to a new phase of life and experience.  And perhaps the most indulgent of all of this self-expression is the phenomenon of the "selfie!"

In all of this, there seems to be an implicit understanding of just what this mysterious "self" actually is, because we refer to it so often and so readily.

But is there common ground as to what we mean by this term?  If we were to depend on more-or-less contemporary psychology, or the behavioral sciences, we might ask the following questions:

  • Does the self mean our "personal identity" - what constitutes each one of us as an unique human being?  We distinguish each other by referring to "myself," "yourself," "himself/herself," and so on, thus concentrating on our individuality.  
  • Perhaps it refers to our consciousness and ability to reflect upon our existence.   As in:  I know that I am alive and that one day I will die, therefore I have the capacity for "self-awareness." 
  • Is the self simply synonomous with the "I" or "ego?"  
  • Buddhism, on the other hand, rejects the very idea of the "self," calling it an illusion that is created by our constant desiring.  Perhaps, then, Buddhists are less self-absorbed than we are!  

Yet, since we do not agree with Buddhism on this crucial issue and accept the "self" as integral to being human, then as Christians we would ultimately claim that there is something meaningful indicated by the term, the self.  That is what we should be trying to discover.

However, as noted above, our contemporary preoccupation with the self borders on the obsessive and idolatrous.  Life is presented as a long and exciting journey of "self-discovery."  But is this in reality the ultimate "ego trip," leading to "self-delusion?"

Frankly, a great deal of today's talk about the self sounds terribly superficial.  It is a far cry from the Delphic oracle's ancient maxim - taken up by later philosophers:  "Know thyself!"

These are simply a few comments by way of preface to an insightful paragraph I came across while reading the book of a solid New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington III.  This author has uncovered a trend within certain writers today who transform theology (reality as God-centered) into anthropology (reality as human-centered).  In other words, in writing about God or Christ, they end up turning the whole quest into one more attempt at "self-discovery."

This is why such scholars are critical of the New Testament and attempt to bring some of the non-canonical Gospels into prominence.  These heretical and gnostic "Gospels" are essentially about discovering the "god within."  "Spirituality" is then really about "self-realization" if not "self-deification!"

In criticizing some of these modern spiritual quests that seem only remotely related to the Gospel centered in Christ, Witherington concluded with the following paragraph - simple, direct and to the point:

The problem with the advice "be yourself" or "be your own person" is that none of us are ourselves. We all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory, and we need the redemption Christ offers us, not another self-help program. We have fallen, and we can't get up on our own.
Self-help programs don't turn us into new creatures even if they can help us curb our addictions or become kinder, gentler folks.
Do we want to be ourselves as we are, or do we want to be something even better - to be like Christ and let Christ's life shine forth to others in such a way that they too will long to be like him?
We are not ourselves because we are fallen and sinful.  This is biblical.  A recognition of that fact may just serve as a good beginning to discover our "true self." And this is why Evagrios of Pontus, a desert ascetic, could write:  "The beginning of salvation is self-condemnation."   (You will not find a book in the "Self-Help" section on your local bookstore with this title!)  

This has nothing to do with an unhealthy "self-hatred." It means to recognize our sins and need for repentance freed from the useless refuge of "self-justification."  Whatever the self may be in relation to some of the suggestions I offered above as plausible possibilities, the real question becomes:  what is the foundation or ground of the self?  What guarantees its stability and continuity?  What prevents the self from being one more fleeting and ephemeral reality, so much "dust in the wind" that goes the way of our bodies?

If anything, it has to be God.

Either the self is grounded and stabilized in God, or it is grounded in "nothing."  We are either "God-sourced" or "nothing-sourced."  If the latter, then the self  is unstable and ever on the brink of disappearing into the void.

Perhaps all of the clamorous cries of "self-affirmation" that we hear today are an instinctive reaction or even rebellion against this inherent nihilism.  A godless quest of self-discovery leads to a dead-end encounter with our own nothingness!   Do atheistic therapists and secular counselors remind their clients of that cold fact?

That last statement needs to be qualified, so as to avoid any misunderstanding as to my intended meaning.

Undoubtedly, there exist many wonderful "self-help" groups and therapies that have been very effective in helping people overcome a wide range of aberrant behavioral problems, especially those plagued by addictions.  The most well-known has to be Alcoholics Anonymous, a therapy grounded in the Gospel that has rescued a countless number of men and women from alcoholism.  To this day, many people have recourse to such helpful societies in combatting their destructive behavior, and thus saving themselves from seemingly hopeless situations.

At the same time, a healthy "self-reliance" is cultivated and restored in persons who need such a change.  Many of these self-help groups acknowledge the existence of God and thus apply their respective therapies within a theistic context.  This adds a dimension of humility to the whole process.  However, it is not quite this phenomenon that I am dealing with here; but rather the empty promises, and even pseudo-theologies, that lead to any unhealthy preoccupation with the "self."

Something has to give between the contemporary obsession with the self that has generated an endless market for books, tapes, CDs, DVDs, seminars, programs, therapies, "self-help" gurus and the like; and the ever-demanding teaching of Our Lord:  "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself ... " (MK. 8:34).

This is not a Buddhist-like call to "self-transcendence" in search of enlightenment.  It is Christ's way of teaching us that to defensively, fearfully, or even idolatrously hold onto the "self" as some sort of autonomous entity will only culminate in the loss of our "life."  To deny such a self-centered way of existence for the sake of the Gospel is to actually "save" our life.

"Life" and "self" are very closely equated in this crucial passage.  Further, the word "life" is actually the word for "soul."  So biblically, we discover that the word "self" is basically synonymous with the word "soul/life."  Each and every one us is a "living soul," formed by the creative power of God and having received the "breath of life" that sustains us and lifts us up beyond the merely biological level of existence.

Employing our theological language further, we should also equate "self" with the person.  (The theological term is hypostasis).  Every living soul is a person - unique, unrepeatable and beloved of God.

As the three divine Persons of the Holy Trinity are never self-isolated, self-absorbed or self-centered, so we realize that that would be a false way of existing.  A genuine person is always turned toward another person in a movement of love and communion, as are the three Persons of the Trinity.  This gives us great insight into the teaching, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself"  (MK. 12:31).

"To be" is to be in communion, as one of our contemporary Orthodox theologians has explained.  If we could pour our energy into discovering the "wholly Other" - God, and the multiple others - the neighbor; then we would uncover our "true self" in the process.  Our Tradition tell us to find our "self" in the other - God and neighbor.

Being a living soul and/or a person, then, describes a mode of being, a way of life, that is as far removed from the thinly-veiled narcissism that passes today as "self-realization," as the "East is from the West!"

Orthodox Christianity affirms the self, but as dependent for its very existence upon the creative power of God and the redemptive grace of Christ.  Each and every one of us is created, sustained, and guided by God toward a destiny so glorious that it is essentially indescribable.  It is this humble acknowledgment of dependence on God that becomes the foundation of  that long process that will lead us from being "self-centered" to being "God-centered."

Perhaps we can go so far as to say:  we seek to be saved from our "self" in order to truly be ourselves in the embrace of God.   Today's world seems oblivious of this promise.

Fr. Steven

Monday, June 27, 2016

An Infant’s Burial

Dear Parish Faithful,

This was a meditation that I wrote many years ago when I had to bury a newborn child here in our parish.  A deeply moving and unforgettable experience. The family has long since moved away, and since there are no names included, I do not find it inappropriate to share it once again with the parish.  I send this out because of the recent death of a grandchild of one of the priests in our deanery, Fr. Zacharias Trent.  I believe that the child of God, Anna, is being buried today. We all hope that the Burial Service and their own Christian faith will somehow console them in their great grief. 

- Fr. Steven

An Infant’s Burial

Yesterday, we served The Order for the Burial of an Infant over and on behalf of a two-day old boy, who died at Children’s Hospital on Saturday.

Humanly speaking, there is nothing more heartbreaking than this: a tiny infant dressed in white baptismal clothes, lying in the middle of the church in a coffin that looks more like a small box, surrounded by his grieving family and friends. 

With an open casket, I was deeply struck by the innocence, purity and beauty of this “undefiled infant,” as he was called in the funeral service. It was difficult not to keep returning to his coffin and looking at him. Here was an indelible image that will always remain with me. 

In addition, we witnessed his poor mother, still recovering from giving birth on Friday, together with a father who was momentarily elated with the birth of his firstborn son, joined together in mutual grief at their little son’s burial service. The initial impact of death is that of irrevocable lost. This is why we sing so realistically, “I weep and wail when I think upon death ...”

We use a completely different funeral service for infants, basically meaning children under the age of seven. This was the first time I had ever served this particular funeral office in my years as a priest. 

I was struck by the beauty of the service, the certainty of an infant’s entrance into the Kingdom of God, and the complete absence of prayers for the “forgiveness of sins” of the departed infant. There is no sin for which he needs to be forgiven — including so-called “original sin.” The service explicitly states that “he has not transgressed Thy divine command” (Ode 6 of the Canon); and that “infants have done no evil” (Ode 9 of the Canon). 

Since transgressing the divine commandment is inevitable in a fallen world, we pray over a departed adult that God will forgive his/her sins. But for an infant, the service repeatedly refers to the departed infant as “undefiled,” “uncorrupted,” “most-pure,” “truly blessed,” and even “holy.” This is not sentimentalism meant to make us feel better. It rather reveals a profound theological truth.

A child, according to Orthodox Christian teaching, is not born a “guilty sinner.” A child is not baptized in order to wash away the stain of “original sin” with its attendant guilt. 

We believe that a child is born bearing the consequences of “original sin,” often referred to as “ancestral sin” by Orthodox theologians precisely in order to distinguish it from “original sin.” The consequences of ancestral sin are corruption and death. A child is born into a fallen, broken, and corrupted world, grievously wounded by sin and death. 

There is nothing sentimental in that assessment of our human condition! Disease and physical deformities are a part of this world, caused by humankind’s initial alienation from God—and providentially allowed by God. Thus a child is never too young to die. And hence the tragic nature of life, nowhere more clearly revealed than in the death of an innocent infant. 

An infant is baptized in order to be saved from the consequences of the ancestral sin that lead each and every person inevitably to sin and be subject to corruption and death. The child needs to be “born again of water and the Spirit”—the Mystery of Baptism—in order to “put on Christ” and the gift of immortality that is received only through sacramentally partaking of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The entire funeral service was permeated by the sure hope and conviction that this little child has been “translated unto Thee,” and that he is now “a partaker of Thy Heavenly good things.” (Ode 6 of the Canon). His death is treated realistically, and the pathos of an uncompleted earthly life is clearly acknowledged. Yet his death is his entrance to life with God in His eternal Kingdom:

By Thy righteous judgment, Thou hast cut down like a green herb before it has completely sprouted, the infant that Thou hast taken, O Lord. But, as Thou hast led him unto the divine mountain of eternal good things, do Thou plant him there, O Word.
The sword of death has come and cut thee off like a young branch, O blessed one that has not been tempted by worldly sweetness. But, lo, Christ openeth the heavenly gates unto Thee, joining Thee unto the elect, since He is deeply compassionate. (Ode 5 of the Canon)
O Most-perfect Word, Who didst reveal Thyself as perfect Infant: Thou hast taken unto Thyself an infant imperfect in growth. Give him rest with all the Righteous who have been well-pleasing unto Thee, O only Lover of mankind. (Ode 3 of the Canon)

The suffering hearts of the mother and father are not forgotten in the prayers of the service, expressed with a certain rhetorical style that may no longer be fashionable, but which retains a genuinely poignant realism:

No one is more pitiful than a mother, and no one is more wretched than a father, for their inward beings are troubled when they send forth their infants before them. Great is the pain of their hearts because of their children ... (Ikos following Ode 6 of the Canon)

This is further intensified in a hymn that seeks to articulate the words of the infant as if he could communicate with those left behind. Here we find a realistic acknowledgment of intense grief, suffused with a certain hope that God can bring relief to that very grief:

“O God, God, Who hast summoned me: Be Thou the consolation of my household now, for a great lamentation has befallen them. For all have fixed their gaze on me, having me as their only-begotten one. But do Thou, Who wast born of a Virgin Mother, refresh the inward parts of my mother, and bedew the heart of my father with this: Alleluia.” (Ikos following Ode 6 of the Canon)

These hymns and prayers are profoundly comforting, not primarily for psychological and emotional reasons, but because they reveal what is actually true: that Christ has overcome death, trampling it down on our behalf by His glorious Resurrection. Death itself has been transformed from within. Horror and darkness give way to hope and life. 

The healing grace of God does not come through pious, psychological or emotional sentiment, but through the awareness of this Truth as it penetrates our minds and hearts through the gift of faith. What other kind of “comfort” can there be when parents, relatives and friends must bear the cross of the death of a beloved infant? 

Grief and sorrow over such a loss never leave us, but they can be transmuted and transformed in time by the joy of knowing God’s love, poured out to us through His beloved Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Acquiring the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of  the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism." (St. Kallistos and St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos)

Icon of St Seraphim of Sarov's Conversation with N. Motovilov, during which he is transfigured by the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit.

Although the Feast of Pentecost reveals the trinitarian nature of God, it is on this "last and great day of Pentecost" that we concentrate on the Holy Spirit. This is clear from the prescribed readings for the Sunday of Pentecost: ACTS 2:1-11 describing the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; and JN. 7:37-52. 8:12, the Gospel passage which speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit by the glorified Christ. 

As Orthodox Christians we do not reduce the Holy Spirit to a kind of indefinite divine power or energy.  Rather, we clearly proclaim that the Holy Spirit is God, the "Third Person" of the "holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity." 

We further believe that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (JN. 15:26) and "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified" (Nicene Creed).  As one of the many beautiful hymns of the Vespers of Pentecost expresses this truth:

The Holy Spirit was, is, and ever shall be
Without beginning, without end,
Forever united and numbered with the Father  and the Son ...

The Holy Spirit, present within the dispensation of the Old Testament and more openly within the earthly ministry of Christ, descends into the world in a unique, but decisive and final way on the Great Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Savior's resurrection. 

The coming of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the New Testament Church and the Holy Spirit abides in the Church as the life-giving Power of renewal, rebirth and regeneration.  The Church would grow old and die (as do empires, nations, cultures and secular institutions) because of our many human and historical sins, if not for this presence of the Holy Spirit, making the Church ever-young and cleansing us all "from every impurity" as the personal Source of sanctification. 

We come to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it a bit more fully: 

"One does not think of the Father without the Son and one does not conceive of the Son without the Holy Spirit. For it is impossible to attain to the Father except by being raised by the Son, and it is impossible to call Jesus Lord save in the Holy Spirit."

All authentic life in the Church is life lived in the Holy Trinity, and on the Day of Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit is the final revelation of precisely this greatest of mysteries - that the one God is "tri-hypostastic" (meaning "tri-personal"), being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Here is a typical example from the Church Fathers of expressing the great paradox of the One God in Three Persons:

"The single divinity of the Trinity is undivided and the three Persons of the one divinity are unconfused.  We confess Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, divided yet without division and united yet with distinctions."  (St. Thalassios the Libyan)

The Sunday of Pentecost is, then, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Pentecost Monday being the day of the Holy Spirit.  Of the divine attributes of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great enumerates the following: 

"From this Source comes foreknowledge of the future, the understanding of mysteries, the apprehension of things hidden, the partaking of spiritual gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the choir of angels, unending joy, the power to abide in God, to become like God, and, highest of all ends to which we can aspire, to become divine."

This can strike us as abstract.  But theology reveals to us the foundation and the vision on which and in which we order our spiritual lives.  The dogma of the Trinity must impact our lives.

The beginning of this process of discerning the presence of God in our lives and in trying to live out that presence is to be found in the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation.  Each and every human person, baptized and chrismated into the life of the Orthodox Church so as to receive the gift of salvation from sin and death unto life eternal, has participated in his/her own personal Pascha and Pentecost. To be baptized is to die and rise in Christ; to be chrismated is to receive "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." Alive in Christ, sealed and filled with the Holy Spirit!  New life and the power with which and in which we are enabled to continue in that life!

Without Christ we "can do nothing" (JN. 15:5), and without the Holy Spirit - poured out upon us by the risen, ascended and glorified Christ at Pentecost - we cannot say that "Jesus is Lord." (I COR. 12:3) 

As St. Seraphim of Sarov put it:

"The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Spirit of God."

Yet, I cannot but wonder if - or to what extent - we are troubled if we squander the "great grace of Baptism" that we received when we were buried with Christ in the baptismal font - both a tomb (dying to sin) and a womb (rebirth).  It seems as if we can be insensitive to the withdrawal of the Spirit's presence from our minds and hearts through sheer inattention and lack of vigilance.

The saints would weep for their sins - in fact, this is called "gifts of tears" as the means of restoring that very baptismal grace forfeited by sin - while we shrug off our own sins as "normal" and practically inevitable considering the conditions and circumstances of life.  If we are more-or-less "like other people" in conformity with a basic set of moral principles, and thus maintaining a good image in the eyes of others, then we are usually perfectly content with our own sinfulness.  In this way, we domesticate and normalize sin by rendering it innocuous and easy to live with. 

So understood, sin is no longer that tragic "missing of the mark" that renders sin so baneful a reality, a reality from which we needed to be saved by the death of our Savior. Thus, we re-define sin so that our notion of sin hardly resembles what we find in the Scriptures!

But how we may weep and gnash our teeth if and when we lose money, property, status, or simply "things;" how we mourn the loss of even a "trinket" if we have invested it with sentimental value.  It is these types of losses that are meaningful and which demand our attention and concern, while the muting of the "voice" of the Spirit deep within our conscience will only draw a lukewarm sigh. 

This is a most unfortunate reversal of values; for losing the "seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit" is tantamount to losing our "heavenly treasure;" while losing our earthly treasures is only to lose what "moth and rust consume" despite our heroic efforts to escape that process. 

This is a paradox:  When, by the grace of God, our spiritual lives have matured in such a way that we truly mourn (and even weep!) over our sins which strip us of the presence of the "Comforter and Spirit of Truth," then through genuine repentance, the Holy Spirit will "come and abide in us" to "warm our hearts with perfect love," according to the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and the person in whom the Holy Spirit lives feels that he has paradise within.  (St. Silouan of Mt. Athos)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Pentecost and the Tri-Personal Godhead

Dear Parish Faithful,

Mystical Icon of the 'Old Testament' Trinity, by Fr. Andrew Tregubov

"And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets..." — from the Symbol of Faith

The Great Day of Pentecost is also designated as Trinity Sunday. On this day, we celebrate the final and full revelation of the Holy Trinity with the descent into the world of the Holy Spirit. 

From all eternity the Holy Spirit "proceeds" from the Father; but He "proceeds" from the Son "in time" for it is the Risen Lord who sends the Paraclete (another name for the Holy Spirit) into the world on the Day of Pentecost. 

Some of the Church's most profound and beautiful hymnography is found in the Feast of Pentecost - especially in the Vespers of Pentecost - when it comes to poetically revealing our understanding of God's trinitarian nature.  As Orthodox Christians, we are monotheists, but we are trinitarian monotheists. 

This following hymn - one of the apostikha of Vespers - stands on its own, with no need for commentary, though I will simply point out that this hymn "spells out" the trinitarian nature of the daily Trisagion Prayers that we offer up to God:

Come, let us worship the Tri-Personal
The Son in the Father with the Holy
The Father timelessly begets the co-
   reigning and co-eternal Son.
The Holy Spirit was in the Father,
   glorified equally with the Son,
One Power, One Substance, One God-
In worshipping Him, let us all say:
Holy God: who made all things
  through the Son,
With the cooperation of the Spirit.
Holy Mighty:  through whom we know
   the Father,
Through whom the Holy Spirit came
   into the world!
Holy Immortal:  the comforting Spirit,
Proceeding from the Father and resting
   in the Son.
O Holy Trinity: glory to Thee!