Friday, July 6, 2018

'An attitude of listening to God...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

During a somewhat casual conversation that strayed from subject-to-subject within my family circle a few days ago, we collectively arrived at a very rare consensus of opinion: There is just too much "noise" at practically any venue one chooses to attend or visit.

It started with the realization that now even at a sports stadium, there is pop/rock music blaring away all through the event, and television screens out in the concession area promoting products or allowing you to watch the game while away from your seat. Advertising is, of course, ubiquitous. It is as if there is a concerted effort to make sure that no one remains "un-entertained" even if only for a moment. That is just one example from among many. And recently, when in a restaurant, from my particular vantage point, I was able to view four television screens at once (there were a few more behind me) - each with a different program on. (Of the four, I chose "Judge Judy" by the way). Simultaneously, loud rock music was blaring over the speakers!  We were fairly shouting across the table at each other just to make conversation.

Are we, in turn, in danger of inevitably fearing silence? Or, will silence be experienced as a lack of something - anything - to keep us distracted? This brings to mind a dystopian novella by E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops. In a remote future, the "machine" controlled by the State, provides a distinct "hum" in the background that keeps everyone settled and secure. The drama of the story is about the panic that sets in when the "machine stops." Silence can be unsettling.

Thinking this over, I recently received a newsletter from a monastery in New Mexico - dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Perhaps this is typically monastic, but I found this insightful passage in the newsletter. It is from a very prominent Greek Orthodox theologian, Met. Hierotheos Vlahos on the meaning of hesychia or stillness. Combining genuine theology with what we would call spirituality, he writes the following:

Theology means speaking about God based on knowledge and experience of him. Hesychia is the way in which we acquire this spiritual knowledge of God. We live in an age of constant activity, gratification of the senses, uncontrolled imagination and speculations that wear people out. They are searching for inner stillness - hesychia - from the world of the senses and imagination, but also the theology - knowledge of God -- to give their lives meaning.

Prominent as hesychia is in the passage just presented, perhaps we need to ask: what exactly does hesychia mean? It is not exactly a household term (not even in Orthodox Christian households?) or a word used with familiarity in the "public square." In fact, a use of the word could very likely draw a quizzical (or dismissive?) expression.

Thus, it is helpful to present a working definition of this term since it is so often used in our spiritual vocabulary. We hear it often, and perhaps are uncertain how best to translate, or at least understand it. I will turn to the translation work of such prominent scholars and theologians as Archbishop Kallistos Ware, Philip Sherrard and Norman Russell for providing such a working definition, as they have worked on translating texts from our spiritual tradition - and these are often "hesychastic texts" - for many decades. The fruit of this translation work is now accessible in the four volumes of The Philiokalia which have been published to date.

In the useful Glossary provided at the back of each volume, and under the word "stillness," we will find the following:

STILLNESS (hesychia): from which are derived the words hesychasm and hesychast, used to denote the whole spiritual tradition represented in The Philokalia as well as the person who pursues this spiritual path it delineates: a state of inner tranquility or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of the heart. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him." (Vol. 4, p. 434-435).

"Inner tranquility," "mental quietude," "concentration," "pure prayer," and "guarding of the heart." The saints tell us that through these practices we can become open to God and actually listen to Him. Are such practices on our spiritual radar screens? Do we deep down long for a taste of such stillness?

As the daily cacophony of amped up noise continues to crescendo, perhaps what Met. Hierotheos reminds us of, is worth a bit of our attention and receptivity.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Greatest and Most Righteous Pillars of the Church

Dear Parish Faithful,

“During their earthly lives, all the saints are an incentive to virtue for those who hear and see them with understanding, for they are human icons of excellence, animated pillars of goodness, and living books, which teach us the way to better things.” (Homily on Saints Peter and Paul by St. Gregory Palamas).

Today we celebrate and commemorate the two great Apostles Peter and Paul. Their martyrdom in Rome is a very well-attested historical event, happening probably between the years 64-68 A.D. under the Roman emperor Nero. This is considered within the Church to be such a great Feast that it is preceded by a prescribed time of fasting, a practice only reserved otherwise for the great Feasts of the Lord (Nativity and Pascha) and the Mother of God (Dormition). This both stresses the historical greatness of these two apostles, the accomplishments of their respective ministries, their martyric ends, and the very ministry and role of an apostle in proclaiming the Gospel to the world in fulfillment of the Lord’s command to preach the Good News to “all nations.” (MATT. 28:16-20) Indeed, St. Clement of Rome in his First Epistle, referred to Sts. Peter and Paul as “the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church].” On careful reflection, it is not simply pious rhetoric that informs some of the hymns chanted in their honor during this Feast:

What spiritual songs shall we sing for Peter and Paul? They have silenced the sharp tongues of the godless. They are awesome swords of the Spirit. They are the adornment of Rome; They have nourished the whole world with the Word of God. They are the living tablets of the New Testament written by the hand of God; Christ who has great mercy, has exalted them in Zion. (Great Vespers)

In the New Testament, fourteen of the Epistles are traditionally attributed to St. Paul and two are attributed to St. Peter. While the entire Acts of the Apostles is basically devoted to recording some of the major events in the history of these two apostles “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (ACTS. 1:8) It may not be wholly accurate to refer to Sts. Peter and Paul as the apostles, respectively, “to the circumcised” (the Jews) and the “uncircumcised” (the Gentiles) – for St. Peter preached to the Gentiles and St. Paul to the Jews) – but this is a way of capturing the fullness of their combined ministries so that Jews and Gentiles would be united in the one Body of Christ in fulfillment of God’s design.

At Great Vespers of this Feast, three New Testament readings are prescribed, all from St. Peter’s first Epistle. We hear from the magnificent opening of I Peter, and this passage profoundly presents the essence of the Gospel as proclaimed in the apostolic age of the Church’s foundation, by the “prince of the apostles.” For those who have not heard or read this passage recently, a good portion of it deserves to be recorded here so as “to make your day:”

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you rejoice, though for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious that gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls. (I PET. 1:3-9)

In this passage, St. Peter reminds us that from the beginning the Gospel bestowed upon on Christians a “living hope” that was based on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. All New Testament writers establish Christian hope on the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. (In his first Epistle to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul did not want his early converts to be “without hope” like their pagan neighbors, thus attesting to how important hope is for the believing Christian).

The Apostle Peter was not offering yet another philosophy, but proclaiming the activity of God – “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” – within the realm of human history; that is that God has acted decisively on our behalf by overcoming death itself through the resurrection of Jesus. He then describes our “inheritance” in heaven in strikingly powerful images, emphasizing the eternal and unassailable reality of heaven – “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” This is in sharp contrast to life as we now know it in this world, for all created things are perishable, subject to defilement and destined to fade away. The Apostle Paul confirms this also by saying that “the form of this world is fading away.” (I COR. 7:31) “Guarded by faith,” we await a salvation that will be “revealed in the last time,” meaning the Parousia and end of time.

Yet, the apostle knows that this gift cannot be lightly received and treated. It will only come after “various trials” that are inevitable in a fallen world. In this instance, St. Peter was most likely referring to persecution as this had already broken out against the earliest Christians. However, suffering comes in other forms. These trials will test the “genuineness”of our faith, purifying it if we emerge from these tribulations purged like gold “tested by fire.” All of this is true even though we have not seen nor “see” Jesus even now. This is true of all of Christ’s disciples through the ages, called by Jesus Himself “blessed” by believing though not actually having seen Him (JN. 20:29).

The strength of this experience is beautifully expressed by St. Peter when he confidently states that we “rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.” This is almost embarrassing when we admit dragging ourselves to church or praying as if constrained under a heavy obligation or a “religious duty” that takes us away from more “interesting” activities! A joyless Christianity is completely foreign to the New Testament. As is a “second place” (or “third” or fourth,” etc.) Christianity in the priorities of our lives.

The intended “outcome” of all this is “the salvation of your souls.” Is this why every liturgical service that begins with the Great Litany has us praying to the Lord in the first full petition, for the “peace from above and for the salvation of our souls?” There is nothing “selfish” in seeking or accepting the “salvation of our souls.” This is the gift of God that is intended for all. In the assurance of this gift, we can work more steadfastly on behalf of others, and share what God has done on our behalf.

The Apostles Peter and Paul are truly “Rivers of wisdom and upholders of the Cross!” They exemplified the later teaching of St. Ignatius of Antioch of the mystery of Christ that conveys “life in death.” For they died as martyrs but are eternally alive in Christ. We can now read their epistles and their lives as “living books which teach us the way to better things” as St. Gregory Palamas said of them. We seek their prayers as we strive to be worthy of the title of “Christian.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Fr Steven Kostoff's Meditations now published in book form!

Announcing the publication of Fr Steven Kostoff's new book, 'Monday Morning Meditations - Reflections of a Parish Priest'.

For almost twenty years now, parishioners at Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit in Cincinnati, and friends in Christ from places near and far, have been receiving from Father Steven his "Monday Morning Meditations" via email, or have been visiting his Orthodox Christian Meditations Blog. Now at long last a selection of Father Steven's reflections have been published in book form by Kaloros Press!

Our parish bookstore will soon be stocking Monday Morning Meditations - Reflections of a Parish Priest, or you can order via email direct from Kaloros Press.

From the Publisher's Description:

Do Monday mornings provide a sense of hope, inspiration and purpose to our lives? If not, what are we missing? Could it be we’ve left something behind that has the potential to be truly meaningful? The Sunday Liturgy’s exhortation to “depart in peace” does not mean: “we’re done, let’s go home.” It is a directive to embody what we have received, through our worship as a community and in the Eucharist, and bear witness to it, through words and actions, in the more mundane quarters of our daily life.

In this series of “meditations,” one for every Monday of the year, Fr Steven brings us back, week after week, to the message of the Gospel, reminding us of its enduring relevance in the face of a secular world with which we are so forcefully confronted. He offers us a way to practice mindfulness by opening our workaday to the Divine Reality that is so often relegated to Sunday services. It is that Reality that makes Monday mornings meaningful.

"Fr Kostoff’s meditations trace the pathway, throughout the Orthodox liturgical year, that leads the reader from the goal of  'bringing our minds and hearts back to the reality of God' to our 'becoming more human' through an ever-deepening communion with the God of Love. These marvelously inspirational reflections can enlighten the spiritual journey of anyone who longs to behold the Face of Christ." — Fr John Breck

 Order direct from Kaloros Press...

Fr Steven Kostoff is an Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America. Since 1989, he has served as the pastor of Christ the Savior – Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Norwood, Ohio, and as a member of the adjunct faculty at Xavier University, in Cincinnati. He and his wife, Presvytera Deborah, have three children and four grandchildren.

Fr. Steven is also the author of The Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church - Meaning, Preparation & Practice, a concise and inspiring guide to the pinnacle of Orthodox Christian worship. Available through our parish bookstore or online.

You can also listen to some of Father Steven's recorded talks and interviews here.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Of Perfect Role Models

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

These last couple of Sundays have us concentrating on the saints of the Church - universal and local. Now, I believe that we have an intuitive need to seek role models. And I believe that this is most true of impressionable younger children, teenagers, and young adults. 

I would further add that we need these role models. They inspire us all to do our best in a wide variety of human endeavors. This is the basis of the "hero" from ancient times to the present. These figures transcended the boundaries of the limitations that mere mortals are subjected to. 

We are always attracted to living images of success, quality performance, creativeness, fierce commitment, and the celebrity and acknowledgment that goes along with such positive characteristics. We all admire such figures - male or female - and many people choose a particular person or perhaps a select few for closer admiration and even emulation: "I want to be like that one day." 

I believe, however, that there is often a confusion between "celebrity" and the positive "role models" briefly outlined here. 

Nowadays we know of people who are "famous for being famous" and if, on the whole, we can make that distinction, many younger people struggle with that, as celebrity status itself seems to be a powerful goal regardless of any moral or ethical dimension attached to it - American idol, "dancing with the stars," and reality TV all come to mind. On closer examination, a good deal of this comes up as frivolous and empty. But the search goes on.

In all of this discussion, it would be discouraging to think that "we" - children, teenagers, young adults, and the rest of us - do not look to the saints of the Church as the perfect role models and heroes that we continue to crave. 

We are surrounded by the saints as if by a "cloud of witnesses." I am not saying this for any pious effect. I believe that it is of the utmost importance in our spiritual growth as Christians not be blind to this presence in our midst. 

There are a few things that I am certain of: 

  • the saints of the Church will not let us down or disappoint us; 
  • they do not have "secret" "double" or "hidden" lives that will cause scandal once they are discovered; 
  • and they actually care about us - in fact they love us - and not just about their careers and bank accounts. 

As an example, we commemorate St. Herman of Alaska (+1837). He is a living challenge to the "values" of our secular and self-absorbed society. Actually, he is a radical alternative to the multitude of role models that we draw from the surrounding culture. And the degree to which we are attracted - or indifferent - to St. Herman will reveal a good deal of our own "worldview" and commitment to the Gospel. 

No one has expressed this better than Fr. Thomas Hopko from a chapter on St. Herman in his book The Winter Pascha:

By American standards, St. Herman of Alaska, like the Lord Jesus Himself, was a miserable failure. He made no name for himself. He was not in the public eye. He wielded no power. He owned no property. He had few possessions, if any at all. He had no worldly prestige. He played no role in human affairs. He partook of no carnal pleasures. He made no money. He died in obscurity among outcast people.

Yet today, more than a hundred years after his death, his icon is venerated in thousands of churches and his name is honored my millions of people whom he is still trying to teach to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness which has been brought to the world by the King who was born in a cavern and killed on a cross. The example of this man is crucial to the celebration of Christmas - especially in America. (p. 47-48)

Thus, if we pray and sing about the virtues of the saints when we come to church, doesn't that mean that those are the very virtues that we are pursuing in our daily lives? Do we want our children to grow up emulating and practicing the virtues of the saints; or is our concern more with their future status and success? 

It is amazing, and I would add distressing, just how thoroughly we know the lives of today's celebrities, and remain quite ignorant of the lives of some of the greatest saints of the Church, including the very saint we may be named after. It seems that we are not willing to go beyond kissing their icons when they are in display inside the church - and that is only if the service commemorating them is on a Sunday. But we would "die" from excitement to be in the presence of a big celebrity!

The saints are not just about miracles and stories of wondrous deeds that make us shake our heads (in disbelief?). They are not just about extraordinary fasting exploits, hours in endless prayer, or the giving away of their last garment to a poor person - though those are remarkable accomplishments. 

The saints are real "flesh and blood" men, women and children who manifest Christ to the world, who live Christ-like lives that actualize the presence of the Lord among us. Their lives are about dedication, profound commitment, hard work, overcoming adversity, struggling with temptation, remaining faithful in situations of distress and danger, overcoming egoism, and putting God and neighbor above all else.  They embody what we wish to embody as Christians. Beginning with "faith, hope, and love." They encourage us by their examples. And they pray for us before the throne of God that we too can walk in the "newness of life" made possible by the life in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These are men and women who were not born saints, but who became holy persons by divine grace and their faith; and who manifested many of the virtues and practices just mentioned as the fruit and "reward" of that faith.

Of course, we do not see the saints of the Church with the same directness and palpability as the contemporary role models alive, adored and aggrandized before our very eyes. We acknowledge that we "see" the saints through the eyes of faith. This can have the effect of making them seem distant and abstract. As not sharing the same world as we do. 

This is all true, and clearly this is a challenge. Getting to know our own "patron saint"  is one way of bridging that perceived gap. Yet, what we truly need are "living saints" to be the role models and heroes that we pursue in our lives. The clergy, parents, godparents, Church School teachers, and the simple faithful of the Church must always be vigilant about their place in presenting at least modest role models for the upcoming generation. 

We cannot compete with celebrity status, but we can embody those simple virtues that hopefully go deeper than what is passing today as worthy of our attention and, at times, misguided adoration. 

A saint of the Church does not need to be placed on top of an unsteady pedestal. For they have found a permanent foundation in the Kingdom of God. From there we seek their intercessory prayers.

God is wonderful in His saints, the God of Israel!

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Saints: Examples of Holiness

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Synaxis of All Saints

We recently celebrated the Great Feast of Pentecost on May 27. Therefore the following Sunday is called, simply enough, The First Sunday After Pentecost. 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 "ancestors, fathers, mothers, 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. Of course, when a choice must be made between Christ and family, it must be Christ, whatever the "cost" of that choice may be. 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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

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)

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Breakthrough of the God-bearing Fathers at the beautiful city of Nicea

Dear Parish Faithful,

Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth...

Today is the Leave-taking of the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. Looking back to last Sunday, in addition to our ongoing celebration of the Ascension, we also commemorated the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea. This is an annual commemoration on the Seventh Sunday of Pascha. This First Ecumenical Council convened in 325 and its great and timeless contribution to the Church is the first version of we call today the Nicene Creed.

Actually, what we use to this day in the Church is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, for the initial form of the Creed was completed at the Second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 381. But since the full title of the Creed is something of a mouthful, we shorten it to the Nicene Creed, with a hopeful understanding of the history behind it.

At Great Vespers for the Holy Fathers, we chanted a long aposticha verse that characteristically and simultaneously praised the Holy Trinity while teaching the faithful, through a summary form, the meaning of this commemoration. Often, the hymns of the Church combine praise, poetry, teaching and exhortation. This particular hymn is a very fulsome example of that.

I would like to present this aposticha verse together with my own commentary added to it, so as to further expand on the hymn and discover what it is primarily teaching us about this First Ecumenical Council and the theology behind it:

O Orthodox faithful, let us celebrate today the yearly memorial of the God-bearing Fathers who came from all over the inhabited world to the beautiful city of Nicea.

The opening sentence is a somewhat rhetorical call to worship and a reminder that this is an annual celebration of these great saints of the Church. They are said to be "God-bearing Fathers," something like flesh-and-blood "vessels of the Holy Spirit," inspired to proclaim theological truths that open up to the faithful members of the Church some of the great mysteries of the Christian Faith.

The Council Fathers came from all over the "inhabited world," a somewhat inflated expression that means that they came from within the boundaries of the Roman Empire - the oikomene - or "civilized world."

Nicea was an ancient city of what was called then Asia Minor, but what is today, of course, Turkey. The city was just across the Bosphoros and the great city of Constantinople. Nicea was renamed Iznik by the Ottoman Turks long ago. As Nicea it was also the meeting place of the seventh and last of the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils. But I have no idea if it is still beautiful!

They rejected the impious teaching of Arius as a Council, excluding him from the Church throughout the world.

Here is the first mention of one of the great arch-heretics of the Church - the presbyter Arius from Alexandria.

A heretic promotes false teaching as if it was a legitimate expression of the Church's Faith, which it is not. It is therefore dismissed as "impious." The title of "heretic" is very unpopular today, as we have relativized all "truth claims;" but the early Church had to distinguish true from false teaching, in order to maintain the "unity of the Faith" and its faithfulness to the witness of the Scriptures.

The teaching of Arius was challenged immediately when it became known publicly. For this teaching was clearly a real threat to the Church's understanding of who the Son of God actually is. For Arius, the Son is a "creature" unequal with God the Father. For Arius, "there was [a time] when He was not." That would mean that the Son of God is not eternal. This severely compromised the claim of the Church that it was the eternal and timeless God who entered into our world in order to save the world. For only God can save.

Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world precisely because in His divine nature He is truly God. God, in the Person of the Son of God becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, the "Word made flesh." We should also take note that "as a Council" Arius and his teaching was rejected. This reveals the conciliar nature of the Church, based upon the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem (ACTS 15). When the apostles deliberated there over the hotly-contested issue of how the Gentiles should be received into the Church, they acknowledged the role of divine grace leading them in their deliberations: "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us... " The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council would make the same claim. The decisions of the Church gathered together in Council are not merely the results of human agency.

They clearly taught all to confess the Son of God, consubstantial, co-eternal, and existing from before all ages.

The "breakthrough" achieved by the Fathers at the Council was to clearly articulate that the Son of God is equal to the Father according to His divine nature. The Son is therefore "coeternal." He has always existed "from before all ages." As the Son, He is "begotten of the Father before all ages... begotten not made." There was never a "time" when He did not exist (as Arius claimed), just as there was never a "time" when the Father did not exist. 

The Son is "Light of Light; true God of true God." And this "breakthrough" was possible because the Fathers of the Council took the very bold step of using a word not found in the Bible, to defend what was stated in the Bible about the Son of God by means of other expressions, images and terms. This word is the Greek homoousios, translated as "consubstantial," or as we say "of one essence" (with the Father). What God is by nature, so is the Son of the identical nature. Yet, the Father and the Son are distinct as divine Persons.

They composed this explicitly in the Symbol of Faith.

The Holy Fathers of the Council expressed this in a creedal form - succinctly and explicitly - with a clarity that refutes the teaching of Arius so that any further misunderstanding can be avoided. The Nicene Creed now expresses Orthodox dogma, the very content of the Faith. 

This Truth is eternal and unchanging for such is the Son of God - "the way, the truth and the life." The Orthodox Church will proclaim this truth to the world until the end of time and then we will experience it "face to face" in the Kingdom of God. 

What we call the creed (from the Latin credo - I believe) is actually called the Symbol of Faith. This Symbol of Faith has stood the "test of time" as it is still our surest expression of Orthodox teaching after almost seventeen hundred years.

Following their divine dogmas in the assurance of the Faith, we worship the Son and the Holy Spirit together with the Father: the Trinity one in Essence, one unique Divinity!

This very expressive hymn closes with a call to worship the Holy Trinity. Actually, the hymn is incorporating what was further expressed following the Second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 381: that "we worship the Son and the Holy Spirit together with the Father." 

After the Second Council we have the full expression of our Faith in the Holy Trinity. (Thus was the work of such great Church Fathers as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Gregory of Nyssa). 

And the Trinity is "one in essence." The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit share the identical divine nature from all eternity, thus being "one unique Divinity!" These are "divine dogmas." Dogmas have been described as "mystical facts" penetrating into the deepest layers of reality, because these dogmas reveal God to us to the extent that we can penetrate the mystery and majesty of God.

With the coming of Pentecost this weekend - and Pentecost Sunday is also called the Day of the Holy Trinity - we will be able to worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in and through the Liturgy and the coming of the Holy Spirit that we will experience in the Church. And that sounds exciting!