Monday, October 21, 2019

'The suffering of being no longer able to love.'

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the Liturgy yesterday we heard the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. The rich man's indifference to Lazarus was "costly" indeed, as he found himself in hades following his death, and thus separated from the "bosom of Abraham." Jesus said elsewhere that a simple "cup of water" would be sufficient to display care for those who are suffering from want. Yet, beyond indifference there was a lack of love for a fellow human being who was suffering.

In our Fall Reading Circle, we are discussing The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. One of the main characters in this novel of "metaphysical and moral choices embodied in narrative form," is a Russian monk, the Elder Zosima. In fact, Book VI is entitled "The Russian Monk." And this one of the books we are now preparing to discuss at our next session (November 11). Whatever one may think about the character of the Elder Zosima, I find it rather extraordinary that one of the greatest of novels has such a character at the heart of its religio-philosophical center.

Be that as it may, I would like to share a passage from the Elder Zosima's teaching that Dostoevsky includes in the novel, a body of teaching that is meant to set an "active love" in opposition to the powerfully expressed atheism as articulated by Ivan Karamazov. This particular passage is presented under the heading, "Of Hell, and Hell Fire: A Mystical Discourse." (Dostoevsky was clearly influenced by the teachings of St. Isaac the Syrian in a good part of this discourse). I am sharing this opening paragraph of that section because, as you will read, there are some profound reflections on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. According to the Elder Zosima:

Fathers and teachers, I ask myself: "What is hell?" And I answer thus: "The suffering of being no longer able to love."
Once in infinite existence, measured neither by time nor by space, a certain spiritual being, through his appearance on earth, was granted the ability to say to himself: "I am and I love." Once, once only, he was given a moment of active, living love, and for that he was given earthly life with its times and seasons. And what then? This fortunate being rejected the invaluable gift, did not value it, did not love it, looked upon it with scorn, and was left unmoved by it.
This being, having departed the earth, sees Abraham's bosom, and talks with Abraham, as is shown us in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and he beholds paradise, and could rise up to the Lord, but his torment is to precisely rise up to the Lord without having loved, to touch those who loved him - him who disdained their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself:
"Now I have knowledge, and though I thirst to love, there will be no great deed in my love, no sacrifice, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come with a drop of living water... to cool the flame of the thirst for spiritual love that is burning me now, since I have scorned it on earth; life is over, and time will be no more! Though I would gladly give my life for others, it is not possible, for the life I could have sacrificed for love is gone, and there is now an abyss between that life and this existence."

"The suffering of being no longer able to love." What a powerful description of that reality that we call Hell!

Monday, October 14, 2019

In an Honest and Good Heart

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

At the Divine Liturgy yesterday, we heard the Parable of the Sower (LK. 8:5-15). This could also be called the Parable of the Seed(s); or even a touch awkwardly, the Parable of the Fourfold Field. 

The reception of this parable and how it has been analyzed by biblical scholars, makes this parable a complex story in and of itself. However, we will remain on "good ground" if we simply "hear" the parable as interpreted by Christ for His disciples, as it has been consistently understood within the Church. 

Before coming to that, though, perhaps it would be wise to review the meaning and purpose of the parables of Christ. The prominent biblical scholar C. H. Dodd, defined the parable as "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought" (The Parables of the Kingdom). 

In other words a story that will make us think, as in ponder or meditate. That is why we need "ears to hear;" otherwise the parable will "go through one ear and out the other," thus wasting an opportunity that the Lord has granted us to understand how His Kingdom is being presented to us as a gift. My own wonderful New Testament professor, Veselin Kesich, had this to say about parables in his book The Gospel Image of Christ:

The Old Testament records a few parables (II SAM. 12:1-4; I KG. 20:35-42; IS. 5:1-7). Jesus, however, brought this art to perfection. Differing from previous storytellers in his subject matter, Jesus revealed his own character in these parables. His purpose was to lead the hearer to him and to compel a response to his challenge. Parables are never told to amuse people; they are not merely interesting or entertaining. They are of a revelatory character.

The Hebrew and Aramaic words for parable are, respectively, mashal and mathla. Whatever the meaning - allegory, riddle, symbol, story - the parable is meant to challenge our way of thinking and "to compel a response" to the gift of the Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus. You cannot "walk away" from a parable of Christ's. Such indifference is a response of sorts, though not one pleasing to the Lord, one would imagine. And such a response makes one an "outsider" who will "see but not perceive, and ... indeed hear but not understand; lest ... you should turn again and be forgiven." Those on the "inside," as true disciples of Christ, have "been given the secret of the Kingdom of God" (MK. 4:11-12). It is a serious matter to come to church and listen to one of Christ's parables!

For those unable to be in church this past Sunday, and who have not yet turned to the appointed reading(?), the Parable of the Sower as recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke, is as follows:

A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold. As he said this, he called out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (LK. 8:5-8) 

Since, in first century Palestine, the sowing preceded planting, the parable is a realistic story that would have highlighted the rich abundance of the seed that may have not seemed so promising because of the various soils it fell into - the trodden path, rocky ground, and the thorns. Thus, the Kingdom of God, though facing an unpromising beginning, will grow by God's grace regardless of any and all obstacles. However, the final admonition to careful listening tells us that we must probe deeper to understand the full implications of the parable. And Jesus will assist his disciples - and us today - by providing an explanation of the parable that reveals the parable's inner meaning:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.

And as for what fell among thorns, they are those who hear; but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience. (LK. 8:11-15)

During His ministry Christ realized, as did many preachers of the word following Him, that many who heard His word - Jew and Gentile alike - would reject that word for various reasons. This was clearly the experience of Christ and His disciples/apostles. So the parable is not simply about the fate of the seed, or about the quality of the soil that it falls into. The parable is thus "symbolic" and prophetic because of its ultimate reference to the human rejection (or acceptance) of the proclamation of the Kingdom and the Gospel. This is a realistic assessment based upon the three sources of temptation inherent in the process of hearing the Word of God and reacting to it. Basically, these three sources of temptation are: the devil, persecution, and mammon.

We pray "and deliver us from the evil one." The "evil one" lurks behind temptation and abandonment to it. This does not relieve us of our responsibility by "blaming it on the devil," but rather alerts us to the need for vigilance. As our spiritual tradition makes quite clear, the evil one often works through such "passions" as: gluttony, lust, avarice, jealously, envy, anger, dejection, vanity and pride. As such, direct confrontation is unnecessary; or perhaps reserved for the great saints who take up that battle with utter seriousness, determination, and profound reliance upon the saving grace of God. Our "inner demons," multiplied and strengthened by our weaknesses and lack of faith, thus pluck the seed of God's word from our hearts as birds will pluck up loose seed on shallow ground. Distracted, enervated or consumed by our passions, the evil one, as an ever-present threat, can leave us with a heart empty of the saving seeds of the divine Sower. And as Christ warned, the horrific result can be unbelief and a loss of salvation.

"Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (II TIM. 3:12) When you think of the "world" as it is, obsessed with "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (I JN. 2:16), this has a certain inevitability to it. From the beginning, many followers of Christ have been persecuted, the great company of martyrs unto death itself. This is a severe test, and many have failed to make such a witness. It is hardly for us to judge, especially if we are incapable of holding up to even the slightest social pressure that will intimidate us into silence or inaction when our "witness" to being a Christian would make a significant impact. "I am a Christian" was the phrase always used by the martyrs to identify themselves, even though it would also serve them up a death sentence. Yet, would anyone feel that that would be an awkward form of self-identification today? Perhaps that can be re-phrased with the following question: "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" If not, it would reveal that we have "no root" and the seed from the Sower was wasted. The Lord left us these encouraging words as He envisioned the fate of His followers to come: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (MATT. 5:10).

Alas, who is not "choked by the cares of life?" In the versions of this parable found in the Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Mark, Jesus adds "and the delight of riches" (MATT. 13:22), "and the desire for other things" (MK. 4:19). So the "cares of life" should not be limited to the legitimate struggle for our "daily bread" and the protection and care of our families. Jesus is referring to that pervasive spirit of acquisitiveness that can never be satisfied. There is a wonderful 19th c.(?) aphorism that needs to be memorized: "Enough is a feast." And yet a contemporary distortion would say something like: "There is never enough!" No matter what we have, we need more of it - and then some more. How humiliating: either collectively or personally, we are the donkey doomed to trotting in a circle going nowhere with an inaccessible carrot dangling before our noses! There is never a shortage of contestants willing to line up for life's perennial "rat race." Has there ever been a "winner?" This insatiable demand for "riches" and "other things" only serves to "choke" the life out of the seeds of the divine Sower so that "their fruit does not mature." The Lord expressed this struggle perfectly with the well-known words: "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (MATT. 6:24).

And yet the parable is not only about the sadly inevitable reality that "many" will lose the seed-word of the Sower upon hearing it because of the evil one, persecution and mammon. Christ is telling us that despite that unholy triad of temptations, there will still be an abundant harvest that will yield a "hundredfold." In fact, that may be the most significant point about the parable. When we hear the Word of God, our concern is "hold it fast in an honest and good heart." This, in turn, will cultivate "fruit with patience." Every Liturgy presents us with the opportunity of "hearing" the living Word of God. If we have "ears to hear" the seed of the Sower will fall on "good soil."

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Thundering Message

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ raises the Son of the Widow of Nain
On Sunday we will hear the powerful account of Jesus raising from the dead the widow's son at Nain (LK. 7:11-16).  This particular event is unique to St. Luke's Gospel. In his Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, the biblical scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, summarized the over-all impression left by this extraordinary event in the following manner:

This incident, only in Luke, shows the Evangelist's special delight in portraying Jesus not only overwhelmed with pity at the sight of tragedy but also turning with kindly regard toward women (cf. 7:36-50; 10:38-42) ... This narrative possesses the charm, color, and pathos of an excellent story:  two large crowds meet, approaching from different directions; the silence with which Jesus touches the bier and stops the funeral procession; the thundering message, calmly spoken, bringing the dead back to life.  (The Jerome Biblical Commentary)

Truly, it is nothing less than a "thundering message" when Jesus said: "Young man, I say to you arise!"  (LK. 7:14).   And when the young man "sat up and began to speak" we should be able to understand, however dimly, the reaction of the crowd: "Fear seized them all; and they glorified God" (7:16).  
The pathos of this story is further increased by the fact that the young man was "the only son of his mother, and she was a widow" (7:12).  There was no existing social safety net within first century Israel that would provide support for this woman.  Without a son who could help provide for her, this widow would have been totally dependent upon the good will and the charity of her neighbors in the small village that Nain was known to have been. Hence, the power of the simple statement that accompanies the young man's restoration to life:  "And he gave him to his mother" (7:15).  What a reunion that must have been!  
Now St. Luke makes it clear just who it was who encountered this funeral procession and dramatically brought it to a halt:  "And when the Lord saw her he had compassion on her" (7:13).  It was "the Lord."  This was the first of many times throughout his Gospel that the Evangelist Luke will use this exalted title for Jesus.  The Greek ho Kyrios — the Lord — is the translation found in the Septuagint of the divine name Yahweh.  Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, this title reveals that as the Lord, Jesus has power over both life and death.  Anticipating his own resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ brings this young man back to life, revealing that even death is not beyond His authority and capacity to give life.

We are not told how this young man died.  In our contemporary world, death can be more-or-less defined in a clinical manner.  The shift in this clinical definition has moved toward a final determination of "brain death."  Be it the cessation of breath, permanent "cardiac arrest," or the brain death just mentioned, we can identify death and its effect on our biological organism.  And so could anyone in the ancient world, where death was such a more immediate and "up close" reality compared to the rather antiseptic experience of death that we promote today in a attempt to distance the living from the dying as well as that is possible.  But as Christians, we certainly understand death in a way that moves far beyond its current clinical definition and determination.  That is because we understand life in such a way that the clinical is transcended by the mysterious:  "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (PS. 8:4). Conversant with a biblical anthropology that refuses to limit a human person to his or hers biological functions, we perceive ourselves in a more complex and meaningful manner. 

There are many ways over the centuries that within our theological tradition we have elaborated on that inexhaustible biblical affirmation that we are created  "according to the image and likeness of God."  The Church Fathers will speak of the human person as a psychosomatic union of soul and body. Or, following the Apostle Paul of a union of spirit, soul and body. (I THESS. 5:23)  Because of some of the Greek philosophical connotations - primarily dualism - of using the terminology of soul and body, there has been a concerted movement within theological circles today to use the more biblically-based terms of "spirit and flesh" to describe the mystery of human personhood.  Whatever the exact terminology employed to describe the fullness of human existence, the essential point being made is that the human person is more - much more - than "what meets the eye."  We are even greater than the angels according to some of the Fathers, because we unite in our person the "spiritual" and  the "material" as the pinnacle of God's creative acts. We have our biological limitations, but we can still know the living God!  Even though we are so frail in our humanity, the psalmist can still exclaim in wonder:  "Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor" (PS. 8:5).

In describing the mystery of death as it pertains to all creatures, including human beings, the psalmist says (and we hear this at every Vespers service):  "When you take away their spirit, they die and return to their dust" (Ps. 104:29).  This is what happened to the young man from Nain regardless of whatever may have been the immediate cause of his death.  Something had happened that could not be fully described as merely brain death. His "spirit" had been taken away and his flesh was destined to return to the dust.  Another expression that became almost classical as a theological description of death - and which essentially means the same thing - is that of the "separation of soul and body."  
Either way, the wholeness and integrity of the human person is lost in death.  This is what renders death a tragedy and why the Apostle Paul can refer to death as "the last enemy." When the Lord brought this only son of his mother to life again, the spirit of the young man returned to his flesh - or the soul to his body - and he began to live again in the full meaning of that word.  Yet, this is not resurrection in the fullness of that word's meaning as we apply it to Christ:  "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9).  The young man was resuscitated to life. He lived — and died — again, to then await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, a resurrection prefigured and promised by the Lord's resurrection and victory over death.  The same can be said of the synagogue elder Jairus' daughter and, of course Lazarus, the friend of Christ who had been dead for four days.

We are told today that we are essentially a walking bag of chemicals with an evolved consciousness.  This further implies that at death this biological organism collapses, all consciousness is irreversibly lost, and that final oblivion is our common fate. The Scripture revelation that we accept as coming from God tells us something radically different.  To hear the Gospel is to fill us with the faith, hope and love that can only come from the living God.  It is to hear of a different destiny and one that makes life infinitely more meaningful and hopeful.  We too can cry out together with the crowd at Nain: "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and  "God has visited his people!"  (LK. 7:16).  And living within the Church we know that this is the Lord who "shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end."

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Upholding the 'Fundamentals', versus being 'Fundamentalists'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Scientism on the one hand and well-meaning but naive religious fundamentalism on the other have hardened in recent years so as to widen the gap that exists between the two domains."

- Fr. John Breck, Beyond These Horizons - Quantum Theory and Christian Faith

During the post-Liturgy discussion on Sunday, when presenting a brief description of Fr. John Breck's new book from which the quotation above is taken, I was emphatic in saying that we Orthodox are not fundamentalists. I hold that position very strongly. However, I would like to just briefly discuss the terminology that we use today so as to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding as to what I was trying to get at. And this confusion can arise when we use, rather interchangeably, such words as "fundamental," "fundamentalist," and "fundamentalism." 
The word "fundamentalism" refers to a strong reaction and rejection, usually in consistently black and white terms, of any contemporary movements that challenge a received tradition, or simply a long-standing understanding of a faith's core beliefs/doctrines. This strong reaction is against what is loosely called "modernism," which usually stands for a critique or challenge to traditional teaching. 
Protestant fundamentalism arose in the early 20th c. precisely against "modernist" trends - often based on new scientific evidence or new critical apparatus that challenged the veracity or claims of what was believed to be the correct interpretation of the Bible (as mainline Protestantism understood it).  Science and the the emerging popularization of the "theory of evolution" were clearly, but not exclusively, a part of this dispute, captured above in the words of Fr. John. What seemed to be at stake was the "literal" truth of biblical revelation.  Avoiding that difficult topic for the moment, I am simply pointing out that the movement we now call Protestant fundamentalism arose as a protest against modernism. In other words, these Protestants wanted to affirm the "fundamental" doctrines of the Bible which they were certain were being challenged, if not dismantled. However, this also led to what is now a more-or-less exclusively "literal" understanding of Scripture from "in the beginning" to the end.

As Orthodox Christians, no matter how we may differ from Protestant fundamentalists, we too affirm the basic or "fundamental" doctrines of the Christian revelation - the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, God as Creator, the deifying energy of the Holy Spirit, the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church, to name perhaps the most core doctrines. (The Church knew, taught and proclaimed these "fundamental"doctrines well before Protestantism began to exist!). So, we can certainly employ the term "fundamental(s)" on that level.  
However, as Orthodox, we do not have a "fundamentalist" mindset, characterized by an almost slavish commitment to the "literal" meaning of the Scriptures. That is far too narrow and lacking in insight and inspired creativity. Though the Fathers accepted the "literal" meaning of a given biblical text, their simultaneous use of biblical typology and allegory point way beyond the approach of "fundamentalism." With the ongoing discovery of new "facts," be it from the discipline of biblical scholarship or science, the literalist approach keeps being driven into a corner from which it cannot honestly emerge intact. This type of fundamentalism severely undermines the credibility of Christianity. 
Of course, regardless of any attacks on the "fundamental" doctrines of our Faith as listed above, we steadfastly defend those doctrines with all our intellectual and spiritual energy, often quite brilliantly. But we cannot do that if we escape into a literalist fantasy imposed upon the Bible that fears any new discoveries. I do believe that there is an element of fear that drives fundamentalism: If the biblical text is not "literally" true in just about any instance, then it simply loses it claim to reveal Truth.

Thus, when I emphatically insisted that we, as Orthodox, are not fundamentalists, I was referring to the spirit of the reactionary movement that we now call Protestant fundamentalism dating back to the early 20th c. If that type of fundamentalism enters into the Orthodox Church from outside it will undermine our credibility and stifle our longstanding and profound theological legacy. I do affirm that we uphold the "fundamental" doctrines of the Church "fearlessly," if I may put it that way. Perhaps clarifying such words as "fundamental," "fundamentalist," and "fundamentalism" can be helpful for our own self-understanding as Orthodox Christians.


Fr. John and I have been corresponding about this issue. In a recent email he offered a fine summary of how we approach biblical exegesis, respecting the "literal" meaning - i.e. "history" - but also going beyond it.  He offers some important insights beyond which I wrote about above. I am therefore sharing what he wrote as an appendix to my own reflections:

Allegory and typology began with the "literal" sense of the Scriptures ("what the biblical author intended").  But those methodologies presupposed that there is a "higher" meaning than the literal.  The "symbolic" or "spiritual" aspect of biblical writings leads above and beyond the literal, as much as prayer leads us beyond self-centered "reflection."  A basic patristic hermeneutic principle states that "the spiritual sense flows forth from the literal sense."  We need to begin with the literal sense — i.e., with *history.  
* But history is merely a framework in which God works out the divine "economy" which by its very nature leads us beyond the empirical and draws us into the transcendent.  If this were not the case, Scripture would be nothing more than an outdated history book, and thus a dead letter.

I tried to deal with this in several places, the most accessible being, I suppose, the first section of the book Longing for God.  If any parishioners are really interested in the layers of meaning in the Bible, that might be a helpful place to begin.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Books to Deepen our Faith

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the Liturgy yesterday, the homily focused on one of the great Church Fathers, St, Ignatius of Antioch (+ c. 110). My purpose was to remind everyone of a homily preached back in July about the Church Fathers and my challenge then to everyone to choose the work of one of the Church Fathers and read it before the end of the year. I brought up St. Ignatius as one example among many together with his famous Seven Epistles. And during the post-liturgy discussion, I promoted the Popular Patristic Series from SVS Press. This series has now reached 50 volumes and counting. This is an outstanding resource that would give you an excellent collection to choose from. Therefore, I have provided a link to the Popular Patristic Series on the SVS Press website. 

I further promoted two more books, both dealing with the crucial and very contemporary issue of how science and religion can coexist and mutually support each other. Of course, there is a "dark side" to this relationship in which mutual and bitter conflict seem to be inescapable. Militant atheists have nothing but disdain for God and "religion" and they do not hesitate to "preach" this to a broad reading public ad nauseam. This is more scientism than science. On the other hand, defensive positions by "religious" people who do not trust the scientific community find strength in what is now being called "fundamentalism," a more-or-less literal interpretation of Scriptures. These both seem like close-minded systems of thought.

The two books I promoted present an open attitude to theology and science and understand them to be compatible within their spheres of competence and investigation. Their respective authors are Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Fr. John Breck, two of the most prominent Orthodox theologians writing today.

I was surrounded by a large group of parishioners yesterday following the post-Liturgy discussion who were eager to get more information  of the two books I briefly presented. Many got out their phones are were taking pictures of the respective book covers  presumably in order to do some potential purchasing and reading. I further discovered this morning email requests from other parishioners for more information about these books.I have therefore provided two more links for your convenience. 

The first book is Met. Kallistos' Religion, Science & Technology - An Eastern Orthodox Perspective. The content of this short book is very accessible:

Fr. John Breck's book Beyond These Horizons - Quantum Theory and Christian Faith is quite challenging on the level of content. But a careful and patient reading (and perhaps multiple re-readings)  can be deeply enlightening and rewarding. If you want to find a "lay" introduction to Fermions and Quarks and how they can possibly relate to God, then this book will do precisely that:

Saturday, September 21, 2019

To Whom - or What - Do We Bow Down?

Dear Parish Faithful,

Whenever we venerate the Cross liturgically, as now during the Feast of the Exaltation/Elevation of the Cross, we sing that powerful hymn, "Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify." 

That hymn, which is sung three times, is accompanied by our three prostrations, as we actually/literally bow down before the Cross in adoration of our Lord Who ascended the Cross for our salvation. This is an act of worship, in that we worship Jesus Christ - "One of the Holy Trinity" - as our Lord, God and Savior. 

The outward act of making a prostration is meant to be an expression of our inward faith precisely in Christ. The outward manifests the inward. The Apostle Paul writes of the "outer person" and the "inner person." (II Cor. 4:16) All of this is well and good, as this is all an aspect of our liturgical piety; this is what we "do" as Orthodox Christians.

Yet, once we leave the church, does the Holy Trinity remain the one reality that we actually worship? 

The question is a meaningful one, because the object of our worship is what we love and trust; what we desire to have enter into our lives and to direct our lives toward. What we worship is what moves us and inspires us. We could further say that what we worship is our "passion," so to speak. (I once heard Mother Ines from Guatemala say that a nun has a "passion" for God). Here is where we will gladly expend our resources of time and energy, and our actual "resources." 

The issue is complicated, because there is so much to tempt us toward other objects of worship. Do we actually worship money, sex or power - an unholy trinity if ever there was one! Of course. we say that we don't, but what is working on the inside - the "inner person?" 

If those three are too crass, and if we are joyfully beyond the temptation to worship such obvious false idols, there is still more than enough to capture our minds and hearts. The choices are limitless, as we all know. And the more abstract - or "good" or "worthy" - the more subtle the temptation. Recall the words of the Apostle Paul, who gave us the classic definition of idolatry when he wrote about those who worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. (Rom. 1:25) 

So, are we outwardly bowing down before the Cross as a nice "religious rite" because that is what is expected of us, while we are actually bowing down inwardly to something else apart from God. We certainly want to avoid a kind of "religious dualism" that manifests itself in a church life and a secular life, each with its own object of worship - the true and living God or the many gods of idolatry.

What a privilege to be able "bow down in worship" before the Lord Who was crucified, raised and glorified for our salvation! Not an empty idol that will ultimately disappoint us, but the Savior of the world! As we proclaim at each and every Liturgy: "For Thou art our God and we know no other than Thee!" 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Preparation and Vigilance

Dear Parish Faithful,

With the beginning of the Church Year well underway, I like to remind everyone of the importance of the Liturgy and Eucharist at the heart of our parish life. Yet, that also means that we need to be prepared to receive Holy Communion in a "worthy manner." I have therefore attached for everyone some basic pastoral guidelines as to how we can remain vigilant in that regard. Guidelines are not iron-tight regulations, but they can direct us in the right spirit, so that we always approach the Chalice "in the fear of God and with faith." Joy emerges from just such an approach - but not from a casual approach.

On the Eucharist, Fr. Alexander Schmemann to this day remains one of the most articulate and inspiring writers on the real depths of the Liturgy, and of our continual need to renew ourselves within it, in and through the Eucharist Gifts. He stresses our experience of the ecclesia - the Church - and our membership in the Church as an essential awareness when approaching the Eucharist in addition to any personal sanctification:

It is a well-known and undisputed fact that in the early Church the communion of all the faithful, of the entire ecclesia at each Liturgy, was a self-evident norm. What must be stressed, however, was that this corporate communion was understood not only as an act of personal piety and personal sanctification but, first of all, as an act stemming precisely from one's very membership in the Church, as the fulfillment and actualization of that membership. The Eucharist was both defined and experienced as "the sacrament of the Church," the "sacrament of the assembly," the "sacrament of unity." "He mixed Himself with us," writes St. John Chrysostom, "and dissolved His body in us so that we may constitute a wholeness, be a body united to the Head." The early Church simply knew no other sign or criterion of membership but the participation in the sacrament."

We want to do our best to continue in this spirit, but also to carefully prepared.

I have also attached an outline of the history, purpose and meaning of the Mystical/Last Supper. Please read them both carefully.

Please pass on any questions that you may have.

In Christ,
Fr. Steven