Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Farewell to Rio

Dear Parish Faithful,

Ironic indeed, that the Olympic Games - which display an array of highly-disciplined specimens of  physical prowess and stamina, male and female - should create a vast multitude of "coach potatoes" who remain more-or-less immobile before their TV sets cheering on their respective heroes. As I always find the Olympic Games quite entertaining, I must confess to having been a member of that vast multitude for the past two weeks. 

Enjoyable as it was, glad the Games are over!  Be that as it may, it is always impressive to see these athletes and their dedication, training, and skill on full display. 

These Games had their share of drama, high moments of sheer excellence, and unanticipated heroes; yet almost eclipsed by the embarrassing farce/scandal of some of our American swimmers . Truly an object lesson in telling the truth from the outset, unpalatable as it may be.

The Apostle Paul drew on the Corinthian Games of his day, by transforming some of the athletic events on display into useful metaphors that drive home an essential point of Christian discipline or what we would ultimately call asceticism:

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified."  (I COR. 9:24-27)

We can see the joy of receiving a gold medal - the perishable wreath of the Apostle Paul's time - in the face of an Olympic champion.  So the imperishable wreath/medal  serves as one more metaphor for eternal life with God. And having witnessed a few disqualifications during the Games, it was clear about how painful and disappointing such a turn of events can be.  Therefore, a sobering reminder of the Apostle Paul concerning our perseverance in "contesting" for the Kingdom of God.

With the approach of the Church New Year it is time to get off the couch!

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Dormition of the Theotokos - Celebrating a 'deathless death'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and peaceful ... let us ask of the Lord."

We just completed our celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos with Great Vespers yesterday evening and the Divine Liturgy this morning.  "All things considered" - meaning that this year the cycle took place from Sunday evening to Monday morning - we had good participation for the Feast and two wonderful services.

In the center of the church was the tomb with a beautiful icon of the Mother of God in blessed repose to be venerated by the faithful.  (This icon will remain in the tomb which will be put back in its new normal spot in the back of the church, where everyone can venerate the image until the leave-taking of the Feast  on August 23).  We also blessed flowers at the end of the Liturgy, adding beauty to the Feast as we did last week with our fruit baskets at Transfiguration.

Dormition, of course, means "falling asleep," the Christian term par excellence for how we approach the mystery of death. And here we further approach the paradox, from a Christian perspective, of death itself - the "last enemy" that causes great anguish and grief; but yet which now serves as a passage to life everlasting, and thus a cause for festal celebration in the death of the Mother of God. For the Virgin Mary truly died, as is the fate of all human beings; and yet "neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos" who has been "translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!" Without for a moment losing sight of the reality of death (notice the weeping apostles around the body of the Theotokos on the Dormition icon), from within the Church we can actually celebrate death during this "summer pascha" because of the Resurrection of Christ.

Thus, the Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.”  For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:

I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people die and “Platonists” afterwards.  By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives.  —  From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.

To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:

For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break.  For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil.  Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it.  As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person.  — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.

St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:

By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil.  – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.

This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!”   The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.”  Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cultivating the Image of Divine Beauty

Dear Parish Faithful,

We are about to reach the Leavetaking of the Transfiguration of Christ tomorrow. Just a few last thoughts before we get there.

The mysterious presence of Beauty is revealed on Mt. Tabor in an overwhelming manner when Christ is transfigured there resplendent in divine glory. This is the beauty of the first-formed human creatures, created to reflect the beauty of the divine nature, for by grace they - and we - were created in the image and likeness of God.  And they were placed in a world that also reflected this divine beauty.  That is why God, after completing the creation process, declared that is was all "very good."

Yet, the presence of sin marred that beauty. This lost beauty was restored to humanity when the Son of God assumed our human nature, uniting it to His divine Person and revealing the glory of God in a human being. Thus, on Mt. Tabor, Christ reveals the beauty of His divine nature and the beauty of our created human nature. This is why the Transfiguration is often referred to as a Feast of Beauty.

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky (+1881) famously and somewhat enigmatically once said:  "Beauty will save the world." Yet, Dostoevsky also realized that in a world filled with sin, beauty can evoke responses that fall short of any saving value. In fact, beauty can even degenerate toward sin and sensuality, as one of Dostoevsky's greatest creations, Dmitri Karamazov, acknowledged with great anguish. 

Therefore, for Dostoevsky beauty itself had to be "saved" and linked to Truth and Goodness. Thus, for the Russian novelist, beauty is not simply an aesthetic concept, but one that must have a moral, ethical and spiritual dimension for it to be rightly perceived and experienced. And for Dostoevsky as well as for not only great artists, but the great minds of the Church, beauty is not an abstract concept or Idea. Beauty is a Person, and this Person is Christ.  In Christ, Truth, Goodness and Beauty are harmoniously united.  This is why Dostoevesky also spoke of the "radiant image of Christ."  In another famous passage from his pen, found in a letter of his, Dostoevsky articulated his personal "creed:"

I have constructed for myself a symbol of faith in which everything is clear and holy for me.  The symbol is very clear, here it is:  to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, profounder, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ and not only is there nothing , but I tell myself with jealous love that never could there be.

It is these qualities that make Christ such an attractive figure that a well-disposed mind and heart not unduly influenced by the marks of a fallen world will almost naturally turn to as an "ideal," but again as a concrete living Person. There is a passage from Fr. Alexander Elchaninov (+1934), taken from his personal diary after his death, that captures that same intuition as found in Dostoevsky:

It is impossible not to love Christ. If we saw Him now, we should not be able to take our eyes off Him, we should "listen to him in rapture;" we should flock round Him as did the multitudes in the Gospels.  All this is required of us is not to resist. We have only to yield to Him, to the contemplation of His image - in the Gospels, in the saints, in the Church - and He will take possession of our hearts.

Here, again, there is an inherent moral, ethical and spiritual dimension from that beauty that flows outward from Christ. This is rendered in the form of very practical and concrete advice in the words of Vladimir Solovyov (+1900), for many the greatest Russian philosopher known to us:

Before any important decision, let us evoke in our soul the image of Christ. Let us concentrate our attention upon it and ask ourselves:  Would He Himself do this action? Or, in other words: Will He approve of it or not? 
To all I propose this rule: it does not deceive. In every dubious case, as soon as the possibility of a choice is offered to you, remember Christ.  Picture to yourself His living Person, as it really is, and entrust Him with the burden of your doubts. 
Let men of good will, as individuals, as social factors, as leaders of men and peoples, apply this criterion, and they will really be able, in the name of truth, to show to others the way toward God.

This concreteness is all the more interesting, for Solovyov was often a highly speculative thinker. That what he wrote just over a century ago is hardly a public ideal any longer is to our great loss.  It is our role to maintain and cultivate the image of divine beauty in our lives as seen in the face of the incarnate Christ a sacred obligation. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Feast of Divine Beauty

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ

This weekend, we will celebrate the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, a Feast of light and glory celebrated every year on August 6.

The account of the Transfiguration can be found in three of the Gospels - Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.  There is also a powerful eyewitness account of the event written by the Apostle Peter in 2 Peter 1:10-19.  All of these scriptural accounts deserve a careful and prayerful reading. 

The transfigured Lord reveals the splendor of a human being fully alive, for Christ reveals to us the perfect image of humanity transfigured by the glory of God.  That is why “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). 

The hymnography of the Feast makes this point over and over:

“In His own person He showed them the nature of man, arrayed in the original beauty of the image…  Thou has made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning transforming it into the glory and splendor of Thy divinity” (Vespers Aposticha of the Feast).  

Christ reveals both our origin and our destiny on Mount Tabor.  As the “radiance of the Father” (Hebrews 1:3), He is the perfect and natural icon/Image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).  As human beings created according to the image and likeness of God, we are actually “images of the Image.”  What Christ is, by nature, is what we are meant to be by grace - “partakers of the divine nature” (1 Peter 1:4).  This is promised and pledged to us in the Age to Come when “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43), but revealed now in Christ, Who is the incarnate Son of God — a revelation, no doubt, of extraordinary beauty!  Thus, the Transfiguration is a Feast of divine and human beauty.  Can anything more splendid possibly be envisioned?

In other words, whatever Christ does or says is what a perfect human being united to God would do or say.  He not only reveals God to us, but also humanity.  Look at Christ and you are looking at what it means to be truly and genuinely human.  He is what Adam was meant to be, but failed to become because of sin. 

As Christ is without sin, He is the “last (and perfect) Adam.”  He is also the “man of heaven”  because He reveals to us what heaven is like, where we will bear His image (1 Corinthians 15: 47-49).  All of this was revealed to the disciples on Mount Tabor when, with even more than the dazzling and startling power of an unexpected flash of lightning, Christ was “transfigured before them.”  In that glorious splendor, the disciples Peter, James and John received a glimpse of the End of Time before it has actually come. 

That is a good deal to take in at once, so it is no wonder that the disciples “fell on their faces and were filled with awe” (Matthew 17:2,6)!  It is simultaneously no wonder that Peter made a suggestion to the Lord—“I will make three booths”—in the hope of prolonging this experience.  Through them, and our celebration of the Feast, we receive that same glimpse.  The King reveals to us His Kingdom, so that we may be attracted to it and then live for it.  In that sense we are future-oriented as Christians.

But if Christ is the perfect human being, then He is such because of His obedience to His heavenly Father.  He is always “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).  This is why the Lord came down from the mountain. Neither He nor the disciples were able to linger there.  He had yet to accomplish His “exodus” at Jerusalem ( Luke 9:31).  This is clearly an allusion to the Cross and Resurrection. 

In fact, Christ was “made perfect” because “He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8-9).  Christ was never not obedient to His Father!  He always said to His heavenly Father, “not my will, but Thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).  His authority and glory are firmly grounded in that obedience.  The result and consequence of this obedience is expressed by the Apostle Paul by his use of the word “therefore” in the following passage: 

“Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11).

Saint Paul, however, is not finished with drawing out further consequences for us with another “therefore” as he continues,

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

It seems rather clear, “therefore,” that we must be obedient to God—like Christ was at all times and in all things—if we are to share in His glory both here and at the End of Time.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Understanding Death... and the Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Strictly speaking, a system of ethics which does not make death its central problem has no value and is lacking in depth and earnestness."  (Nikolai Berdyaev)

"Our one and only war ... is the sacred battle with the common enemy of all people, of all mankind - against death." (Archimandrite Sophrony)

The tomb is empty... But why?

Recently I met with some folks from Norwood - both Orthodox and non-Orthodox - for what we rather laconically called a "theological talk."  The basis for our discussion was an article written by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, entitled "The Christian Concept of Death."  The title may not capture the full weight of the essay, since it is a look at the Christian concept of death in the light of the Resurrection of Christ.

With such a powerful theme, enriched by Fr. Alexander's usual style that combines insightful penetration into the given theme, a captivating style of literary expression, and a series of challenging assertions that question our unexamined assumptions, our discussion proved to be an intense one that led us in many directions.  All in all, a good way to spend an atypical Thursday evening. 

Obviously, the theme of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ digs deep into the very foundations of Christianity.  Who does not know the powerful words of the Apostle Paul:  "If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain." It is the Resurrection that ultimately makes the Gospel "Good News" - in fact the "best news" conceivable and outside of which all "other news" sounds rather vague and lifeless! 

It is this joyous Good News that imbues the entire life of the Church according to Fr. Schmemann:

The joy of early Christianity, which still lives in the Church, in her services, in her hymns and prayers, and especially in the incomparable feast of Pascha, does not separate the Resurrection of Christ from the "universal resurrection," which originates and begins in the Resurrection of Christ.

Yet, a good deal of the essay is taken up with something of a "lamentation" from Fr. Schmemann over the fact that many Christians are unaware of the ultimate consequences of the Resurrection of Christ, and that is the "universal  resurrection" just mentioned above and which means the resurrection of the dead at the end of time with the "spiritual body" that the Apostle Paul speaks of in I COR. 15.  Jesus, bodily risen from the dead, is called the "first fruits of those who have fallen asleep," thus anticipating and pointing toward the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

But is this, in fact, what Christians believe? Fr. Schmemann's trenchant criticism is expressed as follows:

The Resurrection of Christ comprises, I repeat, the very heart of the Christian faith and Christian Good News.  
And yet, however strange it may sound, in the everyday life of Christianity and Christians in our time there is little room for this faith.  It is as though obscured, and the contemporary Christian, without being cognizant of it, does not reject it, but somehow skirts about it, and does not live the faith as did the first Christians. 
If he attends church, he of course hears in the Christian service the ever resounding joyous confirmations: "trampling down death by death," "death is swallowed up by victory," "life reigns," and "not one dead remains in the grave."  
But ask him what he really thinks about death, and often (too often alas) you will hear some sort of rambling affirmation of the immortality of the soul and its life in some sort of world beyond the grave, a belief that existed even before Christianity.  And that would be in the best of circumstances.  In the worst, one would be met simply by perplexity and ignorance, "You know, I have never really thought about it."

Fr. Schmemann is not speaking of non-believers in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, but of an unfortunate transformation of Christian thought about death itself and the impact of that unfortunate transformation on the understanding of the body, or of the relationship between "body and soul." 

Basically, Christians have resorted to a kind of warmed-up Platonism that claims that there is a real and natural division between the soul and body, a division which renders the body almost meaningless, or as a prison that the soul needs to escape from. 

In opposition to this dualism, the Church's Symbol of Faith (the Nicene Creed) affirms our belief in "the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." 

This is far from merely claiming a vague belief in the "immortality of the soul."  Again, this is a resort to pre-Christian modes of thought and this way of thinking is foreign to the Biblical revelation. 

Here is how Fr. Schmemann puts it:

Indeed, all non-Christian, all natural religions, all philosophies are in essence occupied with our "coming to terms" with death and attempt to demonstrate for us the source of immortal life, of the immortal soul in some sort of alien world beyond the grave. Plato, for example, and countless followers after him teach that death is a liberation from the body which the soul desires; and in this circumstance faith in the resurrection of the body not only becomes unnecessary, but also incomprehensible, even false and untrue.

Such a pre- or non-Christian way of thinking will make us blind to the Apostle Paul's affirmation that death is the "last enemy;" and that God desires the whole person - both body and soul - to be saved and transformed in the Kingdom of God.  Such a belief even renders the Resurrection of Christ as a kind of superfluous miraculous event that does not really affect our destiny.

Orthodox Christian thinking at its purest resists and rejects this way of approaching death, but rather it drives home with a powerful realism the tragedy of human death. 

Again, in Fr. Schmemann's words:

Christianity proclaims, confirms and teaches, that this separation of the soul from the body, which we call death, is evil.  It is not part of God's creation. It is that which entered the world, making it subject to itself, but opposed to God and violating His design, His desire for the world, for mankind and for life. It is that which Christ came to destroy. 
Man, as created by God, is an animate body and an incarnate spirit, and for that reason any separation of them, and not only the final separation, in death, but even before death, any violation of that union is evil. It is a spiritual catastrophe.  From this we receive our belief in the salvation of the world through the incarnate God, i.e. again, above all, our belief in His acceptance of flesh and body, not "body-like," but a body in the fullest sense of the word: a body that needs food, that tires and that suffers.

In a relatively short essay, Fr. Schmemann presents us with the distortions of Christian thinking on death which have twisted our whole conception of the meaning of the Gospel, and which, more specifically, undermine the great power contained within the Resurrection of Christ.

Yet, if Fr. Schmemann was anything, he was a life-affirming person and thinker who, in his expressive manner, always spoke and wrote of the "Good News" proclaimed throughout the New Testament and liturgical life of the Church. He thus pointed out defects that have entered our way of thinking so that we could recover the Gospel in all of its power:

He alone rose from the dead, but He has destroyed our death, destroying its dominion, its despair, its finality.  
Christ does not promise us Nirvana or some sort of misty life beyond the grave, but the resurrection of life, a new heaven and a new earth, the joy of universal resurrection.  Christ is risen, and life abides, life lives ... 
That is the meaning; that is the unending joy of this truly central and fundamental confirmation of the Symbol of Faith: "And the third day, He rose again according to the Scriptures."  
According to the Scriptures, i.e. in accordance with that knowledge of life, with that design for the world and humanity,  for the soul and body, for the spirit and matter, for life and death, which has been revealed to us in the holy Scriptures. 
This is the entire faith, the entire love, and the entire hope of Christianity.  And this is why the Apostle Paul says, "If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain.

As a kind of appendix affirmation to the above, I would like to include, and thus conclude, with a passage from one of the most prominent Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century, the Romanian-born Dumitru Staniloae.  Attempting to capture the essence of the Orthodox Church's absorption of, and appreciation for, the gift of Christ's Resurrection, Fr. Staniloae chose the word "salvation" as the best to summarize the Church's interior knowledge of ultimate reality:

Salvation expresses the deepest, most comprehensive and many-sided meaning of the work which Jesus Christ accomplished. In this last dimension, that is to say, understood as the destruction of man's death in all of its forms and the assurance of full and eternal life, the word "salvation" produces in the Orthodox faithful a feeling of absolute gratitude towards Christ to whom they owe the deliverance of their existence and the prospect of eternal life and happiness.

For those who would like to read the entire essay from Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the link below is for your convenience:

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.