Monday, December 11, 2017

A Heart Untouched?


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?” (LK. 17:17)




In St. Basil the Great’s First Prayer in Preparation for Holy Communion, he acknowledges – and we acknowledge along with him when we offer this prayer up to God – that we are so often “thankless and graceless.”  St. Basil makes this claim after enumerating what “Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ our God” has done for us:  taken on our human nature, suffered crucifixion for our sake, and renewed our human nature by His own blood.  Yet still, says the saint, we remain “thankless and graceless.”  So much for building up our self-esteem!  Is that in reality a pious and rhetorical exaggeration embedded in a prayer meant to inspire genuine feeling within us; or has St. Basil simply articulated a “hard truth” about our human nature “corrupted by sin” - to borrow yet another phrase from his magnificent prayer?

Based on experience, it is hard not to believe that St. Basil is correct in his over-all assessment, and that he has done us a great service in reminding of this unfortunate characteristic of our human nature, a characteristic brought to life vividly in the Gospel narrative of Christ healing ten lepers, but only being thanked by one of them – and that one was a Samaritan!  (LK. 17:11-19)  

The failure of nine lepers to return to Christ and offer thanksgiving is singled out for an unflattering comment; while the return of the Samaritan leper is singled out for open praise.  Christ most certainly does not need or demand our thanksgiving!  What he pointed out was for the sake of those healed and for those who witnessed the healing.  Healing is meant to touch the body and the “heart,”  so that the healed one’s life is totally redirected toward God.  Sometimes, however, the body can be healed, but the heart left untouched. That Gospel passage – heard just last Sunday – is a reminder that we can fall prey to just such a temptation:  to have been healed by Christ and yet to either “forget” to return to Him in thanksgiving; find other distractions more compelling; or simply to do so in outward form only.  

I just coincidentally read in a book about another ecclesiastical figure that the famous Western medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his Summa Theologiae:  “It is evident that every ingratitude is a sin.”  That was based on the logic that since gratitude and thankfulness were virtues, their opposite must be a sin.  However one may assess that “scholastic” logic, it seems to ring true.

In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s classic work, For the Life of the World, we heard his unique voice recalling our initial vocation to be “eucharistic beings,” human beings who offer gratitude and thanksgiving to God in the full awareness that all things come from God and have the potential to lead us further toward God.  This includes the very food that we eat on a daily basis.  We can eat and drink unto ourselves, and thus we eat and drink ultimately unto death.  Or we eat and drink to the glory of God, and then food becomes sacramental as a means of uniting us with God.  Our heavenly Father restored the eucharistic meaning of food precisely in the Eucharist, when He gave to us the flesh and blood of the Son of Man for our lives and “for the life of the world.”  The bread and wine represent all food and all life as offered up to God in a spirit of profound thanksgiving to the very Source of life.  We, in turn, receive this food back now as Holy Communion, through which we are united to Christ and have Christ dwelling within us.  Fr. Schmemann captures this approach to life in his chapter entitled, simply, “The Eucharist:”

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.  Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.  But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ.  In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being.  He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be. (p. 38)

I hope that you will agree with me that to say we have a great deal to be thankful for is a massive understatement.  This does not refer to what we have but to who we are:  sinners now healed by Christ and made worthy to enter the Kingdom of God.  The “leprosy” of our sin has been cleansed away.  Now we need to turn back to the source of our healing, praise God with a loud voice, and fall down at the feet of Jesus and give Him thanks.   Just like the Samaritan.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

St Nicholas, A Living Rule of Faith


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

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


I would like to wish everyone a blessed St. Nicholas feast day, and more specifically I would like to wish all of our parish members with the name of Nicholas a blessed name day.  Yesterday evening we were able to serve and celebrate a  wonderful Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast, and it is clear that St. Nicholas remains a beloved saint among our parish faithful, for the service was quite well-attended, including a fair share of our Church School children and young adults.  We hope that same spirit carries over into the weekend as we prepare for our St. Nicholas Day pageant and charity dinner on Sunday.

As we well know, St. Nicholas was a bishop who served in Asia Minor in the opening decades of the fourth century.  As a hierarch of the Church, he was a man who had authority, meaning, further, that he was someone to be respected and obeyed.  This has been a characteristic of the Church’s hierarchy “from the beginning,” as we heard in the Epistle reading appointed for St. Nicholas and other great hierarchs of the Church:  “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (HEB. 13:17).  This sacramental, pastoral and administrative authority of the episcopos (bishop) was further strengthened by the Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early second century:

Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop.  Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated.  Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church.  (To the Smyrnaens, 8)

These well-known exhortations, many of which became the basis for later Church canons pertaining to the authority of the hierarchy, could certainly be multiplied from a variety of impressive sources. Yet, it is therefore quite significant that the troparion for St. Nicholas mentions nothing of the bishop’s authority, but rather stresses his pastoral image and care for his flock:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

As Fr. Thomas Hopko has written, this troparion “has become in Orthodox liturgical services the ‘general troparion’ for most canonized bishops of the Church, thus revealing the ‘mind of the Church’ about what a Christian pastor should be.”  (The Winter Pascha, p. 40)

Granting the role of authority that a bishop “inherits” in his consecration to the episcopacy, the Church concentrates on the qualities of a true pastor, of one who will “shepherd” the flock entrusted to him by the Lord that the bishop sacramentally represents to and for his flock.  

The troparion has nothing to say about “power” or “authority.” Quite the opposite! We hear of humility, abstinence and even poverty.  These are Christ-like characteristics that we learn of from the Gospels.  Only by manifesting such qualities is the bishop a man who will receive the support, love and obedience of his flock in a spirit of trust and confidence in his leadership. 

Perhaps we should add that this is also true of the parish priest in his ministry to the flock entrusted to his care. This happens when a bishop leads by example.  He then becomes a living “rule of faith” as the troparion opens with, meaning essentially that the bishop is a living, flesh-and-blood realization of the Gospel. Whenever we experience a “crisis of leadership” in the Church, it is precisely such Christ-like characteristics that are so painfully lacking in the Church’s hierarchy. The faithful realize this, and the whole Church then suffers from a lack of trust and confidence in that leadership.

In relation to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, there is a fine passage from the great iconographer, Leonid Ouspensky, who summarizes the Church’s love of this great saint throughout the centuries:

The quite exceptional veneration of St. Nicholas is well known.  He is revered not only by Christians but often also by Muslims.  In the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, among the days of the week dedicated to the Savior and to different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only three persons are singled out by name:  the Mother of God, John the Forerunner and St. Nicholas. 
The reason for the special veneration of this bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings, is evidently that the Church sees in him the personification of a shepherd – of one who protects and intercedes. According to his Life, when St. Nicholas was raised to the dignity of bishop he said: "The office demands a different type of conduct, so that one may live no longer for oneself but for others."  This "life for others" is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men:  his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. 
This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death.  Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit.  (Quoted in Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

Following Christ faithfully, St. Nicholas endures as the purest manifestation of authority and leadership in the Church:  a living rule of faith, practicing humility, abstinence and voluntary poverty as an example to his flock.


O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well,
And now wearing your unfading crown,
you intercede for our souls.
(Vespers of the Feast of St. Nicholas)

Friday, November 24, 2017

Redeeming the Time


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In Ephesians 5:15-16 we read, "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil." 

To "walk" -- in the context of this passage -- is a metaphor for how we conduct our lives.  We can live wisely or unwisely.  To "walk" unwisely means that we can easily resemble a "fool." Avoiding such a false step, but on the contrary walking with wisdom, will depend on how much effort we put into "making the most of the time."  

This can also be translated as "redeem the time."  To redeem the time is, first, not to waste time, especially on what is superfluous. More positively, it could mean to spend our time in worthwhile pursuits, seeking to do the good in all of life's various circumstances.  We are children of God at all times, not only when we are in church or before the icons in our domestic prayer corner.  How we live and how we interact with others is basically how we express our Christian faith on a daily basis.

On a deeper level, to "redeem the time" could also mean to sanctify time, both remembering and honoring the fact that the full expanse of our lives — our lifetime — is a gift from God, for as humans our lives unfold within the time of this world as created by God.  Our time is limited because our lives are of finite duration.  An awareness of this can go a long way in how we appreciate -- and therefore redeem -- the time.

We are drawing closer to the celebration of the Lord's Incarnation.  We can redeem this time within the rhythm of ecclesial time, the time of the Church.  We need to pick up where we perhaps left off during this long and enjoyable Thanksgiving Day weekend.  We have just feasted along with our fellow Americans; now let us fast as Orthodox Christians. To squander a season of preparation before a feast by neglecting prayer, almsgiving and fasting is to act unwisely if we claim to be serious Orthodox Christians.  Any struggle against our lower instincts to eat, drink and be merry as the most meaningful pursuits in life is one sound way of redeeming the time.  One more obvious example of the "battle of the calendars."

The Apostle Paul writes that "the days are evil."  In a fallen world, every single day presents us with the possibility -- if not probability -- of encountering evil on a grand or limited scale.  To somehow believe the days we are living in are not all that evil is to be lost in a wishful thinking divorced from any rational perception of reality.  We live in a time wherein people have forgotten God, and through this forgetfulness lose sight of their basic humanity.  To de-sanctify the world (by claiming that the world is an autonomous reality and a result of blind forces) is to debase humanity, for only through faith in God can we have faith in the goodness of human nature.

We can be "in the world," but not "of the world," if we choose to "make the most of the time, because the days are evil."  One of the key words here is "choose."  Do we really have a hard choice to make?  Hardly!  In my humble opinion, within the grace-filled life of the Church, the choices before us are very easy to make!

Here is a simple prayer (but just try to put it into daily practice!) from the diary of Elder Anthony of Optina [†1820] that teaches us how to redeem the time.

O God, be attentive unto helping me.  O Lord, make haste to help me.

Direct, O Lord God, everything that I do, read and write, everything that I say and try to understand to the glory of Your holy Name.  From You have I received a good beginning, and my every deed end in You.

Grant, O God, that I might not anger You, my Creator, in word, deed or thought, but may all my deeds, counsels and thoughts be to the glory of Your most holy Name.  Amen.

From the Diary of the Elder Anthony of Optina, 1820

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Capable of Thanksgiving


Dear Parish Faithful,

"And we thank Thee for this Liturgy which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands..." - Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

I have been able to read a good deal of Orthodox theology over the years - and the years are adding up - but to this day, I have never encountered a writer who has expressed with such eloquence and power the insight that we are created to be eucharistic beings, such as Fr. Alexander Schmemann has done. 

Throughout his long priestly ministry, and through his many wonderful books, this was a theme that he continually returned to: the human person as oriented toward God as a being who is eucharistic at the deepest level of existence.  We are our most human when we consciously and with profound gratitude offer thanksgiving (Gk. eucharistia) to the living God who has created us.

This was Fr. Alexander's compelling reading of the Genesis creation accounts and what it means for human beings to be made "according to the image and likeness of God."  Dying of cancer, Fr. Alexander served his last Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. He was able to deliver a short homily that is now known throughout the OCA as, simply, "The Thanksgiving Homily," in which he uttered a beautiful opening thought that memorably captured the "catholicity" of his vision and understanding of life: 

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

This particular sentence and the whole of this final homily served as a kind of summation of his deeply-conceived and felt intuition of life and the Christian Gospel. For Fr. Alexander, the human person is, of course, "homo sapiens" and "homo faber," but at the most basic level of existence the human person is "homo adorans" - a being instinctively inclined toward worship. We find an expression of this insight in Fr. Alexander's classic book For the Life of the World:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion. (p. 5)

This entire book - an absolute "must read" for contemporary Orthodox Christians - was a new, refreshing and transformative way of understanding and experiencing the Sacraments of the Church, freeing these Sacraments from a stultifying scholastic theology that threatened to reduce them to "religious actions" that would isolate them from the experience of life.  Since I am trying to focus on Fr. Alexander's eucharistic intuition of life, I would like to include a justifiably famous passage from this same book:

When man stands before the throne of God, when, he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.
Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man.  Eucharist is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven.
But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be, (p. 23)

At the time when that was written (around 1960 in the original Russian, I believe - English translation 1963) to the present day, that passage is something like a "breath of fresh air" that brings to life in a very vivid manner what it means to participate in the Divine Liturgy/Eucharist.

How utterly bland, then, is our conventional term "attending church!"  The Eucharist is our recovery - again and again - of who we now are in Christ.  That "recovery" is a life-long process that makes each and every Liturgy a new and fresh experience, or at least so potentially.  We may grow old, but the Liturgy never grows old.  And it can never grow boring no matter how many liturgies one may "attend!"  As Fr. Alexander further wrote:

Eucharist was the end of the journey, the end of time. And now it is again the beginning, and things that were impossible are again revealed to us as possible. (p. 30)

These short reflections were prompted by the Gospel account of the healing of the ten lepers (LK. 17:11-19), read at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy (and we will hear this passage later in December).  This passage is as much about thanksgiving as it is about the actual healing of the lepers. Being present as homo adorans at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy is a witness to our commitment to be "eucharistic beings."


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Entrance of the Theotokos - Sanctifying Time through the Feasts of the Church


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


"Today let Heaven above greatly rejoice ..."



I will assume that today began and will continue as a normal weekday for just about everyone who reads this email communication.  In addition to our responsibilities, tasks, appointments and over-all agendas, that may also imply the tedium associated with daily life. Another day will come and go, never to be repeated again in the unceasing flow of time ... 

However, today (November 21) also happens to be one of the Twelve Great Feast Days of the Church's liturgical year:  The Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple.  For those who came to the service yesterday evening, that may be more apparent; but if we "keep time" with our Church calendar, as well as with our regular calendars, we may not be "caught off guard" by the coming of the Feast.  

The festal cycle of the Church sanctifies time. By this we mean that the tedious flow of time is imbued with sacred content as we celebrate the events of the past now made present through liturgical worship.  Notice how often we hear the word "today" in the hymns of the Feast chanted at Vespers:

Today let us, the faithful dance for joy...

Today the living Temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, she who alone among women is pure and blessed ...
Today the Theotokos, the Temple that is to hold God is led into the temple of the Lord...

Again, we do not merely commemorate the past, but we make the past present.  We actualize the event being celebrated so that we are also participating in it.  We, today, rejoice as we greet the Mother of God as she enters the temple "in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all."  

Can all - or any - of this possibly change the "tone" of how we live this day?  Is it at all possible that an awareness of this joyous Feast can bring some illumination or sense of divine grace into the seemingly unchanging flow of daily life?  Are we able to envision our lives as belonging to a greater whole: the life of the Church that is moving toward the final revelation of God's Kingdom in all of its fullness?  Do such questions even make any sense as we are scrambling to just get through the day intact and in one piece, hopefully avoiding any serious mishaps or calamities?  If not, can be at least acknowledge that "something" essential is missing from our lives?

I believe that there a few things that we could do on a practical level that will bring the life of the Church, and its particular rhythms into our domestic lives.  As we know, each particular Feast has a main hymn called the troparion.  This troparion captures the over-all meaning and theological content of the Feast in a somewhat poetic fashion.  As the years go by, and as we celebrate the Feasts annually, you may notice that you have memorized these troparia, or at least recognize them when they are sung in church.  For the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple, the festal troparion is the following:

Today is the prelude of the good will of God / of the preaching of the salvation of mankind / The Virgin appears in the temple of God / in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all / Let us rejoice and sing to her: / Rejoice, O Fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation!

A great Feast Day of the Church is never a one-day affair.  There is the "afterfeast" and then, finally, the "leavetaking" of the Feast.  So this particular Feast extends from today, November 21, until Saturday, November 25.  A good practice, therefore, would be to include the troparion of the Feast in our daily prayer until the leavetaking.  That can be very effective when parents pray together with their children before bedtime, as an example. 

Perhaps even more importantly within a family meal setting, would be to sing or simply say or chant the troparion together before sitting down to share that meal together.  The troparion would replace the usual prayer that we use, presumably the Lord's Prayer.  All of this can be especially effective with children as it will introduce them to the rhythm of Church life and its commemoration of the great events in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. 

Do you have any Orthodox literature in the home that would narrate and then perhaps explain the events and their meaning of the Great Feast Days? Reading this together as a family can also be very effective.  A short Church School session need not be the only time that our children are introduced to the life of the Church.  The home, as we recall, has been called a "little church" by none other than St. John Chrysostom.  Orthodox Christianity is meant to be a way of life, as expressed here by Fr. Pavel Florensky:

The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved.  That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct experience ... to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once into the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way.  There is no other way.  (The Pillar and Ground of the Truth)

As this Feast Day falls during the Nativity Fast, the Church calendar tells us that "fish, wine and oil" are allowed today.

NOTE: Special articles and resources on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos and all the Great Feasts are available on our parish website.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Today, Wednesday November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25.  (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today. 

This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously.  The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. Because of that tension, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously.  To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical. It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy!

From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.  

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleash the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.

Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.”  An awareness — combined with sharing — of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies.  To speak honestly, this is a difficult  and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies?

I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance.  Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to.

The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?  Do we care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God", then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days.


Friday, November 10, 2017

10 Ways the Funeral of a Priest is Different from a Layperson’s


Dear Parish Faithful,


https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/timeeternal/10-ways-funeral-priest-different-lay-persons/
I have provided a link to a fascinating article on her Ancient Faith Radio blog from our former parishioner, Dr. Nicole Lyon Roccas. Nicole has written a very well-researched and challenging article comparing the funeral service/rites of an Orthodox priest and a layperson. Her ten points bring up many important aspects of what we mean by the phrase "death and dying," as well as our Orthodox approach to these subjects and how these are reflected in the Orthodox funeral service.

I would like to draw some practical conclusions from what she writes and discuss this openly in church - perhaps at one of our post-Liturgy discussions in the near future. There is much to learn here, beginning with the differences in funeral practices between the clergy and laity, but she extends the discussion much further and raises important questions in the process.

This particular article is longer than what she usually writes, so please give yourselves the needed time to read through it carefully.

Fr. Steven

10 Ways the Funeral of a Priest is Different from a Layperson’s