Friday, July 3, 2020

St. Tikhon Condemns Racism During Epidemic, by Scott Kenworthy

Dear Parish Faithful,

As I have informed everyone in the past, our own parishioner, Dr. Scott Kenworthy, is working on a biography of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow (+1925), one of the greatest figures of 20th century Orthodoxy.

Of late, Scott has been carefully studying St. Tikhon's ten-year stay in North America, where he worked hard to build up the Russian Orthodox mission here, that started with St. Herman of Alaska in 1794. He has discovered some fascinating material in St. Tikhon's sermons that have been recorded for posterity. Many of these sermons have been compiled and translated and are available now: St Tikhon of Moscow — Instructions & Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful, 1898-1907. Scott wrote the Preface to these collected sermons. I have read most of them and they are consistently insightful on the theological, spiritual, and pastoral levels. A worthy collection for any Orthodox library.

In his studies of these sermons, Scott discovered a "gem" of a passage in which St. Tikhon, with true prescience, spoke eloquently on the issue of racism as he encountered it in the early 20th c. Scott then recently sent me this note that you may want to look into:

- Fr. Steven


Fr Steven—

I developed my comments on St. Tikhon’s sermon into a little article, giving the context for his sermon (which I think makes it all the more powerful & timely):


Dr. Scott M. Kenworthy, Associate Professor
Dept of Comparative Religion
Miami University, Oxford OH 45056
Miami faculty profile profile


by Scott Kenworthy

In the midst of pandemic and protests over racial injustice, it is important to remember that the connection between disease and racism in North America is not a new one: Europeans extended their domination over the land and the indigenous populations that lived on it in large part through their decimation caused by diseases brought by the Europeans. St. Tikhon of Moscow, who was bishop in North America at the turn of the last century, observed this dynamic and condemned racism in no uncertain terms.

The concept of race that categorizes people according to skin color and physical differences is a modern one, inextricably connected to European colonial domination. Because it is a modern concept that developed largely outside the Orthodox world, to this day there have been few statements on race and racism made by universally recognized authoritative Orthodox voices. The challenge in the Orthodox world since the nineteenth century has been the growing connection between religious and national identity and therefore the problem of nationalism in the Church. It is especially important to pay attention to an explicit condemnation of racism by one of the greatest modern Orthodox saints.

St. Tikhon (Bellavin, 1865-1925) is best known as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in the midst of one of its darkest hours, during the Russian Revolution from 1917 to 1925. Earlier in his career he served as the sole bishop for the ethnically diverse fledgling North American Orthodox Church (from 1898 to 1907), where he made lasting contributions to American church life.

St. Tikhon condemned racism in a sermon delivered in San Francisco on August 5, 1900, after returning from a trip to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska so remote that no Orthodox bishop had ever visited [1]. The entire trip lasted 78 days and covered several thousand miles, much of it by kayak and traversing swampy tundra on foot. St. Tikhon observed how the natives struggled with the exploitative practices of the American trading companies. It was also a region that had been recently impacted by the sudden influx of white Americans using it as a route to the Klondike Gold Rush, who brought with them diseases that were new to the native Alaskans. On route to the settlement still called Russian Mission, Tikhon learned that the town had been struck by an influenza epidemic. In the following days St. Tikhon visited everyone in the town in their homes to pray for their recovery despite great risk to himself. That summer nearly three-quarters of the population perished, including the priest’s own wife and son [2].

The day after St. Tikhon returned to his episcopal see in San Francisco, he delivered one of his most powerful sermons. The sermon was subsequently published, and was described by one of his readers—his predecessor as bishop in North America Nikolai (Ziorov)—as so “eloquent and inspired” it moved him to action. In the sermon, Tikhon discussed the Gospel reading about the feeding of the 5,000, noting especially that Christ cared about the earthly needs and hunger of the people—and that he instructed his disciples to “give them something to eat” (Mt. 14: 16). Then St Tikhon told his listeners about his recent journey, and how the natives had been on the verge of starvation the previous winter only to be decimated by an epidemic “brought there by white people and from which the natives die quickly.”[3] The sermon thus highlighted the links between poverty, racial inequality, and disease.

St. Tikhon exhorted his listeners (and readers) to help, just as Christ had instructed his disciples to feed his hungry followers. It should not matter that the Alaskan natives belong to another race, St. Tikhon stated, and then explicitly condemned white supremacy: “That is not civilization, which is shamefully preached by others,” according to which “the white race should dominate the world,” much less that whites “wipe off the face of the earth other ‘colored’ races” or refuse to care for them in their suffering. On the contrary, St. Tikhon asserted, “true civilization consists in giving as many people as possible access to the benefits of life.” The truly civilized are those who use their privileges to “raise up to their level” those who are less fortunate.

St. Tikhon then explicitly rejected any form of racism: “Since all people originate from one person [i.e. Adam–SK], all are children of one Heavenly Father; all were redeemed by the most pure blood of Christ, in Whom ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free’ (Gal. 3:28).” In Christ, racial distinctions have been transcended, all are granted equality. “All are brothers and must love one another,” St. Tikhon said, and further declared that this equality should not only be theoretical, but must be expressed in action: “…must love one another—not only in words, but in deeds as well.” At a moment in America’s history when divisive forces are pulling Orthodox Christians in contrary directions, St Tikhon’s message is clear: not only are we to regard all people as brothers regardless of race and love them as such, but we are express that love by standing with those who are victims of racial injustice.


[1] An English translation of the sermon can be found in St. Tikhon of Moscow, Instructions and Teachings for the American Faithful (1898-1907), translated and edited by Alex Maximov and David C. Ford (St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2016), pp. 45-47. The correct date for the sermon is 23 July/5 August 1900. I have slightly modified the translation according to the Russian text.

[2] An account of the trip can be found in A. V. Popov, Amerikanskii period zhizni i deiatel’nosti sviatitelia TIkhona Moskovskogo, 1898-1907 gg. (St Petersburg: Satis, 2013), pp 73-87.

[3] Maximov and Ford translate povetrie as “social diseases”; although the word can be used with a metaphorical connotation, in this context its primary meaning (“pestilence” or “epidemic”) would be more appropriate.

Source: Public Orthodoxy

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

'The Greatest and Most Righteous Pillars of the Church'

Dear Parish Faithful,

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

On June 29 we celebrate and commemorate the two great Apostles Peter and Paul. (Today, June 30, we celebrate the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles). Their martyrdom in Rome is a very well-attested historical event, happening probably between the years 64-68 A.D. under the Roman emperor Nero. 
This is considered within the Church to be such a great Feast that it is preceded by a prescribed time of fasting, a practice only reserved otherwise for the great Feasts of the Lord (Nativity and Pascha) and the Mother of God (Dormition). This both stresses the historical greatness of these two apostles, the accomplishments of their respective ministries, their martyric ends, and the very ministry and role of an apostle in proclaiming the Gospel to the world in fulfillment of the Lord’s command to preach the Good News to “all nations.” (MATT. 28:16-20) Indeed, St. Clement of Rome in his First Epistle, referred to Sts. Peter and Paul as “the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church].” On careful reflection, it is not simply pious rhetoric that informs some of the hymns chanted in their honor during this Feast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Nativity of St. John the Forerunner

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son ... What then will this child be? For the hand of the Lord was with him." (Lk. 1:57, 66)

Today, June 24, is the commemoration of the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner/Baptist. Besides Christ, the only other biblical figure whose nativity is celebrated is the Mother of God. But of the two, only St. John's conception and nativity are recorded in the Scriptures, and in some detail: Lk. 1:5-25; 57-66.  I have included a link to the scriptural texts, and to the OCA page on St. John's nativity.

An interesting feature of the liturgical commemoration of St. John's Nativity is the choice of verses used for the prokeimenon of the Feast and for the appointed Alleluia verses. The prokeimena are always chosen verses from the Psalms. These verses are never chosen arbitrarily, but they are meant to highlight one aspect or another of a given commemoration. For St. John, the two verses are:

The righteous one shall rejoice in the Lord and shall set his hope on Him. (Ps. 63:11)

vs, Hear my voice, O God, when I pray unto Thee! (63:1)

The main verse, which is repeated three times in preparation for the reading of the Epistle, is clearly chosen because St. John was such a "righteous" person who proclaimed the coming of Christ. As the angel prophecies to Zachariah, the father of the forerunner:

And you will have joy 
  and gladness,
and many will rejoice in his birth;
for he will be great before the Lord ...
and he will be filled with
  the Holy Spirit,
even from his mother's 
  womb. (Lk. 1:14-15)

However, even though the Alleluia verses before the Gospel are also overwhelmingly chosen from the Psalms, in this case, the two verses are taken from the Gospel of St. Luke:

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He hath visited and redeemed His people. (Lk. 1:68)

vs. And thou, child, shall be called the Prophet of the Most-High. (Lk. 1:68)
This is also the case when we celebrate both the Nativity of the Mother of God and her Entrance Into the Temple - the appointed prokeimenon verses for both feasts are taken directly from the text of St. Luke's Gospel. I will assume that in these two cases, this is because we have direct scriptural authority for the given feast, and not simply verses that are applied prophetically or typologically. Be that as it may, I highly encourage everyone to read the appointed texts chosen for the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord.

For those who observe the Apostles Fast, fish is allowed on this day in honor of St. John.

Friday, June 19, 2020

An Interview with Fr. Paul Abernathy (VIDEO)

Dear Parish Faithful,

I received this from our former parishioner, Mother Paula, of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, PA. It is an interview with Fr. Paul Abernathy.

Perhaps some of you have already seen it, in that it has made quite an impact and is being shared throughout the Orthodox world. As I informed everyone last week, I believe, Fr. Paul is the grandson of the prominent Baptist minister, Ralph Abernathy, who was a leading figure, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, in the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. I will assume that Fr. Paul has a deep and intimate knowledge of that whole movement through his grandfather. It would be fascinating to learn how Fr. Paul, with such a background, is now an Orthodox priest!

From what I just learned, there are now twenty-four African American men ordained to the priesthood of the Orthodox Church in North America. Fr. Paul himself is in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. As a "person of color," his remarks on the current protest movement within the black community are deeply insightful and helpful for us to learn more about the issues and struggles going on in our country as racial reconciliation - and simple mutual understanding - are still proving to be elusive in 2020.

What adds further depth to Fr. Paul's trenchant analysis and insights is his profound commitment to his Orthodox Christian Faith and the principles of the Gospel. And that is why reconciliation and mutual understanding are so important to him. Fr. Paul is very articulate and dynamic. If he represents the next generation of leadership within the Orthodox Church, then we will be in good hands.

I highly encourage everyone to find the time to listen to this interview and the practical steps Fr. Paul will outline in the Orthodox Church's need to respond to the African American community with the fulness of the Gospel in its Orthodox expression. Those of you with teenagers may want to include them in this dialogue. Our teens are sensitive to social issues and we should want them to know of an articulate Orthodox response/position to those very issues. The Church has to "step up" and make this effort - it is the twenty first century after all!

Fr. Steven

Father Stephen, your blessing,

You might be interested in this interview. Father Paul Abernathy serves in an Orthodox mission in the city of Pittsburgh.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Orthodox Reflections on Race

Dear Parish Faithful,

I intend on sharing some of the many articles, essays and statements about the issue of racism that have been recently written, and which have come to my attention. Now that the issue has become one of a burning national concern (yet again) we, as Orthodox Christians, need to have a firm grasp of just what the Church teaches about "race," and how the Church condemns all forms of racism. The theological foundation of that condemnation adds a real sense of depth to our position. What we teach about race/racism may seem to be quite obvious, but to this day it does not seem to be that obvious to various sectors of our society.

As we continue to enlighten and educate ourselves as Orthodox Christians, we further our own ability to articulate our position with clarity and depth. The "solution" to the problem of racism is in the Church where all are one in Christ Jesus. Our vocation is to take that aspect of the "new creation" out into the world with us. In this incredible text from St. Maximus the Confessor (+662) we read of a vision of unity within the Church which is breathtaking in its scope and depth. There can be no divisions within the Church, but of course there is a legitmate "diversity" that respects human uniqueness and personhood in a way that we can only dream of even in the twenty-first century. In fact, a great deal of the wonder of this text is how it resonates for us living today, dealing with multiple levels of divisiveness. In this 7th c. text (!) we are given a vision of that "new creation" in Christ that we must try and embody within our lives and communities:

It is in this way that the holy Church will be shown to be active among us in the same way as God, as an image reflects its archetype. For many and of nearly boundless number are the men, women and children who are distinct from one another and vastly different by birth and appearance, by race and language, by way of life and age, by opinions and skills, by manners and customs, by pursuits and studies, and still again by reputation, fortune, characteristics and habits; all are born into the Church and through it are reborn and recreated in the Spirit. To all in equal measure it gives and bestows one divine form and designation: to be Christ's and to bear his name.

Essentially, St. Maximus is extending the "radical" teaching of St. Paul about the newly-established unity in Christ:

There is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither barbarian nor Scythian, neither slave nor free, but he is all and in all. (Col. 3:11)

Here is a fine essay by Abbot Tryphon of the All-Merciful Savior Monastery "somewhere" on the west coast. It is rather obvious in its message, but is a measured and positive message that also reminds us of some basic biblical principles on Orthodox anthropology. It also offers a helpful pastoral challenge toward the end.


The Evil of Racism

Racism has no place in the life of a Christian.

It is important to understand that genetically, all humans are of but one race. Indians, Arabs, Jews, Caucasians, Africans, and Asians, are not different races, but rather, different ethnicities of the human race. God created all humans with the same physical characteristics, with only minor variations. Furthermore, He created all humans in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27), and has invited all of us to enter into communion with Him.

A black man is just as much my brother as a fellow Scotsman like myself. In the Book of Acts we read that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, diverse expressions of languages were being spoken. And in Revelation we see a glimpse of eternity with men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation making up the choir of eternal praise (Rev. 7:9). That the writers of Scripture took notice of ethnicity, and saw diversity as good, makes it impossible for the Christian to hold to thoughts of racial superiority, or separation of the races.

How can we hold to racist ideologies when even the Apostle John hinted at prejudice concerning Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)?” How can we dare hold to racist opinions when the Lord Jesus Christ presented parables which even offended the religious leaders of His time? The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) make it impossible for us to hold to ideas of ethnic superiority over different races. Even our Orthodox iconography intentionally reflects the full range of skin hues when painting a saint’s face in order to stress the interconnectedness and blessedness of all races of humanity.

All forms of racism, prejudice, and discrimination are affronts to the work of Christ on the cross. Jesus Christ died that all men might be saved, be they Jews, Africans, Spanish, Norwegians, Asians, or whatever. In Christ we are united as One Body, and as humans we are all of one race. Ethnicity should mean nothing for the Christian, and our parishes should demonstrate the truth of the ethnic diversity of the Kingdom of God. If we hold to racist beliefs we only demonstrate how far we have distanced ourselves from the teachings of Our Lord. Can a Christian be a racist? The answer is an emphatic NO!

So, how do we end racism in America? We do so by acknowledging the racism that resides in ourselves, and by making a concerted effort to root it out. Saint Seraphim of Sarov told us that change begins with me, and that when I acquire inner peace, thousands around me will be saved.

I am reminded of the time I was one of the speakers at a large rally in downtown Seattle, commemorating the Armenian Holocaust, the systematic mass murder and expulsion of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians carried out in Turkey and adjoining regions by the Ottoman government between 1914 and 1923. After parking my vehicle, I was walking toward Pacific Plaza for the rally when I came face to face with three young black men. Knowing they likely were thinking this old white man was wishing he was walking on the other side of the street, I proclaimed in a loud voice, "isn't this a beautiful day?"

They all smiled broadly, and one asked what I was, as he gestured toward my black robe. "Why, I'm a Seahawks fan", I proclaimed, at which they all burst into laughter and rushed forward to give me a hug. As I continued walking toward the rally, I had a great big smile on my face, for I felt like they were all three my grandchildren, and I felt a great deal of love for them.

Each of us are given so many opportunities to demonstrate our oneness with black people, and when we acknowledge they, as a race, are coming out of 500 years where they've experienced fear and racism emanating from we white people, we will know the importance of reaching out to them with love and respect. Change begins with me, and as a Christian, it is my duty, and certainly my calling, to love everyone I meet as Christ.

With love in Christ,

Abbot Tryphon

Monday, June 8, 2020

Acquiring the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

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

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

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

As Orthodox Christians we do not reduce the Holy Spirit to a kind of indefinite divine power or energy. Rather, we clearly proclaim that the Holy Spirit is God, the "Third Person" of the "holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity."
We further believe that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (JN. 15:26) and "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified" (Nicene Creed). As one of the many beautiful hymns of the Vespers of Pentecost expresses this truth:

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

The Holy Spirit, present within the dispensation of the Old Testament and more openly within the earthly ministry of Christ, descends into the world in a unique, but decisive and final way on the Great Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Savior's resurrection. The coming of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the New Testament Church and the Holy Spirit abides in the Church as the life-giving Power of renewal, rebirth and regeneration. The Church would grow old and die (as do empires, nations, cultures and secular institutions) because of our many human and historical sins, if not for this presence of the Holy Spirit, making the Church ever-young and cleansing us all "from every impurity" as the personal Source of sanctification. We come to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it a bit more fully: 

"One does not think of the Father without the Son and one does not conceive of the Son without the Holy Spirit. For it is impossible to attain to the Father except by being raised by the Son, and it is impossible to call Jesus Lord save in the Holy Spirit."
All authentic life in the Church is life lived in the Holy Trinity, and on the Day of Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit is the final revelation of precisely this greatest of mysteries - that the one God is "tri-hypostastic" (meaning "tri-personal"), being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Here is a typical example from the Church Fathers of expressing the great paradox of the One God in Three Persons:

"The single divinity of the Trinity is undivided and the three Persons of the one divinity are unconfused. We confess Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, divided yet without division and united yet with distinctions." (St. Thalassios the Libyan)
The Sunday of Pentecost is, then, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Pentecost Monday being the day of the Holy Spirit. Of the divine attributes of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great enumerates the following: 

"From this Source comes foreknowledge of the future, the understanding of mysteries, the apprehension of things hidden, the partaking of spiritual gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the choir of angels, unending joy, the power to abide in God, to become like God, and, highest of all ends to which we can aspire, to become divine."
This can strike us as abstract. But theology reveals to us the foundation and the vision on which and in which we order our spiritual lives. The dogma of the Trinity must impact our lives.

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

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

As St. Seraphim of Sarov put it: "The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Spirit of God."

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

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

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

But how we may weep and gnash our teeth if and when we lose money, property, status, or simply "things;" how we mourn the loss of even a "trinket" if we have invested it with sentimental value. It is these types of losses that are meaningful and which demand our attention and concern, while the muting of the "voice" of the Spirit deep within our conscience will only draw a lukewarm sigh. This is a most unfortunate reversal of values; for losing the "seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit" is tantamount to losing our "heavenly treasure;" while losing our earthly treasures is only to lose what "moth and rust consume" despite our heroic efforts to escape that process. 

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

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

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Fathers of the First Council and the 'Robe of Truth'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This meditation covers some of the theology that we discussed in our zoom class on June 4. Immediately below are links to the two handouts that we used as well. 

Fr. Steven


The Fathers of the First Council and the 'Robe of Truth'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded."  ~ St. Athanasius the Great (+373)

Last Sunday, we found ourselves in between the two great Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost.  However, on that Seventh Sunday of Pascha, we also commemorated the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 A.D.  It is virtually impossible to over-exaggerate the importance of this Council in the life of the Church.

The Council had not only to reject the Arian heresy that claimed that the Son of God is a "creature" and thus subordinate  in essence to God the Father; but the Council had to find the right terminology to demonstrate that the Faith of the Church from the beginning believed and claimed that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God equal in essence to God the Father (as is the Holy Spirit). Arianism and Orthodox Christianity are essentially two different faiths which is why the Church was at a crossroads in the fourth century according to C. S. Lewis  either become just one more "synthetic/syncretistic religion" of the ancient world, or proclaim the uniqueness of Christ as the eternal Son of God and the Savior of the world. 

The dramatic story of the Council of Nicea has been told and retold throughout the centuries.  Not wanting to repeat that story here, I will simply include a link to a good summary found on the OCA website.

Yet, I would like to add a few words about the manner in which we honor the great Fathers of the Church in our liturgical tradition.  To do so, I would like to bring to mind the Kontakion of the Fathers that we sang on Sunday:

The apostles' preaching and the fathers' doctrines have established the one faith for the Church. Adorned with the robe of truth, woven from heavenly theology; great is the mystery of piety which it defines and glorifies.

This kontakion is very close in meaning to what we read from St. Athanasius the Great (+373) - one of the leading lights of Nicene Orthodoxy - as quoted above.  There is a direct continuity between what the Apostles "preached" and what the Fathers later formulated as doctrines.

This continuity is not simply chronological - it is theological. It was the same Gospel - the same "robe of truth" - without illegitimate subtractions or additions. The Fathers did not change the content of the Faith that they were expressing through their doctrine. They were developing and expanding upon the apostolic preaching for their own times. But the content of the "one faith for the Church" remained identical with itself in this ongoing transmission of the Tradition. (Tradition means that which is "handed down" or "handed over").

The Nicene Creed does not add anything new to what the apostles preached. It rather witnesses to what they preached so as to preserve the Truth in the face of its possible distortion. To do so they had to come up with new formulations of that unchanging Truth. Thus, their bold introduction of the term homoousios to describe how the Son is "consubstantial" with the Father was not something innovative or "creative." It was a necessary development to again preserve that which was proclaimed from the beginning: God became incarnate in order to save us for only God can save. 

In one of his classic articles "The Authority of the Ancient Councils," Fr. George Florovsky brilliantly described the relationship between the apostles and fathers and their respective roles in transmitting the Tradition:

Apostles and Fathers - these  two terms were generally and commonly coupled together in the argument from Tradition, as it was used in the Third and Fourth centuries. It was this double reference, both to the origin and to the unfailing and continuous preservation, that warranted the authenticity of belief. 
On the other hand, Scripture was formally acknowledged and recognized as the ground and foundation of faith, as the Word of God and the Writ of the Spirit. Yet, there was still the problem of right and adequate interpretation. Scripture and the Fathers were usually quoted together, that is, kerygma (proclamation) and exegesis  (interpretation).  

This is a "heavenly theology" because its ultimate Source is Christ Himself, Who reveals the will of the Father for the world and its salvation. And this is that "mystery of piety which it defines and glorifies," precisely as the apostles preached:

Great indeed is the mystery of our religion:
  He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels,
  preached among the nations,
believed on in the world, taken up in glory.  (I TIM. 3:16)

We venerate and honor the Fathers within the ongoing life of the Church.  To again turn to the same article of Fr. George Florovsky, he further writes:

"Fathers" were those who transmitted and propagated the right doctrine, the teaching of the Apostles, who were guides and masters of Christian instruction and catechesis... They were spokesmen for the Church, expositors of her faith, keepers of her Tradition, witnesses of truth and faith.  And in that was their "authority" grounded.

Most glorious art Thou, O Christ our God!
Thou hast established the Holy Fathers as
lights on the earth! Through them Thou hast
guided us to the true faith! O greatly 
Compassionate One, glory to Thee!
(Troparion of the Holy Fathers)