Monday, September 18, 2017

'Wood is healed by Wood'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Let all the trees of the forest rejoice,
For their nature is sanctified by Christ who planted
   them in the beginning,
And who was Himself outstretched on the Tree.
At its exaltation today we worship Him and glorify
- Canon hymn from the Matins of the Feast.

The Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross raises a myriad of themes—Biblical, historical, theological, etc.—upon which to meditate.  One such theme is what we call a typological reading of the Scriptures.  This is a profound way of discovering the inner connection between persons, events, and places of the Old Testament—what we would call “types”—with their fulfillment as “antitypes” in the New Testament.  Thus, Adam is a type of which Christ—the last Adam—is the antitype:  “Adam… was the type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14).

Through typology, we learn that the Old Testament can now be read as anticipating the Person of Christ and the saving events recorded in the New Testament, without undermining the integrity of the historical path of ancient Israel as the People of God, entrusted by God with a messianic destiny. 

One such typological application is expressed in an intriguing and paradoxical manner through one of the hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.  As we sing in one of the verses from the festal Great Vespers, 

“For it is fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the suffering of him who was condemned because of wood.”

What a truly wonderful phrase: “wood should be healed by wood!”  Yet, what is this “wood” to which the hymn refers?  How does wood “heal” wood?  

In both instances, the wood is clearly the wood of two trees—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as found in Genesis 2, and the wood of the Tree of the Cross.  In disobedience to the command of God, the man and woman of Genesis 2—Adam and Eve—ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  This was the one tree, the fruit of which it was not safe for them to eat: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).

The freedom and self-determination of the first man and woman were tested by this divine commandment.  In a celebrated interpretation of this passage, Saint Gregory the Theologian (+395) draws out the meaning of this command and its consequences.  “[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on,” he writes.  

“This law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of and which one he might not touch.  This latter was the tree of knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us—let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction or imitate the serpent.  But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time.  The tree was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy, just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk”  (Second Oration on Easter, 8).

Saint Athanasius the Great (+373) express this in similar terms.  

“Knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation God secured the grace given to them by a command and by the place where He put them.  For He brought them into His own garden and gave them a law so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise or incorruption in heaven.  But if they transgressed and turned back and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death that was theirs by nature,  no longer to live in paradise but cast out of it from that time forth to die and abide in death and corruption”  (On The Incarnation, 3.4).

The theme of the initial innocence of Adam and Eve—their lack of maturity and their need for spiritual growth and maturation—was quite characteristic of the Church Fathers, being found as early as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (+c. 200).  “Therefore, the ‘wood’ of this tree proved to be death-dealing, not because God made it such ‘in the beginning,’ but because it was partaken of in a forbidden manner and not ‘at the proper time,’” he wrote.  

Nothing created by God is evil by nature; rather, all is “very good.”  But misdirected free will can pervert the good into something that is evil.  The gift of the promise of deification is a God-sourced gift, not a self-sourced gift.

On the other hand, the Tree of the Cross is precisely the wood through which the first disobedience was undone by the One Who died on it in obedience to the will of the Father.  The Tree of Life that was in the Garden was the actual “type” of the Tree of the Cross on Golgotha.  The last Adam—Christ—healed us of the sin of the first Adam.  (As early as Saint Justin the Martyr, it was taught that the Virgin Mary was the “new Eve” also because of her obedience to the Word of God).  

The Cross is therefore “the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass.  For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam is by the Cross himself deceived, and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity is overthrown in headlong fall” (Sticheron, Great Vespers). 

Obedience is hardly a virtue that is found attractive or worthy of pursuit in today's world; but a great virtue nevertheless due to the Lord's obedience to the will of his heavenly Father when he willingly - obediently - ascended the Cross for our salvation.

According to a pious tradition, the place of the skull—Golgotha—is the place where Adam was buried when he died.  The blood that flowed from Christ “baptized” that skull as symbolic of the sons of Adam (and Eve) being given renewed and eternal life by the blood shed by Christ on the Cross—the Tree of Life.  As we sing in one of the Litiya hymns for the feast, “The Tree of true life was planted in the place of the skull, and upon it hast Thou, the eternal King, worked salvation in the midst of the earth.  Exalted today, it sanctifies the ends of the world.”  (We might note here that it is in this light that in icons of the crucifixion, we generally see the Cross of Christ “planted” on the skull of Adam, with an inscription that reads “the Grave of Adam.”)

“Wood is healed by Wood!”  This is the good news revealed in the typological interpretation found in the liturgical hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, together with the biblical exegesis of the Church Fathers.  This is why we honor and venerate the Cross by literally bowing down before it in adoration.  The Cross was at the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel, though an instrument of shame in the ancient world.  But this did not deter the Apostle Paul from proclaiming that Gospel is the power of God.  “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).  And we also cannot be “ashamed” of the Tree of the Cross through which “joy has come into the world.”

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Crucified King of Glory

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On September 14 we celebrate the Feast Day of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross—to give the Feast its full title.  This is the day that we liturgically commemorate and venerate the Cross that was placed in the middle of the church toward the end of the service the prior evening.  The Feast will then have a full “octave” for its celebration – thus making it an eight-day Feast which serves to stress the importance of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives. 

To further turn our attention toward the Cross, we recall the Third Sunday of Great Lent — the Adoration of the Cross — and the less well-observed Feast of the Procession of the Cross on August 1.  And, importantly, every Wednesday and Friday is a day of commemorating the Cross, one of the reasons that we fast on those two days on a weekly basis.

Prominent as the Cross may be for Christians, it is the Apostle Paul who very succinctly and profoundly captured the unbelieving world’s attitude toward the Cross in his well-known text: 

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).  

This leads the Apostle to one of his most astonishing and paradoxical insights: 

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:26).

The “scandal” for the unbelieving Jew would be the claim that the Messiah was crucified.  The “folly” for the Greek/Gentile would be the claim that the divine would even enter the realm of flesh and blood and “become” human, let alone suffer death on a cross.  Yet God, in and through Christ, transformed what is shameful, weak, lowly and despised—a crucified man—into “our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” [1 Corinthians 1:30].  The entire passage of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 deserves careful, close and constant study. 

It remains fascinating, and highly instructive, that even non-Christians who profess to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, struggle terribly with the scandal of the Cross.  This is clearly the case with Islam.  Jesus is treated with great respect in many passages in the Qur’an, even to the point of acknowledging His virginal conception in a passage that clearly resembles the Annunciation account in the Gospel According to Saint Luke [Qur’an, 3:45-47]! 

However, the crucifixion is treated in a way that bears no resemblance to the Gospel accounts: “Yet they did not slay him, neither crucify him, only a likeness of that was shown to them” [4:156-159].  The Muslims believe that someone else—a figure unidentified by the Qur’an—was crucified in the place of Christ, but not Jesus Himself.  The Muslim scholar Dr. Maneh Al-Johani wrote, “The Qur’an does not elaborate on this point, nor does it give any answer to this question.” 

Clearly, the “scandal” of the Cross is too much for Muslim sensibilities, since Jesus is for them a great prophet sent by God.  Muslims further believe that Jesus was raised to Heaven, yet before He died—clearly an odd teaching that again is meant to completely distance Jesus from His crucifixion.  If there is anything that is agreed upon today among New Testament scholars—believers and skeptics alike—it is that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion by orders of Pontius Pilate in the early 30s of the Christian era.  This lends a certain fantastic quality to these claims of the Qur’an.

There is a close resemblance here with an early Christian heresy known as docetism—from the Greek word meaning “to appear.”  In other words, it only “appeared” that Christ was actually crucified and died on the Cross.  Saint Ignatius of Antioch (+c. 110) vehemently rejected this heresy in its initial inception early in the second century: 

“Be deaf, then, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, Who was of the family of David, Who was of Mary, Who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died ... He was also truly raised from the dead, when His Father raised Him up….”  [Epistle to the Trallians, 9].

Saint Ignatius very poignantly asks, what is the purpose of suffering martyrdom for the Lord (as he did in the Roman arena) if the sufferings of Christ were an illusion?  Should a Christian suffer in the flesh if his Lord did not?  As he writes,

“But if, as some godless men—that is, unbelievers—say His suffering was only apparent (they are the apparent ones), why am I in bonds, why do I pray to fight wild beasts?  Then I die in vain.  Then I lie about the Lord” [To the Trallians, 10].

We do not “worship” the Cross.  We worship the One Who was crucified upon the Cross for our salvation.  Indeed, with the Apostle Paul we call Him the “Lord of glory” [1 Corinthians 2:8].  Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet in a chain of prophets sent by God.  He is the fulfilment of the prophetic testimony to His coming, as He is the fulfilment of the Law [Matthew 5:17].  There are no prophets to follow Him with any further additions to the Christian revelation.  We believe, as we chant in the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy, that He is the “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God ... Who without change didst become man and was crucified.”  The Cross remains “an unconquerable token of victory” and “an invincible shield.”  In fact, it is for this reason that in our practice, we “kiss with joy the Wood of salvation, on which was stretched Christ the Redeemer” [Small Vespers].

Christianity does not exist because of what it holds in common with other great world religions, but because of what is unique and distinctive about it, primarily the Incarnation, redemptive Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is because of our love for Christ that beginning on the personal level, we must promote and practice mutual respect, tolerance and peaceful co-existence with sincerely believing people of other religions.  I see no other way for those who claim to follow the crucified Lord of glory. 

However, this should in no way undermine our sense of Christian distinctiveness—“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]—but actually demonstrate our loyalty to Christ Who never compels but invites, with outstretched arms upon the Cross.

Friday, September 8, 2017

To See Life with 'Restored Vision'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The church was quite filled – and the “Communion line” was quite long – at yesterday evening's Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos.  There is a long day behind us by the time we get to the service, and so it is very encouraging to see so many of the parish faithful make the effort to be present for the Feast.  Coming as it does right after the beginning of the Church New Year, this Feast allows us a good start that we further hope we can sustain as the liturgical year unfolds before us.  As a straightforward and joyous feast of commemorating the birth of the Virgin Mary, we receive a “taste” of the joyousness of life from within the Church that is often obscured by life’s challenges, difficulties and tragedies.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it like this: 

In and through this newborn girl, Christ – our gift from God, our meeting and encounter with Him – comes to embrace the world.  Thus, in celebrating Mary’s birth we find ourselves already on the road to Bethlehem, moving toward to the joyful mystery of Mary as the Mother of God.

In an age of cynicism and unbelief, to encounter the purity of Mariam of Nazareth – the Virgin Mary and Theotokos – is to see life with a restored vision that, again, is only possible from within the Church.  Goodness, purity of heart and faithfulness to God are embodied realities lived by real human persons.  Such a restored vision of life will strengthen our sense of the inherent goodness of life that sin may obscure, but never obliterate.  Yet,  if  we can no longer “see” that, then we have lost something absolutely vital to our humanity, and we need to repent and embrace that “change of mind” that will restore our own humanity.

Some will undoubtedly see nothing but a stereotype of the “feminine” here, but perhaps Fr. Schmemann has something worthwhile to say in his approach to the “image of woman” as manifested in the Virgin Mary:

The Virgin Mary, the All-Pure Mother demands nothing and receives everything.  She pursues nothing, and possesses all.
In the image of the Virgin Mary we find what has almost completely been lost in our proud, aggressive, male world:  compassion, tender-heartedness, care, trust, humility.  We call her our Lady and the Queen of heaven and earth, and yet she calls herself “the handmaid of the Lord.” 
She is not out to teach or prove anything, yet her presence alone, in its light and joy, takes away the anxiety of our imagined problems.  It is as if we have been out on a long, weary, unsuccessful day of work and have finally come home, and once again all becomes clear and filled with that happiness beyond words which is the only true happiness. 
Christ said, “Do not be anxious … Seek first the Kingdom of God” (see Mt. 6:33).  Beholding this woman – Virgin, Mother, Intercessor – we begin to sense, to know not with our mind but with our heart, what it means to seek the Kingdom, to find it, and to live by it.  (Celebration of Faith, Vol. 3)

On the day following the Feast – September 9 – we commemorate the “ancestors of God,” Joachim and Anna, the father and mother of the Virgin Mary according to the Tradition of the Church.  This is a consistent pattern within our festal and liturgical commemorations:  On the day after a particular feast, we commemorate the persons who are an integral part of that feast day’s events.  For example, the day after Theophany we commemorate St. John the Baptist; and on the day after Nativity, we commemorate the Theotokos.  Therefore, because of the essential role of Joachim and Anna in the current Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity, today is the “synaxis of Joachim and Anna”  and we thus bring them to mind in an effort to  discern and meditate upon their important place in this festal commemoration.

The source of their respective roles is the Protoevangelion of James, a mid 2nd c. document.  As Archbishop Ware has written: 

The Orthodox Church does not place the Protoevangelion of James on the same level as Holy Scripture:  it is possible, then, to accept the spiritual truth which underlies this narrative, without necessarily attributing a literal and historical exactness to every detail.

One of those “spiritual truths” alluded to by Archbishop Ware is the account of both Joachim and Anna continuing to pray with faith and trust in God’s providence even though they were greatly discouraged over the “barrenness” of Anna.  A lack of children in ancient Israel could easily be taken for a sign of God’s displeasure, thus hinting at hidden sins that deserve rebuke. Though disheartened, they continued to place their trust in God, refusing to turn away from God though thoroughly tested as to their patience.  

Perseverance in prayer in the face of discouragement is a real spiritual feat that reveals genuine faith.  The conception and then birth of the Virgin Mary reveals to joyous outcome of their faith and trust in God.  Perhaps this is why we commemorate Joachim and Anna as the “ancestors of God” at the end of every Dismissal in our major liturgical services, including the Divine Liturgy:  We seek their prayers as icons of an everyday faith that is expressed as fidelity, faith and trust in God’s Law and providential care.

Joachim and Anna could also be witnesses to a genuine conjugal love that manifests itself in the conception and birth of a new child.  Their union is an image of a “chaste” sexual love that is devoid of lust and self-seeking pleasure.  The strong ascetical emphases of many of our celibate saints may serve to undermine or obscure the blessings of conjugal love as envisaged in the Sacrament of Marriage.  In fact, through its canonical legislation going back to early centuries, the Church has struggled against a distorted asceticism that denigrates sexual love even within the bonds of marriage as a concession to uncontrollable passions.  The Church is not “anti-sex.”  But the Church always challenges us to discern the qualitative distinction between love and lust.  The icon of the embrace of Joachim and Anna outside the gates of their home as they both rush to embrace each other following the exciting news that they would indeed be given a child, is the image of  this purified conjugal love that will result in the conception of Mary, their child conceived as all other children are conceived.

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos has four days of Afterfeast, thus ending with the Leavetaking on September 12.  That allows us to then prepare for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on September 14!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

'Making Room' for Christ and His Church

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel! (I Cor 9:16)

Although rather overlooked and perhaps inconsistently observed for that very reason, the Church New Year (September 1) nevertheless allows us the opportunity to review, reassess and then renew our commitment to our lives in the Church. That would also include our commitment to the living God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for as Orthodox Christians we experience the mercy and love of God in and through Jesus Christ within the grace-filled life of the Church.

Commitment raises issues as wide-ranging as our use of time, our resources and our energy, here understood as what deeply "moves" us to live and act in a certain way.  Commitment reveals just what we are "passionate" about. That raises further wide-ranging challenges to our pursuit of the life "in Christ" as there is just so much "out there" to be passionate about, and hence to commit ourselves to.  Or so it would seem.

And thus, as our lives crowd up with a combination of unavoidable demands and our own more personal choices, we realize that we only have "room" for so much in our lives. We are all very committed to the well-being of our families; so assuming that as a matter of course, we can then ask the questions: Just what is the extent of my commitment to Christ and the Church? To what extent do I have room for the Church in my life? 

If we make the honest assessment that, in answer to this question, I really have only a limited amount of room for the Church; and that because of that I find myself compartmentalizing my "religious" and "normal" life rather unconsciously; then a further question persists: To what extent do I make room for the Church in my life?

This is a more probing question, because to make room for the Church in my life, I must make some hard choices and consciously change some priorities. I may have to make some sacrifices concerning those ever-important components of time, resources and energy. Being committed to Christ and the Church is not about finding a "comfort zone" and then staying within its confines; it is about breaking out of that comfort zone in order to encounter the "living God" which is meant to be an awesome experience: "and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). Or, as Christ Himself said decisively: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt 6:21).

Taking up the challenge to make room for Christ and the Church we can initially explore this on the level of parish life.

Over the years, I have tried to consistently maintain what I call the "three pillars" of parish life: worship, education and charity. There is more to parish life, but I begin with these three components, for if they are strong than the parish will be strong - and spiritually healthy.

Worship, education and charity are hopefully rather self-explanatory and therefore do not need to be analyzed in detail. However, by way of reminder we could say in summary fashion that we begin with the worship of God as expressed above in the text from Hebrews; we deepen our faith in God through education by seeking to learn about our shared Orthodox faith in a communal setting of support and fellowship; and through charity we extend the love of Christ for the world by sharing of our own parish and personal wealth with the "least of these my brethren" (Matt 25: 40).  Once we make our commitment to these "pillars" we will be cheerful givers in support of the parish's life and activities. In fact, Christian stewardship can be added as an essential "fourth pillar" of parish life!

I spoke initially of reviewing, reassessing and renewing our commitment to Christ and the Church. Focusing as we are on parish life, is it possible that you could extend your present parish participation further by expanding your commitment to worship, education and charity on the parish level? And also become a more faithful steward of your time, resources, and energy? If room needs to be made, are you able to actually make that room regardless of the "cost?"

Of course, each and every member of the parish must make that choice on a personal or family level. (On that more personal and family level other elements of commitment may come to mind, from praying together, reading the Scriptures, helping our neighbors, etc.). If anyone is quite content with how things stand presently, then so be it - that is in and of itself a choice to be made.

However, if you think there may be something "missing" from the patterns of your life, then I hope this reminder of what our parish is committed to in the service of Christ and the Gospel, will serve as something worthy of your reflection with the goal of offering up the "first fruits" of your lives to the living God.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Can't Get No Satisfaction... Thank God!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Relatively speaking, the meditation being presented here was written some time ago - Fall 2007.  I am quite sure that anyone who read it then has long forgotten it!  But for those who are new to the parish, and for those who are willing to give it another read, I thought that it would have a certain resonance since it was only yesterday evening when we chanted the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God For All Things"  as we acknowledged the Church New Year beginning on September 1.  I say that because there are certain thoughts expressed in the Hymn that led me to write this particular meditation.

* * *

Can't Get No Satisfaction... Thank God!

"My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." —Psalm 42:2 
"I can't get no satisfaction" —The Rolling Stones

"I (Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones must be considered one of the great all-time "classics" of the pop/rock music world.

I remember it well from the Summer of 1965. With its driving guitar riff and raspy-voiced lyrics giving a kind of pop-articulation to the disaffection of the lonely and alienated urbanite who, try as he might, just cannot succeed at "satisfying" the material and romantic/sexual goals droned into his mind on the radio and TV; this song - regardless of its actual intentions - managed to say something enduring about the "human condition." (I wonder if the various members of the Rolling Stones ever experience any genuine satisfaction after many years of fame and fortune).

Be that as it may, a rather odd connection came to me between this song and a verse from "The Akathist of Thanksgiving" that we sang and chanted yesterday evening for the Church New Year beginning today, September 1. In Ikos Six of the akathist, one of the verses in the refrain reads as follows:

Glory to You, Who have inspired in us dissatisfaction with earthly things.

Both the Stones' song and the Orthodox hymn speak of "no satisfaction" or "dissatisfaction." However by "earthly things," the author of this remarkable hymn does not mean the natural world in which God has placed us. The refrain of Ikos Three makes that abundantly clear:

Glory to You, Who brought out of the earth's darkness diversity of color, taste and fragrance,
Glory to You, for the warmth and caress of all nature,
Glory to You, for surrounding us with thousands of Your creatures,
Glory to You, for the depth of Your wisdom reflected in the whole world ...

To the purified eyes of faith, the world around us can be a "festival of life" ... foreshadowing eternal life" (Ikos Two). The "earthly" can lead us to the "heavenly."

"Earthly things" in the context of the Akathist Hymn and the Orthodox worldview expressed in the Hymn, would certainly refer to the very things the Rolling Stones song laments about being absent - material and sexual satisfaction seen as ends in themselves. But whereas the song expresses both frustration and resentment as part of the psychic pain caused by such deprivation, the Akathist Hymn glorifies God for such a blessing! In the light of the insight of the Akathist Hymn, we can thus speak of a "blessed dissatisfaction." The Apostle Paul spoke of a closely-related "godly grief." (On this point, I would imagine that the Apostle Paul and Rolling Stones part company).

This just may prove to be quite a challenge to our way of approaching something like dissatisfaction.

Our usual instinct is to flee from dissatisfaction "as from the plague." Such a condition implies unhappiness, a sense of a lack of success, of "losing" in the harsh game of life as time continues to run out on us; and the deprivation and frustration mentioned above.

Why should we tolerate the condition of dissatisfaction when limitless means of achieving "satisfaction" are at our disposal? To escape from a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction, don't people resort to alcohol, drugs and sex as desperate forms of relief? Or unrestrained and massive consumer spending? And we should not eliminate "religion" as one of those means of escape.

If those means fail, then there is always therapy and medication as more aggressive means to relieve us of this unendurable feeling.

Sadly, many learn "the hard way," that every ill-conceived attempt to eliminate dissatisfaction through "earthly things" only leads to a further and deeper level of this unsatiable affliction. Sadder still, there are many who would "forfeit their soul/life" just to avoid the bitter taste of dissatisfaction!

If the living God exists as we believe that He does, then how could we not feel dissatisfaction at His absence from our lives? What could possibly fill the enormous space in the depth of our hearts that yearns for God "as a hart longs for flowing streams." (Ps. 42:1)

It is as if when people "hear" the voice of God calling them - in their hearts, their conscience, through another person, a personal tragedy - they reach over and turn up the volume so as to drown out that call.

If we were made for God, then each person has an "instinct for the transcendent" (I recall this term from Fr. Alexander Schmemann), that can only be suppressed at an incalculable cost to our very humanity.

In His infinite mercy, the Lord "blesses" us with a feeling of dissatisfaction so that we do not foolishly lose our souls in the infinitesimal pseudo-satisfactions that come our way. Therefore, we thank God for the gift of "blessed dissatisfaction!"

When we realize that we "can't get no satisfaction," then we have approached the threshold of making a meaningful decision about the direction of our lives. The way "down" can lead to that kind of benign despair that characterizes the lives of many today. The way "up" to the One Who is "enthroned above the heavens" and the Source of true satisfaction.

The Rolling Stones uncovered the truth of an enduring condition that we all must face and must "deal with." I am not so sure about the solution they would ultimately offer ... but in their initial intuition they proved to be very "Orthodox!"

May the Church New Year fill us with "blessed dissatisfaction" so that we desire to seek and love God all the more!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Imitating God's 'Loving Faithfulness'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Your mercy is greater than the heavens, your faithfulness reaches to the skies." (Ps 108:5)

In the fine article "God's Mercy and Faithfulness," the biblical scholar, Jerome Kodell, begins with quoting from the Prologue of St. John's Gospel, wherein we hear twice of God's "grace and truth" (Jn 1:14,17). In Greek these two terms are charis and aletheia. Yet, these two key Greek terms are rooted in the Old Testament and the Hebrew phrase hesed w' emeth. These deeply suggestive words can mean "love and truth," "mercy and  faithfulness," "kindness and fidelity." And it was only of the God of Israel, the God who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, that such terms could be attributed.

In summarizing this absolute difference between Israel's experience of God based on the concepts of hesed w' emeth, and that of the surrounding nations, Kodell writes the following:

When the two concepts are brought together in the tradition they describe the God of Israel as "faithful love" or "loving faithfulness," a stunning revelation. 
YHWH is not like the gods of other nations, fickle, moody, vindictive, focused on themselves and interested in their adherents only as servile pawns: in other words, mirror images of the weak humans who created them.
The God of Israel is not self-focused, but is turned toward God's sons and daughters and only wants to help them receive what is best for them. Love in biblical terms is not a feeling but a decision to seek what is best for the other. God not only loves but is love (I Jn 4:8). This is the message of hesed
True love always involves faithfulness, but that quality is reinforced by the combination with emeth: "Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, because of your mercy and faithfulness." No other god was ever loving or faithful toward his or her worshipers. In fact, this attitude is completely foreign to the idea of deity in the nations surrounding Israel.

Yet, as Kodell further writes, this concept and experience of God must transform human lives and human relationships. He then further writes:

To be a child of this God means living in loving fidelity and faithful love toward our brothers and sisters. There is never reason to withdraw our love from someone, no matter how they disappoint or mistreat us, or no matter how sinful we perceive them to be. God never withdraws love from us, no matter what we do. God is faithful love and loving faithfulness and calls us to imitate him as God's own dear children.

There is always a profound reciprocity between who God is and who we are meant to be!

Friday, August 18, 2017

A 'Deathless Death' - Hope and Leaven for a world filled with death

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yet More Death - We hear again of two more mass-terrorist attacks in Europe, this time in Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, Spain. At least fourteen people were killed and hundreds wounded. Truly, a horrific event. The Islamic State group is taking "credit" for the attack. Those who kill in such a manner only serve to dehumanize themselves. Yet, innocent persons are the tragic victims of this process. We can only openly deplore the resort to this type of violence that is meant to spread mayhem, fear and intimidation within normal levels of society. Or so that seems to be one of the key motives behind such attacks.

Looking at the world today, one is tempted to think that things are spinning out-of-control. Divisiveness seems like a stronger attraction than unity as insular group mentality seems to plague the entire spectrum of what we label "the right" and "the left."

On the surface our own theological/spiritual vision of life seems to be ineffective in changing the world. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that that vision works as a "leaven" or as a "mustard seed" that cannot be visually seen to expand or grow. But there is imperceptible growth beneath the surface, as the leaven effects the whole loaf and the mustard seed grows into a tall tree (Matt 13:31-33). These are parabolic images of the Church. And it is through the vision of life that we embrace in the Church that we preserves our sanity and retain our humanity as "children of God" (Jn 1:12).  That is our witness to the world today.

Even if the commemorations that mark the internal life of the Church may seem hardly "relevant" to a confused and violent world today, perhaps, on further reflection, what we are doing in the Church is precisely for the sake of the world and its ultimate salvation.

Therefore, the recent feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the sign of hope in a world filled with death and destruction caused by human sinfulness. It is not an archaic celebration but an affirmation of life beyond the narrow confines of our short earthly existence. It is the sign of hope when hope seems to be in short supply. And it reminds us that victims of irrational violence are not merely "gone" but, by the grace of a loving God, "translated to life."

The following meditation is offered in that spirit of hope that the Church brings to the world.


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 continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos through the Leave-taking next Wednesday. For the Feast, 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). 

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.