Monday, April 24, 2017

More on the Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,


" ... If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."  (I COR. 15:14)

More on the Resurrection

Following yesterday's Liturgy, we had a lively discussion on the resurrection of Christ.  For those who would like to study the various aspects of the Resurrection further, I would like to recommend a few different books on the subject:

First, from my professor at St. Vladimir's Seminary: Veselin Kesich. He wrote an excellent book that I have read many times over the years, The First Day of the New Creation.  This is a wonderful in- depth study of not only the Resurrection, but also the Ascension of Christ and Pentecost. I have learned a great deal from this book. Highly recommended!

There is also a copy (or two) in the parish library.

Another wonderful book is by Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon. The author is an iconologist (and perhaps an iconographer), and this is a very detailed examination on how we depict the Resurrecton of Christ iconographically.  

The book is lavishly illustrated with many beautiful Orthodox icons, and the author covers others besides that of the Resurrection. A book you can endlessly turn to for learning more about iconography, as well as the Resurrection.

Another remarkable study of the Resurrection is a book by Francis Moloney, SDB, entitled The Resurrection of the Messiah - A Narrative Commentary on the Resurrection Accounts in the Four Gospels

The author offers a series of very detailed reading of the various Gospel resurrection accounts.  His interpretations are endlessly fascinating and very compelling.

One more book is by a scholar who has spent almost his entire scholarly career on studying and writing about the Resurrection of Christ: Gerald Collins, SJ. He has published many books on the subject, and a more recent one, Believing in the Resurrection is quite comprehensive and excellent. His book is especially strong on working out the implications of the Resurrection for how we lead our lives as Christians.

Another Subject

Whenever the topic turns to the Sign of the Cross, the discussion always gets especially lively(!), and that happened yesterday yet again. Why do we make the sign of the Cross the way that we do?  Has it always been done this way?  Why do non-Orthodox Christians make the sign of the Cross differently? Ultimately, which is the "right way?"

There is a fairly-recent book by an Orthodox writer, that is an excellent historical and theological study of how the sign of the Cross has developed from the earliest centuries of Christianity. The book is The Sign of the Cross - the Gesture, the Mystery, the History by Andreas Andreopoulos.  The author answers many such questions as those posed above. The book is endorsed by Frederica Matthews-Green, and the prominent Orthodox theologian, Fr. Andrew Louth. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

'In the death of the Lord, the power of the Resurrection becomes apparent'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!
Indeed He is Risen!

Fr. George Florovsky (+1979) was arguably the greatest Orthodox theologian of the 20th c. He is known for rediscovering the great Church Fathers and restoring this "patristic dimension" to Orthodox theology. Here is a wonderful passage that captures his compressed style that still contains a wealth of insights into the deepest meaning of the divine economy inspired by his reading of the Church Fathers:

The Whole Christ, Head and Body.  The death of the Savior revealed that death held no power over him. The Lord was mortal in respect of His complete human nature; for even in the original nature there was a capacity of death. 

The Lord died, but death could not keep Him. He was the eternal life, and through His death He destroyed death. His descent into Hades, the kingdom  of death, is the powerful revelation of life. By descending into hades, He gives life to death itself. And by the resurrection, the powerlessness of death is revealed. 

In the death of the Lord, the power of the resurrection becomes apparent, which is concealed but intrinsic to every death. The parable of the wheat can be fully applied to His death. In the case of the body of the incarnated, the period between death and resurrection has been shortened. The seed grows to perfection in three days: triduum mortis

During this mystical triduum mortis the body of the Lord was transfigured, glorified, and clothed in power and light. The resurrection happened by the power of God, and by the same power the general resurrection will happen on the last day. In the resurrection the incarnation is perfected, a victorious revelation of life in the human nature. Immortality was grafted on to humanity.

The resurrection of Christ was not only His victory over His own death but over death in general. In His resurrection the whole human nature is resurrected, but not so that all rise from the graves, for mankind still must die. But death has become powerless, and the whole human nature has received the ability to be resurrected.

From In Ligno Crucis (On the Tree of the Cross) - The Church Fathers' doctrine of redemption interpreted from the perspective of Eastern Orthodox theology (1947)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Pascha and Pop-Culture

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!  
Indeed He is Risen!

At the paschal Vespers on Sunday afternoon, I read aloud Bishop Paul's "Paschal Address" to the parishes of our dioceses.  In his very interesting introduction, he quoted the lyrics from a song by the group Pearl Jam, "A Better Man."  I know the name of Pearl Jam, but not their music. Others present were well aware of this song, however. 

Be that as it may, this use of a pop-culture reference by no less a distinguished figure than our diocesan hierarch served to legitimize my own such pop-culture references from time to time.  (It wasn't all such a waste of time after all!) 

Anyway, somewhat emboldened by his reference, I looked into our website archives and found this meditation from 2011, entitled "Break on Through to the Other Side." The song belongs to one of the more notorious rock groups from the past, The Doors.  Surprisingly enough, the song title lends itself remarkably well - though heavily re-interpreted in the process - to a legitimate paschal meditation on the Resurrection of Christ.

Therefore, if anyone is interested, here is the link to that meditation:

Break On Through (To The Other Side)

It is only Christ who has truly “broken through” to the “other side.” This claim can only be made based upon the fact of the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

'I am Lazarus'

Dear Parish Faithful,

To turn back to Lazarus Saturday for a moment, I wanted to share some excellent comments by a contemporary biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, as he offers an in-depth exegesis (interpretation) of the incomparable narrative of Jesus raising Lazarus to life.  His comments are so effective because of how convincingly he relates the entire episode to our lives today as Christians facing the exact same dilemmas and challenges - beginning with the challenge to faith that the reality of death raises.

Be that as it may, Byrne writes the following:

Lazarus is a character with whom anyone who reads the Gospel can identify. "I" am Lazarus - in the sense that Jesus left his "safe country" to enter this world, placing his life in mortal danger in order to save me from death, to communicate, at the cost of his own life, eternal life to me.
I am the "friend" of Jesus - he or she whom he loved. For me Jesus has wept. Before my tomb, so to speak, he has wrestled with the cost of life-giving love. It is to call me forth into life, to strip from me the bands of death that Jesus has come into the world and given his life. So I am to read the  forthcoming account of the passion and death of Jesus with intimate personal involvement, knowing that Jesus is undergoing all this insult and suffering for love of me and to give life to me."

The story of Lazarus, with its full acceptance of human death and grieving, with its realism about the cost of giving life, with its invitation to enter upon a deeper journey of faith, speaks as powerfully to the present as it did to the past.
God is neither indifferent to the distress death brings nor unsympathetic to our struggles of faith. More than anything else in the gospel, Jesus' demeanor in John 11 expresses divine involvement in human grief and suffering. In the person of the Son, God becomes vulnerable physically and psychologically, to death. At its deepest level the story of Lazarus invites us to believe in God as the One who gives life in death and out of death.
To every believer, confronted like Martha with mortality, Jesus addresses his words: "Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" (11:40)  Each of us has a perfect right, indeed an invitation, to write ourselves and our world into the script - to be, each one of us, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved and for whom he gave his life.

When Christ goes to the Cross, He does so on behalf of all humanity, but each person can say: He is dying so that I can have abundant life.

Friday, April 7, 2017

'Earthly Life Ceases'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We have completed the forty days which
   profit our souls.
Now let us beg the lover of man;
enable us to see the Holy Week of Thy passion,
that we may glorify Thy mighty work,
Thy wonderful plan for our salvation,
singing with one heart and voice,
O Lord, Glory to Thee!

(Vespers of Lazarus Saturday)

"The mysteries of the Orthodox cult reach their culminating point and their greatest power in the services of Holy Week and Easter. The beauty, the richness and the power of these services take possession of the soul and sweep it along as upon a mystic torrent."
(The Orthodox Church by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov)

I came across the phrase above - "earthly life ceases" - at the beginning of Fr. Thomas Hopko's explanation of Holy Week.  What could he mean by saying that "earthly life ceases"?  It is certainly not meant to be taken "literally;" because, if so, Fr. Hopko would not be much of a thinker or theologian! 

The phrase "earthly life ceases" is not about death and dying. It is, rather, about how we conduct our lives during that week we designate in the Church as "holy and great." This becomes clear when we look at the entire sentence from Fr. Hopko: "Earthly life ceases for the faithful as they 'go up to Jerusalem with the Lord' (Matins of Holy Monday). "

During the approaching Holy Week, we will continue to arise each morning to a new day, carry out our commitments and responsibilities, and find rest from our labors in the peace of sleep - as well as "eat and drink" to keep alive! But we do these quotidian things in this "week of weeks" with an intense focus on the paschal mystery of Christ's redemptive death and life-giving Resurrection.

Our sense of reality shifts as we realize - hopefully through the experience of participation - that what is taking place in church through liturgical worship is Reality at its most full and complete. Other concerns, important as they are, are laid aside or postponed as much as that is possible. I believe that this is what Fr. Hopko was trying to convey when he wrote that "earthly life ceases" during Holy Week.  Only then could we, as the faithful, and in a good spirit, go up to Jerusalem with the Lord:

As the Lord was going to His voluntary passion,
He said to the Apostles on the way,
"Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,
and the Son of Man shall be delivered up, as it is
   written of Him."
Come, therefore, let us also go with Him,
purified in mind.
Let us be crucified with Him and die through Him
to the pleasures of this life.
Then we shall live with Him and hear Him say:
"I go no more to the earthly Jerusalem to suffer,
but to my Father and your Father,
to my God and your God,
I shall raise you up to the Jerusalem on high
in the Kingdom of Heaven."

(Matins of Holy Monday)

What might all of this mean on the practical level? How will this effect our lives during Holy Week? How important will it be for each one of us to "go up to Jerusalem with the Lord?"

As a pastoral response, I would say that during Holy Week there are three basic places that Orthodox Christians know and find themselves at:  the home, work/school - and the church.  Exceptions may abound with other unavoidable(?) commitments, but I believe that this basic trinity of places could be a helpful starting point from which we ground ourselves, gain perspective, and around which we plan as we assess the possibilities and priorities of Holy Week in our lives.

Certainly, this is not the time to seek entertainment or those other distractions that may appear attractive. And it is certainly not the time for a "vacation" - even if the children happen to be out of school. If, during Great Lent, we have managed to already put some of this into practice, then the approaching Holy Week is the time of an even greater effort in this direction. Our "free time" in the evenings could be redeemed by making it "church time." 

If we are unable to attend any of the services, I would suggest that we transform our homes to some extent by seeking some level of stillness or relative silence. And if, over the years, you have purchased your own copies of the Holy Week service books, you could read those in the quite atmosphere of your homes when unable to be in church. Challenging, no doubt, but certainly not impossible, for "with God all things are possible."  (MATT. 19:26)

As an Orthodox Christian no one can say: "Holy Week caught me unawares" - not with a preceding forty days of Great Lent!  Well aware in advance of the date of Pascha, hopefully some preparatory scheduling has already been accomplished. So, the above is written in the spirit of pastoral care and guidance.  I am not trying to "tell" anyone what to do. As I like to formulate it: I am a pastor - not a policeman! 

But we are all in this great mystery together.  And the source of this "mystery hidden for ages by God who created all things" (EPH. 3:9) is the limitless love of God: "But God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us" (ROM. 5:8). And this mystery of an active - even "crucified" - love on the part of God draws us into that communion of love as the redeemed and transformed People of God, being "built ... upon the rock" (MATT. 7:24) of our belief in the redemptive Death and life-giving Resurrection of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

I hope that one and all truly enjoys a blessed Holy Week and Pascha!

Friday, March 31, 2017

St Mary of Egypt, An Icon of Repentance

Dear Parish Faithful,

An Icon of Repentance

Icon of St Mary & St Zosimas, by Fr Andrew Tregubov

Yesterday evening (March 30), we read and heard the entire Life of St. Mary of Egypt in the church as we also chanted a part of St. Andrew's Canon of Repentance.  It seemed like we had present the largest group ever for this service.

In that Life we heard that St. Mary died on April 1, in the year of our Lord 522 A.D.  Thus, April 1 is the date on which her name appears on our Church calendar as her day of commemoration.  Her "death day" is her "birthday" into the Kingdom of Heaven.  And we also commemorate her on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, coming up this weekend.  So, a good deal of recent and immediately upcoming focus on St. Mary of Egypt, that great "icon of repentance." 

A few years back (2011) I wrote a Meditation on St. Mary entitled "Inappropriate Material for Church?"  The point of the Meditation was to reflect upon the heavy stress on unlimited sexual license that we hear about in the opening section of her Life, a focus that can raise an eyebrow or two since it is read in church. If you would like to read more about this, here is a link to that Meditation.

In fact, I have written quite a few meditations - admittedly somewhat repetitious - that include St. Mary's Life or combine it with further comments on St. Andrew's Canon.  Those can be accessed here. At the end of the first meditation on this page, there is a link to The Life of St. Mary of Egypt in its entirety, included here for your convenience.

Or, there is a lengthy portion available on the OCA webpage.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Fifth Week of Lent: 'Summary and Fulfillment'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Beginning today, we have a very full series of lenten liturgical services in the church for the remainder of the week.  Here is the schedule with some explanatory words that may inspire you further to "take Lent seriously" and come to church to worship and pray:

Wednesday at 6:00 p.m.
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

"The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is one of the great masterpieces of Orthodox piety and liturgical creativity. It reveals in its form and content the central Christian doctrine and experience, namely that our entire life must be spent in prayer and fasting in order that we might enter into communion with Christ who comes at the end as a 'thief in the night'.

"It tells us that all of our life, and not only the time of Great Lent, or one day of the Fast, is completed  with the Presence of the Victorious Christ who is risen from the dead. 

"It witnesses to the fact that Christ will come at the end of the ages to judge the living and the dead and to establish God's Kingdom 'of which there will be no end'. It tells us that we must be ready at His coming, found watching and serving, in order to be worthy to 'enter into the joy of the Lord'."

- Fr. Thomas Hopko

Thursday at 7:00 p.m.
The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete,
and The Life of St. Mary of Egypt

"If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a 'summary' of repentance and its fulfillment.  If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our lenten effort:  how much of all of this has truly been made ours?  How far have we come along the path of this repentance?" 

- Fr. Alexander Schmemann

"The Life of St. Mary of  Egypt is read, so that the intellect and will of the believer may be detached from love of the world and, following in the footsteps of the saint, may be guided into the heart of the desert, into the heart of the mystery of repentance."

- Panagiotis Nellas

Friday at 7:00 p.m.
The Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos

"Theologically, poetically, and musically, one of the most profound and beautiful compositions bequeathed to us by Byzantium's sacred hymnographers is the Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos. In this unparalleled  composition, Orthodox Christianity bears eloquent witness to its unshaken belief in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the Church's devotion to the 'Virgin who conceived and bore a Son'."

- Holy Transfiguration Monastery