Monday, May 13, 2019

An Encounter Like No Other

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Among the Myrrhbearing Women, it is clear that Mary Magdalene is something of a "first among equals."  In the Synoptic Gospels she is always listed first among the other women whose names are recorded by the Evangelists (MATT. 28:1: MK. 16:1; LK. 24:10).  In the Gospel According to St. John, she is the only one of these remarkable women actually named by the Evangelist.  

That St. John also knew the tradition of multiple women visiting the tomb of Christ "on the first day of the week" (JN. 20:1) is indicated by Mary Magdalene using "we" when returning from the tomb and excitingly telling the disciples what she/they discovered there, mistaken though she was as to the reason:  "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know here they have laid him" (JN. 20:2).  

And it is St. Mark and St. John who record the fact that she is the first of the women to actually see the Risen Lord (MK. 16:9: JN. 20:14).  In addition, it is the Evangelist Mark who informs us that Jesus had "cast out seven demons" from Mary Magdalene (v. 9).  

St. Mary Magdalene thus stands out among these outstanding, though self-effacing women, who are now known throughout the world wherever the Gospel is proclaimed.  The Myrrhbearing Women were privileged to be the first human beings to discover the empty tomb, and the first as a body to behold the Risen Christ (MATT. 28:9).

At the Divine Liturgy yesterday we heard the account in St. Mark's Gospel about the role of the Myrrhbearing Women in the discovery of the empty tomb as we commemorate the Myrrhbearers on the Third Sunday of Pascha (MK. 15:43-16:8).  This is the only Sunday during the paschal season that we hear from a Gospel other than St. John's. 

However, I would like to return to St. John's Gospel for the purpose of this meditation and share a few words about the extraordinary encounter between the Risen Lord and Mary Magdalene recorded there (20:11-18). This is an encounter like no other.  I recall the renowned British biblical scholar C. H. Dodd writing that this  account in St. John's Gospel has no remote counterpart in all of the ancient literature of the Graeco-Roman world.  It is absolutely unique.

At first, as recorded above, Mary Magdalene believed that the tomb was empty because "they have taken the Lord out of the tomb" (20:2). This was her "natural" reaction to the fact of the empty tomb. She then temporarily disappears from the narrative as we hear of the disciples Peter and John discovering the empty tomb, prompted by her troubling words. But after this discovery "the disciples went back to their home" (v. 17).  Then, Mary appears again "weeping outside the tomb" (v. 11). When she stoops to look into the tomb she is surprised by the presence of two angels, who pointedly ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She again repeats her despairing belief that "they have taken away my Lord" (v.13). At this point "she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus" (v. 14). 

And then that remarkable dialogue and encounter occurs.  

At first Jesus will repeat the words of the angels: "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" (v.15)  Still fixated on the mistaken belief that someone has removed the body of Jesus, Mary, for the third time repeats that assertion to "the gardener" hoping that he will cooperate in disclosing the whereabouts of the body of Jesus.  

And then all is transformed "in the twinkling of an eye" when the Risen Jesus pronounces her name: "Mary" (v. 16). That is all that was necessary, and Christ prepared us for that immediate recognition upon hearing one's name pronounced:

"I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father ... "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand."  (JN. 10:14, 27-28)

When the Risen Good Shepherd speaks her name she immediately recognizes His voice as foretold in the words above and she responds with the endearing title: "Rab-bo'ni!" (The evangelist parenthetically informs us that this means Teacher). 

This encounter like no other is actually consummated through the seemingly simple pronouncement of a name and a title exchanged with both love and devotion between Christ and His disciple Mary Magdalene. I believe that this moment of recognition would be impossible to express in words. We can only bow our heads in silence and awe. Or, perhaps like the other Myrrhbearing Women, "trembling and astonishment" (MK. 16:8) will come upon us if we allow the full power of this encounter to enter our minds and hearts. 

For Mary, bewilderment, despair and confusion give way to joy and regeneration.  That the setting was a "garden" is no accident. Now, upon returning to the other disciples for a second time, a new message is delivered to them, for St. John tells us: "Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'" (v. 18).

At one point in this incredibly momentous morning, Mary Magdalene told the angels that "they have taken away my Lord."  St. Thomas said when also coming to recognition of the Risen Lord: "My Lord and my God!" In these words, both of these saints made it very personal

The encounter with Christ, regardless of the circumstances is always something deeply personal.  Each unique human being has a unique relationship with Christ. We say that He is our Lord, but we equally say that He is my Lord. Therefore, I would like to quote again the deeply encouraging words of Fr. Alexander Men who, when commenting on the events of JN. 20, wrote:

"Therefore today, on this Paschal day, let each of you, returning home, carry in his heart this joy and the thought that the Lord has appeared to me, too. He is risen for me, and speaks for me, and remains with me, and will forever be as my Lord, as my Savior, as my God. May the Lord protect you!"

A pious tradition has St. Mary Magdalene greeting the Roman emperor Tiberius with the words "Christ is Risen!"  These words reverberate to this day with the glorious "good news" of life out of death.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Glorious First and Eighth Day of the Week

Dear Parish Faithful,


In St. John's account of the first appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples as a group (Jn. 20:19-31), we find the liturgical structure of the Church as it exists to this very day in his account of this incredible encounter. For St. John records: "On the evening of that day, the first day of the week ..." (20:19). The first day of the week is the day after the Sabbath, and that would be our Sunday.

It was on this day that the risen Christ appeared to his bewildered, dejected, and frightened disciples in order to convince them that He was risen from the dead. "Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord" (20:20). Jesus returned to further convince the unbelieving Thomas that He was indeed risen. And significantly, this next appearance was "eight days later" (20:26). Which means, of course, the following Sunday.

Since those memorable two days until today, we use the language - with all of its symbolic meaning - of the First and Eighth Day of the week for our liturgical assemblies on the Lord's Day - Sunday. In a deep sense, the first day of the week is the eighth day, if we understand the "eighth day" as taking us beyond the seven days of the week as a kind of anticipation of the Kingdom of God which is beyond the "time" of this world.

St. Gregory Palamas (+1359), Archbishop of Thessaloniki, in a homily entitled "On the Sabbath and the Lord's Day," explains it like this:

You will see that it was Sunday when the disciples assembled and the Lord came to them. On Sunday He approached them for the first time as they were gathered together and eight day later, when Sunday came around again, He appeared to their assembly. Christ's Church continually reflects these gatherings by holding its meetings mostly on Sundays and we come among you and preach what pertains to salvation and lead you towards piety and a godly way of life.

Yet, as a pastor, St. Gregory continued his homily with this admonition:

Let no one out of laziness or continuous worldly occupations miss these holy Sunday gatherings, which God Himself handed down to us, lest he be justly abandoned by God and suffer like Thomas, who did not come at the right time. If you are detained and do not attend on one occasion, make up for it the next time, bringing yourself to Christ's Church. Otherwise you may remain uncured, suffering unbelief in your soul because of deeds or words, and failing to approach Christ's surgery to receive, like divine Thomas, holy healing.

To our modern sensibilities, even these words of pastoral admonition may seem over-stated if not harsh to us today. But the saint was trying to reinforce the sense of commitment that the believer needs to have to the Lord's Day Liturgy which brings us directly into the presence of the Risen Christ - "Christ is in our midst!" - as we joyfully exclaim at the Liturgy.

St. Gregory's homily clearly places commitment over convenience. This is our first priority. He was writing to a Christian society that was not as pluralistic or diverse as our own, there is no doubt. That means that the pressure for us is "out there" to conform to those "worldly occupations" that St. Gregory warns us about. Today, that could even have a bearing on our presence at the Sunday morning Liturgy. As one example from among many: How many Orthodox parents have to deal with their child's sports events scheduled these days on Sunday morning? So, we can see that the challenges are out there.

In the light of the Gospel revelation about the glorious first and eighth day of the week, we should at least think hard about any such choices.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Twofold Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,



Bright Tuesday

"When Christ had risen from the dead on the third day and had shown Himself alive to His disciples, He ascended into heaven. He remained immortal and bestowed on us, with complete assurance, resurrection, immortality and truly blessed, eternal, incorruptible life in heaven. 

"By means of the one death and resurrection of His flesh, He healed our twofold death and freed us from our double captivity of soul and body... 

"As the evil one procured our twofold death by means of his single, spiritual death, so the good Lord healed this twofold death of ours through His single bodily death, and through the one resurrection of His body gave us a twofold resurrection. 

"By means of His bodily death He destroyed him who had power over our souls and bodies in death (HEB. 2:14), and rescued us from his tyranny over them both."

St. Gregory Palamas from his homily "On Redemption"


"Christians claim that the crucified Jesus had been raised from the dead and remains powerfully present in the world - a claim that deserves serious attention from any thoughtful person. 

"If we accept this claim as true, it should radically change the way we live our lives as well as the hopes that we entertain for ourselves and for our world. We are not destined at death to lose consciousness forever and return our bodies to the pool of cosmic matter. The resurrection promises us a glorious personal future beyond this life, a future that, in 'a new heaven and earth' (Rev. 21:1), will bring radical transformation not only for our bodily existence but also for the material world. 

"This is an extraordinary claim and an extraordinary promise, both centered on someone who died as a criminal on a cross, abandoned by nearly all of his followers, and seemingly abandoned by the God whose kingdom he had preached."

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

'This very night, you will deny Me...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


"O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" (MK. 9:19)

 When reading the Gospels carefully, it is difficult not to be bewildered by the (spiritual) blindness - if not sheer obtuseness - of the disciples of Christ. It is in St. Mark's Gospel that this blindness is presented in its most stark and unrelieved manner. (In the other two Synoptic Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Luke, you can find a certain "softening" of this effect). 
This is more than a problem of the disciples simply "not getting it." We can be certain that we are on solid historical ground here, because it is incomprehensible that this embarrassing characteristic of the key followers of Jesus would be some sort of literary convention/invention. For what purpose would be fulfilled in casting the very men charged with proclaiming the Gospel in such an unattractive light? These are the closest followers of Christ and their words are meant to convey certainty and trust in the Gospel message that they are bringing to others. We can only imagine to what extent the disciples-turned-apostles may have agonized over this even after having been reconciled to Christ following His Resurrection. Thus, we have to accept the unresponsiveness of the disciples - an unresponsiveness that devolves into open betrayal in the end - as a troubling feature of the Gospels.

Yet, perhaps it should not be so baffling after all when we realize what their Master was teaching them to accept as the very will of God. Instead of a glorious and victorious Messiah who would restore the glory of Israel by banishing the hated Roman occupiers from the sacred soil of the Promised Land, they were hearing words of a humble and suffering Messiah who would have to die an ignominious death for Israel - and through Israel for the whole world/cosmos - to be redeemed: 
"Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise." (Mk. 10:33-34) 
Jesus openly told the twelve disciples that, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (MK. 8:34). Following the Last Supper, the agony of Gethsemane, and the arrest of Jesus, that is precisely what the disciples did not do! They did not deny themselves, and they did not take up their respective crosses in order to follow Christ to the end. They scattered in fear of their lives and essentially betrayed their Lord, after swearing that that is what they would never do! 
The chief of the apostles, Peter, "vehemently" told Jesus: "Even though they all fall away, I will not; and "If I must die with you, I will not deny you." (MK. 14:29, 31) Peter was incapable of fulfilling these bold protestations of undying loyalty. Rather, the prophetic words of Jesus: "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times" (MK. 14:30) were awaiting their fulfillment. Little wonder, indeed, that when these words were actually fulfilled just a few hours later, Peter "broke down and wept." (MK. 14:72)
We can go back further into the ministry of Jesus, to already see the "seeds" of this betrayal in the parable of the Sower. One of the negative reactions to the Gospel message would be of those "who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away." (MK. 4:16-17) This was a devastatingly accurate portrait of the disciples actions once "tribulation" and "persecution" arose before their vision as deadly realities. When the possibility of the Cross started to dawn on them, and that they may also be implicated with Jesus and actually have to co-suffer with Him, then they instinctively reacted in the way Christ warned about in the parable. (Mk. 10:37)  
On the way to Jerusalem there was the incident, almost "comic" on one level, of the disciples James and John, sons of Zebedee, requesting of Jesus "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." (MK. 10:37) Who would want to miss out on an opportunity that would promise eschatological glorification? This is why Jesus had to answer: "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the chalice that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? (MK. 10:38). The "chalice" offered by Christ is filled with suffering before the glory. And the "baptism" referred to here by Christ will include shed blood. In due time, these disciples will have to rethink their bold affirmation that they would gladly drink from such a chalice; or be baptized with such a baptism. 
Further, it is also ironic that Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus by the roadside (MK. 10:46-52) on the way to Jerusalem and the Cross, accompanied by the words, "Go your way; your faith has made you well;" (MK. 10:52) when in contrast to blind Bartimaeus, who now "sees," the disciples who are following Jesus up to Jerusalem have a crisis of faith, conveyed as a certain spiritual blindness when everything that Jesus prepared them for comes to pass.

Even though they were Galilean fishermen, peasants or artisans, we all share the identical temptations to this day.  
The disciples were men of flesh and blood, as we all are. They were sinful people in need of salvation. This implies weakness, wavering and wandering away from that which is challenging, let alone from that which threatens our very lives. Jesus acknowledged this during His agony in Gethsemane, a time of the most intense emotional distress on His part: "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (MK. 14:38). 
This insight of Christ's is one reason among others that we, too, betray Christ far too often - if not on a daily basis. The rather mundane and "everyday" nature of our betrayal lacks drama, and may thus escape our notice as we seemingly "sail" through the days of our lives. It may take a very special moment when we can honestly confess before to Lord with the very words of the Apostle Peter: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (LK. 5:8). And yet, the very weakness of the disciples is a consolation and comfort for us. 
Thus, we can "feel their pain," and deeply sympathize with their all-too human failings. We now know, however, through the example of the disciples, that we too can repent and be restored to fellowship with Christ. That will depend to a great extent on just how committed we are to the Apostle Peter's confession of faith (one of his better moments!): "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" (MATT. 16:16).

Monday, April 22, 2019

Holy Week: A Mystic Torrent

Dear Parish Faithful,

Holy Week began with the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Monday sung and chanted in anticipation on Sunday evening.

The festal atmosphere of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday will yield to the solemnity, sobriety and sadness of Holy Week as the Lord moves toward His voluntary and life-giving Passion. The Son of God came into the world "to bear witness to the truth" (JN. 18:37) and "to give his life as a ransom for many." (MK. 10:45)

It is our privilege and responsibility to accompany Christ to Golgotha to the extent that our lives make that possible. Certainly, to receive palms on Palm Sunday and to then next return for an easter egg on Pascha, would only be fitting for an "Easter Orthodox Christian - but not for an Eastern Orthodox Christian!" Be mindful of the intervening Holy Week and the services that will guide us to Golgatha and beyond to the empty tomb.

As Fr. Sergius Bulgakov wrote: "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, p. 131) Therefore, let us "lay aside all earthly care" during Holy Week and focus on our Lord Jesus Christ whether we are at a particular service or not. This is a week when there is work, school, church and any other necessary responsibilities. There is no room or time for worldly entertainment. Not when the Lamb of God will be slain for the sins of the world.

At the services of Holy Week, we enter into the "today" of the events being reactualized so that the event and all of its salvific power is made present to the gathered community. Thus, we are not simply commemorating a past event for its dramatic impact, or presenting something of an Orthodox "passion play." Rather, we re-present the event of the Crucifixion so that we participate in it within the liturgical time of the Church's worship.

As Bishop Ilarion Alfeyev writes:

 "Each one of us receives Christ as our personal Savior, and so we each make our own all the events of Christ's life through personal experience, to whatever extent we can. The feast day is a realization here and now of an event that occurred once in time but is always happening outside time." 
And he adds, speaking of the great saints and their faith in the Resurrection of Christ: 
"They lived ... by their experience of eternity and knew that Easter was not a single day of the year, but an eternal reality in which they participated daily." (The Mystery of Faith, p. 119)

That means that our presence at one of the Holy Week services confronts us with a series of choices and decisions, as it did the original participants: to be with Christ or to be with any of those who chose to crucify Him. Will our lives reveal us as imitators of the sinful but repentant woman, or as imitators of Judas the betrayer? Do we show signs of repentance or do we betray Christ in the small events of daily living? Or, perhaps like those for whom a moment of decision was at hand, we remain "guiltless" but apathetic bystanders whose very indecisiveness keeps us distant from the company of Christ.

This is essential to bear in mind precisely because we are referring to actual, concrete historical events that occurred at a particular place in time among a particular people - the Jews to whom Christ belonged, and the Roman authorities that controlled much of Palestine. In our piety we can inadvertently stand aloof of the actual  dramatis personae caught up in the divine-human drama of our Lord's Passion and harshly judge all of the "wrongdoers" from the safe distance of our Christian faith.

However, if this blinds us to our own moral failings and weaknesses, then we undermine and subvert that very piety that we bring to the services. And we misunderstand the nature of the hymnography, which is meant to challenge us today as well as recall the events of the past that have shaped our faith in Christ.

I believe this to be especially true in our pluralistic society when it comes to the harshness with which "the Jews" are treated in some of our Holy Week hymnography. I believe that at least a few of the hymns stray into a dangerous area that today would be labeled "anti-Semitic." (I believe that this phrase is tossed about carelessly at times, but it also calls for our vigilance as Christians never to embrace the reality expressed therein).

If the Orthodox Church was known better, some of this hymnography would be brought to our attention in a challenging and critical manner. Certain of the Jews contemporary to Christ - notably the Sanhedrin or "religious authorities" - condemned the Lord as a false Messiah, and with the connivance of Roman power, had Him crucified. This is historically true. However, the Sanhedrin represents "institutional religion" in its more unattractive guise: self-defensive and self-protective. Putting the institution before the Truth. Guarding the status quo when challenged from without by an authentic voice that comes from God.

We witness this today in all forms of institutional religion within the various Christian Churches, including our own Orthodox Church. As we contemplate the harsh realities of a fallen and sinful world that is even capable of putting Christ to death(!), we need to mourn human corruption as it even tempts us within our institutions and within our hearts today. Would any one of us have stepped forward to defend Christ when unjustly condemned; or would our own passivity and fear have left Him just as alone and isolated today as during the end of His earthly ministry?

Yet, God was "working" throughout this unbearable human drama to fulfill His will for our eternal salvation. Christ was the not the victim of an unjust verdict, but the Victor who was fulfilling His vocation as the Suffering Servant who would be vindicated by His Father following His crucifixion and death. As St. Peter was forgiven his weakness and restored to fellowship with his Lord, so are we today by the grace of God so abundantly poured out on us through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Friday, April 19, 2019

'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 "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:  1) the home; 2) work/school; and 3) 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 - April 28 this year - 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. You make your own plans - or what I call "domestic strategies" - but I encourage you to do so with Christ and the church in mind.

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!

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Powerful 'Rhetoric' of the Word of the Cross

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (HEB. 12:2)

Just yesterday, Presvytera Deborah and I were discussing the use of rhetoric in the Church's hymnography in general, and more specifically as applied to the Veneration of the Cross - the theme that fills the services during this week following the Third Sunday of Great Lent.

The vast majority of our hymnography was produced during the Byzantine era of the Church's historical pilgrimage, and rhetoric within that culture was treated as a genuine art form. The rhetorician or orator was a person who could speak well and effectively. St. John Chrysostom - the "Golden-Mouthed" - comes readily to mind.

The Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos may just be the high point in the use of rhetoric liturgically, for it is considered by many to be the "masterpiece" of Byzantine liturgical poetry. This is important to bear in mind, because in our contemporary discourse, the very word "rhetoric" often carries a rather negative connotation, meaning that rhetoric implies pompous, pretentious or even bombastic verbiage. As in: "What a bunch of empty rhetoric!" Or, in the more moderate definition found in Webster's Dictionary: "insincere and grandiloquent language."

However, on the positive side, the effective use of rhetoric is meant to heighten, dramatize, or persuasively embellish the use of language to not only catch our attention, but to emphasize the importance of what is being conveyed in a given discourse, or more pointedly for our purpose, in the hymnography of the Church. We have, within the Church, a veritable treasury of rich, strikingly beautiful hymns that are simultaneously very profound theologically. Poetic theology can be much more attractive and effective as a learning tool than a lengthy, and perhaps, dry theological treatise!

Be that as it may, we need to think through carefully the often rhetorical language used in our hymnography. And a prime example of that may be right now when we praise the Cross of Christ throughout this week. I sent out some very rich hymns yesterday dedicated to the Cross in a short Lenten reflection. I even described - rather rhetorically! - the final hymn that I included as "an ecstatic expression of the inexpressible boundlessness of the Cross." Once more:

Rejoice, O tree of life, the destroyer of hell!
Rejoice, O joy of the world, the slayer of corruption!
Rejoice, O power that scatters demons!

As Orthodox Christians, we believe every word expressed "rhetorically" in that hymn. The victory achieved by Christ on the Cross is veritably cosmic and all-encompassing in scope. The demons, corruption and hell itself have been vanquished by the Cross of the Lord. Yet, in the Gospel read on the Third Sunday of Great Lent, Christ taught his disciples - and us through them - "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (MK. 8:34)

The words of the Lord are direct and unembellished. This is effective, because the message is sober, if not stark. There is no rhetorical flourish. Nothing to hide or soften the "blow" of those words. The disciple of Christ must be a "cross-bearer." There is no other way, according to Christ.

That cross can be heavy - perhaps too heavy at times. When a serious illness comes to ourselves or our loved ones; when death itself invades the tranquility of our homes or relationships; when we feel abandoned or betrayed by a friend during a difficult time; when we realize that some form of suffering is the only way to cross over an abyss that opens up in our lives, demanding our undivided attention and focus; then any rich rhetorical flourish may not be effective in the moment or span of that crisis.

When one is suffering, it may not come to our mind to heartily sing out: "Rejoice, O life-giving Cross!" Or to speak of the "holy Cross with joy." At least not immediately, one would think. We are who we are.

In his book The Lenten Spring, Fr. Thomas Hopko has written:

It is not enough for us to bow down before the Cross, and to decorate and venerate and kiss it at church services. Christians must take up the Cross in their own lives. We must be co-crucified with Christ in order to share His glory and to experience even in this world, the beauty and power, the peace and joy of the Kingdom of God. (p. 146) 

Fr. Hopko states further that "the Cross of Christ is 'the law of Lent'."

And St. Innocent, in his wonderful missionary book, The Indication of the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven, writes the following:

A Christian's ... duty is to take up his cross. The word cross means sufferings, sorrows and adversities. To take up one's cross means to bear without grumbling everything unpleasant, painful, sad, difficult and oppressive that may happen in life.... 
Interior crosses are sometimes so burdensome that the sufferer can find no consolation whatever in anything. All this can happen to you too! But in whatever position you may be, and whatever sufferings of the soul you may feel, do not despair and do not think that the Lord has abandoned you. NO! God will always be with you and will invisibly strengthen you even when it seems to you that you are on the very brink of destruction.

Consoling words, indeed, from a great saint of the Church.

A painful disconnect between the rhetorical richness of the Church's praise of the Cross, and the immediate conditions of our lives is a real possibility. Something we can readily and honestly acknowledge. I would simply say that from within the life of the Church we are presented with an all-encompassing "big picture" that always reminds us that Jesus is Christus Victor - the Victorious Christ who defeated the powers of the demons, corruption and hell on the Life-giving wood of the Tree (of Life) and then in His Resurrection from the dead. That is the unmovable backdrop to our own personal crosses. And this done with an arsenal of rhetoric as "an ecstatic expression of the inexpressible boundlessness of the Cross."

Perhaps this will help us overcome the despair that St. Innocent so realistically alluded to. The Cross of Christ imparts meaning to the crosses that we bear. For this reason the Apostle Paul could exclaim that the "word of the cross ... is the power of God" (I COR. 1:18).

The paradox of the Cross will always be with us: the sign of suffering and death, and simultaneously of the mysterious wisdom of God. We express that paradox at every Liturgy with the sung or chanted words: "Through the Cross joy has come into the world." And this is the uniqueness of our Christian faith.

The Church is revealed as a second Paradise,
possessing the Tree of Life as the first Paradise of old.
By touching the Cross, O Lord,
we share Your immortality!
(Third Sunday Matins)