Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Ascension ~ The Meaning and the Fullness of Christ's Resurrection




Dear Parish Faithful,

"I ascend unto My Father, and your Father, and to my God, and Your God.” (JN. 20:17)


According to the mind of the Church, the Risen Lord is also the Ascended Lord and, therefore, in the words of Fr. Georges Florovsky: “In the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection.” I would refer everyone to the complete article by Fr. Florovsky, a brilliant reflection on the theological and spiritual meaning of the Lord’s Ascension. This article is accessed from our parish website together with a series of other articles that explore the richness of the Ascension. In addition to Fr. Florovsky’s article, I would especially recommend The Ascension as Prophecy. With so many fine articles on the Ascension within everyone’s reach, I will not offer up yet another one, but I would like to make a few brief comments:

Though the visible presence of the Risen Lord ended forty days after His Resurrection, that did not mean that His actual presence was withdrawn. For Christ solemnly taught His disciples – and us through them – “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (MATT. 28:20) The risen, ascended and glorified Lord is the Head of His body, the Church. The Lord remains present in the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church. This reinforces our need to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, through which we receive the deified flesh and blood of the Son of God, “unto life everlasting.”

Christ ascended to be seated at “the right hand of the Father” in glory, thus lifting up the humanity He assumed in the Incarnation into the very inner life of God. For all eternity, Christ is God and man. The deified humanity of the Lord is the sign of our future destiny “in Christ.” For this reason, the Apostle Paul could write: “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (COL. 3:3)

The words of the “two men … in white robes,” (clearly angels) who stood by the disciples as they gazed at Christ being “lifted up,” and recorded by St. Luke (ACTS. 1:11), point toward something very clear and essential for us to grasp as members of the Church that exists within the historical time of the world: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The disciples will remain in the world, and must fulfill their vocation as the chosen apostles who will proclaim the Word of God to the world of the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. They cannot spend their time gazing into heaven awaiting the return of the Lord. That hour has not been revealed: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.” (1:7) The “work” of the Church is the task set before them, and they must do this until their very last breath. They will carry out this work once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit – the “promise of my Father” - as Christ said to them. (LK. 24:49) Whatever our vocation may be, we too witness to Christ and the work of the Church as we await the fullness of God’s Kingdom according to the times or seasons of the Father.

In our daily Prayer Rule we continue to refrain from using “O Heavenly King” until the Day of Pentecost. We no longer use the paschal troparion, “Christ is Risen from the dead …” but replace it from Ascension to Pentecost with the troparion of the Ascension:

Thou hast ascended in glory,
O Christ our God,
granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit;
Through the Blessing they were assured
that Thou art the Son of God,
the Redeemer of the world.

Fr. Steven

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Ascension: Our Destiny in Christ


The Ascension of Christ, 15th c., Novgorod

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


You were born, as was your will, O our God.
You revealed Yourself, in Your good pleasure.
You suffered in the flesh, and rose from the dead,
trampling down death by death!
Fulfilling all things, you ascended in glory ...
(Vespers of Ascension)

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven,
and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered, and was buried.
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.
(Nicene Creed)


The two texts above - one from the Feast of the Ascension and the other a portion of the Nicene Creed - are wonderful expressions of the great mystery of the "descent" and "ascent" of the Son of God. The eternal Son of God becomes the Son of Man, descending into our world to live among us and to teach us about, and prepare us for, the Kingdom of God. This is what we call the Incarnation.

This movement of descent is only completed when Christ is crucified and enters the very realm of death on our behalf. There is "nowhere" further to descend (in)to. Thus, there are no limits to the love of God for His creatures, for the descent of Christ into death itself is "for our salvation." The Son of God will search for Adam and Eve in the very realm of Sheol/Hades. He will rescue them and liberate them as representative of all humankind, languishing in "the valley of death." Since death cannot hold the sinless - and therefore deathless - Son of God, He begins His ascent to the heavenly realm with His resurrection from the dead. And He fulfills this paschal mystery with His glorious ascension.

As St. Paul writes: "He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things." (EPH. 4:10) The One who ascended, however, is now both God and man, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified Jesus Christ who is now seated at "the right hand of the Father," far above the heavens. It is the glorified flesh of the Incarnate Word of God which has entered into the very bosom of the Trinity in the Person of Christ. As St. Leo the Great, the pope of Rome (+461) taught:

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of Heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest Heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father.

This is simultaneously our ascension and our glorification, since we are united to Christ through holy Baptism as members of His Body. Therefore, St. Paul can further write: "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (COL. 3:3) Out of our physical sight, we now "see" the glorified Christ through the eyes of faith. St. Leo further explains how important this spiritual insight is:

For such is the power of great minds, such the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eyes; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what is visible.

The Feast of the Ascension is not a decline from the glory of Pascha. It is, rather, the fulfillment of Pascha, and a movement upward toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the joyful revelation of our destiny in Christ. To return to the opening theme of the marvelous acts of God moving from the Incarnation to the Ascension, I would like to turn to St. Leo one more time for his understanding of that entire movement:

It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men's sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.

It is always wonderful when a Feast is ... festal! And it is most festal when many faithful members are present worshiping and glorifying God. The Feast of the Ascension has a full octave, which means that we commemorate this great event until May 29th this year. According to St. Luke, once the disciples beheld Christ ascend into heaven, "they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God." (LK. 24:52) The "temple" is our common place of worship. Hopefully, we too, will continually be in the temple blessing God.


Fr. Steven

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Stirrings of a Life-Changing Encounter



Dear Parish Faithful,

CHRIST IS RISEN!

"So the woman left her water jar,
and went away into the city . . ." 
~  Gospel According to John 4:28

A Samaritan woman came to Jacob's well in Sychar, a Samaritan city, at the same time that Jesus sat down by the well, being wearied by his journey.  The evangelist John provides us with a time reference: "It was about the sixth hour" (JN. 4:6) - i.e. noon.  The Samaritan woman had come to draw water from the well, a trip and activity that must have been an unquestioned daily routine that was part of life for her and her fellow city-dwellers. 

The ancients had a much more active sense that water = life than we do today with the accessibility of water that we enjoy and take for granted:  from the kitchen tap, the shower, or the local store.  On the basic level of biological survival, Jacob's well must have been something like a "fountain of life" for the inhabitants of Sychar. 

Therefore, it is rather incredible that she returned home without her water jar, a "detail" that the evangelist realized was so rich in symbolic meaning that he included it in the narrative recorded in his Gospel (JN. 4:5-42).  And this narrative, together with the incredible dialogue embedded in it, is so profound that every year we appoint this passage to be proclaimed in the Church on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the fifth Sunday after Pascha.  Why, then, would the Samaritan woman fail to take her water jar home with her?

Her "failure" was based on a discovery that she made when she encountered and spoke with Jesus by Jacob's well.  For even though the disciples "marveled" that Jesus was talking with a woman (v. 27), Jesus himself began the dialogue with the woman perfectly free of any such social, cultural or even religious restraints.  As this unlikely dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman unfolded by the well, it was revealed to the woman that Jesus was offering her a "living water" which was qualitatively distinct from the well-water that she habitually drank (v. 11).  This "living water" had an absolutely unique quality to it that the Lord further revealed to the woman:

Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."  (v.13-14)

A perceptive and sensitive woman who was open to the words of Jesus, as the dialogue continued she responded with the clear indication that she had entered upon a process of discovery that would lead her to realize that she was speaking with someone who was a prophet and more than a prophet: "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw." (v. 15)  Her thirst is now apparent on more than one level, as her mind and heart are now opening up to a spiritual thirst that was hidden but now stimulated by the presence and words of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus will now disclose to her one of the great revelations of the entire New Testament, a revelation that will bring together Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles:

But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (v. 23-24)

A careful reading of St. John's Gospel indicates that under the image of water, Jesus was speaking of his teaching that has come from God; or more specifically to the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For at the Feast of Tabernacles, as recorded in JN. 7, Jesus says this openly to the crowds who had come to celebrate the feast:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink.  He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water'."  Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.  (7:37-39)

Overwhelmed and excited, inspired and filled with the stirrings of a life-changing encounter, the Samaritan woman "left her water jar, and went away into the city and said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ"?" (v. 28-29)  It is not that the contents of her water jar was now unimportant or meaningless.  That would be a false dichotomy between the material and the spiritual that is foreign to the Gospel. The Samaritan woman will eventually retrieve her forgotten water jar and fill it with simple water in fulfillment of her basic human needs. For the moment, however, she must go to her fellow city-dwellers and witness to Christ!  They, in turn, will eventually believe that Jesus is "indeed the Savior of the world." (v. 42)

There are indeed innumerable "wells" that we can go to in order to drink some "water" that promises to quench our thirst.  These "wells" can represent every conceivable ideology, theory, philosophy of life, or worldview; in addition to all of the superficial distractions, pleasures, and mind-numbing attractions that will offer some relief from the challenges and oppressive demands of life.  For a Christian, to be tempted to drink the water from such wells would amount to nothing less than a betrayal of both the baptismal waters that were both a tomb and womb for us; and a betrayal of the living water that we receive from the teaching of Christ and that leads to eternal life. It is best to leave our "water jars" behind at such wells, and drink only that "living water" that is nothing less than the "gift of God." (JN. 4:10)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mid-Pentecost: “Glistening with splendor!”


Dear Parish Faithful,

CHRIST IS RISEN! 
INDEED HE IS RISEN!

Ever since Holy Week and Pascha, I have been quite preoccupied with catching up with "things."  I therefore have not been able to sit down and work on a thoughtful meditation over these last few weeks.  However, since the meaning and purpose of our festal cycle does not change from year to year - thank God! - I thought it appropriate to share a past meditation on today's Feast of Mid-Pentecost.

What I wrote in the past - if of any value whatsoever - should not already be "dated" and thus irrelevant for today.  Especially as my theme below is concerned with our own personal approach to, and inner appropriation of, the spiritual significance of the current Feast of Mid-Pentecost as it calls on us to reflect on both Pascha and Pentecost.

As Orthodox, we are "Paschal" and "Pentecostal" Christians. At least in theory.  It is up to each and every one of us to also be so in practice.

_____

Mid-Pentecost: “Glistening with splendor!”



Today finds us at the exact midpoint of the sacred 50-day period between the Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost.  So, this 25th day is called, simply, Midfeast or Mid-Pentecost.

Pentecost (from the Greek pentecosti) is, of course, the name of the great Feast on the 50th day after Pascha, but the term is also used to cover the entire 50-day period linking the two feasts, thus expressing their profound inner unity.  Our emphasis on the greatness of Pascha—the “Feast of Feasts”— may at times come at the expense of Pentecost, but in an essential manner Pascha is dependent upon Pentecost for its ultimate fulfillment.  

As Prof. Veselin Kesich wrote, 
“Because of Pentecost the resurrection of Christ is a present reality, not just an event that belongs to the past.”  Metropolitan Kallistos Ware stated that “we do not say merely, ‘Christ rose,’ but ‘Christ is risen’—He lives now, for me and in me.  This immediacy and personal directness in our relationship with Jesus is precisely the work of the Spirit.  Any transformation of human life is testimony to the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. God constantly creates new things and glorifies Himself in His saints, in order to make it known that the Word of God became flesh, experiences death on the cross, and was raised up that we might receive the Spirit”  (The First Day of the New Creation, p. 173).

Be that as it may, there is a wonderful hymn from the Vespers of the Midfeast that reveals this profound inner connection:

“The middle of the fifty days has come, beginning with the Savior’s resurrection, and sealed by the Holy Pentecost.  The first and the last glisten with splendor.  We rejoice in the union of both feasts, as we draw near to the Lord’s ascension—the sign of our coming glorification” (Vespers of the Midfeast).

Pascha and Pentecost “glisten with splendor” – what a wonderful expression!  Yet, this very expression which is indicative of the festal life of the Church, may also sound embarrassingly archaic to our ears today.  This is not exactly an everyday expression that comes readily to mind, even when we encounter something above the ordinary!

However, that could also be saying something about ourselves and not simply serve as a reproach to the Church’s less-than-contemporary vocabulary.  Perhaps the drab conformity of our environment; the de-sacralized nature of the world around us, together with its prosaic concerns and uninspiring goals; and even the reduction of religion to morality and vague “values,” make us more than a little skeptical/cynical about anything whatsoever “glistening with splendor!”  How can Pascha and Pentecost “glisten with splendor” if Pascha is “already” (though, only 25 days ago!) a forgotten experience of the past, and if the upcoming feasts of Ascension and Pentecost fail to fill us with the least bit of expectation or anticipation? 

To inwardly "see" how Pascha and Pentecost "glisten with splendor" then our hearts must "burn within us" as did the hearts of the two disciples who spoke with the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus (LK. 24:32).  At the empty tomb, the "two men ... in dazzling apparel" told the myrrh-bearing women to "remember" the things that the Lord had spoken to them while He was still in Galilee (LK. 24:6)

Only if we "remember" the recently-celebrated Holy Week and Pascha can any "burning of heart" that grants us the vision of the great Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost "glistening with splendor" possibly occur.  Only prosaic and drab events - or those that are superficially experienced - are quickly forgotten.  

The Lord is risen, and we await the coming of the Comforter, the “Spirit of Truth.”  These are two awesome claims!

The Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).  This exhortation from the Apostle is a great challenge, for experience teaches us that “the things that are on earth” can be very compelling, immediate and deeply attractive, while “the things that are above” can seem abstract and rather distant; or that they are reserved for the end of our life as we know it “on earth.”

The Apostle Paul is exhorting us to a radical reorientation of our approach to life—what we may call our “vision of life”—and again, this is difficult, even for believing Christians!  Yet, I would like to believe that with our minds lifted up on high and our hearts turned inward where God is – deep within our hearts – not only will the feasts themselves “glisten with splendor,” but so will our souls.  Then, what the world believes to be unattainable, will be precisely the experience that makes us “not of the world.”

May the days to come somehow, by the grace of God, “glisten with splendor!”  As it is written:

“The abundant outpouring of divine gifts is drawing near.  The chosen day of the Spirit is halfway come.  The faithful promise to the disciples after the death, burial and resurrection of Christ heralds the coming of the Comforter!” (Vespers of the Midfeast)

Fr. Steven.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

'Lent after Lent' and 'Life after Pascha'


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ is Risen!

The meditation below is from last year.  However, since human nature hasn't changed much since then; and since we face the same temptations and challenges this year, as we did last year, I decided to re-issue it for everyone's consideration. 

To speak on the personal level as a short introduction, I would share with everyone that one of my goals for this past Great Lent was not to buy any books(!).  I believe that I actually made it. (By the way, the withdrawal symptoms were not quite as bad as I anticipated). That is quite a modest goal, I must admit, but "I am who I am." 

The point is simply that if I now went out on a book-buying spree; or if I aggressively bought up a large portion of my amazon.com wish list (so far so good) that would certainly undermine any "lesson" or discipline that I may have learned during Great Lent.  Be that as it may, if you read below, you may better understand what I am getting at.
_______

“Lent after Lent” and “Life after Pascha”

I believe that a meaningful question that can be posed to any contemporary Orthodox parish is:  Is there life after Pascha? 

Another question has formed in my mind this morning:  Is there Lent after Lent? 

Before proceeding any further, I need to offer a brief point of clarification:  I apologize if I just happened to unsettle anyone with the frightening prospect of another immediate lenten period, because contrary to any possible misperceptions, I am not a “lent freak!”  My purpose in asking “Is there Lent after Lent?” is meant to pose a challenge. 

Is there anything spiritually fruitful that we began to do – or anything spiritually unfruitful that we ceased to do – during Great Lent that we can carry over with us into the paschal season and beyond?  Are we able to establish some genuine consistency in our ecclesial lives?  Surely this is one of the most important elements in nurturing a holistic approach to our Faith. 

If I am not mistaken, a real temptation that exists once Great Lent is over is to return to “life as usual,” as if Great Lent is at best a pious interlude during which we act more “religiously;” and at worst a period of specific rules that are meant to be more-or-less mechanically observed out of a sense of obligation.  This undermines the whole reality of repentance at its core, and drives us back into the dubious practice of the religious compartmentalization of our lives.  Great Lent is over – now what?

I am not even sure just how healthy it is to assess and analyze our Lenten efforts.  Great Lent is a “school of repentance,” but this does not mean that we are to grade ourselves upon its completion.  However, there are a number of things we can ask ourselves by way of a healthy assessment.

  • Did I practice prayer, charity and fasting in a more responsible, regular, and consistent manner?
  • Did I make a point of reading the Scriptures with the same care and consistency?
  • Did I participate in the liturgical services with greater regularity?
  • Did I watch over my language and gestures, or my words and actions, on an over-all basis with greater vigilance?
  • Did I make a breakthrough in overcoming any specific “passions” or other manifestations of sinful living?
  • Did I work on establishing any broken relationships?
  • Did I simply give more of myself to Christ?
  • Did I come to love Christ even more as I prostrated myself in faith before His life-giving Cross and tomb?

If these points, or at least some of them were part of your lenten effort, then why not continue?  Not to continue is to somehow fail to actualize in our lives the renewal and restoration of our human nature that definitively occurred through the Cross and Resurrection.  Appropriating the fruits of Christ’s redemptive Death and life-giving Resurrection is essential for our self-designation as Christians.

In other words, can we carry the “spirit” of Lent (and some of its practices) with us outside of Lent?  In this way, we are no longer “keeping Lent” but simply practicing our Faith with the vigilance it requires.  We still must fast (on the appropriate days), pray and give alms.  We still need to nourish ourselves with the Holy Scriptures.  We must continue to wage “warfare against the passions” that are always threatening to engulf us.  We need to deepen our love for Christ so that it surpasses any other commitment based on love in our lives. 

Or, have we doomed ourselves to being intense in the practice of our Faith for a short, predetermined length of time, and then pay “lip service” to, or offer token observance of, the Christian life until next year?  In a rather unfortunate twist, Great Lent can work against us when we reduce it to such a limited purpose.  Great Lent is the designated time of year meant to get us “back on track” so as to live more consciously Christian lives because certain circumstances and our weaknesses often work against us.  It is the “example” rather than the “exception” if properly understood.  In other areas of life, do we simply abandon good practices – in matters of health, let us say – because a designated period of testing or observing these good practices has come to an end?

Today may be a good day to reawaken to the glorious gift of life offered to us in the Church.  In less than week from today - next Wednesday, April 22 - we will return to our usual pattern of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, as the initial glow of Pascha slowly recedes.  I would suggest that this may be one of the most difficult days of fasting in the entire year.  It is very hard to reestablish a discipline temporarily suspended with the paschal celebration.  Yes, in many ways, we are returning to “life as usual,” even in the Church, but that is a “way of life” directed by the wisdom of the Church toward our salvation and as a witness to the world.  Let us take the “best of Lent” and continue with it throughout the days of our lives.

“Lent after Lent” means that there is “Life after Pascha.”


Friday, April 3, 2015

A "Joy-Creating Sorrow"





Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


As a parish, we have gone from strength to strength this Great Lent at least in relation to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.  In the past, we have often started out well, but the lenten "law" of attrition seemed to wear us down and by the last Presanctified Liturgy only a weary, and noticeably-reduced, remnant  bravely appeared by the last week of Lent - the Week of Palms.  Not so this year!  With almost seventy worshippers, it was by far our largest group of the year.  And before the evening was over yesterday, we shared yet another wonderful lenten meal together (I am going to miss the tasty hummus!) with lively fellowship in the church hall, further enlivened by the presence of many children.  For all of this we thank God first and foremost.

Yet, it was also a time of sober reflection or, if you like, a kind of "taking stock" of how Great Lent and our lenten effort has affected our hearts.  Following "Lord, I Call Upon Thee," we chanted the following hymn:

        I am rich in passions,
        I am wrapped in the false robe of hypocrisy.
        Lacking self-restraint I delight in self-indulgence.
        I show a boundless lack of love.
        I see my mind cast down before the gates of repentance,
        starved of true goodness and sick with inattention.

This sticheron does not mention "breaking the fast" by eating some dairy products or - God forbid! - some meat during Great Lent.  Other hymns and prayers of course exhort us to continue with perseverance in the ascetical fast.  But the point of this frightening catalogue of moral and interior failings is to protect us from self-righteousness or a superficial complacency falsely grounded in our adherence to the more external aspects of the Fast. It is also meant to be applied in the form of "self-examination."  Following the teachings of Christ, the best of our sacred hymns want us to explore whether or not our external actions are consistent with our internal being.  We want our outward piety to reflect and manifest an interior process of purifying the heart.  Otherwise, we may have to confess that we are acting like a "jerk."  I am sure that that word sounds more than a little jarring in the context of this lenten meditation!  That is not exactly a word that you will hear in our liturgical prayers and hymns, or for that matter, coming from me.  Neither will you find it in the Scriptures.  What we will hear are words such as "fool," "hypocrite," "sinner," and so on.  However, we may just hear "jerk" in our daily lives - or use it ourselves about someone else - and since I came across a definition of the word that sounds as if it could have been written by a saint in defining the more biblical words mentioned above, I wanted to use it for its effect.
  
Some years ago a certain Sidney Harris, columnist for the Chicago Daily News, wrote that a jerk is "totally incapable of looking into the mirror of his own soul and shuddering at what he sees there."   Almost like an aphorism from one of the Desert Fathers!  Therefore, if any of the words in the above hymn are actually true about us, and we fail to recognize this truth due to our blindness, obtuseness or self-defensiveness; then in addition to being called a "hypocrite" we will have to bear the further burden of being a genuine "jerk" - at least according to Sidney Harris' definition.  Since most of us would find that rather intolerable, the best solution would be to take a careful and searching look into the mirror of our soul and "shudder" at what we see there if, indeed, it is less than pretty.  Then we can stand and knock "before the gates of repentance" and begin the process of healing, as the Lord will certainly open those gates on our behalf.  This is why, paradoxical as it may sound, it is good to see one's own sins!  That, in turn, is not meant to depress us - for God does not seek to depress us - but rather to activate us as demonstrated by the prodigal son who "arose and came to his father." (LK. 15:20)  Truly, it is a "joy-creating sorrow," for only then can we begin to turn to God begging for forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with Him and our neighbor.  We can only be free from the passions if we first recognize their presence withn us.
  
The remainder of the hymn I began with us is a humble plea to resemble one of the most humble - and pathetic - figures in the New Testament:

        But make me like Lazarus, who was poor in sin,
        lest I receive no answer when I pray,
        no finger dipped in water to relieve my burning tongue;
        and make me dwell in Abraham's bosom in Your love for mankind. 

To be "poor in sin" as was Lazarus, is to be freed from sin to a great extent.  Or, perhaps, to be dispassionate as the saints exhort us to strive for.  No doubt it is a hard and demanding battle that requires honesty, vigilance and repentance on our part.  That sure beats being a "jerk!"


Fr. Steven

'Make Me like Lazarus, who was Poor in Sin'




 Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As a parish, we have gone from strength to strength this Great Lent at least in relation to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.  In the past, we have often started out well, but the lenten "law" of attrition seemed to wear us down and by the last Presanctified Liturgy only a weary, and noticeably-reduced, remnant  bravely appeared by the last week of Lent - the Week of Palms.  Not so this year!  With almost seventy worshippers, it was by far our largest group of the year.  And before the evening was over yesterday, we shared yet another wonderful lenten meal together (I am going to miss the tasty hummus!) with lively fellowship in the church hall, further enlivened by the presence of many children.  For all of this we thank God first and foremost.

Yet, it was also a time of sober reflection or, if you like, a kind of "taking stock" of how Great Lent and our lenten effort has affected our hearts.  Following "Lord, I Call Upon Thee," we chanted the following hymn:
I am rich in passions,
I am wrapped in the false robe of hypocrisy.
Lacking self-restraint I delight in self-indulgence.
I show a boundless lack of love. I see my mind cast down before the gates of repentance, starved of true goodness and sick with inattention.

This sticheron does not mention "breaking the fast" by eating some dairy products or - God forbid! - some meat during Great Lent.  Other hymns and prayers of course exhort us to continue with perseverance in the ascetical fast.  But the point of this frightening catalogue of moral and interior failings is to protect us from self-righteousness or a superficial complacency falsely grounded in our adherence to the more external aspects of the Fast. It is also meant to be applied in the form of "self-examination."

Following the teachings of Christ, the best of our sacred hymns want us to explore whether or not our external actions are consistent with our internal being.  We want our outward piety to reflect and manifest an interior process of purifying the heart.  Otherwise, we may have to confess that we are acting like a "jerk."  I am sure that that word sounds more than a little jarring in the context of this lenten meditation!

That is not exactly a word that you will hear in our liturgical prayers and hymns, or for that matter, coming from me.  Neither will you find it in the Scriptures.  What we will hear are words such as "fool," "hypocrite," "sinner," and so on.  However, we may just hear "jerk" in our daily lives - or use it ourselves about someone else - and since I came across a definition of the word that sounds as if it could have been written by a saint in defining the more biblical words mentioned above, I wanted to use it for its effect.
 
Some years ago a certain Sidney Harris, columnist for the Chicago Daily News, wrote that a jerk is "totally incapable of looking into the mirror of his own soul and shuddering at what he sees there."   Almost like an aphorism from one of the Desert Fathers!  Therefore, if any of the words in the above hymn are actually true about us, and we fail to recognize this truth due to our blindness, obtuseness or self-defensiveness; then in addition to being called a "hypocrite" we will have to bear the further burden of being a genuine "jerk" - at least according to Sidney Harris' definition.

Since most of us would find that rather intolerable, the best solution would be to take a careful and searching look into the mirror of our soul and "shudder" at what we see there if, indeed, it is less than pretty.  Then we can stand and knock "before the gates of repentance" and begin the process of healing, as the Lord will certainly open those gates on our behalf.

This is why, paradoxical as it may sound, it is good to see one's own sins!  That, in turn, is not meant to depress us - for God does not seek to depress us - but rather to activate us as demonstrated by the prodigal son who "arose and came to his father." (LK. 15:20)  Truly, it is a "joy-creating sorrow," for only then can we begin to turn to God begging for forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with Him and our neighbor.  We can only be free from the passions if we first recognize their presence withn us.
 
The remainder of the hymn I began with us is a humble plea to resemble one of the most humble - and pathetic - figures in the New Testament:
But make me like Lazarus, who was poor in sin, lest I receive no answer when I pray, no finger dipped in water to relieve my burning tongue; and make me dwell in Abraham's bosom in Your love for mankind.

To be "poor in sin" as was Lazarus, is to be freed from sin to a great extent.  Or, perhaps, to be dispassionate as the saints exhort us to strive for.  No doubt it is a hard and demanding battle that requires honesty, vigilance and repentance on our part.  That sure beats being a "jerk!"


Fr. Steven