Thursday, February 20, 2020

Preparing for Great Lent - A Lenten Reading List, Updated for 2020

Dear Parish Faithful,

What Are You Reading for Great Lent?

New to the 2020 Lenten Reading List!
There are many ways to approach the Holy Scriptures for Great Lent for consistent and attentive reading. 

Three Old Testament books are prescribed for the entire forty days: Genesis, Proverbs, and Isaiah. For the New Testament it is: The Gospel According to St. Mark and the Epistle to the Hebrews. 

For both the Old and New Testament reading, you can follow the Church calendar; or simply read at your own pace. I encourage everyone to choose from this rich offering and "stick with it" throughout Great Lent.

Yet, I have attached a Lenten Reading List to this letter for your convenience, so to offer some good choices for meaningful "supplementary" reading alongside the Scriptures. Most of these are the "classics" of contemporary Orthodox writing (going back about fifty years or so), and these books continue to nourish us on the spiritual level. These books can also be read aloud with other family members quite effectively; perhaps especially the titles with short chapters. If I can be of any assistance is narrowing down some choices, or of offering some titles not on this short list, please feel free to contact me.

Many of these various books are available for purchase right here in our parish bookstore. It would be good of you to support the bookstore. Then again, they would be available at St. Vladimir's and St. Tikhon's bookstores respectively.

Lenten Reading List, Updated for 2020

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Preparing for Great Lent - The Great Canon, and a Summary of Great Lent

Dear Parish Faithful,

This particular year, I would like to strongly encourage everyone to make the effort to be present in the church and praying for at least one of the four evenings on which we will sing and chant the Canon of Repentanceby St. Andrew of Crete.

These four evenings are, of course, the first four of Great Lent. This year that would be March 2 - 5. The service begins at 7:00 p.m. and lasts a little over an hour. I cannot think of a better way to begin the lenten season; or better the lenten spring. 

Besides the compunctionate text of the Canon, there is also the very "atmosphere" of the church which helps us to still our restless minds and focus on our need to absorb the service and fill our minds with the thought and need for repentance. I fully understand commitments and obligations that cannot be ignored, but the first week of Great Lent especially, is not the time for entertainment and events that can be postponed or deferred to another time. And I would encourage parents to bring your children/teens on one of those evenings. Therefore, mark your calendars and make this a priority in your lives.

I have attached an excellent summary of Great Lent prepared by Mother Paula (our former parishioner Vicki Bellas), who resides at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, PA. What Mother Paula did was carefully read Met. Kallistos Ware's article on "The Meaning of Great Lent" and then summarize the main points in a very accessible and helpful form. This article is probably the best that one could read about the meaning and content of Great Lent. It serves as the Introduction to Met. Kallistos' translation of The Lenten Triodion, the indispensable liturgical book used throughout Great Lent and Holy Week. Unfortunately, this seminal article has not been published independently of the Triodion. I encourage everyone to take a careful look at Mother Paula' summary for a host of insights into Great Lent that are meant to be translated into practice on the part of the faithful. Please raise any questions that come to mind when reading through this. Good material, possibly, for post-Liturgy discussions.

 Notes on The Meaning of Great Lent


Monday, February 17, 2020

Have I Ever Really 'Heard' the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 As we move forward in the pre-lenten Sundays and the upcoming week of the Last Judgment (MATT. 25:31-46), perhaps we can "meditate" throughout this week on the Parable of the Prodigal Son from yesterday's Liturgy. When thought over deeply, we begin to understand how inexhaustible it really is!

This parable is chosen at this particular time in order to draw us toward repentance (Gk. metanoia); to remind us that Great Lent is the “school of repentance;” and that without repentance, our other “lenten efforts” become rather meaningless – if not spiritually dangerous. What will it take to convince us that we, too, need that “change of mind” and return to our heavenly Father that is the truest expression of living according to the Gospel?

As I ponder that question, I ask myself further: Have I ever really heard this parable in the way that Christ refers to “hearing?” And that would mean being shaken at the very core of my being. Am I only paying “lip service” to this greatest of the parables, as I listen to it as a wonderful short story that is exciting to analyze and discuss; but not quite capable of moving me any closer to genuine repentance? Again, these are the questions that come to my mind as I have heard this parable in the Liturgy for almost forty years now as a priest.

Yet, if we have spent some time in analyzing the richness of this parable, then we realize that it is not only about the prodigal son, with the two other characters – the father and the older brother – acting in a clearly subordinate manner or for the sake of rounding out the story. They are both integral to the parable and hold equal weight as we try and grasp the parable as a whole. Without the father and the older son, the parable would suffer from a certain one-sidedness or incompleteness.

This is absolutely true when it comes to the very core meaning of the parable - which is repentance. We are deeply moved by the movement of the prodigal son toward his return to his father’s home. We first read of his journey to a “faraway country” and rapid and total decline wherein he wastes his inheritance in “loose living.” An all too-familiar tale. This is followed by a spiraling descent that has him longing for the pods that serve as food for the pigs he has been hired to tend. His re-ascent begins with his “coming to himself” after what must have been a painfully honest self-assessment of his stricken condition of estrangement from even basic human fellowship. This culminates in the thought of returning to his father and begging for mercy and the actual movement of “arising” and doing it.

None of this would have born any fruit, however, without the compassion and love of the prodigal son’s father who embodies the forgiveness that completes his repentance. If the father had been stern, or absorbed with his own sense of being offended; if he had chastised his son with the predictable and perhaps satisfying retort, “I told you so;” then the parable would collapse with an all too-human reaction that would be plausible but unworthy of the Gospel that Jesus came to proclaim. For the father of the parable is a figure of our heavenly Father’s compassion, love and forgiveness that Christ came to offer to all and every sinner. The father remains unforgettable as a “character” precisely because he confounds our expectations in his boundless love fully revealed by running out to his son, falling on his neck and kissing him. This is how the Father “Who is without beginning” acts toward his wayward creatures who have spent their inheritance – the “image and likeness” of God – in the faraway country of self-autonomy and the “swinish” fulfillment of the most base desires. Our repentance results in a cosmic joy that God shares with the angels and the preparation of the “banquet of immortality.”

The older son represents precisely that all too-human response referred to above of hurt feeling and an offended sensibility that leaves him insensitive to his repentant brother’s return and salvation. No matter how justified such a response would seem from our human perspective, it remains outside of the Gospel’s “transvaluation of values.”

This is our “invitation” to Great Lent offered to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (MATT. 4:17). To help us understand the beauty of that movement of repentance, the Lord delivers what just may be his “parable of parables,” the one we usually name after the prodigal son. So before we get out our lenten cookbooks, we must first really “hear” this parable and pray to God that He will direct and guide us toward true repentance. The lenten cookbook will not save us – but repentance will.


Dear Parish Faithful,

I received this very thoughtful and honest comment on the most recent Monday Morning Meditation. Thought to share it with everybody so that we can embody the same honesty in our approach toward God.

Fr. Steven

Dear Father Steven,

Thank you for this reflective meditation. One of the teachings of the Orthodox faith that I am learning which permeates all of reality is what Father Stephen Freeman calls the "One Storey Universe." My ability to separate the physical realm from The Trinity rather than seeing them as one comes quiet easily. You accurately describe my tendency in reading Scripture- "To listen to the parable as a wonderful short story that is exciting to analyze and discuss; but not quite capable of moving me any closer to repentance." I think this statement is a perfect example of the Two Storey Universe which too often is my default worldview.

As a middle class American who has my basic needs met, I often fail to see the unfortunate circumstances or problems in my life and in the lives of others as opportunities to "come to my sense." Too often I focus on the solution rather than how to repent in the situation. I have hit "rock-bottom" before and in that situation, "I came to my senses" but  in my "hard-heartedness," the flesh seeks to reassert itself and I am learning that I must constantly put the flesh to death. This is what makes the real practice of Lent so powerful!

Thirdly, in your phrase: "The love of the prodigal's son father as opposed to the all too-human reaction to chastise his son," I am reminded that God is God because of His person, (The Father), not because He is Sovereign Creator, "who is absorbed with his own sense of being offended." 

Thank you again,

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Followup to 'Byzantine Symphonia in the Nuclear Age'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Back in November 1 of last year, I wrote a reflection about the very troubling fact that in Russia there was a nationalist movement that was promoting the great saint, Seraphim of Sarov, as the patron of the country's nuclear weapons. This reflection was eventually posted on the OCA's website. 

With that in mind, you may want to read this recent tweet from a certain Greta Van Susteren writing for the blog According to what she writes/tweets, the Russian Orthodox Church is now "considering" a proposal that would ban all such blessings of nuclear weapons on the part of the Church. 

I, for one, hope that this "consideration" becomes a firm policy of the Church. Please click on the yellow highlight to read this reassuring update. Was the Church's newly-stated policy due to pressure from dissident voices that found such patronage morally intolerable? Hard to say, but this is encouraging news and I thought to share it as a "follow through" from what I wrote earlier.

Greta Van Susteren (@greta)

The Virgin Mary - 'She presents Him to all of us...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a fine and timely reflection from Dr. Edith Humphrey, an Orthodox scholar who is a fine contemporary voice witnessing to the Orthodox Faith in today's world. It is a former Protestant's honest reflection of how the Theotokos is perhaps initially for many a potential obstacle to embracing Orthodoxy; but who, with time, openness and deep meditation, becomes a central figure in the entire divine mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Dr. Humphrey has recently published a book that offers an Orthodox reading of C.S. Lewis.

"Feeling grateful on the Feast of the Presentation, the hymn for which was key in my movement into Orthodoxy eleven years ago. For thirteen years, a key block had been the prominence of holy Mary, whom I feared was a "layer" between God and the believer. 
"No. The arms of the Theotokos, like the tongs used for the living coal with Isaiah, presented Christ to the elder Symeon, and so in her intercession she presents Him to all of us. Her role is no obstacle between us and God, nor does it upstage Christ, but is that of a loving mother, or elder sister, who has treasured all these things in her heart! God both uses mediators, and is "immediately" present to us in the New Covenant. And so I would be like Anna, speaking about Him to everyone who will listen."

Monday, February 3, 2020

Zacchaeus — The Gospel in Miniature

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We arrived at the Sunday of Zacchaeus this last Sunday at the Liturgy with the reading of the Gospel According to St. Luke (19:1-10).  The story of the repentance and conversion of the publican (tax collector) who was "small of stature" prepares us for the upcoming cycle of pre-lenten Gospel readings which will, in turn, prepare us for the beginning of Great Lent on Monday, March 2. 

Most attentive Orthodox Christians already know this, as well as knowing the actual story of Zacchaeus very well. Yet, knowing any particular Gospel passage well does not mean that we have exhausted the meaning of that passage.  The Gospel can never grow old, or worse, stale.  The "words of eternal life" (JN. 6:68)  are contained in the Gospels. Therefore, the Gospel is a "living text," which means that every time we hear it, we are open to new insights and new depths of meaning that can even startle us.  Something like an endless "aha!" experience.  Repeated reading and/or hearing of any passage, therefore, should not blunt the revealed truth of the passage, but continue enriching our understanding of the Good News revealed to us in Christ.  

Bearing this in mind, I would submit that in the wonderful story of Zacchaeus, we are hearing the Gospel "in miniature."  For in this story there are sin, repentance, grace and salvation, precisely that interplay of various factors that predominate in the revelation of the Gospel. 

If we were to break that down in terms of this particular story we find that in the concise framework of ten verses, St. Luke narrates an encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, a sinful man who, in his sinfulness, is representative of all humanity.  He has "missed the mark" - the meaning of the Greek amartia which we translate as sin - with his admission of defrauding others, among perhaps other failings.  The publican was synonymous with a thief, as there was no system in place that could check the abuse inherent in collecting taxes for the hated Roman occupiers of Israel.  And, as a publican/thief, he was "rich" but at the expense of the neighbors he was defrauding.

Yet the story quickly shifts its emphasis to the almost humorous detail of Zacchaeus climbing up a sycamore tree in order "to see Jesus."

Jesus scandalizes the spectators who are witnessing this drama by desiring to enter the home of the sinful publican.  There is no place that is "off limits" for the Messiah as He has come first to call "the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Scandal is "built into" the Gospel, for the ultimate scandal will be that of a crucified Messiah. In the presence of Christ, Zacchaeus publicly repents, expressed with the words, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold" (LK. 19:8).  
Repentance is always sealed with divine grace, as Jesus then publicly states, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (v. 10).  We are all "lost" in sin, so the Son of Man has also come to save each and every one of us.  Hence, our contention that the story of Zacchaeus is the Gospel "in miniature."

That salvation, however, cannot be assumed or taken for granted.  The gifts of grace and salvation are bestowed upon us inasmuch as we too will repent and change our pattern of living.  That will depend on our capacity to "see" that we are also "small of stature" - each and every one of us.

Zacchaeus was apparently a short man, and thus he was literally "small of stature," and this forced him up into that sycamore tree.  But clearly, his lack of stature was a metaphor for his sinfulness.  Our human nature - created in the image and likeness of God - "shrinks" through our sinfulness.  Sin makes us a lesser being than what we were created to be.  No amount of status, wealth or power can protect us from the corrosive effects of sin. 

Once we see and acknowledge that painful truth then we, too, must find a way to overcome our shrunken stature even if it means "losing face" with our neighbors.  (How humiliating it must have been for Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree in front of his neighbors!)  This becomes difficult if we expend a great amount of energy building up a self-image that we (foolishly?) hope will make us impervious to criticism or ridicule.  The affirmation of others grants credence to our self-affirmation. 

As we strain to protect that artificial good image, we can further become blind to our flawed character.  Then we will learn the hard way, that the more we struggle to preserve the little stature that we have, we will only succeed in further shrinking in stature!  Such is the "human comedy."  But it is actually all quite tragic since we are all participants in the divine-human drama of sin and repentance and the salvation of our souls.

That brings us to the paradoxical nature of the Gospel:  the more we can acknowledge our short stature through sinfulness, and begin the process of conversion through repentance, then the uplifting process of growing "to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (EPH. 4:13) can begin. This is an endless process of spiritual maturity and growth - a process that continues in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

There is no room for comparison here, meaning that we cannot find solace in the "fact" that others are clearly so much more sinful than we may be.  To shrink from including ourselves in the company of Zacchaeus, the cheating publican, would be to undermine the power of the Gospel in our lives.  We must humbly align ourselves with Zacchaeus — even "become Zacchaeus" in terms of a shared experience of being forgiven — as we read and/or hear this text.  If we approach the story of Zacchaeus with the presupposition that we are "better" than him, than the living text of the Gospel becomes a "dead text" — perhaps informative or interesting, but unable to open our minds and hearts to God's graciousness.  Let us avoid any such temptation as we continue our movement toward Great Lent the glorious paschal mystery which is our final destination.

"For the Son on Man came to seek and to save the lost."

Friday, January 17, 2020

Film Review: 'Just Mercy'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Earlier this week, Presvytera Deborah and I saw a deeply affecting film that explored themes as important as justice and mercy within the wider context of racism and the systemic injustice and deplorable inhumanity that racism can generate. 

Just Mercy Show Times

The film we saw is called Just Mercy. This was a cinematic dramatization of a notorious murder case that takes us back to the world of the 1980's- 1990's in the state of Alabama. The setting is actually in the small town where Harper Lee lived, and where she set her American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird

In the film, an African-American man by the name of Walter McMillan (played by Jamie Foxx) is arrested and convicted of brutally murdering a young white woman, though there was no real evidence to convict him other than an unreliable witness who was pressured to testify against him. Mr. McMillan was sentenced to death for this crime and spent about eight years on death row. His case was eventually taken up by an idealistic Harvard-trained lawyer, an African American by the name of Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael Jordan). 

Stevenson has devoted his life to defending convicted criminals on death row who either did not receive a fair trial, or did not have competent legal representation. A credit at the end of the film informed us that he has helped spare the lives of 85 men wrongfully convicted of murder and eventually spared the death sentence through his legal intervention. That is an accomplishment of heroic dimensions.  

Just Mercy was based on Stevenson's memoirs of the case that he published in the past. From what I have been able to read about the case, the film appears to be a reliable presentation of the case as it unfolded over time, though again in an engaging dramatized form. The case gained some real notoriety when it was the subject of investigation on the popular 60 Minutes series. Both presvytera and I would highly recommend it. 

In a film market flooded with either excessive action, sex, or just plain inanity, this is a good example of a film with genuine moral content that will make your "blood boil" over such crass injustice; and will also make you think out the implications of such themes as justice and mercy captured by the film's title. Such a film can have a good impact on our "young adults" and both broaden and deepen their own emerging moral sensitivity. Whenever justice and mercy are the subject of a work of art, one can justifiably reflect upon it theologically. There are deep Christian themes embedded within this film that are easily discernible and worthy of reflection and discussion. Issues of sin and redemption, the workings of the conscience, guilt and forgiveness, are some of the more obvious ones that come readily to mind and which receive thoughtful consideration throughout the film.

What is sobering about Walter McMillan's case is that it occurs about a quarter of a century after the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 60's. Racism - either systemic or personal - can be so ingrained within any society that it becomes "natural" and something of a "way of life." Legislation will combat racism but cannot eradicate it. Ultimately, it is about a change of mind and heart. Then again, any attempt to combat it is met with mistrust, or simply contempt and hostility. In the racially polarized society that continued to exist in rural Alabama at the time of the film - again the 1980's - 1990's - we see how this led to the arrest and conviction of Walter McMillan. In the film this is all the more egregious as it is painfully clear that Walter McMillan was not even remotely involved in this tragic murder case.

What is equally troubling was the fierce opposition that any attempt to reopen this case was met with. And this opposition was organized from the top down, so to speak: law enforcement, the legal community, the judiciary, etc. This was further intensified by the not-so-hidden threat of violence that persons involved with seeking justice in this case were threatened with, beginning with Bryan Stevenson himself. 

At the same time, there were other decent (white) people who had moved far beyond such ingrained racism, and who also worked with the black community to seek justice in this case. At one point, a disheartening legal judgment, after a well-crafted appeal, had placed Mr.McMillan back on death row. But this decision was overturned by the higher State Court of Alabama, so that here you sensed the gains of the Civil Rights movement that served the cause of equal justice. And, of course, Walter McMillan is eventually given his freedom without even needing a new trial. This is not meant to be a "spoiler" because this was a very high-profile case that received national attention and one that can be studied from a variety of sources. Even though one may know the outcome of the case ahead of time, the tension and uncertainty that the film maintains, is dramatically very convincing.

The film itself is well done. One of the challenges of a film that is portraying actual people, many of whom are still alive, is that of being one more "bio-pic." At least for me, bio-pics often just don't succeed in being that attractive. These can be either overly-dramatized or overly-sentimentalized. I believe that the director of Just Mercy, Destin Daniel Cretton, maintains a good balance between both of those tendencies. 

With the story line being what it is, the film is intense and it is heartfelt, but never really overblown or maudlin. Of course, we have fine and nuanced dramatic performances by both Michael Jordan and Jamie Foxx, as well as the cast of other supporting actors. And they are both given some scenes filled with drama and good dialogue. There was a wonderful scene in which Jamie Foxx, playing Walter McMillan, says - after years of being considered and called a murderer, and after he finally was defended in a convincing manner - that "I have got my truth back." And Michael Jordan, playing Bryan Stevenson, is given some fine speeches that attain a level of genuine rhetorical flourish. Hard to say just how true-to-life all of that may be. (Though I recently heard an interview with the "real" Bryan Stevenson and he is very articulate). 

One hopes that the essence of each of the persons they were portraying is not distorted in the process of bringing them to the screen. Yet, how fitting that Walter McMillan, a victim of racism and acute prejudice, accused of a murder he did not commit, and suffering through years of this together with his family, is the subject of a film that captures his dignified suffering in an honorable fashion. (Sadly, he died in 2013 of acute dementia thought to have been the result of the trauma of spending years on death row). 

Finally, the film appeals to our own sense of right and wrong and of justice properly served. As I said earlier, it makes your "blood boil" while remaining simultaneously satisfying on the moral plane when people of goodwill and deep conviction work toward the service of "justice, mercy and unmerited grace." That meaningful expression belongs to Bryan Stevenson, spoken before a United States senate investigative committee. A sense of "unmerited grace" is a fine way to conclude a film concerning justice and mercy.

Again, I would accord Just Mercy a hearty endorsement/recommendation - as would Presvytera Deborah.

As something of an addendum to my review, I would like to briefly explore the very open allusions to Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird that are found throughout the film. 

The setting of the film is in the small Alabama town in which she lived for many years. What was the significance of that great novel in relation to the content of the film? Presvytera Deborah and I had a "lively discussion" over its possible meaning. One of us thought that perhaps the director is telling us that now a black man is a lawyer standing where Atticus Finch once stood, and successfully defending another black man; whereas Tom Robinson in the novel, endured no such redemption and was even tragically killed in the end. Were we being told that as a society, we have "progressed" to this point, where justice can be so served? Or, as one of us thought, is the background presence of To Kill a Mockingbird a painful reminder that racism within the judicial system continues to linger on a full half century - including the era of the Civil Rights Movement - later? A rather troubling question.