Monday, August 19, 2019

'Beyond Death and Judgment' - The Dormition of the Theotokos

 

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,





We enjoyed a truly wonderful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos this year. Attendance was very strong, there was a full choir, and the Vesperal Liturgy both lively and prayerful. The decorated tomb which contains an icon of the Virgin Mary in blessed repose, was surrounded by flowers brought to church for that purpose and then blessed at the end of the service to be taken back home. As always, it was good to see some of our parish children and young adults present and worshiping. This "summer pascha" has steadily become an integral event of our parish life. And this is "meet and right."

American Christianity has been shaped by the Protestant ethos, and that basically means that there is no real place for the veneration of the Mother of God. This was primarily based upon a reaction against the perceived excesses of the medieval West's Marian piety by the early Protestant reformers. In a short time, this reaction became a thorough rejection - at times quite vehement - in many Protestant circles. So the Virgin Mary pretty much disappeared from Protestant worship and piety. Perhaps the classic example within Church history of "throwing out the baby with the bath water."

Orthodox Christians cannot succumb to any such truncated form of the Church's living Tradition. (However, there have been clear signs recently of a "recovery" of the role of the Virgin Mary in some Evangelical circles). One of my beloved professors from seminary always used to say that a sign of a spiritually strong parish is that parish's devotion to the Mother of God. For she is the personal image of the Church - warm, embracing, nurturing, protecting.

Since the Dormition has no biblical source, this feast slowly developed over the course of the first five centuries of the Church's history on the basis of a wide variety of sources - primarily narratives, rhetorical homilies and theological poetry/hymnography. (Much of this material now exists in English translation). There is no one authoritative text or document.

However, though details may differ, a tradition emerged that tells of how the apostles were miraculously brought back to Jerusalem in order to surround the bedside of the Virgin Mary as she lay dying. Upon commending her holy soul to her Son and Savior, she peacefully "fell asleep" in death (the meaning of the word dormition) in the presence of the apostles who stood weeping and grief-stricken by her bedside. With great solemnity they buried her pure body which had itself been the "tabernacle" of the King. The traditional place of her burial is a tomb close to Gethsemane. When the tomb was opened on the third day so that the Apostle Thomas, who arrived late, could venerate the body of the Theotokos, it was found to be empty. The "Mother of Life" was thus "translated to life!"

Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarizes the Church's understanding of this tradition in the following manner:

Without insisting on the literal truth of every element in this account, Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body - like His - was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives wholly in the Age to Come. 

The Resurrection of the Body, which all Christians await, has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact. That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category: for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now. (The Festal Menaion, p. 64)

Fr. Thomas Hopko further elaborates on the meaning of this beautiful Feast and how it "relates" to every generation of Christians:

Thus, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the celebration of the fact that all men are "highly exalted" in the blessedness of the victorious Christ, and that this high exaltation has already been accomplished in Mary the Theotokos.

The feast of the Dormition is the sign, the guarantee, and the celebration that Mary's fate is the destiny of all those of "low estate" whose souls magnify the Lord, whose spirits rejoice in God the Savior, whose lives are totally dedicated to hearing and keeping the Word of God which is given to men in Mary's child, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

Dormition, of course, means "falling asleep," the Christian term par excellence for how we approach the mystery of death. And here we further approach the paradox, from a Christian perspective, of death itself - the "last enemy" that causes great anguish and grief; but yet which now serves as a passage to life everlasting, and thus a cause for festal celebration in the death of the Mother of God. For the Virgin Mary truly died, as is the fate of all human beings; and yet "neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos" who has been "translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!" Without for a moment losing sight of the reality of death (notice the weeping apostles around the body of the Theotokos on the Dormition icon), from within the Church we can actually celebrate death during this "summer pascha" because of the Resurrection of Christ.

Thus, the Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.” For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:

I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people die and “Platonists” afterwards. By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives. — From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.

To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:

For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break. For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil. Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it. As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person. — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.

St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:

By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil. – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.


This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!” The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.” Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast. The Leave-taking of the Feast is on August 23. That means that we continue to sing and chant the troparion and kontakion of the Feast in our liturgical services until then, in addition to other hymnography of the Feast. I would strongly urge everyone to incorporate these hymns into your daily rule of prayer, including their use when you bless your meals as a family, replacing the Lord's Prayer up until the Leave-taking. If you can't sing these hymns, you can certainly recite them! The troparia and kontakia or the major Feasts are included in many Orthodox Prayer Books, but if you do not have the texts available at home, I am including them here:

Troparion of the Dormition

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not
forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!


Kontakion of the Dormition

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life
by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!


The decorated tomb of the Theotokos, containing an icon of her sacred body in blessed repose, will be back in its usual place and open for our veneration whenever we enter the church. The great Feasts extend in time, giving us the opportunity of integrating them into our lives in a meaningful way.
 
 
 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Process of Personal Transfiguration



Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Today is the "Leavetaking" of the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. This is not only a beautiful Feast, but a "feast of beauty." And as Dostoevsky once enigmatically said: "Beauty will save the world." 

The transfigured Christ is an image of humanity restored to the beauty of the original image as intended by God. We see this beauty in the shining face of Christ, which is the human face of God. Human beings are meant to reflect the glory/beauty of God - something terribly lost through sin and corruption. 

On Mt. Tabor, Christ also revealed a foretaste of the beauty of the Kingdom of God which is yet to come in its full splendor, when "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (MATT. 11:43). But now we must descend from Mt. Tabor as did the disciples Peter, James and John. Then, through the manner of our lives, we are asked to witness to that vision of divine glory that we were allowed to glimpse, "as far as we could bear it," in the radiant face of Christ. 

The daily bearing of the Cross is the only "road" back to Mt. Tabor and the glory of transfiguration. The disciples learned this the hard way, and this is a truth that we must always bear in mind as we bear our daily cross(es).

For certain of the great saints of the Church throughout the centuries, this process of transfiguration began in this life in a very tangible and even overwhelming manner. These saints witness to our claim and belief that by the grace of God, a human person is capable of shining with the identical uncreated divine light that shone in the face of Christ on Mt. Tabor. This experience is not only reserved for the Kingdom of God, but can begin in this life. This comes after a prolonged period of preparation through prayer and fasting, but ultimately it is a gift from God reserved for certain of the saints to demonstrate the human capacity to participate directly in divine life. What our Lord is by nature, a human being created in the image and likeness of God may become by grace.


A fairly recent, and all-together spectacular instance of this was revealed in the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833), a Russian monk, ascetic and mystic whose life has become very popular and well-studied for the last few decades at least. His disciple, the landowner Nicholas Motovilov, has left an extraordinary account of the saint's transfiguration based upon a personal experience that God allowed him to have while together with St. Seraphim one winter day in the woods. These notes of his were discovered after his death in about 1903, and have since been widely-translated, read and studied as an unique eyewitness testimony of being in the presence of a transfigured human being. The context for this event was a discussion between the saint and his disciple over the meaning of the saint's famous statement: "The purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God." Motovilov's awe is evident throughout as St. Seraphim does his best to explain to him what is happening based upon the Transfiguration of Christ. I am including the following excerpts for you to marvel at:



"The grace of the Holy Spirit is the light which lightens man. [...] And indeed, the Lord has often demonstrated before many witnesses how the grace of the Holy Spirit operates with regard to those people whom He has sanctified and illumined by His great visitation. Remember Moses after his conversation with God on Mount Sinai. He shone with such an extraordinary light that people could not look at him, and he had to cover his face. Remember the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor. A great light surrounded Him and 'His garments became shining, exceedingly white like snow' and His apostles fell on their faces from fear. In the same way the grace of the Holy Spirit of God manifests itself in an ineffable light to all to whom God reveals its activity."

"But how," I asked Father Seraphim, "can I know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit? [...] I need to understand completely."

Father Seraphim then took me firmly by the shoulders and said, "We are both, you and I, in the Spirit of God this moment, my son. Why do you not look at me?"

"I cannot look, Father," I replied, "because great flashes of lightning are springing from your eyes. Your face shines with more light than the sun and my eyes ache from the pain."

"Don't be frightened, friend of God," Father Seraphim said. "You yourself have now become as bright as I am. You are now yourself in the fullness of the Spirit of God: otherwise you would not be able to see me like this. [...] Why don't you look at me, my son? Just look, don't be afraid! The Lord is with us!"

At these words, I looked at his face and was seized with an even greater sense of trembling awe.

Imagine in the center of the sun, in the most dazzling brilliance of his noontime rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips, the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel that someone is holding his hands on your shoulders. Yet you do not see his hands or his body, but only a blinding light spreading around for several yards, illuminating with its brilliant sheen both the bank of snow covering the glade and the snowflakes that fall on me and the great Starets (elder) ...

[Seraphim continued:]

"Concerning this condition the Lord said: "There are some of them that stand here, who shall not taste death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power.' Behold, my son, you who love God, what ineffable joy the Lord God is now granting unto us! This is what is meant being in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, what is meant by St. Makarios of Egypt when he writes: "I myself was in the fullness of His Holy Spirit' ..." ( translation by Mary-Barbara Zeldin from St. Seraphim of Sarov, 93-102)


As everyone likes to say these days: "Awesome!" But truly awesome, as in awe-inspiring. For God is glorified in His saints. 

But perhaps we only need to be inspired enough to transform/transfigure our lives on the most modest of scales: to change for the better on a daily basis by putting aside sinful inclinations, petty behavior and feeding of the passions. And further, as Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes: "To renew our relationship with others through imaginative sympathy, through acts of compassion, and through cutting off of our own self-will." This would be a transfiguring experience, indeed, not only for ourselves, but for others around us. 

This comes back to the point of denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily (LK. 9:23). Then something of the glory, light, and beauty of God would enter the world - perhaps unspectacularly, but truly convincingly.



Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Transfiguration: A Feast of Theology


Dear Parish Faithful,


On August 6 we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This feast is thus embedded in the time of the Dormition Fast, but still retains all of its festal splendor. 




We celebrated the Feast this year with the Vesperal Liturgy followed by the blessing of our fruit-baskets. The service was very well-attended, and hence we experienced a festal atmosphere for the splendid commemoration of our Lord's Transfiguration. We read in the Festal Menaion:

The Transfiguration is particularly rich in essential theological themes that reveal the very heart of our Orthodox Christian Faith. These dogmatic/doctrinal themes are expressed poetically throughout the services - Vespers, Matins, Liturgy - of the Feast in an abundant variety of hymnographical forms. The troparion and kontakion of any given Feast offer a "summary" of the Feast's over-all meaning and place in God's oikonomia (divine dispensation):

Thou wast transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it. Let Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners! Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee! (Troparion)
On the mountain wast Thou transfigured, O Christ God, and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it; so that when they would behold Thee crucified, they would understand that Thy suffering was voluntary, and would proclaim to the world that Thou art truly the Radiance of the Father! (Kontakion)

Over the years and through repeated use, many of the faithful know these hymns by heart. If we listen carefully, or even study it outside of the services, the hymnography reveals very profound truths in the realm of Christology (the Person of Christ, both God and man); anthropology (the human person created in the image and likeness of God); triadology (the dogma of the Trinity); and eschatology (the Kingdom of God coming in power at the end of time).

Christology


On Mt. Tabor, when transfigured before His disciples, our Lord reveals to His disciples - and to all of us - His divine nature "hidden" in humility beneath the human nature of His flesh:

Enlightening the disciples that were with Thee, O Christ our Benefactor, Thou hast shown them upon the holy mountain the hidden and blinding light of Thy nature and of Thy divine beauty beneath the flesh.

The nature that knows no change, being mingled with the mortal nature, shone forth ineffably, unveiling in some small measure to the apostles the light of the immaterial Godhead.
(First Canon of Matins, Canticle Five)

Anthropology


Christ is fully and truly human. He is without sin. Thus, He is the "perfect" human being, by revealing to us the glory of human nature when fully united to God - something that we lost in the Fall. To be filled with the glory of God in communion with God is the true destiny of human beings and thus the true revelation of our human nature. By assuming our human nature, Christ has restored that relationship:

For having gone us, O Christ, with Thy disciples into Mount Tabor, Thou wast transfigured, and hast made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendor of Thine own divinity. (Aposticha, Great Vespers)

Thou hast put Adam on entire, O Christ, and changing the nature grown dark in past times, Thou hast filled it with glory and made it godlike by the alteration of Thy form. (First Canon of Matins, Canticle Three)

Triadology


The Three Persons of the Holy Trinity were revealed on Mount Tabor, as they were revealed in the Jordan at the time of the Lord's Baptism. On Tabor it is again the voice of the Father, and the Spirit now appears in the form of a luminous cloud. Every revelation and action of God's is trinitarian, for the Father, Son/Word and Holy Spirit act in perfect harmony revealing thus the unity of the one divine nature:

Today on Tabor in the manifestation of Thy Light, O Word, Thou unaltered Light from the Light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as Light and the Spirit as Light, guiding with light the whole creation. (Exapostilarion, Matins)

Eschatology


The Lord reveals by anticipation in His transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the glorious appearance that we await at His Second Coming. He also reveals the transfiguration of our own lowly human nature in the Kingdom of God, where the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven. Thus, this is a Feast of Hope, as well as a Feast of Divine Beauty, as we anticipate His eternal and unfading presence and our transformation in Him, also eternal and unending:

Thou wast transfigured upon Mount Tabor, showing the exchange mortal men will make with Thy glory at Thy second and fearful coming, O Savior. (Sessional Hymn, Matins)

To show plainly how, at Thy mysterious second coming, Thou wilt appear as the Most High God standing in the midst of gods, on Mount Tabor Thou hast shone in fashion past words upon the apostles and upon Moses and Elijah. (Second Canon of Matins, Canticle Nine)

We bless fruit on this Feast because all of creation awaits transfiguration at the end of time. Even the garments of Christ were shining forth with a radiance brighter than the sun. The blessed fruit represents this awaited transfiguration when the creation will be freed from bondage. The grapes themselves would be used for the eucharistic offering of wine.

The importance of the Transfiguration is shown by the fact that it is recorded in three of the Gospels: MATT. 17:1-13;MK. 9:2-8; LK. 28-36. It is also clearly alluded to in II PET. 1:16-18.

According to the Festal Menaion:

"On the day of the Feast, fish, wine, and oil are allowed, but meat and animal products are not eaten, because it is within the fast before the Dormition of the Theotokos."

Truly a splendid Feast in the life of the Church!


Monday, August 5, 2019

How is it Possible?



Dear Parish Faithful,

This evening we will celebrate the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord with a Vesperal Liturgy (6:00 p.m.). Following the Liturgy, we will bless the traditional fruit baskets. So please remember to bring them along.

The Feast is on August 6, but as we often do, we will serve the Vesperal Liturgy to allow for more parish participation. Hopefully, many of you will be here for this remarkable Feast, a Feast that reveals divine Beauty, as it reveals Truth and Goodness. Christ ascends Mt. Tabor, is transfigured in "unapproachable light," and reveals His true nature as the Son of God incarnate to His overwhelmed disciples. Christ anticipates His own resurrection and the beauty of the "world to come" that will be bathed in the eternal and uncreated light of the Triune God.

This is a Feast to look forward to. As Orthodox Christians, we are blessed with the inclusion of the Transfiguration in the annual liturgical cycle of the Twelve Great Feast Days. This is not the case in other churches, where it tends to be neglected.

But that brings to mind an interesting personal reminiscence I once heard from a parishioner. Someone once told me of how devoted her mother was to Christ, and how much she enjoyed the feast of the Transfiguration as celebrated in her church for the very reasons we make so much of it as Orthodox, even though she herself was not Orthodox. What stayed in my mind were her words - spoken with a definite sadness, I was told - when the day of the Transfiguration's celebration came around: "Today is the Transfiguration and no one cares!" How is it possible "not to care" when we can actually celebrate Jesus shining with light brighter than the sun on the mount? How is it possible "not to care" when we can carry our fruit to church to be blessed as a sign of the transfiguration of the material world in "the life of the world to come?" How is it possible "not to care" when all will be prepared for the celebration of the Feast and we simply have to bring our tired and over-heated bodies to the church for the spiritual renewal that awaits us there?

In a world brutalized by violence on a daily basis, we need to keep our vision of God and world "intact" so as not to succumb to indifference or despair. It is the vision of God and life given to us in the Church that is the source of spiritual renewal. How is it possible not to see this?

Bearing such rhetorical questions in mind, I look forward to a church full of "caring" parishioners who anticipate this "Feast of Divine Beauty" as an event not to be missed if at all possible.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Embracing the Tradition


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The meditation below was written with the current Dormition Fast (August 1-14)  in mind in addition to the incredible account of the Seven Maccabean martyrs.  It is that wonderfully-placed mid-summer reminder that we are called to be practicing Orthodox Christians.  The practicing Orthodox Christian combines orthodoxy ("right belief")  with orthopraxis ("right practice/action"). 

Or, as St. John Chrysostom said, "This is true piety: to combine right belief and right action."  Orthopraxis combines prayer and almsgiving and fasting (MATT. 6).  All of this is to prepare us to honor the most holy Theotokos.

The Maccabean Martyrs
                                                                                                                                            


Embracing the Tradition

 
On August 1, we commemorate the Seven Holy Maccabee Children, Solomone their mother, and Eleazar their teacher, all of whom were put to death in the year 168 BC.  As such, they were protomartyrs before the time of Christ and the later martyrs of the Christian era.  They died because they refused to reject the precepts of the Law when ordered to do so by the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV.  

After conquering the Holy Land, Antiochus wanted to subvert the uniqueness of the Jews and force them to assimilate to the standards and practices of the prevailing Hellenistic culture.  By attacking the precepts of the Law, Antiochus was aiming to destroy the very heart of Judaism.  The Jews would then become like the “other nations,” and perhaps their smoldering resentment against their conquerors would be extinguished.  This, of course, did not happen, because the Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabaeus, not only resisted but expelled the Hellenized Syrian invaders and restored the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory days one last time (142 - 63 BC) before the Romans under Pompey reduced the Kingdom of Israel to a conquered province.

To return to the story of the Maccabees, we find them, under the guidance of their teacher Eleazar, resisting the decree that they eat pork, which was prohibited by the Law.  Understanding that this was a threat against their entire traditional way of life, Eleazor refused and was subsequently tortured until he died.  He was simply asked to “pretend” to eat the meat, so as to encourage others to do so.  In reply, his dying words as recorded in the first book of Maccabees eloquently attest to his fidelity to the Law of God: 

"Send me quickly to my grave.  If I went through with this pretense at my time of life, many of young might believe that at the age of ninety Eleazar had turned apostate.  If I practiced deceit for the sake of a brief moment of life, I should lead them astray and bring stain and pollution on my old age. I might for the present avoid man’s punishment, but, alive or dead, I shall never escape from the hands of the Almighty. So if I now die bravely, I shall show that I have deserved my long life and leave the young a fine example to teach them how to die a good death, gladly and nobly, for our revered and holy laws."

Following the death of Eleazar, the seven Maccebee brothers and their mother Salomone were arrested.  They were also tortured for refusing to eat pork, and one of them said:  “We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers”  (2 Maccabees 7:2).  

Enraged by such pious resistance, the tyrant ordered that all seven brothers be tortured by various inhuman means.  All of this was witnessed by their mother, who watched all seven of her sons perish in a single day.  Acting “against nature,” she encouraged her children “in her native tongue” to bravely withstand the assaults on their tender flesh: 

"You appeared in my womb, I know not how; it was not I who gave you life and breath and set in order your bodily frames.  It is the Creator of the universe who molds man at his birth and plans the origin of all things. Therefore he, in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put his laws above all thought of self”  (2 Maccabees 7:22-23).  

We find in her last sentence, a clear allusion to belief in the resurrection from the dead.

Especially poignant is the death of her last and youngest son.  He was promised riches and a high position if he only agreed to “abandon his ancestral customs.”  Salomone his mother was urged to “persuade her son,” which she did in the following manner: 

“My son, take pity on me.  I carried you nine months in the womb, suckled you three years, reared you and brought you up to the present age.  I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way. Do not be afraid of this butcher; accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers, so that by God’s mercy I may receive you back again along with them”  (2 Maccabees 7:27-29). 

In verse 28, we hear the clearest declaration of the belief that God creates “ex nihilo”—from nothing—in the entire Old Testament.

The youngest of the brothers then died after both witnessing to the meaning of their martyrdom and warning the tyrant of his own inevitable fate:  

“My brothers have now fallen in loyalty to God’s covenant, after brief pain leading to eternal life; but you will pay the just penalty of your insolence by the verdict of God.  I, like my brothers, surrender my body and my life for the laws of our fathers”  (2 Maccabees 7:36-37).  

We then simply read, in verse 39, that “after her sons, the mother died.”

It is difficult to say to what extent we can actually relate to all of this today.  We may deeply respect the devotion to the Law that is exhibited in this moving story of multiple matyrdoms—and perhaps be especially moved by the beautiful words of the mother that express our own belief in the creative power of God, His providential care for us and the ultimate gift of resurrection and eternal life with God—but this is far-removed from our contemporary Christian sensibilities.  In fact, such devotion today could very well strike us as being overly zealous, if not fanatical.  The prospects of such martyrdoms are not exactly on our radar screens.  Be that as it may, I believe that we have something greater than mere passing importance that we can learn from this ancient story.
 
 ____________
 
"There are no official decrees that demand that we abandon our Faith.  But there is a never-ending drone that 'pollutes' the atmosphere with the seductions of a Godless way of life, precisely because of how pleasingly it is presented."
____________
 
Today, August 1, we are beginning the Dormition Fast.  We are encouraged by the Church—our “Mother” we could say—to embrace the fast with the certainty that we are being guided into a practice that is designed to strengthen our spiritual well-being. This is part of an Orthodox “way of life” that has been witnessed to for centuries by the faithful of the Church.  We also could say that such practices belong to the “laws of our fathers.”  By embracing such practices we continue in the Tradition that has been handed down to us, the Tradition that we have “received.”  To ignore such practices is to break with that Tradition.  That can lead to an erosion of our self-identity as Orthodox Christians, especially considering our “minority status” in the landscape of American religion.  

The spirit of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes is alive and well in the constant temptation we face to assimilate to the surrounding society and its mores, which are often reduced to finding the meaning of life in “eating, drinking and making merry.”  There are no official decrees that demand that we abandon our Faith.  But there is a never-ending drone that “pollutes” the atmosphere with the seductions of a Godless way of life, precisely because of how pleasingly it is presented.  In other words, a dear price is paid for the comforts of conformity.

We are hardly being asked to be martyrs but we are being asked to manifest some restraint and discipline in order to strengthen our inner lives as we fast bodily to some extent.  If we convince ourselves that this is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or undesirable, then we place ourselves outside of the very received Tradition we claim to follow and respect.  

Older members of the community can bear in mind the words of Eleazar and realize that we are setting an example for our younger members.  We are responsible for preparing the next generation.  Mothers—and fathers!—can exhort their children in a way that is encouraging and not just demanding.  This has nothing to do with mere “legalism,” but with a “way of life” that has been practiced for centuries by Orthodox Christians, and which is just as meaningful today as in the past.  

And, as with the Seven Maccabee Children, it is ultimately a matter of choice.
 
 
 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Dormition Fast: A Challenge and a Choice



Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


On Thursday, August 1, we will begin the relatively short Dormition Fast that always covers the first two weeks of August (1-14), culminating in the Feast of the Dormition on August 15. In recognition of the beginning of the Fast, we will serve Vespers this evening at 7:00 p.m.





We will celebrate the Feast with a Vesperal Liturgy on Wednesday evening, August 14. As has become our tradition, we will place the tomb in the center of the church, decorate it with flowers, venerate the icon of the blessed repose of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God – Miriam of Nazareth - and sing hymns of praise to her “translation” into the Kingdom of Heaven. Not a celebration to be missed! Please mark your calendars and prepare to be present for this beautiful Feast. 

Every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice. In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.” We can choose convenience, because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly inconvenient. It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial, and an over-all concerted effort. It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summertime) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance. To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance. So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church. I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of further growth in our life “in Christ.” It may rather mean a missed opportunity. 

Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.” Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful. It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ” which we have as a gift within the life of the Church. 

That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes. I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes. (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes). It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.

My opinion and observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree. We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals. And those plans and goals may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present way of life. It is hard to prevail in the never-ending “battle of the calendars.” The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church. In fact, it is usually quite indifferent and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment. 

Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us. But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired. That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our lives. In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding - to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today! 

I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience. We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy. With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls. We can lift up our “drooping hands” in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving. 

The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death; or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Dormition Fast is our spiritually-vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration.“Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!” (II COR. 6:2)
 
 
 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Reading the Holy Fathers - A Pastoral Challenge


Dear Parish Faithful,

Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils

Today let us praise the mystical trumpets of the Spirit,
the God-bearing Fathers,
who stand in the midst of the Church, singing true theology,
praising the changeless Trinity!

(Vespers of the Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils)

On the Sunday between July 13-19, we annually commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils. So, for us this year, that was yesterday, July 14. I incorporated that commemoration into my homily, if only briefly yesterday. I have thus provided two links that will both provide excellent background material about the "Holy Fathers" and some of the history and theology behind the first six Ecumenical Councils. The first is the posting on the OCA's official webpage; and the second is from Fr. Thomas Hopko's four volume The Orthodox Faith. I would highly recommend spending some time with these sources, especially if your knowledge of either is not that strong. These Councils and the great Fathers of the Church are at the heart of Orthodoxy. If you are acquainted with the Founding Fathers of America, you need to be equally - if not more - acquainted with the Founding Fathers of the Church. They wrote, not of politics, but of the Gospel and eternal life.


Fr. Hopko:


I closed my homily yesterday with a practical/pastoral proposal, perhaps even something of a challenge: To make a commitment that before the year is over - more than a five month period! - to read at least one work of one of the Holy Fathers of the Church.  
 
I am confident that this will be a great discovery for you. The writings of the Fathers are actually quite accessible. Often enough, they write with clarity and a deep faith that enlightens and inspires. The Fathers are not dry, academic scholars writing for their academic peers. They are pastors writing for the strengthening of the faith of the members of the Body of Christ. They employ the language of the Scriptures and some other theological language, but it is never the heavy jargon that you may encounter elsewhere today in theological circles. Be that as it may, that is for you to discover when you choose and begin your work. 

A tremendous resource for these writings  is the Popular Patristic Series which has been an ongoing publishing enterprise of SVS Press for decades now. (The term "Patristics" means the "Fathers"). These are translation into English from the original Greek, Latin and Syriac. There are probably over fifty volumes now available, including most of the great classics of patristic literature. I am providing the link to the SVS Press page that will allow you browse these titles:  https://www.svspress.com/categories/Popular-Patristics-Series/
 
A particular title may immediately grab your attention. If you would like some assistance in choosing a title that may be the most suitable for you, please contact me, and I will try and offer some helpful advice. 
 
For the moment, I am going to include in this mailing a kind of "Top Ten" from this series of Patristic literature. These ten will be of the most popular, widely-read, and influential works from the Holy Fathers that have shaped our theology, liturgy and spirituality for centuries down to the present.

  • The Seven Letters  by St. Ignatius of Antioch (+ c. 110) One of the first major writings after the New Testament period. The three major themes in these Letters are: 1) the hierarchy of the Church; 2) the Eucharist; 3) Martyrdom.
  • On the Apostolic Preaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (+ c. 200 ) A wonderful summary of the divine economy from Creation to Christ.
  • On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great (+ 373) One of the classics about the Word becoming flesh.
  • On the Holy Spirit by St. Basil the Great (+379) Another remarkable treatise demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit based on the Scriptures.
  • On God and Christ, Five Theological Orations by St. Gregory the Theologian (+390) A bit advanced, but probably the most influential treatises on the Trinity ever written.
  • Festal Orations by St. Gregory the Theologian. Tremendous collection of homilies by St. Gregory from Nativity to Pascha.
  • Lectures on the Christian Sacraments by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+ c. 370) How did the Christians of the 4th c. celebrate Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist? These treatises explain this very well.
  • On Wealth and Poverty by St. John Chrysostom (+ 407) St. John's famous homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
  • On Marriage and Family Life by St. John Chrysostom. Very practical advise for husbands and wives, their mutual relationship and the raising of children based on certain scriptural texts. Surprisingly contemporary considering when St. John lived.
  • Three Treatises on the Divine Images by St. John of Damascus (+749) Great scriptural defense of the icons within the Iconoclastic Controversy. 

An endless stream of deep Christian wisdom!