Monday, October 17, 2016

Vespers and the Fulfillment of Time

Dear Parish Faithful,

I understand that our Church School studied the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple in their respective classes yesterday.  To remind everyone, the Church School curriculum this year is "The Life of Christ."  They have already covered the Lord's Nativity, so the Meeting of the Lord (LK. 2) follows chronologically.  They are well ahead of the liturgical cycle! 

Some of the younger children colored an icon of the Meeting of the Lord. The Righteous Symeon, one of the key figures found and described by St. Luke the Evangelist in his Gospel is, of course, in that icon. One of the most beautiful hymns in the Scriptures was uttered by St. Symeon when he behold and then held the Christ Child in his arms. 

Often, this hymn is referred by the Latin of its opening words - Nunc Dimittis. We all know that hymn by heart as it is invariably sung or chanted at every single Vespers service - Daily, Great or Festal. But we can include it hear to help us focus on the power of its words:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,
   according to Thy word;
for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation
   which Thou hast prepared before the face of Thy people.
a light to enlighten the Gentiles
   and the glory of Thy people Israel.
  (Lk. 2:29-32)

I bring this to our attention because I spoke of this hymn in the homily yesterday in the context of pointing out the theological structure of the Vespers service. 

This first of the services of our daily liturgical cycle has a profound theological structure to it that embraces and expresses the four essential components of an Orthodox Christian world view. And these are: 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) Redemption; and 4)  Kingdom. 

I would like to write about this in more detail in the future; but for the moment, I will simply point out that St. Symeon's Hymn points us toward the Kingdom which is to come, and which he speaks confidently about entering having - by the grace of the Holy Spirit - recognized the Messiah in the little Child cradled in his arms.  St. Symeon thus believes that he can now "depart" - that is, die - "in peace," with that inner certainty that he will now be held within the embrace of God. 

Thus, this hymn is eschatological in its orientation, pointing us toward the End, which is the beginning of life in God's eternal Kingdom. With his usual eloquence, Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes the experience of St. Symeon as follows:

Symeon ... stood for the whole world in its expectation and longing, and the words he used to express his thanksgiving have become our own.... He had beheld the One he had longed for. He had completed his purpose in life, and he was ready to die. 

But death to him was no catastrophe. It was only a natural expression of the fulfillment of his waiting.  He was not closing his eyes to the light he had at last seen; his death was only the beginning of more inward vision of that light. 
In the same way Vespers is the recognition that the evening of this world has come, which announces that Day that has no evening. In this world, every day faces night; the world itself is facing night. It cannot last forever.
Yet the Church is affirming that an evening is not only an end, but also a beginning, just as the evening is also the beginning of another day.  In Christ and through Christ it may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening...
We come into the presence of Christ to offer Him our time, we extend our arms to receive Him.  And He fills this time with Himself.  He heals it  and makes it - again and again - the time of salvation.  (For the Life of the World, p. 44-45)

A wonderful vision by which we end one day and begin another in the grace-filled life of the Church.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Wisdom of the Divine Philosophers - Volume Two

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I thought I would share this book promotion that I just received.  This is Volume Two of a series that I have turned to before for some great insights into the "spiritual life" that we find among the great saints of the Church. That is their specialty!  

I like to occasionally send these out to everyone so that we can collectively listen carefully to this "wisdom of the divine philosophers."  Perhaps you remember or saved some of the gems from Volume One. 

And again, these "philosophers" are not Heraclitus, Pythagaros, Socrates or Plato.  They are the great teachers of the Church - the ones we call the Holy Fathers & Mothers - from ancient times or of more recent times.

The promotion below offers an excellent sampling of what may be found in this Volume Two.  Please read them carefully. These are the types of sayings that invite meditation and reflection. Even that deep "pondering" that allows us to unpack what on the surface seems like a short and pithy insight.  

I am particularly drawn to the practical wisdom conveyed below by the Elder Joseph the Hesychast ( a 20th c. saint, by the way) on the issue  of "anger management."  Just think how much grief we could save ourselves and those around us by "attending" to his advice!  

The saying of St. John Climacus is deeply profound.  He understands the cause of our fear of death; yet takes us beyond that into the realm of judgment, making a real distinction between a natural fear of death" and the "terror of death." The other sayings below may have other forms of appeal.

You may even desire to purchase the book! 

That is St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833) on the cover. He once said, somewhat enigmatically:

"Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved."


Volume Two of Wisdom of the Divine Philosophers features spiritual counsels from our Orthodox saints and elders that are categorized under 67 topics. They will provide you with a wealth of wisdom to help guide you on the path to salvation.

$13.95 plus $2.00 shipping

Order online at
Or Call: 412-736-7840


On Humility:

In the mercy of God, the little thing done with humility will enable us to be found in the same place as the saints who have labored much and been true servants of God.

~ St. Dorotheus of Gaza

We should try to have good thoughts which will radiate from us. A meek and humble person is always very pleasant to be with, for he emanates peace and warmth. That person may not say a single word, yet we rejoice to be in his presence.

~ Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica †

On Worry:

If the head of a family is burdened with cares and worries about the future of his family, he will have no peace. All the members of the family will feel his unrest. They will know that something is wrong, but they will not know exactly what. We can see how much our thoughts influence others. Misunderstandings in the family also happen because of our thoughts.

~ Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica †

On Anger:

Never correct someone with anger, but only with humility and sincere love. When you see anger ahead, forget about correcting for a moment. When peace has returned, then your powers of discernment are functioning properly and then you can speak beneficially. Since man was created rational and gentle, his is corrected far better with love and gentleness. An angry and irritable man is not accepted into the Kingdom of God even if he raises the dead. Therefore, suppress anger with all of your might, and you will find it weaker the next time.

~ Elder Joseph the Hesychast †

On Repentance:

This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.

~ St. Isaac the Syrian

Fear of death is a property of nature due to disobedience, but terror of death is a sign of unrepented sins.

~ St. John Climacus

On the Soul:

If human beings...could see their inner ugliness, they would not pursue external beauty. When our souls have so many stains—so many smudges—are we going to be concerned, for instance, about our clothes? We wash our clothes, we even iron them and we are clean outside; while inside—well, do not ask!

~ St. Paisios the Athonite

On Prayer:

Whatever we do without prayer and without hope in God turns out afterwards to be harmful and defective.

~ St. Mark the Ascetic

Always let the remembrance of death and the Prayer of Jesus, being of single phrase, go to sleep with you and get up with you; for you will find nothing to equal these aids during sleep.

~ St. John Climacus

On Evil:

Those who have realized how dangerous and evil is the life they lead, the devil succeeds in keeping in his power mainly by the following simple, but all powerful suggestion, “Later, later; tomorrow, tomorrow.”

~ St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite
Phone:  (412) 736-7840

Friday, October 7, 2016

Let Us Attend!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Take heed then to how you hear."  (LK. 18:18)
Make sure that you never refuse to listen when He speaks."  (HEB. 12:25)

We are blessed with hearing the Scriptures at every Divine Liturgy, be it the Lord's Day or any other day on which the Liturgy is celebrated. Therefore, we will hear at least one reading from an Epistle and one from a Gospel.  When the calendar so designates it, there may be two readings.  When there exists a complicated convergence of feast days and commemorations, there are even Liturgies at which there may be as many as three prescribed readings! 

The readings from the Scriptures are the culminating moments of the first part of the Liturgy, referred to as the "Liturgy of the Word," or "The Liturgy of the Catechumens."  Before we commune with Christ in the Eucharist, we commune with Him through the inspired words of the Holy Scriptures - the words of the Word.  This is the public proclamation of the Word of God, meant to complement each believer's personal or "domestic" reading of the Scriptures. 

Just as we pray both liturgically and personally; so we hear/read the Scriptures both liturgically and personally.  Each is essential to support and make the other meaningful.  To ignore one or the other is to impoverish our relationship with Christ.

By the presence of the Spirit, our minds are open to the full meaning of the sacred texts that we hear. This was revealed to all Christians of all generations on the Road to Emmaus, when the Risen Lord encountered Cleopas and an unknown disciple:  "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (LK. 24:27).

Following this encounter and the "breaking of the bread," during which these disciples recognized the Risen Lord, "They said to each other, 'Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures'?"  (LK. 24:32). 

Christ speaks to us today through the reading of the Scriptures, thus making it possible for us today to experience the identical "burning of heart" when we, too, make the time to read the Scriptures. As Fr. John Behr succinctly said: "In the Church, we are still on the road to Emmaus."

Due to the great importance of the liturgical proclamation of the Scriptures, these readings are prefaced by a dialogue between the celebrant, the designated reader and the gathered faithful.  I will concentrate here on the liturgical reading from the Gospel, aware that the preparation for the Epistle also has its own solemn and very similar introduction.  Before the reading from the Gospel, we thus always hear:

Priest or Deacon:  Wisdom! Let us stand aright.  Let us listen to the Holy Gospel.

Bishop or Priest:  Peace be unto all.

Choir:  And to your spirit.

Priest or Deacon:  The reading from the Holy Gospel according to Saint _____.

Choir:  Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee.

Priest:  Let us attend!

This solemn dialogue both reveals to us that we are about to do something of great importance:  proclaim the living Word of God amidst the assembled believers - clergy and laity alike. And this prefatory dialogue is therefore meant to get our attention. 

In fact, the final words before the actual reading are:  "Let us attend!"  In some translations, it may be:  "Let us be attentive!"  In simple English it could be:  "Pay attention!"

Right before this we are first directed to "stand aright."  This is lost in some translations, which twice read "Let us attend," as a translation of two different Gk. words in this dialogue. When we hear "Let us attend" for the first time, this is actually "Let us stand aright," based on the Gk. command "Orthi" which means more-or-less literally "stand aright."  The second "Let us attend!" is based on the Gk. word proskhomen.

The point is that standing at attention is a potentially better bodily posture than sitting for the gathering of our (scattered?) thoughts, as well as simply a bodily posture that expresses greater respect for listening to the Lord teaching us through the words of the Gospel. Strange as it may sound to us, there is something of the soldier standing at solemn attention as he is about to hear his "orders" that must be faithfully fulfilled.  This is an image that is found often in Christian antiquity. 

In our Liturgy today, it is a time when there should be no movement in the church, and nothing to distract us from hearing the Gospel with an attentiveness that expresses our love of the Gospel as the "precious pearl" worth more than anything else. An outer silence in the church will hopefully facilitate an inner stillness within our minds and hearts that honors the Gospel reading as the sharing of the "words of eternal life" on our behalf.

As a possible "test" to measure our actual attentiveness at a given Liturgy, we can ask ourselves later in the day - or perhaps even during the week! - what was the Gospel reading that I heard earlier in the Liturgy? 

An attentive listening of the Gospel would mean that we can identify the evangelist and, even more importantly, the prescribed text for the day.  And the same should hold true for the Epistle reading.  "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" 

If our ultimate goal is to live out the teachings of the Gospel beyond the initial hearing of the Gospel, then our awareness of the text, accompanied by a "burning of heart" will allow us to meditate upon a given passage with the goal in mind of actualizing the teaching heard in our daily lives.  How would any of this be possible if we forget the Gospel reading once we leave the church? (The homily is meant to support that process - but that may or may not happen!).

If we forget the Gospel reading, that means that we may have "attended" church, but that we were not "attentive" in church. To "be" there cannot be reduced to our bodily presence.

To further emphasize the great significance of the Gospel reading at the Liturgy, there is a wonderful prayer said by the celebrant before we actually get to the dialogue outlined and commented on above.  This prayer is placed immediately after the final alleluia verse following the Epistle reading.  And it prepares us for the ensuing dialogue. 

For this reason alone it is my humble opinion that this "prayer before the Gospel" must be chanted/read aloud by the celebrant of the Liturgy - the bishop or priest. That is the practice in our parish. Why should a prayer that embraces everyone present be read "silently" by the clergy alone?  

Though we have heard this prayer countless times, perhaps bringing it to mind here will be helpful.  For the attentive reader of the Scriptures, there are various scriptural passages that are gathered together, alluded to, or paraphrased in this prayer, a few of which will be pointed out:

Illumine our hearts (II COR. 4:6), O Master who lovest mankind, with the pure light (REV. 21:23-25) of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind (EPH. 1:18; LK. 24:45) to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down carnal desires (II PET. 2:10), we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living (I COR. 2:12), both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee (PHIL. 2:13). For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Obviously, a good deal is made of the Gospel Reading at each and every Liturgy. This is because the Gospel is "Good News" to be attentively listened to and obeyed. Familiarity may dull our appreciation of this, but we must always struggle against familiarity leading to spiritual laziness or inattentiveness.  When (over-) familiarity turns to boredom then we are facing a spiritual crisis of sorts.

Putting aside any such temptation, let us acknowledge how privileged and blessed we are to "stand aright" in church at the Liturgy and to hear the Holy Gospel.  "Let us attend!"

Monday, October 3, 2016

Cycles of the Orthodox Calendar (and why they matter)

Dear Parish Faithful,

I just received this notice from our former parishioner Nicole Roccas:

I wanted to pass this along to you, you may want to share it with people. It's an infographic I made about the cycles of the Orthodox year. It basically explains some of the early history of our calendar, and why this is beneficial for our faith. It's something I worked on over the summer.

Some of you may remember Nicole better by her maiden name of Lyon.  Nicole was part of our parish before marrying her husband Basil and moving to Toronto, Canada. (Nicole and Basil were first "betrothed" here in our parish, before their "crowning" in Toronto).  Nicole's first encounter with the Orthodox Church was in our parish, when she attended a Lenten retreat with Fr. Thomas Hopko as our guest speaker. Following that Retreat, she became an enthusiastic inquirer, and was eventually catechized and chrismated in our parish. There is more information about Nicole and her current work at her blog reached by the link below.

Her infographic is both fascinating and highly informative.  Please give it your attention, as it will prove to illuminate our liturgical year for you.  You are all familiar with my phrase "the battle of the calendars."  Here, then, is an excellent introduction to the Church calendar, a good balance if you are more familiar with the secular calendar.  The calendar is about time - we can almost say about the "mystery of time" - and how time is both "redeemed" and "sanctified" in the Church.  Thus, the Church calendar is not simply a succession of dates and commemorations, but a profound revelation of the meaning of time as it is now directed toward the Kingdom of God.

Cycles of the Orthodox calendar (and why they matter)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Delighting in God’s creation!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ.

I understand that today at 10:21 A.M.  EDT the Fall season will begin. From my personal—and, admittedly, “subjective”—perspective, there is nothing quite like the fall among the four seasons.  For me, one of this season’s greatest attraction is found in the flaming red, orange, yellow and golden leaves that transform familiar trees into a series of neighborhood “burning bushes,” each one seemingly brighter than the other.  When combined with a piercing blue sky on a sunlit day and a certain crispness in the air, I find myself more vividly aware of the surrounding world and thankful for God’s creation. 

On a somewhat more “philosophical note”—more apt to emerge, perhaps, on an overcast, windswept day—we may realize that this “colorful death” signals the fleeting nature of everything beautiful in this world, “for the form of this world is passing away” [1 Corinthians 7:31].  And yet this very beauty, and the sense of yearning that accompanies it, is a sign of the beauty ineffable of the coming Kingdom of God.

Growing up on a typical city block in Detroit, I distinctly recall a neighborhood “ritual” that marked this particular season:  the raking and burning of leaves that went on up and down the entire block once most of the leaves had spiraled and floated to the ground.  Everyone on the block raked the leaves down toward the street and into neatly formed mounds of color that rested alongside the curb.  Then they were lit and the task of raking now became that of tending and overseeing the piles of burning leaves.  This usually occurred after dinner for most families, but one could still see the shimmering waves of heat that protected one from the early evening chill and the ascending ashes rushing upward.  

Please momentarily forgive my politically incorrect indifference to the environment, but I thoroughly enjoyed those small bonfires near the curb as the pungent smell of burning leaves filled the air.  This unmistakable smell would, as I recall, linger in the air for a couple of weeks or more as different neighbors got to the task at different times. (“Playing with matches” and the simple fascination with fire was, of course, an added attraction for a young and curious boy.)

The entire scene embodied the wholesomeness of a 50’s first-grade reading primer, as “Mom” and “Dad,” together with “Dick” and “Jane” (and perhaps “Spot,” the frisky family dog) smilingly cooperated in this joint, familial enterprise.  The reading primer would reformulate this “celebration” of healthy work and a neatly ordered environment into a staccato of minimally complex sentences:  “See Dad rake;” “Dick and Jane are raking too;” “Here comes mom!”  (“Mom,” of course, would invariably be wearing a pretty dress, and “Jane” a skirt, during this outdoor activity).  This all served to increase the budding student’s vocabulary while reinforcing a picture of an idealized—if not idyllic—American way of life.  

Since my parents were peasants from a Macedonian village, we never quite fit into that particular mode—especially when my mother would speak to me in Macedonian in front of my friends!  And yet I distinctly remember teaching my illiterate mother to read from those very “Dick and Jane” primers so that she could obtain her American citizenship papers, which she proudly accomplished in due time.

Before getting too nostalgic, however, I will remind you that all of this, for me at least, was taking place at the height of Cold War anxiety and another clear memory from my youth:  the air-raid drills in our schools that were meant to prepare us and protect us from a Soviet nuclear strike.  (Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding exhibition at the United Nations, together with his ominous “We will bury you!” captured the whole mood of this period.) These carefully-executed air-raid drills were carried out with due solemnity and seriousness—lines straight and no talking allowed!  We would wind our way down into a fairly elaborate—if not labyrinthine—series of basement levels that were seemingly constructed, and thus burdened, with the hopeless task of saving us from nuclear bombs!  We would then sit in neatly formed rows monitored by our teachers, and apparently oblivious to the real dangers of the Cold War world, until the “all clear” signal was given, allowing us to file back to our classrooms.  Thus did the specter of the mushroom cloud darken the sunny skies of “Dick” and “Jane’s” age of innocence.

I must acknowledge that my short nostalgic digression does not offer a great deal for reflection.  So as not to entirely frustrate that purpose—and because I began with some brief reflections on the created world—I would like to offer some of the wonderful praises of the beauty of the world around us from the remarkable Akathistos Hymn, “Glory to God for All Things.”  

This hymn, which has become quite popular in many Orthodox parishes, was said to have been composed by an Orthodox priest when he was slowly perishing in a Soviet prison camp in 1940.  In unscientific, yet theological-poetic imagery, he reminds us of what we are often blind to:  God’s glorious creation.  Would he have “missed” all of this if his life was as free as ours are to be preoccupied with daily concerns and cares that leave no time or room to look around in wonder?

“O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest.  Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds.  All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness.  Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love.  Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever.  In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry:  Alleluia!” [Kontakion 2].

“You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise.  We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing.  We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams.  We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey.  We can live very well on Your earth.  It is a pleasure to be Your guest” [Ikos 2].

“I see Your heavens resplendent with stars.  How glorious You are, radiant with light!  Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars.  I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side.  Your right arm guides me wherever I go” [Ikos 5].

Brings to mind Dostoevsky’s enigmatic phrase:  “Beauty will save the world.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

'People of the Cross'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

For, behold, through the Cross, joy has come into the world.

Whenever we openly commemorate and actually venerate the Cross of the Lord, we have the opportunity to dispel a certain characterization of the Orthodox Church that if allowed to linger unanswered can become something of a caricature.  And that is simply the claim that the Orthodox Church stresses the Resurrection of Christ at the expense of the Cross.  This implies that the Orthodox Church – or we could say the Christian East – has no real “theology of the Cross.”  

For the sake of brevity and  simplicity, I would simply like to point out just how pervasive the presence of the Cross of Christ is in the liturgical life of the Church, thus making that presence so real in our ecclesial and personal lives, that if only unconsciously, the Cross is embedded in our minds and hearts.

Speaking of convenient clich├ęs, there are many who like to characterize each Lord’s Day – Sunday – as a “little Pascha.”  For on each and every Sunday, we proclaim the Resurrection of Christ as we do on Pascha itself.  Sunday, therefore, is a weekly extension of the paschal joy of the Resurrection.  The hymns of the Liturgy are imbued with the power of the Resurrection:

“Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless One…”

Yet, based on this same pattern, we could say that every Friday is a “little Great and Holy Friday,” another extension of that most solemn of days – the Day of the Cross - as we commemorate the Cross on Friday as we commemorate the Resurrection on Sunday.  It is for this reason that Friday is a day of fasting in the Church, as a way of keeping the Cross in mind as we practice some self-denial.  And not only Friday on a weekly basis.  On Wednesday, we also commemorate the Cross of the Lord and His Mother at the foot of the Cross:

O long-suffering Lord, when Your Mother saw You nailed to the Cross, she poured forth streams of tears because of You.  Completely overcome by Your surpassing goodness and by Your compassion for the human race, she began to sing the praise of Your infinite power!  (Aposticha, Vespers for Wednesday, Tone 8)

For this reason each Wednesday is also a day of fasting.

In addition to the present Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we liturgically venerate the Cross precisely at the midpoint of Great Lent, on the Third Sunday, in order to set our minds forward to the Passion of the Lord. There is also the Procession of the Lifegiving Cross on August 1, as a way of inaugurating the two-week Dormition Fast. Often, a cross is carried in various liturgical processions – usually at the head of such a procession – and many churches will have a large Cross present for contemplation and veneration.

At the very end of the Liturgy, the faithful come forward to kiss the Cross held by either the bishop or priest.  That is basically our last liturgical gesture before we “depart in peace.”  And, of course, all (Orthodox) Christians wear a cross.  This, however, can be problematic if we fail to heed the words of Christ Himself.

For the Lord taught us that “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Mark 8:34].  These words challenge us to never be content with being passive observers of the Cross, but instead to become active participants in the life of self-denial and co-suffering love that are implied in taking up the Cross.  This further means that by our very vocation as Christians, we are “cross-bearers” and not simply “cross-wearers.”  It is one thing to wear a cross, and another thing to bear a cross.

Of course it is a good thing that Christians do wear crosses.  This is something of an identity badge that reveals that we are indeed Christians, but this worn cross is certainly not another piece of jewelry—Byzantine, three-barred, Celtic or Ethiopian! 

By wearing a cross we are saying in effect,

“I am a Christian, and therefore I belong to the Crucified One, Who is none other than the ‘Lord and Master of my life.’ My ultimate allegiance is to Him, and to no other person or party. With the Apostle Paul, I also confess, ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith'...” [Romans 1:16].

Such a confession already takes us far beyond passively being a “cross-wearer” to actively becoming a “cross-bearer.”

Dying to sin in Baptism makes the impossible possible.  And with a faith in Christ that is hopefully ever-deepening in maturity, we can further exclaim with the great Apostle, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” [Galatians 5:24].

I am hoping that these few points make it quite clear that to claim that the Orthodox Church under-values the Cross simply does not hold up to even superficial observation.  As for the deeper levels of the meaning of the Cross – a “theology of the Cross” – we can only here once again refer to some of our theologically-expressive and beautiful liturgical hymns:

"Who without change didst become man and was crucified, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit:  O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!" ('Only Begotten Son' – Second Antiphon)

"For enduring the Cross for us, He has destroyed death by death..." (Hymn of the Resurrection, following Holy Communion)

Orthodox Christians are people of the Cross “for, behold, through the Cross joy has come into the world."

 + + +

 "Before Thy Cross . . ."

Magnify, O my soul, the most precious Cross of the Lord.
You are the mystical Paradise, O Theotokos, in which Christ blossomed; through Him the life-bearing Wood of the Cross was planted on earth.
Now at its Elevation, as we bow in worship before it, we magnify you.

—Hymn to the Theotokos for the Elevation of the Cross.

The link provided here is to a fairly detailed article on Wikipedia (there are, of course, different assessments of this source) that provides a history of the "true Cross" of the Lord from its discovery in the 4th c. to some of the scattered allusions to its ultimate fate in sources both Western and Eastern. What is of interest, is that the various Churches that have established a feast day of the Cross have agreed upon September 14 as the prime date, again both East and West.

The Leavetaking of the Feast is on September 21.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

'Wood is healed by Wood!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross raises a myriad of themes—Biblical, historical, theological, etc.—upon which to meditate.  One such theme is what we call a typological reading of the Scriptures.  This is a profound way of discovering the inner connection between persons, events, and places of the Old Testament—what we would call “types”—with their fulfillment as “antitypes” in the New Testament.  Thus, Adam is a type of which Christ—the last Adam—is the antitype:  “Adam… was the type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14).

Through typology, we learn that the Old Testament can now be read as anticipating the Person of Christ and the saving events recorded in the New Testament, without undermining the integrity of the historical path of ancient Israel as the People of God, entrusted by God with a messianic destiny.  

One such typological application is expressed in an intriguing and paradoxical manner through one of the hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.  As we sing in one of the verses from the festal Great Vespers, 

"For it is fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the suffering of him who was condemned because of wood.”

What a truly wonderful phrase:  “wood should be healed by wood!”  Yet, what is this “wood” to which the hymn refers?  How does wood “heal” wood?  

In both instances, the wood is clearly the wood of two trees—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as found in Genesis 2, and the wood of the Tree of the Cross.  In disobedience to the command of God, the man and woman of Genesis 2—Adam and Eve—ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  This was the one tree, the fruit of which it was not safe for them to eat: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).

The freedom and self-determination of the first man and woman were tested by this divine commandment.  In a celebrated interpretation of this passage, Saint Gregory the Theologian (+395) draws out the meaning of this command and its consequences.  

“[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on,” he writes. 
“This law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of and which one he might not touch.  This latter was the tree of knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us—let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction or imitate the serpent.  But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time. 
"The tree was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy, just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk”  (Second Oration on Easter, 8).

Saint Athanasius the Great (+373) express this in similar terms.  

“Knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation God secured the grace given to them by a command and by the place where He put them.  For He brought them into His own garden and gave them a law so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven. 
"But if they transgressed and turned back and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death that was theirs by nature,  no longer to live in paradise but cast out of it from that time forth to die and abide in death and corruption”  (On The Incarnation, 3.4).

The theme of the initial innocence of Adam and Eve—their lack of maturity and their need for spiritual growth and maturation—was quite characteristic of the Church Fathers, being found as early as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (+c. 200).  “Therefore, the ‘wood’ of this tree proved to be death-dealing, not because God made it such ‘in the beginning,’ but because it was partaken of in a forbidden manner and not ‘at the proper time,’” he wrote.  Nothing created by God is evil by nature; rather, all is “very good.”  But misdirected free will can pervert the good into something that is evil.  The gift of the promise of deification is a God-sourced gift, not a self-sourced gift.

On the other hand, the Tree of the Cross is precisely the wood through which the first disobedience was undone by the One Who died on it in obedience to the will of the Father.  The Tree of Life that was in the Garden was the actual “type” of the Tree of the Cross on Golgotha.  The last Adam—Christ—healed us of the sin of the first Adam.  (As early as Saint Justin the Martyr, it was taught that the Virgin Mary was the “new Eve” also because of her obedience to the Word of God).  

The Cross is therefore “the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass.  For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam is by the Cross himself deceived, and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity is overthrown in headlong fall” (Sticheron, Great Vespers).

According to a pious tradition, the place of the skull—Golgotha—is the place where Adam was buried when he died.  The blood that flowed from Christ “baptized” that skull as symbolic of the sons of Adam (and Eve) being given renewed and eternal life by the blood shed by Christ on the Cross—the Tree of Life.  As we sing in one of the Litiya hymns for the feast, “The Tree of true life was planted in the place of the skull, and upon it hast Thou, the eternal King, worked salvation in the midst of the earth.  Exalted today, it sanctifies the ends of the world.”  (We might note here that it is in this light that in icons of the crucifixion, we generally see the Cross of Christ “planted” on the skull of Adam, with an inscription that reads “the Grave of Adam.”)

“Wood is healed by Wood!”  This is the good news revealed in the typological interpretation found in the liturgical hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, together with the biblical exegesis of the Church Fathers.  This is why we honor and venerate the Cross by literally bowing down before it in adoration.  

The Cross was at the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel, a instrument of shame in the ancient world.  But this did not deter the Apostle Paul from proclaiming that Gospel is the power of God:

“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).  

And we also cannot be “ashamed” of the Tree of the Cross through which “joy has come into the world.”