Monday, January 14, 2008

The Sign

Dear Parish Faithful,

I am beginning a new semester at Xavier University today later in the afternoon. I enjoy teaching very much, especially the interaction with the students as I learn what their concerns are, how they view the Christian Faith, and what types of questions they have about God and life in general. It also keeps my mind "sharp," or so I like to believe, by reading new books or rereading old ones; or further refining and fine-tuning my presentation of Orthodoxy to an almost exclusively non-Orthodox group of young people. That is the exciting challenge. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church continues to remain a well-kept secret, so I am always beginning from scratch, so to speak! (Today's average student, alas, is terribly ignorant of some of the basic truths of Christianity, regardless of his/her respective church - a downward spiral that I have noticed over the years as this condition continues to worsen). A fair share of my students admit to me that they have grown up with hardly a trace of religious belief in their lives. This tells me that we are dealing more and more with an unchurched society. We need to present the Gospel from its most basic perspective as "Good News" about an abundance of life that bursts through the secular constraints of a godless universe.

Be that as it may, I have chosen a new book for this semester entitled: The Sign of the Cross - the Gesture, the Mystery, the History by Andreas Andreopolous (we can safely assume that he is Greek Orthodox). Over the years, I am asked about the history of the sign of the Cross: just where did it come from and how old is this practice. And this is a question that I have never been able to get a handle on. In reading the first chapters of Andreopoulos' book, I realize why this is so - it is a complicated but fascinating history that one must piece together somewhat painstakingly. On an upcoming Sunday I will try and relate some of that history during a post-Liturgy discussion. One thing we can be assured of, however, is the antiquity of the gesture of the sign of the Cross - in many early sources referred to simply as the "sign." For the present, though, here is a good summary paragraph that is developed in great detail in the relevant chapter about the history of the sign of the Cross:

No conclusive evidence points to a date or place for adopting the cross as a symbol, although possibly the cross was already in use during apostolic times. We see traces of the symbol appearing in the second century, in the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus of Lyons. Eventually adopted as a symbol of historic, spiritual, and liturgical significance, the cross came into use as Christianity grew and matured. Theologians explored the mystery of the death of Jesus Christ, remembering the actual cross on which he died. Then suddenly, in the fourth century, the cross became an established symbol. (p. 7)

Historical questions about the origin of beliefs and practices are endlessly fascinating. However, my primary purpose this morning is to share a wonderful and beautiful passage with you from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c.) about the meaning of the Sign of the Cross and why it is so essential for us to practice with love and care:

Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let the cross as our seal, be boldly made with our fingers upon our brow and on all occasions; over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink; in our comings and in our goings; before sleep; on lying down and rising up; when we are on our way; and when we are still. It is a powerful safeguard; it is without price for the sake of the poor; without toil, because of the sick; for it is a grace from God, a badge of the faithful, and a terror to the devils; for "he displayed them openly, leading them away in triumph by force of it." For when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they fear him who has "smashed the heads of the dragons." Despise not the seal as a free gift, but rather for this reason honor your benefactor all the more. (Catechetical Lecture, 13, 36)

The Sign of the Cross is a gift from God that allows us to outwardly express our faith in the Crucified Lord of Glory - our Savior Jesus Christ. It does not work as a talisman or magical charm. Only with faith in Christ is it a meaningful gesture. It is one of the unwritten traditions handed down through the centuries and now kept alive in our generation by the same Orthodox Faith as that of our fathers and mothers who have gone before us into everlasting rest. We now "pass it down" (the meaning of the word Tradition) to our children as we explain to them that Christ died for us on the Cross. In fact, this simple gesture may be the first thing that we teach our children to do as they begin to grow and develop. It thus becomes a natural part of their lives. We should not be ashamed of making the Sign of the Cross in any particular setting (though never as to draw attention to ourselves), but always with the greatest of care as we witness to the Crucified One.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Theophany and the Imitation of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,

I wanted to briefly comment on yesterday's Liturgy and the Great Blessing of Water to follow. First of all, I cannot recall the church being that full since last Pascha. The communicants were many and the line for venerating the Cross at the end seemed "endless." It was, after all, a Sunday, but I would also venture to say that the Feast of Theophany had something to do with the large numbers present for the Services. In addition to most of the parish being present, we had our share of guests, some of whom I believe are residents of Cincinnati. Hopefully, they left with the impression of a lively and, more importantly, faithful and traditional Orthodox Christian community that they will consider as a future spiritual home. That is why openness and friendliness to an unfamiliar face is so important, and that is a "built in" ministry for every parishoner. Many Romanian Orthodox Christians who are relatively new to the area are finding their way to our parish and we rejoice in their presence. We sincerely hope that their numbers among us continues to grow in the future. I ask any of our parishoners aware of such new residents to encourage them to visit our parish.

It was wonderful to have all of the children gathered around the table set aside for the Great Blessing of Water eagerly, yet patiently, waiting with their empty water containers in hand. The "holy materiality" of the Church is something that our children are instinctively attracted to. The concreteness and tangibility of the entire Liturgy, which embraces all of our senses - touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight - bring our children into the sacred atmosphere of the Liturgy even though they do not as of yet "understand" the profound theological character of the prayers. There is no doubt that it can be "long" and challenging to their attention spans - as yesterday must have been! - but they manage to do quite well, and the children remained orderly and well-behaved yesterday during the lengthy Blessing of Water. With so many children, there is no doubt that our parish is alive and well!

For us "adults," a major Feast of the Church, such as Theophany, always offers us the opportunity to place our own lives within the infinitely wider context of the Life of Christ. The Baptism of Christ, the source of our own baptism and Christ's solidarity with sinful humanity (though He is without sin), reminds us of what that baptism has committed us to: being disciples of Christ, which means putting His incomparable teaching into practice in addition to "believing" in Him. Following His Baptism, the Lord "was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." (MATT. 4:1) Besides learning that we need to fast in order to overcome temptation, because the Lord Himself fasted; we also learn that direct temptation can be resisted, rejected and rebuked by turning to the Scriptures. When Christ was tempted/tested by Satan three times in the wilderness, He drove Satan away by quoting from the Scriptures. (see MATT. 4:1-11) I wonder how often or how readily we turn to the Scriptures to fight against temptation when it comes our way. If a Bible is at hand - at home or at work - we could open it when tempted and begin reading a psalm or passage from the Gospel in order to dispel the tempting thought by the power of the Word of God. When Christ was tempted to break His fast in the wilderness, not only by eating, but by changing the stones into bread, He rebuked Satan by quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." (DEUT. 8:3)

These are instances in which we can do as Christ did. The "imitation of Christ" is essential to our "life in Christ."

Fr. Steven

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Acceptable Year of our Lord

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Upon reflection, there is a certain vagueness in the well-meaning and traditional greeting that we share with relatives, friends and even passing acquaintances at this time: "Happy New Year!" To be sure, it is that very vagueness that protects this well-worn seasonal greeting from any controversy, and thus guaranteeing its continuing use in our pluralistic society. Yet however religiously, politically and socially neutral it may be, certainly when warmly exchanged, "Happy New Year!" expresses our natural desire for health, prosperity and the fulfillment of those wishes that bring "happiness" into our lives. The vagueness begins with the wish for happiness, as in the "inalienable right" to the "pursuit of happiness," for the definitions of happiness can be legion. What has impressed me in my own experience of life as I age is the elusiveness of happiness. Not meaning, of course, that happiness does not exist, but rather referring to its impermanence. One can be happy - or unhappy for that matter - many times over the course of a single day, let alone an entire year. And not to be happy almost implies today that life is barely worth living, that it can only be endured.

Without overly-digressing at this time into the distinction, I can confidently say that I would much rather be "blessed" than "happy." Blessedness strikes me as being far more permanent, stable and, most significantly, God-sourced. I would further argue that one can be "blessed" while simultaneously being most "unhappy," as in: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake ..." (MATT. 5:10) Even with stretching the word happiness to one or another of its outer limits, I can hardly imagine anyone describing that situation in life as a source of happiness, though one can remain blessed when persecuted due to the strengthening and consoling presence of God. For this reason, I strongly disagree with those translations of the Beatitudes that turn the Greek makarios ("blessed" in most translations) into "happy," as in "Happy are the poor in spirit." Something doesn't quite "sound right" in that form.

Be that as it may, there were specific petitions that we offered up to God when we prayed for a blessed New Year just the other night. Perhaps we could incorporate some of these petitions into that over-all web of interconnected new year's resolutions that we hope to remain faithful to once thought or uttered - from eating, spending and swearing less, to renewing long-lost friendships or overcoming familial hostilities. Here are a few examples from the Great Litany of the Service for the New Year:

That He will bless the beginning and continuance of this year with the grace of His love for mankind, and will grant unto us peaceful times, favorable weather and a sinless life in health and abundance...

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will plant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes...

That He will renew a right spirit within us, and strengthen us in the Orthodox Faith, and cause us to make haste in the performance of good deeds and the fulfillment of all His statutes...

That He will deliver His Holy Church and all of us from every sorrow, tribulation, wrath and necessity, and from all enemies, both visible and invisible, and that He will always compass round His faithful people with health, long life and peace, and the host of His Holy Angels...

The fulfillment of these prayerful petitions will be much more essential to our spiritual well-being than the cordial and party atmosphere exchanges at midnight a day ago of "Happy New Year!" that we may have passed around, champagne glass in hand. They will certainly be more demanding - and infinitely more rewarding - because they bring us back to the basics of the Gospel: repentance, conversion, forgiveness, struggling with self-aggrandizement and self-will, strengthened by charity, prayer and fasting. In fact, perhaps we should all make a point of reading the Sermon on the Mount (MATT. 5-7) again carefully as we embark on the adventure of a new year that we pray and hope will be blessed. There we will newly discover the way of life that is in harmony with the Kingdom of God, brought to us by Christ.

A fairly recently reposed Orthodox monk once said: "It is later than you think." This new year of 2008 means that we are one year older than last year, and hence that much closer to our end, the precise time of which is known only to God. That is certainly not meant to dampen the over-all hope and confidence that we may have as we begin this new year, but to remind us all of the precious gift of time. In fact, in the final prayer "on bended knees" that we offered to God for the upcoming new year, we thanked God for "the passing time of our life." If we get closer to God during that "passing time of our life," then our lives have been filled with significant meaning. But we also face the danger of somehow getting lost in a vain "pursuit of happiness" that even the founding fathers would not recognize as what they meant when formulating that phrase. As Christians, we are beginning the Year of our Lord 2008. Time belongs to the Lord for He is its Creator. It is given to us as a gift, and thus we are stewards of the time allotted to us by God in His wisdom. Now is the "acceptable year of the Lord." (IS. 61:1-2; LK. 4:18-19)

Fr. Steven