Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Compassion - and the Mystery - of the Father

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." (LK. 15:20)

The prodigal son was forgiven by his father in a manner that must have overwhelmed him. It would have been unreasonable on his part to expect such a greeting considering his abandonment of his father. With sincerity, his hope was that by throwing himself before the mercy of his father, he would find enough acceptance to allow him back into his home,, if only as a "hired servant." Yet, there were no reproaches, strained explanations or heated exchanges. The father of the parable did not survey the past with the intention of shaming his younger son into an acknowledgment of his many sins. There was a total absence of that most human propensity in such a situation to convey through the slightest intonations of words or gestures that crushing reproach: "What did I tell you!" There was acceptance and forgiveness - together with "compassion," as Christ says. We do not have to depend upon a heavy dose of allegory to immediately recognize that Christ is offering us a model of His and our heavenly Father as the unlimited Source of grace, forgiveness and love. This lengthy parable was the third in a series - all found in LK. 15 - given as responses to the pharisaic reproach of Christ, that "This man receives sinners and eats with them." (LK. 15:2)

As we approach the Sunday of the Last Judgment, this is essential to remember. Judgement is real, but we cannot allow that impending reality to obscure the infinite mercy and love of God, so infinite and merciful that the Father sent His only-begotten Son into the world in order to die and rise from the dead so that we may have abundant life in His name. The kenosis (self-emptying) of the Son, in fulfillment of the will of the Father, is the revelation that God is in search of prodigal humanity. That even though we have "squandered" our inheritance, He will proclaim a feast when we are found. Our human language is inadequate, but perhaps we could claim that God is not "offended" by human sin, but rather "pained" by it. The Father will seek out the lost sheep and not abandon it. First and foremost, then, our heavenly Father is compassionate and "brimming" with a love that is inexhaustible and overwhelming: "This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (I TIM. 2:3) Isn't "judgment," then, somehow self-inflicted?

A remarkable book was recently translated from French into English with the title The Compassion of the Father. The author, Protopresbyter Boris Bobrinskoy, is the dean of St. Sergius Orthodox Institute in Paris. As a wise and elderly man, he remains overwhelmed by the compassion of the Father, in what he has called "the mystery of the Father." The entire book is a series of theological and meditative articles about this mystery and its relationship to the kenosis of the Son of God, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The introduction of the book further quotes a passage of his from an article about the Holy Trinity and the Sacraments that prepares the reader for the riches of the book to come. Here, Fr. Bobrinskoy reflects upon human fatherhood in relation to (God the) Father:

What is a father if not an overflowing of love? But do we feel it as such? How do we live this filial relationship to the Father? Do we really know the meaning of fatherhood - if only the purely human and earthly - without which this relationship to the father no longer makes much sense? Are we able to understand and to live the meaning and implications of the 'bowels of mercy' and of the tenderness of the Father? What effect does all this have on our awareness and our life? These are questions I ask myself, and I ask them aloud. Questions which the Holy Spirit Himself asks in us, by prompting us to become more aware of the mystery of the person of the Father. For the Father is not only a name: He is also a living person. A person with whom we should enter into a living and personal relationship, through Christ. How do we become sons and daughters, children of the light? In our personal or ecclesial experience, where is the prayer of the Spirit who sighs in us 'Abba, Father'? Let us remember what St. Ignatius wrote in his Letter to the Romans: 'A living water murmurs in me: come to the Father.'

Within the Church's Holy Tradition, there are manifold treasures to draw from: The Scriptures, the Councils, the Liturgy, the Holy Fathers and Mothers, sacred iconography and more. Yet underneath all of this, or perhaps better, through the living Tradition of the Church, we must never lose sight of the compassion of the Father. Our thirst is for a living relationship with the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. As important as theology is, we cannot reduce this relationship to a theological system - or to canonical norms! When that happens, we have then created one more idol even more difficult to topple because of its outward attractiveness. It is the compassion of the Father that keeps bringing us back to church and receiving the Eucharist. It is was moves us to prayer and almsgiving, and then repentance when we continue to sin. That compassion brought Christ to us in our misery. When we make the slightest movement to return toward that compassion following our self-willed estrangement, the Father leaps out to us and runs to meet us in an embrace of love.

Fr. Steven

Monday, February 25, 2008

From a Far Country...

Dear Parish Faithful,

"And He said, 'There was a man who had two sons' ..."

This is how Christ begins what is perhaps the greatest of his parables, the one we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but which could easily be titled the Parable of the Two Sons or the Parable of the Compassionate Father. With this parable, we are invited to enter the "school of repentance" and sit at the feet of the Master, so that we can hear the words of eternal life and "keep them."

After receiving his portion of the inheritance, even before his father had died, the younger of the two sons "gathered all that he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living." (LK. 15:13) This one sober understatement does not demand a great deal of imagination to yield its meaning. We know that loose living refers to a web of wrong choices, bad company, unrestrained satisfaction of "the passions," and forgetfulness of God. This spiritually suicidal combination leads to bankruptcy on a further series of interrelated levels: the material, moral/ethical and spiritual. In no time, the prodigal son is forced to feed "on the pods that the swine ate." (v. 16)

Before succumbing to the temptation of trying my hand at an updated melodramatic script that would luridly describe the sins of the wayward young man of the parable - replete with money, sex and drugs - together with all of the didactic apparatus meant to strengthen our resolve to protect our children (since we are now too old for all of that); I would rather more modestly pause at the words about a journey "into a far country." The far country of the parable is geographical, for the young man of the parable ventured far from his home. Yet, a "far country" can also refer to a hidden place in our interior landscape; a "place" in which we can distance ourselves from God and right living to a frightening degree, even if slowly and unintentionally. At first, that interior far country can prove to be appealing. It can appease our vanity, protect our pride and/or feed "the passions" that we can nurture even if hidden from the view and censure of others. This is initially stimulating and seems to promise endless delight - perhaps like the endless freedom that an unsupervised dorm may offer to an innocent college student away from the sheltering, but seemingly restrictive, atmosphere of home.

When the emptiness of such a landscape becomes evident, we too can desperately desire to "feed on the pods that the swine ate." The self-serving (or "self-help!") philosophies that we squandered our "inheritance" from God on, will no longer satisfy us, but in a restless and hungry search for something else to replace these, we can even fall to the level of "swinish delights." Anything to relieve our boredom or frustrations. Without moving anywhere, and without changing the patterns of our lifestyle, we can still withdraw to a "far country" in that interior landscape that can prove to be as treacherous as any unknown environment of the exterior world. It is said of the prodigal son of the parable, that when at "rock bottom," he "came to himself." (v. 17) This is certainly one of the key expressions found in this endlessly rich parable. The young man found his right mind, his sanity was restored, and basically he "got a grip on reality." An undramatic, but perfect way, to describe "conversion," or the process of turning back toward God and the warm embrace of our heavenly Father.

A certain clarity of thought is needed to find our way home when we drift off toward a far country. The short-lived rock band of the late 60's, Blind Faith, had an intriguing song entitled "Can't Find My Way Home." Perhaps that was an honest and clear-sighted assessment of the band's state of mind at that time (money, sex and drugs?), and a poignant recognition of being in a "far country." Two other songs on the album, however, "In the Presence of the Lord," and "Sea of Joy," may have pointed to more promising discoveries. Every year, throuigh the lectionary of the Church, especially in this pre-lenten season of preparation, we are powerfully reminded of just how far away from "home" we may actually be in mind and heart. If we have been equally prodigal with the gifts bestowed upon us by God, then we can equally "come to ourselves" and return home to the embrace of our compassionate Father.

Fr. Steven

Monday, February 18, 2008

Where Shall I begin? What Foundation shall I lay?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Where shall I begin to weep over the cursed deeds of my life? What foundation shall I lay, O Christ, for this lamentation? (The Great Canon of St. Andrew)

Great Lent for the year of our Lord 2008 will begin three weeks from today on March 10. If there is one thing the Church does well, it is to alert us of the upcoming liturgical seasons of fasting and feasting through various services, scriptural readings, ecclesial calendar notations, etc. Through homilies, handouts and cyberspace correspondence, I will do my best to bring out these diverse elements of preparation. As I said toward the close of yesterday's homily, if we are caught unaware on March 10 of the beginning of Great Lent, then truly our minds and hearts are elsewhere! If we plead "busyness," then truly we are too busy and need to begin reordering our priorities.

For the moment, I would like to look ahead to the first week of Great Lent and the wonderful opportunities it will afford to all of us for entering into the spirit of the season with depth and direction. And I want to focus in particular on the liturgical service that marks the first four evenings of that first week of Great Lent: the Great Canon of St. Andrew (also known as the Canon of Repentance). This unrivaled masterpiece of liturgical poetry and scriptural application is divided into four parts and designated to be chanted during the first four evenings of the Fast. That is the practice that we faithfully follow every year. So, beginning on Monday evening, March 10, and continuing through Thursday evening, March 13, that is again what we will be doing as a parish. My purpose here is to encourage, convince, exhort and inspire everyone to make an honest effort to come to this service at least one evening of the first week. You may decide, of course, to come more than once! I am hoping that a three week "notification" will prove to be enough to make that possible with some planning. I am definitely including our families with children in this exhortation. The solemn atmosphere of the darkened church, illuminated by the icon lamps and candles; the rhythmic chanting of the Canon with its sober melodies and bows of repentance; and the closing prostrations accompanying the Prayer of St. Ephraim, are all capable of leaving an indelible impression on the young souls of our church school-aged children.

When we wake up on Monday morning, March 10, we may indeed begin our fasting discipline, but even that important part of Lent needs an ecclesial and communal context. For fasting is a part of our over-all desire to repent and return to God. The Great Canon of St. Andrew expresses that in image after image taken from the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament. With our children studying the Old Testament this year in Church School, many of the troparia will come to life for them as they hear the names of the figures they have been discussing in class - saints and sinners alike. The prayerful context of hearing all of this, deepens and brings to life the sacred history of the Chosen People of God in a way that even the best classroom setting cannot. Adults who are "scripturally challenged" will be able to absorb some of the Old Testament's meaningful examples of sanctity and sin. Our own lives are mysteriously incorporated into the ongoing history of God's people through the liturgical actualization of the Scriptures. We can either imitate the saints in their closeness to God through faith, hope and love - or the sinners through their wrong decisions, misguided desires, or blindness to God's truth. All of this is illuminated by Christ and the Gospel call to repentance.

If you have never been to this remarkable service, then now is the time to fill in that gap of lost liturgical experience. Anyone who has come to this service over the years is certainly looking forward to the Canon of St. Andrew with no less enthusiasm than expressed here. Once experienced, it is hard to imagine the first week of Great Lent without coming to the Canon. This is because it sets the tone for the over-all meaning of Great Lent. It is a blessing and privilege for all Orthodox Christians, that such depth and beauty are part of our Tradition. In the culturally and even religiously superficial atmosphere of today's society, we cannot afford to pass up these opportunities for experiencing some real depth that can shake our souls out of the complacency, contentment and self-righteousness that characterized the Pharisee of yesterday's parable read in church, and which threatens to engulf us at every turn. With a bit of effort, planning, and perhaps "calendar adjustments," this is easily within our grasp. "Redeem the time!" as the Apostle Paul exhorts us.

The Canon of St. Andrew is chanted within the context of the Compline Service and takes about an hour.

~ ~ ~

By the way, this current week of the Publican and the Pharisee is a fast-free week. There is no fasting of any sort for the duration of the entire week including, of course, Wednesday and Friday. Enjoy it while you can!

Fr. Steven

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Tongue is a Fire!

Dear Parish Faithful,

During last Thursday's Bible Study, we read and discussed the following passage from the Epistle of St. James:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body ... For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature can be tamed and has ben tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue - a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (JM. 3:3-12)

Quite an incredible passage about the dangers of a loose tongue! Truly, as St. James writes, "The tongue is a fire!" The tongue is a weapon of "mass destruction" that when loaded with angry, bitter or sarcastic words, and carefully aimed at a human target, is capable of striking a direct hit that will obliterate the flimsy defensive measures meant to withstand the blast. These attacks can be aggressive, defensive or preemptive. When both belligerents violate the latest "peace treaty" and begin to bombard the other at will, then the ensuing carnage can be great, and the scars and wounds from the "fallout" can take a long time to heal. The "cold war" to follow, characterized by wariness, suspicion and a readiness to mobilize and deploy the stockpiled arsenal immediately if need be, can be protracted and costly. At times, in a miscalculated and ill-conceived display of hawkishness, one side may turn these weapons loose on a "neighbor," not just the "enemy." I wlll let yet you judge for yourselves as to how exaggerated that description of a "war of words" actually is. For my part, I believe that the childhood chant "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names/words will never hurt me" is far from the actual truth. Hardly anything challenges our capacity to forgive more than overcoming the hurt we absorb from the words of others - friend or foe.

That is because the gift of the word is a powerful gift that God has given to human beings created in His image and likeness. The eternal Word of God is creative and life-giving, and we also speak words in imitation of God. The word is meant to communicate encourgement, consolation, trust, knowledge, wisdom, truth, warmth, and love between human persons. But the greater the gift, the more harmful its misuse and abuse. Hence, words can also communicate enmity, hostility, envy, jealousy, anger, falsehood, judgement, hypocrisy and hatred. The sins we commit always distort the original purpose of our existence and relationships. This is no truer that when applied to the words that slip off our tongue carelessly and thoughtlessly.

St. James was directing his words to a newly-established Christian community. Was he simply warning his community of a danger they were perfectly aware of; or was he rebuking some members of the community for their loose tongues that were causing havoc? I like to say that if someone in a parish has the perverted desire to undermine the integrity of the community, all that person has to do is so start spreading gossip around in furtive conversations with other parishoners, about other parishoners. I believe that that is magnified if the gossip if about the parish priest. Gossip means insinuations, harsh judgement, negative characterizations - if not character assassination - half-truths, one-sided accounts of disagreements, etc. Often, gossip begins innocently enough, but it has an undeniable tendency toward intensification. It starts slowly, but then accelerates as it spins out of control. Before you know it, a "deadly poison" has been unleashed and "a great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!" If gossip gets around then feelings are hurt and relationships spoiled. And these words are not fogotten, but rather they accumulate into a cesspool of resentment and estrangement. Speaking directly with someone about an offense or disagreement - real or perceived - honestly and reasonably does take some courage and even entails something of a risk; but again, that is much better than the risks of loose gossip. Bringing it to the parish priest in confidence, or even in Confession, can also be very helpful. Our role as pastors is to be as objective and impartial as humanly possible and to hopefully find insights into situations through which the healing grace of God can work effectively.

Perhaps the best we can do at times - since St. James wrote that "no human being can tame the tongue" - especially when angry with someone, is to find another person with whom we can confide and "let off steam" if something is bothering us. We then can break the waves of our troubled minds against the rock of a faithful listener - spouse, priest or friend - and our words will stay contained and go no further. Usually, a certain relief will follow. Often, we then realize that is wasn't such a "big thing" after all.

It is wonderful to be in a community in which this does not appear to be a concern. But we always have to protect what is good with vigilance and care. Coming up in Great Lent, we will again pray to God on a daily basis that He will take from us the spirit of "idle talk" (lenten prayer of St. Ephraim). That reminds us of the importance of how we choose to use our words. The teachings, exhortations, and admonitions of the evangelists and apostles are meant to instill genuine Christian virtues into our communities. Yet, these virtues do not exist abstractly, but are embodied within the lives of flesh and blood members of the Body of Christ. Let us make every effort to "bless the Lord and Father" and not to "curse men." As St. James wrote, "brethren, this ought not to be so."

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Surprised by Life - Abortion and Christian Faith

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I have been slowly reading through a book entitled Philosophers Who Believe - The Spiritual Journey of 11 Leading Thinkers. This book is a collection of essays from 11 prominent contemporary philosophers from the English speaking world of North America and England. Each describes his path to the Christian Faith, often cast as a real revelation, as in C.S. Lewis' famous description of being "surprised by joy." As the book cover states: "These philosophers explode the stereotype that intellectuals cannot believe."

One of these thinkers is John Rist. I was drawn to his chapter because I have read his excellent book on St. Augustine. He is a historian of philosophy and has already written books on Plotinus and the Stoics. What further caught my attention as he was explaining his "conversion" to Christianity, were a few insightful paragraphs that he wrote about abortion, under the subheading of "The Search for Justice." After his Roman Catholic wife suffered through two miscarriages, they both began to think long and hard on willful "terminations." I would like to share these few paragraphs with you as a further follow-up to our recent Sanctity of Life Sunday and a meditation that I sent out last Thursday with some passages from Fr. Breck's book on Orthodox bioethical thinking. When John Rist began to think hard about abortion, he still was not a Christian, but it was precisely this issue that made him think further about the existence of God. So, from his spiritual autobiographical essay entitled "Where Else?," the philosopher John Rist writes the following:

The problem of justice which from the mid-sixties came increasingly to attract my attention was that of abortion, as issue which in my younger days of growing radicalism I had ignored, following the stream of fashion ...

Abortion did not concern me first a religious matter, as issue concerned with the sanctity of life. Indeed, a person who does not believe in God can hardly be expected to take the "sanctity" of life seriously. For me, abortion was a simple question of justice, of unjust killing. One was not allowed (rightly) to "terminate" the lives of one's infants or teenagers because they were too expensive or troublesome; on the same grounds one should not therefore be allowed to kill one's unborn child either. What mattered was simply whether or not the child is a human being. Once I satisfied myself that it is - and later scientifil findings have only confirmed that view, confirming also that those who deny it deny it merely because it is inconvenient, that is, because they choose to deny it - then if any "unjust" killing is wrong, abortion is wrong. It is the killing of the innocent and the defenseless for no other reason than that one wants them out of the way.

Note that this is not an argument against all killing; I am not and have never been a pacifist. This argument against abortion does not depend on a claim that all killing is wrong; it is a claim that no one should be killed simply because someone wishes them dead and they are unable to defend themselves. It is important to recognize that the unborn are not only innocent; they are incapable of intending evil or doing anything by their own deliberate action which is in any way harmful or dangerous to anyone. To kill them is to kill them because they happen - inconveniently - to exist.

I admire John Rist's lucidity in uncovering the basic issues involved in the abortion debate and stating them clearly. It is that clarity that keeps the issue alive at the most serious level. However, he challenges those of a "prolife" position not to fall into the same blindness of denial when other inconvenient facts of life come before our attention:

I became disturbed that many of those opposed to other political and social injustices seemed to favor abortion; it made me suspect that their reasons for opposing other injustices might not be as firmly grounded as they and I had assumed. I also worried about the attitudes of some other "prolifers," as we began to be called when the political process to allow the legal killing of the unborn built up in the sixties. Some of them seemed curiously oblivious to other injunctgions to assist their fellow human beings, even when they might have regarded these injunctions as divinely sanctioned. Again, it seemed that the explanation lay in the false ethical view that if I do not admit something (such as exploitation of the poor or disadvantaged) to be wrong, then it is not wrong; it can be explained away as, for example, a merely unfortunate function of the laws of economics. There is no obligation to do more than allow other people to come into existence and compete, however unfair the conditions.

I believe that over the years many Christian churches and organizations have made a point of addressing that very fair and telling reproach. We must be willing to support and assist children who are born into a world suffering from injustice and marked by an unfair "playing field." A direct experience of that injustice is what drives many disadvantaged young women toward an abortion, even against their conscience. Whatever our modest contributions may be, "prolife" must extend beyond the womb and into the light of day.

Fr. Steven

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Zacchaeus Moment

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (LK. 19:10)

At yesterday's eucharistic Liturgy, we heard the story of the towering figure of Zacchaeus the publican (LK. 19:1-10). This is one of the many wonderful paradoxes of the spiritual life that characterize the Holy Scriptures. The paradox is found in the fact that the "towering" figure of Zacchaeus was actually "small of stature." (v. 3) And if indeed he had defrauded his neighbors as he alluded to (v. 8), then he was "small" in even more essential matters. Through repentance, conversion, and right action Zacchaeus grew in stature right before the eyes of those who with faith could "see" this transformation. Zacchaeus personifies the type of change that is possible through hearing the Good News and embracing it in thought, word and deed. This passage, unique to the Gospel According to St. Luke, is thus perfectly placed as the first announcement of the approach of Great Lent. For in the Orthodox Church, this is always the prescribed Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday before the start of Great Lent. The four pre-lenten Gospel readings to follow will then guide us to Monday, March 10, the first day of the lenten journey that will lead us to Holy Week and then Pascha on April 27. (This is one of those years when the Orthodox date of Pascha widely diverges from that of the Western Easter on March 23).

Returning to the Gospel passage, we find the story of Zacchaeus evenly divided into two parts - and outdoor scene (v. 1-5) and an indoor scene (v. 6-10). Outdoors, and in full view of the gathered inhabitants of ancient Jericho, the despised "chief tax collector," the rich Zacchaeus, risks the humiliation of being laughed at because he makes the socially unconventional choice of climbing up into a "sycamore tree" in order "see who Jesus was." What may have been acceptable behavior among children, would only have drawn the surprised and scornful stares of Zacchaeus' over-taxed neighbors. I always remember that in a meditation on Zacchaeus, the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote that the equivalent act today would be that of a renowned corporate executive scrambling up a light pole in a downtown area in order to see someone passing by. (For those with a "boss" that you may not be too fond of, perhaps there may be minor consolation in fantasizing such a scenario and its reaction in your own mind). There then occurs that life-changing encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus. For Jesus looks up at the strange figure of this man "small of stature" eagerly looking down upon Him, and says to him in response: "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." (v. 5)

The transition to the indoor setting is now made when Zacchaeus "made haste and came down, and received him joyfully." (v. 6) Yet one can sense the oriental custom of a crowd hovering at the entrance or even coming and going with a certain freedom. The raised eyebrows and clucking tongues of an undescribed "they" who look on and articulate their stern disapproval - "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner" (v. 7) - is a reaction encountered elsewhere in the Gospels when Jesus freely chose to sit at table with sinners and tax collectors (cf. MK. 3:15-17). This disapprobation on the part of the scribes and Pharisees then evoked his memorable (and ironic?) saying: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (MK. 3:17) The Messiah is not bound by religiously sanctioned social convention that divides people into the convenient categories of the "righteous" and "sinners," "saved" and "lost," the "pure" and "impure." Or rather, by making clear that He has come to bring salvation to everyone, beginning with the marginalized and distressed members of His own society, Jesus reveals the inclusive love of God that tears down all such former barriers. Zacchaeus is a striking and personalized example of this inclusive love of God for "the lost."

Never a distributor of "cheap grace" though, Jesus demands repentance and conversion. And this comes dramatically from Zacchaeus when he publicly declares: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." (v. 8) In this, Zacchaeus goes beyond what the Law required for such an act of restitution. (EX. 21:37; NM. 5:5-7) The Lord then signifies or "seals" the truth of this conversion when He solemnly pronounces the joyful declaration: "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (v. 9-10) It is interesting to note that the blessing of Jesus is given to the entire household. The household of Zacchaeus, in turn, becomes a microcosm of the entire design of salvation: The Son of Man came to seek and save the entire cosmos groaning inwardly and subject to futility as it awaits redemption (cf. ROM. 8:19-23) In this, we and our households resemble that of Zacchaeus, regardless of how "righteous" we may consider ourselves (to be dealt with next Sunday in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee!).

We can never afford to allow our supposed familiarity with a Gospel passage to blunt its sharp edge. It is that sharp edge that cuts through our many defensive layers of evasions and self-deception. Otherwise, the passage "softens" into a didactic story about a bad man changing his life and becoming "nice." However, I believe that no matter how well we know the story about Zacchaeus, the only familiarity that we could claim with him is the familiarity of having an equally profound "Zacchaeus moment" in our own lives. Such a "moment" would initially be characterized by an equal desire to "see Jesus" - above all else. Than we would need to be willing to overcome our own "smallness of stature" by perhaps first overcoming the tyranny of social convention and respectability before we get to our actual sinfulness. This may mean going beyond our own conventional patterns of church going and the "safety" of keeping the demanding call of Christ at a safe distance so that it cannot overly impinge upon our lives. There may yet be a sycamore tree that we need to climb.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Battling Abortion in Productive Ways

Dear Parish Faithful,

This is a bit behind - partly because my email server was down all last week - but I wanted to do some follow-up since The Sanctity of Life Sunday on January 22. As I wrote recently, abortion is not a one day issue for the year to be chastized and condemned; and then essentially hidden until the following year. It is something that is with us every day, and threatens to remain so for the forseeable future. It takes thoughtful and prayerful reflection so as to understand the bioethical issues involved. A Christian response can be much more effectively formed with study then by an emotional response that is always in danger of breeding hatred of a demonized opponent. Be that as it may, I wanted to reproduce the paragraphs from Fr. John Breck's book: Longing for God - Orthodox Reflections on Bible, Ethics, and Liturgy that I read aloud to everyone on that Sunday. Especially for those who were not in church that day, or who came after the homily. In an article entitled, "The Status of the Unborn - Again," Fr. John closes with a few excellent paragraphs that firmly and soberly summarize a sound Orthodox "pro-life" position:

Science and politics often mix no better that oil and water. Although embryology may confirm that human life exists both genetically and developmentally from conception, concern to placate pro-choice advocates has led all three branches of government to preserve the "right" even to such late-term procedures as "partial birth abortion," an act of undisguised barbarity.

While many abortion opponents are trying to overturn Roe v. Wade and similar legislation, working as it were from the bottom up, it may prove more effective to reverse course and begin with the most egregious practices in the abortion business. President Bush has expressed clear opposition to partial birth abortions. If they could be outlawed throughout the country, then this would go a long way toward confirming what Jewish and Christian tradtions have always known: that life in the womb is human life, worthy of legal protection. Then it would be necessary to work incrementally backward, eventually to eradicate from the public's mind the false distinction between "child," "fetus" and "embryo."

Science operates on the basis of knowledge; politics, on the basis of pressure. It is up to each of us, in appropriate and peaceful yet firm and relentless ways, to apply that pressure. Then eventually we may make it beyond this tragic moment in our history, marked by a level of self-interest that allows incipient human life to be sacrificed in the interests of cloning, the harvesting of embryonic stem cells, and partial birth infanticide. Then finally we might acknowledge and affirm, through public policy as much as through religious conviction, that the "status of the embryo" is none other than the status we enjoy ourselves, as citizens endowed with certain inalienable rights, and as persons endowed with the Image of God. (p. 87)

When we approach the Chalice to receive the Eucharist, we are approaching and then receiving Life in abundance. We must stand in defense of the sanctity of life if we are to receive from the Chalice of Life in a "worthy manner." Informing ourselves of the bioethical issues involved is a good starting point, and we thank God that we have theologians and pastors such as Fr. John Breck to guide us with clarity and conviction.

Fr. Steven

Dear Parish Faithful,

Below is a bit of updating in relation to yesterday's "theological thoughts" about abortion, from Luke Loboda. - Fr. Steven


After reading your email following up on abortion and our faith, I wanted to make sure you were fully aware of recent legislation and so forth. Father Breck's comments (I do not know when he wrote them) are a bit out of date on the partial-birth abortion issue.

Congress did pass a Partial-Birth Abortion Ban in 2003. The law prohibits the procedure described below:

An abortion in which the person performing the abortion, deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act that t he person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus; and performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the partially delivered living fetus. (18 U.S. Code 1531)

Although it might be a bit confusing, at least this disgusting barbaric procedure (also known as "intact Dilation and Extraction") is outlawed. The problem is that other late-term procedures are possible and this procedure represents less than 1% of abortions (estimated as about 2000/year). Still, that is 2000 lives saved per year. The Supreme Court also upheld the constitutionality of this ban in the case Gonzales v. Carhart.

So while we have far to go, at least this "start" has been made.

In Christ,