Monday, March 31, 2008

Sick With Envy

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent: The Twenty Second Day

From Evagrius of Pontus (+399)

The dark powers are sick with envy against us
when we pray,
and they will use every conceivable trick
to frustrate us spiritually.
They endlessly stir up our inner memories
to distract us into thoughts
and will try to stir our flesh to all kinds of desires,
for in this way
they think they can hinder the soul's glorious ascent
and its journey to God.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Our Life in One Day...

Dear Parish Faithful,

With about fifty parishioners present yesterday evening, we had a wonderful and lively celebration of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. (We also had about twenty parishioners present for the morning Liturgy on March 25 for the Annunciation). Almost by definition, liturgy means shared experience, and that is a most appropriate description of this particular service. The entire day for each person individually - at work, school or home - is a time of fasting, preparation and expectation for the communion with Christ that will "seal" this day through receiving the presanctified Gifts in the early evening. In such a manner this day is a microcosm of our entire earthly existence, which is one of preparation for, and expectation of, the Kingdom of God. Thus, we come together for our "common action" - the action of the People of God - which is the meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. We assemble in order to partake of the common cup, the very "cup of salvation," as a unified Body. The personal experience of the day then becomes a shared experience of worship and communion. By receiving the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ, members united to Christ and to each other. What other day can fulfill one's expectations as this one of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts?! We then further shared an excellent lenten meal together following the service. "O, taste and see that the Lord is good!"


Great Lent: The Eighteenth Day

From St. John Cassian (+c. 430)
The thief on the cross certainly did not receive
the Kingdom of Heaven as a reward for his virtues
but as a grace and mercy from God.
He can serve as an authentic witness
that our salvation is given to us
only by God's mercy and grace.
All the holy masters knew this
and unanimously taught that perfection in holiness
can be achieved in humility.
Fr. Steven

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Call...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I have chosen a new book for my Eastern Orthodox Church class at XU this semester: The Mystery of Faith, by the Russian bishop, Hilarion Alfeyev. (See also this online catechism based on this book. - Webmaster) The book is subtitled, An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. This book is a superb synthesis of Orthodox theology, spirituality and practice, and I would highly recommend it. In fact, with its translation, it may be one of the best such introductory books now available in English. It is filled with wonderful excerpts from the Church Fathers that supplement and support the text of the book. I am awaiting to hear the reaction of my students which will come at the end of the semester in May.

After an introduction in which Bishop Hilarion beautifully explains the Orthodox approach to dogma, the first chapter is entitled "The Search for Faith." And the initial subsection of this opening chapter is entitled, simply, "The Call." So, essentially, here is how Bishop Hilarion begins his exploration of the Orthodox Faith:

Faith is a path on which an encounter takes place between us and God. It is God who takes the first step: he fully and unconditionally believes in us and gives us a sign, an awareness of his presence. We hear the mysterious call of God, and our first step towards an encounter with him is a response to this call. God may call us openly or in secret, overtly or covertly. But it is difficult for us to believe in him if we do not first heed this call.

Faith is both a mystery and a miracle. Why does one person respond to the call while another does not? Why is one open to receive the word of God, while another remains deaf? Why, having encountered God, does one immediately abandon everything and follow him, while the other turn away and takes a different road? (p. 1)

After exploring this a bit further, Bishop Hilarion addresses what may be a peculiarly "modern" obstacle to faith, or at least one that seems more pervasive in our current pace of life:

It has never been easy to hear the message of faith. In our day we are usually so engrossed in the problems of earthly existence that we simply have no time to listen to this message and to reflect on God. For some, religion has been reduced to celebrating Christmas and Easter and to observing a few traditions for fear of being 'torn away from our roots.' Others do not go to church at all because they are 'too busy.' 'He is engrossed in his work;' 'work is everything to her;' 'he is a busy man.' These are some of the best compliments that one can receive from friends and colleagues. 'Busy people' are a breed peculiar to modern times. Nothing exists for them other than a preoccupation which swallows them up completely, leaving no place for that silence where the voice of God may be heard. (p. 2)

That is just as true for those of us who claim to have heard the "call" and to have responded to it with faith. The "whirlwind of life" threatens to render that call inaudible. Some faithful members of the Church consider it a "victory" to get out the door on Sunday morning with regularity, let alone participate in some of the other services and activities that mark parish life. Yet even at home, is there time to pray and read the Scriptures; to attend to the needs of neighbors or others who depend upon our assistance?

Bishop Hilarion, however, remains postive about this mysterious call from God and explains that it may come to us in a variety of ways:

And yet, however paradoxical it may seem, in spite of today's noise and confusion, it is still possible to hear the mysterious call of God in our hearts. This call may not always be understood as the voice of God. It may strike us as a feeling of dissatisfaction or of inner unease, or as the beginning of a search. For many, it is only after the passing of years that they realize their life was incomplete and inadequate because it was without God. 'You have made us for yourself,' says St. Augustine, 'and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.' Without God there can never be fullness of being. It is therefore crucially important for us to be able to hear and to respond to the voice of God at the very moment when God is speaking, and not years later. If someone identifies and responds to the call of God, this may change and transfigure his or her life whole life. (p. 2)

" ... and not years later." We are always "postponing" our relationship with God for when we are less busy. The "call" from God needs to be cultivated - now, in the present. The dissatisfaction that we feel now, or the unease troubling us today is that same "call" coming to us from God in another form. In a previous meditation I had referred to this as "blessed dissatisfaction." People fool themselves by thinking that one more exotic vacation, shopping spree or superficial social event will pacify that dissatisfaction and unease. Such things may momentarily pacify the great pressure that we are under with our stressed out lives, but they also feed our appetite for more so that an endless cycle, resembling something of an unending merry-go-round of activities, perpetuates the postponement just referred to above. "Behold now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation." (II COR. 6:2)

Bishop Hilarion has given us something to think about ...

How happy are we Christians! What God is ours?
How much to be pitied are those who do not know God ...
O, unhappy, erring peoples! They cannot know what true joy is ...

But our joy is Christ. By His sufferings He has inscribed us in the Book of Life, and in the Kingdom of heaven we shall be with God for ever, and we shall see His glory, and delight in Him. Our joy is the Holy Spirit, so pleasant and delectable. He bears witness to the soul of her salvation.

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Matter of Synergy...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
I would like to greet any of our Roman Catholic and Protestant friends and readers who celebrated Easter yesterday. I hope that the light of the Risen Lord remains with you during the remainder of this season - and beyond. Orthodox Christians remain in "preparation mode" until April 27.
On this Monday morning, we begin the third week of Great Lent. That means that two weeks have passed. One possible response is: already?! Another possible response is: is that all?! Perhaps our experience hovers in between those two poles. The journey before us is another four weeks and then Holy Week and Pascha. Therefore, the challange remains and even intensifies as our initial enthusiasm for the lenten season may begin to cool. Then we begin to realize that a real battle remains as we struggle with the "flesh" and our many "passions" that have fought against us from our youth up - at times hardening into bad habits or sinful inclinations. As the Lord said about these "inner demons:" "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting." (MK. 9:29) The "fleshpots" of Egypt may continue to entice us, but the "desert" of the Fast is to dwell where Christ himself did for forty days.
Though it remains Great Lent, we are now on the eve of a wonderful "festal interlude:" the Feast of the Annunciation. This deeply profound Feast gets lost within Lent, and this is deeply unfortunate. In fact, it is due to the lenten season that it remains basically a one-day Feast. Yet it remains that only on March 25 is the Divine Liturgy and the eucharistic consecration permitted during a weekday during Great Lent. Festal colors appear on this day as we celebrate the "conception without seed" that is at the heart of this Feast. This is the Church's celebration and glorifcation of the Incarnation! The eternal Word becomes flesh, when that very Word of God enters the womb of the Virgin Mary upon her consent to her unique vocation to become the Mother of God. He who was born from all eternity from a Father without a mother, is now born within time from a mother without a father. The mysterious "moment of conception" is the "moment" of God becoming fully human in the womb of His mother. The Annunciation is a festal response welling up from the interior depths of ecclesial faith and life that speaks to contemporary issues of life and death. In other words, this is the Church's great "pro-life" celebration. Nine months later we will celebrate our Savior's birth on December 25.
The Annunciation reveals like no other event the cooperation between God and humanity in the process of salvation. The Incarnation was the work of God, but also the work of the Virgin Mary who represents all of humanity in her "yes" to the archangel's words. This incomparable dialogue between the celestial and human realms recorded by the evangelist Luke (1:26-38) with a kind of exquisite refinement should be carefully read and "pondered over" carefully as we celebrate this Feast.
The synergy of divinity and humanity revealed in the Annunciation has been beautifully expressed by St. Nicholas Cabasilas (14th c.) in a justifiably praised passage that captures the balance between the two perfectly, thus expressing the Orthodox understanding of synergy in a classical manner:
The incarnation of the Word was not only the work of the Father, Son and Spirit - the first consenting, the second descending, the third overshadowing - but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.
We will celebrate the Feast with Great Vespers this evening at 7:00 p.m. and the Divine Liturgy on Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m.
Fr. Steven

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Liberation from Obsessions

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent: The Twelfth Day

From St. John Cassian (+c. 430)

If we want to set our lives right and find peace,
it is not the tolerant attitude of others
that will do it for us.
It will come about, rather, by our learning
how to show compassion to them.
If we try to avoid this hard struggle of compassion,
by preferring a withdrawn and solitary life,
we will simply drag our unleashed obsessions
into solitude with us.
We might well have hidden them
We certainly will not have eliminated them.
If we do not seek liberation from our obsessions,
then becoming more withdrawn and less social
may even make us more blind to them,
since it can mask them.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Not even for a day...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent: The Eleventh Day

From St. John Cassian (+c. 430)

If we take St. Paul literally,
we are not allowed to cling to our anger
even for a day.
I would like to make a comment, however,
that many people are so embittered and furious
when they are in a state of anger
that they not only cling to their anger for a day
but drag it out for weeks.

I am at a loss for words to explain
those who do not even vent their anger in speech
but erect a barrier of sullen silence around them
and distill the bitter poison of their hearts
until it finally destroys them.

They could not have understood
how important it is to avoid anger,
not merely externally, but even in our thoughts,
because it darkens our intellect with bitterness
and cuts it off from the radiance
of spiritual understanding and discernment
by depriving it of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Among Frightful Chasms...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent: The Tenth Day

From Mark the Ascetic:
A young calf starts to wander after fresh grazing
and eventually finds itself stranded
among frightful chasms.
So it is with the soul,
for thoughts gradually lead it astray.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Path of the Saints...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Great Lent: The Eighth Day

From Abba Philemon (6th. - 7th c.):
Set your mind on following the path of saints.
Prefer a simple style of life.
Wear unremarkable clothes.
Eat simple food.
Behave in an unaffected manner.
Don't strut around as if you were important.
Speak from the heart.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Keep A Careful Watch...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent: The Fifth Day

From Abba Philemon (6th - 7th c.):

Keep a careful watch on yourself.
Do not allow yourself to be swept away
by external obsessions.
The tumultous movements of the soul,
in particular,
can be rendered quiet by stillness.
But if you keep encouraging and stimulating them,
they will start to terrorize you
and can disorder your whole life.
Once they are in control, it is as hard to heal them
as it is to soothe a sore that we can't stop scratching.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An Ancient Form of Wisdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Great Lent: The Third Day

We find ourselves (stuck?) in a sound-bite culture. We hear short fragments of news stories, anecdotes, gossip, and the like, that are meant to draw us into a given story; but the brevity of the "data" makes it almost impossible to really understand many of the underlying issues or the personalities involved. How often have we seen five-second clips, accompanied by a voice-over, of someone like the late Anna Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton flit across the screen meant to titilate our interest in one more meaningless or sordid detail - though we hardly know anything about them as persons? We can easily come away with a misunderstanding unless we expend the time and energy to probe deeper (and this usually occurs through internet surfing instead of book reading). The whole point of the sound-bite, however, is that we often do not have the time nor the energy to look deeper, even if our interest has been aroused. And here I am referring to a serious story - political, cultural, social - and not about the life of the glamorous and rich. We can therefore conclude that our sound-bite culture has been created (by whom or by what?) in order to serve our limitations; almost to "respect" our overwhelmed lives that are constantly on the move from one event to another. A little edgier, or even more cynical analysis, may conclude that the sound-bite is the perfect means of communication for a superficially-educated or apathetic society that is more interested in entertainment and distraction than real "news." (There is a book out there entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death that I hope to get to one day and comment on - when I have the time, that is!).

All of this can make you hunger for a good, long 19th c. realistic novel - War and Peace anyone? - that has character development in depth, intricate plots, passages of lyrical beauty, dramatic narrative pacing, meaningful dialogue and a moral vision informing the entire work. Something you have to "work at" with precisely time and concentration for the book to yield its manifold richness and endless insights about life. Or a good history book or documentary that probes a given subject with solid investigative reporting.

On the other hand, there does exist a centuries-old and even ancient form of wisdom that is presented in very concise form, sometimes in only a sentence or two. Yet, this literature has the opposite purpose and effect from our modern sound-bite. I am speaking primarily of the Scriptures and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The Book of Proverbs offers wisdom teaching about life in short aphoristic, even pithy, sayings that are often memorizable (think of memorizing a TV or gossip magazine sound-bite!) and created to be meditated and pondered over, with the hope that the wisdom so imparted can be integrated into our lives with a life-changing effect. From The Book of Proverbs:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning
of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. (PROV. 1:7)

Happy is the man who finds wisdom,
and the man who gets
for the gain from it is better than
gain from silver
and its profit better than gold. (PROV. 3:13)

Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will
hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will
love you. (PROV. 9:8)

By the way, The Book of Proverbs is appointed to be read during the forty days of Great Lent. We hear the appointed passage for the day during the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers resemble this form of imparting wisdom. As John McGuckin explains: "The instructions were usually arranged in short paragraphs, meant to be learned by heart and meditated on over and over again for a day or even a week until the paragraph had broken like a fruit on the tongue of the monk and revealed its inner flavor to the searching mind." (The Book of Mystical Chapters, p. 7) What I would like to do during Great Lent this year is to share some of these wonderful sayings from the great ascetics and saints of the Church, so that we can read them, meditate on them, and see which of them may strike a real inner cord that awakens us to really desire to embody this timeless wisdom that is the fruit of faith, hope and love; cultivated through prayer, fasting, vigils and tears. These sayings are wonderful examples wherein "less is more" - not, as in the sound-bite, wherein less is superficial, incomplete, or misleading. To "unpack" these short sayings is to ponder deeply on what is significant in our relationship with God and neighbor; to find endless insight into how to live in the light of the Gospel.

These sayings are taken from The Book of Mystical Chapters - Meditations on the Soul's Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives, translated and introduced by Fr. John McGuckin. They certainly do not need my commentary, but rather your undivided attention, focus and concentration together with a real desire to learn from the masters of the life in the Spirit. Today, we begin with the words of a certain Amma Sara, a desert mother of the 4th - 5th c.:

Amma Sara said:
If I prayed to God
that all men should approve of my conduct,
I should find myself endlessly penitent
before each man's door.

I shall not ask this;
I shall pray instead
that my heart might be pure toward all.

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 10, 2008

Let Us Begin With Joy...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Although the entire city seemed to be shut down this past weekend from the "blizzard" that blew through Cincinnati on Saturday, we remained not only undaunted, but rather victorious over the elements that swirled around us. True, we did decide to cancel the parish activities that were scheduled for Saturday afternoon; but we still served the Lord's Day cycle of Great Vespers on Saturday evening and the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. For those who came to church yesterday for the Liturgy and the Forgiveness Vespers to follow, you may have noticed the relatively easy access you had to the church as the sidewalks, entrance and steps around the church were very carefully and thoroughly shoveled. Rewarding us for our belief in their existence, guardian angels obviously came to prepare the church for the arrival of the faithful who had come to pray. We thank God for their presence and assistance. Despite our individual sinfulness, perhaps our prayer holds up the world in a way that is mysterious and impervious to rational analysis. Bearing this in mind, we do our best to assemble when possible.

Once inside the warm embrace of the church - and all things considered, our attendance was good - we were able to prepare for today's beginning of Great Lent. We heard the Gospel passage that taught us the right approach to the practice of fasting:

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (MATT. 6:16-18)

However, our fasting, together with almsgiving and prayers (cf. MATT. 6:1-13), must have forgiveness as their foundation:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (MATT. 6:14-15)

Certainly, it is easier to fast than to forgive! This is why we call this Sunday on the eve of Great Lent "Forgiveness Sunday," so that we do not succumb to a pedantic legalism in fasting, while refusing to forgive as the Lord taught us. It was very encouraging to see that just about everyone who came to the Liturgy, remained for the Vespers to follow and the moving Rite of Forgiveness. Any "rite" within the life of the Church is a meaningful and significant action through which we gain access to the freely given Grace of God. This is nowhere more true than through the rite of mutual forgiveness which, in the light of the Gospel, is the only "right" thing to do.

We also commemorated the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, though here it is clear that "commemorate" does not mean to celebrate, but to call to mind. "Paradise Lost" becomes "Paradise Regained" with the advent of the Last Adam - Jesus Christ - and His lifegiving Death and Resurrection. With the disobedience of Adam and Eve in paradise - their breaking of the fast essentially - the many passions that afflict us and tempt us were unleashed; thus the original harmony of soul and body that revealed humanity as the crown of God's creation can only hoped to be recovered by crucifying the flesh and the many passions that war against it from our youth up to the present day. As one of the desert fathers taught, we crucify the flesh in order to save the body. As with our Lord, joy can only come through the Cross and not around it.

On the Monday of the First Week of the Fast, we hear the following third sessional hymn:
Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendour of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life.

As a powerful assistance in this hoped-for process, we will chant the Great Canon of St. Andrew on the first four evenings of this first week of the Fast beginning at 7:00 p.m.

Fr. Steven

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Orthodox Experience of Repentance

Dear Parish Faithful,

This life has been given you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things. ~ St. Isaac the Syrian
Repentance is a great understanding. ~ The Shepherd of Hermas
The springtime of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance has begun to open. ~ Vespers of Cheesefare Week

As we fast approach the beginning of Great Lent, I strongly encourage you to read the passage below from Archbishop Kallistos Ware. It is a medley of excerpts from a great article of his entitled "The Orthodox Experience of Repentance." I believe that it takes us way beyond the common understanding of repentance (often confused with the idea of penitence).

To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God's love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become....

Repentance, then, is an illumination, a transition from darkness to light; to repent is to open our eyes to the divine radiance - not to sit dolefully in the twilight but to greet the dawn ...

The connection between repentance and the advent of the great light is particularly significant. Until we have seen the light of Christ, we cannot really see our sins. So long as a room is in darkness, observes St. Theophan the Recluse, we do not notice the dirt; but when we bring a powerful light into the room - when, that is, we stand before the Lord in our heart - we can distinguish every speck of dust. So it is with the room of our soul. The sequence is not to repent first, and then to become aware of Christ; for it is only when the light of Christ has already in some measure entered our life that we begin truly to understand our sinfulness. To repent, says St. John of Kronstadt, is to know that there is a lie in our heart; but how can we detect the presence of a lie unless we have already some sense of the truth? In the words of E. I. Watkin, "Sin ... is the shadow cast by the light of God intercepted by any attachment of the will which prevents it illuminating the soul. Thus knowledge of God gives rise to the sense of sin, not vice versa." As the Desert Fathers observe, "The closer we come to God, the more we see that we are sinners." And they cite Isaiah as an example of this: first he sees the Lord on His throne and hears the seraphim crying "Holy, holy, holy;" and it is only after this vision that he exclaims, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips" (Is. 6:1-5)

Such, then, is the beginning of repentance: a vision of beauty, not of ugliness; an awareness of God's glory, not of my own squalor.

Repentance reaches its culmination in the Sacrament of Confession. As the parish continues to grow, it is becoming something of a challenge to hear everyone's confession during Great Lent! That is why I am requesting that we spread things out a bit, and that in addition to Saturday evening as the time of Confession, you may also look to some other possibilities: before the Presanctifed Liturgy on Wednesdays (Friday of the first week of Lent); the service on Friday evenings; and daytime visits to the church.

Those of you who have not been to Confession since last Great Lent - a year ago, that is - should only approach the Chalice after you have restored your relationship with the Church through the Sacrament of Confession. "Redeem the time," and make this Great Lent a time to overcome any misgivings, spiritual forgetfulness or plain procrastination.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

One Small Gesture

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

One of the classics of children's literature is the wonderful novel A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (She also wrote another classic, The Secret Garden). The young heroine of this novel is an English girl named Sara Crewe, who is initially treated as a "little princess" because her father has acquired some wealth through mining speculation, and was able to establish her as one of the more prosperous girls in a boarding school in London. Yet, when the father loses his fortune and unexpectedly dies, Sara finds herself alone and penniless and now at the mercy of the cold-hearted headmistress at the boarding school. Though now treated as a menial servant, and living in abject poverty up in the unheated attic, Sara maintains a graceful spirit that does not succumb to the physical hardships and psychological abuse of her unwanted poverty.

In a deeply touching passage in the book, Sara, living on near-starvation rations, finds a coin in the street and rushes to the local bakery in order to purchase a few newly-baked rolls. The kind baker gives her a few extra because she knew Sara before her unfortunate "reversal of fortune." Yet, when Sara emerges from the bakery with her rolls, she encounters an unkempt and homeless little street waif who is clearly even more impoverished and hungry than she is. In a spontaneous gesture of compassion and kindness, Sara graciously gives the little girl all of the rolls save one. Unknown to Sara, the baker witnessed this act, and was so impressed by Sara's sharing, that she in turn was moved to compassion and eventually brought the little girl into her shop as a worker.

This profoundly Christian scene of "co-suffering love" embedded in an Edwardian novel meant for young readers, always reminds me of the Gospel passage that we just read this last Sunday, known as the pre-lenten Sunday of the Last Judgement. Then we heard the Parable/Teaching of the Last Judgement, found in MATT. 25:31-46. Jesus powerfully describes an active ministry of love as the way to, and characteristic of, the Kingdom of God. In theological language, this is called an eschatological orientation. (Eschatology is from the Gk. word for the "last things"). Christ enumerates the following deeds of an active love that render a human person worthy of entering into the joy of the Lord at the last judgement:

• feeding the hungry
• giving drink to the thirsty
• welcoming strangers
• visiting the sick
• visiting those in prison

The biblical scholar, John L. McKenzie summarized this teaching in the following manner:
Ministry to the basic needs of one's fellow man is the only canon of judgement mentioned here. One could paraphrase by saying that man is judged entirely on his behavior toward his fellow man. The evasion that this does not include man's duties toward to God is met in this passage; Jesus identifies himself with those to whom service is given or refused, and their behavior toward men is their behavior toward God.

The surprise of those who are condemned is easy to understand; they never accepted the fact that they encountered Jesus in other men and that they cannot distinguish between their duties to God and their duties to men. They are ranked with the devils, whose proper element is the fire of Gehenna. Eschatology means man is capable of a final decision that gives his life a permanent character. Both the righteous and the wicked here have made decisions that are irrevocable.

Like the last discourse in JN, the theme is love based on the identity of Jesus with men. In the last analysis, it is love that determines whether men are good or bad. If their love is active, failure to reach perfect morality in other ways will be rare, and it will be forgiven. But there is no substitute for active love.

Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, also stressed the importance of an "active love," especially in the character of the elder Zosima in his final masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, and in his young hero of that novel, Alyosha Karamazov. Active love, for Dostoevsky, was seen by him to be the most convincing repsonse to all of the arguments of theoretical atheism. In the novel, the elder Zosima says the following to a woman racked by doubts concerning immortality - and God by extension:

Strive to love your neighbor actively and tirelessly. To the extent that you succeed in loving, you will become convinced both of the existence of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain complete selflessness in loving your neighbor, then will indubitably be persuaded, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested, this is certain.

Though fictional, Sara Crewe's one small gesture is the embodiment of an active love manifested in a gesture of mercy and compassion for the neighbor. It had no theoretical or ideological component to it. It was deeply personal and devoid of any hidden motives or calculated gains. It transcended all such categorizations. This, I believe, is what most truly exemplifes this remarkable passage in the Gospel. At a time of acute and endless discussion due to the political processes that are now consuming our attention - to the saturation point and beyond it seems - we hear on a daily basis from the various candidates a stream of proposed programs, pledged policies and passionate promises concerning the care of the many people devoid of any safety nets when they inevitably fall between the cracks of our flawed social systems. The teaching about the Last Judgement by Christ transcends any such programs, policies or promises. It does not matter whether or not you are a Democrat or a Republican; a liberal or a conservative; or a proponent of strong or limited government intervention into the lives of our citizenry. The Parable of the Last Judgement is a direct appeal - perhaps a "warning" - to each person who encounters Christ and His teaching. What are you doing as part of a ministry of active love seems to be what Christ is asking. Or, at the Last Judgement, what have you actually done? Deeds of active love may just be the most potent signs that we took Christ and His teaching seriously.

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Wider Context of Fasting

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In an article contained in the Lenten Triodion entitled "The Rules of Fasting," translated and edited by Mother Mary and Archmandrite Kallistos Ware, we read the following:

In the week before Lent, meat is forbidden, but eggs, cheese and other dairy products (as well as fish) may be eaten on all days, including Wednesday and Friday.

This is why the second Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent is called Meatfare Sunday.

This article goes on to list the foods excluded during Great Lent:
  • meat;
  • animal products (cheese, milk, butter, eggs);
  • fish (i.e. fish with backbones);
  • oil (i.e. olive oil) and wine (i.e. all alcoholic drinks)

Obviously, each and every household has to "work" with the discipline of the Fast in a realistic manner, setting some goals that are both challenging, but not impossible to meet Otherwise, we are only inviting frustration and legalism. The above article also offers this advice: "In cases of uncertainty each should seek the advice of his or her spiritual father."

As Archbishop Ware writes at the end of this article: "At all times it is essential to bear in mind that 'you are not under the law but under grace' (ROM. 6:14), and that 'the letter kills, but the spirit gives life' (II COR. 3:6). The rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously, are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; 'for the Kingdom of God is not food and drink, bur righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (ROM. 14:17)

With his usual rhetorical skills in full display, St. John Chrysostom offers a truly holistic approach to fasting:
Sharpen your sword and your sickle which has been blunted by gluttony - sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven, rugged and narrow as it is. Lay hold of it, and journey on it.

Fasting is a medicine. But like all medicines, though it be very profitable to the person who knows how to use it, it frequently becomes useless (and even harmful) in the hands of him who is unskilled in its use.

Do you fast? Give proof of it by your works. By what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see an enemy, be reconciled with him. If you see a friend gaining honor, do not be jealous of him. If you see a beautiful countenance, pass it by. And let not only the mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feel and the hands and all members of your bodies.

Let the hands fast by being pure from plundering and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves with strange beauties ... Do you not eat meat? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of your eyes! Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies.

Let the mouth fast also from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour the brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brothers and bites the body of his neighbor. Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, 'If you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another' (GAL. 5:15). You have not fixed your teeth in his flesh, but you have fixed your slander in his soul and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion, and you have harmed in a thousand ways yourself and him and many others, for in slandering your neighbor you have made him who listens to the slander worse, for should he be a wicked person, he becomes more careless when he finds a partner in his wickedness. And should he be a just person, he is tempted to arrogance and gets puffed up, being led on by the sin of others to imagining great things concerning himself. Besides this, you have struck at the common welfare of the Church herself, for all those who hear you will not only accuse the supposed sinner, but the entire Christian community....

And so I desire to fix three precepts in your mind so that you may accompany them during the fast: to speak ill of no one, to hold no one an enemy, and to expel from your mouth altogether the evil habit of swearing.

If, by the grace of God, we could place our fasting from food and drink into this wider context of "fasting," then Great Lent will certainly be a time of restoration for our relationship with both God and neighbor.

Fr. Steven