Monday, April 28, 2008

Bringing the Light of Pascha into our Daily Life

Dear Parish Faithful,


I hope that everyone is enjoying this Holy and Bright Monday - even if more than a little bit tired. As we fasted last week in preparation for Pascha; this week we do not fast in the enjoyment of Pascha. (Though be careful not to lose in a week what may have been gained in over forty days of fasting!) For those especially who went through Holy Week by participating in the many services - even by taking "time off" from other usual events, including work and school - this week may seem like a return to "normal" time. Or perhaps, even a return to "reality." Yet, upon deeper reflection, everything going on in church has been our connection with the deepest levels of reality, or Reality itself in all of its fulness and mysteriousness. In St. John's Gospel, the word for Truth (aletheia) is also the word for Reality. Since Christ is the Truth, then we have tasted of Reality once again in the paschal mystery of life in death. If we were to create a theological slogan, then we could say that "Christ is the Real Thing!"

This is not to say that our "normal" lives are less real. We live in God's world, not some gnostic universe that only "seems" to be real. We are not caught in the fallen universe of the matrix in desperate need of escape. But in our daily lives we notice that often enough, what is real is thrown off balance, less focused, even distorted. God is declared to be dead and Christ a mere myth. In such a world, people create their own "reality" born of fantasy, despair, anxiety, fear or simply sin. What may hold out the promise of a dream world can often end up a nightmare. Through Holy Week and Pascha, and with an unrivaled intensity, our vision of reality has been clarified, focused, restored, and grounded in "real" events - the Death of Christ on the wood of the Cross, and His Resurrection from the dead on the third day. Jesus Christ "really" died after being nailed to the Cross; and He "really" was raised from the dead as many eyewitnesses testified at the expense of their own well-being. In that short three-day paschal mystery, something has changed irrevocably once and for all, and that "change" has a universal significance for every living thing. A world worn out by sin and alienation from God has been given a new beginning. That new beginning is only "visible" to the eyes of faith, and therefore it is simultaneously objective and subjective. Objective, for what God has done remains true and real for all time; but subjective, in that every human person must respond to that event and assimilate it through faith.

We live in one real world - not in two artifically separated worlds that we like to call the "sacred" and the "profane." This one real world is the one created by God "in the beginning" and now reconciled to Himself in and through Christ. We now have the task of connecting our ecclesial experience with our everyday experience, so that something like a seamless robe is created. As we perhaps struggle a bit trying to re-focus our vision as we move from the "night brighter than any day," into a daily life that is darkened by sin, we will hopefully bring with us some of the light of Pascha that has "purified our senses" so that we can see Christ in all things and at all times.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dying We Live!

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here are a wonderful couple of paragraphs from the dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, Fr. John Behr, taken from a small booklet prepared this Great Lent, entitled "Behold: Dying We Live!"

Pascha approaches: we should reflect once again on this crux of our faith, orient ourselves anew by the perspective that if offers, and enter afresh into its mystery.

By his death, his voluntary self-offering in love for us, Christ has destroyed death and granted us life. We say such words so often, that we frequently become immune to the stumbling-block and scandal that they present, and so overlook their implications for us. By dying, as a human being, Christ has shown us what it is to be truly divine. Lordship manifest in service, strength in weakness, wisdom in folly. If he had shown us what it is to be divine in any other way (acting, for instance, as a superhuman god), we could have had no share in him and his work. The fact is that we are all going to die, whether we like it or not. The only question is how we are going to die? Clinging to all that we think is ours, our own life and possessions, our own status or merit? Or following him on his path to Golgotha, laying down our life in love for him and our neighbors? Living, yet still dying, or dying to live.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Withered Fig Tree?

Dear Parish Faithful,

One of the "themes" for Holy and Great Monday centers around the incident of Christ withering the fig tree outslde of Jerusalem (MK. 11: 12-14; MATT. 21:18-19) This was clearly a "symbolic" gesture on the part of Christ. There are various levels of interpretation applied to this event, and perhaps one of the best is how this "parable in action" can be applied to our own relationship with God - or lack of such relationship. From the book known as The Synaxarion which we read from yesterday evening following the Bridegroom Matins, we hear the following:

It is quite clear that sin is likened unto the fig, inasmuch as it possesses the "delight" of sensual pleasure, the "stickiness" of sin itself and the "hardness and sharpness" of a guilty conscience.

The fig tree is also every soul which is devoid of all spiritual fruit. In the morning, that is, after this present life, if the Lord finds no refreshment in such a soul, He withers it with a curse and hands it over to the everlasting fire. It remains standing as a dried-up post, striking fear into those who do not produce the fitting fruit of the virtues.

Fr. Steven

Friday, April 18, 2008

Holy Week: A Mystic Torrent

Dear Parish Faithful,

Holy Week will begin with the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Monday sung and chanted in anticipation on Sunday evening.

The festal atmosphere of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday will yield to the solemnity, sobriety and sadness of Holy Week as the Lord moves toward His voluntary and life-giving Passion. The Son of God came into the world "to bear witness to the truth" (JN. 18:37) and "to give his life as a ransom for many." (MK. 10:45)

It is our privilege and responsibility to accompany Christ to Golgotha to the extent that our lives make that possible. Certainly, to receive palms on Palm Sunday and to then next return for an easter egg on Pascha, would only be fitting for an "Easter Orthodox Christian - but not for an Eastern Orthodox Christian!" Be mindful of the intervening Holy Week and the services that will guide us to Golgatha and beyond to the empty tomb.

As Fr. Sergius Bulgakov wrote: "The beauty, the richness and the power of these services take possession of the soul and sweep it along as upon a mystic torrent." (The Orthodox Church, p. 131) Therefore, let us "lay aside all earthly care" during Holy Week and focus on our Lord Jesus Christ whether we are at a particular service or not. This is a week when there is work, school, church and any other necessary responsibilities. There is no room or time for worldly entertainment. Not when the Lamb of God will be slain for the sins of the world.

At the services of Holy Week, we enter into the "today" of the events being reactualized so that the event and all of its salvific power is made present to the gathered community. Thus, we are not simply commemorating a past event for its dramatic impact, or presenting something of an Orthodox "passion play." Rather, we re-present the event of the Crucifixion so that we participate in it within the liturgical time of the Church's worship.

The Seven Rules of a Christian

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent - The Fortieth Day(!)

From The Sayings of the Egyptian Fathers

These are the seven rules of a Christian:

In the first place, as scripture says,
"Love God with all your soul and all your mind."

Then, love your fellow human beings
as you love yourself.

Fast from all evil.

Never pass judgement on anyone, for any cause.

Never do evil to anyone.

Discipline yourself and purge yourself
from material and spiritual evil.

Cultivate a modest and gentle heart.

If you can do all these things
and see only your own faults, not those of others,
the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
will be with you abundantly.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

To Want Your Own Way...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent - The Thirty Ninth Day

From The Sayings of the Egyptian Fathers

Always to want your own way,
becoming accustomed to having it,
always to seek the easy path -
all this leads straight to depression.

But love, quietness, and contemplation of the inner life
cleanse our hearts.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

From Abba Agathon - On Resentment

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent - The Thirty Eighth Day

From The Sayings of the Fathers

Abba Agathon said:

I have never allowed myself to go to bed
while I still felt resentment against a person,
And, as far as I was able,
I never allowed anyone else to go to bed either,
as long as they still felt resentment against me.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Well Capable of Dissipating...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent - The Thirty Seventh Day

From St. John Klimakos (+c. 650)

When you go out after prayer,
keep your tongue under restraint,
for it is well capable of dissipating,
in a very short time,
what you labored to gather together.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Murmerings in the Wilderness

Dear Parish Faithful,

As we continue with our lenten series of homilies on The Book of Exodus, we arrive at the troubling episode of the "Golden Calf" to be covered on Sunday (EX. 32-34). Tempted and anxious with the delay of Moses on Mount Horeb/Sinai; and desiring a concrete representation of God for its "worship;" Israel seems to break the first commandment almost simultaneously with its reception of it. Regardless of what the Israelites may have thought about it, the Golden Calf clearly violated the Word of the Lord: "You shall have no other gods before me." (EX. 20:3) As a "jealous God" Who had just liberated them from slavery in Egypt, the Lord was intolerant of idolatry - the worship of false gods. This whole episode seems to fit into a pattern that can be called the " the murmurings in the wilderness." These murmurings against God and his servant Moses, continue to break through the narrative of Israel in the wilderness as a kind of sub-theme that realistically portrays the challenges and uncertainties of its newly granted freedom. As God "tests" the patience of the Israelites, His patience also seems to be "tested" in the process.

The Old Testament scholar Bernard Anderson has compiled a list of "Israel's Murmurings in the Wilderness" in his study of the Exodus event:

EX. 15-22-26 Brackish water at Marah
EX. 16:2-3 Longing for the fleshpots of Egypt
EX. 17:2-7 Water complaint at Massah and Meribah
NUM. 11:4-6 Complaint about manna
NUM. 12:1-2 Criticism of Moses for marrying a Cushite wife
NUM. 14:2-3 Complaint against the leadership of Moses and Aaron
NUM. 16:12-14 Accusation made by Dathan and Abiram
NUM. 20:2-13 Complaint about wilderness life
NUM. 21:4-5 Impatience during the march through Transjordan

The Hebrew word that is usually translated as "murmuring" has the fuller sense of deep dissatisfaction, resentment and anger. In other words, very serious complaining. Anderson makes a further insightful observation about the honesty of the narratives outlining Israel's formative years in the wilderness:

Where else in the ancient world - or in the modern world, for that matter - has a people had the courage to say that its origin was characterized by weakness, if not failure? This is another reminder that Israel tells its history, not from the standpoint of human achievement but in the consciousness of God's searching judgment. (Understanding the Old Testament, p. 78)

Even though the Lord grew "angry" with Israel for its idolatry and murmuring, still He disclosed His real nature and relationship with Israel in a magnificent passage found after the Golden Calf episode:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation. (EX. 34:6-7)

The Lord's steadfast love for Israel never waned, but the original adults who left Egypt were not allowed to enter the Promised Land - including Moses! They all died in the wilderness before the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan.

Perhaps we too "murmur" during the forty day sojourn of Great Lent, leading us to the Promised Land of Pascha: "It is too long." "It is not convenient." What can I feed the children?" "Do we really need to fast?" "What am I supposed to do at work?" "We are a small minority," etc. Perhaps we even long for the modern-day equivalent of the "fleshpots of Egypt" - whatever that may mean. This is rather curious considering the healthy foods that are "allowed" during Great Lent - fruits and vegetables, legums, pastas, whole grain breads, and fruit juices, to mention a few. We even have tofu and soy products - "milk" "burgers" and "hot dogs!" I am waiting for soy fillet mignon to hit the market! I wonder just how much energy and ingenuity we spend trying to get around true fasting? As a change of our usual habits, it does prove to be challenging, no doubt. And we do live in a "wilderness" of empty attractions with a multitude of "golden calfs" that seem to make it all palatable. But, like the Israelites of old, we need to remain faithful to what God expects of us. The Lord does not test us beyond our capacity. True freedom - not the false freedom that is actually license - is found when we abandon the "fleshpots" of Egypt and nourish ourselves on the living Word of God. And, of course, we receive the true "manna" from heaven - the Eucharist - to sustain us in the wilderness of the fast - forty days and not forty years! As we begin to grow weary and tire, perhaps this scriptural admonition meant to sustain us, will prove to be helpful:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (HEB. 12:12)

Fr. Steven

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Road of Humility

Dear Parish Faithful

Great Lent - The Thirty-second Day

From St. John Klimakos ("of the Ladder" - + c. 650)

The angel Lucifer fell from heaven
solely on account of one passion -
his pride.
It makes me wonder whether it is possible
to rise up to heaven
solely on the strength of humility.

If you cannot avoid grave lapses,
because of bodily weakness,
you must take the road of
and all its qualities,
for there is no other road
that will lead you back to salvation.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

If We Dwell on Hurts...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent - The Thirty-first Day

From St. John Klimakos ("of the Ladder" - +c. 650)

If we dwell on hurts that others have given us,
we will be like those bizarre
interpreters of scripture
who read the spiritual text in any way that suits

Put this attitude to shame within you
by reciting the Jesus Prayer:
"Lord Jesus Christ, have
mercy on us."

Monday, April 7, 2008

Do not be surprised...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent: The Twenty Ninth Day

From St. John Klimakos ("of the Ladder" - + 650)

Do not be surprised
if you fall back into the old ways every day.
Do not be disheartened
but resolve to do something positive,
and without question,
that angel who stands guard over you
will honor your

Friday, April 4, 2008

To Arrange as He Knows Best

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent: The Twenty Sixth Day

From Evagrius of Pontus (+399)

I have often prayed and asked God
for what seemed good in my own estimation.

Like a fool, I kept on at God to grant me this;
I would not leave it to him
to arrange as he knows best for me.

Then, having obtained the thing
I had prayed for so stubbornly,
I have often been sorry
that I did not leave it to the will of God,
for the reality often turned out very different
from the way I had imagined.

If I may be permitted a note on this particular saying, I would encourage everyone to read it and ponder/meditate on these words very carefully. Evagrius is touching on something very deep here.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Fast has brought us midway...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to my calculations we are exactly at the half way point between the beginning of Great Lent and Pascha, as this is the twenty fifth day of the Fast. This was confirmed yesterday evening when, at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, we chanted the following stichera:

The fast, the source of blessings,
now has brought us midway through its course.
Having pleased God with the days that have passed
we look forward to making good use of the days to come,
for growth in blessings brings forth even greater achievements ...

We, hope, at least, that we have "pleased God with the days that have passed." Looking back to a pre-lenten meditation that I sent out a week before the Fast began, I noticed that I included a wonderful passage from St. John Chrysostom, that ended with this very practical but challenging exhortation:

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 anyone is interested in making a mid-point assessment of his or her efforts, then perhaps this passage may be a good place to begin. Whatever that honest assessment may yield, we do have another twenty five days to go, and as the hymn stated, "we look forward to making good use of the days to come." So let us continue with zeal the fulfillment of our Lord's command that we pray, give alms, and fast with the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbors uppermost in our minds and hearts.

It is certainly no coincidence that the Cross is planted in the midst of the Church at this midpoint in our movement toward Pascha. Our destination is the Cross ascended willingly by our Savior so that our sins may be abolished and death overcome by His life-giving death. The Cross at this point is the first announcement of that destination. The paschal mystery begins with the Cross and our willingness to stand by it in solidarity with our Lord Jesus Christ. His Cross gives ultimate meaning to our crosses of personal tragedy and sadness - all inevitable in this life. And the Cross is the gateway to the Resurrection:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify!

What a privilege, blessing and joy to be able to bow down before the Cross! This gesture is no relic of an outdated piety, but an acknowledgment of our absolute dependence on Christ's sacrifice on the Cross for our salvation. What we believe in our minds and hearts, we express through our bodies since, as Orthodox Christians, we worship God with our whole person - soul and body. We are often tempted to "bow down" before idol after idol erected before our gaze by a fallen world desparately trying to find "something" worthy of our "worship" to fill the great void left by a loss of faith in God. These idols are worthless, but we are slow in coming to that recognition. We stubbornly, if not perversely, continue to cling to them in the hopeless hope that there is something behind them after all. When we come to church during this week of the Cross, then, and prostrate ourselves before the "wood of the Tree," it is as if our sanity is restored, our clouded vision clarified, and our faith, hope and love redirected to the only One who can bring them to fruition.

Today, as we bow down before the Cross of the Lord, we cry:
Rejoice, O tree of life, the destroyer of hell!
Rejoice, O joy of the world, the slayer of corruption!
Rejoice, O power that scatters demons!
O invincible weapon, confirmation of the faithful:
Protect and sanctify those who kiss you!
(Wednesday evening, Fourth Week of Lent)

Rhetorical as this sticheron may be, not one word of it is an exaggeration of the actual meaning and power of the Cross as revealed in the New Testament. The Cross is the only "symbol" worthy of our allegiance. In wearing, bowing down before, or kissing the Cross, it is that allegiance that we confess to the world.

Let us cleanse our souls in the waters of the fast.
Let us approach the precious and most pure cross of the Lord,
venerating it in faith and drawing forth divine enlightenment,
reaping even now the rich harvest:
eternal salvation, peace and great mercy.
(Wednesday evening, Fourth Week of Lent)

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"Do not pray for your hearts desires..."

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent: The Twenty Fourth Day

From Evagrius of Pontus (+ 399)

Do not pray for your heart's desires,
for they may not entirely harmonize
with God's purposes.
Pray instead as you have been taught:
"May your will be done in me."
Pray to God this way about everything,
that his will might be accomplished in you,
for he only desires what is good and useful
for your life,
whereas you do not always request this.
Fr. Steven