Thursday, May 29, 2008

Holding Steadfastly

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Many of us enjoyed another lively and vibrant Bible Study yesterday evening, as we read and discussed ACTS 2, and the great event of Pentecost. The descent of the Holy Spirit "like the rush of a mighty wind" and in the form of tongues "as of fire," (v. 2-3) established the New Testament Church. We are in direct historical, doctrinal, and sacramental continuity with that Church to this day as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Faith and practice of the apostolic Church is therefore the divinely-established "norm" or 'model" for all future Christian generations, including our own. We must not only uphold and defend that Faith, but share it with the world around us. Though much further developed in its expression (theology, liturgy, iconography, etc.), the content of the Faith remains unchanging, as it has been handed down to us. The "content," of course, is centered in the fact that "this Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses." (v. 32)

Toward the end of Ch. 2, and following St. Peter's public preaching in Jerusalem that led to thousands of converts to Christ through baptism(v. 22-41), there is a short but fascinating and highly revealing description of what constituted the life of the early Church in Jerusalem. As the 'mother Church" for all local Orthodox Churches to this day, the Jerusalem Church remains the "model" spoken of above. And thus any Orthodox parish- though living in a vastly different world culturally and socially - will reflect the same Faith and practice under and within today's changed circumstances. In other words, the description in ACTS should be a description of our own parishes An "outsider" in the form of an inquirer, seeker, guest, should recognize the similarity between both the initial "parish" in Jerusalem and our parish in the contemporary world. The evangelist and historian St. Luke relates the following:

And they held steadfastly to the apostles's teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. (RSV - ACTS 2:42)

As the famous Orthodox scholar Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, this verse is not only descriptive of the history of the early Church, but prescriptive, "as an itemized list of the criteria by which the church in any age would both preserve and manifest its continuity with the apostles." (Brazos Commentary on Acts, p. 58)

We read first that the earliest Christians "held steadfast" to the new way of life that they were baptized into. This means that they "persisted," "persevered," and "continued" despite many challenges to their newly found faith in Christ. And that included the threat of persecution. It is our responsiblity today to remain steadfast regardless of the challenge. To return to Jaroslav Pelikan's commentary on this verse, he breaks down this continuity with the apostles into four categories:

1. Apostolic "doctrine" (Gk. didache). He writes further: 'Central to this "doctrine of the apostles' ... was the witness to the resurrection of Christ, together with the confession 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God'." The initial apostolic doctrine was later clarified and expanded into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of the fourth c. that is still used as our confession of the 'doctrine of the apostles' to this day in the Church. There is no such thing as a doctrine-less Christianity, and one of the main - if not major - reasons for the breakdown in the Christian world today in the realm of morality and ethics is that Christians have lost the connection between "doctrine" and life. To abandon the apostolic doctrine is to abandon the ground for all Christian morality, ethical life and spirituality.

2. Apostolic "fellowship" (Gk. koinonia). St. John Chrysostom writes of this passage, that "the fellowship was not only in prayers, nor in doctrine alone, but also in social relations." Fellowship here implies a deep personal communion between believers. Christians belong to the one Body of Christ as integral members of it. They support one another in both good and bad times, in sorrows and rejoicing. A Christian community is not simply the place that individuals gather together for their own "religious needs;" but a place where a genuine community is formed over time through the "hard work" of "bearing one another's burdens" (GAL. 6:2) The goal is to break through all wordly forms of divisiveness - ethnic, racial, socio-economic, etc. Thus, a shared"social life" implies more than superficial conversation over a cup of coffee when the Liturgy has ended!

3. Apostolic "breaking of bread" (Gk. ti klasei tou artou) and other sacraments. This is a clear reference to the Eucharist, the heart and soul of the Church's life from the beginning in fulfillment of Christ's words: "Do this in remembrance of me." (LK. 22:19) To share the Chalice with your neighbor, is to commit to the "fellowship" and all of its implications as outlined above. It means to commit to a eucharistic way of life, based on the rhythm of preparing for the Eucharist and living a life in conformity of having Christ dwelling within us through His shared Body and Blood. We also practice Baptism and Chrismation, the two sacraments/mysteries that bring into the household of Faith. The other Sacraments/Mysteries are based on the words of Christ, or the apostolic Tradition as it developed.

4. Apostolic "prayer" (Gk. euche) and worship. The Christian parish is first and foremost a praying community; it is a center of prayer. For every Christian is a "being of prayer." Our prayer is offered as thanksgiving, glorification, intercession, supplication, lamentation, etc. The term as used by St. Luke could refer to "more or less fixed texts and liturgical forms: the Lord's Prayer in a special category ..." We pray that our prayer is "from the heart," coming forth from real faith, and not something mechanical and lifeless, according to the prescribed "rubrics." The seekers, inquirers, guests mentiioned above will be able to tell the difference, and that may very well determine if they will return or not on a permanent basis.

There are other essential aspects to a vibrant parish, including charity, and St. Luke describes these at great length throughout the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES. Yet, these four areas are normative and cannot be missing if any given parish has the desire to continue in the ways of the apostolic Faith, "which was once for all delivered to the saints." As Orthodox Christians that is our task, a responsibility for which we will answer to God ultimately. This is how we teach and train our children in godliness. And this is how we witness to the world around us.

Fr. Steven

Monday, May 19, 2008

Do You Want To Be Healed?

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!
Indeed He is Risen!

"Do you want to be healed?" (JN. 5:6)

At yesterday's eucharistic Liturgy we heard the account of the Paralytic being healed by Jesus at the pool near the Sheep Gate called Bethesda (or Bethzatha) in Jerusalem JN. 5:1-15). This is the prescribed Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Pascha. "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ" once again at Pascha; and now believing in, experiencing, proclaiming and "worshiping the holy Lord Jesus, the Only Sinless One;" we read the "signs" recorded in the Gospel according to St. John with and through the eyes of faith. This means that we know that the words and deeds recorded in the Gospel are those of the Word made flesh, Who is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God (see JN. 1:1-18; 20:30-31). This grants us insight into the Person of Christ and the truth of His words as expressive of the will of God for our salvation and that of the entire world (JN. 3:16). Following the healing of the paralytic, a dispute, in the form of a dialogue, ensued between Jesus and the religious authorities who are scandalized because Jesus healed on the Sabbath. When Jesus declared to them that "My Father is working still, and I am working," the authorities were incensed to the point of seeking to "kill him" because Jesus "called God his Father, making himself equal with God." (JN. 5:18) In the revelatory monologue that follows this dispute, the "words of the Word" further proclaim that He is the Son of God who perfectly fulfills the will of His Father in giving life to those who believe in Him:

Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing; and greater works than these will he show him, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (JN. 5:19-24)

In reading this passage carefully, it becomes clear from the Son's own testimony that He is equal to the Father in all of those "activities" toward humankind and the world that we would consider "of God" or divine, confirming for believers the intuition of the authorities said in unbelief.

Returning briefly to the healing of the paralytic that set the stage for the dialogue of dispute and the revelatory monologue of Christ to follow, we hear of how Jesus approached this poor man "who had been ill for thirty eight years." (JN. 5:5) In an 'open-ended approach" to the paralytic, Jesus asked him a piercing question: "Do you want to be healed?" (v. 6) Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote the following about this exchange with the paralytic:
"This is not a question of someone intent of forcing, convincing or subduing others. It is the question of genuine love, and therefore, genuine concern." Yet, the affirmative answer of "yes" may not be as obvious as all that when we look beneath the surface. To be healed means to be changed, and this means that all that was familiar, even though burdensome, must be replaced by a new mode of existence. Even the paralytic seemed to acknowledge a grudging acceptance of his incapacity to act quickly enough in putting himself into the healing pool "when the water is troubled" and its healing effects became prominent. (v. 7) His life had taken on a certain fixed and unchanging pattern that had its own rhythm and predictability to it. Breaking through all of that, Christ tells him authoritatively: "Rise, take up your pallet, and walk." (v. 8) The healing ministry of Christ was holistic, in that the whole person - body and soul - was restored not only to physical well-being, but to a living relationship with the living God. This is probably behind the words of Christ to the healed man when He found him afterwards in the temple: "See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you." (v. 14)

When applied to ourselves, are we absolutely certain that we would readily answer Christ affirmatively if He were to directly ask us: "Do you want to be healed?" Actually, as members of His Body, the Church, that is an ongoing question directed to each and every one of us on a daily basis. The Church is the place where sinners and troubled souls are healed and restored to fellowship with God. The "medicine" of healing - from the Scriptures to the Sacraments - are graciously available to us a gifts within the Church. Yet, our desire, as co-workers with God, is integral to the whole process of healing. Do we really want to be healed by Christ; or are we "comfortable" with a more-or-less routine form of Church membership and a more-or-less generic Christian way of life that is not that demanding? That church membership and way of life is very much on our own terms - and not necessarily Christ's. We have our own "comfort zone" when it comes to how far we will extend ourselves in "prayer, almsgiving and fasting." We will love God and our neighbor, but within the bounds of what is socially acceptable in terms of "religious practice." After all, we are not fanatics! We prefer remaining neutral on explosive issues of a moral and ethical nature so as not to appear extreme. We like to choose our own lifestyle - from sexuality to consumerism - without a great deal of reflection on the Gospel and the commandments of Christ. As long as other persons perceive us to be "good Christians" then we are satisfied. Sensing that "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," and that "God is a consuming fire" (HEB. 10:31; 12:29), we withdraw to a safe distance, away from the healing power of Christ, so that we can avoid that encounter and everything that it would demand of us.

In other words, how bothersome such "healing" would prove to be! We would really need to change. We would need to reassess our consumeristic lifestyles and thus radically reformulate our priorities. We would have to give more of ourselves to God and neighbor and less to the "self' that we so lovingly protect, defend and adore. We would have to put Christ before everything else that we hold dear in life. We would need to say "no" to our passions. Yet, in the final analysis, how liberating all of this would be! As the Lord said: "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (JN. 8:32) Christ, as always, asked the paralytic -and asks us today - the perfect question: "Do you want to be healed?" This perfect question just happens to be a bit more complicated under the surface of its initial appeal. We can, of course, remain within the fixed and unchanging patterns of the paralytic's life and "get by" like he managed to do. Or, we too can rise and take up our "pallets" and gladly tell others - even those who may be indifferent or hostile to Him - "that it was Jesus who had healed" us. (JN. 5:15)

Fr. Steven

Friday, May 16, 2008

These Extraordinary Women

Dear Parish Faithful,


This past week, the third week of Pascha, we commemorated the Myrrhbearing Women, together with St. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Joseph and Nicodemus were instrumental in the burial of the Lord. The Gospels are unanimous in telling us that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a "new tomb," St. Matthew stressing that it was a tomb that actually belonged to St. Joseph. The Synoptic Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke are also clear in relating that the myrrhbearing women looked on "and saw where He was laid." (MK. 15:47) It is these same "myrrhbearing women" who return to the tomb on the "first day of the week" (MK. 16:2) in order to lament and anoint the dead body of Jesus with spices, as "is the burial customs of the Jews." (JN. 19:40) Those we know by name are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome and Joanna; but there is also mention of "other women."

According to centuries of accumulated tradition and practice, it was customary among the Jews of Christ's time not to ascribe any "legal" authority to the testimony of women. That makes it rather inexplicable as to why the women are then the first to know of the Resurrection of Christ and to actually see the Risen Lord, with Mary Magdalene being the first human being to be accorded this awesome privilege. (JN. 20:11-18; MK. 16:9-11) However, all through His ministry, Christ treated women with a fresh sense of equality that was meant to remove any undo "prejudice." Christ had women disciples. (LK. 8:1-3) These women disciples remained loyal and committed to Christ even in death, when the "Jesus movement" appeared to be discredited and dissolved with His accursed death upon the cross. Everything was dead and buried with Jesus, to be forgotten in a matter of a short time, and to be lost to history with no real reason to justify its recovery. This is why explaining (away?) the emergence of the Church and the rise of Christianity without the Resurrection is so difficult and unconvincing. As my old Byzantine history professor once said to our class when describing the very beginning of Christianity, "something happened" of an extraordinary nature that accounted for the empty tomb. As an historian that was his way of referring to the Resurrection of Christ. There is really no other way to account for the fact that Jesus was believed in and worshipped.

Yet, the myrrhbearing persisted in their loyalty to the Master even though they must have realized all of this. We can only surmise, but did the Lord "reward" these women for their loyalty by first proclaiming the Resurrection to them, before He did to the eleven disciples? If they were the only ones to come and minister to Him in death, then they would be the ones to behold Him alive after death. In an instant, the Risen Lord reversed centuries of prejudice by appointing the myrrhbearing women to be "apostles to the apostles." Intuitively, they went to the tomb, hoping to continue their ministry to Christ without having "figured out" beforehand the removal of the large stone that blocked access to the tomb: "Who will roll away the stone for us form the door of the tomb?" (MK. 16:3) Their anxiety and grief was transformed into surprise when they discovered that the stone had been removed from the entrance to the tomb. This in turn became amazement ("they were amazed" MK. 16:5) when they encountered "a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe" - clearly an angel. He addressed them with words that to this day thrill the heart of the believing Christian with the "good news" that will never be surpassed:

Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you. (MK. 16:6-7)

"Trembling and astonishment" in the presence of the numinous and holy, made tangible by the angel and his proclamation of the Resurrection, rendered them "afraid" and initially, at least, "they said nothing to any one." (MK. 16:8) Soon enough, however, the Gospel accounts make it clear that they spoke to the disciples. We can only imagine Mary Magdalene's reaction when "they would not believe it" when she told the disciples "that he was alive and had been seen by her!" (MK. 16:11) The Scriptures tell us nothing further of these remarkable women, an "omission" we can only lament. Various pious traditions developed over time, one of which has Mary Magdalene appear before the Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome and greet him with the words: "Christ is Risen!" while holding up before him an egg that slowly began turning a brilliant red in the process!

In an age of betrayal, when even "Christians" are no longer willing or able to believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, we need to heed the words of the myrrhbearing women and imitate their loyalty, zeal, commitment and love of Christ. They were not proclaiming "an idle tale," as even the male disciples first believed according to St. Luke (24:11). They were witnessing to the Risen Lord and His conquest of death. If, in our daily lives, we could minister to the Lord in the same spirit, which would also mean ministering to others, because Christ is "in" the other, then perhaps we too would be "rewarded" with a greater certainty of faith in His presence as the risen and liviing Lord. The impression is indelible that the myrrhbearing women put Christ first, far above any other loyalties or loves. If and when we feel distant from Christ is it because we fail miserably at times to match that loyalty and love? Are we willing to come to the empty tomb regardless of what "common sense" or the daily obstacles of life throw up before us? Or are easily tempted down another path that has nothing to do with Christ but only ourselves and our desires? These extraordinary women, who will be remembered and venerated until the end of time, present us with an enduring example and an unavoidable challenge.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Spring-Summer Bible Study Announced!

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

Our Spring/Summer Bible Study will begin next Wednesday, May 28, as already announced. I wanted to share a few words about the place of the Bible Study in the over-all life of the parish with the hopes of encouraging some "new faces" for this year's sessions. In my humble opinion, a Bible Study should be approached as a genuine parish event. As something essential and integral to the life of the parish and its parishoners. On the surface, life seems to flow by on its natural course, but just below the surface we are threatened with "eruptions" that lead to greater confusion on the moral, ethical, and spiritual levels of existence. (Actually, such "eruptions," unheard of a generation or two ago, are now pretty much out in the open). Orthodox Christians are not immune from making choices that do not reflect a Christian "lifestyle" at its fullest, but rather that reflect the confusion just mentioned. Could this be because we are overwhelmed by a secular and post-Christian society with its own worldview expressed through a bewildering variety of ubiquitous sources - TV, radio, music, films, magazines, etc. - without the balance of knowing the teachings of the Holy Scriptures in greater depth? That must be at least one of many reasons for such a challenging situation. And if we only hear the Scriptures once a week through an appointed Epistle and Gospel reading in the Liturgy, then the Word of God - powerful as it is - can indeed be overwhelmed by a cacophany of ungodly voices. That is why a disciplined and consistent reading of the Scriptures at home is so important for the contemporary Orthodox Christian. You cannot fight a successful battle in the "spiritual warfare" that characterizes our lives without a real weapon: "And take ... the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (EPH. 6:17)

That also points to the Bible Study as, again, a real event in the life of the parish. In a world that on some levels, and at some times, and in some circles is rather insane, ungodly or demonic; we come together to read, study and discuss the Holy Scriptures, the living Word of God, that strengthens our sanity, trains us in godliness and reminds us that we are also surrounded by angels. The group setting provides fellowship, creates a sense of solidarity, and generates insights from our neighbors that expand our understanding of the sacred text as we study it together. It also insures a commitment of time and energy to the Word of God that is on our schedule, not to "put off' to a more convenient time. With everything that the Bible Study promises to be, it is something to look forward to on a weekly basis. This commitment breaks through the "Sunday only" syndrome that especially characterizes the summer months. The "post-paschal swoon" blends into the "summer swoon" with an alarming swiftness (is it already here?) that can leave us spiritually undernourished as the summer takes its toll on our capacity for spiritual vigilance and growth. The Bible Study goes a long way in overcoming that tendency. Its ongoing presence through the hot summer months means that at the center of the week is a center of purpose and direction.

All of this is lost when the Bible Study is reduced to a parish "activity." All such parish activities are "nice," but not essential, perhaps, to the admonition "to work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (PHIL. 2:12). Such an activity is for the "Bible Study types" that are in every parish, almost something of a sealed off sub-group within the parish, like "seniors" or "singles." Such an attitude frees us from the responsibility of at least assessing our domestic situations and making a choice. For those who are "married with children," there is always the possibility of one spouse attending while the other cares for the children. Think of the exciting conversation when you return home and attempt to relate everything you learned at the Bible Study to your husband or wife!

"I am going to the Bible Study!" is a battle cry of spiritual resistance against all of the secularizing tendencies, empty entertainment distractions, and spiritual laziness that threaten to engulf us within their relentless web of temptations. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" is how the Apostle Paul summarizes such an approach to life (I COR. 15:32). But the Apostle wrote this about the Holy Scriptures:

For the word of God of living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. (HEB. 4:12-13)

So put your $39.00 Orthodox Study Bible to good use and join the Spring/Summer Bible Study beginning next Wedesday evening with ACTS 1. Become part of a real parish event. "Come and see" why the Bible Study participants (now a pretty substantially-sized group) keep returning for more. Experience the excitement of coming to a greater understanding of the living Word of God that is "inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that that man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (II TIM. 3:16-17)

Fr. Steven

Monday, May 5, 2008

Through Eyes of Faith...

Dear Parish Faithful,


I returned from the Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God yesterday evening following our weekend Retreat there. It was a wonderful event with about forty participants and the monastic setting was "perfect" for a retreat. The Bright Saturday Liturgy and the Liturgy yesterday for Thomas Sunday were liturgical "highlights." Following the Liturgy yesterday, we made a procession to the monastery's cemetary where we had a service of blessing all of the graves there while singing "Christ is Risen" in many languages." There was a real sense that those buried there in the cemetary were indeed "fallen asleep" in the Lord. The retreat was sponsored by the Midwest Antiochian Women's Society, part of a nationwide Women's Society of the Antiochian Archdiocese. I was quite impressed with the over-all spirit and organizational aspects of this group. While the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has the nationwide Philoptokos Society for Women organized on a diocesan level, similar to the Antiochian, it is curious that as the autocephalous Church in North America, the OCA has nothing comparable.

I gave two talks on Saturday afternoon on the chosen theme: "Living in the Light of the Resurrection." Very lively discussion, based on some good, hard questions, followed each talk. I thought that this was an excellent theme, because we somehow lose the paschal character of this season much too quickly. (Is it still with us as we begin this second week of Pascha?) For the early Christians, Pascha was the beginning of everything, while for us today it is the end of the long process of Great Lent and Holy Week. Thus, Bright Week is basically "Recovery Week" when the "post-paschal blues" - like a swarm of demons - attack us with a vengeance. This is simply an observation, not a criticism. There is no real "solution" to this dilemma because, as I wrote on Bright Monday, we must return to the world, now rather exhausted following the intensity of Holy Week and the explosion of Pascha Sunday.

However, it struck me as I was preparing my talks, that the disciples had a Bright Week! After the unimaginable intensity, drama, emotional exhaustion, and sense of emptiness that they were left with following that initial Holy Week, culminating in the Crucifixion of their Lord, and narrated to us in the Gospels, they experienced an equally incomparable transformation once they beheld the Risen Lord! As we heard at the Liturgy yesterday: "Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord." (JN. 20:20) Joy and gladness overwhelmed the disciples when they actually beheld Christ risen from the dead. In fact, the disciples were so overwhelmed, that according to St. Luke: "they disbelieved for joy!" (LK. 24:41) Their exhaustion, which must have been deeply felt in every fiber of their being, was overcome by the joy of being bathed in the radiant light of Christ's presence among them. And they took this joy with them into the world to which they had to return for their future apostolic labors that would cost them their earthly lives. "And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God." (LK. 24:50) This is how St. Luke ends his Gospel account of the Resurrection (and Ascension) of Christ and its overwhelming effect on the disciples.

Of course, we do not "see" the Risen Lord in the same manner that the disciples were privileged with as recorded in the Gospels. But Christ anticipated this when He told them: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed." (JN. 20:29) We "behold" the Risen Lord through the eyes of faith, and "believing" we "have life in his name." (JN. 20:31) Perhaps these word from the Lord Himself will inspire us in this paschal season not to wilt even faster than the paschal flowers that adorn our churches do. We, too, are invited to be continually in the temple blessing God - and with a spirit of joy. As I spoke to the women of the Retreat, I am convinced that it is more difficult to "live the Resurrection" than it is to "keep" Great Lent. There is a concreteness, a "doing" of things that characterizes Great Lent in a way that is not carried over into the paschal season, and this poses a real challenge. We are certainly glad to not be fasting in the same manner; but do we face the danger of losing whatever was gained during Great Lent in terms of our relationship with God and our church-centeredness? In the light of the Resurrection, what does returning to our "normal routines" actually mean? As we wrestle with these questions, we do need to acknowledge that when Pascha mysteriously disappears with a disquieting rapidity, seemingly with the extinguishing of our paschal candles, then we remain disconnected from the experience of the disciples.

St. Seraphim of Sarov once said: "You must not sorrow, for Christ has conquered all; Adam is resurrected, Eve set free, death slain." This same saint would greet pilgrims to his monastery with the paschal greeting, "Christ is Risen, my joy!" regardless of the time of the year. "Living in the Light of the Resurrection" is more than a Retreat theme. It is a call, a challenge, and even a "vocation" for Christians who believe that Christ is truly risen from the dead.

Fr. Steven

Friday, May 2, 2008


Dear Parish Faithful,


Recently, there has been a great deal of controversy generated over one of our aspiring presidential candidate's use of the word "bitter." The use of this word and its context and implications have been intensely scrutinized, analyzed, debated, argued over and even apologized for, if I am not mistaken. You will be relieved to know that I have no intention of adding one more word to this current debate. But what struck me quite forcefully, is the use of the word "embittered" in the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom read near the end of the paschal matins. Everyone in the Church knows this remarkable homily and the proclamation of paschal joy emenating from every single phrase of this perfectly structured work. The theological meaning of this word (em)bitter has a much more powerful meaning than it has in its social or political application. Or, at least I believe that Christian believers in Christ as the Victor over sin and death would agree with that. Here, once again, is the portion of the homily in which we hear again and again about the embitterment of the adversary of Christ:

By descending into Hell, he made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory ...

The homily "piles it on" in a deeply satisfying crescendo of phrases that reveal various aspects of this embitterment of Hell. I am sure that no one will "complain" that "Hell" is said to be so "embittered!" We are glad of this and we rejoice. What St. Paul calls the "final enemy" - death - has been overthrown by the Death of the Deathless Lord. Hell - though the more exact term is the biblical hades/sheol - is somewhat personified in this homily for the sake of the dramatic impact of what is being revealed to have happened in and through the death of Christ and His descent into the abyss of death.

To further emphasize the power of what is being revealed, the homily now states the "positive" reason for this embitterment of Hell that captures the paschal celebration in a further crescendo of powerful affirmations:

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

I suppose that the only controversy that the use of this word (em)bitter would generate would be between believers and non-believers over the truthfulness of the claims beng made. For those of us who believe, no reason to get angry or judgmental. By leading lives that witness to the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst, we would be making the most convincing response of all.


Fr. Steven