Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Cross Planted In Our Hearts

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

For a cluster of three consecutive Sundays now, the Church has brought the Cross into our consciousness and into our midst tangibly for veneration. On the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross, we heard the ringing words from the Gospel According to St. John: "For God so loved the world that he gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (JN. 3:16) This placed the Cross within the widest possible context - in fact within the immeasurable context of the love of God for the world/cosmos. As the Church Fathers always teach us, God loved the world into existence, and now He will act decisively in order to save the world. And the "giving" of His only-begotten Son will be as the Son of Man lifted up on the Cross "that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (JN. 3:15) The God who created the world, is the God who redeemed the world in Christ.

On the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross itself (Sept. 14), we heard again from the Gospel According to St. John, and this time it was the actual narrative account of the Crucifixion. The pathos of the Cross is illuminated by a series of theological revelations that express the meaning of the Cross. One particularly profound instance of this comes immediately upon the death of the Savior: "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water." (JN. 19:34) Many of the Church Fathers were insightful and eloquent in uncovering the meaning of this seemingly mundane act of further violence:

For "blood and water came out." Not simply without a purpose, or by chance, did those founts come forth, but because by means of these two together the Church consists. And the initiated in the Mysteries know it, being by water indeed regenerated, and nourished by the blood and the flesh. Hence the Mysteries take their beginning; that when you approach that awesome Cup, you may so approach, as drinking from the very side. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 85 on the Gospel of St. John).

He caused the fountain of remission to well forth for us out of His holy and immaculate side, water for our regeneration, and the washing away of sin and corruption; and blood to drink as the hostage of life eternal. (St. John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. IV, Ch. IX).

As His earthly course began with water, so it ended with it. His side is pierced by the spear, and blood and water flow forth, twin emblems of baptism and martyrdom. (St. Jerome, Letter LXIX, to Oceanus).

Although the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion are narrated with sobriety and very little emphasis on the pain, anguish, and blood of the cross, they nevertheless firmly witness to the true sufferings of the Lord, so that the Cross does not disappear into a kind of docetic symbolism. This was a real event and the Lord really suffered and died on the Cross. We can never lose sight of this fact in an abstract "theology of the Cross." Truly, "one of the Holy Trinity" tasted of death on our behalf because He "became flesh."

On the Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross - that is, this past Sunday - we then heard the words of Christ that relate His Cross to our lives and the need for self-denial:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. (MK. 8:34-35)

The emphasis is now on our self-denial. Or rather, self-denial is the taking up of one's cross in fulfillment of the Lord's words. The challenge is found in the obvious fact that most people - including Christians - are not particularly keen about self-denial. It does not come to us "naturally." The cost seems far too high. But although that sounds like a very "natural" reaction, perhaps there are better questions to ask ourselves: what is the cost of not practicing self-denial? What does the conscious or unconscious refusal to deny ourselves mean in terms of our relationship with God and neighbor? Is true discipleship even possible without self-denial? Can a marriage, a family, or a friendship prosper without self-denial? What, ultimately, is this "self" that cannot be denied anything?

The successfully marketed slogans of self-realization and self-fulfilment are more-or-less thinly veiled pseudo-philosophies or pop psychologies that actually promote self-absorption and self-interest. If indulged in for a seriously dangerous amount of time and with a good deal of energy, such efforts eventually collapse into the worst excesses of self-worship. The self is set up as an interior golden calf to be worshiped at all costs, and seeking constant propitiation. On the altar of this very well-known god, we burn up our relationships with God and neighbor and are left with dust and ashes - the destiny of the godless. (Perhaps this strong inclination toward self-idolatry is behind the Buddhist rejection of the very concept of the self. If the self is an illusion, then it can be ignored as irrelevant to the process of enlightenment). In our Orthodox theology and anthropology, the person (the "true self" we could say) is not absorbed or annihilated in the process of deification. Rather, the person as a unique mode of existence is brought to perfection and "stabilized" in not only well-being, but even eternal being, through union with God - the ultimate gift of the Holy Spirit working in us.

Jesus knew the liberating effect of fighting against self-love and self-will. Only in this struggle can we begin to see God and the neighbor as other centers of life and love. Only then can the passions - nurtured and fed by self-indulgence - be conquered in a battle described by Archbishop Kallistos Ware as one waged against the "fallen self ... for the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and it is the men of violence who take it by force" (MATT. 11:12). With a bit of courage and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, we can "deny ourselves" for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and be liberated from the prison of the self in the process.

In his article "The Tree of the Cross," Fr. Thomas Hopko offers a fine summation of the Church's emphasis on the Cross in either festal commemoration or personal devotion:

Genuine Orthodox spirituality is always a spirituality of the cross. When the tree of the cross is removed from the center of our lives we find ourselves cast out of paradise and deprived of the joy of communion with God. But when the cross remains planted in our hearts and exalted in our lives, we partake of the tree of life and delight in the fruits of the Spirit, by which we live forever with the Lord. Rejoice, O Lifegiving Cross!

Fr. Steven

Friday, September 19, 2008

Carefully and Prayerfully . . .

Dear Parish Faithful,

We continue with the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross through Sunday, which is the Leavetaking. The Cross is the Christian symbol par excellence. We bow down in veneration before the Cross, we wear a cross, and we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves. This seems to be an ancient Christian tradition, so embedded in the past and time of the early Church that it is difficult to determine exactly when and under what conditions the first Christians began to make the sign of the Cross over themselves. (Christians who do not make the sign of the Cross have broken with a long-standing and venerable tradition, found both in the West and the East). As a reminder about the meaning of this simple, yet highly significant gesture, I am sharing a paragraph I wrote about this from my booklet, The Divine Liturgy - Meaning, Preparation and Practice. This paragraph is primarily about the use of the sign of the Cross during the Liturgy:

Upon entering the church, we are in that part of the church known as the narthex (sometimes referred to as the "vestibule," but never the "lobby!") This can be a small or relatively large area depending upon the architectural design of the church. The narthex is the entrance into the nave, or main body of the church, where the faithful gather for the Liturgy. Our first act is to bless or sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross before we do anything else. The Christian symbol is the Cross, for Jesus Christ suffered and died upon the Cross so that we may live and have salvation in Him. The power of sin and death were "nailed to the cross" (cf. COL. 2:14) and abolished by Christ's sacrificial death. Therefore, in the Liturgy we sing: "through the Cross joy has come into the world." The Resurrection of our Lord followed upon His death on the Cross. The Church and our personal lives are placed under the sign of the Cross, both as an emblem of victory and of our own willingness to bear our personal crosses in our daily struggles against sin, temptation, the devil, and all manner of evil. Throughout the entire Liturgy, whenever we glorify God, we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves, revealing our faith in Christ, the "Lord of glory" (I COR. 2:8) crucified for our sakes according to the will of the Father and "through the eternal Spirit." (HEB. 9:14) Holding the thumb and first two fingers or our right hand together is expressive of our belief in God the Holy Trinity; and the two remaining fingers held down in the palm of our hand is expressive of our faith that Jesus Christ exists in two natures - the divine and the human.

For this reason, the sign of the Cross should always be made carefully and prayerfully, whether we do it once or three times as some traditions will vary. I have seen crosses made so quickly and carelessly, that I call it "strumming a guitar." In church we cross ourselves when the Holy Trinity is being glorified, as at the end of every prayer; and at home when we make the sign of the Cross we should inwardly or outwardly say "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Fr. Steven

Monday, September 15, 2008

We Belong to the Crucified One...

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

I hope that everyone is doing well following yesterday's Midwest extension of the fury of Hurricane Ike. Power is on at the church, hence this meditation. However, there is no power in my neighborhood, so perhaps you are joining us in a bit of a scaled-back lifestyle for yet a few days more. Just imagine, if the water was also off, we could have played at an urban version of House on the Prairie! Not quite, for our contemporary version of "roughing it" is qualitatively softened by the ready availability of cars and cell phones. However, one intriguing question/challenge emerges: how well are we able to preoccupy ourselves without access to the screens of the television and the computer? Time to do some serious reading by candlelight ...

The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (September 14) offers us one more of many opportunities to contemplate the meaning and power of the Cross. In a Christian worldview, the Cross is inscribed on our minds and hearts, but also over the entire cosmos, as this "sign of the Son of Man" emerges from the depths of eternity, for the Cross reveals the pre-eternal plan of God to bring salvation to a fallen world and a groaning creation. (cf. ROM. 8:19-23) If, by the grace of God, we accept the truth of the Cross unto our salvation, we must never lose sight of the fact that the Cross has always been a "stumbling block" and "foolishness," not only to the Jews and Gentiles spoken of by the Apostle Paul, but to countless others who cannot detect the presence and power of God in and through what has always been a symbol of suffering and death. A crucified (Jewish) Messiah is the Savior of the world. His resurrection vindicated that claim. No wonder the apostles were accused of turning everything upside down!

Without in any fashion trying to strip the Cross of its inherent "foolishness," St. Athanasius the Great also strives to find the "reason(ableness)" behind Christ's crucifixion. This leads to one of many wonderful passages in his now classical work On the Incarnation:

But if any honest Christian wants to know why He suffered death on the Cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He "become a curse" otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." (GAL. 3:13; DEUT. 21:23) Again the death of the Lord is the ransom for all, and by it "the middle wall of partition" is broken down and the call of the Gentiles comes about. (EPH. 2:14) ... Again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one arm and the Gentiles with the other, and to join both peoples together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death: "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to Myself." (JN. 12:32) Again, the air is the sphere of the devil, the enemy of our race, who, having fallen from heaven endeavors with the other evil spirits ... to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it ... But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make a way for us to heaven ... This had to be done through death, but by what other kind of death could it be done, except by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? ... Fitting indeed then, and wholly consonant was the death on the cross for us; and we can see how reasonable it was, and why it had to be accomplished in no other way. Even on the cross He did not hide Himself from sight, rather, He made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker. (On the Incarnation, 54-55)

Although the cross will always remain a sign of struggle and hardship, if not of suffering and death, the Lord, by His death on the Cross, has simultaneously transformed the Cross into a sign of victory and glorification:

Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross,
The invincible trophy of godliness,
The door of Paradise,
The protection of the faithful,
by which corruption is utterly destroyed
and the power of death swallowed up
and we are exalted to heaven from earth.
The invincible weapon,
The adversary of demons,
The glory of martyrs,
The true beauty of saints,
The haven of salvation
which grants mercy to the world. (Great Vespers of the Feast)

How does the Church express the great paradox of the Cross, embracing both aspects of suffering and glory; and of death and victory? By proclaiming that this Feast Day is also a "strict fast day." It is the only great Feast Day of the Cross that is so designated. We greet the decorated Cross with festal joy and venerate it with the full knowledge that we are all lost without the Cross. And yet we practice the self-discipline of fasting as a concrete sign of our solidarity with our Lord Who ascended the Cross so that He may nail the handwriting of sin against it.

In the present Afterfeast of the Elevation of the Cross - through and including next Sunday - let us call to mind that we belong to the Crucified One. That means that we must stand with any others who are suffering innocently, unjustly, or at the hands of the powerful of this world. Otherwise, we may empty the power of the Cross of its redemptive value.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Somber But Hopeful Commemoration

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is the seventh anniversary of the deadly 9/11/01 terrorists' attack on our nation. As we commemorate that infamous event, we need to be thankful that another attack has not occured in the interval. At the same time, a complacent sense of impregnability for the future would only seem naive. Returning to the 9/11 of seven years ago, assuredly everyone can vividly recall just where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings, and then the Pentagon. I was here in my office when Pat Pride called me up and told me what was happening and wondering if I was aware. I went into the church hall and turned on our barely-working television set that at least provided a dramatic narrative to support the barely-visible images. Realizing the magnitude of what had just occured and what was continuing to unfold with a nearly surreal quality, I in turn phoned presvytera Deborah to inform her, and then left for home. There then followed hours (which blurred into days) of watching the television with that horrific fascination that arises from viewing images of death and destruction. Countless images and stories of heroism, courage, and self-sacrifice offered some balance to the prevailing atmosphere of "gloom and doom."

On the evening of that unforgettable day, we held a Memorial Service here in the church that was somber, sober, and emotional. We prayed for the nearly 3,000 victims of that day and for their devastated families and friends. And on a daily basis, we have to pray for the victims of the wars that followed - combatants and civilians alike. On the one hand, tragedy and the ensuing loss of innocent human life leads us to questioning God's providence and presence. On the other hand, that same tragedy and loss lead us back to God for an underlying Reality that is able to absorb such loss and leave us with a sense of hope and meaning. A "closed universe" with no God is bleak and hopeless. What does the "future" even mean in such a universe? You may steel yourself to the blows of life, but endlessly gritting your teeth in the face of those inevitable blows is hardly a redemptive and healing process. With God, however, the universe is "open" to a future that is both redemptive and transformative. What God "allows" now in respect for human freedom and the vagaries of the human heart, though the consequences of that allowance may be an endless flow of tears, is promised to be "wiped away" in an eschatological resolution that we call the coming of the Kingdom of God. Christ is crucified with all the victims of human tragedy. His Cross is His solidarity with all human suffering. We may be reluctant to acknowledge it, but Christ died for our "enemies" also. His Resurrection is the pledge of an ultimate victory over death itself which Christians believe is the "sting of sin."

Heartfelt and respectful commemoration can also be hopeful anticipation of the gathered harvest of God's saving grace.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Honoring the Feast, and a Heart that Gives

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today, September 8, is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Considering that this Feast fell on a Sunday evening and a Monday morning, we had good attendance over-all. For those unable to be in church, we can bring the Feast into our homes to some extent. I once again encourage you to incorporate the troparion and kontakion of the Feast into your prayer rule (until the Leavetaking on September 12) and as a means of blessing before your meals together as a family. For your convenience, here are those two respective hymns:


Your Nativity, O Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe! The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shone from you, O Theotokos! By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing. By destroying death, He has granted us eternal life.


By your Nativity, O most pure Virgin, Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness; Adam and Eve, for the corruption of death. And we, thy people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you: The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the Nourisher of Life.


In yesterday's homily, I mentioned Mother Maria Skobtsova, the Russian Orthodox nun who lived in France following the Russian Revolution, and who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 as a martyr to a life of righteousness. I failed to mention that she was formally canonized/glorified by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in January 2004. Many icons of her now exist, so I will try and find a good one for our own parish in the near future. There is one full-length biography of her life written by Fr. Sergei Hackel, entitled The Pearl of Great Price published by SVS Press. Another title is Mother Maria Skobtsova - Essential Writings, introduced and edited by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books. This is one of the assigned books in my class at XU this semester. It will be interesting to read what my students write about this book as the semester unfolds.

Here is an interesting anecdote from the latter book mentioned above that emphasizes her teaching on "active love:"

She would slso relate a legend concerning two fourth-century saints, Nicholas of Myra and John Cassian, who returned to earth to see how things were going. They came upon a peasant, his cart mired in the mud, who begged their help. John Cassian regretfully declined, explaining that he was soon due back in heaven and therefore must keep his robes spotless. Meanwhile Nicholas was already up to his hips in the mud, freeing the cart. When the Ruler of All discovered why Nicholas was caked in mud and John Cassian immaculate, it was decided that Nicholas' feast day would henceforth be celebrated twice each year - May 9 and December 6 - while John Cassian's would occur only once every four years, on February 29.

And two of her sayings:

"It is not enough to give. We must have a heart that gives."

"The only ones who make no mistakes, are those who do nothing."

Fr. Steven

Webmaster's Note: Here is a link to a page with several icons of Maria Maria and those who were martyred with her:

Here is a link to the page about Mother Maria on Orthodoxwiki:

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

We Desperately Need New Beginnings...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Church New Year began on September 1, following an ancient practice that developed in the Byzantine era of the Church's history. (Most ancient cultures, if I am not mistaken, began their New Years in the Fall or the Spring, but never in the dead of winter). This allows each of us the opportunity to recommit, renew and restore our life in Christ by rearranging all of our priorities in such a way that the "one thing needful" is at the heart of our lives:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. (MATT. 10:37-39)

The Christian is the person who loves Christ above all and who will "lose" his/her life for the sake of the Gospel. Although we of course identify ourselves as Christians, it seems more honest to say that we are in the process of becoming Christians when that casual self-identification is purified in the searching - if not searing - light of the Lord's words above. With God "all things are possible," and by the grace of God we can continue to grow in our Christian vocation, in this life and in "the world to come." Therefore, we can transform this "minor" commemoration into a "major" event if we can ever put the simple but elusive goal of fulfilling the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor first and foremost, into practice. As Jesus said: "On these two commandments depend all the law and prophets." (MATT. 22:40)

However, there always exist formidable challenges to our undivided attention. There is "life" itself, and its various routines and responsibilities, many of which are exhausting over time. And within life, we know that "stuff happens." Yet lesser distractions are legion at this time of the year. Thinking more in terms of the male membership in the Church, I realize that this last weekend was the "kick off" of the college football season, and that next Sunday is the "kick off" of the pro football season. Talk about competition for the attention of our minds and hearts! Wives and girlfriends must either take up an interest in football - or at least pretend to - or face seasonal (weekend) widowhood yet again. I apologize for bringing together the Gospel and football, but this uneasy juxtaposition does have its place in the American way of life: Church on Sunday morning, hopefully without too long of a homily and anything "extra" to follow; and then football in the afternoon, hopefully a doubleheader with "overtime" to further increase the near-rapturous excitement.

St. John Chrysostom lamented over how Christians were so easily deflected from the things of God, including the Liturgy, in order to passionately pursue distractions such as entertainment or sporting events. And the further fact that children's sporting events are now scheduled on Sundays only increases this confusion. The Lord's Day is now treated as any other day by our local organizers. For unchurched families, this fills a gap. For Church-going families it poses a real challenge and hard decisions. We can easily modernize the following passage from St. John to understand the underlying teaching:

We run eagerly to dances and amusements. We listen with pleasure to the foolishness of singers. We enjoy the foul words of actors for hours without getting bored. And yet when God speaks we yawn, we scratch ourselves and feel dizzy. Most people would run rabidly to the horse track, although there's no roof there to protect the audience from rain, even when it rains heavily or when the wind is lifting everything. They don't mind the bad weather or the cold or the distance. Nothing keeps them in their homes. When they are about to go to church, however, then the soft rain becomes an obstacle to them. And if you ask them who Amos or Obadiah is, or how many prophets apostles there are, they can't even open their mouths. Yet they can tell you every detail about the horses, the singers and the actors. What kind of state is this?

As the Lord said: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (MATT. 6:21)

We desperately need new beginnings to recover our spiritual balance from time to time. Here is yet another such opportunity in the beginning of the Church New Year. Obviously, a recovery of our spiritual balance requires a hard and honest look at our faith: What, exactly, do we actually believe? How, exactly, do we put our faith into practice? At its most essential and basis level, our faith is in Jesus as the Christ: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" confessed Simon Peter (MATT. 16:16) It is not a coincidence that each of us makes this very confession of Faith as we get ready to approach the Chalice and receive the life-giving Mysteries of Christ during the Liturgy. And then, closely paraphrasing the words of the Apostle Paul, we confess that Christ came into the world "to save sinners, of whom I am first." (Cf. I TIM. 1:15) We confess that we are sinners who are in the process of being saved. Jesus is the Christ, and I am a sinner. As the Christ He is also the "Savior of the world." (JN. 4:42) It is rather breathtaking in its stark simplicity: without Christ we are forever lost; but with Christ we are found and saved. How can we possibly tuck this away into a religious compartment of life, pulling it back out from Sunday to Sunday? I would think that this deserves our undivided attention.

"Attending Church" is a rather bland way of describing one of our key "activities" as Christians based upon the confession of faith outlined above. What saves us from that blandness is the realization and experience of worshiping the living God in church, and not seeking religious uplift or, worse, religious entertainment. Assured that we encounter the living God and communion with and of Christ in the Liturgy, St. John Chrysostom can write the following to those of all ages who share this liturgical experience:

Let us depart from the Divine Liturgy like lions who are producing fire, having become fearsome even to the devil, because the holy Blood of the Lord that we commune waters our souls and gives us great strength. When we commune of it worthily, it chases the demons far away and brings the angels and the Lord of the angels near us. This Blood is the salvation of our souls; with this the soul is washed, with this it is adorned. This Blood makes our minds brighter than fire; this makes our souls brighter than gold.

If we live the Liturgy thus, we will not have to say anything to those who are absent. But seeing our benefit, they will feel their own harm and will quickly run to church to enjoy the same goods, with the grace and philanthropy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, belongs eternal glory. Amen.

If we allow it, the surrounding superficial culture can turn us into superficial human beings. If we struggle, the culture of the Church can transform us "from one degree of glory to another." (II COR. 3:18) Why is this such a difficult choice?

Fr. Steven