Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Archbishop Job ~ A Witness to the Truth

revised Jan 3, 2010

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

"For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." (JN. 18:37)

His Eminence, Archbishop Job of Chicago and the Midwest fell asleep in the Lord on Friday, December 18. His funeral services were held in Chicago on December 22 & 23, and he was buried in Black Lick, PA on Saturday, December 26. Thus, we have lost an able archpastor who served us well in the Diocese of the Midwest. This was during a time of great distress throughout the entire Orthodox Church in America, when we were forced to come to terms with a "Church scandal" that exceeded the boundaries of the merely "financial." I have no intention of rehearsing the facts of that story beyond what would be essential here, as I offer a personal assessment as to how I now understand the role of Archbishop Job in serving the Church throughout this "time of troubles." I believe that his role was essential, decisive, and yet painful for him personally. I also believe that His Eminence grew in stature throughout this ordeal by his principled position, and in so doing he manifested a human capacity for "self-transcendence." Perhaps I am using this term somewhat modestly in this context, but I am referring to his ability to stay on course despite his own limitations, flaws and weaknesses, when the pressure on him was enormous to fall back into the dreary conformity of personal and institutional self-defensiveness. Yet, even with that modest understanding of the term, I am certain that Archbishop Job's clear demonstration of self-transcendence was part of the process of theosis that we hold to so dearly in our Orthodox theology.

I need to acknowledge that I was not personally close to His Eminence. My observations are thus made from something of a distance. However, we spoke more often and much more candidly as the years passed, and I believe that we had a mutually respectful relationship. His pastoral visits to our parish were always very positive experiences for our community, and many of our parishioners also deeply respected him for his witness to the truth. A good deal of this was made possible by the creation of the Columbus Deanery during my ministry in Cincinnati and our open meetings during the time of the Church scandal. His Eminence always shared openly with his clergy concerning the unfolding - or covering up - of events in Syosset and his reactions to them, yet always drawing a line between that sharing and idle gossip. He trusted his presbyters and we, in turn, respected him and supported him in the realization that His Eminence was acting as a good bishop should. It was encouraging to experience the build-up of that support and respect by witnessing Archbishop Job "do the right thing" time and again by witnessing to the truth and not being intimidated into meaningless silence. This was a time when the normal was positively heroic! This was his podvig (a Russian term meaning a "great feat" or "spiritual deed").

I believe that four of the most important words that His Eminence ever uttered - or put to paper - during his entire episcopal ministry were: "Are the allegations true?" These words were formulated in response to the "revelation" of financial malfeasance within the OCA in late 2005 and the stiff opposition that was forming against an open and unbiased investigation into this unsavory revelation. How utterly liberating that simple question, based on those four words, proved to be! These words were the breath of fresh air that blew through the odor of corruption that was immovably and noxiously hovering over an already beleaguered central administration. How meaningful that word "truth" was when it was in danger of being eclipsed, forgotten, and buried amidst an avalanche of legal jargon, pseudo-pious rhetoric about "serving the Church" by a cynical manipulation of the virtue of obedience, obfuscation, and deliberate falsification. A desire to uncover and know the truth served as a rallying cry for all members of the Church who were convinced that there was no other legitimate way "forward." One modest archbishop's witness to the truth most certainly inspired and awakened many men and women from a sense of frustration, discouragement and complacency, to an emboldened sense of commitment and a fierce insistence that we could, actually, "handle the truth" as mature and responsible Orthodox Christians - as sordid as it may be. If there was a march on Syosset by faithful members of the Church who were demanding accountability, I am certain that amidst the icons and banners held aloft, there would have been a large banner in bright letters that read: "ARE THE ALLEGATIONS TRUE?" Would it be too bold to say that those four words may have redeemed many past mistakes, or even sins, of Archbishop Job's past ministry? May it be so!

The slow unraveling of the crude attempts at stonewalling and cover-up emanating from Syosset was made possible by the role of His Eminence Archbishop Job during the key years of 2005 - 2008. It is difficult to believe that this could have happened without at least one bishop on the Holy Synod behind the movement toward uncovering the truth of our scandal in the name of "transparency and accountability" - although that mantra-like phrase should not further "cover up" Archbishop Job's attempt to act in the Name of Christ and the Holy Gospel. The Church is hierarchical, so it was essential that at least one hierarch from within the Holy Synod of Bishops would assert conscience over convenience regardless of personal cost. This singular position was clearly Archbishop Job’s cross. As admirable as Mark Stokoe and his ocanews.org website were in relentlessly covering the scandal with journalistic professionalism united to a real concern for the OCA's well-being; I am sure that Mark would acknowledge that he needed the episcopal protection that Archbishop Job gave to him within the Diocese of the Midwest to continue in working toward that goal. In other dioceses - the majority? all of them? - the attempt to "shut down” ocanews.org by threat of ecclesial sanction would have been very difficult to resist. Surely, great pressure was put on His Eminence to do precisely that in the Diocese of the Midwest. But, as he famously said: "We are free men in the Midwest." Again, His Eminence trusted the integrity and intentions of the faithful of his diocese.

In my estimation, or at least from what I have heard, there were three basic responses to Archbishop Job's freely-chosen position that left him very vulnerable and isolated on the Holy Synod: 1) Some brother bishops were silent supporters; 2) others offered a kind of passive-aggressive resistance; and 3) there was open hostility against him. This open hostility led to what His Eminence called the "worst day of my life," when the now-removed Bishop Nikolai of Alaska made an attempt to remove Archbishop Job from the Synod of Bishops and have him deposed on canonical charges that betrayed their artificiality. To the credit to the rest of the Holy Synod, this ill-conceived attempt at removing - and thus silencing - His Eminence failed to gather any real support. Yet, from what I understand of this incident, any support offered to Archbishop Job was more "behind the scenes" than openly and boldly vocalized.

Unfortunately, this same evasion of acknowledging the integrity of Archbishop Job's principled position of resisting a Byzantine-like cover-up of a festering scandal within the OCA only continued at his funeral service. Both the Vigil on Tuesday evening and the Liturgy on Wednesday morning were served with due solemnity and with a dignified liturgical grace that was moving for all who were present. I am very glad to have been present at such a memorable event. And it was an honor to join in the singing of "Memory Eternal" for our departed hierarch. What I am referring to, however, are the eulogies/homilies delivered on both Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. I must state here that I was not able to remain for the closing eulogy on Tuesday evening, and therefore did not here it with my own ears. But from a reliable source, I was told that there was no real mention of Archbishop Job's "witness" and role in serving the Church by struggling to uncover the truth. And then I was personally surprised, and not a little disappointed, at what was not stated again on Wednesday morning by our chief hierarch at the Liturgy. We heard the Christian hope of deliverance from death through our Lord’s resurrection. And, when referred to, His Eminence was treated with respect and compassion, and held up as a model of a good pastor who took up his cross to follow Christ. But all this was delivered without the necessary specificity of applying it to Archbishop Job's courageous witness in the face of determined opposition. Thus, one of the OCA's greatest hours of honesty and integrity was left unrecognized, as was the application of episcopal integrity to a specific pastoral situation. This was a serious omission. The "crown" of Archbishop Job's episcopal ministry, and for which we pray he receives his "crown" by the mercy of our philanthropic Lord, was essentially left unmentioned. In no way was that "meet and right." It was "unfair" to the memory and legacy of His Eminence. Though it did not need to be dramatized or delivered with rhetoric, that legacy demanded some tribute by specific mention. It needed to be acknowledged, and I believe that it was something of a "scandal" that it wasn't. I wonder if there remains any lingering resentment or envy over the courage of his response.

It is hard to say what a man keeps hidden in his heart, but I was left with the distinct impression, gained by listening to His Eminence in person - including one week before his death at a deanery meeting in Indianapolis - that he forgave his detractors. He seemed genuinely concerned over the failing health of his main detractor, the former bishop of Alaska, Nikolai, and asked us to keep him in our prayers. As a man who had a certain weariness about him, I believe that he understood human weakness and the vagaries of human passions. He did not appear to be embittered, but only saddened by the loss of many close friendships from the past and, of course, the dissipation of so much energy within the Church on such an avoidable debacle. At that last meeting of our deanery on December 11, he also remained uncertain and tentative about the future of the OCA. Yet, in his modesty, he never indulged in making any grand predictions about the future. There was every indication that he had a genuine trust in the providence of God. His Eminence was a firm supporter of the canonical integrity and mission of the OCA within North America and Canada. And he was very excited about his retirement in March 2011! Iconography and the composition of liturgical music were clearly on his mind. Yet, God decided otherwise.

When the "dust settles," and when the day may come that this part of our OCA history is given a written account that aims at objectivity; the name of His Eminence Archbishop Job will stand out as a shining example of how a modest man who (reluctantly?) accepted the "cross" of episcopal leadership in the Church, and who, by the grace of God, rose to the occasion of displaying courage and honesty precisely at a time when they were needed the most, will be referred to as of "blessed memory" despite his sins and other shortcomings. The faithful will get it right, and he will be well- remembered and his stature will grow over the years. I hope and pray that our next bishop will continue in that manner of genuine episcopal ministry.

May the Lord grant His Eminence, Archbishop Job "rest eternal in blessed repose."

Memory Eternal!

Fr. Steven

AVATAR and Hollywood's Pantheistic Pandering


Dear Parish Faithful,

You may or not be making plans to see "Avatar," the new "ground-breaking" film by James Cameron in terms of technical achievement and wondrous "special effects." As something of a "film buff" I admit that I am interested in eventually seeing it sometime after the Feast. However, even with a total disinterest, it may be difficult not to at least hear something from the coverage through the media. Whatever the case may be, I found this to be quite an interesting analysis of Hollywood's ideological direction, which ultimately is based upon what it believes the public wants to see and hear. The Op-Ed writer, Ross Douthat, offers a good short critique of superficial pantheism and make a few good comparisons with biblical theism. Mr. Douthat is an undisguised Christian of a traditional bent, and he knows a thing or two about theology.

What may be of greatest interest, is that this critique is found on the pages of the New York Times!

If there is any interest shown in the form of responses, perhaps we can have a short discussion of some of these themes in an upcoming post-liturgy discussion.

Fr. Steven

~~~~~~~

NY TIMES
OP-ED COLUMNIST
Heaven and Nature

By ROSS DOUTHAT
Published: December 20, 2009

It’s fitting that James Cameron’s “Avatar” arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James.

But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing.

If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”

Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.

As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.

Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.

But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

Link to original article on www.nytimes.com

Monday, December 21, 2009

Preparing for the Nativity



Dear Parish Faithful,


My intention this week was to write a few meditations on the approaching Feast of our Lord's Nativity. However, the unexpected and sudden death of His Eminence, Archbishop Job has altered the course of the week for many of us. I will be leaving for Chicago sometime on Tuesday so as to be present at the funeral service(s) for Archbishop Job. Today, I am somewhat overwhelmed and have to "fit in" a few things I left for this week. Be that as it may, I am forwarding a pre-festal "message" from Fr. John Ealy, a semi-retired Orthodox priest from Florida. Fr. John very emphatically reminds us of our preparation for Nativity and the focus of the Feast.

As announced in church yesterday, we will have the Pre-festal Vespers scheduled for this evening at 7:00 p.m. I once again "invite" you into the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the church this evening for a service that is Christ-centered from beginning to end. Then, our next services will be on Thursday morning, the eve of the Feast. These are the Royal Hours at 9:00 a.m.; 10:00 a.m.; 11:00 a.m. and Noon. We now have readers!

Matins at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday evening
Divine Liturgy on Friday, December 25, at 9:30 a.m.
Great Vespers on Saturday, December 26, at 6:00 p.m.
Divine Liturgy on Sunday, December 27, at 9:30 a.m.

Fr. Steven

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PREFEAST FOR THE NATIVITY
Please remember this is a special week in the Church. It is the "Holy Week" of the pre-feast services held every evening at Church. There is no Christian Feast without preparation. Orthodox Christians DO NOT feast before the feast. Doing so is participating in pagan festivities. We prepare for and celebrate the Feast by participating in the Liturgy of the Church. Here we come to know who Jesus is, why He came, and what this means to us and for us. THIS IS THE ONLY REASON FOR CELEBRATING AT THIS TIME.

December 24th is a strict fast day and not a day of celebration. The strict fast comes at the end of our ascetical Advent fast. It is not a day for family gatherings and festivities. IT IS A STRICT FAST AS A FINAL PREPARATION SO WE MAY BE ABLE TO ENTER INTO THE JOY OF OUR LORD, CELEBRATING THE COMING OF THE ONE, WHO CAME FOR US MEN AND FOR OUR SALVATION. It is the last day of preparation for the Feast. This year the Vigil for the Feast is at 7 p.m. (after the Holy Supper). The Vigil finds its fulfillment in our participation in the Eucharistic banquet at the Divine Liturgy on the morning of December 25. God reveals and gives Himself to us in Word and Sacrament.

It is important that we teach our children what we celebrate. Please remember we are not celebrating the "pagan liturgy" of santa and gifts on Christmas morning. We celebrate the gift of the coming of God in the flesh. He comes for us men and for our salvation. He returns us to paradise where we eat of the fruit divine. Eating of that fruit is our gathering at the banquet table in His Kingdom at the Eucharistic Liturgy. That "eating" begins as we stand in VIGIL when we hear God's words in the liturgical hymns proclaiming that, "CHRIST IS BORN."


HOME CELEBRATION FOR FEASTS
The ICON of the NATIVITY and the ICON of the THEOPHANY should be the focal point of our home celebration for these Feasts of the winter Pascha. The Icon gives us the full meaning of the Feast and why we celebrate. Beginning with the Prefeast we sing the Prefeast Troparion before meals and on the Feast until Dec. 31 we sing the Troparion before meals and the Kontakion after meals.


THE PREFEAST FOR THE NATIVITY

LET US CELEBRATE...

On Monday evening we began the Pre-feast of the Nativity of our Lord. The first Hymn we hear at the pre-feast vespers, invites us with these words to come and celebrate the prefeast of Christ's Nativity: "LET US CELEBRATE, O PEOPLE THE PREFEAST OF CHRIST'S NATIVITY...WITH THE EYES OF OUR SOUL, LET US BEHOLD THE VIRGIN, AS SHE HASTENS TO THE CAVE TO GIVE BIRTH TO THE LORD AND GOD OF ALL...."


THE ONE WHO COMES IS...

With these words we begin our "Holy Week" of preparation. God in His wisdom nourishes us with His Word at these important liturgical services. They remind us of what we are preparing for and what we will celebrate, that is, the coming of God in the flesh who is the "Lord and God of all."


HOW IS IT POSSIBLE? LOVE
Each night at vespers and compline we hear the announcement of who is coming and why He comes. To know Christ and who He is, and why He has come, all one needs to do is to come and behold the most unusual and most glorious mystery we are preparing to celebrate. It is truly a mystery. For how is it possible for the creature to give birth to the "Lord and God of all." How is it possible for the uncontainable One to be contained. How is it possible for the creator to become a creature. This is the great mystery. It is the great mystery of God's love for us, a love that is unconditional. He loved us in our sin and in our sinful condition without any strings attached. His love made the impossible possible. "God is love" is the underlying proclamation of all these prefeast services.


WINTER PASCAL FEASTS

The prefeast of the Nativity and Theophany follows the pattern of the prefeast or Holy Week before Pascha. The style of the hymns, the tones used all remind us of that Great Week before Pascha. Both feasts, Nativity and Theophany, are Pascal Feasts. They are related to Pascha, rooted in Pascha, and their meaning is fulfilled in Pascha. The prefeast liturgical hymns remind us of this.


JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM

Come then, let us all celebrate the prefeast of Christ's Nativity. Come let us receive the word of God into our hearts through the inspired hymns of His Liturgy in His holy Church. Let us use this time to go up to Bethlehem and grow spiritually, then when the day of the Feast comes we can enter into the joy of our Lord. Let us welcome Christ into our midst, the One who existed as the Son of God in the bosom of the Father before the world began. Let us welcome Him as the only One who gives meaning to our lives.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Of Perfect Role Models



Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Ten days ago, I wrote something of a commentary/reflection on the sordid saga of Tiger Woods, who has clearly "fallen from grace" in a rather spectacular fashion. (I am rather amused at the panic setting in for the advertising industry and the "agony" in those circles of what to do with Tiger Woods as a promotional figure in the near future). Since then, the endless parade of "multiple mistresses" has only added to the sordidness of this domestic drama gone public, and has maintained the feeding frenzy of the media. The world of tabloid journalism and "tell-all" TV interviews that are treated as serious 'investigative reporting" have been thrust upon us. Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" has taken on a new life! I can assure you that I am not obsessing over this unedifying contemporary morality play in a moralizing manner. No real necessity to do so, because only the most morally obtuse person would not get the point! But this very public display of a picture-perfect career - and marriage - gone awry, serves to raise some other broader issues that I believe we can explore to good effect - especially as Orthodox Christians. So I am returning again to the subject of "role models" or "heroes" in today's world, a subject that framed my earlier reflection.

I repeat that we have an intuitive need to seek role models. And I believe that this is most true of impressionable younger children, teen-agers, and young adults. I would further add that we need these role models. They inspire us all to do our best in a wide variety of human endeavors. This is the basis of the "hero" from ancient times to the present. These figures transcended the boundaries of the limitations that mere mortals are subjected to. We are always attracted to living images of success, quality performance, creativeness, fierce commitment, and the celebrity and acknowledgment that goes along with such positive characteristics. We all admire such figures - male or female - and many people choose a particular person or perhaps a select few for closer admiration and even emulation: "I want to be like that one day." I believe, however, that there is often a confusion between "celebrity" and the positive "role models" briefly outlined here. Nowadays we know of people who are "famous for being famous" - Paris Hilton, anyone? - and if, on the whole, we can make that distinction, many younger people struggle with that, as celebrity status itself seems to be a powerful goal regardless of any moral or ethical dimension attached to it - American idol, "dancing with the stars," and reality TV all come to mind. On closer examination, a good deal of this comes up as frivolous and empty. But the search goes on.

In all of this discussion, it would be discouraging to think that "we" - children, teen-agers, young adults, and the rest of us - do not look to the saints of the Church as the perfect role models and heroes that we continue to crave. We are surrounded by the saints as if by a "cloud of witnesses." I am not saying this for any pious effect. I believe that it is of the utmost importance in our spiritual growth as Christians not be blind to this presence in our midst. There are a few things that I am certain of: the saints of the Church will not let us down or disappoint us; they do not have "secret" "double" or "hidden" lives that will cause scandal once they are discovered; and they actually care about us - in fact they love us - and not just about their careers and bank accounts. Yesterday, we commemorated St. Herman of Alaska (+1837). He is a living challenge to the "values" of our secular and self-absorbed society. Actually, he is a radical alternative to the multitude of role models that we draw from the surrounding culture. And the degree to which we are attracted - or indifferent - to St. Herman will reveal a good deal of our own "worldview" and commitment to the Gospel. No one has expressed this better than Fr. Thomas Hopko from a chapter on St. Herman in his book The Winter Pascha:

By American standards, St. Herman of Alaska, like the Lord Jesus Himself, was a miserable failure. He made no name for himself. He was not in the public eye. He wielded no power. He owned no property. He had few possessions, if any at all. He had no worldly prestige. He played no role in human affairs. He partook of no carnal pleasures. He made no money. He died in obscurity among outcast people. Yet today, more than a hundred years after his death, his icon is venerated in thousands of churches and his name is honored my millions of people whom he is still trying to teach to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness which has been brought to the world by the King who was born in a cavern and killed on a cross. The example of this man is crucial to the celebration of Christmas - especially in America. (p. 47-48)


Thus, if we pray and sing about the virtues of the saints when we come to church, doesn't that mean that those are the very virtues that we are pursuing in our daily lives? Do we want our children to grow up emulating and practicing the virtues of the saints; or is our concern more with their future status and success? It is amazing, and I would add distressing, just how thoroughly we know the lives of today's celebrities, and remain quite ignorant of the lives of some of the greatest saints of the Church, including the very saint we may be named after. It seems that we are not willing to go beyond kissing their icons when they are in display inside the church - and that is only if the service commemorating them is on a Sunday. But we would "die" from excitement to be in the presence of a big celebrity!

The saints are not just about miracles and stories of wondrous deeds that make us shake our heads (in disbelief?). They are not just about extraordinary fasting exploits, hours in endless prayer, or the giving away of their last garment to a poor person - though those are remarkable accomplishments. The saints are the men, women and children who manifest Christ to the world, who live Christ-like lives that actualize the presence of the Lord among us. Their lives are about dedication, profound commitment, hard work, overcoming adversity, remaining faithful in situations of distress and danger, overcoming egoism, and putting God and neighbor above all else. They embody what we wish to embody as Christians. Beginning with "faith, hope, and love." They encourage us by their examples. And they pray for us before the throne of God that we too can walk in the "newness of life" made possible by the life in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These are men and women who were not born saints, but who became holy persons by their faith and who manifested many of the virtues and practices just mentioned as the fruit and "reward" of that faith.

Of course, we do not see the saints of the Church with the same directness and palpability as the contemporary role models alive, adored and aggrandized before our very eyes. We acknowledge that we "see" the saints through the eyes of faith. This can have the effect of making them seem distant and abstract. As not sharing the same world as we do. This is all true, and clearly this is a challenge. Reading The Lives of the Saints is one way of bridging that perceived gap. Yet, what we truly need are "living saints" to be the role models and heroes that we pursue in our lives. The clergy, parents, godparents, Church School teachers, and the simple faithful of the Church must always be vigilant about their place in presenting at least modest role models for the upcoming generation. We cannot compete with celebrity status, but we can embody those simple virtues that hopefully go deeper than what is passing today as worthy of our attention and, at times, misguided adoration.

Tiger Woods has a wife and two children. I hope that his indefinite withdrawal from the world of professional golf will prove to be fruitful in his desire to salvage and then restore his battered and besieged marriage. As often happens, his family's sad case raises other issues that can be explored without getting too lost in the murkiness of sex, money and fame. I believe that his current demise does raise the whole issue of the role model in today's culture - and perhaps a meaningful reassessment of how we approach and understand that issue. Especially in the light of our lives in the Church.

Fr. Steven

Friday, December 4, 2009

When Heroes Go Down (The Faithful Must Remain Vigilant)



Dear Parish Faithful,


It is a good thing that as a society we still seek "role models" even though our pop culture is "slouching toward Gomorrah," to use the phrase of Robert Bork. Regardless of the hedonism the American public either defends, tolerates or dismisses, there remains an intuitive understanding that our children and young adults need to regard their public "heroes" as men or women with some qualities worthy of emulation. Hence, the "role model" image that we continue to cling to. This is primarily true concerning "stars" in the entertainment business or the "superstars" of the sports world. (Outside of our barrier-transcending president, are there any other politicians even considered as role models today?). So to this day, we remain in a curious state of tension between the knowledge that our pop culture superstars live in fantasy worlds of almost obscene wealth, and are thus subjected to every conceivable temptation of the mind and flesh; and our desire that they at least project an image of wholesomeness, hard work, integrity, honesty and, we may add, marital fidelity. That same tension may be one of the main reasons that the apparent marital infidelity of golf superstar Tiger Woods is so captivating the news media at a time when we are still debating the health care bill, recoiling in horror at tragic rampages of shootings and death, and assimilating the future consequences of the "troop surge" in Afghanistan.

I agree with these very public personas who plead for privacy and the "right" to keep their domestic and private affairs away from public scrutiny. I believe that Tiger Woods' website statement made that case rather forcefully. To have one's domestic disputes subjected to wild and salacious speculation has to be not only frustrating but demeaning and discouraging. However, to choose from one of many cliches: "it goes with the territory." Or, we could say, it is the "price" paid for being so highly-paid as a successful athlete. Since I am not attracted to the world of golf, I can honestly say that I have never seen Tiger Woods drive or putt a golf ball. But I do know that literally millions of his fans and fans of the game look on him with breathless seriousness every time he does actually drive or putt a golf ball. Now those same eyes are either filled with a knowing look (if not smirk); while others will reflect a sincere disappointment over yet another "idol" now wobbling precariously on his pedestal, or in danger of toppling over. The point is that it would be naive to believe all of that attention and affection will now politely accede to Tiger's request for privacy and look the other way as he struggles to bring order back into his domestic life, following his acknowledgment of certain "transgressions." This is more that just the usual grist for the tabloid rumor mills! Much to Tiger Woods' chagrin, he is learning that you can't have it both ways. He is a very public figure and his current predicament will now draw the attention and disapprobation that his amazing skills earlier absorbed and deflected as praise and adulation.

Yet, it does seem that even if that attention were to magically disappear today, Tiger Woods' will remain a tarnished hero who has lost his aura of wonder boy innocence. I am sure that the majority of the public will "forgive" him for his all too-human fallibility. Some may even be glad that he has proven himself to be like the rest of us - subject to temptation and even succumbing to temptation. I understand that there was a certain aloofness to him before that made Tiger seem like something of an abstract iconic figure. Regardless of our Christian principles, perhaps we would do better not to quickly pass judgement since it is difficult to know what we would actually do if our lives were lived in the rarefied realms of "fame and fortune." This is something that Tiger Woods and his wife will have to face together perhaps with the help of family, friends and good counsel. Still, it remains disappointing that another "role model" has now lost that mantle. Money, drugs and sex are so pervasive in the world of pop-culture entertainment and sports, that it seems amazing to find certain stars apparently untouched by such temptations. We are reaching a point where we are expecting the bigger stars to eventually get caught, which is very unfair to those who are actually "clean."

Are members in the Church - even potential "role models" like the clergy - immune from the baser temptations that come in the form of money, drugs and sex? Sadly, not always. And when these role models succumb, then we have a genuine "scandal" on our hands. (How scandalized are we any longer concerning the stars mentioned above when they fall?). Scandal here means to cause great disappointment and discouragement among the faithful; even, in some cases, to shake that very faith. The response can be a cause of further skepticism or distrust toward the leaders of the Church. Or simple anger at being "fooled" by the semblance of piety. This becomes the cause of cover-up or rationalization within the very Body where truth is absolutely essential. Of course, it is in the Body of Christ - the Church of the living God - that genuine forgiveness is practiced, but this implies repentance and the unfortunate but essential need for sanctioning the culpable. If, indeed, our popular forms of entertainment are truly "slouching toward Gomorrah" as a parade of revelations concerning "transgressions" of many kinds continue their steady disclosure; and as the hungry appetites of those who love these types of stories continues to be fed; then our vigilance from within the Church must be tireless, so as to not cause any scandal to the faithful and to the unbelieving world.

Fr. Steven

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lines of 'Black Friday'


Dear Parish Faithful,


Today is "Black Friday." It sounds ominous, but I believe that this is the designation for the day after Thanksgiving which sets holiday shopping into serious motion, boosts - if not "saves" - the economy, turns malls into meccas, and transforms consumerism into a ritual with quasi-religious undertones of strict observance. No condescension meant, just an observation. I understand that some stores had lines outside forming as early as last night. This takes an almost ascetical dedication. The word "sale" can have an appeal that transcends the boundaries of its promises. To show up at dawn means to take a humble spot in the back of the pack. Fear of missing out on a longed-for item can create deep concern if not genuine anxiety. Your neighbor may just be your competitor. Is anyone smiling? It would be interesting to try and measure the level of satisfaction or"fulfillment" that a successful shopping expedition brings to the soul.

The one further observation I would make is this: If Christians would line up outside of their churches in large numbers eagerly anticipating the opening of the doors so that they can pour into the temple for prayer and thanksgiving to God, then they would actually be able to transform the world in which we live for the better. To put that in a slightly different manner: when Christian zeal matches or surpasses consumer zeal, then will the Gospel really impact our lives and the lives of those around us. But, alas, that is not the case. The promises and comforts of consumerism are taking their toll on everyone - including Christians. Frighteningly, people no longer abandon God for some philosophical or scientific reasons, but simply because they are satisfied with the level of existence that can be achieved within the quotidian world of items and objects.

I am going to pass on Black Friday, and wait a bit more before I do my Christmas shopping.


Fr. Steven

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Gathering Together in Thanks and Praise

Dear Parish Faithful,

I paused this morning to read an Op-Ed piece by the title of "A Moveable Fast," by Elyssa East. Such a title in a well-known urban newspaper characterized by its secularism was a bit intriguing. The concluding paragraph of this article can be read in an "Orthodox manner" without a great deal of manipulation:

In the nearly 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, the holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross overconsumption, but the New England colonists never intended for Thanksgiving to be a day of gluttony. They dished up restraint along with gratitude as a shared main course. What mattered most was not the feast itself, but the gathering together in thanks and praise for life's most humble gifts. Perhaps this holiday season we could benefit from restoring a proper Thanksgiving balance between forbearance and indulgence.


In other words, the uneasy alliance that has formed over the years between Thanksgiving and indulgence does not properly capture the meaning of this national holiday. For Thanksgiving to be properly "observed" a "gathering together in thanks and praise" is the most appropriate response. This is a good short definition of what we do in the Divine Liturgy. The Eucharist is about our thanksgiving to God not only for what we may have, but for who we actually are as the People of God in the process of growing in the likeness of God through our life in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate that service of thanksgiving - Eucharist - every year on Thanksgiving Day so that we may realize our vocation as "eucharistic beings," and not as mere "consumers." For those who like theological jargon, our anthropology is maximalist, not minimalist. So before we engage in the indulgence of a festal table in our homes, we first make the effort to receive the eucharistic food from the altar table in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving. And we do so joyfully and eagerly.

Elyssa East's Op-Ed article is a fascinating historical sketch of the mind and practices of the early Puritans in 17th c. New England. Fasting and feasting were part of their way of life. Admittedly, I would acknowledge that the "Orthodox ethos" and the "Puritan ethos" are as far apart as one could imagine. There is the saying that a Puritan is a person who is afraid that someone, somewhere, and for some reason is actually enjoying himself! The Calvinist conception of an angry God that needs to be appeased before He acts swiftly through punishment does not resonate for Orthodox Christians. And we thank our merciful God for that. Perhaps the harsh environment and struggle for survivals of these early Puritans further influenced some of their bleak theological conclusions. However, some of our practices may coincide. East relates that the Puritans' fear of "excessive rains from the bottles of heaven," in addition to "epidemics, crop infestations, the Indian wars and other hardships," led them to call for community-wide days of fasting or a "day of public humiliation and prayer." She further writes:

According to the 19th-century historian William DeLove, the New England colonies celebrated as many as nine such "special public days" a year from 1620-1700. And as the Puritans were masters of self-denial, days of abstention outnumbered thanksgivings two to one. Fasting, Cotton Mather wrote, "kept the wheel of prayer in continual motion".


Our fasting is not based on a fearful notion of appeasing God, but is rather a freely-chosen ascetical effort of self-discipline so as to actualize the words of the Lord when He fasted in the desert: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." (MATT. 4:4) The rhythm of fasting and feasting is directed by our liturgical calendar, as we are now fasting in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity. We are, however, granted a hierarchical "dispensation" on Thanksgiving Day to "break the fast" in order to celebrate this national holiday as Americans. Actually, the Orthodox can hold their own with any other religiously-based culture when it comes to feasting. We have a great deal to feast about when we reflect upon the "divine economy!" Yet even feasting is not about "gross overconsumption" and mere indulgence.

A couple more of Elyssa East's paragraphs help us understand the historical, cultural and religious background of our Thanksgiving Day celebration:

It was in the late 1660's that the New England colonies began holding an "Annual Provincial Thanksgiving." The holiday we celebrate today is a remnant of this harvest feast, which was theologically counterbalanced by an annual spring fast around the time of planting to ask God's good favor for the year. Yet fasting and praying also immediately preceded the harvest Thanksgiving. In 1690, in Massachusetts the feast itself was postponed, though not the fasting, out of extraordinary concern that the meal would inspire too much "carnal confidence.

As life in the New World wilderness got easier, the New England colonies gradually began holding only their annual spring fast and fall harvest feast. Even after Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, Massachusetts continued to celebrate its spring day of abstention for 31 more years.


As "right believing" Christians we need to insure that our Thanksgiving Day Liturgy is a true parish event and not merely an incidental service meant for a pious few. We know to Whom we offer our thanksgiving and why. As the "royal priesthood" of believers it is our responsibility to hold up the world in prayer before God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If this national holiday is now characterized by "gross overconsumption," as East contends, that does not mean that we need to follow such a pattern when we have the opportunity to thank and praise God before we share our domestic meals together. Perhaps a properly understood "fear of God" can be spiritually healthy when we contemplate our choices.

The Divine Liturgy will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday morning.

Fr. Steven

Monday, November 23, 2009

Whoever Receives One Such Child . . .

Dear Parish Faithful,

The forty-day Nativity Fast began last Sunday, November 15. This is the Season of preparation for the Lord's Nativity on December 25 through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

My purpose here is to propose a parish-wide or parish family project that would allow us to fulfill the Lord's command to practice charity/almsgiving. When I returned from Guatemala, I immediately wrote a meditation in which I shared the hard and troubling truth that a little girl that we met in June had been sexually violated previous to her entrance into the Hogar. (I have appended the relevant paragraph from that meditation below in case you have not read it or would like to re-read it). The Hogar has a program that allows for sponsorship of individual children. This is of tremendous benefit to the Hogar because it provides essential financial support for its strained budget. And it allows for others to participate in the Christian ministry to these "abandoned, abused, and orphaned children." The Hogar encourages parish sponsorship of a given child, since individual sponsorship can prove to be financially challenging; and because it is a communal project that brings a parish together through a common purpose. The cost of sponsoring a child for an entire year is as follows:

$10 per day
$300 per month
$3,600 per year

Having "done the math," I believe that a one-year sponsorship of this little girl is quite realistic and "do-able" for our parish. Otherwise, I would not support this collection. We have 85 households listed in our new parish directory. If 72 of those households make the relatively modest donation of $50, then the entire sum of $3,600 would be covered! That means that each household would support this little girl for five days out of the year. That is $50 for the entire year. Our goal would then be to send in our financial support at the beginning of the New Year. Of course, I encourage anyone to donate more than the $50 if you are so moved. That would greatly assist us in getting that much closer to our goal.

"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me" (MATT. 18:5).

We will use the St. Nicholas Day Charity Dinner on December 6, as a "kick-off" for this parish-wide project, since our teens have agreed to donate the proceeds of that dinner to support our drive. That will prove to be an excellent beginning, considering the popularity of that dinner and the parish-wide participation that we always experience. Perhaps most importantly, if you reflect upon the ministry of St. Nicholas and his love, defense and support for children in need, the timing is perfect. We will then be acting in honor and reverence of this great and beloved saint. I included the following short paragraph in my earlier meditation that I am hoping will move you to respond affirmatively to this charity proposal:

When you support the Hogar it is a child like this that you are supporting! You are helping to feed, clothe, and educate her. And protect her from the outside world that has betrayed her. You are helping to maintain her in a Christ-filled environment. It is a noble and worthy cause. May it be blessed.


We have a parish history of responding with great generosity to such community-based charity collections. When participation is parish-wide, the over-all collection "adds up" real quickly. I am hoping and praying that you will find some room in your hearts for this little girl that we have providentially met through our parish ministry to the Hogar.

Please consider a $50 donation for this long-suffering child as a Christmas gift in the name of the newborn Christ child.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven


Excerpt from previous meditation:

There is a lovely young girl of about ten that presvytera Deborah and I met in June and spent some time with on an outing to a plant and garden nursery. We made friends that day and enjoyed her company for the rest of the week there. On my recent visit I was speaking to Madre Ivonne about her, and discovered the shocking fact that she had been raped while living in a tenement building. She was then eventually brought to the Hogar and taken in. This is the part that truly breaks your heart, especially when you see this child up close, call her by name, hold her hand, hug her, and spend some time with her. To be perfectly honest, it also boils your blood. The tragic character of the fallen world is no more fully manifested then in the destruction of the purity and innocence of a child. The consequences are severe. The words of Christ make this clear: "It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones" (LK. 17:2). This also makes many of the children very susceptible to mood swings that will include a kind of depression. And yet this young girl has been baptized and now participates in the sacramental life of the Church on a daily basis. So, I am not ashamed to say that when she came to Communion on Sunday while I was serving, tears came to my eyes as I gave her the Body and Blood of Christ "unto life everlasting." This little child is truly on a journey from hell to heaven! She has been in the "dark pit" described by the psalmist, and has now returned to the light of day. This is the part that is inspiring. Or that uplifts your troubled heart.

A full and revised form of this reflection is now available at OrthodoxyToday.org, and may also be found on our Orthodox Meditations Blog here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Finding 'Snatches of Silence'


Dear Parish Faithful,

Surprisingly enough, a recent issue of Newsweek had an article printed under the rubric of psychology entitled "The Devil Loves Cell Phones," written by Julia Baird. That is a rather unexpected and somewhat jarring title considering the secular orientation of such a mass media journal as Newsweek. The article is one-page a commentary based upon a review of a new book by Sara Maitland. The newly-published book is called A Book of Silence. Baird begins by reminding us: "In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believed that Satan did not want human beings to be alone with God, or with each other, fully alert and listening." She then quotes Maitland who makes the provocative statement that the mobile or cell phone is a "major breakthrough for the powers of hell." We are further informed that Maitland "spent more than a decade pursuing silence like a hunter its prey." As part of this pursuit, Maitland spend 40 days - a perfect choice of time period! - "in an isolated house on a windy moor" in Scotland. Maitland writes in her book: "I am convinced that as a whole society we are losing something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding culture, and that somehow, whatever silence might be, it needs holding, nourishing and unpacking." She claims that her physical sensations were heightened - her porridge tasted better and she "heard different notes in the wind, was more sensitive to temperature, and emotional." Beyond that, she "experienced great happiness, felt connected with the cosmos; was exhilarated by the risk and peril in what she was doing; and discovered a fierce joy, or bliss."

The author of the article, Julia Baird, then comments on the over-all impact of the book: "It is a strikingly refreshing book to read, in the midst of the clamor and din, ever-mounting distraction, yelling TV pundits, solipsistic tweeting, and flash-card sentiment of our Internet age. It made me realize what a profound longing many of us have for silence, how hard it is to find, and how easily we forget how much we need it." A contention from Maitland sounds like something I would read in an article about Orthodox hesychasm from Arch. Kallistos Ware: "Maitland rails against the idea of silence as void, absence, and lack - insisting it is positive and nurturing, and something more profound that must be actively sought." Silence, for the saint, allows us to hear "the still, small voice of God," as did the Prophet Elijah on Mt. Horeb. This is the key to genuine prayer.

Julia Baird rails a bit more against our noisy culture: "We often talk about distraction, and the banality of a culture that seems to smother deep thought or time-sucking contemplation - we tweet sneezes, we blink and record it for our friends, we sprint to be the first to speak. The anonymity of the Internet has been replaced by hyper-identity; the idea of shutting up and staring at a rock, piles of sand, or blinking stars for hours, if not weeks, seems profoundly countercultural."

I would add that a forty-day fasting period before the Feast of our Lord's Nativity sounds real countercultural! The volume will increase over the next 40 days, not diminish. And not a whole lot of that noise will be in praise of the mystery of the Incarnation. Perhaps we can find some snatches of silence amidst the cacophany of sounds that will swirl around us. We may begin by limiting our cell phones to necessary calls, and not allow it to be a toy in our fidgety hands combined with a need to be distracted. The cell phone is fast becoming an adult "security blanket." Baird includes in her article this passage from C. S. Lewis' fascinating work, The Screwtape Letters, in which we "hear" of Hell's furious noise: "the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless and virile ... We will make the whole universe a noise ... We have already made great strides in this direction regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end."

It may prove to be difficult, but maybe we can find a way not to add to that ungodly din.

Fr. Steven

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Perfect Day



Dear Parish Faithful,


Although the day has passed, and is therefore now in the irretrievable past, I would like to explain why I believe that it was the "perfect time" to have come to Saturday evening's Great Vespers a couple of days ago. It struck me as the "perfect time" because it came at the end of what can only be described as a (near) "perfect day." Saturday was a truly beautiful day or, as some would say, a gorgeous day. Well into the Fall at this point in time, it was not only warm, but the drenching sunshine, the pellucid clarity of the blue sky, and the remaining colors of gold, yellow, orange and red still clinging to the trees combined to make each of us instinctively - or perhaps consciously - grateful for the simple joy of being alive. "Glory to You for the Feast Day of life!" we hear in the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things." What a day to wake up to and have your spirit lifted up in the process! As Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, it was the kind of day on which life made a great deal of sense. And such a day offered many opportunities for a variety of activities: working around the house (many of those leaves are now on the ground and need to be raked up); children playing in the yard; a trip to the park; a long walk, etc. The list can easily go on.

It is my humble opinion that the "perfect" culmination to such a day would have been to come to Great Vespers and truly thank God through the prayers and hymns of the service for the gift of such a day. (It is possible that someone may have said or thought that it was too nice of a day to "interrupt" by going to church. But, as the saying goes, better to not even go there ...) During the day, we may have paused for a moment and thanked God for its beauty, but the entire structure of Great Vespers is such that we offer our thanksgiving to God from within the Church as "ecclesial beings." It is not the impersonal forces of "Mother Nature" that we worship, but our heavenly Father, "the Maker of heaven and earth and of all things both visible and invisible." Again, that worship is most perfectly expressed from within the Church in our liturgical prayer. The very atmosphere of the church and our prayerful attention greatly magnifies our awareness of this truth. As mentioned above, from within the Church, our instinctive awareness of "goodness, truth and beauty," becomes a conscious awareness culminating in worship and thanksgiving. The service at the end of the day helps us to remember this.

Every Vespers service begins with Psalm 104, which is a form of "poetic theology," a hymn to the divinely-ordained variety, order and purpose of all of creation: "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom has Thou made them all!" Therefore, on the one hand, as the day wanes, and the sun begins to set, Great Vespers comes at the day's end so that we thank God for the enjoyment and experiences of that day - good or bad. On the other hand, according to the Scriptures "there was evening and morning, one day" (GEN. 1:5), so the evening service of Vespers begins the next day liturgically. As the sun sets, we sing an ancient hymn to Christ, the "Gladsome Light" that illuminates the darkness of the world with a light that cannot be "overcome." (cf. Jn. 1:5) In our liturgical theology we proclaim the "sanctification of time," indicating by this term the divine source of time and its (re)direction toward the Kingdom of Heaven made possible through the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Then, like the Elder Symeon, we can "depart in peace" - today and at the end of our earthly lives - for our eyes, too, have seen the salvation that God has "prepared before the face of all people."

I repeat: that struck me as the perfect way to end such a wonderful day as last Saturday was. We had eight hours or more to enjoy it. Plenty of time for a great deal of activity. Then, we offer back an hour of our time to the God who makes all things possible. This is not an "interruption," but a "culmination." For the sake of emphasis, I used the term "perfect time" somewhat rhetorically when I began this meditation on being present at last Saturday's Great Vespers service. It is always the "perfect time" when we include our presence in church as we make our plans and plot out our days as they come to us as gifts from God. Many such days have passed, and hopefully there are many more yet to come.

Fr. Steven

Monday, November 2, 2009

Image of a True Disciple: The Gadarene Demoniac


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


One of the most challenging narratives in the Gospels has to be the healing of the Gadarene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20; MATT. 8:28-34; LK. 8:26-39). This dramatic event which reveals the power of Christ over the demons will appear to the 21st c. mind as either archaic or even primitive. We may listen with respect and sing "Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!" upon the completion of the reading, but "wrapping our minds" around such a narrative may leave us baffled if not shaking our heads. The spectacle of a man possessed by many demons, homeless and naked, living among the tombs, chained so as to contain his self-destructive behavior is, to state the obvious, not exactly a sight that we encounter with any regularity. (Although we should acknowledge that behind the walls of certain institutions, we could witness to this day some horrible scenes of irrational and frightening behavior from profoundly troubled and suffering human beings). Add to this a herd of swine blindly rushing over a steep bank and into a lake to be drowned, and we must further recognize the strangeness of this event. This is all-together not a part of our world!

Yet, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the narrated event, which does appear in three of the Gospels, though with different emphases and details - in fact there are two demoniacs in St. Matthew's telling of the story! It is always instructive to compare the written account of a particular event or body of teaching when found in more than one Gospel. This will cure us of the illusion of a wooden literalism as we will discover how the four evangelists will present their gathered material from the ministry of Jesus in somewhat different forms. As to the Gadarene demoniac, here was an event within the ministry of Christ that must have left a very strong impression upon the early Church as it was shaping its oral traditions into written traditions that would eventually come together in the canonical Gospels. This event was a powerful confirmation of the Lord's encounter and conflict with, and victory over, the "evil one." The final and ultimate consequence of that victory will be revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

Whatever our immediate reaction to this passage - proclaimed yesterday during the Liturgy from the Gospel According to St. Luke (8:26-39) - I believe that we can recognize behind the dramatic details the disintegration of a human personality under the influence of the evil one, and the reintegration of the same man's personhood when healed by Christ. Here was a man that was losing his identity to a process that was undermining the integrity of his humanity and leading to physical harm and psychic fragmentation. I am not in the process of offering a psychological analysis of the Gadarene demoniac because, 1) I am ill-equipped to do so; and 2) I do not believe that we can "reduce" his horrible condition to psychological analysis. We are dealing with the mysterious presence of personified evil and the horrific effects of that demonic presence which we accept as an essential element of the authentic Gospel Tradition. The final detail that indicates this possessed man's loss of personhood is revealed in the dialogue between himself and Jesus:

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. (8:30)

To be named in the Bible is to receive a definite and irreducible identity as a person. It is to be "someone" created in the "image and likeness of God." It is the role of the evil one to be a force of disintegration. The "legion" inhabiting the man reveals the loss of his uniqueness, and the fragmentation of his personality. Such a distorted personality can no longer have a "home," which is indicative of our relational capacity as human beings, as it is indicative of stability and a "groundedness" in everyday reality. The poor man is driven into the desert, biblically the abode of demons. Once again, we may stress the dramatic quality of this presentation of a person driven to such a state, but would we argue against this very presentation as false when we think of the level of distortion that accompanies any form of an "alliance" with evil -whether "voluntary or involuntary?" Does anyone remain whole and well-balanced under the influence of evil? Or do we rather not experience or witness a drift toward the "abyss"?

Then we hear a splendid description of the man when he is healed by Christ! For we hear the following once the demons left him and entered into the herd of swine and self-destructed (the ultimate end of all personal manifestations of evil?):

Then the people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. (8:35)

"Sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind." This is clearly one of the most beautiful descriptions of a Christian who remains as a true disciple of the Master. This is the baptized person who is clothed in a "garment of salvation" and who is reoriented toward Christ, the "Sun of Righteousness." The image here is of total reintegration, of the establishment of a relationship with Christ that restores integrity and wholeness to human life. Also an image of peacefulness and contentment. Our goal is life is to "get our mind right" which describes repentance or that "change of mind" that heals all internal divisions of the mind and heart as it restores our relationship with others. Jesus commands the man "to return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you" (8:39). We, too, have been freed from the evil one "and all his angels and all his pride" in baptism. In our own way, perhaps we too can also proclaim just how much Jesus has done for us (cf. 8:39).


Fr. Steven

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Next 'Battle of the Calendars'



Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Next Saturday evening, October 31, at 6:00 p.m. I will intone the beginning of Great Vespers with the opening doxology: "Blessed is our God, always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen." During this service, we inaugurate the liturgical cycle of the Lord's Day - the Day of Resurrection. In Great Vespers we sing and chant many hymns through which we glorify the Risen Lord and praise His "holy resurrection" from the dead. This will culminate on Sunday morning when, at the Divine Liturgy, we will receive the Body and Blood of Christ "unto life everlasting." This is a cycle of anticipation, preparation and fulfillment. Regrettably, it is a liturgical cycle that most parishioners do not experience, but it continues to be observed on a weekly basis in our parish and many Orthodox parishes throughout North America. It remains a challenge to the planning and priorities of our families to this day. It is a service ignored by choice.

As we continue to celebrate the Lord's Day cycle beginning with Saturday evening's Great Vespers, I have the feeling that the intonation of the doxology just mentioned is going to be drowned out by the simultaneous intonation of "trick or treat!" at just about the same time in the early evening. For October 31 is the annual "celebration" of Halloween, which will fall on a Saturday this year. Then, in response to this squeaky-voiced warning, many participating home-dwellers will recoil with feigned horror or stare with exaggerated astonishment at their doors as an assortment of miniature-costumed characters will crowd their porches in expectation of some tasty treats. A host of Darth Vadars and fairy princesses will jostle for position in anticipation. Their bags or plastic jack-o-lanterns will then be duly filled. Parental voices from the sidewalk will arise out of the shadowy darkness to remind these disguised creatures to offer up a "thank you" in response. The "rubrics" for Halloween are about as established as the liturgical rubrics for Great Vespers and other services of the Church.

Consciously or unconsciously, Orthodox Christian parents will be making a choice for their children or, if children are no longer a factor, about their Saturday evening activities on Saturday, October 31. The vigil for the Lord's resurrection at Great Vespers or Halloween? Being fully realistic, I realize that this is not much of a choice! Next to Christmas itself, Halloween has to be the most anticipated day of the year for younger children. And, alas, for many adults also (but my sympathy does not extend that far). This is coupled with the fact that Great Vespers is already "foreign terrain" or off the "radar screen" for many/most as it is. Nothing seems more natural than Halloween on Saturday evening and the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. In the event-to-event pacing of our lives, such a jarring juxtaposition goes unnoticed. Nevertheless, a choice remains, and it is my role to inform everyone of that choice. Great Vespers will not be canceled next Saturday evening because it is Halloween!

My comments concerning this next "battle of the calendars" in our lives are not prompted by my belief that Halloween is a threat to our Christian faith; and certainly not because I believe it to be "demonic" or something along that order. Whatever the origins of this celebration that religious anti-Halloween groups like to point to as "proof" of Halloween's insidious and evil intent, it is clear today that Halloween is far too domesticated, trivialized and commercialized to pose an immediate threat to anyone or anything. Parents simply want their children to "fit in" and collectively enjoy themselves with their peers. True, there are some cruel pranksters out there that parents have to be vigilant about, but essentially "All Hallows Even" has been reduced to "fun," and what can be more innocuous than that?! Still, I would imagine that Halloween's annual staying power is primarily driven by its commercialization. I have been informed that Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of commercial viability. As long as "trick or treat" can be translated into big bucks, Halloween will be with us "unto ages of ages." Hence, the proliferation of Halloween paraphernalia. Costumes, halloween greeting cards, outdoor decorations, candy, etc. can turn Halloween into a veritable family budget item.

If Halloween were not so "big" I would not address its place in our culture. It is a "feast day" of huge significance on our secular calendars. The Feast Days of the Church - with the exception of Nativity and Pascha - cannot "compete" with Halloween for our attention, focus and commitment. I find this to be a genuine pastoral concern, now and for the future. However, pastoral commentaries, even if delivered with a certain sense of balance and "objectivity," will not likely transform those patterns in a more ecclesial direction. But I do believe that raising our level of awareness prompted by these "cultural issues" is necessary. We need, as Christians, to think and evaluate all things critically. This brings me to my point: we often fail to do that, or we "pick and choose" with a certain arbitrariness that suits our "comfort level." For, precisely as Christians, we often indulge in criticism of the prevailing culture. And we can get pretty judgmental or negative in our assessment of current trends. We can shake our heads or cluck our tongues at a great deal that is "out there." We can carry on eloquently about "cultural wars." And we will justifiably protect our children as well as that is possible. But we are very much a part of the prevailing culture to an extent that we may be unaware of, and partake of its "delights" perhaps more than we would like to admit. To what extent can the cultural patterns of Christians be distinguished from non-Christians; or better yet, non-believers? As long as that is the case, we need to be careful about our (hypocritical?) judgments of others and their practices. Perhaps this is a rather trivial example, but our "choice" for Halloween may just reinforce my reflections.

My purpose is not to talk anyone into or out of anything. My pastoral role is to raise issues as they come up. October 31 of this year brought some issues to mind.

Great Vespers at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 31.


Fr. Steven

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Vignette from the Hogar: From Hell to Heaven

revised October 29, 2009

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Buenos dias! Como estan? Espero que todos estan bien con ustedes. Estoy muy bien, pero un poquito consado. Saludos para todos ustedes de Madres Ines, Maria y Ivonne.

I returned from Guatemala and the Hogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage as scheduled late Monday evening. After a day of "catching up" at home (mainly correcting midterm exams from XU) I am back at the church. I am also back to using English which does come to me a bit more naturally! Be that as it may, I would like to share with you some serious reflections and observations following my short stay at the Hogar, especially concerning the children and their upbringing there by Madres Ines, Maria and Ivonne.

As usual, a visit to the Hogar is an experience that paradoxically fills me with a sense of sadness and inspiration. In just a short period of time, it is virtually impossible not to feel sad on behalf of these "abandoned, abused, and orphaned children" and the brokenness of their young lives. There are many encounters that will either melt or break your heart. Yet simultaneously, it is impossible not to be inspired and deeply moved in a positive sense as you briefly witness how these broken lives are being protected and even slowly put back together again. The process of healing is taking place below the surface and when clear signs of it become manifest this is truly exhilarating and a cause for joy. Here is a very poignant and dramatic case in point:

There is a lovely young girl of about ten that presvytera Deborah and I met in June and spent some time with on an outing to a plant and garden nursery. We made friends that day and enjoyed her company for the rest of the week there. On my recent visit I discovered the shocking fact that she had been horribly violated ("let the reader understand") while living in a tenement building. She was then eventually brought to the Hogar and taken in. This is the part that truly breaks your heart, especially when you see this child up close, call her by name, hold her hand, exchange hugs, and spend some time with her. To be perfectly honest, it also boils your blood. These are sins that are not easily forgiven. The tragic character of the fallen world is no more fully manifested then in the destruction of the purity and innocence of a child. The consequences are severe. The words of Christ make this clear: "It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones" (LK. 17:2). This also makes many of the children very susceptible to mood swings that will include a kind of depression. And yet this young girl has been baptized and now participates in the sacramental life of the Church on a daily basis. So, I am not ashamed to say that when she came to Communion on Sunday while I was serving, tears came to my eyes as I gave her the Body and Blood of Christ "unto life everlasting." This little child is truly on a journey from hell to heaven! She has been in the "dark pit" described by the psalmist, and has now returned to the light of day. This is the part that is inspiring. Or that uplifts your troubled heart.

We cannot romanticize this healing process. It is slow and difficult. Children of various ages arrive at the orphanage fearful of, or enraged at, adults. Their bodies and souls are scarred with the wounds of fearful transgressions. Madre Ivonne further shared with me that for many of the children, it is not until they are about fifteen or so when they realize that they are being cared for in a spirit of love. (By that age at the Hogar, we are speaking about teen-aged girls, for the boys have been transferred elsewhere to another very fine institution - Ak Tenamit - that further educates them and prepares them for life in society). They may not really "open up" until then and fully trust their caregivers. When the children or young adults begin to respond to love, with love, the entire Hogar rejoices.

When you support the Hogar it is a child like this that you are supporting! You are helping to feed, clothe, and educate her. And protect her from the outside world that has betrayed her. You are helping to maintain her in a Christ-filled environment. It is a noble and worthy cause. May it be blessed. Any may God grant Madres Ines, Maria and Ivonne many years in their monastic vocation and in their ministry to the "abandoned, abused and orphaned" children of the Hogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage!

Dios ustedes bendigan!

Con mucho amor en Cristo,

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orthodox Christian Meditations now have Comments


From the webservant:


We are now enabling the comments feature of our two blogs with the most potential for interaction: Orthodox Christian Meditations, and Orthodox Q&A Forum. This should enable greater 'give and take' on topics of interest, without the current cumbersome process of emailing comments to Fr. Steven and then his subsequent emailing of same back out to his lists. Here's how it will work:

- There is a link at the bottom of each post for 'Comments'. Click on that to open only the entry you are reading with space for comments immediately below the entry. Then follow the instructions to post your comments.

- Fr. Steven will receive an email notification when someone has posted a comment.

- At this stage, we are not monitoring comments before they are posted, so we are employing a blogger "honor system" worthy of our readership.

- Any comments considered inappropriate will be removed.

- Fr. Steven will from time to time post his own follow-up comments, which can enable some lively and fruitful online exploration of various topics.

- Readers may opt to become "followers" of our blogs. You can also subscribe for email or RSS messages notifying you of new meditations or comments.

- We have also added a search feature, so if you are looking for an item that caught your interest, it should be much easier to find it.

- The links to our website and other blogs, and the archives of previous Meditations remain unchanged.

We ask your patience while we are launching this new feature, and hope it becomes an blessed and enjoyable aspect of your online experience.

in Christ,
Ralph S.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fall Adult Education Class 2009



Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

The book for our Fall Adult Education Class - Fellow Workers with God - Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, by Norman Russell - has arrived. (Just follow the link to order.) I believe this particular book is going to be excellent. The Foreword to the book was written by Dr. Peter Bouteneff. And he writes the following:

A feature that will make this book stand out, and make its readers especially grateful, is the author's ability to communicate the full depth and range of his knowledge of the subject in a way that is accessible and understandable. This should not be taken for granted, for as many authors (and their bemused readers) know, it is rare that a specialist cares enough to rethink his or her subject in non-specialist terms. Russell has taken the time to translate his scholarly approach into clear writing for a lay audience, casting aside the mantle of prestige to address people where they actually are.

I cannot imagine a more reliable or a more approachable cross-section of this vital aspect of ancient and contemporary Orthodox thought. It will no longer be possible to use "theosis" in a way that is facile, "over-spiritualized," or abstract. We have now lost any excuse to do so.


A great endorsement from Dr. Bouteneff. Personally, I can't wait to get started! Be that as it may, I would be willing to wait an extra week to begin if that means more of you can make it to the opening session. I say that because a "few" of those committed informed me that they probably could not make it to the first session on November 2. So, perhaps we could wait one more week and begin on Monday, November 9. Once again, let me know if that would work better for you.

Fr. Steven

As A Little Child

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On Sunday, we will read from the Gospel According to St. Luke. We will also commemorate St. Luke as October 18 is his feast day. (If you go to www.oca.org and click on "Feasts & Saints," you will find there a short account of St. Luke's life). Therefore, in addition to the appointed Gospel reading (LK. 8:5-15), we will add a second appointed reading in honor of St. Luke (LK. 10:16-21). As a humble evangelist, St. Luke does not refer to himself in the entire Gospel, so the appointed reading must be one that was chosen because it points to him in such a way that his role and character precisely as a disciple of the Lord and evangelist is underlined. It is a passage meant to bring out a significant trait. We read and hear the following in this portion of the appointed text:

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" And he said to them, "I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. (Lk. 10:17-21)

Church Tradition numbers St. Luke among the Seventy Apostles, hence one of the purposes behind this passage that mentions the seventy and their appointed ministry that would continue following the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The greater purpose of the preaching and healing ministry that is extended to the Lord's disciples is the overthrowing of Satan's power and grip on men and women. Jesus has a direct vision of this victory, clearly echoed in the Book of Revelation (12:9).

Together with this, Jesus further rejoices in the Holy Spirit ( a characteristic of St. Luke to mention this) that "these things" - the preaching of the Gospel attended by such great signs - are revealed to, and understood by, "infants" (also translated as "babes"). This is occurring simultaneously with the inability of the "wise" to grasp these mysteries of the Kingdom of God! The revelation is meant for everyone, but the religious authorities, who are considered to be wise and prudent, have blinded themselves to be open to "these things," making them even hostile to Christ in the process. However, this teaching is not limited to the scribes and Pharisees of Christ's time. A certain blindness or arrogance can and does exist at all times when the Gospel seems "too simple" for the sophisticated minds of the (self-appointed?) intellectual elites of any given era. In this context, "infants" and "babes" refers to the "simple faith" of "simple people" who, in accepting the revelation that comes from God, are able to be true disciples of Christ. Clearly, the evangelist Luke was one such disciple. Thus, this is not simply about babies and young children! It is about the over-looked members of any given society - including our own - being granted a gift from our heavenly Father that only requires for its reception an openness of mind and heart. One's level of intellectual sophistication is not the determining factor in a positive and open response to the Gospel. As one scholar put it: "The message of Jesus is not grasped by wisdom and understanding; it is known only by revelation." (John L. McKenzie)

Elsewhere, Jesus spoke of receiving the Kingdom of God "as a little child" (MK. 10:15). To be "child-like" is certainly not to be "childish." We may speak of innocence and purity, but to be like a child in the context of Christ's teaching is also to be instinctively aware of one's dependence on another and to trust that source on which one is dependent. The true disciple, acting in a child-like manner trusts our heavenly Father Who is able to number the hairs on our head. To be childish, on the other hand, is to be immature and self-centered in such a way that in exasperation one adult may say of another "what a baby!" The most brilliant theologian is a "child of God," and as dependent upon God as the little child is upon his mother or father. It is that simplicity that one must not lose as we grow in wisdom and understanding all through life. This does not mean that we will believe anything; but that we will believe in the true things as they are revealed to us. Discernment is essential, but not a discernment blinded by scepticism and cynicism. To be "as a little child" is to retain the "laughter of the soul" that St. John Klimakos so commends. It is the way of entrance into the Kingdom of God.


Fr. Steven

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Icon and Total Human Nature


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday morning, I hosted two theology classes from Xavier University here at the church. Neither was the class that I am currently teaching. Rather, one of the professors at XU (Dr. Elizabeth Groppe) is including a discussion about Orthodox iconography in her class and she wanted her students to see some genuine Orthodox iconography "up close" and in a church setting. Her students were given what sounds like a very fascinating and timely assignment: to contrast and compare the media's use of the human body - MTV, advertising, etc. - with the body in Christian iconography. She also wants them to explore the meaning of genuine asceticism. That is a good topic for any Orthodox Christian to "meditate" upon very carefully. How would any of us respond to that assignment? What do we notice about the role and place of the body in an Orthodox icon? As important as the human body is in an Orthodox Christian understanding of life and salvation, there seems to remain a tendency to ignore the body when we talk about "spirituality" or the Christian life in general. As if the human body did not count, or was some form of "neutral matter." We accept a dualism that concentrates on the soul at the expense of the body. This is called "warmed-over Platonism," after the Greek philosopher Plato whose real concern was the "soul" and its capacity to contemplate the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The body is merely the "tomb" of the soul. However, this is not biblical and hence, not Orthodox.

My goals in speaking to a group of college freshmen and sophmores were rather modest. I simply attempted to make some basic points about iconography and its general relationship to theology. This is not that difficult for the Orthodox, because our theology over-all is a wonderful integration of Scripture, Liturgy, hymnography, and iconography. In fact, our iconography has been famously called "theology in color." Art, and thus human culture, is capable of expressing divine reality, of allowing us a glimpse of that beauty that Dostoevsky said "would save the world." And the icon reveals something very essential about the body, including its place in that process of drawing closer to God that we call theosis, or deification. An essay with a rather provocative title, "An Art Centered on the Body" by the Greek Orthodox iconologist, Nikos Zias, makes this point very well. Zias begins with an general observation about Byzantine iconography, the prototype of all subsequent Orthodox iconography:

In Byzantine art the human form is dominant, whether as a full-scale representation or as a portrait. The universal acceptance of this subject-matter is evidence of the acceptance in principle of the body as capable of salvation, and not as a priori or definitively evil; an acceptance, moreover, which has its beginning in the Incarnation of the Word made flesh. (Synaxis, Vol. II, p. 29)


Speaking specifically about the icon of Christ, Zias makes these further observations:

The two-dimensional depiction without mass and weight, with the light emanating not from an external steady source, but almost as it were out of the body, the prominence of the head and the emphasizing of the eyes, the unrealistic use of color - all these elements contrive to represent not simply a human body, but the divine-human body of Christ. It is the body which walks weightlessly upon the sea, without however being a "spirit;" it is the palpable body of the Transfiguration, which radiates the divine Light; it is the resurrected body of the Lord who passes unhindered into the room "while the doors were shut" in order to grant peace to His disciples. (Ibid. p. 29)


The saints of the Church are those men and women who had experienced the transfiguration of their own humanity in this life, through the ascetical life nourished by unceasing prayer. Perhaps the most "spectacular" example is that of St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833). This transfiguration also included their bodies, as the Transfiguration of the Lord clearly revealed. How can an iconographer depict this transfiguration within the limitations posed by line and color? Zias writes the following:

The artistic means by which this transfiguration is achieved are the same as those used to depict the body of Christ. The frontal representation, the light radiating from within, the simplification of the different parts, the schematic rendering of the folds of the garments give to the depiction of the body a particular quality. The body is not autonomous, as in ancient Greek art, nor is it ruptured and deconstructed, as is often the case in modern art (cubism, surrealism). It co-exists and is exercised together with the soul, and expressed the eschatological faith that the body is saved and filled with grace, as is proved even today by the relics of the saints. (Ibid., p. 30)


The "strangeness" of the icon, its supposedly "naive" figuration and color schemes are actually the revelation of a consciously-chosen aesthetics that creates a genuinely spirtual art that embraces the whole person, body and soul. To further emphasize the integral place of the body in iconography - or in a sound Orthodox Christian "worldview" - Nikos Zias includes the viewer's participation in the over-all act of gazing upon and venerating an icon:

Byzantine art is ... an anthropomorphic art, an art centered on the human body, and rendering spirituality, sanctity and deification visible through the body. After all, communication with this art is also achieved physically, through the veneration of the icon by the faithful. Moreover, if we take the point of view of most modern art, which regards the viewer's participation as necessary to complete the work of art, then the believer's physical participation in Byzantine art is more direct than in any period of art history. Byzantine painting uses the human body as its means of expression, envisioning it, however, beyond corruption and beyond the oppression of natural law and physical necessity, in the freedom of grace and the dynamic of transfiguration. (Ibid. p. 32-33)


As in that horrific tale of anti-transfiguration, Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," the human body can be rendered in a grotesque manner in the contemporary world - in art or advertisement. Some art will "test the limits" and distort the human body to an almost unrecognizable degree; or use the body to "make a statement" that is intended to scandalize or provoke. In the ubiquitous world of advertisement it is usually the monotonous use of the body as an instrument of enticement, sensuality, or pseudo-eroticism. Youth, beauty, glamor and sexual attraction are "deified." Even "senior citizens" are invited not to be "left behind," and to join in on the "fun" that is only a performance-enhancing drug away. Arrest the aging process that leads to the body's corruption, for that is all there is! We witness here, at best, a highly ambiguous emphasis on our bodily existence. Perhaps gazing at the icons in our homes and churches with some of the attention that we dedicate to the various screens in our lives, will help restore a balanced and holistic vision to the role of the body in a decidedly Christian worldview. Rather than an object to be exploited, the body can be further restored to a level of respect and care that avoids the pitfalls of idolatry.

Is there an organic relationship between the soul and body? Certainly, according to the witness of the Gospel and our theological Tradition that is grounded in the Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, leading to the deification of our total human nature - soul and body. If we take care of our soul - having faith and doing good works - can we simultaneously indulge the body and its instinctual desire for gratification, be it food, drink, sex, excessive comfort, etc.? At what point does ignoring the body in our "spiritual life" affect our soul? Or, we could turn this around and ask: why does our body take on such importance and become the focus of attention when it becomes a matter of health or beauty? How is it that "working out" is good, healthy, rigorous activity; but standing in church, making prostrations, and fasting are often enough undesirable labors? Why are we so disciplined about the former, but lax about the latter? Actually, whatever our approach to "spirituality" may be, we are quite concerned about our bodies, but we struggle to integrate our bodily existence into our over-all Christian life. If we have "eyes to see" the icon restores the proper vision of our body that awaits both resurrection and transfiguration in the Age to Come. The icon anticipates in artistic form the revelatory promise made by the Apostle Paul:

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. (PHIL. 3:20-21)


Fr. Steven