Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fasting contined: On Gluttony

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a worthwhile addendum to the Outline on Fasting sent earlier in the day. It is an insightful look at the passion of gluttony, sent to me by Stephen Wendland:

Dear Fr. Steven,

Further thoughts on fasting as related to the converstion:

From Fr. John Behr's "The Mystery of Christ- Life in Death":

Eating itself is natural to a human being, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying the food one eats; it is gluttony, rather, which is a passion and a vice. As St. John Climacus describes it, gluttony is a false opinion about the way things are:

Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach. Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed and crammed, it wails about its hunger. Gluttony thinks up seasoning, creates sweet recipes…. Gluttony has a deceptive appearance: it eats moderately but wants to gobble everything at the same time.

Glottony has its own cognitive element, and one which is based in deception. Through the practice of fasting, controlling the stomach, one does not simply reduce one’s dietary intake to the minimum possible, but instead learns to break through the hypocrisy of the stomach, to know that one will not die if one does not eat as one has become accustomed to do. The “hypocrisy” of the stomach is not located in the bodily organ itself, but in the mind’s relation to the stomach.

Stephen Wendland

Preparing for Great Lent Pt 3: Fasting

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yesterday evening we held the third and final talk in our "Preparing for Great Lent" series. As I did for our two previous sessions, I am sharing, in outline form, some of the main points discussed concerning the practice of fasting. Our discussion was for the most part based upon a reading of Archbishop Kallistos Ware's excellent article, printed in booklet form, "When You Fast."

FASTING - An Outline

Fasting completes the "sacred trilogy" of essential Christian practices: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting as taught to us directly by the Lord in MATT. 6:1-18. Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness (MT. 4:1-11).

Thus, fasting is a practice that goes back to the very origins of the Church. Practice of all major religions, actually. In both the Old and New Testaments, fasting is related to theophanies or visions:
- Moses on Mt. Sinai (EX. 34:28)
- Elijah on Mt. Horeb (I KINGS 19:8-12)
- St. Peter (ACTS 10:9-17)

To fast is to be ascetical - spiritual vigilance based upon discipline and restraint. Ultimately liberating. Freedom from binding attachments of a "worldly nature," beginning with the most basic: food and drink.

At the same time, we do not want to reduce Great Lent to the prescribed food restrictions. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving can be empty - even demonic. Fasting is one tool in the over-all lenten effort of "fasting from sin." (St. John Chrysostom)

"The fast should be kept not only by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands, and all the members of the body." (St. John Chrysostom)

"You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother." (St. Basil the Great)

• Understood within the wider context of Orthodox Christian anthropology: human persons are a psychosomatic unity of soul and body (or spirit, soul and body - see this file for Glossary of Terms). We are our bodies. The body is integral to our personhood and participates in the process of theosis. Reject all forms of dualism.

• In a fallen world, the demands and appetites of the body can easily dominate: passion of gluttony.

Fasting restores the proper hierarchy between the spiritual and the material: "Man does not live by bread alone."

• According to Arch. Kallistos Ware: "The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God." What are we really hungry for? Hunger and tiredness strip away "sinful complacency."

• According to The Shepherd of Hermas (2nd c.), money saved from fasting (not just food but entertainment, excessive shopping, etc.) can be given to the widow, orphan and the poor.

In his booklet "When You Fast," Archbishop Kallistos Ware points out "five misconceptions" about fasting:

1) "In the first place, the Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined on the whole Christian people."

2) "In the second place, the Lenten fast should not be misconstrued in a Pelagian sense." Meaning any "achievements" are not simply a matter of our will, but a gift of the grace of God.

3) "In the third place, our fasting should not be self-willed but obedient." We follow the pattern of fasting prescribed by the Church. Do not make up our own rules. Speak with spiritual father about intensification or relaxation of the fast.

4) "In the fourth place, paradoxical though it may seem, the period of Lent is a time not of gloom but of joyfulness."
With joy let us enter upon the beginning of
the Fast.
Let us not be of sad countenance ...

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season
of abstinence;
And let us shine with the bright radiance of
the holy commandments ...

"Lent" is derived from the English word "springtime."

5) "Fifthly and finally, our Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God's creation." All foods are good. None are impure. Excessive bodily impulses lead to misusing the gift of food. Fasting restores that awareness of food as gift.

"When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make all eating spiritual, sacramental, and eucharistic - no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver.... Only those who have learnt to control their appetites through abstinence can appreciate the full glory and beauty of what God has given to us." (Arch. Kallistos)

What is the ascetical fast? To abstain from meat, fish and dairy products for Great Lent and Holy Week. Also alcoholic beverages.

What can we do? Set some realizable - yet challenging - goals based on the above. A need to "feel" the fast. Again, Arch. Kallistos:

The tendency to overemphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy.

Create a lenten atmosphere in the home. Regular in prayer and spiritual reading. Less stimulation through television, radio, CD players, etc. Avoidance of "worldly entertainment." Seeking stillness: urban hesychasm.

• Make time to participate in lenten liturgical services.

• Prepare well for the Mystery of Repentance (Confession).

Great Lent teaches discipline, obedience, restraint. Essential virtues within a culture that scorns such virtues.

• Ultimately, a blessed season of the year that leads us to the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

Fr. Steven

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Unique Life with an Eternal Resonance

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In preparing for our discussion this coming Wednesday evening on fasting, I came across this passage from Archbishop Kallistos Ware as to how fasting can never be seen and practiced in isolation. In fact, he makes a direct connection between fasting and the Sunday of the Last Judgment and the parable that should still be deeply implanted in our minds and hearts from yesterday's Liturgy:

Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by almsgiving - by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness. Eight days before the opening of the Lenten fast, on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the appointed Gospel is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (MATT. 25:31-46), reminding us that the criterion in the coming judgment will not be the strictness of our fasting but the amount of help that we have given to those in need. In the words of the Triodion:

Knowing the commandments of the Lord,
let this be our way of life:
Let us feed the hungry,
let us give the thirsty drink,
Let us clothe the naked,
let us welcome strangers,
Let us visit those in prison and the sick.
Then the Judge of all the earth will say
even to us:
"Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom
prepared for you."
(Vespers for the Sunday of the Last Judgment)

Every believing Orthodox Christian knows "deep down" that he/she will come before the "dread judgment seat of Christ our God." And we pray for a "good defense" before that judgment seat. The works of love enumerated by Christ in the parable are just such a good defense (apologia in the Gk.) that express our human response to the received love of God that prompts such a response toward others. The Lord is not a celestial terrorist. We may and should experience the "fear of God," but not because God is vindictive and prepared to punish. The Lord who judges, is the God who first and foremost forgives us of our sins with a love that we cannot fully grasp. Judgment is not a rigorous assessment before a suspicious and implacable diety, but the revelation of our inner being and the depths of our hearts. The jugdment simply reveals with total clarity our "true selves." Judgment as condemnation is thus self-imposed. In the judgment we will "answer" such probing questions as: Just what did God mean in our lives? What was the effect on our lives of saying "I believe in God?" Did we serve the "other" or just the "self?" The charitable heart expands with acts of love. The non-charitable heart shrinks with acts of selfishness. As Fr. Sergius Bulgakov wrote:

A merciful and charitable heart - that is what God wants from us: Be merciful like your Father in heaven. If in a human being's heart there is no love, then all that he has is dead and of no value.

The judgment of the Lord is the light of God searching for love in the depths of our heart. Our glorified Lord will discover it in the enlarged heart, but not in the shriveled one. The presence of such love - for both God and neighbor - means that we spent our lives in actual-service, and not lip-service, to God and neighbor. Applying this specifically to our faith in Christ, Fr. Bulgakov added this:

Love for one's neighbor is also love for Christ and contains the latter in itself. The sole Neighbor to whom all our works of love and all our love refer and can refer is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
... In the Divine Incarnation, the Lord became the new Adam, true Man, living in the human race like a vine in its vineyard, and thus establishing true humanity in every man. Christ lives in every man; to the eyes of love, every man is the image of God, the image of Christ. To the eyes of love, every man is Christ Himself living in him.

The point is not to reduce the Christian life to charitable deeds alone. The "social Gospel" is not the full Gospel. Our almsgiving is placed within the over-all context of the multi-layered dimensions of our one Christian life. Once again, we can turn to Fr. Bulgakov for a balanced response to this theme:

Is Christian life reducible to charity alone? Does this mean that right faith, Christian hope, the fulfillment of Church decrees, adherence to doctrine, and prayer have no significance for salvation? Does this mean that heresies, schisms, and absence of faith do not matter if one's works are good? No, all these things are required of the Christian and will be taken into account by the Just Judge: but separated from love, these things are the empty virtue of the arrogant Pharisee or of the older son in the parable of the prodigal son.

The reality of judgment should not be conceived in negative terms. That is the caricature of misplaced faith or lack of faith. The prospect of judgment need not cast a frightening shadow or stir up a sense of anxiety over our every deed, word or thought. No one is keeping score. Actually, judgment before the Lord means that our lives have significance. That our deeds, words and thoughts are not empty gestures and meaningless sounds that are destined for oblivion; but rather the accumulated "spiritual data" of a unique life that was brought into existence and lived according to the will of our Creator. A "cup of cold water" given "to one of these little ones" will have an eternal resonance! The Fathers tell us that we have the gift of "self-determination" (autexousia), which means that we are forming the being that we will be for all of eternity in the sight of God - a sheep "at his right hand" or a goat "at the left."

Fr. Steven

Friday, February 20, 2009

Preparing for Great Lent Pt 2: Prayer

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday evening, we held our second of three talks entitled, "Preparing for Great Lent." Our theme was prayer, based on MATT. 6:6-15. This talk was very well-attended (because parishioners are serious about deepening their prayer life, I would hope and assume), and the discussion lively. Below is an outline of the general content of the presentation on prayer. If you have any questions based upon what you read here, please forward them to me.

PRAYER - An Outline

- Prayer is essential to the Christian life. The Lord Himself prayed throughout His earthly ministry. And He taught us: "When you pray ..." "Prayer is spiritual breathing" according to St. John of Kronstadt.

- When we fail to pray, our Christian life suffers:
"If you are not successful in your prayer, do not expect success in anything. It is the root of all." (St. Theophan the Recluse)

- Prayer is work - both creative and dynamic.
"Prayer is action; to pray is to be highly effective." (Tito Colliander)

- There are two basic forms of prayer - liturgical ("When two or three are gathered in my Name ..."); and personal ("When you pray, enter into your room and shut the door"). These are complementary. We will concentrate on personal/inner prayer.

- Balancing the two avoids two temptations: 1)individual pietism; and 2) being submerged in an impersonal multitude.

- Inner prayer is taught in The Philokalia, which means the "Love of the Good/Beautiful." An excellent book for serious beginners is The Art of Prayer - An Orthodox Anthology.

- The Scriptures teach us:
"Be constant in prayer." (ROM. 12:12)
"Pray without ceasing." (I THESS. 5:17)

- St. Theophan the Recluse and then Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarize the meaning and purpose of personal/inner prayer:
"The principle thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life."

"To pray is to stand before God, to enter into an immediate and personal relationship with Him; it is to know at every level of our being, from the instinctive to the intellectual, from the sub- to the supra-conscious, that we are in God and He in us."

- There are three stages of prayer according to St. Theophan the Recluse:
1) The habit of ordinary oral prayer in church and at home.
2) The union of prayerful thoughts and feelings with the mind and heart.
3) Unceasing prayer - or prayer of the mind in the heart.

"The more the mind is purified, the more oral prayer will become prayer of the mind in the heart, and when the heart becomes quite pure, then unceasing prayer will be established."

- We do not pray over a chasm: God is in us, and we are in God. He is "'Our Father."

- Our goal is to pray regularly, consistently, and faithfully.

- Practically, this is best done with a Rule of Prayer.
What is a Rule of Prayer? A period of time - be it short - set aside exclusively for the conscious activity of prayer. A time in which nothing else is done. Usually morning and evening. A daily discipline is established.

"Rising in the morning, stand as firmly as possible before God in your heart, as you offer your morning prayers; and then go to the work apportioned to you by God, without withdrawing from Him in your feelings and consciousness. In this way you will do your work with the powers of your soul and body, but in your mind and heart you will remain with God." (St. Theophan the Recluse)

- A Rule of Prayer is built and structured upon the established prayers of the Church found in any good Orthodox Prayer Book. Every praying Orthodox Christian must own such a book.

- These prayers allow for a spirit of unity with all other Orthodox Christians.

- These traditional prayers teach us how to pray and what to pray for.

- They deepen our prayer so that we pray with the "mind of the Church," which is the "mind of Christ."
There is a doctrinal basis: Trinitarian, as we pray to the Father, in the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Real content - no vagueness.

- Perseverance is essential:
"I advise you to convince yourself and force yourself to prayer and every good action, even if you do not feel the wish for it. God, seeing such labor and application, will give good will and zeal." (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk)

- We seek spiritual sobriety - not rapture and emotion: "Be still and know that I am God."

- A brief and modest Rule of Prayer can be effective, crafted to the circumstances of our lives:
"You should not make a long prayer, for it is better to pray little, but often. Superfluous words are idle talk." (Theophylact of Bulgaria)

- Suggestions for an over-all structure to our Rule of Prayer:
• Trisagion Prayers: O Heavenly King through the Lord's Prayer
• Psalm 50(51)
• The Creed
• Hymn to the Theotokos - "It is Truly Meet ..."
• Closing Prayers

- Other prayers may be selectively chosen.

- Our own "personal prayers" are essential: for forgiveness, intercession, thanksgiving, praise, lament.

- In our personal prayer we are essentially following the Lord who ultimately prayed to His heavenly Father: "Not what I will, but what You will." Thus we are praying in order:
• To discern God's will for our lives (wisdom)
• To actualize His will for our lives (strength)
• To accept His will for us even in times of adversity (perseverance)
• To offer praise to God and our burdens before God (thanksgiving and trust)

- These spontaneous prayers will grow out of our Rule of Prayer.

- Both are guided by the Holy Spirit.

- Need to study the text of the prayers that we use, so that we grasp their meaning.
"Ponder carefully on the prayers which you have read in your prayer book; feel them deeply, even learn them by heart. And so when you pray you will express that which is already deeply felt in your heart." (St. Theophan the Recluse)
"You must make a great effort to confine your mind within the words of prayer." (St. John Klimakos)

- In time, oral prayer becomes prayer of the mind.

- The well-known "Jesus Prayer" allows us to pray throughout the day. This is monologic prayer that calls upon the Name of God incarnate and helps us to focus our dispersed thoughts, probably the greatest obstacle to genuine prayer.
"Ultimately, the praying heart is to be enlarged in order to embrace all needs and sorrows of the whole suffering humanity." (Fr. Georges Florovsky)

Next Week: Session III On Fasting

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Re-centering until our Last Breath

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"God requires of us to go on repenting until our last breath." (St. Isaias the Solitary)
"Repentance ... It means not self-pity or remorse, but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity ... It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see." (Archbishop Kallistos Ware)

I believe that we should think of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son extending itself throughout the week, thus giving us the Week of the Prodigal Son and the possibility of meditating upon this extraordinary parable carefully and thoughtfully. This parable is perhaps "the parable of parables," and thus deserving of a great deal of attention on our part. Sundays come and go perhaps too rapidly and we find ourselves back in our "routines," and living in a world far different than the one we are given a glimpse into through the Liturgy. That fleeting glimpse, which is actually a vision of life that is Christ-centered and Spirit-guided, may thus appear to be "ideal," but not "real." However, it may actually be the vision of the one underlying Reality of all that exists and which makes everything else not only tolerable or endurable, but meaningful and embraceable. If our liturgical and eucharistic experience is forgotten the moment it is over, as we move on to Sunday's entertainment, and then prepare to endure Monday morning's responsibilities; perhaps then we are "cheating" ourselves of "the one thing needful." And in the process we lose sight of the riches of the Gospel if we only absentmindedly await next Sunday's. That certainly applies to the Parable of the Prodigal Son!

Yet, before briefly looking into some of the riches of this well-known parable, perhaps we should place it within the wider context of its setting in the Gospel According to St. Luke. For the evangelist Luke places the Parable of the Prodigal Son as the climax of a series of three parables in chapter 15 that reveal the "joy in heaven" when sinners are "found" following an implied or clearly stated repentance. In fact, these parables are told to a group of "tax collectors and sinners" who "were drawing near to hear him." (LK. 15:1) The first of these is the Parable of the Lost Sheep:

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (15:3-7)

The Parable of the Lost Coin follows immediately:

Or what woman, having ten silver coins, is she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you , there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (15:8-10)

These are wonderful parables that serve as images of our heavenly Father rejoicing when He "finds" a sinner who has returned to Him through repentance. This "rejoicing" links together these two shorter parables with the masterpiece to come that closes out this trilogy of repentance-oriented parables. For the father of the parable will command his household to "make merry" with the return of his wayward son. (15:24, 32) Repentance is not simply a time of hand-wringing, regret and guilt. It is the beginning of a new life and an open-ended future that is a radical change in direction from the "no exit" of sin and alienation from God. The somber and stultifying atmosphere of sin is driven away by the "breath" of the Spirit, which "blows where it wills." Of course, repentance is hard work - for old habits die hard - but sustained by the grace of God and the promise of salvation, the entire process to this day is most perfectly described by St. John Klimakos as "joy-creating sorrow." Remorse for the past devoid of forgiveness will only produce sorrow - if not despair. The acceptance of divine forgiveness produces joy - both for God and the sinner. A profound awareness of God's gift of salvation as the only meaningful release from the sorrow of sin led to the "gift of tears" of the saints. Their weeping was the expression of an inner joy that was overwhelming.

If (or As?) we squander our "inheritance" from our heavenly Father, we resemble that representative figure of the prodigal son. We too, then, "journey into a far country" there to waste our wealth in "loose living." (15:13) Unlike the prodigal son, though, we can do this without moving a step away from our homes. We need only retreat into the seemingly limitless space of our imaginations where fantasies entice us with unrealizable visions of "self-realization" or "pleasure." Then, there are the murky recesses of our hearts; uncharted territory that if not filled with the grace of God will "fill up" with "inner demons" that will eventually frighten us by the sheer audacity of temptations we never thought ourselves capable of entertaining. Or, perhaps a bit less dramatically, there are "the pods that the swine ate" (15:16), symbolic of philosophies and worldviews totally foreign to the Christ-centered life of the Church. The end result will be an emptiness and desolation that will exhaust our own inner resources. Our humbled minds and bodies will begin to search elsewhere for more satisfying nourishment. Anyone in such a predicament will only hope to be blessed - as was true of the prodigal son - with that mysterious process that leads to repentance. Described simply as, "he came to himself." (15:17) Then, in words that have an urgency far greater than in an entire book of theology, we too may cry out, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants." (15:18-19)

We all know what follows: the compassionate father who runs to embrace his son in love; the clothing of the son in festal garments; the orders and preparations for a sumptuous banquet of joy; and the solemn words: "for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." (15:24) As this parable repeats itself endlessly until the end of time, with its finely-etched descriptions of sin, repentance and redemption; we continue to witness some of the "mini-resurrections" that make up the meaningful dramas of everyday life.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Preparing for Great Lent Pt 1: Almsgiving

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Yesterday evening, amidst the threats of bad weather, we gathered for the first of our three scheduled talks on "Preparing for Great Lent." Our theme for the opening talk was Almsgiving. For those who were unable to attend due to the approaching storm, and for those who may be interested in this theme, I am simply providing the outline that I used in my presentation of almsgiving.


- Great Lent is a time to restore essential Christian practices to our lives.

- Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting are related in an organic and integral manner. They are meant to be practiced together. The absence of one leads to a lack of balance between the interior and the exterior.

- Almsgiving is clearly taught, together with prayer and fasting, in MATT. 6:1-18. The best way to begin is to read this crucial passage together.

- Repentance and closeness to God leads to charity toward others. Zacchaeus, once salvation came to his house, told the Lord that he would give away one half of his possessions.

- The rich man was condemned for his refusal to give alms to poor Lazarus. The sin of indifference.

- Jewish sources strongly stress the practice of almsgiving as essential to true piety:
"The world stands on three things: on the Torah, and on the Service, and on the doing of kindnesses." (Jewish high priest Simon the Just 200 BC)

- The early Church followed, developed and expanded the practice of almsgiving/charity. St. Justin the Martyr describes the practice of the mid 2nd c. Roman Church within the context of the Liturgy there:
And those who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit, and what is collected is deposited with the presiding celebrant (the bishop), who succours the orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

- Almsgiving is an expression of love. God is "charitable" to an impoverished humanity (sin, corruption, death) by saving us through the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. Our charity is in response and thanksgiving to God for His charity toward us in Christ.

- In his First Century on Love, St. Maximus the Confessor (7th c.), includes many passages concerning the giving of alms, including these:
23. He who loves God will certainly love his neighbor as well. Such a person cannot hoard money, but distributes it in a way befitting God, being generous to everyone in need.

24. He who gives alms in imitation of God does not discriminate between the wicked and the virtuous, the just and the unjust, when providing for men's bodily needs. He gives equally to all according to their need, even though he prefers the virtuous man to the bad man because of the probity of his intention.

26. The state of love may be recognized in the giving of money, and still more in the giving of spiritual counsel and in looking after people in their physical needs.

- Almsgiving is not only concerned with distributing money. Good listening, sincere counsel, practical help to those unable to do certain things, all constitute forms of almsgiving.

- St. Maximus also explains how almsgiving, prayer and fasting work together to heal the various aspects of the soul:
79. Almsgiving heals the soul's incensive power (anger, strong emotion); fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created things. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

- Almsgiving can be "extensive" or "intensive."
  • Extensive means giving smaller amounts to many persons/causes.
  • Intensive means choosing one or two recipients and giving larger amounts.
  • There are pros and cons for both approaches.

- Children need to be taught about the essential role of almsgiving. They will thus learn of compassion and sharing. Within families, they need to be made a part of the process.

- The Church is not a "charitable institution." Almsgiving is distinct from stewardship and pledging to the parish. The Church in the past was the one center for distributing alms to the needy. This was before the emergence of large urban centers, the secularization of society, and "social services."

- Parishes need to practice almsgiving, so not all of a parish's resources, time and energy are directed within. The Church serves the weak and neglected of the world. Charity needs to be a part of parish budgets.

- Our own parish made a major "breakthrough" when we "adopted" the orphans of the Hogar San Rafael and began to minister to their needs. We discovered true want, and how others are dependent upon our willingness to be charitable. This is the work of God.

Next Week: Session II on Prayer

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

He who humbles himself...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee and learn humility from the Publican's tears. Let us cry to our Savior: Have mercy on us, O only merciful One.
(Kontakion of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)

At Sunday's Divine Liturgy, we heard the first of four pre-lenten Gospel readings: The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (LK. 18:10-14). A parable is a story, and therefore is not based on an actual event, but who would deny that it reveals to us the truth about our relationship with God? That is why, in some of our prayers, we ask the Lord to grant us the spirit of the Publican and the Prodigal even though they were not individual historical characters. And yet these characters - the positive and the negative - are representative of all humanity. The parables are thus timeless sources of revealed Truth. They challenge us today, as they challenged our Lord's contemporaries.

This short parable describes "Two men" that "went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (or publican)." (LK. 18:10). The Lord continues:

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God , I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get. (v. 11-12)

The primary sin of this man who would have been considered "righteous" among his fellow Jews, is that of self-righteousness. True righteousness is God-sourced; but the pharisee's righteousness was self-sourced. Perhaps it is significant that Christ specifically says that he prayed "with himself." His "prayer" to God was a concise formulation of self-praise. He trusted in himself more then he trusted in God. He did the "right things," but in the wrong spirit. The sinners that he encountered on a daily basis only served to affirm him in his own perceived righteousness. The comparisons and contrasts were always to his advantage. He "needed" the sinners that surrounded him! His pride was his downfall. If pride leads to the self apart from God, then pride is the bitter road to nowhere. "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled." (v. 14)

Of the publican, the Lord offers this short but moving description:

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' (v. 13)

Aware of his sin, the publican manifests deep, heartfelt repentance. This humble recognition of his sin is, paradoxically, the publican's road back to fellowship with God based on forgiveness and restoration. Empty of pride, there is now "room" for God. Humility is the "mother of the virtues" according to the saints, and this is not the way of the world. Humility demands great trust on our part, for the humble suffer reproach in this world, and our fear of being taken advantage of works against nurturing a humble spirit. Humility is the beginning of God-centeredness as opposed to self-centeredness. "He who humbles himself will be exalted." (v. 14)

We all know the temptation toward self-righteousness and pride. The "rewards" are meaningless, for the exalted self ultimately experiences loneliness and emptiness. The proud person lives and dies alone. Yet, we still find it diffiicult to avoid such temptation. The "world' has driven the thirst for autonomy and its pride-based assumptions into our minds and hearts. To follow the Lord in His humility demands a total reorientation of our accumulated worldly "values" and worldly "wisdom." It means trusting in God, and not in oneself. Great Lent creates the environment wherein we can focus our attention on this never-ending battle for the heart's loyalties and final place of rest. The parable is a wonderful reminder of how we should approach this battle.

Fr. Steven

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Meeting in the Temple: A Super Opportunity Lost?

Dear Parish Faithful,

I cannot but wonder just how many Orthodox Christians nationwide gathered together at "Super Bowl parties" yesterday evening while our churches were open - but relatively empty? - for the vigil of the Feast of the Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple (February 2). Granted, those same Orthodox Christians may have been to church for the Liturgy in the morning; And granted, further, that returning to church on Sunday evenings is not that popular of a practice as it is (school night, etc.). Nevertheless, I firmly believe that an opportunity was lost here. An opportunity to witness to certain essential priorities and loyalties: that a major Feast commemorating an event in the life of Christ has priority over what is, ultimately, "only a game," regardless of how "super" it may be. That our loyalty to our life in Christ and to the Church is greater than that given to an obsessively over-hyped event that has taken on a life of its own far beyond the proportions of its intrinsic worthfulness. In other words if, in this year, there was a coincidence and clash of dates between the Church's festal cycle and our social/cultural "Super Sunday," then the ecclesial calender should have "trumped" the secular one in our minds, hearts, and actions. It is not about "making a point," but about doing something that would hopefully come to us naturally. Therefore, personally and pastorally, it is my humble opinion that those Orthodox Christians that chose the Super Bowl party and the game over their presence in the Church for the Feast, sadly succumbed to a confused sense of priorities and loyalties. At times we are called to make some really "hard choices" in life.

Be that as it may, this wonderful Feast of The Meeting of our Our Lord in the Temple commemorates the event recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke (2:22-40). This occurs forty days after the Nativity of Christ. Hence, this particular Feast brings to a close an entire cycle that began eighty days earlier with the onset of the Nativity Fast on November 15. The Circumcision of Christ that occurred eight days after His birth falls between the Feasts of the Nativity and the Meeting. One of the hymns for the Meeting nicely brings out this sequence of events, placing them in the context of fulfilling the Scriptures:

Search the Scriptures, as Christ our God said in the Gospels. For in them we find Him born as a child and bound in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger and fed upon milk, receiving circumcision and carried by Simeon: not in fancy nor in imagination but in very truth has He appeared unto the world. To Him let us cry aloud: Glory to Thee, O pre-eternal God. (Great Vespers, litiya)

It is interesting to note how this hymn stresses the true humanity of the Lord by such expressions as "not in fancy nor in imagination but in very truth." Our Lord did not seem to be human, but He was truly human, otherwise He could not have saved us.

Christ is brought to the Temple in Jerusalem by His mother and Joseph in fulfillment of the Law (LEV. 12). Unable to afford an unblemished lamb, they offer a pair of turtledoves. Yet, the Mother of God is carrying the unblemished Lamb of God in her arms and then offers Him to the righteous Simeon. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Simeon prophecies to the Virgin Mary: "and a sword will pierce through your own soul also" (LK 2:35). This has always been understood as pointing to the maternal suffering of the Mother of God who will behold her Son dying on the Cross.

In a wonderful homily, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (+1944), revealed the humility of the Lord as the beginning of the path that would lead to His ultimate sacrifice:

The Infant was born on earth - the eternal God in a humble manger, but there was a place for Him in the Temple, for the Temple was built for Him. And He was brought into His Temple, where it pleased His Name to dwell (I Kings 8:29). But He came there not to receive veneration, but to serve many, in the form of a servant, veiling the radiance of His Divinity with the abject humility of the flesh. He came there as a son under the law, obedient to the law which He Himself had given to Moses, manifesting Himself as the model of obedience; for He came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. His Mother came to dedicate Her firstborn Son to God, to give God the Son to God the Father, and to offer the redemptive and purifying sacrifice. In giving birth to the Infant, She did not know sin; but just as He, sinless, came to receive from John the baptism of repentance, so She too, in Her immaculate birth, came to offer a sacrifice for sin, having in Her arms the One who truly was the Sacrifice for the sins of the entire world.... It is not for glory but for the offering of sacrifice that the Lord is brought into His house, which had to receive and encompass the One who cannot be encompassed. (Churchly Joy, p. 59-60)

If we search carefully, we discover that all of the Feasts commemorating the events in the early life of the Lord also point forward to the sacrifice of the Cross and the life-giving death of Christ. Bound in swaddling cloths and lying in a cave at His Nativity anticipates His later entombment when bound in burial cloths. The blood shed at His circumcision anticipates His blood shed upon the Cross. And being offered as a lamb in the Temple anticipates His sacrificial death as the Lamb of God.

In a very wide context, we realize that the Old Testament "meets" the New Testament when the Messiah is brought to the Temple, the dwelling-place of God. Jesus Christ is now the place of the divine presence, for His flesh is the "temple" of His divinity. The representatives of the Chosen People for this meeting are the righteous elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna. The elder Simeon received Christ into his arms and blessed God in the process. We are all quite familiar with the magnificent hymn of St. Simeon, known as the Nunc Dimittis, chanted at every Vespers service:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel. (LK 2:32)

If we, too, could depart from this life with those words on our lips and in our hearts, that departure would be glorious!

Sadly, the prophetess Anna would probably be seen as a "fanatic" today because "She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day" (2:37) for the greater part of eighty-four years! Both Simeon and Anna realized that this meeting was of the deepest significance possible, for the young Child promised to be "the redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38). For this reason, the prophtess Anna "gave thanks to God" (2:38).

Considering the depth of the great Feasts of the Church's liturgical cycle, expressed in a kind of theological poetry that amplifies what is found in Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church; revealed in beautiful iconography; and further enhanced in our communal liturgical gatherings; it seems only natural for Orthodox Christians to avail themselves of the opportunity to come together in worship whenever possible. Lacking in "fun," but filled with divine grace, the Feasts make present the events being commemorated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Actually, nothing is lacking - except perhaps "instant replay." But this is more than made up for by the fact that there are no interminable "commercial breaks" that would break the flow of the service. Expert pre- and post-Feast "analysis" is provided by the writings of the Holy Fathers and contemporary Orthodox theologians who offer insightful commentaries on the deepest levels of meaning of the Feast. There is no final score, but "those who keep my words to the end" are all considered to be "conquerors" promises the Lord (REV. 2:26).

Fr. Steven