Thursday, April 30, 2009

Marriage and Essential Equality

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

We have a few marriages coming up in our parish life - two over the next two weekends - so I wanted to make a few comments, forward some sound interpretive texts, and try to make some sense, in a contemporary setting, of our use of scripture in the wedding service. At all Orthodox Christian marriage services, one of the prescribed readings is from the Epistle to the Ephesians (5:22-31). In today's social and cultural context, that reading is more than a little controversial. So, in a loud and clear voice - and no longer covered up by an "old world" language! - we hear the Apostle Paul's admonition:

Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife she that she respects her husband. (EPH. 5:21-33)

At that point in the service, eyes roll in disbelief, heads shake in disagreement, and glances are exchanged in dismay. If you look and listen very carefully, you may even detect a knowing smirk or even an unintentional snort among the many gathered people. Of course, many Orthodox simply accept the reading as part of an unchanging tradition; regard such quaintness as part of Orthodox conservatism; and "move on" with the flow of the service. The bride and groom are convinced that the passage does not reflect contemporary attitudes toward marriage; or that it certainly does not apply to their upcoming life together. They convey this to each other in mutually reassuring and loving glances; or a warm squeeze of the hands. They, too, then settle in for the remainder of the service. The non-Orthodox present may feel as if they have been transported back in time by a few centuries. "Colorful," perhaps, but ultimately irrelevant. It is like an unexpected bad note at a wonderful symphony that creates a modestly perceptible wave of uneasiness, only to be absorbed into the greater beauty of the whole service which leaves everyone deeply impressed. Yet, is the passage in point that unendurable? Or, more pointedly, is the Apostle Paul actually a glorified misogynist?

My intention is not to defend the Apostle Paul, nor is it to compel assent to his teaching by an attempt to convince everyone of how "right" he actually is. My concern here is very modest: to at least try and understand what the Apostle Paul is saying before we dismiss him as "patriarchal" or "chauvinist." The passage from Ephesians is indeed jarring and it does indeed seem to be at the very least outdated. But who takes the time and makes the effort to try and come to terms with the Apostle's goal and the context out of which this passage emerges? Is he (ab)using his authority to subordinate women to the dominance of men? I, for one, do not find such charges very convincing. Many scholars have gone a long way in demonstrating that the Apostle Paul can hardly be labeled a misogynist. In fact, considering contemporary attitudes to women in the Apostle's Paul's social, cultural, and religious context, he had a liberating attitude toward women - as indeed Christ Himself had. It is the Apostle Paul who also wrote: "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." (I COR. 7:4) It is impossible to conceive of a Jewish or pagan contemporary of St. Paul's to say anything like that.

An excellent contemporary Orthodox commentary on St. Paul's Ephesian text comes, in my opinion, from Fr. John Breck, found in his remarkable book THE SACRED GIFT OF LIFE. In this book he has a wonderful and insightful chapter entitled "Sexuality, Marriage and Covenant Responsibility." This chapter is seventy-two pages long, and is itself like a small book on marriage from an Orthodox Christian perspective. I cannot recommend this chapter highly enough for any Orthodox Christian who would like to have a better grasp of these essential topics. Under a section entitled "Equality of the Sexes," Fr. John does not hide the "facts of history:"

Within ancient Israel and throughout most of the life of the Church there has been a striking and, to most people's minds, an unjust balance with regard to the requirements for sexual fidelity and responsibility. The burden has weighed far more heavily on women than on men. This is due in part to a legacy of disproportion that we can call in today's jargon "sexist patriarchalism." (p. 83-84)

In his usual balanced style, Fr. John responds to this with a paragraph where he directly deals with some of the teachings and implications of St. Paul's Ephesian text used in our Marriage Service. Agree with him or not, I believe that Fr. John has something worth thinking about as he reflects holistically and deeply on the Apostle's teaching :

In theory, if not in practice, this condition has been done away with by the "great reversal" brought about by Jesus Christ. St. Paul's declaration, "in Christ there is neither male nor female," means that the socially and culturally conditioned inequality between the sexes is abolished: it does not exist in the mind of God and has no place within the church communities. It also means that in Christ men bear equal responsibility with women for upholding a moral ethos which is conducive to preserving the integrity of family life.
Consequently, the husband is no less responsible than his wife for preserving familial structure, stability and nurture necessary for the proper raising of their children. The husband is also as responsible as the wife for fulfilling the prescriptions of Ephesians 5. If the wife "submits" herself to her husband as to the Lord, her submission mirrors that of the Church in relation to Christ. Conversely, if the husband exercises headship, he does so by reflecting the actions and attitudes of Christ toward his Body, the Church. (The verb hypotasso is correctly rendered "submit" in this context, not "subject," as in so many English translations. It denotes a voluntary act of love rather than subjection to constraints imposed by the husband or social convention.) The husband is to love his wife "as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" in a sacrificial self-offering of disinterested love. The key to this mutual relationship is provided in Eph. 5:21, a verse that introduces the entire passage: "Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ." The submission, in other words, is reciprocal. It involves both parties equally yet in different ways: the wife through acceptance of the husband's responsibility for "headship," and the husband through loving service offered to his spouse. (p. 84)

Fr. John, in a very revealing footnote, honestly expresses our own difficulties with such a term as "headship:"

The concept of "headship" is one that needs a great deal more explanation than it has received to date. To what degree is it inherent in the conjugal relationship, and to what degree is it culturally conditioned? And in modern society, where both spouses are often the breadwinners, or where the husband assumes domestic chores while the wife pursues a career, how is the husband's "headship" to be exercised? (p. 84)

Nevertheless, even with such an honest reservation, Fr. John goes on to say this of the life between husband and wife:

The responsibilities and obligations of the conjugal relationship are mutual and fully equal. Husband and wife exercise different "functions" within the family, just as the priest and laity do in the "family" of the parish community. Those functions, however, are complementary. They are effective only to the extent they are based on the full and unconditional equality of each party with regard to ontological status and spiritual value.

Authentic hierarchy, in the Holy Trinity or in the Church, presupposes just such equality ... (p. 84-85)

These few passages may not do real justice to the richness of Fr. John's thoughts on "sexuality, marriage, and covenant responsibility," but they may at least indicate some of the direction of his thought. As quoted above, Fr. John is courageous enough to even explores the terribly unpopular concept of "hierarchy" raised by the Pauline teaching on "headship" But in a truly holistic Orthodox fashion, he makes it clear that if that concept is not to be rejected as anachronistic, or abused in a conservative manner, then it must be understood in its most exalted trinitarian application before applying it to human life. His conclusion is very important:

Hierarchy presupposes and in fact requires the essential equality of its constituent members, an equality that derives from the fact that each member is created in the image of God and each one is called in equal measure to attain to the divine likeness. (p. 85)

I repeat, the Apostle Paul does not need any defense, but I am hoping that we can make the effort to understand what he is saying in the light of his teaching that "there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (GAL. 3:28) That makes more sense to me than an unenlightened dismissal of the scriptural text when we hear these words in church, as we will in the very near future.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Art of Breaking the Fast

Dear Parish Faithful!

Pascha: The Fourth Day


If there is an "art" to fasting, then there is certainly an "art" to breaking the fast. Feasting is not synonymous with a total lack of restraint in which - excuse the expression - we stuff ourselves beyond the point of satiation and into a kind of food-induced stupor. Hence, what we learned during Lent can be wiped out in a couple of days! This pastoral reminder was prompted by a letter I just received, in which, among other topics, I read the following insightful comments: "Oddly enough we already miss the Lent season! I was looking forward to having some freedom again, but somehow we are all changed from this experience. Also, I didn't realize how careful we needed to be with breaking the fast. I thought we were being cautious, but it seems whatever I put on the table was too much for us...." This family's comment that "we are all changed from this experience" are more than a little interesting.

If you discount the fasting rules for a moment, we could say that Great Lent is a disciplined reminder of how Christians should be living throughout the course of the year and in their lives. This would be manifesting the freedom of the children of God, by regular prayer, almsgiving and fasting, with an eye on struggling with a very self-indulgent culture that enslaves us to our appetites. If we intensified our prayer and almsgiving during Great Lent, should we now abandon all of that as we get back to "normal?" Do we now "take a break" from prayer and almsgiving? As a related extension to that, we could say that even though we are not now fasting, this again does mean to open the door to an excessive self-indulgence that knows of no restraint. To carry some of the good practices renewed during Great Lent over into the paschal season can only be healthy for both soul and body.

I am thoroughly enjoying Bright Week. It reinforces and sustains the very foundation of our Christian Faith - the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. I bless the non-lenten food on our table in the name of the Risen Christ and enjoy partaking of it. And yet I am glad that someone from our parish wrote in such a way as to remind me and all of us by putting our celebration of Pascha - and the breaking of the Fast - in a sound perspective. It makes no sense to lose what we may have gained once we transition from Lent to Pascha.

Fr. Steven

Monday, April 20, 2009

PASCHA: More than Easter

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,


If you celebrated Easter yesterday, then today you awoke with the realization that Easter is already over. If, however, you are celebrating Pascha, then you realize that even though we have already been through the explosive paschal service of the other night/early morning, Pascha is actually a forty day celebration that is the counterpart and fulfillment of Great Lent and Holy Week. Bright Monday and the rest of Bright Week is the beginning of a sustained season that is dominated by our faith that

"Jesus is risen from the grave, as He foretold, granting us eternal life and great mercy."

However, experience may have already taught us that it is much easier to "keep" Lent than it is to "keep" Pascha. So we are faced with the challenge of not allowing Pascha to become Easter (at least as it is conventionally understood and celebrated). No simple solution to this dilemma because often our tired bodies fail to cooperate. But we should not feel helpless in the inevitable onslaught of the post-paschal parish swoon. Here is one possible remedy: As we try and do some "lenten reading" we can also do some "paschal reading." A new website is now up and running: "The Feast of Feasts - An Orthodox Christian Celebration of Holy Pascha and the Resurrection of Christ." It is co-sponsored by the OCA and Antiochian Archdiocese. It is filled with many remarkable articles by prominent Orthodox theologians, but also by many fine articles by various parish faithful who offer some excellent reflections on the place of our Lord's Resurrection in our lives.

As an example, the home page has a copy of the very Resurrection icon that we venerate in our parish, written by Fr. Gregory Krug, with an accompanying commentary on the icon's significance by our own parish iconographer, Fr. Andrew Tregubov. I would also suggest, under "articles," one written by Daniel Manzuk entitled "Great and Holy Saturday." This is an excellent explanation of the theological and spiritual meaning of Holy Saturday and how it relates to us the reality of the Resurrection.

Please take advantage of this wonderful website. This reading will provide you with many insights from many perspectives on the paschal mystery, concentrating on the resurrection of Christ. Our webmaster has already provided a link to it on the home-page of our own parish website. Otherwise, the address is:

In Christ,
Fr. Steven

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Only At His Death

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

As Holy and Great Friday gives way to Holy and Great Saturday, and the humiliation of the Cross is about to be transformed in the glory of the Resurrection, here are some final insights into the mystery of the Cross taken from the biblical scholar, Donald Senior, from his excellent book The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

"One of the most startling and provocative features of Mark's Gospel is that the true identity of Jesus is acknowledged by a human witness only at his death. "Seeing how he died" the Roman centurion recognizes Jesus as Son of God (15:39). Conversely only in the passion does Jesus seem to accept without hesitation the messianic titles of "Christ" and "Son of the blessed" used in the High Priest's interrogation (14:63). This clarity stands in contrast to preceding parts of the Gospel where Jesus seems to be diffident about reactions to his miracles, where the disciples themselves fail to understand him and his opponents label him as demonic. In short, the true identity of Jesus as God's Son is manifested not in acts of marvelous power but in an event seemingly devoid of any power, his passion and death." (p. 144)

"Therefore the cross stands as a sharp challenge to worldly concepts of what is "powerful" or important. God does not work through the grandeur of human might but through the compassionate and tenacious loving service unto death of the Christ. The Cross in Mark's Gospel stands, therefore, as a challenge to all abusive and oppressive notions of power." (p. 146)

"Mark's death scene redefines what a "Christian death" must look like. To die in faith need not mean peaceful death, or pious decorum. The Markan Jesus struggles in death, crying out to God in a piercing lament, and breathing his last with a scream. Yet the God of Jesus is present even - and especially - in these moments when human dignity seems shredded. No corner of human existence is closed to God's presence. No body is too broken, no spirit so bent that the God of the crucified would recoil from it." (p. 147)

We see that the "wisdom of God" is expressed in the "foolishness of the Cross."

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Holy Week: The Ultimate Perspective

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

At the beginning of Holy Week we contemplate "The End" - of the earthly ministry of Christ, of our own lives and the judgment that will lead to, and of the "end of the world." In other words there is something of an "apocalyptic edge" to the texts of the services, beginning with the Scriptures and extending into the hymnography. Another term would be "eschatological," meaning the "last things" in relation to the fulfillment of God's design for the world.

That may initially sound like a strange combination of themes. After all, our major concern and focus is upon our Lord voluntarily going up to Jerusalem in order to ascend the Cross in the flesh.

But right before the Son of Man ascends the Cross, He solemnly declares: "Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out." (JN. 12:31) In judging Christ, "the world" judges itself. Sin and darkness seem to prevail when the Innocent Christ is led away to be crucified. The triumph of such darkness can freeze the heart and lead many to despair, the very fate of the disciples at this time. As the prophet Amos said: "The one who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked on that day." (AMOS 2:16; cf. MK. 14:51-52) Where do we stand?

It is striking that in the hymns for the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Tuesday, for example, there is not much direct reference to the Passion of Christ. There is much more of a combination of exhortation and warning to us - the contemporary disciples of Christ - concerning our relationship to Christ, to the world, and to our neighbor.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Holy Monday - The Bottomless Depths of Love

Dear Parish Faithful,


"Because of the ontological unity of Christ with the whole human race (i.e. on the level of being), the sacrifice was a bloody crucifixion. United with us in being and in love, Christ took on Himself all the hatred, rebellion, derision, despair - 'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?' - all the murders, all the suicides, all the tortures, all the agonies of all humanity throughout all time and all space. In all these, Christ bled, suffered, and cried out in anguish and in desolation. But as He suffered in a human way, so was He trustful in a human way: 'Father into thy hands I commit my spirit.' At that moment death is swallowed up in life, the abyss of hatred is lost in the bottomless depths of love."

Roots of Christian Mysticism - Olivier Clement

If you go to the official webpage of the OCA, you will find a brief but helpful article by Fr. Thomas Hopko about the meaning of the sequence of services and their principle themes for Holy Week.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The 39th Day: A Sacrifice of Love

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Thirty Ninth Day

"On the cross, everything is ended, all is accomplished: the Lord reigns, the prince of the world is thrown out, the kingdom of Satan is abolished. Voracious Hades devours the Master of life but is unable to contain Him, for nothing in Jesus belongs to hell by right: no mark of shadow or of sin. The full and pure light of love illuminates hell and swallows up the source of all suffering. Let us not be afraid to speak of the death of Jesus - and of His resurrection - as a sacrifice because the sacrifice is an essential aspect of the love of the Father and the Son. The Father required no sacrifice to appease His wrath - this image of The Father's anger is secondary in the Bible. Rather, this is a sacrifice of offering, of descent and then of ascent, in search of the lost sheep. It is a sacrifice of consecration, of the exorcising of human nature corrupted by sin, of the healing of humanity sick through sin, and of the consolation of humanity bewildered in loneliness, far from the sources of living water. Jesus reaches and heals the intimate depths of humanity. This is a sacrifice of reintegration by which all of creation is brought back to the Father."

From "The Lamb of God Takes upon Himself Human Suffering," by Boris Bobrinskoy

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The 38th Day: A Love Stronger than Death

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Thirty Eighth Day

"But as the antidote to sin, the death of Jesus Christ has broken its momentum. Christ has consumed its infernal roots and extracted its sting. The seed of justice sprouts in our humanity, which Christ bears. In loving obedience to the Father, Jesus in His humanity suffered to the end. He took on the anguish, deadly sadness, lonely agony, judgment, and the passion. Jesus also confronted suffering - not as a mythological hero or a stoic, impassible under the blows, but by anticipating, accepting, and refusing to hide from them, in 'a love as strong as death', as the Song of Songs says (8:6), or rather, in a love that is stronger than death."

From "The Compassion of the Father," by Boris Bobrinskoy

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The 37th Day - In Reverse Order

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Thirty Seventh Day

"The return of humanity to the house of the Father, the ascent after the condescension, will occur in reverse order: death will be vanquished by the death of Christ and its sting pulled out; sin will be destroyed in its very roots, in the heart of man, by one Man who had not known sin; and humanity will be reconciled, filled with the divine Spirit, by the one who recapitulates in Himself all humans."

- From "The Lamb of God Takes Upon Himself Human Suffering," by Boris Bobrinskoy

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Life of St Mary of Egypt

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT: The Thirty Third Day

The Great Canon of St. Andrew is chanted on the first four days of Great Lent. But it is prescribed to be chanted in its entirety on the Fifth Thursday of Great Lent also. Since the Canon has about 260 troparia, each to be accompanied by bows (prostrations in monasteries!), that is more than a bit challenging. 

During the Canon chanted on the Fifth Thursday, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt is also prescribed to be read in its entirety. This Life was written by St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the 7th c. 

Yesterday evening, I selected the fourth part of the Canon to be chanted and then broke up the Life of St. Mary of Egypt into three parts, read after the third, sixth, and ninth odes of the Canon. St. Mary of Egypt is a living icon of repentance, and her entire life is a startling revelation of the mercy and grace of God that forgives all sin that is genuinely repented of.

In his book Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains the return to the Great Canon of St. Andrew in the fifth week in the following manner:

If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a "summary" of repentance and its fulfillment. If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our lenten effort: how much of all this has truly been made ours? How far have we come along the path of this repentance?

The beautifully written and compunctionate Life of St. Mary of Egypt is meant to edify those who hear it in faith. As Panagiotis Nellas writes:

The Life of St. Mary of Egypt is read, so that the intellect and will of the believer may be detached from love of the world and, following in the footsteps of the saint, may be guided into the heart of the desert, into the heart of the mystery of repentance. (Deification in Christ, p. 164)

Yet, there is even a deeper purpose behind reading this Life in a liturgical setting. Panagiotis Nellas further writes:

Thus the liturgical reading of the Life of St. Mary makes the saint present in the assembly of the faithful in a sacramental manner, so that she can accompany them and struggle with them in the contest of repentance of prayer. For this reason, at the end of each canticle of the Great Canon there are two troparia in which the faithful address themselves to her:

God Whom you loved and for Whom you longed, Whose path you followed, O Mother, found you. Pray, therefore, that we may be freed from sin and adversity. (Ibid, p. 167)

Hearing St. Mary's wonderful Life in this setting then brought to life one of the refrains at the end of many of the Canon's odes, of "O Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, pray unto God for us." Her life is the very flesh and blood embodiment of the Canon's entire purpose: to lead sinners to repentance. Thus, with God "all things are possible."

I will try and bring out other aspects of her Life in Sunday's homily.

You may read the complete 'Life of St Mary of Egypt' here.

Fr. Steven