Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The 'Lost' Feast

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

I don't know how much of Pascha still remains in anyone, but today is the "official" Leavetaking of the Feast. Where did those forty days go? That means that tomorrow is the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. This is probably the most "lost" of the great feasts, in that Ascension is always forty days after Pascha, and so always on a Thursday. Great Vespers on Wednesday of the eve and the Liturgy on Thursday, would thus draw a smattering of the faithful. That may be more or less unavoidable, but the unfortunate effect is to minimize our awareness of the glorious, awesome and essential celebration that the Ascension is. Pascha does not just disappear or vanish into thin air by some arbitrary decision. We don't just stop singing "Christ is Risen!" because we have had enough. Pascha culminates, or is "crowned," with the Ascension. And the Scriptures reveals to us that that was forty days after the Resurrection. Christ was raised from the dead in order to ascend into Heaven. This feast fulfills the paschal mystery. The Son of God "returns" to the Father, now glorified on His "right hand." When we "miss" the Feast, we "miss" a great Truth that reveals the full mystery of Christ - incarnate, raised, ascended and glorified.

Trying to respond to this situation pastorally, as announced we will celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord with a Vesperal Liturgy this evening beginning at 6:00 p.m. I am hoping that this will make it possible for many more of you to participate in the Feast and thus be more aware of this highly significant liturgical cycle of the forty days between our Lord's Resurrection and Ascension (ACTS 1:1-11) Being present in church for the service makes the reality of the Feast more of something experienced than simply an ecclesial event noted on the calendar. Preparing for, and then receiving the Eucharist, is the profoundest way that we celebrate a Feast, so again I hope that we can ascend in spirit as we gather together for this glorious Feast of the Ascension.

Christ dies, descends to hell (hades), arises, and goes back up toward the heavenly Father. Between hell (hades) and heaven, between death and the resurrection, lies an uninterrupted line, an irresistible movement from the lowest to the highest point.... The lowest point of the descent into hell (hades), the lowering of Christ into the infernal regions, where God is not, coincides with the point of departure for heaven. In the kenosis (self-emptying), in which Christ abases himself, to the point of glory, there is a single, uninterrupted line, a single movement. By ascending, Jesus pulls all of us up with him, toward his Father who is also now our Father. (From The Incarnate God, Vol. II, p. 194-195).

Fr. Steven

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Decline of Christianity in the Holy Land

Dear Parish Faithful,

(I actually wrote this last week, but failed to send it out before I left for my trip. The subject matter, however, remains quite relevant.)

Christ is Risen!

I just completed an article entitled "Mideast Christians Declining in Influence" from today's New York Times. It was more than a little depressing. The article was prompted by the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is now on a pastoral visit to the region. The author of the article, Ethan Bronner, writes the following:

"But as Pope Benedict XVI wends his way across the Holy Land this week, he is addressing a dwindling and threatened Christian population driven to emigration by political violence, lack of economic opportunity and the rise of radical Islam. A region that a century ago was 20 percent Christian is about 5 percent today and dropping."

He then quotes the Rev. Jean Benjamin Sleiman, Roman Catholic archbishop of Baghdad, who shared this bleak forecast for the future: "I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East." Speaking of the effects of the war in Iraq, we are informed that "of the 1.4 million Christians in Iraq at the time of the American invasion in 2003, nearly half have fled." Christians were attacked for working with Americans, and church bombings together with the murder of both clergy and lay members of the various Christian communities, have led many to flee.

A few more distressing statistics reveal that in 1948, Jerusalem was about one fifth Christian, while today the Christian population of the city is 2 percent. Also, in Bethlehem, "where the Church of the Nativity marks where Jesus is said to have been born, Christians now make up barely a third of the population after centuries of being 80 percent of it."

Further, we read that "A century ago there were millions of Christians in what is today Turkey; now there are 150,000. There is a house in Turkey where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days, yet the country's National Assembly and military have no Christian members or officers except temporary recruits doing mandatory service. Violence against Christians has risen."

The cradle of Christianity is now facing the harsh reality of being empty of any real signs of a Christian presence:

"Since it was here that Jesus walked and Christianity was born, the papal visit highlights a prospect many consider deeply troubling for the globe's largest faith, adhered to by a third of humanity - its most powerful and historic shrines could become museum relics with no connection to those who live among them."

There is no comfort to be taken when looking ahead into the future. There are no current forces at work that would arrest this slow but steady exodus to the West on the part of Middle Eastern Christians. The Christian communities of the West are there to absorb them and give them a spiritual home free from persecution, as well as the possibility of some economic stability. The prospects for a Christian revival in the Middle East are, therefore, pretty dim. This "bad news" must always be evaluated within the greater context of the Good News of Christ crucified and risen. As disheartening as the demise of Christianity in the historic Middle East is, we must always be open to the providence of God working within these conditions. What may be obscure to us in the present, may yield meaning and purpose in the future. As of now, we should be mindful and prayerful toward the remaining Christians of the Middle East who believe and worship under difficult conditions.

Fr. Steven

Photo: Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. More photos of the Holy Land at

For a strong elaboration of the issues in this meditation, proceed to our Orthodox Q&A Forum.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I Look for the Resurrection of the Dead...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

"I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come." (Nicene Creed)

Presvytera Deborah and I spent a few days in London last week - London, Ontario, Canada, that is. With a population of 350,000 inhabitants, it can be described as a large town or a modestly-sized city. Either way, a delightful place to live or visit half-way up the 401 between Detroit and Toronto. We were visiting former parishioners and friends that we have stayed in contact with over the years. (I served in a mission of the Antiochian Archdiocese in London between 1985-1989, "on loan" from the OCA). We stayed one evening with a very pious and deep-believing Greek Orthodox couple, named Dimitros and Dimitra. The timing of our visit was such that we were there for the tenth anniversary of the death of their son, Peter (Panayioti) who was killed in a single vehicle car crash at the tender age of nineteen. He was a fine young man who was a good friend of our children growing up. There is also an older sister in the family, now married with three children. On a beautiful spring evening we went to the cemetery together for a memorial service that I was honored to serve. (We returned to London for Peter's funeral in 1999, at which I also served). The deep Christian faith of Peter's parents is their strength in the daily struggle of living with his untimely death. Singing "Christos Anesti" together at his graveside was deeply moving and a great source of consolation as the perfect expression of our ultimate hope in the victory of Christ over the "sting of death."

Peter is buried in a section of this cemetery that is filled with members of London's Greek Orthodox community. There is also a section in the cemetery reserved for members of the local Russian Orthodox Church. As Dimitra was pointing out the various graves and monuments to us, we came upon the resting places of other former parishioners and friends that died either during our stay in London, or at some point after our departure. These were people that we knew well, worshipped together with, and often were guests of and recipients of their warm and generous Greek-style hospitality. Every meal was an epic feast! As the saying goes, there was a "flood of memories," both joyful and sad. We stopped at certain graves for the offering of a prayer and the singing of "Memory Eternal." These were persons that we knew particularly well and were very close to.

First, there was Soterios, one of the most good-hearted and loveliest boys we have ever known, who died of cancer at the age of fifteen. This was an extended ordeal that lasted for about two-three years. Soterios first lost his leg from the hip down while we were still in London. I remember this well, as it was a deeply-traumatic experience for the entire extended family. The vigil at the hospital during the amputation surgery was particularly sombre. When you know someone well who has lost a limb, you acutely feel their sense of diminishment. Yet, as a deeply religious and cheerful teen-ager, Soterios handled this well and learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. Right before we left London, Soterios invited Presvytera Deborah and me to his Junior High graduation. With great sadness, we learned of his death in September 1991. He was very mindful of his parents and was always preparing them for his death with words that revealed a wisdom well beyond his fifteen years. We returned for his funeral, at which I both served and delivered the homily. To this day, we have remained in touch with his family. An unforgettable teen-aged boy. Memory Eternal!

We next came to Angeliki and her son, Antonios, a thirty-five year old mother and her ten year old son, who were killed in a car accident returning from a wedding late one night from Toronto. Her husband Vasilios, a restaurant owner and, I believe, the other children - two or three - survived the crash and death of their mother and brother. They would often come to our small mission church and we got to know them pretty well. We can only imagine the impact of this tragic event on the entire family. Presvytera Kyriaki, the wife of the local Greek Orthodox priest, Fr. Eustathios, was also killed in a car accident at the young age of about thirty-five back in 1989. Her death and funeral occurred very shortly before we left London for Cincinnati. She, however, was buried in Greece.

One other tragic victim whose grave we prayed before, was Soterios' uncle Nikolaos. Nick was a very pious man who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in around 1996. Part of his itinerary was to also travel to some of the ancient monasteries of the Egyptian desert. While in Egypt, Nick was killed with about six other pilgrims by an Egyptian militant/terrorist group. Their van was machine-gunned. I was unable to attend Nick's funeral, so it was good to be able to visit his gravesite and offer a prayer and sing "Memory Eternal." Nick and his family often came to and supported our mission, and we were often visitors in their home.

Although the Greek Orthodox community in London, Ontario, is of substantial size, the above is in itself a good deal of tragedy for one community within a fairly-limited span of time. Such tragedy is unavoidable as we know from our own parish experience. I noticed that on the gravestones of these various people, one would invariably find the final statement of faith expressed in the Nicene Creed - "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." This is significant, for it was the Greek mind that gave the world belief in the immortality of the soul, but it was the biblical revelation that conveyed to us the greater truth that the whole person, body and soul, will live together with God in the age to come. The preaching of the Gospel converted the Greek mind to accept the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body. So these gravestones admirably reflect a sound Orthodox faith that is built upon the bodily Resurrection of Christ. As I mentioned above, the various persons that I wrote about above were all deeply-believing and practicing Orthodox Christians, as are their respective families to this day. Although severely tested to say the least, their faith sustained their lives, and this same faith sustains the lives of their remaining family members. As Demitrios said to me at the graveside of his son, Peter: "I better lead a good life so that I can be joined together with my son one day."

This trip to the cemetery made our short and enjoyable trip significant in addition to adding some depth to it. And we thank God for that.

Christ is Risen!

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Our Double Atitude Towards Death

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Christ is Risen!

A Paschal Meditation:

"The Son of God, the Redeemer and Savior, absolutely sinless and holy, had to accept death, and thereby He sanctified death. Hence the double attitude of Christianity to death. Christ has destroyed death by His death. His voluntary death ... is a blessing and supreme value.... Through the cross death is transfigured and leads us to resurrection and to life. The whole of this world must be made to pass through death and crucifixion, else it cannot attain to resurrection and eternity." (The Destiny of Man, Nicholas Berdyaev)

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Shuddering Awe

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


In the Gospel According to St. Mark, we hear of the discovery of the empty tomb by the myrrhbearing women "very early on the first day of the week." (16:1) This would be the day after the Sabbath, or our Sunday - the "Lord's Day." Since that astonishing morning until this day, Sunday is the most prominent day of worship for Christians, for it was on this day that the resurrection of the Lord was made manifest to the world. And that manifestation was first made to the group of women disciples we know collectively as "the myrrhbearers." 

St. Mark specifically mentions "Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome" who "bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him." (16:1) These loyal and loving women had come, somewhat counter-intuitively, to anoint the body of the dead Jesus, though they were aware of the large stone that had been rolled "against the door of the tomb." (15:46) Or, perhaps it was a deeper intuition that brought them to the tomb in the hope that they could fulfill their ministry to the Lord. St. Mark narrates: "And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen." (16:2) The "risen sun" is certainly a wonderful anticipation of what the women were soon to discover. Yet, having arrived at the tomb where Jesus had been laid, "looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; for it was very large." (16:4)

The myrrhbearing women will now enter an empty tomb. Indeed, why was it empty? The empty tomb needed interpretation, or the women would be lost in distressful and fruitless speculation. The interpretation of the empty tomb will simultaneously be the proclamation of the "Good News." The interpreter and proclaimer will be "a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe" (16:5), clearly an angel. And that means that was he proclaims will be a divine revelation. In his presence, the women "were amazed." (16:5). The strength of the Gk. word for "amazed" (used only here in the entire NT by St. Mark) has been further translated as "a strong feeling of awe and agitation in the face of the numinous" (D. E. Nineham), or even a "shuddering awe." (A. E. J. Rawlinson) It is at this point in the dramatic narrative that we hear the "Good News" referred to above: "And he said to them 'Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him'." (16:6) The tomb is empty because Jesus had been raised from the dead! It was the will of God, that the women have the privilege of discovering this. In the words of Peter Chrysologus:

He did not roll back the stone to provide a way of escape for the Lord but to show the world that the Lord had already risen. He rolled back the stone to help his fellow servants believe, not to help the Lord rise from the dead. He rolled the stone for the sake of faith, because it had been rolled over the tomb for the sake of unbelief. He rolled back the stone so that he who took death captive might hold the title of Life. SERMON 75.4

This is a bodily resurrection, and not in some vague spiritual or "metaphorical" sense. Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified and buried, had been raised. The "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith" are one and the same. The resurrection reveals an awesome transformation, but it is Jesus of Nazareth who is transformed, thus assuring the continuity that is essential to reveal the victory over death that occurs in the resurrection.

The myrrhbearers then hear a further revelation from the angel: "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you." (16:7) This is in fulfillment of Christ's earlier words: "But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee." (14:28) The Gospel According St. Matthew will record such an appearance of the Risen Lord to His disciples in Galilee. (MATT. 28:16-20) Then the women, apparently in that same state of amazement "fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid." (16:8) I hope and pray that at some point in the paschal season; or at any time during the year - or during our lifetime! - we too can "tremble" and be filled with "astonishment" that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Is this an enigmatic ending to the initial discovery of the empty tomb and the proclamation of the resurrection? Did the myrrhbearing women fail in their ministry as "apostles to the apostles" because of their (initial) silence? I believe that St. Mark is leaving us with the overwhelming sense of precisely encountering a divine reality that initially did leave the women speechless. As a scholar of this Gospel has written:

The women's profound emotion is described in order to bring out the overwhelming and sheerly supernatural character of that to which it was the response (see also 4:41, 6:30, 9:15), and perhaps to suggest to the reader that if he has even begun to understand the full significance of what had occurred, he too will be bound to respond with amazement and godly fear." (D. E. Nineham, St. Mark, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, p. 447-448).

It is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that the Orthodox Church proclaims to this day with faith, conviction and the certainty that God has acted "in Christ Jesus" within history in a decisive and "eschatological" manner, in order to reclaim, restore and renew His fallen creation. Of course, other Christian churches proclaim the very same victory over death in the Resurrection of Christ. However, the Resurrection understood as the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has been challenged, "reinterpreted," or rejected by a fair share of biblical scholars and theologians. We need to be fully aware that the bodily resurrection of Christ does not refer to a resuscitated corpse. There is a tremendous element of transformation in the "spiritual body" of the Lord. The mysterious aspect of this transformation is conveyed in many of the scriptural texts that try and describe - perhaps less than adequately, or at least not exhaustively - the risen life of the Lord. Also, a resuscitated Jesus would have died again, as did Lazarus, the daughter of the elder Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain. But St. Paul affirms: "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him." (ROM. 6:9) There has "arisen" a sad division amongst Christians over this essential issue. To follow Jesus or to believe in Him apart from His bodily resurrection and all that that implies for Christology, anthropology, and eschatology, etc., is to follow "another Gospel." (GAL. 1:7) Such a Jesus did not "trample down death by death." It is a different Jesus and a different religion.

The further words of Peter Chrysologus captures the choice before us when contemplating the empty tomb:

Pray that the angel would descend now and roll away all the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen, for just as the heart in which Christ lives and reigns is heaven, so also the heart in which Christ remains dead and buried is a grave. May it be believed that just as he died, so was he transformed. Christ the man suffered, died and was buried; as God he lives, reigns, is and will be forever. SERMONS 75.4


Fr. Steven