Monday, July 20, 2009

Protect and Preserve Us from this Generation Forever

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

It seemed as if half the parish was gone yesterday. Certainly the prayer list for those travelling was quite extensive. Travelling always offers the possibility of visiting other Orthodox parishes, so that we continue to celebrate Christ's resurrection on the Lord's Day.

This week we are in Tone Five as we continue in the cycle of Eight Tones based on the Octoechos, or Book of Eight Tones, from which we derive the various texts for each particular tone. One such series of texts is that of the prokeimenon used at the Sunday Liturgy prescribed for each tone of the week. Here is how the word prokeimenon is defined and described in the Festal Menaion, translated by Mother Mary and (then) Archimandrite Kallistos Ware:

PROKEIMENON (Gk. prokeimenon, 'what is set forth,' i.e. what is appointed to be read). Verses from the Psalter, sung immediately before readings from the Holy Scripture. A prokeimenon occurs:

(i) at Vespers, after the hymn, O Joyful Light;
(ii) at Matins on Sundays and feasts, before the Gospel;
(iii) at the Liturgy, before the Epistle. (Festal Menaion, p. 557)

What we chant and sing today as the prokeimenon is the remnant of a much more elaborate use of a psalm with a refrain verse sung by the body of the faithful. As preliminary to the reading of the Scriptures, the prokeimenon can "come and go" without drawing a great deal of attention. As such, it is "filler," or a formalized "warm up" in preparation for the scriptural text. Yet, the prokeimenon is itself Scripture as it is drawn from the psalms. Actually, repeated usage helps us memorize these particular verses - together with the melody that belongs to its prescribed tone.

The Lord's Day prokeimenon for Tone Five heard yesterday at the Liturgy is taken from Psalm 12:

Thou, O Lord, shall protect us and preserve us from this generation forever.
vs. Save me, O Lord, for there is no longer any that is godly.

The psalmist must have felt lonely and isolated in withstanding the godlessness of his own "generation," meaning the times during which he lived. Yet, he was confident that God would "protect and preserve" him and his fellow Israelites - a small minority? - who remained loyal and committed to God and His Law. Make of it what you will, but Jesus spoke harshly of His own generation, calling it "evil and adulterous" (MATT. 16:4); and "faithless and perverse" (MATT. 17:17). He refused to give to such a generation a "sign" except the somewhat enigmatic "sign of Jonah." (MATT. 16:4). In many ways we can feel overwhelmed by the perversities of our own generation - political, social, cultural, sexual - and even believe that they exceed what has come before us in both quantity and quality. Instead of being hidden behind closed doors within those societies we now like to call "hypocritical" for that very reason, much of it is even mass-produced for consumer consumption. For the right price, it is all there to be had! We may be convinced that the words of Christ fit our generation even better than his own. Whatever the case may be, for ultimately "there is nothing new under the sun" (ECCL. 1:9), we realize that there is enough sinfulness in every generation that makes calling it "perverse" and "evil" fully justified. In fact, we may feel, as did the psalmist, there is "no longer any that is godly." To say otherwise would be to reveal a frightening lack of discernment. This is the exacting toll of sin in the world.

We are reassured by this scriptural text expressed through the prokeimenon that we need not be unduly frightened, overwhelmed, or filled with an imbalanced pessimism when we, like a frail David, are face to face with the Goliath of human perversity. (I am not convinced that the opposite reaction of a superficially cheery optimism that refuses to see any signs of anything evil, adulterous, faithless or perverse is much more helpful. At least such a response does not coincide with the teaching of Christ. And it could reveal a self-absorption that is indifferent to the surrounding environment as long as it does not immediately threaten us). Such responses would further reveal the strength of each perverse generation over us. The Lord "shall protect us and preserve us" we are promised. Yet, not from the presence and temptations of each perverse generation, but from succumbing to that very presence and those very temptations if we resist them and cling to the Lord with faith, hope and love. Faith is strengthened through testing, and resistance to prevailing temptations is part of that "test." But that means that we need to look to God for protection and preservation. Our relationship with God cannot be a lazy one. The following words of Mother Raphaela are very convicting when applied to our daily lives:

This is where I think many, many Orthodox Christians are functionally atheists or at best new-agers. Do we treat God with a rudeness that allows us to wake up, hear the radio music, smell the coffee and check our e-mails before, if we are in a pious mood, we nod in His direction? Far too often we act as if God is not there, or is not there as a Person, the One Who is everywhere and fills all things. When we can go whole days not speaking to Him, to someone we know is in the same house with us, we should know that our relationship is in trouble.

If our relationship with God is "in trouble" then the perversities of our generation can close in around us - and not look so bad after all. When God is a daily afterthought outside of Sunday morning, then an incremental slide into an "evil and adulterous generation" will hold its own fuzzy attractions. We are not called, as Christians, to be "closed-minded," or "intolerant." But we are called to be able to distinguish between good and evil, the true and the false. And to see through the illusions and delusions of what is clearly sinful - or was considered to be until just recently, within our own generation.

I will love You, O Lord, my
The Lord is my foundation, my
refuge, my deliverer;
My God is my helper, on Him I will
My champion, the horn of my
salvation, and my protector. (PS. 17:1-3)

Fr. Steven

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