Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Timing the Passion and Holy Week

Dear Parish Faithful,

You may find this helpful in understanding the unfolding of events in Holy Week and how the four Gospels narrate these events each in a unique manner.

Fr. Steven

Anton C. Vrame, Ph.D., Director
Department of Religious Education
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

As we begin Holy Week, many questions arise about the timing of events. Many of us try to make a direct connection between a particular church service and an event in the Passion narrative. This is not very easy given that readings overlap and the Gospels themselves are not as precise as we would like. For example, the Gospel readings of Holy Thursday morning (the Vesperal liturgy), the Orthros of Holy Friday (Holy Thursday evening), the Vespers of Holy Friday (the Apokathelosis) overlap considerably.

C r u c i f i x i o n

Dear Parish Faithful,


I am re-reading an excellent monograph by the German New Testament scholar, Martin Hengel, entitled Crucifixion. Though written a few decades ago (1978) this small work still retains a high reputation on the subject, as do other works of Martin Hengel, most of which have been translated into English. This short, but packed little book, traces the origins and history of crucifixion as a particulary horrendous form of capital punishment.

It is generally conceded "that crucifixion began with the Persians" (p. 22). This can be found in numerous references in the famous Greek historian Herodotus. However, Martin Hengel makes it clear that it was widespread also among many "barbarian peoples ... including the Indians, the Assyrians, the Scythians and the Taurians" (p. 22-23). It was especially used among the Carthaginians, from where the Romans learned it. It could also be found among the ancient Greeks.

Crucifixion - this is how Christ died "for the life of the world." The salvific nature of the Lord's crucifixion should never remove from our minds the "scandal of the Cross;" for the Cross was the instrument for Christ's total self-abasement as an act of God's divine mercy and love poured out for sinful humanity. The apostles had to convince the various peoples to whom they brought the Gospel that the one true and living God had saved and was saving the world through this instrument of suffering and death, when Jesus hung upon the wood of the tree, and by so doing took the sin of the world upon Himself.

I simply want to share a couple of particularly powerful passages from Hengel's concluding chapter that show both the cruel inhumanity of crucifixion and the incredible "self-emptying" love of God expressed on the Cross.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Winning the 'Battle of the Calendars' during Holy Week

Dear Parish Faithful,

With the first of the Bridegroom Matins services yesterday evening, we began Holy Week. We had a fairly representative group of parishioners return for the service last night, and I encourage you to focus your attention this week on the liturgical life of the church as much as possible.

During Holy Week, it seems to me that in order to accomplish that we need to simply our lives to more-or-less its daily necessities: work/school, home and church. As I already wrote to our parents with younger children, it is hardly a week to pursue "entertainment" and/or other superfluous activities. We can choose to either connect our lives with the life of the Church; or disconnect our lives from the life of the Church. Which is the same as saying that that connection or disconnection is really about our relationship with Christ. Here the "battle of the calendars" may reach a certain intensity that tests the commitment to Christ we made just yesterday by accepting a palm branch in the church "in imitation" of the children of Israel when they hailed Jesus as Messiah and King.

Friday, March 26, 2010

At the End of Great Lent - Looking Forward

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Fortieth Day(!)

By the time we serve Vespers this evening at 7:00 p.m., Great Lent will have ended. We have just been through the "sacred forty days" that will prepare us for Holy Week following the two great feasts of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.

Looking back and assessing the recent past is not always that easy. What does it actually mean to have had a "good Lent?" What kind of balance did we maintain between the outward and inward? If we fasted from meat, did we also fast from sin? We can, of course, examine the patterns we maintained during Great Lent concerning our prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Was there a "lenten atmosphere" in our homes for forty days? We can also look back and ask ourselves about our participation in the lenten liturgical services. Did we make it to Confession and, if so, did we sincerely confess our sins? (And if we did not make it to Confession, then why not?)

Then again, perhaps we should look forward instead of backwards. Great Lent is over, but if, for the moment, we look beyond even Holy Week and the initial Paschal celebration, we will find ourselves in the post-Paschal season. What positive practices can we carry forward with us as we resume our Christian lives outside of the rarefied atmosphere of Great Lent and Holy Week? If, during Great Lent, we worked on overcoming a particular "bad habit," an unhealthy obsession, or one of the passions, are we determined not to allow that spiritual victory to lapse now that Lent is over? If we were less dependent upon food and drink; if we overcame this or that "addiction;" and if Great Lent was about acting in a particularly vigilant manner for forty days; are we to now act as if it never happened once we have our "Pascha bash?" I often wonder if Bright Week is all about forgetting what we may have learned in the "school of repentance" of Great Lent. As if we try and "catch up" with what we "missed" for Great Lent. In this way, Great Lent is reduced to being a pious interlude that brings to us a false sense of spiritual complacency because we more-or-less followed the rules.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Connecting the Cross to Discipleship

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT: The Thirty Third Day

As we continue to journey towards Our Lord's Cross as the goal of Great Lent, we need to remind ourselves of how the Lord connected His Cross with our lives of discipleship. First, Christ revealed to His immediate disciples that though He is indeed the Messiah, He will shockingly be a suffering Messiah:

And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (MK. 8:31)

This was following St. Peter's confession of faith - "You are the Christ" (MK. 8:29) - when Jesus asked his disciples: "Who do men say that I am?" (Mk. 8:27) With his characteristic impetuosity, St. Peter had the audacity to "rebuke" Christ for this prophecy, only to be rebuked in return with the scathing words: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men." (MK. 8:32-33) Yet, not being deterred by the obtuseness of the disciples, Christ continued teaching them, and here He drew the connection between His Cross and what true discipleship will entail for those who will accept the suffering Messiah:

And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (MK. 8:34)

One almost feels an impulse to wince at these words. And not only due to our failure to take these words to heart and fulfill them. For at the most basic level of our existence, self-denial has to be considered at the very least "counter intuitive." It goes against our biological make-up which is instinctively defensive and self-enhancing. The impulse of our "selfish gene" drives us toward a self-centeredness that does not include an inclination toward denial. There is, then, a great deal of truth in what someone once said to me: "Christianity is about transcending our biology." Clearly, self-denial is very difficult. Especially when our lives are driven by the twin impulses of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. And that dual principle of life is hammered into us from our earliest conscious moments. But then, when we consciously embrace the Christian Faith, we learn that on some level, at least, we need to practice self-denial!

Our Christian "worldview" reveals to us that the world is both "very good" and "fallen." Human sin and death have entered the world to undermine our appreciation of the world's inherent goodness. Therefore, as Christians we are further challenged by the awareness of living simultaneously in God's world - the world that He loved to the point of sending His only-begotten Son into it for our salvation (JN. 3:16); and "this world" that the same Evangelist John once and for all characterized with an unsentimental, if not brutal honesty:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. (I JN. 2:16)

All of that "lust" that attracts us and ensnares us in our fallen human nature on the levels of both body and soul; and the accompanying "pride" that turns us into boastful, arrogant and self-reliant caricatures of a human being made "in the image and likeness of God;" are precisely the formidable temptations that have us shaking our heads when we hear the Lord teach us about self-denial. Truly, this teaching is itself a cross! Yet, the Lord makes the impossible possible by the grace of God. Christ never seeks to burden us with oppressive and unrealizable demands that only cause frustration and guilt because they cannot be fulfilled. The same Lord who taught about self-denial also uttered the following words of great consolation:

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (MATT. 11:28-29)

There is no contradiction here. Over time the heavy yoke of lust and pride, fueled by the principle of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, becomes the real burden of life. Dissatisfaction, cynicism, existential anxiety, and sheer emptiness are the eventual fruits of "this world" and the false pursuits that St. John so thoroughly exposed. Our restless and weary souls, worn out and exhausted by the endless pursuit of lust and pride, can find rest in "the gentle and lowly" Christ - and yet He is ignored as if His words are a threat to crush us! Or at least to take the "fun" out of life. That is a bitter lesson that may take time to assimilate. To ignore the words of Christ is to succumb to the illusion of "self-enhancement" at the expense of our relationship with God and neighbor. Then we will have merely allowed ourselves to be deceived as little children being enticed with candy by an ominous figure with unspeakable intentions. (Think of Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the enticement of "turkish delight" from the bad witch):

"For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?" (MK. 8:36-37)

St. John described "this world" as it is. And that means that it is impossible not to face temptation on a daily basis. In fact, the "law" of daily temptation is as fixed as the law of gravity. It is unavoidable, inescapable and inevitable. That is why our spiritual tradition teaches us that we are not morally responsible for the mere fact of being tempted. Our responsibility begins when we make a choice as to how to react to any given temptation. And our life in the Church prepares us to make the choice to repulse temptation and avoid the pitfalls of sin. Otherwise, once temptation and sin are consciously engaged and embraced, they become full-blown "passions." These self-generated passions are then our personal "crosses" that cause us grief in the effort to wrench them out or our minds and hearts.

Speaking personally, I would describe this daily struggle in the following manner: When I wake up in the morning, I am preparing for a new day in which I will simultaneously encounter God's world which is "very good," and the fallen world - "this world" - as described by St. John and cited above. I hope to prove to be "eucharistic" towards God's world by being thankful and rejoicing in the gift of life. However, I know that without a doubt I will be tempted during the course of the day. These temptations may be major or minor. They may be obvious or subtle. But they will come. In other words, I am entering a "spiritual minefield." I must navigate and negotiate that dangerous terrain with great care, for a misstep in one direction or another is to "detonate" a particular temptation of that spiritual minefield and suffer the consequences. Admittedly, I must acknowledge that there is an undeniable inevitability to some of those missteps. At the same time, I also know that if I sincerely repent of my sins, and confess them honestly, I can be forgiven by the grace of God.

Be that as it may, I therefore need to ask myself on a daily basis: Am I prepared? Am I equipped? Am I ready to be vigilant? Through the grace-filled life of the Church I am actually prepared for that "spiritual warfare." To borrow Fr. Thomas Hopko's "four S's," I am equipped for that struggle with the Scriptures, the Services, the Sacraments, and the Saints. These, in turn, are aspects of an internalized "mine detector" that allows me to navigate that treacherous terrain with patient vigilance. But if these are the tools or weapons with which God is equipping me, then I must sharpen them by continuous use, or they become blunted or of little effect. I need to prayerfully read and study the Scriptures; attentively attend the liturgical services of the Church; participate in the Sacraments - especially of Confession and Communion - with regularity and with faith; and know the lives and writings of the great saints as living icons of holiness. If I fail to do so, the "sin" would then be in treating what God has entrusted me carelessly and indifferently. My level of responsibility is then far greater than that of the person outside of the Church who is basically reduced to his own inadequate resources. For the Lord said: "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more." (LK. 12:47-48)

I believe that it will take a genuine "change of mind" to recognize that self-denial is the path toward liberation and true freedom. That means that we need to repent, for repentance means, precisely, a change of mind. Self-denial is difficult but not burdensome. It is the sign of true discipleship. It is taught to us by the Lord Himself. We are invited to enter into the potential riches of self-denial during Great Lent, and then carry what we learn - even if by the sweat of our brow - into life whatever season it may be. This is the way of Christ - the Giver of Life.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Enduring Insults

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Thirty First Day

II. i. On Enduring Insults

a. The Abba Zosimas used to say: "There are different levels in people's desires. One person may desire something fervently, and that desire will be capable of leading that person to God at one moment; whereas another person will not reach that point in fifty years on account of a lukewarm desire."

b. When the demons notice that someone has been insulted or shamed or harmed or suffered something of the like, and yet that person is sorry not so much for what has happened but for not being able to endure these courageously, then the demons are afraid of such a strong will. For, they know that this person has touched upon the way of truth and had decided to walk in accordance with the commandments of God.

The Reflections of Abba Zosimas

Monday, March 15, 2010

Guest Meditation: Understanding the "Why" of the Fast

Dear Parish Faithful,

I strongly encourage everyone to read the following "lenten meditation" written by one of our catechumens, Jennifer Haynes. Jennifer first sent this to me in the form of an email letter in an effort to share some of her family's experiences in moving toward the Orthodox Church. I found what she wrote quite fascinating, and asked her to edit or "touch up" any possible rough spots with a parish-wide distribution in mind. She agreed, and has done so very nicely, without changing the content of her initial letter. Her letter is deeply encouraging to me on the pastoral level, as a genuine witness to the potential depths of our traditional practices and how such practices - in this case, fasting - can open up new insights about our own lives, including previous "blind spots," and our relationship with God. A whole new world opened up to the Haynes by just not eating meat! Hopefully, other riches are in store for them as they move toward the full communion of the Church's sacramental life. Her reflection may be encouraging to you, if you find yourelf struggling with the very meaning and purpose of fasting, beside the day-to-day struggle with "what to eat?" And what you read may open up new levels of understanding that will prove to be helpful.

What we may take for granted within the Church - and perhaps even a burden at times - is a gift from God that is meant for our liberation from the bonds of "this world," in order to experience the freedom that is found in Christ alone.

Fr. Steven

Father Bless

Last year I was speaking to an old girlfriend during the pre-Lenten season. She said, “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent. What are you giving up?” The most honest response I could give her was “Well, sin.” I wasn’t quite sure how else to answer her question because it seemed like we were going to be giving up a whole lot compared to chocolate. It struck me as odd, though, that chocolate would be something to give up given the unlimited things in this world one could give up to redirect our attention back to God. Did she have an unhealthy dependency on chocolate? How does giving up chocolate bring one closer to God? I really didn’t understand it. Fasting seemed like it was going to be so much more complicated and deeper. We didn’t have expectations, but just followed the guidelines of the Church.

Last year during Lent was our first fast and although we didn’t fast as strictly as some, it remained an enlightening experience for us. Chuck and I were raised in a meat-eating environment and meat was on the menu for almost every meal. When we were preparing to fast from meat, for some unknown reason, we thought it would be very difficult to restrain ourselves from meat. It proved to be easier than we thought. We even felt a sense of strength. As time passed during the fast, a strange compassion began taking place in our hearts for animals. We mourned for them because all too often we had taken for granted their life for our sustenance. In digging deeper, it became apparent we were also taking the life we were given for granted by satisfying the moods of our stomach. I always associated gluttony with obesity, but was awakened to the astonishing truth that we were gluttons! We eat entirely too much and spend an obsessive amount of time thinking and preparing food. It is still a challenge for us during non-Lenten seasons. Our family had no idea how satisfying and simple an onion and bowl of rice could be. On an even deeper level, it is truly beautiful to experience the connection between our appetites and self-control. For some reason we were under the impression, self-control would only be related to food. We are still learning, but we now understand we do have some control over our choices, be it through our words or through our actions. So many times we have heard others in parish tell us fasting is not about the food. Now we understand what they meant.

We still eat meat during non-fasting periods, but we are acutely aware we don’t need it. We enjoy it, but we will not die if we do not have it. This year we are learning to incorporate more almsgiving, prayers, and repentance along with the fast, which is definitely hard to balance. As someone from the parish told us, though, it is like a muscle you are strengthening. Every time you fast you are exercising your muscle and becoming stronger, but you don’t have to be perfect. It takes practice. When we began this journey into Orthodoxy, we never imagined abstaining from certain foods would be this highly spiritual and mystical experience revealing all kinds of things we were formerly oblivious to. We are joyful and grateful for the strictness in it. More importantly, we understand “why” we are doing it.

With love in Christ,


Friday, March 12, 2010

The Mid-Point, The Turning Point... The One Thing Needful

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Twenty Sixth Day

"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." I COR. 2:2)

There is a definite shift in focus once we reach the Third Sunday of Great Lent and the veneration of the Cross. For the first three weeks of the Fast, the hymnography of the Triodion concentrates our attention on the over-all lenten effort of repentance, and all that repentance entails: overcoming temptation and sin, struggling against the passions, intensifying our prayer, almsgiving and fasting, reconciliation with our neighbor, etc. This is not a pious form of spiritual solipsism. It is a way to force us to look at our own lives and relationship with God and to "expose" our own weaknesses and failings, so we can humbly acknowledge our sinfulness and "do something about it." That is one of the main purposes behind Great Lent: "Save yourself, and thousands around you will be saved," according to St. Seraphim of Sarov. If we could possibly cleanse our own minds and hearts, then each one of us can become a genuine Christian who worthily proclaims the Gospel by a particular way of life that embodies the precepts of the Gospel. That includes the self-denial of taking up one's cross in imitation of the Lord.

However, with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, the Scriptures and the Triodion will concentrate on the Cross of Christ - the goal of our lenten journey. Our lenten effort must be understood and experienced within the context of the Lord's Cross, without which all of our ascetical and charitable efforts do not transcend their immediate application and do indeed devolve into a series of questionable "spiritual exercises" performed more or less for their own sake. The Cross is the source, ground, and goal of Great Lent and of our personal journey through it. We now begin to anticipate its salvific power in our midst.

At the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday evening, we began with a series of transitional hymns, that in addition to reminding us that we have reached the midpoint of the Fast, combine our own ascetical effort - and the need for its continuation for the remainder of the Fast - with clear reference to the Lord and Cross that is the culmination of His earthly ministry:

The fast, the source of blessings,
now has brought us midway through its course.
Having pleased God with the days that have passed
we look forward to making good use of the days to come,
for growth in blessings bring forth even greater achievements.
While pleasing Christ, the giver of blessings, we cry:
O Lord, who fasted and endured the cross for our sake,
make us worthy to share blamelessly in Your paschal victory,
by living in peace and rightly giving glory to You
with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

O Cross, boast of the apostles,
surrounded by archangels, powers and principalities;
Save us from all harm who bow down before you.
Enable us to fulfill the divine course of abstinence
and to reach the day of salvation, by which we are saved.

And there are hymns that are something of an ecstatic expression of the inexpressible boundlessness of the Cross' meaning on a cosmic and personal level:

Today, as we bow before the cross of the Lord, we cry:
Rejoice, O tree of life, the destroyer of hell!
Rejoice, O joy of the world, the slayer of corruption!
Rejoice, O power that scatters demons!
O invincible weapon, confirmation of the faithful:
Protect and sanctify those who kiss you!

The Cross is the culmination of our journey through Holy Week. Practically speaking, that must in turn be the culmination of our lenten effort, or else the sacred forty days and Holy Week will be reduced to empty forms devoid of spiritual power. "Lay aside all earthly care" during Holy Week. Try and plan your schedules so as to maximize your time in church for the services that will bring us to the Cross and Resurrection. Even when unable to be in church, let it be a time of greater silence and concentration, so that empty distractions are kept to a minimum. If possible, use a "vacation day" from work and make Holy Friday a time to immerse yourselves into the Mystery of the Cross. If your children are home on Holy Friday, direct them toward the Church and the "solemnity" of that unique day. In a world that offers us an abundance of the superficially attractive, resist such temptation by focusing on the essential - "the one thing needful" - Jesus Christ.

Fr. Steven

Practically Preparing for Holy Week

Dear Parish Faithful,

Service booklets for all of the Holy Week services are available if you would like to purchase a set. These books do not only allow you to follow the unfolding of the service, but also to prepare by studying the texts of the services ahead of time. All of the books are now being sold by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. There should still be plenty of time to order them if you are interested. Each booklet is a convenient 4" x 6" with a paper cover. The available booklets are the following:

Feast of Palms - The Service of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday - $5.00
The Bridegroom Services of Holy Week - $6.00
Holy Friday Matins - $7.00
Vespers of Holy Friday - $4.00
Matins of Holy Saturday - $7.00
Great and Holy Saturday - Vespers and Liturgy of St. Basil the Great - $6.00
Paschal Service - $5.00
Vespers of Pascha - $3.00

This link will take you directly to SVS Press' selection of service books, which has all the above. Some other service books are included as well, but all the Holy Week/Pascha titles can be found there.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Through the Cross... Joy!

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Twenty Fifth Day

"For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension." (II COR. 4:17)

The Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross extends throughout the entire week. Thus, we continue to "bow down" and venerate the Cross whenever we gather together for any services throughout this week up to, but not including, Great Vespers on Saturday evening. The Cross is the goal of our lenten journey - as is the empty tomb and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Cross and Resurrection are the two components of the one integral paschal mystery. This is not only the crown of our liturgical year, but the very substance of our Orthodox Christian Faith. A cross without the resurrection would have buried Jesus in the oblivion of historical time. But according to the design of God, there could be no resurrection without the scandal of the cross. No death - "even the death on a Cross" (PHIL. 2:8) - no Resurrection. It would be very difficult to find a scriptural text that makes explicit mention of the Cross without a balancing text that connects the Cross to the Resurrection; or to an understanding of the Cross that reveals its fulfillment in the Resurrection. In the divine oikonomia, suffering leads to glorification.

As St. Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost:

" ... this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it." (ACTS 2:23-24)

In a compact formulation, the Apostle Paul writes of our Lord Jesus Christ,

"who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (ROM. 4:25)

Further, in what amounts to be something of a creedal formula of the early Church, the Apostle Paul proclaims the Gospel that endures to this day:

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve." (I COR. 15:3-5)

We find this organic connection between the cross and glorification already revealed in the Lord's "passion prophecies" as recorded in the Gospels. At the conclusion of the Gospel reading prescribed for the upcoming Fourth Sunday of Lent, we will hear Christ proclaim: "The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise." (MK. 9:31) As difficult as it may be to look beyond the suffering and anguish of the Cross - and of our own personal crosses - the promise of God is that this is the true way to glorification:

"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (HEB. 12:1-2)

Our liturgical life of prayer and practice is fully consistent with the scriptural witness of uniting the Cross and Resurrection in an endless proclamation of how God has transformed suffering into joy: "For through the Cross, joy has come into the world!" The purpose of the hymnography and rites of the Church is never to cover up the scandal and shame of the Cross endured "for our sake" by the "Lord of glory." But the mystery of Christ is the disclosure that what is sown in dishonor will be raised in glory (I COR. 15:43). In the holistic life of the Church that appreciates and recognizes the human person as a psychosomatic unity of "soul and body," we express this belief by literally - that is, bodily - prostrating ourselves before the life-giving Cross as we sing the powerful hymn:

Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection, we glorify.

We worship the One who was nailed to the Cross and we simultaneously glorify His resurrection. This hymn perfectly captures the Good News in a world often overwhelmed by bad news. And in a world paralyzed by uncertainty and "relativism," what a blessing and privilege to bow down before the Lord Jesus Christ, "the same yesterday and today and forever" (HEB. 13:8), crucified and raised for our salvation!

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mass-Market Epiphany

Dear Parish Faithful,

I was going to prepare a Monday Morning Meditation, but before I began to write, I first came across this interesting article that I would like to share with everyone. It is quite fascinating to read, absorb and analyze what Ross Douthat is saying about the American religious landscape from the perspective of living within the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. It is clearly a bit intimidating to realize our "minority status" (not only in terms of numbers, but of an over-all approach and worldview) within that very religious landscape; but the challenge to avoid the pitfalls enumerated in the article are good ones to embrace, in order to "test" our commitment and the reality behind that commitment to "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints." Please share any further comments that you may have.

Ross Douthat is clearly an intriguing presence on the staff of New York Time Op-Ed columnists. He is atypical in that he is clearly a Christian believer (Roman Catholic) and challenges the usual "secularism" - tinged by condescension - that pervades so much writing on religious themes that one finds in the NYT. He does not hide his Christian Faith, but must of course present his position within an acceptable style of discourse that suits his considerably-sized and probably highly-secularized audience. His presence just may be a commitment to "diversity" that is seen as essential these days; though he probably remains something of a "voice crying in the wilderness."

Fr. Steven

The beginning of the article appears below. Follow the link at bottom to continue reading.

The New York Times
March 8, 2010
Mass-Market Epiphany


Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.

This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.

Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever. Our opinion polls suggest that we’re encountering the divine all over the place. In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we’ve done with every other kind of human experience: We’ve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market. No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever.

Continue reading . . .


Friday, March 5, 2010

Fasting Abundantly

Dear Parish Faithful,

I noticed an article at entitled "Fasting Abundantly," by Fr. Vasile Catalin Tudora (if he is not Romanian, I will eat my keyboard). The subtitle of the article is intriguing and attractive: "Fasting is not what you give up, it's what you gain." He contrasts Western legalistic notions of fasting, based on "sacrifice" and "renunciation," with an Orthodox understanding that does not really embrace such terms or ideas. Fasting is ascetical and holistic and is meant to be liberating, as Fr. Vasile contends and demonstrates in his article. You may want to read this article for its many rich insights.

Fr. Steven

Webservant's Note: You may also wish to visit Gladsome Light Dialogues, the blog moderated by Fr. Vasile Catalin Tudora, which includes his article 'Fasting Abundantly', and many other rich expressions of our Orthodox Faith.

Abba Poemen on the Passions

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Nineteenth Day

Abba Poemen said: "Passions work in four stages - first, in the heart; secondly, on the face; thirdly, in words; and fourthly, it is always essential not to render evil for evil in deeds. If you can purify your heart, passion will not reveal itself in your expression; but if it reaches your face, then take care not to speak; and if you do speak, at least cut the conversation short in case you do render evil for evil."

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Except Humility Alone

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Seventeenth Day

Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils, nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do that. There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons. And he asked them: "What makes you go away? Is if fasting?" They replied: "We do not eat or drink." "Is it vigils?" They said: "We do not sleep." "Then what power sends you away?" They replied: "Nothing can overcome us except humility alone." Amma Theodora said: "Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?"

Abba Or gave this advice: "Whenever you want to subdue your high and proud thoughts, examine your conscience carefully: Have you loved your enemies and been kind to them in their misfortunes?"

The Fathers and Mothers of the desert - and beyond - teach us the "power" of humility. It is basically in imitation of the Son of God who became flesh and died on the Cross for the sins of humankind. Humility driven by love brought the Lord to the Cross. There was and is no other way. But overcoming pride is a battle hard to begin, sustain, and complete. We therefore accept the fact that we are in for the "long haul" with the goal of attaining to blessed humility to a degree that is effective and expressive of our love for Christ, the humble Son of God become Son of Man, who invited us to learn from Him:

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Amma Theodora must be right. Challenging as they may be, fasting and vigil are "easy" in comparison to humility.

As Fr. Deacon John Chryssavgis writes: "The humble person is always satisfied, always shares, always gives, always gives thanks." That sounds like the description of a true human being!

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 1, 2010

Keep Silence...

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Fifteenth Day

Abba Bessarion said: "Keep silence, and do not be always comparing yourself to others."