Monday, April 26, 2010

Healing our Paralytic Narcissism

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Twenty Third Day

"Sometime in the 1920's, a young man, practically a boy, left a note and then committed suicide: 'I do not want to live in a world where everyone is playing a con game...' All of this was suffocating him, he could not stand it any longer. But we are gradually harassed into accepting this as normal, and the horror of self-centeredness we cease experiencing as horrible ... This is what the Gospel story of the paralytic is about. All these sick, helpless, paralyzed people are sick first and foremost with incurable narcissism. This is what brings a person to cry: 'I have no man!' There is no one! And this means that a person comes into being when narcissism is overcome; it means that human beings, above all, are a face turned toward the other person, eyes looking intently with concern and love into the eyes of the other person. It is love, co-suffering and care. The Gospel also tells us that this new and authentic human being has been revealed to us, has come to us in Christ. In him, the One who comes to the lonely and long-suffering paralytic is no stranger, but 'his own'; He comes in order to take the sick man's sufferings as his own, his life as his own, to help and to heal."

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith, Vol. 2

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Mystery of the Myrrhbearing Women

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Twentieth Day

Those whom Christ had asked to stay with him at the hour of his agonizing struggle, when He "began to be greatly distressed and troubled" (MK. 14:33), dropped him, ran away and renounced him. But those from whom he asked nothing remained faithful in their simple human love. "Mary stood weeping outside the tomb" (JN. 20:11). Down through the centuries, love has always wept in this way, as Christ wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Here then, it is this love, which first learns of the victory; this love, this faithfulness is the first to know that there is no longer any need for weeping, for "death is swallowed up in victory" (I COR. 15:54), and hopeless separation is no more.

This is what the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women means. It reminds us that the love and faithfulness of a few individuals shone brightly in the midst of hopeless darkness. It calls us to ensure that in this world love and faithfulness do not disappear or die out. It judges our lack of courage, our fear, our endless and servile rationalizations. The mysterious Joseph and Nicodemus, and these women who go to the grave at dawn, occupy so little space in the gospels. Precisely here, however, is where the eternal fate of each of us is decided."

And if, despite all the evil that dominates the world, the mysterious feast of life still continues, if it is still celebrated in a poverty-stricken room, at a barren table, just as joyously as in a palace, then the joy and light of this feast is in her, in woman, in her never-fading love and faithfulness. "The wine gave out ..." (JN. 2:3), but while she is here - mother, wife, bride - there is enough wine, enough love, enough light for everyone ...

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith, Vol. 2

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

'I was in Prison, and You Came to Me...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Eighteenth Day

Following the Liturgy on Sunday, a group from the parish visited the Warren Correctional Institute, and offered a program of Orthodox liturgical music to a gathering of about thirty-forty of the inmates. This was organized by Terry Morgan who is a member of the Kairos Prison Ministry at the WCI, and Pat Pride, our parish choir director. I accompanied the group that consisted of:

Brian Farison
Joe Kormos
Joyce Kormos
Presbytera Deborah Kostoff
Jeannie Markvan
Terry Morgan
Pat Pride (choir director)
Steve Pride
Johnothon Sauer

After passing through security we were given a brief description of the facilities and the over-all organization of the prison by Chaplain Henry. This prison contains very serious offenders, including rapists and murderers. It is just a notch below maximum security. He then walked us through the prison grounds to the chapel and introduced us to the inmates who were present based on a promotional flier that was posted on the bulletin board of the chapel, announcing a "Concert of Eastern Orthodox Music from the Ancient Faith." That promised to be something different, I would imagine. Pat put together a very effective program, that began with an example of the "ancientness" of the Orthodox Faith ("O, Gladsome Light"). What followed then was a journey from the pre-lenten period (stichera from the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, "Open to Me the Gates of Repentance"); Great Lent itself (stichera from the Sunday of the Cross, Praises from the Matins of Holy Friday, "Do Not Lament Me O Mother"); and culminating with Pascha ("The Angel Cried," and "Let God Arise").

The program and our singing was very enthusiastically received by the gathered inmates. Not knowing what to expect, based upon the sheer "otherness" of what we were presenting, that was both a relief and a cause of joy for all of us. There was a bit of Q & A to follow, and that further created at least a momentary "bond" between two groups that clearly come from two very distinct worlds of experience. There was even a final request for us to return at Christmas. Wait until they hear "Today the Virgin Gives Birth to the Transcendent One" instead of "Silent Night!"

What I found quite interesting, though, was the response of Chaplain Henry who spoke to the group briefly before we departed. He was clearly impressed by the rich theological content of the hymnography, making it clear that that is not what is any longer heard nowadays. He was struck by the fact that some of the hymns evoked a feeling of "sadness," and others of "joyfulness." He commented on how that led to a fuller experience than that of the loud and boisterous noise accompanying contemporary "worship music." This all seemed to touch a deep chord within him and confronted him with what he was missing in his own worship. It may have been a fleeting response, but he clearly lamented that absence. He was groping, on the spot, to offer a quick and accessible history lesson for the inmates about the "old days" when the hymnography reinforced the Scriptures and the "story" of the Gospel based upon the Death and Resurrection of Christ. He even told the inmates, this is how it was done "in the days of Jesus and the apostles!"

What was of greater importance, though, was the fact of our brief encounter and contact - however briefly - with this small group of prisoners at the WCI. No doubt, the prisoners are "reaping what they sowed." They have committed crimes and their prison sentences are the "price" they paid for those crimes, and the for the horrible fact that other people have been victimized in irreversible ways that we cannot begin to fathom. Yet, these are all human persons created "in the image and likeness of God." Many of the prisoners have repented of their crimes and become believing Christians in the process. The limitless forgiveness of God in that context must be overwhelming. And their remorse must be fearsome. This is all combined with the fact that life in a prison facility - regardless of how well administrated it may be - must be one long nightmare of alienation, loneliness, social ostracism, and constant fear of what can happen within the walls of a prison. Christ emphatically teaches that visiting those in prison is an act of charity and compassion. We also pray for those in prisons in our liturgies. Standing and singing before the inmates, conversing a bit afterward and shaking some offered hands was a good way of bringing to mind these men who are seeking to recover their humanity and dignity as they serve out their "just" sentences. For both our choir and the inmates it was a learning experience for all who were involved as we both tried to reach across some real barriers. And for this we glorify God.

We are glad that our parish is represented in the Kairos prison ministry at WCI by Terry Morgan and Dan Georgescu. We are further glad that our children and families assist in the "cookies for prison ministry program." (Those cookies, incidentally, are due on Sunday, May 2). I am sure that we will find other opportunities for contact in the future.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Friday, April 16, 2010

St Gregory Palamas on the Lord's Day, Pt 3

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Thirteenth Day

St. Gregory Palamas continues in his homily on The Sabbath and the Lord's Day, to draw some of the consequences and effects upon the believers to their commitment to the Risen Christ on the Lord's Day. This commitment needs to be as thorough as possible for members of the Church:

Let no one out of laziness or continuous worldly occupations miss these holy Sunday gatherings, which God Himself handed down to us, lest he be justly abandoned by God and suffer like Thomas, who did not come at the right time. If you are detained and do not attend on one occasion, make up for it the next time, bringing yourself to Christ's Church. Otherwise you may remain uncured, suffering from unbelief in your soul because of deeds or words, and failing to approach Christ's surgery to receive, like the divine Thomas, holy healing. There exist not only thoughts and words of faith but also deeds and acts of faith - "Show me," it says, "your faith by your works" (cf. Jas. 2:18) - and if someone abandons these and is completely distanced from the Church of Christ and given over wholly to worthless pursuits, his faith is dead, or non-existent, and he himself has become dead through sin."

I shall tell you, in your charity, something which has just occurred to me. I noticed that Thomas lost his faith when he was absent, but when he was together with the believers his faith did not in any way fall short. So I have the idea that if only a sinner will flee the company of immoral men and associate with the just, he will never be found lacking in righteousness or the resultant salvation of his soul. It seems to me that the psalmist and prophet was hinting at this when he called blessed the man who avoided sitting with the scornful and being their companion (cf. Ps. 1:1). Another prophet writes, "Thou shalt not follow the multitude to do evil" (Ex. 23:2), and the author of Proverbs says, "Where sinners gather, the fire breaks out" (Ecclus. 16:6), "but he that walks with wise men shall be wise" (Prov. 13:20).

St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) - Homily on the Sabbath and the Lord's Day

Fr. Steven

Thursday, April 15, 2010

St Gregory Palamas on the Lord's Day, Pt 2

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Twelfth Day

St. Gregory Palamas continues (from the same homily from yesterday) to reveal the deeper meaning of the Lord's Day - Sunday - and its relationship to the Resurrection of Christ:

You will understand how much better Sunday is than other feastdays from what follows. Every other festival comes round once a year, but the Lord's Day comes round four times each month, and this frequent recurrence makes the whole year a year of true remission for us, a year acceptable to the Lord (cf. Isa. 61:2). It was in order to teach us to celebrate it in practice at the end of each week that the Lord first appeared to the disciples inside the house while Thomas was absent (Jn. 20:19-24). He proved He was alive and gave them peace. By His breathing upon them He renewed the divine breath given in the beginning (Gen. 2:7), and endowed them with the grace of the Holy Spirit, imbuing them with divine power to bind and loose sins. He made them sharers in the exercise of His heavenly lordship, saying to them, "receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whoseover sins ye retain, they are retained" (Jn. 20:22-23).

The Lord granted them this power and grace when He appeared to them on the very day of His resurrection, obviously a Sunday. Then, letting the intervening days of the week elapse, He appeared in the same manner and in the same house, on the eighth day, the Sunday we celebrate today, to inaugurate His festival and to bring the hesitant Thomas to faith. According to the Savior's beloved evangelist and disciple, "After eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas was with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you" (JN 20:26).

You will see that it was Sunday when the disciples assembled and the Lord came to them. On Sunday He approached them for the first time as they wer gathered together, and eight days later, when Sunday came round again, He appeared to their assembly. Christ's Church continually reflects these gatherings by holding its meetings mostly on Sundays, and we come among you and preach what pertains to salvation and lead you towards piety and a godly way of life.

St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) - Homily on the Sabbath and the Lord's Day

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

St Gregory Palamas on the Lord's Day, Pt 1

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Eleventh Day

In the Gospel passage from last Sunday (JN. 20:19-31), we read and heard of the "first day" of the week" and the "eighth day." Below, St. Gregory Palamas offers some profound insight to the meaning of the "Lord's Day" - Sunday - as both the first and eighth day of the week, and how this relates to Old Testament typology and the Resurrection of Christ.

"Moses esteemed the seventh day because it led into the truly honorable eighth day. Just as the law given through him is honorable in so far as it leads to Christ (cf. GAL. 3:24), so the seventh day is honorable because it leads into the eighth day on which the Lord's Resurrection took place. The eighth day comes next after the seventh day, and if you look carefully you will find that after the seventh day, when we are told that all the dead from past ages were resurrected, on the eighth day Christ rose. Not only was Christ's resurrection accomplished on the eighth day, but it was both the eighth day in relation to the day before, and also the first day in relation to the hoped-for resurrection, the rising again, of all human beings in Christ. That is why Christ is hymned as "the first-fruits of them that slept" (I COR. 15:20) and "the first begotten of the dead" (REV. 1:5). In the same way, Sunday is not just the day eighth in order after the preceding days, but the first of the days that come after. So it becomes in its turn the New Day, the first of all days, which we call the Lord's Day, and which Moses referred to not as the first day but as "one day" (GEN. 1:5 LXX), being exalted above the others and the prelude of the one day without evening of the age to come."

St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) Homily on the Sabbath and the Lord's Day

Fr. Steven

Monday, April 12, 2010

Surprised by Joy! - Beholding Christ on the First and Eighth Day

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Pascha - The Ninth Day

I could not help but notice how few persons were in the church at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy yesterday morning for the Second Sunday of Pascha. If I further eliminated about seven of my XU students who filled the back rows, it would have been that much thinner. If overly dwelt upon, the contrast with the "packed church" for the midnight paschal Matins and Liturgy was rather deflating. What a change in only a week's time! Although, even then, many worshipers "disappeared" before the end of the Liturgy for Pascha. Why do people leave the great paschal Liturgy? Are they simply tired or are they restless? Are they going home or to a premature paschal celebration elsewhere? Are people only attracted to the paschal procession and perhaps hearing "Christ is Risen!" in their native language, only to lose their attention once the initial "excitement" wears off? Why do Orthodox Christians leave before receiving the Eucharist at the paschal Liturgy? These remain baffling questions to this day. However, returning to the noticeably small gathering at yesterday's Liturgy (though the church did "fill up" relatively well as the Liturgy went on), I had to overcome the temptation to think that perhaps some parishioners were "taking the Sunday off" after celebrating Pascha the week before. If and when that happens, Pascha is reduced to being "Easter Sunday" and a one-day event. But again, that could only be a bad temptation to think such a thing. There must have been other reasons for a good many parishioners to have been absent yesterday.

For those who were here and worshiping the Risen Lord in what is at least potentially the fresh atmosphere of the paschal season, we heard St. John the Evangelist describe the meaning and purpose of the Gospel that he had written:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (JN. 20:30-31)

This "belief" can introduce the believer into the authentic, qualitatively deeper and grace-filled life (zoe) that only Christ can offer. Jesus can offer this life as a gift for He is both the Christ and the Son of God. St. John's gospel is thus the proclamation of the Gospel, and not simply a record of the words and deeds of Jesus. And that Gospel is an inexhaustible mystery.

This came after St. John recorded the appearance of the Risen Lord to His disciples in Jerusalem on the "first day of the week" - the "Lord's Day," or our Sunday. This was the "third day" on which Christ was raised from the dead the day after the Sabbath - and the day that has become the prototype and "chosen day" for Christian worship to the present day. The disciples recognized that it was Christ. "Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord." (JN. 20:20) That laconic verse has to be the Bible's greatest example of understatement! Surely, the nature of that gladness must be practically incomprehensible to us; unless, of course, we experience the same gladness when "beholding" the Risen Lord through the eyes of our faith. When the absent Thomas was present "eight days later" he was transformed from unbelief to belief. (The "eighth day" is another way that Christians alluded to Sunday). He is thus one of many biblical prototypes of human persons who undergo a profound change that brings them from the darkness of doubt into the light of belief. And his "confession of faith" when beholding the Crucified and Risen Lord, bearing "the print of the nails" and the "mark of the nails" (JN. 20:25, 27) - "my Lord and my God" (v. 28) - remains one of the most striking confessions of faith in Christ in the entire New Testament. To this day we reproduce that very confession of faith when we "see" and worship the Lord on the first and eighth day of the week.

The Sundays of Pascha are the perfect balance and complement to the Sundays of Great Lent. Let us embrace these Sundays with the gladness of genuine disciples who are always "surprised by joy" when encountering our Risen Lord.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Why Three Days?

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Fourth Day (Bright Wednesday)

"Important too is the reason why Christ rose after three days and not in a shorter or longer space of time. Christ could have risen immediately after His death on the Cross, but He rose on the third day in order to make more credible the mystery of His death, which might otherwise have been doubted. He did not wait longer, letting the mystery of the resurrection be slandered in the intervening time. For the longer the delay, the more problems and questions would be created in the minds of the Jews and the Disciples. Therefore the time of three days was the most suitable for the mystery of death not to be doubted and the mystery of Christ's Resurrection not to be slandered."

From The Feasts of the Lord, by Archbishop Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Deepest Meaning of the Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

Pascha - The Third Day (Bright Tuesday)

The Resurrection of Christ is celebrated by the Church from the moment of His descent into Hell/Hades, where He freed the souls of the righteous of the Old Testament from the power of death and the devil. It is in this way that our Church celebrates it. In the liturgical texts it is seen clearly that the celebration of the Resurrection begins from Good Friday, as we see in the Great Saturday service of Matins, in which the funeral procession takes place. And the homilies of the Fathers on Good Friday are actually homilies of resurrection and victory.

This is also seen in the holy iconography of the Resurrection. The Church decided to regard the descent into Hell/Hades as true icon of the Resurrection. To be sure, there are also icons which depict Christ's appearing to the Myrrh-bearing women and the disciples, but the icon par excellence of the Resurrection is the shattering of death, which took place at Christ's descent into Hell/Hades when His soul with its divinity descended into Hell and freed the souls of the righteous people of the Old Testament, where they were waiting for Him as their Deliverer.

The portrayal of the Resurrection by the descent of Christ into Hell is done for many and serious theological reasons. First, because no one saw Christ at the moment when He rose, because He came out of the tomb of the sepulchre "of a sealed tomb." The earthquake which happened and the descent of the angel that lifted the tombstone took place in order for the Myrrh-bearing women to be assured that Christ had risen. Secondly, because when Christ's soul with its divinity descended into Hell, it crushed the power of death and the devil, because by His death He conquered death. It can be seen clearly in the Orthodox tradition that by Christ's death the power of death was completely destroyed. Moreover, in the Church we sing: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death ..." His triumphal victory over death took place precisely at the moment when Christ's soul, united with divinity, abolished death. Thirdly, by His descent into Hell Christ released Adam and Eve from death. Thus, just as by Adam came the fall of the whole human race, because he is our first ancestor, so through the raising of Adam we taste the fruits of the Resurrection and salvation. Because of the unity of human nature, what happened to the forefather happened to the whole of human nature.

For these reasons the most characteristic image of the resurrection of Christ is considered to be His descent into Hell, because furthermore, as we shall see in what follows, the essence of the Feast of the Resurrection is the death of death and the destruction of the devil: "We celebrate the death of Death, the annihilation of Hell," we sing in the Church. The destruction of Hell and the death of death is the deepest meaning of the Feast of the Resurrection.

From The Feasts of the Lord, by Archbishop Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos