Thursday, October 28, 2010

God's Many Splendored Image 2

Dear Parish Faithful,

"The heart is deep." (Ps. 64:6)

I recently read the following from Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware): "As somebody said to me recently, 'If I died tomorrow, nobody would notice'." Before explaining some of the context behind this sad and troubling lament, allow me to simply point out for the moment that it is from the Foreword of the new book by Sister Nonna Harrison, "God's Many-Splendored Image." The entire Foreword is a ringing endorsement for Sister Nonna's book, and coming from a figure such as Metropolitan Kallistos, it makes one immediately interested in the book's content. (The other endorsements on the back cover are also quite impressive). As previously announced and promoted, this is the book that we will be reading, studying and discussing together in this year's Fall Adult Education Class, beginning on Monday evening, November 8, and continuing for the traditional six sessions. I just finished my first reading of the book, and I can say that it was one of the best theology books that I have read in recent years. More than just a "good read," this book is insightful, challenging and, ultimately, very inspiring. Sister Nonna is deeply concerned about the dehumanizing processes that lead many people to find life meaningless; or which leads others to oppress and exploit innocent human lives. The only response is to understand that we are created "in the image and likeness" of God, which Sister Nonna explores throughout the book in a masterly fashion. As Sister Nonna writes in her simple, but poignant dedication:

This book is dedicated to all those people whom other people have thrown away. It shows that God does not throw people away.

I am hoping that many of you have already purchased your personal copy of this book, and have already started reading it, or will so soon. The book is written in a clear accessible style that explains the various themes carefully and lovingly. I am also hoping that many of you will participate in this year's Fall Adult Education Class, where we will share our reading experience of Sister Nonna's book. If you need some further encouragement, or a "pastoral push," then hopefully this will be it! Yet allow me to say a few more words about this annual educational event "in the life of the parish."

I strongly maintain that the "three pillars" of a healthy parish are, and will remain: 1) liturgical worship; 2) education/catechism; and 3) charity. There are certainly many more things, but these are essential and radiate outward to touch other aspects of parish life. Knowing our Orthodox Faith as well as possible is not an option, but a God-directed responsibility: "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you ... " (I PET. 3:15) Bible Studies, Education Classes and Retreats are the major ways in which we fulfill this responsibility. This is not one of those burdensome or boring responsibilities in life, but one that is exciting, illuminating and inspiring! For our present concern, once you commit to the class, then you commit to reading the assigned book and deepening your understanding of our Faith - with an eye toward "putting into practice" what has been read. In fact, in this instance, Sister Nonna's book has the phrase "Christian Formation" in the subtitle.

In addition, what I have learned over the years is that the fellowship experienced is as important as the content of the book that we read as a group. We are in this together: the whole process of struggling to be Christians in a secularized and dehumanizing society; of learning how to become better friends "in Christ," and supportive of one another; of being able to trust one another and to speak freely in front of each other of our concerns and even fears about the challenges of life and the world around us. So our "sessions" go way beyond a classroom setting of imparting knowledge or "getting the information right." The only "homework" is to read the assigned chapter for each session; and the only "test" is how well we can apply what we learn to our lives. (The "final" may just be the Last Judgment!). Again, a sense of fellowship develops that is inviting to just such a setting. This takes time, but it has happened over time in our parish, and I thank God for that.

But test what I am claiming for yourself, and join us this year! Take up the challenge of opening your minds and hearts to a book that may change some of your assumptions and convictions about living out the Christian life. Drink deeply of the accumulated Christian wisdom of the past and how that wisdom can be applied and actualized in today's challenging world. We will have a sure guide in Sister Nonna who will do her part in deepening our sense of being God's many-splendored image. As Metropolitan Kallistos wrote as the last sentence of his Foreword: "Here truly is a work that I can recommend with all my heart."

Sister Nonna will quote and explain many of the insights of the Church Fathers in her book. I recently gave a homily about the Fathers, and then wrote a Meditation on how important it is for us as Orthodox Christians to familiarize ourselves with their lives and works. That Meditation is posted on our website, under the title "Learning the Fathers." I noticed that our Webservant provided links to Wikipedia for all of the Church Fathers listed in my Meditation. This fits in perfectly with my pastoral suggestion that you make a point of reading about the Fathers as much as you would do of a contemporary personality, from a politician to an entertainment figure. Just click on the name and you are immediately at the Wikipedia site with a good short biography on that particular Church Father. The proverbial "apple a day" supposed has good results. How about a "Church Father a day" - or even a week. Something good will assuredly come of it. The Church Fathers only a click away - they never would have guessed!

Fr. Steven

Lessons from Lazarus

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Let us examine not the outer garments, but the conscience of each person."
~ St. John Chrysostom

It is true that Jesus told his disciples that "you always have the poor with you;" but He went on to say that "whenever you will, you can do good to them." (MK. 14:7) Though Jesus allowed and defended the "costly" pre-burial anointing He received from an anonymous woman as a recognition of the love behind it, and for its highly symbolic significance; He clearly taught repeatedly of our need to recognize the poor and needy in our midst. In this teaching, He was clearly upholding the teaching of the prophets that went before Him and prepared the way for Him. The Parable of the Last Judgement (MT. 25:31-46) and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (proclaimed at last Sunday's Liturgy) bear this out with great power and authority. Being "realists," we understand that the world will always be the home of countless impoverished human beings, and that injustice, indifference and greed will remain as some of the reasons behind this sorry state of affairs, in addition to the other complex social and environmental factors that are appealed to. Though the early Church Fathers did not challenge the social structures of their own times (the world of late antiquity) in a systematic manner; they eloquently and passionately appealed to the moral conscience of their flocks and fellow Christians to alleviate the distress of the poor whenever possible.

This is certainly true of St. John Chrysostom who consistently interpreted the Gospel so as to inspire the moral and ethical sensibilities of his flock toward a Christ-like response to those in need. In a stirring series of six homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (available in English translation), St. John goes beneath the surface in order to disclose the true meaning of "theft" from the perspective of the Gospel:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others' goods but also the failure to share one's own good with others is theft and swindle and defraudation. What is this testimony? Accusing the Jews by the prophet, God says, 'The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth our tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.' (cf. MAL. 3:8-10) Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says, 'Deprive not the poor of his living.' (SIR. 4:1) To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need ... If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you.... For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well. (Homily II)

Listening to the voice of St. John, I may now have to confess to being a "thief" together with my many other sins! As often happens when listening to St. John as a thundering voice reaching forward from the recesses of the distant past into the present, and speaking on behalf of the Gospel, our "comfort zones" are assaulted as he drives home our responsibilities without allowing much room for self-righteous contentment. Yet, all this takes is a simple appeal to the Scriptures. Undermining conventional wisdom about the twin realities of "wealth" and "poverty," St. John reverses these categories also in the light of the Gospel ideal of freedom from acquisitiveness:

Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate. Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions, and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone's money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. (Homily II)

Of course, this definition of the rich man as one "who needs few possessions" is much more meaningful if such an approach to "wealth" is freely assumed as a consciously-chosen lifestyle, and not one imposed by circumstances of birth and environment; yet St. John's rhetorical reversal of roles still stands as a challenge to us living in a materially-saturated and consumer-driven society. St. John's homilies are directed toward Christian believers, and not the unbelieving world outside of the Church. In fact, in today's world, it is difficult to distinguish between a "secular consumerism" and a "Christian consumerism." Everyone is more-or-less caught up in the frenzy to "get ahead," or to attain the "American dream," a good part of which is the accumulation of wealth and status. Yet, the labels of "wealth" and "poverty" do not reveal the real person underneath these roles. It may not be until death - that "great equalizer" - arrives, that our true nature is revealed. St. John offers a vivid description of this process based upon his knowledge of the theatre in his times:

Just as in the theater, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are; so also now when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account. (Homily II)

As noted above, St. John Chrysostom does not offer a political or social program, as this would have been unrealistic in the world of late antiquity. What he does is to appeal to the conscience of his fellow Christians. He exhorts to deeds of philanthropy - a real love of fellow human beings based on the desire to alleviate the suffering of poverty on a personal level when one encounters the neighbor who is in need. The rich man is not condemned because he is wealthy, but because he is indifferent to others - even those at his very gate and in clear view. He would not share. That is his primary sin. If we are blessed by God with material prosperity, then we need to thank God for this. If Jesus taught us that we can do good to the poor according to our will, this would mean that we thank God through the deeds of sharing our own wealth with those in need. That is expected of those who accept the Gospel.

Fr. Steven

Learning the Fathers

Dear Parish Faithful,

I would like to review a few pastoral suggestions that I made in last Sunday's homily that concentrated on "the Holy Fathers." We were commemorating the holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea 787), but I expanded the subject by speaking of the definitive role of all of the Seven Ecumenical Councils in our dogmatic Tradition; and of the prominent role of the Church's great theologians who articulated that Tradition, thus entering the ranks of the holy Fathers in the process. My pastoral concern is that too many of the faithful are too unaware of these great figures of the Church. If asked, what do you know, or what can you relate about the following list of some of the greatest of the Fathers?

As Orthodox Christians, knowing these great Christian thinkers that we call the holy Fathers is equivalent to any American citizen knowing something about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. They are that formative of our entire theological Tradition. Their faces do not turn up on various denominations of currency, but they do appear on the holy icons that adorn our churches and that we venerate with love and respect. They deserve our attention and appeal to them as our teachers in the Faith.

I would, therefore, make the following pastoral suggestion that may begin the process of familiarizing ourselves with these great saints: for every book, article, or internet posting that you devote to an historical figure, politician, entertainment personality, or sports figure; spend the same amount of time and energy looking up the Holy Fathers listed above, and learn about their lives and teaching. This will introduce a sense of balance into our lives; bring the saints to life; and help transform curiosity into a deep learning experience. To "Google" any of the Fathers listed above, is to probably find a bewildering number of "hits." We could search through the many excellent links on our parish website:, or at Thus, we may also transform "internet surfing" - often a waste of time if we are honest - into the discovery of a world of knowledge and wisdom that will be both exciting, stimulating and spiritually fruitful. Here are servants of God that were not interested in self-promotion, ego-gratification, or obscene salaries. They teach us about commitment to Christ to the point of suffering. Or how to search the Scriptures that will reveal Christ to us to an ever-deepening degree of fulness.

The world is running out of "heroes." It seems to be "every man for himself." Our children can grow to love the saints with a bit of encouragement, and thus discover the qualities of a real hero and find a human image that puts love of God and neighbor before all else. If we piously venerate the icon of a particular Holy Father, or any of the saints, let us also know something of the life that resulted in their glorification and rightful place in the life and memory of the Church.

Fr. Steven

Webservant's Note: The names of the Holy fathers above are linked to respective articles on OrthodoxWiki. As Fr. Steven noted in his meditation, our own website is also an excellent resource, as is the OCA website (links in text above). Other sites recommended for learning about the saints are and the online version of the Prologue of Ochrid.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Monastery Pilgrimage

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Turning into the narrow monastery driveway at around 10:00 p.m. this past Thursday evening, presvytera and I were certain that it was "lights out" at the monastery and that the rest of sleep had descended on everyone. After all, the mothers and sisters begin Matins at 5:00 a.m. and their rule of prayer in their respective cells begins well before that. Yet, as our headlights cut a path of light in the darkness, there was the illumined figure of Mother Gabriella standing at the end of the driveway, accompanied by the monastery dog. She was patiently awaiting our arrival. Here, already, was a taste of the monastic hospitality that one always experiences at the Monastery of the Holy Dormition in Rives Junction, MI. Mother Gabriela's beaming smile warmed us in the cool night air, and after exchanging greetings, we were directed to the St. Nicholas house, which would be our quarters for our short stay at the monastery. We didn't quite have it in us to return the favor, because we did not make the beginning of Matins at 5:00 a.m., as Mother Gabriella did as the abbess of the community. It was a long drive after a fairly long day ...

Southern Michigan in the Fall can be quite beautiful, and the monastery's rural setting only enhances that beauty since the flaming colors of the trees that surround the monastery were seemingly at their brightest and most diversely-splendid in mid-October. Leaves of golden yellow, bright orange and deep red lent a kind of "burning bush" atmosphere to the blessed grounds of the monastery. A clear, calm and lucidly bright blue sky served to further accentuate that atmosphere. A simple walk through the monastery grounds - a forested path, a small pond with a bridge spanning its two sides, or a rolling field - will calm the rushing of thoughts and endless preoccupations that drain our energies or divert our minds and hearts from the wider perspective of the joy of existence and the goodness of God's creation. One will also encounter the charming "children's garden" and the beautiful new wooden chapel that stands as a sign in the cemetery that those buried there are asleep in the Lord as they await the general resurrection. Hotels with swimming pools, room service and workout rooms may prove to be recreational; but even the briefest of visits to a monastery can help to recreate our fallen spirits and tired bodies in a way that all the conveniences and amenities of life cannot possibly do. The reason is simple: the monastery community exists to the glory of God, and since our souls 'long for God," any serious pilgrim can "feel" how constant prayer to God saturates the very atmosphere of the community. To breath that particular air is spiritually refreshing.

The Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos is at least twenty years old - perhaps twenty-five - if I am not mistaken. The community was formed as an extension of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA. I recall that a group from our parish went to participate in the installation of Mother Gabriella as the new abbess in the early 90's. Although the growth of the monastic vocation is not all that promising in today's world, the monastery has remained stable with a small group of tonsured nuns. I believe that there are seven at the moment with what seemed to be another couple of novices. The building projects of the monastery have steadily come to fruition over the years. In addition to being surprised by Mother Gabriella when we arrived, we were further surprised as the walls of a large new church at the center of the monastery loomed up in the darkness. Morning revealed a very impressive structure that will rightfully dominate the space at the heart of the monastery. Groundbreaking occurred this last April, and though there is a long way to go, work on the church is moving along steadily. The goal is for the roof to be completed by the winter. I will look forward to the church's consecration. Over the years, the various monastic quarters, refectory, gift shop and guest houses have been either newly-built or restored. All are done in that monastic style that combines simplicity and aesthetic charm. In addition to having strengthened the spiritual lives of the other nuns as their abbess and spiritual mother; Mother Gabriela will leave a great legacy as a monastery builder. This takes an enormous amount of organizational and fund-raising skills.

The monastery now has a permanent priest in Fr. John who, with his wife, lives down the road in a house owned by the monastery. He is responsible for the full monastic cycle of services that of course is daily in nature and structure. The current chapel has a warm and pious atmosphere enhanced by the chanting and singing of the nuns. While there, I served the Sacrament of Anointing on Friday evening together with Fr. John. Fr. Gregory, a retired priest living near the monastery, and a deacon from Flint, MI also served. With the Seven Epistles and Gospels, together with the accompanying Prayers, this gave the service an even greater sense of fullness. There was an iconography workshop being hosted by the monastery at the time of our visit, so all together, with other visitors who came for the service, there may have been around forty persons who were anointed. A splendid Liturgy on Saturday morning, at which I was invited to serve, brought to a perfect fulfillment our participation in the community's rich liturgical life. All was fulfilled in the Eucharist that we shared together.

The meals in the trapeza (refectory) are always excellent and served with love by the various Mothers as an obedience. In these communal meals, monastic and Romanian-style hospitality combine for an enjoyable experience. The walls of the refectory are surrounded by wonderful iconographic frescoes, and this further combination of simplicity and iconographic beauty makes the trapeza a warm and inviting space. As we eat in silence, one of the nuns reads from the Lives of the Saints or another book of edifying spiritual reflection. The monastic insight here is that the soul and body are nourished together this way.

Presvytera Deborah had the opportunity to speak with Mother Gabriella alone for awhile, and she found that deeply rewarding. I, in turn, was truly blessed by seeing and speaking with Fr. Roman Braga on a couple of occasions. Fr. Roman, a genuine "elder," is now around ninety years of age, still "on his feet," and in possession of his mental faculties. With no prompting from me, he asked after my children by name. He is a confessor who suffered in a prison under the communists in his native Romania. He does have his medical problems and no longer serves as far as I could tell. However, he is at every service, prayerfully taking his place in the sanctuary. He made many humorous and warm allusions to his impending death, telling me, for instance, how the nuns continuously peer into his living quarters to make sure that he "is still here." He is fully prepared for the end of his earthly life, having spent many years in the spiritual practice of the "remembrance of death." He is the living embodiment of the Orthodox teaching on deification - a person who is luminous with the love and presence of Christ, and who imparts that presence in a tangible manner whenever he speaks with you. Christ is as real to Fr. Roman as the very air he breathes. On the one hand, this is "awe-inspiring;" but on the other hand it practically fills you with shame over your own petty flaws. I would add that he also embodies the teaching of the Apostle Paul: "Though our outer man is wasting away, our inner man is being renewed every day." (II COR. 4:16) He seems as liberated as humanly possible from the need to pretend that he will not die, or the need to cover it up artificially as we find in our death-denying culture. Less is more, but we are slow in learning that lesson about life. Or, as someone wisely said: "Enough is a feast."

I would whole-heartedly recommend, and I know that presvytera Deborah agrees with me, that a short pilgrimage to a monastery such as the Dormition of the Theotokos in Rives Junction, MI, is time wisely spent and not wasted. Breaking through our usual routines can be enlightening. Tasting of an Orthodox rhythm of life that embraces the totality of life, can then inspire us to remain faithful to that same worldview, though lived out under different circumstances.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Note: For a beautiful slide show of the Monastery's feastday celebrations, with Metropolitan Jonah, Archbishop Nathaniel, Bishop Mark (Antiochian Archdiocese) and Archimandrite Joseph Morris (Superior, St Gregory Palamas Monastery), go here:
See also:
Holy Dormition Monastery Website
OCA Page for Holy Dormition Monastery

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The AMEN ~ The Work of the Faithful

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

That simplest of liturgically-used words - Amen - is packed with profound meaning. That means that this word must be said with care, as well as with faith and a deep and abiding sense of its significance. Here is further commentary from Hieromonk Gregorios, as he interweaves the thought of the Fathers with his own reflection:

The faithful set their seal on the doxology pronounced by the priest by singing Amen. (Amen is a Hebrew word meaning 'indeed', 'let it be so'. St. Jerome compares the singing of the Amen with thunder from heaven). With this response, the faithful accept the truth expressed in the celebrant's proclamation, and pray that they may taste the good things of the Kingdom of the Trinity.

The faithful 'conclude with Amen, and thus making everything that the priest says their own.' (St. Nicholas Cabasilas). This ending to every pronouncement of the priest signifies that what 'is lacking in the perfection of the priests is completed by the action of the people, and God accepts the least with the greatest [Ps. 113:21] in one unity of spirit. For the congregation also believes that their prayers are accepted when they join them to the prayers of the priests.' (St. Cyril of Alexandria)

With the assent of the faithful, the priest's blessing ascends to the Altar above the heavens. The faithful actively participate in the Divine Liturgy, which at every moment confirms its name: it is a work of the people. (p. 109-110)

Every single person who is at a given service should always join in with the singing or chanting of the Amen. This can be done "loudly" or "softly." I included a few words about the Amen in my booklet on the Divine Liturgy:

We may or may not choose to sing but all of the faithful, without exception, should join in the singing/saying of the AMEN which is the seal of every prayer and is a significant liturgical action. This is especially true and crucial during the consecration of the Holy Gifts, when we pray that by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine offered on the altar will indeed become the Body and Blood of Christ. Each AMEN over the paten and chalice, and our triple AMEN, AMEN, AMEN, when the priest prays that this change be made "by the Holy Spirit" needs to ring out loudly and clearly as our affirmation of faith and thanksgiving in the presence of the Holy Trinity.

I remember con-celebrating at the Holy Trinity cathedral one Sunday morning in Boston many years ago, when the triple Amen from the faithful was so loud and powerful that I was initially startled and it felt as if "the walls were shaking." The Amen can have that effect when pronounced by a large gathering of the faithful, especially within the context of the liturgical consecration of the Gifts. But again, the volume is not as important as the faith and commitment to God's Kingdom coming from our minds and hearts when we seal our prayers with that sacred word Amen!

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Christ is the Celebrant

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Monday Morning Meditation, I referred to and quoted from the book The Divine Liturgy - A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, by Hieromonk Gregorios of Mt. Athos. This remarkable study of the Liturgy offers a "petition-by-petition," and "prayer-by-prayer" commentary on the entire text of the Divine Liturgy. Hieromonk Gregorios strengthens his commentary by numerous passages from the great Church Fathers who wrote of the Liturgy over the centuries, especially St. John Chrysostom. In fact, after a concise biography of St. John, ending with his martyrdom, we are then given a short description of how the Liturgy was served during St. John's lifetime:

The end of St. John Chrysostom's holy life of martyrdom brings us to the beginning of his Divine Liturgy, for in his time the Liturgy began with the entrance of the bishop into the church and the offering of peace to the people (St. John writes: "When the bishop enters the church, he does not go up to his throne until he has wished peace to all the faithful.") The people then replied to the bishop: "And with your spirit." There followed three readings from the Scriptures: one from the Prophets, one from the Epistles and one from the Gospel Book. The bishop then preached the word of God, and afterwards prayers were said for the catechumens and the penitents. Once the catechumens and the penitents left, the doors of the church were shut. The prayers of the faithful were then said, followed by the Great Entrance and the kiss of love. After this came the Holy Anaphora, the Triumphal Hymn, the words of Christ and the invocations of the All-Holy Spirit. Finally the Lord's Prayer was said, followed by Holy Communion and the Dismissal. (p. 12-13)

Regrettably, we have lost the reading from the Prophets at a certain point in the past. This is regrettable because we are not as familiar with the Old Testament as we should be.

Hieromonk Gregorios also relates how St. John Chrysostom explains the role of the celebrant in the Eucharist:

The real celebrant of the eucharistic Mystery is Christ: He who celebrated the Divine Eucharist 'at the Last Supper is the same One who now also performs these Mysteries. We priests are in the position of servants. The One who sanctifies and changes [the Holy Gifts] is Christ.' The celebrant is the instrument of the Holy Spirit; he stands in the place of Christ.

Notice that Hieromonk Gregorios does not say that the celebrant stands "in place of Christ," but rather "in the place of Christ." Christ is not absent - but present - in the Liturgy; that presence being actualized and realized in and through the sacramental priesthood of the Church.

At the beginning of the Divine Liturgy we come together and "constitute" the Church as the Body of Christ. We call this the synaxis or the assembly of the faithful. This is a call to unity, and the demonstration of that unity that is peculiar to the Church as the Body of Christ. Hieromonk Gregorios continues on this theme:

The Divine Liturgy is precisely this synaxis, this 'gathering together' of the entire cosmos and its journey towards the Kingdom of God. The Fathers call the gathering of the faithful at the Divine Liturgy a con-course (syn-odos) because all the faithful and the Lord journey on a course together towards the Jerusalem on high. This synaxis shows that the raison d'etre of the Church is the unity of the faithful. 'The Church came into being ... so that we might be united. And this is demonstrated by our concourse.' St. John marvels: 'What paradise is there like our concourse?' And he exhorts us: 'Let none of those who eat the holy Passover [of the Eucharist] pay any attention to Egypt [the vanity of this world], but rather to heaven, to the Jerusalem which is above.' (p. 21)

The synaxis begins with the opening doxology: 'Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.' The choir and/or congregation seals this solemn doxology with Amen.

As Hieromonk Gregorios comments on this beginning:

By His Incarnation Christ opened the door of the Kingdom, and by means of the Divine Liturgy we go through that door. In the Divine Liturgy, we have a foretaste of the good things of the Kingdom, for the Divine Liturgy is the Banquet of the Kingdom.

But Hieromonk Gregorios reveals even further insights into the Liturgy by showing us how the Kingdom and the Cross are so closely united. In fact, he writes that "The Cross is the symbol of the Kingdom," and explains that close connection in the following commentary in which he incorporates some of St. John's vivid remarks about Christ as 'King:'

As the priest blesses the Kingdom of God, he makes the sign of the cross over the Holy Table with the Gospel Book. The first words of the Divine Liturgy are a doxology, and the first act is the making of the sign of the cross. The Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of God, and it is through the Cross that we are able to reach the Kingdom.

The Cross is the proof that Christ is the only true King. The thief who was crucified on Christ's right speaks theology from the height of the Cross: 'The Cross is the symbol of the Kingdom. I call Christ 'King' precisely because I see Him crucified. For it is the mark of a king to die for the sake of his subjects. As Christ said, The Good Shepherd gives up his life for His sheep [John 10:11]; hence the good king sacrifices his life for his subjects. He sacrificed His life, and that is why I call Him 'King': Remember me, Lord, in your Kingdom [Luke 23:42].'

The Cross is the road, the door and the herald of the Kingdom of God. (p. 107-109)

This is a very rich book that yields insight after insight into the inexhaustible glory of the Divine Liturgy. I hope to share more with you as we continue our own liturgical experience from within the grace-filled life of the Church.

Fr. Steven

On Frequent Communion

Dear Parish Faithful,

Last Sunday's homily dealt with the theme of frequent Communion. Here is a forceful argument in favor by Archbishop Lazar. He makes the point for regular Communion based on the Church Fathers - especially St. John Chrysostom - and the canons of the various church councils.

Fr. Steven


Synaxis Press Tracts, Nr. 3:
(Canadian Centre for Patristic and Biblical Studies)

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

If we search the canons which the Holy Spirit has given us through the Holy Church, and the teachings of our Holy and Godbearing fathers, then we will find that with one accord and as if with a single voice, they direct us to partake of the Holy Mystery not merely frequently, but constantly.

The practice of infrequent Communion, whatever its precise origin, became concrete in some of the local churches as a result of Latin influence (primarily, of course, through the Uniate occupation of Western Russia and the Ukraine - prior to this century, Latins were deprived of frequent communion and were taught to commune only four times a year).

Many of the legalistic arguments of the Latins have been employed by some of our own people in trying to maintain the non-Orthodox practice of infrequent Communion. No one, however, has been able to justify it by Orthodox Christian means. "0, the power of custom and prejudice, " laments St John Chrysostom.

The canons of God's Church answer our question in this manner:

The Holy Apostles have decreed that, "All those faithful who enter and listen to the Scripture, but do not remain for prayer and [partaking of] the Holy Mysteries must be excommunicated. ... " (c.9 of the Apostles).

According to the explication of the canon in the Rudder, this means that all who are not penitents and who thus remain for the prayers, not departing when the proclamation "Depart!" is heard, must without fail receive Holy Communion. Our Holy and Godbearing fathers gathered in the Holy Spirit at Antioch directed us:

"And those persons who enter the church and listen to the sacred Scriptures, but shun the participation in the Eucharist, ... we decree that these people be outcasts from the Church until they confess and exhibit the fruits of repentance. " (c.2 of Antioch).

The explication of the canon explains that this refers precisely to people who excuse themselves for abstaining from Holy Communion "on account of humility or reverence." Such humility would be feigned since it is contradictory to obedience and such reverence would be false since the greatest act of reverence to the Eucharist is partaking of it.

Again, our Holy and God-bearing father Timothy of Alexandria (ca 370) expresses the universal consensus of the Holy Church when he is asked:

"If anyone who is a believer be possessed of a demon, ought he to partake of the Holy Mysteries or not?"

and replies:
"If he does not repudiate the Mystery, nor otherwise in anyway blaspheme, let him commune, but not every day in the week; for it is sufficient for him on the Lord's Day only. "

In other words, even a person possessed of a demon is to partake of the Holy Mystery every Sunday, while, it is quite clear, the rest of the faithful are to partake every day, where possible.

St John Chrysostom seems to synthesize the thoughts of the fathers and give expression to the concept of the Church conscience on partaking of the Holy Mysteries, in his Homily 3 on Ephesians. Here, he instructs both those who would take communion too lightly and without preparation and those who fail to take Communion at each Divine Liturgy:

"I observe how many partake of Christ's Body lightly and just as it happens, and rather from custom and form than from consideration and understanding.."

The Saint makes this charge not against those who commune regularly, but against those who commune only on a few feast days. He continues:

"When, says one, the holy season of Lent sets in, whatever a man may be, he partakes of the Mysteries, or when the day of the Lord's Theophany comes. And yet it is not the Theophany nor is it Lent that makes a fit time for approaching, but it is sincerity and purity of soul. With this, approach at all times; without it, never. 'For as often, he [Paul] says, 'as you do this, you proclaim the Lord's death,' that is, you make remembrance of the salvation that has been wrought for you, and the benefits which I have bestowed. ' .... And do you, when you draw nigh to a sacrifice at which the very angels tremble, do you measure the matter by the revolution of season? Observe the vast inconsistency of the thing. At the other times, you do not come ... ; but at Pascha, no matter how flagrant an act you may have committed, you come. Oh, the power of custom and prejudice! In vain is the daily Sacrifice [offered}, in vain do we stand before the altar! There is no one to partake. I am not saying these things to induce you to partake under any circumstances, but that you should render yourselves worthy to partake. Are you not worthy of the Sacrifice nor of the participation [in Communion}? If so, then neither are you worthy] of the prayer. You hear the herald say, 'Depart!' As many as do not partake are in penitence. If you are one of those you ought not to partake; ... Why then does he say depart you that are not qualified to pray, while you have the effrontery to stand still? You are not of the number of those who are qualified to partake and yet you are indifferent about it and regard the matter as nothing. "

And here is the point. It is not those who partake constantly of the Holy Mysteries who take them for granted, but it is those who do not partake who count it as insignificant, for, if they did not take the Holy Mystery merely for granted, then they would either prepare themselves to partake, or else depart weeping that they were unworthy to do so, when the deacon proclaims, "Depart!" Those who partake constantly, on the other hand, do not take the Eucharist for granted, but rather count it as the greatest necessity for their lives.

"Look, I entreat you," Chrysostom continues: "A royal table is set before you, angels minister at the table, the King Himself is there, and do you stand gaping? Are your garments defiled and yet you take no account of it? Or are they clean? Then partake .... For everyone that does not partake of the Mysteries is standing here in shameless effrontery. It is for this reason that they which are in sins are first of all sent out .... You [who are not partaking] are no more allowed to be here than the catechumen is.

"One might go on to other points, and those more awful still; but in order not to burden your understanding, these will suffice. They who are not brought to their senses with these certainly will not be with more. That I may not then be the means of increasing your condemnation, I entreat you not to forbear coming to church, but to render yourselves worthy of being present and of approaching [for Communion]. "

Finally, our Holy and God-bearing fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, calling upon us to come forth for Holy Communion have taught us:

The divine Apostle loudly proclaims that man created in the image of God is to be a body of Christ and a temple. Standing, therefore, far above all sensible creation and having attained to a heavenly dignity by virtue of the saving Passion, by eating and drinking Christ as a source of life, he readjusts both his eternal soul and his body and by partaking of the divine Grace he is continually sanctified (c.1 0 1 of 6;. cf l Cor.l2:27; 2Cor.6:16).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lay Aside All Earthly Cares

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Lay aside all earthly cares"

At the beginning of the liturgical year (September 1) I usually try and review our liturgical theology and liturgical practices, so that such a review may lead to a renewal of our understanding and experience of the Divine Liturgy. Actually, what may be a review for older members of the parish may simultaneously serve as a form of catechesis for newer members and inquirers who are worshiping with us. The Liturgy - culminating in the Eucharist - always remains at the very heart of our parish life, for everything in parish life begins, develops and is sustained by our communal eucharistic experience. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann would say, the Eucharist "constitutes" the Church as the Body of Christ and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. As we "depart in peace" at the end of the Liturgy, we bring that peace to our personal practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving; and to our community-based ministries that not only build up the life of the parish, but which offer service to the world in the name of Christ. We are, ultimately, set apart from the world as a eucharistic people.

What do we bring to the Liturgy on a given Sunday morning? In addition to our faith in Christ as our Savior and the One that we encounter and partake of in the Eucharist, I would also hope a sense of anticipation for that very encounter. I would further hope that it is not only social events, entertainment and sporting events that create, even within adults, that child-like eagerness of looking forward to something. If coming to church on Sunday morning becomes an "obligation" or "duty," then I believe something is missing. That would be a "recipe" for boredom, restlessness, distraction or even listlessness. Fulfilling a religious obligation may lead to a sense of satisfaction in doing what is expected of us as Orthodox Christians; but it would hardly culminate in the joy and "burning of heart" that characterize an encounter with the Risen Lord. Examining our faith and our priorities may lead to the renewal that we need to periodically experience in order to recapture an enthusiasm for the Liturgy that we may have lost along the way.

To eagerly anticipate the Liturgy on the Lord's Day may also create in us a sense of preparation. I have written of this elsewhere in my booklet The Divine Liturgy - Meaning, Preparation and Practice, and am now simply sharing that again. Some of this is very practical in nature, but it is meant to offer some pastoral suggestions that could help us focus better when preparing for church:

Our preparation begins well before we will walk through the doors of the church on Sunday morning: actually, the Lord's Day begins with the service of Great Vespers on Saturday evening. The new liturgical day begins at sunset when Great Vespers is served; for the Scriptures say: "And there was evening and there was morning, one day." (GEN. 1:5)

Bearing this liturgical cycle in mind, we know upon awakening Sunday morning that this day is special, for it is the day of our assembly together as the Body of Christ. (The word church is from the Greek ekklesia, meaning those who are "called out" to assemble so as to perform a common task). Already, in our homes, we begin to "lay aside all earthly cares" (Cherubic Hymn), so that when we reach the church we are not overly distracted with the things of "this world" during the Liturgy. Practically, this means the following: to refrain from watching or listening to the television, radio, or stereo when preparing for church; even the newspaper and other forms of superficial reading can wait until we return home. This is all part of that fasting which will be broken or, rather, fulfilled when we receive Holy Communion. The impact on young children will be one of reinforcing the unique quality of the Lord's Day. Things are done differently; the house is more peaceful or quiet (no guarantees, of course!). If we are well up before we leave for church, part of our preparation could include reading the appointed scriptural passages (alone or together with our children) that will shortly be proclaimed in a liturgical setting. There are the pre-Communion prayers, lives of the saints, spiritual (or simply good, intelligent) literature, etc. that we could turn to. And there is the total fast from food and drink.

Our preparation before entering the church is quiet and purposeful; we have a destination - the Kingdom of God! That is why our preparation is joyful and light, though sober. Our fasting on Sunday morning is then something easily assumed, for we know that we await the riches of the Kingdom of the Divine Liturgy.

As the People of God - the laos tou Theou - we have "work" to do at the Divine Liturgy. Hieromonk Gregorios, in his remarkable book The Divine Liturgy - A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, explains this nicely based on the very meaning of the word liturgy:

The Greek word leitourgia is a compound of leitos, meaning 'common' or 'public', and ergon meaning 'work'. So leitourgia means a common work, a work of the people. Thus the designation Liturgy cogently manifests the fact that the faithful actively participate in the eucharistic Mystery, and that without their presence and consent the priest is unable to celebrate. (p. 110)

Preparation is essential for the common and wholly unique work of the Divine Liturgy to be done "decently and in order," but with zeal and a love for God that is the only genuine response to God's love of us and the entire world (kosmos). This preparation is basically internal - the work of the mind and the heart - but not only is it not less real because of that, but perhaps more real as it touches the very nature of our being human and created "in the image and likeness of God."

Feel free to forward any questions that you may have about the meaning, preparation and practice of the Divine Liturgy.

Fr. Steven

Sunday, October 10, 2010

God's Many-Splendored Image

Dear Parish Faithful,

In searching for a book to study together at our upcoming Fall Adult Education Class, I was determined to find a book written by an Orthodox woman. There are many good choices today, but I believe that I discovered a wonderful new book that will prove to be of great interest and insight to all. The book is: God's Many-Splendored Image, and the author is Sister Nonna Harrison, an excellent scholar and Orthodox nun. Sister Nonna has built up a reputation as an expert in the writings of the Church Fathers, but also for making Orthodox theology very accessible and applicable to today's world. She achieves this to great effect in her new book. She takes on a deeply important issue in today's world: a feeling of dehumanization and despair among so many people who are really struggling to find meaning in life. This is based on either on a dim view of human nature; a very reduced image of human nature; or a confused understanding of human nature. Can a trip to church on Sunday morning spare us from being influenced in that way of thinking? Perhaps a seasoned guide into the life in Christ and the Church can lead us away from such temptation.

For positively, Sister Nonna carefully explores what it means to be created "in the image and likeness of God." She does this from a range of perspectives, each covered in a separate chapter. The chapters cover the following themes:

1. Freedom
2. God and Christ
3. Spiritual Perception
4. Virtues and Humility
5. Royal Dignity
6. Embodiment
7. In the Created World
8. Arts and Sciences
9. Community

Her application of the wisdom of the great saints of the past - Church Fathers and Desert Fathers & Mothers, as well as including the wisdom of modern thinkers - is really excellent, and she helps us draw out the implications of this great wisdom in our lives today.

Are you tired of hearing that basically you are nothing more than your biology? Are you tired of the devaluation of human nature to nothing more than satisfying your passions and desires - for food and fun; sex and success? Are you tired of seeing that in the vast majority of TV programs and films that you watch? Would you like to hear about the dignity, beauty and wonder of being human? Of how a loving God created us in His "image and likeness" so as to grow in virtue and excellence? Of how Christ reveals to us what it means to be human and how to live a life pleasing to God and helpful to our neighbor?

This book is the fruit of an Orthodox Christian woman's faith and vision that will take us into the uncharted realms of the mind and heart where we can better understand who and what we are in the creative will of God, so that we can live up to and live out that vocation in a meaningful way. Here is a wonderful combination of schoarly knowledge and loving spiritual care for those dialoging with Sister Nonna through reading her book.

No less a figure than Metropolitan Kallistos(Timothy) Ware wrote a ringing endorsement of the book as the author of the book's Foreword. Here is an excerpt from the Foreword:

"Sister Nonna writes as an expert in the early Christian world and its literature, but she presents the fruits of her learning in a form that is readily accessible to every reader. Her style is simple yet profound, vivid yet never overstated....Here truly is a work that I can recommend with all my heart."

We have traditionally held this class on Monday evenings. We are scheduled to begin, therefore, on Monday, November 8, and this class is always six sessions in length, making the last session Dec. 13. If you would like to commit to the class, but cannot on Monday evening, please let me know. The book is selling for $15.63 on, and that is a good discount from the retail price of $22.95. (There are new and used copies selling for as low as $10.00-13.00). I highly doubt we could find a better price elsewhere, so my advice is simply to purchase it from there. Money well-invested!

The Fall Adult Education Class is meant to ... well, educate us in the depth, beauty, and glory of our shared Orthodox Christian Faith by reading and discussing a book together as a gathered body of committed Orthodox Christians.

I am looking forward to our first session together on Monday, November 8!

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Friday, October 1, 2010

Spreading Out Her Veil

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today, October 1, is the Feast of the Holy Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos. The Great Horologion describes the Feast in this manner:

"The Feast of the Protection commemorates the appearance of the most holy Theotokos in the Church of Blachernae in Constantinople in the early sixth century, as recorded in the life of St. Andrew the Fool for Christ's sake. While the multitudes of the faithful were gathered in church, Epiphanius, the friend of St. Andrew, through the saint's prayers, beheld the Virgin Mary above the faithful and spreading out her veil over them, signifying her unceasing protection of all Christians. Because of this we keep a yearly feast of gratitude, imploring our Lady never to cease sheltering us in her mighty prayers."

As we chant in one of the hymns of the Feast:

Heaven and earth are sanctified,
the Church shines and all people make glad.
For behold, the Mother of God with the hosts of angels,
with preachers and evangelists, prophets and apostles,
has invisibly entered.
She prays to Christ for Christians
and entreats Him to have mercy on this city and people
who glorify the Feast of her Protecting Veil. (Stichera at Great Vespers)

Fr. Steven