Thursday, December 29, 2011

Revisiting 'A Christmas Carol'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Born!

I briefly mentioned Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the other day, and the inner goodness of the Cratchet family in contrast to our self-indulgent and narcissistic culture. Here is an interesting piece that again brings up A Christmas Carol from another perspective that one of our parishioners shared with me, and which you may find of interest during this Nativity Season.

Fr. Steven

+ + +

Last weekend, my family, some friends and I attended a performance of A Christmas Carol at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.

It was superb. The kids particularly enjoyed it and were surprised to learn that the author - Charles Dickens - is the man most responsible for the modern celebration of the season. This is a story that deserves to be more widely known...

Dickens is one of the greatest writers in the English language. He published twenty novels in his lifetime. None has ever gone out of print.

Yet in 1843, Dickens' popularity was at a low, his critical reputation in tatters, his bank account overdrawn. Facing bankruptcy, he considered giving up writing fiction altogether.

In a feverish six-week period before Christmas, however, he wrote a small book he hoped would keep his creditors at bay. His publishers turned it down. So using his meager savings, Dickens put it out himself. It was an exercise in vanity publishing - and the author told friends it might be the end of his career as a novelist.

Yet the publication of A Christmas Carol caused an immediate sensation, selling out the first printing - several thousand copies -in four days. A second printing sold out before the New Year, and then a third. Widespread theatrical adaptations spread the story to an exponentially larger audience still.

And it wasn't just a commercial success. Even Dickens' chief rival and foremost critic, William Makepeace Thackery, bowed his head before the power of the book: "The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, 'God bless him!' What a feeling this is for a writer to be able to inspire, and what a reward to reap!"

Today we all know the tale of tight-fisted Scrooge - "Bah! Humbug!" - and his dramatic change of heart after being visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

But A Christmas Carol didn't just restore Dickens' reputation and financial health. It also breathed new life into what was then a second-tier holiday that had fallen into disfavor.

As Les Standiford notes, in early 19th century England, the Christmas holiday "was a relatively minor affair that ranked far below Easter, causing little more stir than Memorial Day or St. George's Day today. In the eyes of the relatively enlightened Anglican Church, moreover, the entire enterprise smacked vaguely of paganism, and were there Puritans still around, acknowledging the holiday might have landed one in the stocks."

The date of Christmas itself is an arbitrary one, of course. There is no reference in the gospels to the birth of Jesus taking place on December 25th, or in any specific month. When Luke says, "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior," there isn't the slightest indication when that was.

And while the day was marked on Christian calendars, celebrations were muted. That changed when A Christmas Carol became an instant smash, stirring English men and women to both celebrate the holiday and remember the plight of the less fortunate. This was exactly the author's intent.

Dickens grew up in poverty and was forced into child labor. (His father, a naval pay clerk who struggled to meet his obligations, was thrown into debtor's prison.) Yet despite these handicaps, Dickens educated himself, worked diligently, and rose to international prominence as a master writer and storyteller.

He was a great believer in self-determination and, in particular, the transformative power of education. With learning, he said, a man "acquires for himself that property of soul which has in all times upheld struggling men of every degree."

Yet in the London of Dickens' day, only one child in three attended school. Some worked in shops, others in factories. Still others resorted to theft or prostitution to live. Dickens was determined to expose their plight. A Christmas Carol, in particular, is a bald-faced parable, something few novelists attempt... and even fewer successfully execute.

Dickens said his novels were for the edification of his audience. His goal was not just to entertain but to enlighten. And A Christmas Carol was designed to deliver "a sledge-hammer blow" on behalf of the poor and less fortunate.

It worked. Scrooge - a character as well known as any in fiction - is now synonymous with "miser." Yet through his remarkable transformation, the author reminds us that it is never too late to change, to free ourselves from selfish preoccupations.

Dickens' biographer Peter Ackyroyd and other commentators have credited the novelist with single-handedly creating the modern Christmas holiday. No, not the contemporary orgy of shopping, spending and ostentatious display. In A Christmas Carol, there are no Christmas trees, gaudy decorations or - apart from "the big, prize turkey" at the end - any presents at all. The only gifts exchanged are love, friendship and goodwill.

In one small book, Dickens changed the culture, inspired his contemporaries, and helped restore a holiday they were eager to revive.

More than a century and half later, A Christmas Carol is still a tonic for our spirits - and an annual reminder of the benefits of friendship, charity and celebration.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Church or the Mall?, and other Brief Meditations

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Church or the Mall?

We begin our final movement toward the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity with the first of four consecutive prefestal Vespers that begin each evening – Monday-Thursday – at 7:00 p.m. These are “low-key” services, basically daily Vespers with the prefestal Nativity hymnography, together with the hymnography for the saint of the day. In addition to hearing the various themes surrounding the Advent of the Lord in the flesh, these services embrace us with the warm, quiet, calm, and prayerful atmosphere of the church. The setting, thus, is peaceful, and perhaps a much-needed contrast to the hectic, loud and brazenly commercial atmosphere of the shopping malls. Instead of a generic version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as background noise to a sea of humanity flowing aimlessly from store to store, one can listen to “O,Gladsome Light” in the stillness of a candle-lit church. Instead of “Deck the Halls” mingled with the sound of computerized cash registers feasting on plastic or real money as the biblically-condemned pagan deity Moloch feasted on his sacrificial victims; one can listen to the soulful and plaintive cry of “Lord, I Call Upon Thee” wafting toward the heavens as fragrant incense rises to carry our prayers. It makes life much simpler when some choices are easy and obvious. So, if we have paid our tribute to mammon for one more Christmas, now is the time to be mindful of the Lord with the opportunity to do so.

Monday – Thursday: Prefestal daily Vespers at 7:00 p.m.

Readers are Needed

We need four readers for the Royal Hours this coming Friday. The First Hour is at 9:00 a.m.; the Third Hour is at 10:00 a.m.; the Sixth Hour is at 11:00 a.m.; and the Ninth Hour is at Noon. The reading includes psalmody, an Old Testament prophecy and an Epistle. Each service is about twenty-five minutes long and thus there is about a half-hour between each Royal Hour. You can come for the entire set of Royal Hours or “drop in” for one that most suits your schedule. As I said yesterday in the homily, it is unfortunate that these biblically-rich services are chanted in a near-empty church. Our parish is too large for that now. Please contact me if you would like to read.

A Brief Meditation: Why Did He Come?

Christmas means that there are two births of Christ: one into the world at Bethlehem; the other into the soul when it is spiritually reborn. Through the Holy Mysteries of Baptism and the Eucharist, Christ is born in the second Bethlehem, i.e. or hearts and minds, our souls and bodies. He that is the pre-eternal God becomes a newborn babe that we might be converted and become babes in Christ. The Only-begotten Word of God, One of the Trinity becomes man, that man might become a “communicant of the Divine Nature” through theosis. The dark cave of dumb beasts in Bethlehem becomes heaven and is filled with the unwaning, uncreated light of Divinity. Christ is born that our dark souls may be filled with light; for do we not invite the Divine Son of God to come and dwell in us when we pray in the Pre-Communion prayers: “And even as Thou didst deign to lie in a cave and in a manger of irrational beasts, so also deign to lie in the manger of my irrational soul and to enter my defiled body.” If He was born in the first Bethlehem, it was only that He might come and be born in the second Bethlehem – your soul and mine!
- Anonymous (sent to me by Mother Paula)

Bumper Sticker Existentialism

A recently-read bumper sticker said the following: “I used up all of my sick days, so I called in dead.”

And another: “Of the things I have lost, the one I miss the most is my mind.”

Questionable Theology

On her final, one of my students wrote: “The resurrection of Christ occurred from the ground up.”

I am still working on that one … Feel perfectly free to enlighten me if you are so moved.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Special Guest Meditation by Fr Thomas Hopko: 'The Blessed Exchange'

The Blessed Exchange
Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko
Christmas & Epiphany, 2011-2012

Orthodox Christian Scriptures proclaim -- and the Liturgy celebrates, the Sacraments realize, the Icons depict, the Canons protect, the Martyrs witness, the Fathers explain, and the Saints live --the Blessed Exchange that God accomplished in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and glorification of His Son Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit’s power, for the salvation of humanity and the whole of creation:

God became human to make humans divine.
God became visible to allow humans to see Him.
God became touchable to allow humans to touch Him.
God spoke in human words to allow humans to hear Him.
God entered earthly time to make humans eternal.
God took flesh to make human bodies His dwelling.
God lived as a creature on earth to recreate the whole of creation.

He was a human being so that by His humanity we could become gods by grace.
He was small so that by His smallness we could become divinely great.
He was poor that so by His poverty we could become divinely rich.
He was weak so that by His weakness we could attain God’s power.
He was a fool in this world so that we could attain God’s wisdom.
He emptied Himself so that by His emptiness we could be filled with all the fullness of God.
He became the servant of all so that by his servitude we could all reign with Him.
He became nothing so that through His nothingness we could become everything.

He was homeless that by being a stranger He could take us home with himself to God.
He was naked that by His nakedness He could clothe us with himself.
He was wounded that by His wounds we could be healed.
He was without comeliness or form that we could be splendidly beautiful.
He was arrested that by being imprisoned we could be liberated.
He hungered that by his hunger He could be the Bread of Life for all who eat Him.
He thirsted that He could give us the Living Water that we would never thirst again.
His Body was broken that we who eat Him could be made whole.
His Blood was shed that we who drink Him could never die.

He became Sin that in Him we might become the Righteousness of God.
He became a Curse that in Him we might become the Blessedness of God .
He became a Corpse that in Him we might be forever Alive.

He suffered to free us from our sufferings.
He endured the Passion to free us from our passions.
He was tempted, tested and tried, just as we are, so that we could be victorious in Him.
He died the most vile death that a man, especially a Jew, could possibly die that we could live as God intended us to live, both now in this world and in the age to come.

To Him be glory, honor, worship, dominion, praise and thanksgiving, with God His Father and His all holy, good and life-creating Spirit, now and forever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be that came to be; in Him was life and the life was the light of men… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory of the only-begotten Son from the Father…and from His fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. (Jn 1:1-16)

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the ages. He is the radiance of the Father’s glory, the exact image of the Father’s person, upholding the universe by the word of His power….who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned in glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone….since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy Him who has the power of death, and deliver all those who through the fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage…therefore He had to become like His brethren in every respect.…for because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted…. (Heb 1:1-3. 2:9, 14-18)

Though He was in the form of God (He) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but He emptied Himself, taking the form of a bonded slave, being born in the likeness of man, and being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and bear witness to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have communion with us, and our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this to you that our joy may be full. (1Jn 1:1-4)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Great Banquet

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Parable of the Great Banquet (LK. 14:16-24) is always read on the Second Sunday Before Nativity, also designated as Sunday of the Holy Ancestors of Christ. Thus, at last Sunday’s Liturgy, we heard this parable as we continue to draw closer to the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. In this parable, Christ employs the biblical image of a great banquet as an image of the Kingdom of God. This is a very biblical image that the Lord draws on. To give just two examples: this image can be found in the Prophet Isaiah (25:6-9) and the Book of Revelation (19:9). This is the eschatological messianic banquet that God will bless His people with, signifying fellowship, joy and communion with God and in God’s presence. The Eucharistic banquet that we celebrate within the life of the Church is the foretaste and anticipation of this “banquet” without end in the Kingdom of God. Yet, in the parable as told by the Lord, we discover that the very people invited find excuses for their unwillingness to accept the master’s invitation to attend. (In fact, in the Orthodox Study Bible, this parable is given the subtitle “Wordly Entanglements, Poor Excuses”). These are, of course, very 1st c. Palestinian excuses: “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them; please have me excused.” These excuses sound legitimate enough in their practicality. However, these very practical excuses do not impress the master, for the parable tells us that they “angered” him. This was not an invitation to treat lightly. The master then sent his servant out on a further mission as we hear in the parable: to invite those who are on the margins of society – “the poor, and maimed and blind and lame;” and those basically outside of that society – “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in.”

In its original setting and intention, the parable is a clear rebuke to the Lord’s fellow Jews for rejecting His invitation to enter the messianic banquet that the “master” (His heavenly Father) has prepared through His own ministry as the (Suffering) Servant of God. To replace those whose lame excuses prevent them from entering into this great banquet, both those marginalized by restrictions of the Law and the Gentile unbelievers will be invited in to the feast. And this may come as a shock to those initially invited. Those who were initially invited must suffer the consequences of the master’s final pronouncement: “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my banquet.” We, in turn, must look beyond the original intention of the parable so that we do not succumb to that moralizing complacency that allows us to judge others of the very sin we may be committing. We must leave to God whatever judgments that God may determine for unbelief and the rejection of the messianic ministry of Jesus; a ministry fulfilled in the Death and Resurrection of God’s Messiah and the establishment of the messianic banquet in the Age to Come and anticipated today in the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Perhaps there are some contemporary members of the Church who excuse themselves for rejecting the “invitation” to the Liturgy celebrated on the Lord’s Day – perhaps only from “time to time,” or perhaps with some regularity. As said above, since the Liturgy is the foretaste of the great and heavenly banquet of the Age to Come, we also may incur the displeasure of the Master by our own excuses, though they may sound as legitimate and practical as those recorded in the parable. In our contemporary society there are many seemingly innocuous reasons (excuses?) for not participating in the Liturgy on the Lord’s Day with faithful regularity. And these reasons are only going to multiply over time. Sunday mornings are no longer that nice wide-open space on our pocket planners or refrigerator calendars that are unquestioningly left open for God and the Liturgy. The society we live in continues to encroach upon that empty space and is threatening to squeeze it out of existence. The parable of the Great Banquet has something to say about that. Thus, we have the opportunity to think long and hard over our choices.

Yet beyond that issue, we must seriously listen to this parable and discover how it is actualized in our many decisions on a daily basis. We may have the “Liturgy issue” under perfect control in that we are unfailingly faithful to our commitment to be present at the messianic banquet table of the Lord from which we partake of the Bread from Heaven. (Hopefully that is reason for rejoicing and not simply an act of obligation). However, we may have our own litany of excuses as to why we fail to work on our ongoing relationship with God, thus extending the application of this parable to embrace all aspects of that relationship. If we fail to pray with regularity, or read the Scriptures, or confess our sins, we have an excuse. If we fail to fast, or to be charitable, we have an excuse. If we fail to support the Church – and its local manifestation in the parish - with our time, talent or treasure beyond the minimal, we have an excuse. If we are less than a neighbor to those in need, or neglect the marginalized of society, we have an excuse. The human mind is a veritable factory of creative excuse-making when we need to rationalize or justify a certain behavior or lack of behavior. (see GEN. 3) Perhaps a sign of Christian maturity is when we no longer come up with excuses, but simply admit to our shortcomings and lack of focus.

To offer a generalization, it seems that the excuses given in the parable seem to fall under the rubric of “being busy.” Or, rather, that we are simply “too busy” to do what is needed, and/or even to concentrate on the “one thing needful.” Perhaps we can avoid sin, but we cannot avoid our busy schedules. We are too busy to even sin – at least “big time!” This is the human condition as lived by contemporary human beings. And there is no easy solution.

Perhaps it is only our vision of life that can begin to help us move beyond this impasse: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (COL. 3:1). A vision of life nourished by an abiding faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that believing we have life in His Name (JN. 20:31). Yet, also further nourished by the Great Banquet of the Eucharistic Liturgy that we are invited to every Sunday, which is therefore the Day that first and foremost belongs to the Lord before and beyond anything else. This vision of life would also be future-oriented so as to embrace the “life of the world to come” – described for us as a Great Banquet in which we will experience the indescribable joy of fellowship and communion with the Holy Trinity, the saints and with each other. By participating in the Liturgy we prepare ourselves for that life with God, because the Liturgy is probably the most perfect expression of what we anticipate and look forward to in God’s heavenly Kingdom – fellowship, joy, communion and love inexpressible. If we can only hold that vision of life up to our gaze, then we can “make time” so as to hold God at the center of our lives. I suggest that a modest start is stop making excuses, and make an honest assessment of what we need to repent of and confess to. Then, we have always at least the potential for a new beginning.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Exploring the Incarnation IV - The Radicalness of the Incarnation

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today, December 6, we celebrate St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, the Wonderworker. Considering the deluge that we endured yesterday, we had a larged-sized body of the faithful at the Vesperal Liturgy yesterday evening. It was a wonderful service, and it was good to witness the enduring veneration of the real St. Nicholas as it continues down the centuries, regardless of the geographical or cultural setting. Together with the many texts praising St. Nicholas in the service, were included those that continue to prepare us for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and the mystery of the Incarnation.

To remain focused on the Incarnation, here is the third and final passage from Archbishop Ware’s book The Orthodox Way, under the section heading “Salvation as Sharing.” Archbishop Ware goes far in reflecting on the utter radicalness of the Incarnation: here we encounter the suffering God who entered into the fallen conditions of our world and voluntarily embraced them in order to save us from these very conditions that undermine our very humanity and our relationship with God:

Secondly, this notion of salvation as sharing implies – although many have been reluctant to say this openly – that Christ assumed not just unfallen but fallen human nature. As the Epistle to the Hebrews insists (and in the New Testament there is no Christological text more important than this): “We do not have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but he was in all points tempted exactly as we are, yet without sinning” (4:15). Christ lives out his life on earth under the conditions of the fall. He is not himself a sinful person, but in his solidarity with fallen man he accepts to the full the consequences of Adam’s sin. He accepts to the full not only the physical consequences, such as weariness, bodily pain, and eventually the separation of body and soul in death. He accepts also the moral consequences, the loneliness, the alienation, the inward conflict. It may seem a bold thing to ascribe all this to the living God, but a consistent doctrine of the Incarnation requires nothing less. If Christ has merely assumed unfallen human nature, living out his earthly life in the situation of Adam in Paradise, then he would not have been touched with the feeling of our infirmities, nor would he have been tempted in everything exactly as we are. And in that case he would not be our Savior.

St. Paul goes so far as to write, “God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for our sake” (II COR. 5:21). We are not to think here solely in terms of some juridical transaction, whereby Christ, himself, guiltless, somehow has our guilt “imputed” to him in an exterior manner. Much more is involved than that. Christ saves us by experiencing from within, as one of us, all that we suffer inwardly through living in a sinful world.

The Orthodox Way, p. 75-76.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Exploring the Incarnation III - The Full Humanity of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Today’s addition to our selection of key passages illuminating the Incarnation for our spiritual enlightenment is a continuation of yesterday’s passage from The Orthodox Way by Archbishop Kallistos Ware. If you recall, the section of his book from which these passages are taken is entitled “Salvation as Sharing.” The very possibility of God “sharing” His life with us, is already a profoundly moving concept. How much more overwhelming is the very reality of this sharing! For we firmly believe that this is precisely what God has done in Christ – given to us a share in His divine uncreated grace and glory through the Incarnation of the eternal Word become man as Jesus of Nazareth. In this passage, you will be impressed by how strongly Archbishop Kallistos stresses the point of the full humanity of Christ. Christ did not only seem to be human, He was and is, in fact, fully human, because the Word became flesh! The sharing and exchange in the Incarnation between God and humankind is thus fully reciprocal and total. Archbishop Kallistos writes the following:

This notion of salvation as sharing implies two things in particular about the Incarnation. First, it implies that Christ took not only a human body like ours but also a human spirit, mind and soul like ours. Sin, as we saw has its source not from below but from above; it is not physical in its origin but spiritual. The aspect of man, then, that requires to be redeemed is not primarily his body but his will and his centre of moral choice. If Christ did not have a human mind, then this would fatally undermine the second principle of salvation, that divine salvation must reach the point of human need.

The importance of this principle was re-emphasized during the second half of the fourth century, when Appolinarius advanced the theory – for which he was quickly condemned as a heretic – that at the Incarnation Christ took only a human body, but no human intellect or rational soul. To this St. Gregory the Theologian replied, “The unassumed is unhealed.” Christ, that is to say, saves us by becoming what we are; he heals us by taking our broken humanity into himself, by “assuming” it as his own, by entering into our human experience and by knowing it from the inside, as being himself one of us. But had his sharing of our humanity been in some way incomplete, then man’s salvation would be likewise incomplete. If we believe that Christ has brought us a total salvation, then it follows that he has assumed everything.

The Orthodox Way, p. 74-75

To be continued …

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Exploring the Incarnation II - Salvation as Sharing

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I am sure that many of you have read – and perhaps reread - Archbishop Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way. Since its original publication in 1979, this book has gone through a revision any many reprintings. In just a relatively short time, this book has become a “classic” of contemporary Orthodox theology and spirituality. I believe that The Orthodox Way is one of those “top ten” books that belong in the library of every literate, interested and engaged Orthodox Christian (with the intention that it will eventually be read!).

Be that as it may, to continue our series of passages that open up the Incarnation for us to deeper levels of understanding, I would like to draw from this wonderful book. Those who have already read these passages will have their memories refreshed; and those reading these passages for the first time will experience the joy of encountering a living response to the age-old mystery of the Incarnation and some of its profound implications for our understanding of Christ and of our own lives in Christ. There will undoubtedly be some new insights here that may strike you for the first time. In the chapter entitled “God as Man,” there is a sub-section further that bears the heading “Salvation as Sharing.” The first part of this section develops this theme in the following manner:

The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification. The notion of sharing is a key alike to the doctrine of God in Trinity and to the doctrine of God made man. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that, just as man is authentically personal only when he shares with others, so God is not a single person dwelling alone, but three persons who share each other’s life in perfect love. The Incarnation equally is a doctrine of sharing or participation. Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.

St. Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (II COR. 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition . In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it.” Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (PHIL. 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St. Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinite limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite.”

As Christ said at the Last Supper: “The glory which thou hast given to me I have given to them, that they may be one, as we are one: I in them and thou in me, may they be perfectly united in one” (JN. 17:22-23). Christ enables us to share in the Father’s divine glory. He is the bond and meeting-point: because he is man, he is one with us; because he is God, he is one with the Father. So, through and in him we are one with God, and the Father’s glory becomes our glory. God’s Incarnation opens the way to man’s deification. To be deified is, more specifically, to be “christified”: the divine likeness that we are called to attain is the likeness of Christ. It is through Jesus the God-man that we men are “ingodded,” “divinized,” made “sharers of the divine nature” (II PET. 1:4). By assuming our humanity, Christ who is Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son.

The Orthodox Way, p. 73-74

To be continued …

Exploring the Incarnation - The Jesus Prayer as Perfect Profession of Faith

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

It is less than four weeks until the glorious Feast of our Lord’s Nativity in the flesh. Christmas is actually the feast of the Incarnation of Christ – the enfleshment of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth. It is always “meet and right” that we reflect and meditate upon this awesome mystery of the advent of the pre-eternal God into our midst as a little Child. We would never want to approach the Incarnation in a casual manner, reducing it to an abstract doctrine that only demands our intellectual assent. Rather, I would hope that we always approach the Incarnation prayerfully and with a sense of gratitude, joy and awe before this sublime mystery that occurred within “the fullness of time” and “for our salvation.”

The Incarnation of Christ is a dogma of the Church. This does not mean that it is an arid concept that demands blind adherence. That would be true of a totalitarian ideology. A dogma is the revelation of divine Truth; a description of reality at its most deepest level; and an invitation to assimilate that Truth to our own lives in a transformative manner. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This implies and combines orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right practice/living). A dogma is meant to “count” in our lives, so that our lives reflect a living faith in the truth of what a particular dogma expresses. Our faith in the Incarnation should have a daily impact on our lives: God became man so that man could become like God! (Or God was humanized so that humans could be divinized). The New Adam has come to restore our fellowship with God.

Perhaps a good way to maintain such a focus during this Advent season is to be supplied with a series of well-written passages from Orthodox theologians – both ancient and contemporary - that uncover for us some of the depth and profundity of the Incarnation. From now and until Nativity, I will hopefully send out a fair amount of such wonderful texts that show the consistency of Orthodox belief in the Incarnation “from generation to generation,” together with the endlessly creative and insightful ways that the truth of the Incarnation can be expressed. What does it actually mean to say that God became man? Can God actually be born? If so, what does that say of His mother? If Jesus is God how can He also be human? How do we understand the union of the divine and the human natures in the Person of Jesus Christ? Reading some of these texts carefully, and then meditating on what we read will help us with dealing with such perplexing questions and in our search to further understand the mystery of the Incarnation “in an Orthodox manner.”

We will begin with a passage from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that our Fall Adult Education class read and discussed together the other evening. This passage is taken from Met. Anthony’s discussion of the practice of the Jesus Prayer. What are we saying when we address Christ in prayer as the Lord Jesus Christ? The metropolitan writes the following as a kind of profession of faith:

To see in the man of Galilee, in the prophet of truth, the incarnate Word of God, God become man, we must be guided by the Spirit, because it is the Spirit of God who reveals to us both the Incarnation and the lordship of Christ. We call him Christ, and we affirm thereby that in him were fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. To affirm that Jesus is the Christ implies that the whole history of the Old Testament is ours, that we accept it as the truth of God. We call him Son of God, because we know that the Messiah expected by the Jews, the man who was called “son of David” by Bartimaeus, is the incarnate Son of God. These words sum up all we know, all we believe about Jesus Christ, from the Old Testament through the ages. In these few words we make a complete and perfect profession of faith.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sorouzh – Selected Writings, p. 135

Monday, November 28, 2011

Restoring a Proper Thanksgiving Balance

Dear Parish Faithful Friends in Christ,

In an article entitled “A Moveable Fast,” the scholar Elyssa East summarized the history of our American Thanksgiving, and the intentions and practices of the early New England colonists toward this national feast. Initially, she writes,Thanksgiving was built around the Christian rhythm of fasting and feasting. Bearing that in mind, she also offered her own commentary on how this national celebration has changed over the years:

In the nearly 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, the holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross overconsumption, but the New England colonists never intended for Thanksgiving to be a day of gluttony. They dished up restraint along with gratitude as a shared main course. What mattered most was not the feast itself, but the gathering together in thanks and praise for life’s most humble gifts. Perhaps this holiday season we could benefit from restoring a proper Thanksgiving balance between forbearance and indulgence.

This sounds like a fair commentary on how the past Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend is now approached and practiced by contemporary Americans. What adds further to this confusion is not simply the matter of anticipating a good feast on Thanksgiving Day and enjoying the guilty pleasure of over-eating together with family and friends; but the fact that “overconsumption” and “indulgence” are hardly limited to one day’s big meal. Those terms are now more appropriately directed toward “Black Friday” (not sure what the term means) and today’s “Cyber Monday.” There seems to be a perceptible shift away from the food feast toward the frenzy of shopping and spending with a zeal that would possibly be admirable if it was only directed toward something not so openly and unabashedly self-indulgent. The only restraint is in the size of one’s pocketbook; but if that empties out there is always the credit card! We may soon reach the point when our neighbor will no longer greet us with the conventional “have a happy Thanksgiving.” Rather, it may become “have a successful Black Friday!” Clearly, a sense of balance and proportion has disappeared from the lives of many Americans, as consumerism displaces a sense of thanksgiving.

Over the last four days what predominated in your lives as Orthodox Christians? Did you fail to come to church for one of the Thanksgiving Day services but somehow manage to be “out and about” at the stores for Black Friday? If so, how did that happen? How does such a choice hold up to your theoretical priorities? Are we better described as Eucharistic beings or as consumers? When presented with a choice, will it be for the Church and what the Church represents; or will it be “the world” and what the world represents?

I realize that it is easy to be critical of our consumer-driven society. And perhaps priests and pastors “over-indulge” in just such a predictable routine. My intention, at least, is not to moralize or chastise. After all, I am also a consumer! Rather, I am more-or-less thinking out loud, and sharing the questions raised by such thinking. Now that the holiday weekend is behind us, can we “pick up where we left off?” That further question only makes sense if indeed we had begun to observe the Nativity Fast in anticipation and preparation for the Feast on December 25, and then postponed that effort for the weekend that we just enjoyed. Now that we are returning to the normal routines of our daily lives, do we have the strength and commitment to embrace “the Orthodox Way” of life that understands only too well the pitfalls and temptations of overconsumption and indulgence?

The “battle of the calendars” is perhaps never so fierce as during these last few weeks before Christmas. We can do the “jingle-bell rock,” or we can curb our passions. When we were baptized – no matter how many years ago - we prayed that God would strengthen us as “invincible warriors of Christ our God;” and that we would “keep the Orthodox Faith.” That vocation is tested on a daily basis – including this particular day.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Inconvenient Feast?

Dear Parish Faithful,

According to the liturgical calendar for this year, the next of the Twelve Major Feast Days is Monday, November 21 – the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple. This means that the festal Great Vespers with the blessing of the loaves and anointment with oil will be served this coming Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. The Liturgy will then be served on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. Certain Feast Days are called immovable, for they occur on the same date every year – Nativity on December 25; Theophany on January 6 – as is the case with the upcoming Entrance of the Theotokos. Yet, occurring on the same date every year means that these Feasts will be celebrated on a different day of the week every year in a cyclical fashion. The moveable Feasts are those that are determined by the annual changing date of Pascha – Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday; Ascension and Pentecost. These Feast occur on the same day every year, but on a different date. So the over-all festal life of the Church – comprised of Feasts honoring the Lord and the Thetokos – is something of a rhythm between moveable and immovable dates, lending to this cycle a rather dynamic quality. Yet, this poses challenges for us living out our Faith in a contemporary setting.

For parish life, the most challenging day and time of the week to have a service is on Sunday evening. For what I would assume are a variety of reasons, parishioners simply do not return to church for a service on Sunday evening. For many or most it is probably not even on one’s ecclesial radar screen. Yet the church calendar is what it is, and this year the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple will be celebrated on Sunday evening/Monday morning. With our pattern of poor attendance for Sunday evening services, and a work schedule beginning on Monday morning, the prospects for a “festal” Feast Day are rather bleak. In the ongoing “battle of the calendars” – ecclesial and secular - that we may be aware of or not, this one looks like a definite setback. Work is work on Monday morning, but is it really the case that Sunday evening has to remain a “black hole” of sorts in our over-all parish life? Is it really well-nigh “impossible” to return to church for a festal service honoring the Theotokos on Sunday evening? Are these even meaningful questions in today’s world? Or are these those types of esoteric and arcane questions that the caste of Orthodox priests are prone to indulge in?

Preparing for the service on Sunday evening, I know ahead of time that the church will be near-empty for the service. After many years, I am quite accustomed to that, but it still remains a less than exciting prospect. However, that is not the point, because it not about me and whatever interior attitude I may bring to the service. It is not about whatever “disappointments” a parish priest may experience. In every parish there are parishioners who are justifiably disappointed with the priest. After awhile, such concerns can become rather fruitless. Actually, it is about all of us as an Orthodox Christian community. And my pastoral goal is to try and invigorate everyone in the parish with a sense of commitment to the Church’s celebration of the festal cycle; a cycle of services that gives us the opportunity to re-live and actualize the saving events of God’s dispensation for our salvation. And this may mean making adjustments in our lives that will make that possible. On November 21, we are able to celebrate, together with the Virgin Mary, her entrance into the Temple of the Lord as one of the first acts of her preparation to be the Theotokos. Bearing this in mind, everyone will have to (re-)examine his/her stewardship of time and energy and determine whether or not you on a personal level, or all on a communal level, can commit on a deeper level to be aware of that festal cycle and to participate when we are able even if and when that commitment proves to be challenging or “inconvenient.” Where is our treasure? Where are our priorites? What really motivates us? These are the general question below the surface.

Yet, perhaps I can pose a more direct question: Just how challenging or inconvenient will it be on this coming Sunday evening to return to church for the festal Great Vespers? (Or, if possible, for the Liturgy on Monday morning?) Each person or household will have to answer that question on their own. The answers, of course, will be multiple and quite varied. But I again repeat that I hope that that is at least a meaningful question that everyone will think over. To repeat: The calendar is what it is for this year, and we will have some choices to make on Sunday – consciously or not. If it gets down to socializing; going to see a film; or watching one more football game; what does such a choice say about your response to the previously-mentioned commitment to the life of the Church? Is it possible to tear yourselves away from those choices and choose the Church instead? Of course, anyone can rationalize and say: “I have already been to church once today, and that is enough!” Yet again, thinking outside of the box, or moving outside of your comfort zones, you may just decide: let’s go to church and honor the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple!

Perhaps this may seem like making a bit too much over one service. I acknowledge that. But I began to think about this earlier in the week as I looked ahead to our liturgical cycle and then decided to write about it, treating this service as something of a microcosm that encompasses other pressing questions of our Church life. In addition, this does offer me the pastoral possibility of periodically raising those types of questions that you may gloss over or ignore. We tend to settle into routines that are hard to break, and the routine of “only once on Sunday” is particularly entrenched.

The Feasts of the Church are wonderful. They are deeply expressive of what we believe and even of who we are. They connect us to Christ in a mystical manner. They allow us to continually praise and venerate the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos. Most Christians today have no awareness of them. We want to remain the Church that not only has a festal cycle “on paper,” but one that brings us together in faith and love as a community committed to Christ and His Body the Church. We will have that opportunity this coming Sunday evening and/or Monday morning with the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple.

Great Vespers on Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m.
Divine Liturgy on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m.
Resources for the Feast

Monday, November 14, 2011

Preparing for Christmas ~ Embracing the Orthodox Way

Dear Parish Faithful,
As mentioned last Friday, the Nativity Fast will begin tomorrow, November 15. Commit yourselves individually and as a family to embrace the “Orthodox Way” of preparing for Christmas. The “world” has really little to offer or add to our understanding of Christ’s nativity in the flesh. Rather, it’s the same old tired package of distractions that leave you “hungering and thirsting” for the very thing you may have neglected in frantically and frenetically trying to have a “merry Christmas.” We are again presented with a gift of forty days than can “profit our souls.” Fast now to feast then, rather than feast now to fizzle out then. Let your church calendar guide you into the Scripture readings, saintly commemorations and fasting discipline that lead us to the Winter Pascha of spiritual renewal.

Fr Steven

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Depth of our Faith and the Experience of God

Dear Parish Faithful,

The book we are currently reading in our Adult Education Class, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh - Essential Writings, was edited by Gillian Crow, who also wrote an excellent introduction about the metropolitan’s life and spiritual development. She was his diocesan secretary for the last ten years of Metropolitan Anthony’s life. She has also written a full-scale biography of the metropolitan, entitled This Holy Man, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 2005. As the book of his Essential Writings was compiled for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians, she has included some passages that provide some good background into the Orthodox ethos. Here are three such paragraphs from her Introduction that may say something that we already know, but in a manner that neatly and clearly summarizes the living faith and practice of the Church. Such reminders are good for those of us who are Orthodox, so that we do not lose sight of the depth of our Faith and the experience of God in the routine of conventional church-going:

In fact, the timelessness of Orthodoxy refers to the Kingdom of God, a realm outside time, a realm where earthly considerations – whether those of the fourth or twenty-first centuries – do not hold sway. When we partake of one of our services we are in the eternal “now,” we share in an experience, however veiled, of heaven on earth. At the Incarnation God became man; he came down to us and to our level – in order to draw us up to him; and our faith, our worship, our Christian life, are a participation in God’s eternal life, in the wondrous “now” of the Kingdom, rather than in the world and its secular culture.

Thus the incense, the myriads of candles, the singing, the colorful icons and frescoes are not optional ornamentation. They are ways of using all our human senses to glorify God and to become aware that we are in his presence. Our worship exemplifies a sense of wholeness that runs through Orthodoxy. We do not like dividing worship from belief, body from soul, prayer from fasting, faith from works. Indeed, the word “Orthodoxy” is often described as meaning right faith and worship – not one or the other but both together. Our worship expresses our faith.

We experience how the lightness of fasting is an aid to prayer (conversely everyone knows the sluggishness produced by overeating). We understand how the body as well as the soul responds to God and will share in the Resurrection. We do not see the body as a temporary suit of clothes, defiled by sin, that becomes redundant at death. We remember that we are unique creatures of body and soul together, both destined for Eternity, and that Christ cared for the whole human person, and healed bodies as well as souls. We are vividly aware that all our sins are committed with our bodies, but are moved by the desires of the soul; so they cannot be separated. Similarly, Orthodoxy has never been faced with the opposition of faith to works that caused such division in Western Christianity. We see faith and works as two sides of the same coin that cannot be separated.”

From Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh – Essential Writings, Introduction, p. 20-21.

The True Nature of The Bodiless Hosts

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A few brave souls – four to be exact – were in church early Tuesday morning for the Akathist Hymn to the Archangel Michael and the Bodiless Hosts that we commemorate on that day, November 8. Following the service, I was speaking with one of our Church School teachers about the nature of angels and how we convey this to our children. One of our first tasks, I believe, is to overcome the caricature that has developed over the centuries over the appearance and role of angels. (Do adults also need to be liberated from this same caricature?)

That caricature imagines angels to be puffy and fluffy “cherubs” that are basically rosy-cheeked floating babies; Cupid-like, they carry bows and arrows that appear harmless enough; they are often naked, but at times their “private parts” are covered in what can only be described as a celestial diaper. How these Hallmark card fantasies - based on Renaissance-era deviations from the sacred and profound iconography of the earlier centuries, both West and East - can be associated with the “Lord of Sabaoth” and the celestial hierarchy of angels that surround the throne of God with their unceasing chant of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is something of an unfortunate mystery.

The Scriptures and the Holy Fathers only describe powerful celestial beings that serve God and fulfill His will for the well-being of the human race and our salvation. Angels are not eternal or immortal by nature. They are creatures, coming forth from the creative Word of God perfected by His Spirit. St. Basil the Great teaches that angels were created before the visible world, based on JOB 38:7 – “When the Stars were made, all my angels praised me with a loud voice.” These gender-less being are described by St. Gregory the Theologian as “a second light, an effusion or participation in God, in the primal light.” And whenever a human being is visited by an angel and receives this heavenly messenger’s revelation, his/her first impulse is to bow down and worship this celestial visitor as a divine being! Warm and fuzzy feelings with any impulse toward cuddling and kissing are hardly implied in the biblical texts. Actually, our use of the term “angel” – based on the Gk. angelos or “messenger” - is a generic term used to describe all of the many kinds of heavenly hosts that we find described and named in the Scriptures. In fact, this celestial hierarchy, according to St. Dionysios the Areopagite, is comprised of a triad of ranks, three angelic orders in each rank. The names are scriptural, but the triads have been conceived of by St. Dionysios:

First Rank: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones
Second Rank: Authorities, Dominions, Powers
Third Rank: Principalities, Angels, Archangels

This structuring of the celestial hierarchy has had an enormous influence on the angelology of the Church.

Actually, St. John Chrysostom tells us that even these names and “classes” do not exhaust the heavenly ranks of angelic beings:

… but there are innumerable other kinds and an unimaginable multitude of classes, which no words can be adequate to express…. From this we see that there are certain names which will be known then, but are now unknown.

With his great ability to summarize and synthesize the Church’s living Tradition, St. John of Damascus (+749), gives us this description of what an angel actually is in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith:

An angel, then, is a noetical essence, perpetually in motion, with a free will, incorporeal, subject to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature. The Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence.

I hope that even this very brief description of the true nature of the bodiless hosts of heaven – based on the Scriptures and the Fathers – will restore a genuine sense of awe and veneration before these incredible beings that only further amaze us with the creative power, energy and will of God.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Gadarene Demoniac and 'the Evil One'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

At Sunday’s liturgy, the Gospel reading will be St. Luke’s account of the Gadarene demoniac. (LK. 8:26-39) This event is both powerful and puzzling. For a man is healed of demonic possession so as to be found “clothed and in his right mind,” and a herd of swine are destroyed in a frenzied and demon-driven act of self-destruction. Not exactly the “stuff” of our everyday lives. This passage, then, records an exorcism. Yet, an “exorcism” seems to belong to a worldview that can only be conceived of as belonging to the past. It is clear, however, that there were many exorcisms attributed to Jesus according to the Gospels. This is because Jesus clearly took the existence of the “evil one” seriously. For the Lord’s Prayer has a concluding petition that implores our heavenly Father to “deliver us from the evil one.” Most New Testament scholars will argue in favor of translating the Gk. poneros as the “evil one” and not simply “evil.” This presents a more concrete, and less abstract, sense of evil in the world.

Our spiritual tradition – especially as recorded in the Lives of the Saints (hagiography) – consistently portrays a crucial part of the “spiritual warfare” of the great saints as a more-or-less open confrontation with the “evil one” or with demons. Allowing for a stereotypical use of this genre, it remains true that within the Church’s living Tradition, we have always interpreted these descriptions with a realism that does not explain away the presence of the “evil one.” And Orthodox Christians do not consider themselves as simplistic and lacking in sophistication for this unapologetic acceptance of the existence of the “evil one” as revealed throughout the New Testament.

As our contemporary world continues to retreat from describing certain events and persons as “evil,” I see no reason that we must join in that retreat. Of course, there are so many factors at work in any given event – from the environmental to the psychological – but the sheer irrationality and mystery behind so many horrific events could rather point to the evil one/evil as “alive and well.”

Back in April 2007, I wrote an article on the Virginia Tech massacres during which thirty-two students were killed and twenty-five wounded. As we know, the killer took his own life. This excruciatingly painful event led me to reflect on the presence of the evil one and the destructive power of evil choices within the world. Below are the links to this two part article in case you may want to read it again – or perhaps for the first time - as we approach these themes on Sunday, however different the historical and cultural contexts between the world of the Gospels and our contemporary world may be.

Meditation - Virginia Tech Tragedy, Pt 1
Meditation - Virginia Tech Tragedy, Pt 2

Please feel free to share any further comments with me.

Fr Steven

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Testimonials to Christian Education

Dear Parish Faithful,

As previously announced, we will begin our Fall Adult Education Class on Monday evening, November 7. We will read Metropolitan Anthony – Essential Writings. Please follow the provided link for further information about this book and its author, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

As is the case with many parish events/programs, we have developed a core group of parishioners who attend this class consistently from year to year. Wanting to understand their motivation – and hoping to recruit new members for future classes, including this year’s – I asked some of our participating parishioners to “testify” to their ongoing interest in the class. I have included three such testimonies here so as to share them with the parish:

Parishioner #1

I highly recommend the Fall Adult Education Class. The amount of reading material is just right and it is a good opportunity to interact with parishioners you may not see on a regular basis. We are fortunate to have Father Steven to lead the discussion and to share his deep knowledge of our Orthodox Faith. Simply put, it is a pleasant way to spend a Fall evening and to nourish your soul.

Parishioner #2

1) I find the reading interesting. It always introduces me to new ideas and sometimes to authors that are new to me.
2) I enjoy the discussion that we have. Different people have different perspectives on the material, and I learn a lot from what they say in class.
3) I enjoy the opportunity to get to know my fellow parishioners better.

Parishioner #3

Our Fall Adult Education Classes have been a very important part of my “continuing” theological and spiritual education here at Christ the Savior. The books used most recently have been some of the most important books I have ever read. I am indebted to Fr. Steven for the time he takes to read and prepare for this class and for fellowship with those who attend. I strongly urge everyone who is able to participate. I cannot think of a better way to spend a Monday evening.

One continuous thread that I read in these three testimonies – in addition to the quality of the reading material – is the stress placed on fellowship with other parishioners. It is a different setting from the “coffee hour” with a different set of priorities and goals. Reading, discussing, and sharing our thoughts about God, Christ, faith and doubt, the actualization of the Gospel in our daily life, etc., is a non-quantifiable – but highly qualitative – component of our six sessions. Mutual encouragement develops out of such sharing. Everyone who attends our classes realizes this.

I know that anyone can sit in front of the computer for hours on end reading excellent Orthodox material from a seemingly endless variety of sources. I certainly do this often. But the fact is, you are sitting in front of and facing a screen, not the human face of a fellow-parishioner, with his/her unique voice and perspective.

So, if possible, please think about “making this happen.” You will read a book by a very deep thinking Christian who offers an endless stream of deep insights into the Christian Faith and Christian living. The commitment of time and the effort needed to read, prepare and attend the sessions will undoubtedly expand your mind and heart in a potentially profound manner.

I hope to see you then!

Fr. Steven

Monday, October 24, 2011

On Tipping and Tithing

Dear Parish Faithful,

“Tipping and Tithing”

(Image Panel: Lazarus and the Rich Man)

The Pledge Forms for 2012 have been distributed both in church and via email in the last two weeks. As we are carefully – and prayerfully – considering our financial commitment for the upcoming year toward building up our parish as the local Body of Christ here in Cincinnati, I would like to share this rather cleverly-composed anecdote. Using a pseudo-biblical rhetoric to both humorous and challenging effect, the anonymous author of this short piece touches upon the issue of our priorities or, in more biblical language, the issue of where our “treasure” is, for that is where our heart will be also, according to the teaching of Christ:

Now it came to pass on a day at noon that the writer was a guest of a certain rich man. And the lunch was enjoyed at a popular restaurant. And the waiters were very efficient. And the food was good. Now when the end of the meal was at hand, the waiter brought unto the host the check. And the host examined it, frowned a bit, but made no comment. But as he arose to depart, I observed that he laid some coins under the edge of his plate. I know not what denomination the coins were, howbeit, the waiter who stood nearby smiled happily, which, being interpreted, means that the tip was satisfactory. Now this parable entereth not into the merits or demerits of tipping. But as I mentioned on the coins that become tips throughout our nation, I began to think of tips and tithing. For the proverbial tip should be at least a tenth, however the prescribed gratuity (tip) is fifteen percent of the bill, lest the waiter turn against you. And as I continued to think on these things, it came unto me that few people who go to church treat their God as well as they honor the waiter. For they give unto the waiter a tithe, but unto God they give whatsoever they think will get them by. Verily, doth man fear the waiter more that he feareth God? And doth he love God less than he loveth the waiter? Or doth the waiter do more for him than his God? Truly, a man and his money are past understanding!

- A twentieth century Christian

St. John Chrysostom delivered a series of homilies based on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (LK. 16:19-31). It was this parable that we heard yesterday morning during the Divine Liturgy. This complex parable is a fearful reminder of the “cost” of being uncharitable, self-indulgent, and indifferent to the sufferings of the poor. To put this in somewhat more contemporary terms: The “gains” of an ever-expanding portfolio can easily lead to a shrinking and loveless heart that renders itself unfit for the Kingdom of Heaven as revealed in the parable, when, in a reversal of fortune, the poor Lazarus finds consolation in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man suffers the torments of hades. This leads St. John Chrysostom to comment on the nature of theft. With his typical insight, St. John expands the notion of theft to include not only the stealing of another’s possessions, but also the withholding of one’s goods that could be shared with the poor. As St. John expresses it:

I shall bring you the testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods 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 your 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 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 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 account of the funds which were entrusted to you … For you have obtained more than others, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.

St. John Chrysostom, Homiles on the Rich Man and Lazarus

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Overcoming the Conflict between Science and Religion

Dear Parish Faithful Friends in Christ,

Yesterday evening, we were treated to a very stimulating lecture/power point presentation by Dr. Dan Buxhoeveden from the University of South Carolina. This event was well-attended, for there were over forty participants, and with only a few guests, this means that our parish was well-represented for a weeknight event. I hope that everyone found it as enjoyable as I did. Though the title of the lecture was “Science and Christianity in Dialogue,” Dr. Buxhoeveden expanded his presentation so that it included a quick overview of how science and religion have related – or have uneasily related – over the centuries; together with what I thought was an insightful critique of what he termed “scientific imperialism.” In his estimation this is the position that science can essentially explain all of reality, and ultimately make pronouncements on the existence or non-existence of God. This unwarranted venture into the realms of philosophy and metaphysics only results in the false religion of scientism. Elsewhere, he has written that this scientism is “a vacuum cleaner that desires to swallow all knowledge into the confines of its bag of dust.” I thought that the lecture effectively undermined such claims, while remaining respectful and appreciative for what science has contributed over the centuries to our understanding of the natural world on both the macro- and micro-cosmic levels of reality. In other words, science can explain a great deal about reality, but cannot claim a competency to explain all of Reality. The sum total of scientific truths do not equal the Truth. If I recall correctly, I believe that Dr. Buxhoeveden asked the question: How can science explain everything when we do not know what this Everything is?

I especially appreciated how he questioned the claims of science to a form of pure objectivity. There still remains at least a popular notion that it is science alone that can offer to us an “objective” description of reality, free of any prejudice or preconceived notions. We now know that this is impossible to achieve, for there is always a subjective position from which any discipline begins. To quote from his article “Limitations of Human Knowledge and Its Consequences,” Dr. Buxhoeveden poses this dilemma for such claims to absolute objectivity:

There is the problem of whether we can ever attain ‘non-local’ objectivity since what we are describing is the brain studying the brain, nature studying nature, the same studying the same. Within the model of the matrix, objectivity is only objective within the system. What is meant by empirical knowledge within the matrix really refers to the shared sense experiences of things out there by virtue of the design of a common nervous system. Were it constructed differently, the things perceived ‘out there’ (and the interpretation of them) would be different as well. If we had ways to perceive Z and W rather than A and M, our information and therefore definition of ‘Reality’ would be fundamentally altered. The first implication is that it serves to demonstrate our captivity, not our freedom. It highlights our limitations, not our universality. At best it says we are capable of knowing the matrix of materiality as it is given to us to know.

It is doubtful that Western science was ever designed to go beyond the matrix. It was created within the matrix and for the matrix, and there it remains and so long as it does so, there can never be an essential conflict with Christianity.

If I understood what he was saying, another fallacy of so-called pure objectivity would mean that there is nothing more to discover, or that all scientific discoveries to date have reached a level of perfection. Yet, as Dr. Buxhoeveden pointed out, scientific “facts” are actually correctible, contingent and historical.

Needless to say, Dr. Buxhoeveden did not present this critique from a fundamentalist or obscurantist position. This was not an impassioned polemic “against” science, but the voice of reason from a professor with impressive credentials within the scientific community (he has a Phd in biological anthropology and specializes in the evolution of the human brain). This was not a “cultural warrior” flailing away with the cudgel of religion, but a scientist manifesting a certain humility before the mystery of existence. Realizing the necessity of dialogue between the disciplines of science and theology, Dr. Buxhoeveden has a particular interest in how Orthodox theology is potentially open to any and all scientific truths that expand our understanding of the reality of the natural world in which we live. And theology has nothing to fear in the process. Within a holistic Orthodox understanding of reality, the created world can lead us to the uncreated Creator. We are, after all, logical beings because God created human beings in and through the Logos. We therefore have an open-ended capacity to continually discover the truths of the natural world that yield themselves to honest and humble probing. This, in turn, leads us to a sense of wonder, and insight shared by the earliest Greek philosophers. Dr. Buxhoeveden presented numerous quotations from Orthodox theologians, elders and writers that clearly demonstrate this. In his view, Orthodoxy is more than well-equipped to assimilate, incorporate, and interpret the world of scientific discovery within an all-embracing worldview that embraced the Uncreated and the created. This can be very exciting on both the intellectual and spiritual levels our common God-given human existence.

In a more speculative portion of his talk, he spoke of some new insights or ideas into “left brain” and “right brain” ways of cognition and the perception of reality. This was done based upon a new book by an Oxford scholar entitled, if I recall correctly, The Master and His Emissary.
Over-simplifying, this new book raises the point – supposedly marshalling an incredible amount of data in the process - that the preponderance of “left brain” thinking is responsible for a very “western” approach to reality that is overly rationalistic at the expense of empathetic and intuitive ways of perception. In other words, there are other ways of experiencing the reality of the world around than the scientific western model, successful though it has been in the realm of discovery and technology. I could sense that this intrigued many of us who were there for the talk yesterday evening – (am I “left-brain” or “right brain?”) - but, to use the cliché, this probably raised many more questions than it provided answers.

To just touch on another theme that Dr. Buxhoeveden raised in an interesting manner: what kind of conclusions can science come to when considering such phenomena as love and creativity? At what point are we merely extracting information about something, while losing sight of its meaning and purpose? Here is an example of what we heard, though drawn from the article referred to above:

True facts can become distortions when they are not assimilated in a greater context. It is analogous to someone who sees a painting as a material object within the confines of chemistry and physics while remaining oblivious to art, and therefore claims that the painting is the chemistry. How do you argue against such a stance when all the physical evidence supports the chemical model? You attain the eye of an artist. If we existed in a world where no one had the eye of an artist then the scientific analysis of a Van Gogh painting would be the hard and indisputable interpretation. Similarly, we are told in the New Testament that the pure in heart shall see God. In Orthodox Christianity one is told to purify the heart, to acquire illumination, to see God through the eye of the heart, so as to allow the Holy Spirit to enter into us. Without this the spirit of God, like the painting is not perceived correctly.

What the paint and canvas is to art, the matrix is to life. It is the medium of expression in which we live and breathe and have our being. The tension and the challenge has always been how to understand it, how to place it within the context of ultimate things, and how to situate all forms of knowledge, awareness, and experience, that humans derive from within it.

Of course, this analogy can be applied to the “God question.” Do we want to see only the parts or the whole?

Dr. Buxhoeveden was not in the least bit defensive of religion or God. He was not speaking from the position of an embattled believer that was frightened by the encroachments of science upon religion. He was not advocating the digging in and entrenchment of religious belief against the powerful assaults of an enemy whose victory seems inevitable. For science and religion are not enemies. This is an artificial conflict that can be overcome precisely through open and honest dialogue:

This dialogue of science and religion requires that we keep open channels of discovery and questioning that are not normally part of any single discipline. It is a challenge to all parties and because of that offers an opportunity for breakthroughs and understandings that cannot be had by remaining in our sand boxes.

It was encouraging to see many in the parish – and some of my students from the university! – make the effort and come out for the type of discussion that stimulates our thinking beyond the immediate problems and cares of everyday existence. Thank God for that!

As a special note, for articles and video talks by Dr Buxhoeveden and others on Science and Christianity, please visit the special page on our parish website, which has numerous links for further study on this stimulating topic.

Fr Steven

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Jesus Was Like

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As remarked last Sunday at the Liturgy, regardless of how well anyone may know the Gospels, it is challenging to form a clear image of “what Jesus was like.” This is not in reference to His deeds and words, for these are amply recorded in the four canonical Gospels. I am referring more to what we would today designate as someone’s “personality.” Are we able to get behind the personality of Jesus? Are we able to describe or analyze His personality with certainty, or at least with a measure of confidence? Some would formulate the question differently and ask if we are able to penetrate or understand the “self-consciousness” of Jesus. New Testament scholars, beginning in the nineteenth century and through to the present day, are often preoccupied with questions concerning the “messianic consciousness” of Jesus. Did Jesus know He was the Messiah, and if so, when did this messianic consciousness dawn upon Him? Yet, we may ask, besides a genuine and justifiable curiosity, is it that important for us to probe either the personality or self-consciousness of Jesus? Is it even possible? The Gospels are decidedly not preoccupied with these questions, for the Gospels do not consciously offer a “personality sketch” of Jesus, as they neither attempt to analyze the psychology of Jesus. The Gospels proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God through His deeds and words. Therefore, whatever insights that we are given into “what Jesus was like” are revealed precisely through His actions and His words – not through a psychological sketch or analysis. In a very insightful article entitled “Quite Beyond Us,” Fr. Patrick Reardon writes the following about what he calls the “unfathomable self-consciousness of Jesus:”

The identity of the man Jesus is rooted in this eternal relationship of the Son to the Father. Self-awareness in Jesus is indivisible at every point from the consciousness of his eternal relationship to the Father. He has no personal identity apart from that relationship.

Now I submit that there is nothing else in any human soul even remotely analogous, and this is the reason why psychological analysis … is an inadequate and even misleading path to the interpretation of Jesus. Jesus, while possessing a human psyche, transcends psychology for the same reason that he, partaking fully in created being, transcends metaphysics.

The “subject,” the self, of Jesus’ consciousness is not a human being who is personally distinct from the consubstantial Son. We have not the foggiest idea how this self-awareness of Jesus took form in his soul, and speculation on the matter is an exercise in either futility or heresy. (October 2007 issue of Touchstone, p. 13)

Fr. Patrick’s words will resonate strongly for any believing Christian that believes and confesses what is declared in the Nicene Creed about Jesus Christ in an orthodox manner: “Who for us men and for our salvation was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.” Without that belief and confession, the psychology of the man Jesus would be fair game for many different and contradictory interpretations.

Bearing in mind the wise words of Fr. Patrick, which I would further claim are supported by our Orthodox understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ; I still believe that we can say a good deal about “what Jesus was like” that neither betrays the Gospel image of Christ, nor our Christological confession of faith in Him as God and Man. To do this, I would like to turn to a work by Denise and John Carmody. Respectfully and soberly, and with an excellent command of the Gospel narratives, they take on the task of summarizing what they believe is a genuine portrait of “what Jesus was like.” Now they do this in a book entitled in the Path of the Masters, in which Christ is discussed together with the Buddha, Confucius and Muhammad. Each figure is treated sympathetically and respectfully. Their goal is to be descriptive and informative, with no polemical edge. Of course, for many Orthodox Christians this would prove to be a questionable, ambiguous - or perhaps blasphemous endeavor! We do not consider Jesus as a “great religious figure” to be compared with others; but again, as the Son and Word of God incarnate. And, together with the Evangelist Luke, we also claim: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (ACTS 4:12) Nevertheless, the Carmodys, Christian thinkers themselves, have offered a finely-written and deeply reflective passage on some of the main characteristics of what they term Jesus’ “personality.” They have obviously meditated on this deeply, and I would like to share some of their insights.

Reading this section in their book, I can compile the following descriptive list about Jesus, though it may not be exhaustive. For them, Jesus is:

  • both fiery and gentle, both sociable and solitary
  • full of energy and subject to fatigue
  • both conservative and a revolutionary
  • eloquent and compassionate
  • having a heart open to the poor, the sick and children
  • making friends and winning the allegiance of women, a very rare quality in His time
  • celibate and unmarried
  • wandering from village to village and living simply
  • courageous in standing up those who opposed Him
  • quick-witted in debate
  • committed to the spirit above the letter of the Law
  • filled with love
  • seeking and responding with appreciation to genuine faith
  • seeking only His heavenly Father’s will and glory
  • consoled by the Spirit of God
  • never sinning and without moral faults
  • not drawn to wealth and power
  • never succumbing to flattery or threats
  • a sense of humor “now and then”
  • often ironic according to St. John
  • loved His friends deeply
  • forgiving
  • realistic about human weakness

As thorough – and convincing - as this may sound, the Carmody’s also acknowledge the “unfathomable self-consciousness of Jesus:”

Still, Jesus remains a mysterious figure, a personality that we cannot fathom, not only because all human beings finally escape our judgment … but even more because the depths of his personality lie in the undecipherable relationship he had with his Father. For Jesus to be was to be God’s Son. This is now orthodox Christian theology, expressing the Christian conviction that the godhead is a Trinity of divine “persons” among whom Jesus is the second, the Son and Word of God become flesh … On the human level, Jesus seems filled with concern for the needs of the poor people whom he encountered. On the more mysterious, divine level, his sole concern seems to be to glorify his heavenly Father.

I very much appreciated these words of caution on their part. Yet, as a kind of final assessment, I will admit that this particular sentence resonates deeply with me when meditating on “what Jesus was like:”

But his over-all disposition seems serious, sad, absorbed in a mighty struggle. (p. 107)

And I also found their concluding paragraph on this subject compelling and profoundly challenging about our own relationship to Christ:

There must have been something compelling about the personality bearing all these traits. By the time of Jesus’ “ascension to heaven” … he had stamped many lives indelibly. Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene, the beloved disciples John and James – all his intimates felt that he had become the substance of their lives, the only treasure they cared about. The report of later Christian saints has been similar. The most intense Christians have felt that Jesus was their reason to be. (p. 107)

For a moment, just imagine Jesus as the “substance” of your life, its true “treasure” and the “reason” to be!