Monday, January 31, 2011

The Three Great Torchbearers of the Triune Godhead

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Yesterday, January 30, we commemorated the Three Hierarchs – Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom – in order to honor and glorify these three great pastors and theologians as they stand before the undivided and consubstantial Trinity and thus enjoy the glory of God in equal measure. A pious tradition relates that there had been a dispute as to who was the “greatest” of the three, with each of these saints being championed by his respective followers: Basilians, Gregorians, and Johanites. However, a certain 11th c. bishop in a city of Asia Minor – John Mauropos - was granted a vision of the three hierarchs who made it clear to him that the glory that they experienced in the presence of God was equal. A feast day in honor of all three hierarchs was meant to make this clear, as well as provide the opportunity to glorify them with equal honor. In the wonderful service composed in honor of the Three Hierarchs, we extol their collective virtue in the following manner:

Let us who love their words come together with hymns
and honor the three great torch-bearers of the triune Godhead:
Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.
These men have enlightened the world with the rays of their divine doctrines.
They are flowing rivers of wisdom
and they have filled all creation with springs of heavenly knowledge.
They ceaselessly intercede for us before the Holy Trinity.

Perhaps a good way to begin our Monday morning and its routines, would be to read and meditate on a “gem” of wisdom from each of these great universal teachers.

St. Basil defended the divinity of the Holy Spirit in his now classical work, On the Holy Spirit. Since it is our goal as Christians to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit, and to
walk in the newness of life granted by the Holy Spirit, this eloquent passage from St, Basil may further awaken our minds to the divine activity of the Spirit in our lives:

“He is simple in being; His powers are manifold: they are wholly present everywhere and in everything. He is distributed but does not change. He is shared yet remains whole. Consider the analogy of the sunbeam: each person upon whom its kindly light falls rejoices as if the sun existed for him alone, yet it illumines land and sea, and is master of the atmosphere. In the same way, the Spirit is given to each one who receives Him as if He were the possession of that person alone, yet He sends forth sufficient grace to fill all the universe. Everything that partakes of His grace is filled with joy according to its capacity – the capacity of its nature, not of His power…”

“When a sunbeam falls on a transparent substance, the substance itself becomes brilliant, and radiates light from itself. So too Spirit-bearing souls, illumined by Him, finally become spiritual themselves, and their grace is sent forth to others.”

On the Holy Spirit, ch. 22 & 23

In a famous passage from his great Theological Orations, (the composition and deliverance of which attained for St. Gregory his title “the Theologian”), he reminds us that we should not casually speak about God in a light-minded and frivolous manner. To speak about God is a serious matter and only helpful at appropriate times:

“Not to everyone, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to everyone – the subject is not so cheap and low – and, I will add, not before every audience, not at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits.
Not to all persons, because it is permitted only to those who have been examined, and are past masters in meditation, and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified. For the impure to touch the pure is, we may safely say, not safe, just as it is unsafe to fix weak eyes upon the sun’s rays… And who are the permitted persons? They to whom the subject is of real concern, and not they who make it a matter of pleasant gossip, like any other thing, after the races, or the theatre, or a concert, or a dinner,o r still the lower employments.”

Theological Oration 1,3.

St. John the “Golden-Mouthed” always exhorted his flock to the imitation of Christ; and always sought to lift up our minds to God in praise and thanksgiving. St. John’s theology was “practical” but also fiery and uplifting:

“Let us depart from the Divine Liturgy like lions who are producing fire, having become fearsome even to the devil, because the Holy Blood of the Lord that we commune waters our souls and gives us great strength. When we commune of it worthily, it chases the demons far away and brings the angels and the Lord near us…”

“Teach whoever doesn’t attend church that you chanted with the Seraphim, that you belong to the heavenly lifestyle, that you met with Christ and spoke with Him. If we live the Divine Liturgy thus, we will not have to say anything to those who were absent. But seeing our benefit, they will feel their own harm and quickly run to church to enjoy the same goods, with the grace and philanthropy or our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, belong eternal glory. Amen.”

And we can add our own “Amen!” to the lives and teaching of the Three Hierarchs who to this day fill “all creation with springs of heavenly knowledge!”

Fr. Steven

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sanctity of Life: Embracing the Christian Ideal

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yesterday was “Sanctity of Life Sunday” in the Orthodox Church in America. The meaning of this commemoration is manifold, but essentially it is both the confirmation of the “sacred gift of life” that we promote, and a “peaceful protest” against the immoral abortion laws that allow for the destruction of life on a horrific scale – still over a million abortions a year. We affirm that life is a gift from God from conception to the grave and beyond into the eternal Kingdom of God.

In a broader context, we learn of the sanctity of life within the realm of marriage and the task of raising the children conceived and born as the fruit of that marriage as a gift from God. There is both joy and responsibility implied in the decision and then the fact of having children. Perhaps, then, we can approach the awareness of the “sanctity of life” from within our marriages that we hope are inspired by Christian principles that are rooted and grounded in God’s revelation to us concerning the purpose and meaning of life, and the more specific principle that “procreation means co-creation.” We, as parents, “co-create” with God when a child is conceived and born into the world.

From this perspective, I would like to share a passage from Fr. John & Lyn Breck’s book, Stages on Life’s Way. This is not a passage dealing directly with abortion, but a passage that asks the question, “Does Christian Marriage Have a Future?” Perhaps that is the broader perspective on the “abortion issue,” and whether or not the practice of abortion will at least remain a burning social issue that disturbs the conscience of American citizens. Fr. John and Lyn Breck write the following:

In the face of all of the challenges thrown up today against the institution of marriage, our vocation as Christian people is clear. It is to rediscover and to relive within our conjugal unions a depth of devotion, commitment, faithfulness, and love that heals and transforms the profound loneliness that threatens the lives of each of us in a hostile and meaningless world. It is to rediscover the truth that marriage is most firmly grounded in friendship – a delight in the other person, a joy in their presence, a respect for their feelings and integrity, and a devotion so pure and boundless that we are willing to die for that person. If the divorce rate is what it is, if domestic violence and neglect are so common in this society, it is largely because the spouses have never discovered in each other a real friend – a unique confidant, a source of intellectual stimulation and spiritual enlightenment, a person with whom they can share laughter, tears, and mutual delight.

Christian marriage certainly has a future, and a promising one as well, to the degree that believing couples assume their conjugal union as a spiritual vocation that is given, blessed, and fulfilled by God. And it will be a union not only of obligation and sacrificed but also of devotion and joy insofar as they take to heart a simple bit of popular wisdom each of us should tape to our refrigerator door: happiness is being married to your best friend. (Stages of Life’s Way, p. 72-73)

I know Fr. John well, and he is not a “pie-in-the-sky” dreamer; but a concerned Orthodox theologian and pastor that provides the ideal based upon the Gospel that we commit ourselves to pursuing by embracing the designation of Christian.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Saturday, January 22, 2011

For A Distinctive Way of Life

Dear Parish Faithful,

The epistle reading for Sunday – COL. 3:12-16 - is one of those incredible texts that basically summarizes the Christian life in a tightly-packed passage that is astonishingly rich in content; formidable in its challenge; and deeply inspiring in its implications for a distinctive way of life. All this in five verses! St. Paul exhorts the Colossians then, and us today, in the following manner:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And over all these put on love, which binds everything in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

It is rather amazing to think of the extent to which the Apostle Paul has assimilated the Gospel image of Christ and the evangelical precepts of Christ. Such a passage further substantiates the claim of the Apostle Paul found in his passionate Epistle to the Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (GAL. 2:20)

These are two of the precious “fragments” from the inexhaustible riches of the New Testament. If St. Paul is describing who we would like to be; perhaps we can – in addition to being inspired by such a passage – deeply reflect on just what it is that prevents us from living up to and actualizing such a way of life in the present moment of our own lives. This is why the saints teach us that repentance is an ongoing process that continually opens us up to the future “impossible possibilities” that depend on the grace of God working with our own personal freedom.

Fr. Steven

Friday, January 7, 2011

As Different As We Were: A Eulogy for My Brother

Dear Parish Faithful,

With my brother Philip's recent death and his funeral on Tuesday, as a priest for almost thirty years, I have now buried my entire original family, beginning with my sister Menka's untimely death in 1983. That was followed by my brother Paul (1985); my father Chris (1991); and my mother Elena (2000). As this is now 2011, that spans around twenty-eight years. I have served each funeral, sometimes alone, sometimes assisted by the local priest. Certainly it has never been easy, and it does get to be a bit overwhelming at times. This was particularly true on Tuesday, perhaps because this was my last remaining sibling. Thank God that presvytera Deborah was able to accompany me, and she proved to be a "helpmate" in the full, biblical sense of that word, and a pillar of strength at a difficult time. Thus, I am now the last remaining member of my family. Both of my parents lived rather long lives, as they were both around eighty-nine when they died. Yet, their first three children have died at much younger ages: fifty-one, forty-four, and sixty-six, respectively. Only God alone know my allotted time. Yet, somehow, I believe that we can attend a funeral a week and still not quite "get it" about our own mortality. No matter how close that person may be, it is always "someone else" who has died. Of course, no person can actually imagine himself/herself "dead;" yet it seems as if, when confronted with death, a pseudo-protective veil drops over our spiritual vision that blocks out the reality of living a finite existence in this world. This is even more problematic for Christians who claim to believe in the "life of the world to come."

My brother Philip and I were as different as "night and day." He not only lived in Las Vegas, but chose to live by "the Las Vegas way." At least until he slowed down these last few years. That takes a great deal of energy; and the goal is not only elusive, but ultimately, an illusion. But as the great desert fathers would say: we should weep for not equaling the passion for "the Orthodox Way," that others have for the "ways" that they choose that are apart from Christ. Maybe that is because our own hearts have not really chosen a "way" even after many years in the Church. Perhaps we confess the one, but are (secretly?) attracted to the other. Such ambivalence can only "stunt" our growth "in Christ." Our own inconstancy is one reason that we cannot "judge" those who do not openly live by faith in Christ.

In the end, my brother was not a practicing (Orthodox) Christian, yet he never renounced the Faith that he was baptized into and lived within in his earlier years. If asked to identify himself "religiously," he would have said Orthodox Christian. Further, I am sure that if asked whether or not he believed in God, he would have said "yes" - whatever that would have meant to him. I know that he faithfully read my meditations and often commented on them to me in a very positive way. I discovered from a couple of his friends at the funeral that he forwarded these meditations to them. He was very "proud" of the fact that his younger brother was a priest. He was also about the most generous person I ever met - even generous to a fault. He was very flawed, yet very likable. He left a strong, lasting and positive impression on people who only met him once or twice. His consuming desire to live life to its fullest is what consumed him, I believe, in the end. He neglected his physical well-being, and this led to a fatal heart attack. That he died alone in a hospital emergency ward will always haunt and trouble me deeply. Actually, knowing that he wasn't feeling well, I was in the process of checking out flights to visit him briefly in just two weeks time. It is these types of "ifs" and "almosts" that are so troubling and frustrating - at least from our limited human perspective.

Often, there are so many conflicting and confusing traits and impulses within one person, that a consistent pattern of living, or even what we call a consistent "personality" never quite emerges. This is what I find so striking about my brother and any attempt I make to assess his life over-all. It is difficult to discover the "real" person behind these socially-driven or ego-driven images that we project to others. That being the case, we can never fulfill the Christian interpretation of the Socratic dictum: "Know thyself." One more good reason as to why we are never to "judge," but to leave that ultimately to God.

Be that as it may, I was glad to serve my brother Philip's funeral and to share a few words about him with those present (though presvytera had to read my written comments on my behalf as my voice was barely recovering from a laryngitis that reduced me to a faint whisper on Monday). As different as we were, we remained very close, and could talk for hours on end over the phone, or communicate often via email. Even though we last saw him at Sophia's wedding in May 2006, he was always a presence within our family, as my children, who visited him a few times and experienced his hospitality, were very close to their "uncle Philip." My brother is survived by two sons and two granddaughters.

Once again, I would like to express my thanks to the many who offered their support to me at this time.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven