Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Place and Necessity of the Cross

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Having come to the middle point of the path of the Fast that leads to Thy precious Cross, grant that we may see Thy day that Abraham saw and rejoiced, when on the mountain he received Isaac back alive as from the tomb. Delivered from the enemy by faith, may we share Thy mystical supper, calling upon Thee in peace: Our light and our Savior, glory to Thee!
(Matins of Wednesday in the Fourth Week)

There may still persist the misunderstanding that the Orthodox Church downplays the significance of the Cross because it so intensely concentrates on the Resurrection, or on other such themes as transfiguration, deification, mystical encounter with God, and so forth. This is an implicit criticism that there is some deficiency in the Orthodox Christian presentation of the place of the Cross in the divine dispensation “for us and for our salvation.” Such criticism may not hold up under further reflection and inspection, for the Orthodox would say that based upon the divine economy of our salvation, resurrection – and any “mystical encounter” with God – is only possible through the Cross. As this was “the purpose of his will” and “the mystery of his will” (EPH. 1:5,9), our salvation could not have been accomplished in any other way. The “Lord of Glory” was crucified (I COR. 2:8) and then raised from the dead. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul writes that “Jesus our Lord” was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (ROM. 4:25) The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes of “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (HEB. 12:2) A text such as this could be behind the hymn we sing at every liturgy after receiving the Eucharist: “For through the Cross, joy has come into the world.” Jesus himself said “that the Son of Man must suffer many things … and be killed and after three days rise again.” (MK. 8:31) Of the Gk. word translated as “must” from these words of Christ, Archbishop Demitrios Trakatellis wrote:

This expresses the necessity (dei) of the Messiah’s terrible affliction. Judging from the meaning of the verb (dei) in Mark, this necessity touches upon God’s great plan for the salvation of the world. (Authority and Passion, p. 51-52)

Many such texts can be multiplied, but the point is clear: The Cross and the empty tomb – redemption and resurrection – are inseparably united in the one paschal mystery that is nothing less than “Good News.” Like Mary Magdalene before us, one must first stand by the Cross in sober vigilance before gazing with wonder into the empty tomb and then encountering the Risen Lord. (JN. 20:11-18)

As something of an aside, part of this misunderstanding of the Orthodox Church’s supposed neglect of the Cross in the drama of human redemption could stem from a one-sided emphasis on the Cross in other churches at the expense of the Resurrection. The redemptive significance of the Cross somehow overwhelms the Resurrection so that it is strangely reduced to something of a glorified appendix to the salvific meaning of the Cross. As Vladimir Lossky wrote: “This redemptionist theology, placing all the emphasis on the passion, seems to take no interest in the triumph of Christ over death.” Since the “triumph of Christ over death” is so integral to the very existence of the Church; and since it is the ultimate paschal proclamation, as in “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!;” then the Orthodox Church will never concentrate on a “theology of the Cross” at the expense of the Resurrection. Rather, the one paschal mystery will always embrace both Cross and Resurrection in a balanced manner. Within the Church during this week of the Cross, we sing and prostrate ourselves before the Cross while chanting this hymn:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify!

In addition, and perhaps more tellingly, the growth, development and continuing existence of certain theories of atonement that have proven to be problematic today, but not shared by the Orthodox Church, have had an impact on evaluating the Orthodox Church’s understanding of the Cross on the whole. These theories of atonement will portray God as being primarily characterized by a wrath that demands appeasement, or “propitiation,” something only the death of His Son on the Cross can “satisfy.” These theories would stress the “juridical” and “penal” side of redemption in a one-sided manner. They may also bind God to act within certain “laws” of eternal necessity that would impose such categories as (vindictive?) justice on God in a way that may obscure God’s overwhelming mercy and love. Not sharing such theories of atonement as developed in the “West,” the Orthodox Church may face criticism for lacking a fully-developed “theology of the Cross.” However, such “satisfaction” theories of atonement are proving to be quite unsatisfactory in much of contemporary theological assessments of the meaning and significance of the Cross in relation to our salvation “in Christ.” The Orthodox can make a huge contribution toward a more holistic and integrated understanding of the role of both Cross and Resurrection, so that the full integrity of the paschal mystery is joyfully proclaimed to the world. From the patristic tradition of the Church, the voice of St. Athanasius the Great can speak to us today of this holistic approach (using some “juridical” language!):

Here, then is the … reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection. (On the Incarnation, 20)

In soberly assessing too great of a dependency on juridical language when speaking of redemption, and anticipating some later theories that would narrowly focus on the language of “payment” and “ransom” in relation to the sacrifice of Christ; St. Gregory the Theologian argued that a “price” or “ransom” was not “paid” to the Father or to Satan, as if either would demand, need or expect such a price as the “precious and glorious blood of God.” St. Gregory says, rather, the following:

Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice not because He demanded it or had any need for it but by His dispensation? It was necessary that man should be sanctified by the humanity of God; it was necessary that He Himself should free us, triumphing over the tyrant by His own strength, and that He should recall us to Himself by His Son who is the Mediator, who does all for the honor of the Father, to whom he is obedient in all things … Let the rest of the mystery be venerated silently. (Oration 45, 22)

However, getting it right in terms of a sound doctrine of atonement is one thing – essential as it is – but assimilating the necessity of the Cross in and to our personal understanding and the conditions of our life is another. In fact, it is quite a struggle and our resistance can be fierce! If this is difficult to understand, assimilate and then live by, the initial disciples of the Lord suffered through the same profound lack of comprehension. Their (mis)understanding of Jesus as the Messiah was one-sidedly fixated on images of glory, both for Israel and for themselves. A crucified Messiah was simply too much for the disciples to grasp, even though Jesus spoke of this in words that were not that enigmatic. When Peter refused to accept his Master’s words of His impending passion and death in Jerusalem, after just confessing His messianic stature and being blessed for it; he is forced to receive what is perhaps the most stinging rebuke found in the Gospels when Jesus turns to him and says: “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (MK. 8:33) It was Satan who did not want Jesus to fulfill His vocation by voluntarily dying on the Cross, so Peter’s refusal to accept Christ’s words was his way of aligning himself with Satan.

The disciples were not enlightened until after the resurrection of their Lord and Master. We are raised in the Church so that we already know of Christ’s triumph over death through the Cross. Our resistance is not based on a lack of knowledge, but of a real human dread of pain and suffering. It may be difficult for us to “see” the joy that comes through the Cross until we find ourselves “on the other side.” “For now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face.” (I COR. 13:12) It is our hope and the “certainty” of our faith that Christ has indeed triumphed over death, “even death on a Cross.” (PHIL. 2:8) God has blessed us with yet another Great Lent and upcoming Holy Week and Pascha in order to share in that experience of His glorious triumph that begins with the life-giving wood of the Tree of the Cross.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Annunciation: The Feast of the Incarnation

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

As announced, we will celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation this evening with the Vesperal Liturgy beginning at 6:00 p.m. This is meant to allow for greater parish participation and the reception of the Eucharist. In one of the most celebrated passages from the Church Fathers concerning this Feast, we hear St. Nicholas Cabasilas (14th c.) describe the mystery of the Annunication in a manner that also considers the unique role of the Theotokos:

The incarnation of the Word was not only the work of the Father, Son and Spirit – the first consenting, the second descending, the third overshadowing – but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.
(Homily on the Annunciation 4-5)

This is a near-perfect expression of our understanding of the proper relationship between and God humankind – a relationship based on synergy, the harmonious combination of divine grace and human freedom. This means that human persons are “co-workers” with God in the divine-human process of salvation. The role of the Virgin Mary was essential, because humanity must participate and contribute to its own salvation. The Theotokos, therefore, is the true representative of created humanity; for a human person living and acting according to the “image and likeness” in which he/she is created, will always seek to humbly serve God as the end and fulfillment of human existence. When presented with that opportunity according to the divine design – oikonomia- the Virgin Mary made precisely that perfect choice by proclaiming: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (LK. 1:38). Only then did the Word of God became incarnate in her womb by the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit.

When, with humility and trust in God we also stand before the Lord as His servant and seek to fulfill the divine will, can we also “incarnate” Christ by “conceiving” Him in our minds and hearts through the hearing of that very Word. This is how we recreate the “God-bearing” vocation of the Mother of God in our own lives.

The Feast of the Annunciation is actually the Feast of the Incarnation. The Feast of the Annunciation is also our “pro-life” Feast within the Church. If we proclaim the beginning of personal life at the “moment” of conception; and then seek to protect and safeguard that life regardless of the trying circumstances of life; this affirmation of life is based on the conception of the Word of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the “moment” when the Word of God becomes flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. Your presence at this Feast is your prayerful commitment to the “sanctity of life” as a divinely-willed continuum from conception to birth; and then through the length of our earthly life into that life beyond the grave that we call the Kingdom of God.

There are multiple reasons to “lay aside all earthly care” and partake of the joy of the Feast of the Annunciation, that “festal interlude” that illuminates the Lenten season from within by its joyful announcement that the virgin Mary will conceive in her womb and give birth to the Son of God.

Scriptural readings for the Liturgy of the Feast:

HEB. 2:11-18
LK. 1:24-38

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Wonderful Day with Bishop-Elect Matthias

Dear Parish Faithful,

From my perspective, we celebrated a wonderful Liturgy yesterday with Fr. Matthias, the Bishop-elect of our Midwest Diocese, serving as the head celebrant. Fr. Matthias proved to be quite accessible and warmly responsive to our collective greeting. He, in turn, seemed to be very impressed with the parish on his first visit here. He told me as much in our parting conversation as he was leaving to return to Chicago. He regrets the fact that since the Midwest Diocese is so far-flung geographically, his actual visits to any parish will, out of necessity, be infrequent. I will continue to pray that our newly-established and warm relationship with Fr. Matthias will continue to grow and deepen through the years once he becomes our diocesan hierarch. (A reminder: his consecration will occur in Chicago on Bright Saturday, April 30). We very much need a “good man” who will primarily shepherd his flock with loving care in order to restore our confidence in the Church’s episcopacy. I sincerely believe that we have elected a just such a candidate to continue that process, as the “face” of our Holy Synod has changed dramatically in recent years with many other key consecrations in other dioceses.

Following the Divine Liturgy, yesterday, Fr. Matthias treated us to a new DVD presentation of the Hogar San Rafael Orphanage in Guatemala. This was something of a “sneak preview” in that the DVD is not quite ready for distribution and sale. The viewing went well, and our children were very well-behaved and attentive considering the length of the DVD. A nice touch occurred when we paused the DVD when our own parish-sponsored Francesca appeared briefly, and many of the children recognized her from previous photos. Many of you approached me afterwards to express your amazement at what these three nuns – Madres Ines, Ivonne and Maria - have accomplished. Even the most sober-minded assessment finds itself speaking of a “miracle.” From its initial condition to its present state the Hogar is a living, concrete testimony to the “impossible” being achieved by the grace of God. I rejoice that we continue to be a part of that process.

Two of our parish men approached me about supporting the ongoing construction of the San Miguel dormitory near the monastery. This new facility will allow the children to move out of the crime-infested area of Guatemala City in which the Hogar is currently located. There is still a good deal to accomplish to fully prepare those facilities for habitation. Since we are already making the generous donation to support one of the children as a parish-wide charitable endeavor; perhaps it is best to leave that up to individual donors to do as they so desire. The place to make such a donation and to receive a US tax-deduction receipt from the foundation is to:

c/o Harriet Stratis
310 N. Lake Shore Drive #27A
Chicago, IL 60657

All in all, we thank God for our parish community and the spirit of unity in Christ which continues to deepen within our community. And we thank God for a wonderful day together yesterday with Fr. Matthias, our Bishop-elect.

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Multidimensional Mystery of the Icon

Dear Parish Faithful,

As we set upon the second week of the Fast, direct our steps, O Lord; shine upon us with the sanctifying light of Thy commandments, and make us worthy to offer on bended knees a prayer acceptable to Thee; for Thou art our Father and we are Thy children. With fear we sing Thy praise and call upon Thy Name.
(Monday Matins of the Second Week)

The first week of Great Lent culminated in the celebration yesterday of the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.” This is an annual commemoration rooted in an historical event from the Byzantine era of the Church’s long history: the restoration of the holy icons to the Church following the long and protracted Iconoclast Controversy (726-787; 815-843). The outbreak of a second phase of iconoclasm (literally, “icon smashing”) – 815-843 - occurred even though the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 reaffirmed the essential presence of the icon in the Church by establishing it on a firm theological basis. That basis, of course, was the Incarnation: the Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The Word became depictable since He assumed matter in the Incarnation; the “matter” of the fullness of human nature, comprised of a reasonable soul and a real body. The incarnate Word of God – Jesus Christ – was heard and seen (and “touched with our hands” – I JN. 1:1). The icon is thus the artistic and aesthetic witness to the Incarnation: “We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images” (Kontakion of the Feast).

When the second outbreak of Iconoclasm was overcome by a local council in Constantinople, a concrete display of this “victory” over the heresy of Iconoclasm took the form of a solemn procession in the capital city with the clergy bearing icons and banners around the magnificent temple of Hagia Sophia. This took place on the first Sunday of Great Lent in the year 843. That, again, is the event that has been annually commemorated from that day to the present. Although perhaps seen today as somewhat quaint and antiquarian, the Sunday of Orthodoxy reaffirms the Church’s dogmatic Tradition centered in the Incarnation of the Word of God which reached something of a fullness of expression in the aftermath of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. These conciliar definitions of the Faith proclaimed that the eternal Word and Son of God, in “the fullness time,” was incarnate of the holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. In His one Person were united two natures – the divine and human. As the Word of God He is uncircumscribed; but as man He was circumscribed. The icon is the image of the Person of the uncircumscribed Word in His circumscribed humanity. As such we venerate the icon of Christ.

In his fine book, Guide to Byzantine Iconography, Constantine Cavarnos summarizes the defense of icons offered by St. John of Damascus in the 8th century. St. John wrote three famous treatises in defense of the icon known by the general title Against Those Who Decry the Holy Icons. Cavarnos gives an excellent survey of the many-faceted defense offered by St. John. He concludes by citing the seven functions given to the icon by St. John in the following manner:

1) Icons are means of honoring God, His Saints, and holy angels.

2) They serve as means of instructing in matters of the Christian Faith, of the teaching of the Church.

3) They remind us of this teaching.

4) They lift us to the prototypes, to the holy personages whom they depict, to a higher level of thought and feeling.

5) They promote virtue and the avoidance of vice, by arousing us to imitate these holy personages.

6) They are conducive to our sanctification.

7) They enhance the beauty of churches.
(Guide to Byzantine Iconography, p.241-242)

The icon is multi-dimensional in its role in the life of the Church. If we meditate on the seven functions of the icon as perceived by St. John, we can enter into the mystery of the icon and its profound attraction on the spiritual seeker who thirsts for a glimpse of heavenly reality. This can also to serve to deepen our own appreciation and veneration of the icon, both in the church and in our homes.

Fr. Steven

Friday, March 11, 2011

Beauty That Will Save the World

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In Part VI of Dostoevsky’s great masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, entitled “The Russian Monk,” we hear a familiar description from the narrator, the young man who will grow to become the Elder Zossima, a character at the ideological heart of this profound religio-philosophical novel:

Mother took me to church by myself … It was a clear day, and remembering it now, I seem to see again the incense rising from the censer and quietly ascending upwards, and from above, through a narrow window in the cupola, God’s rays pouring down upon us in the church, and the incense rising up to them in waves, as if dissolving into them. I looked with deep tenderness, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the first seed of the word of God in my soul…. And then the soft and sweet singing in the church: “Let my prayer arise …” and again the incense from the priest’s censer, and the kneeling prayer!

The young narrator is clearly describing his reminiscence of being in church for the Presanctified Liturgy, perhaps a unique allusion to this service in Russian literature. The young boy is deeply moved by the aesthetic beauty of the service, and this in turn plants the initial seed of God’s word in his impressionable soul. Dostoevsky understood the importance of just such memories for the later adult:

From my parental home I brought only precious memories, for no memories are more precious to a man than those of his earliest childhood in his parental home, and that is almost always so, as long as there is even a little bit of love and unity in the family.

Our parish children have the same opportunity for such “precious memories” to enter their minds and hearts and to remain there as they mature and face the later challenges and responsibilities of life. Elsewhere, Dostoevsky claimed that it was precisely such memories that could “save us” later in life when we may be overwhelmed with burdens and anxieties. For in that continuity that is so essential to our Orthodox Tradition, we also serve the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts during Great Lent; the church is censed in the identical manner to the singing of “Let my prayer arise…”; and we also practice the “kneeling prayer” in our lenten worship. “Beauty will save the world” Dostoevsky once wrote rather enigmatically. In this enticing phrase that many have sought to interpret, we are certainly hearing Dostoevsky’s most heartfelt conviction that Christ is the perfect image of moral, ethical and spiritual beauty, and that once encountered He will remain an ideal that we long to incarnate in our lives whenever sin and cynicism threaten to overwhelm us. Christ is God’s “gift” to us and we, in turn, offer this gift to our children when we choose to cultivate the image of Christ in and for our children as the primary focus of our lives. Christ will preserve them and us from wandering through life in a restless search for meaning and purpose. In the further words of the Elder Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov:

But on earth we are indeed wandering, as it were, and did we not have the precious image of Christ before us, we would perish and be altogether lost, like the race of men before the flood.

I believe that we need to assert ourselves with renewed commitment to keep the image of Christ ever before our gaze. This evening, at 6:00 p.m., we will serve the first of the Presanctified Liturgies that are designated for Great Lent. Here is that wonderful opportunity to experience that spiritual beauty “that will save the world.” At the end of a long day of prayer and fasting, we will sing to the Lord “Let our prayer arise in Thy sight as incense …” And then we will receive Christ in the Eucharist, the “Bread of Heaven” who satisfies our hunger. Where else is there to be?

Fr. Steven

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Fourth Day: The Meaning of Our Existence

Dear Parish Faithful,

O Lord, Thou hast appointed repentance for me a sinner, wishing in Thy boundless mercy to save me though unworthy. I fall down before Thee and I pray: humble my soul through fasting, for I flee to Thee for refuge, who alone art rich in mercy.
(Thursday Matins of the First Week of Lent)

The wonderful First Week of Great Lent – so unique and refreshing - is slipping away! Only one evening remaining for St. Andrew’s Canon of Repentance! If you can somehow break your weekly domestic pattern of existence, make the trip, and enter the grace-filled atmosphere of the church, you will perhaps leave the dreary flow of time and “break on through the other side!” into the sanctified time of the Church which is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

Yesterday evening, we heard some Christological troparia from the Fourth Ode of the Canon that allowed us to anticipate Holy Week and remind us of the true purpose and destination of our Lenten journey:

You offered Your Body and Blood for all, O crucified Word, that I might be renewed and washed. Your surrendered Your Spirit to the Father that I might be brought to Him.

Accepting voluntarily to be nailed to a Tree, You accomplished salvation in the center of the earth, O Creator. Eden, which was closed to us is open again, and all of creation, both in heaven and on earth, is saved and worships You. Let the blood and water which flowed from Your side be a fountain of living water and deliverance from captivity to sin. May they cleanse, refresh and anoint me as do Your living words, O Word.

All of the prayers, hymns, rites, and practices of the Church find their raison d’etre in Christ. Yet, with only a bit of reflection, we realize as Christians that the very meaning of our existence is found in Christ crucified – our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctification. This is why every day we may be “surprised by joy” and enter the “new creation” promised by God.

in Christ,
Fr. Steven

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Day Three: This Blessed Opportunity

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

O Lord, Thou hast consecrated and granted unto us this light-giving season of abstinence. Enable all of us to pass through it in compunction and sincerity, living in peace by the power of Thy Cross, O Thou who alone lovest mankind.
(Wednesday Matins of the First Week of Lent)

We have chanted the first two parts of the Canon of Repentance by St. Andrew of Crete (+740) on Monday and Tuesday evening respectively. We anticipate parts three and four this evening and then again on Thursday. Please avail yourselves of this blessed opportunity to enter the Lenten atmosphere of the Church with openness and humility – both pre-conditions for true repentance. The church is the place to be! Toward the end of the canon – in Ode Nine of part one to be precise – St. Andrew explains the purpose behind the canon itself and its numerous biblical allusions:

I have reminded you, O my soul, from the Books of Moses how the world was created, and from accounts throughout the Old Testament have shown examples of both the righteous and the unrighteous …

But he then “gets our attention” by phrasing a categorical charge that concludes this troparion:

… But of these you have imitated the latter rather than the former, and thereby sinned against your God.

St. Andrew has offered a generalization on the human condition by humbly sharing his own sense of sinfulness based on an honest assessment of his own deeds, words and thoughts. Is anyone willing to disagree with him? Yet, if our honest self-assessment does agree with him – reluctantly or not – does this mean that we are to understand ourselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God?” As that phrase has come to be used and understood, the answer would be NO. It is basically outside of the Orthodox tradition to understand sin as a means to increase our sense of abjectness before God or even of self-loathing. Such an attitude was the “logical” outcome of an anthropology that reduced humankind to a mass of damnation or total depravity. That attitude may be in the process of being corrected or abandoned today (or overly-compensated for by almost eliminating the reality and expression of sin); but it surely wreaked its havoc over the centuries on how human persons understood their relationship with God. With very different presuppositions about God (theology) and human nature (anthropology), St. Andrew is calling us to our former glory as human persons created for life “in the image and likeness of God.”

Essentially, then, we are sinners in the hands of a merciful God: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me,” is the constant refrain that illuminates the meaning of repentance that is so movingly invoked by St. Andrew’s masterpiece of liturgical poetry, biblical exegesis and probing psychological insight. This mercy is the “steadfast love” of God that desires the salvation of all. Although sin is a sickness that affects and distorts, both soul and body, the recognition of sin is a sign of spiritual health and maturity. Is it at all possible to repent without the prior recognition of sin? And repentance is itself the healing process that restores our fellowship with God. A fellowship that we were created for “in the beginning” and now renewed and re-established “in Christ!” The person who falsely protects himself from this soul-saving recognition of sin by the subterfuge of rationalization and self-deception only intensifies his stricken condition. If not recognized, arrested and reversed, such a sickness can truly be “unto death!” The voice of the world that lies to us by telling us there are no sins, but only “choices” – or that a sense of sinfulness is emotionally and psychologically crippling – only guides us into that endless cycle of pain and pleasure from which one “can’t get no satisfaction.”

St. Andrew further relates his purpose in explaining his use of the New Testament:

Therefore, O my soul, I will remind you of examples from the New Testament to lead you to contrition. Imitate the righteous and shun the ways of sinners that through prayer, fasting, purity, and reverence you may obtain the mercy of Christ.

To acknowledge, admit, and confess our sins is to obtain the “mercy of Christ.” Not grudgingly given, but given in abundance. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to respond to this heartfelt plea by immersing ourselves into the life of the Church during Great Lent; and specifically to make ourselves present if at all possible for the chanting of St. Andrew’s Canon of Repentance.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Day Two: Cell-Phone Fasting?

Dear Parish Faithful,

As we begin the second day of saving abstinence, we cry to Thee, O Lord: Pierce the hearts of us Thy servants with compunction and accept the prayers we offer Thee in fear. Grant us without stumbling to complete the course of the Fast, and bestow upon us cleansing and great mercy. (Tuesday Matins of the First Week)

In addition to all of the wonderful material that our webservant has assembled and posted on our parish website for Great Lent; there is currently playing a series of superb talks on Ancient Faith Radio entitled “Journeys Through Great Lent” ( You will hear Fr. Thomas Hopko, Frederica Matthews-Green, Fr. Melitios Webber, and Scott Cairns.

In a recent gathering with our Young Adult Group, we got on the subject of cell phones – their use and misuse. Both Johnothon Sauer, our Youth Group leader, and I, spoke about the pervasiveness and invasiveness of the cell phone when they essentially become an extension of our very being – or so it may seem. Texting, twittering, cameras, internet – it is all there as ubiquitous as can be. There is no end to the limitless “delights” that the more sophisticated cell phone of today can now provide. Of course, we also explored the beneficial use of the cell phone in today’s society. Everyone probably has a “cell-phone story” about how its presence and use “saved” us from one calamity or another in a crisis or emergency situation. However, we both ended by issuing something of a challenge to our young adults: When Great Lent arrives, incorporate “cell-phone fasting” into your over-all Lenten effort. This may be even more fruitful for adult Orthodox Christians!

If we have reached the point of dependence wherein we are convinced that we “cannot live” without our cell-phones (though the category of “civilization” actually pre-dates the arrival of the cell-phone); then are we able and willing to practice some form of abstinence in relation to it, as Lenten fasting is meant to liberate us from an overwhelming dependence on the things of “this world?” Are we currently using our cell phones when necessary; or have they also become toys that we periodically play with out of boredom or a sense of needed amusement/distraction? Are we calling others when there is no real reason to?; and are we texting the usual semi-vacuous “luv u?” messages? My pastoral suggestion is to formulate a strategy that helps liberate us from precisely this kind of dependence and need for distraction. Is it possible to limit our cell-phone use to calling others when needed through the normal course of the day, and eliminate the superfluous? Can we limit our cell-phone usage to times other than when we are behind the wheel of our cars? If we try some of this kind of “fasting,” perhaps we will be surprised – if not mildly shocked - as to the extent of that dependency I just mentioned above. It is more than food and drink that hold us in bondage.

I am not trying to romantically resurrect the Middle Ages; or take us back to a pre-technological – if not pre-industrial – age. I am trying to locate those areas of contemporary living that seem to sweep us along with an unquestioning adherence to its norms and practices. And the cell-phone readily came to mind!

Just some thoughts …

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 7, 2011

Day One: Joyfulness, Perseverance & Integration

Dear Parish Faithful,

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life.
(Matins of Monday in the First Week of the Fast).

I would like to wish one and all a blessed Lenten journey as we embark on the course of the fast on this “Clean Monday,” the first day of Great Lent. We are well aware of the challenges ahead of us, but these challenges and our resolve to meet them with humility, but also with firmness of faith, only reinforces how essential it is to live according to the Orthodox Way as the surest preparation for the paschal mystery. We have two basic choices to make: to respond with perseverance as we “gird our loins” to cross over the desert of the fast en route to the “Land of the Living” where we encounter the Risen Lord; or … we can wimp out! I trust that only the former choice is uppermost in your minds and hearts.

We are given the tools of the ascetical life by Christ Himself: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. At our most basic biological level we need to eat and drink to sustain our lives. Yet our passions transform that need into its opposite: to live in order to eat. As Christ teaches us: “Man does not live by bread alone.” That is the truth we would like to “taste” as we are tested by fasting.

In addition, we have the following tools to strengthen us in our Lenten efforts:

+ the many liturgical services unique to Great Lent;

+ the reading of the Scriptures;

+ faithfulness in prayer;

+ the confession of our sins in the Mystery of Repentance;

+ the love of our neighbor through almsgiving.

As I said yesterday in the homily: come up with a “domestic strategy” which allows you to integrate the season of Great Lent into your lives; rather than reduce it to some symbolic gestures. Be balanced, but be serious.

I hope to see many of you this evening as we chant the first part of the compunctionate Canon of Repentance by St. Andrew of Crete.

Fr. Steven

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Quite Remarkable First Week

Dear Parish Faithful,

The First Week of Great Lent is quite remarkable, especially in its unique liturgical services. I strongly urge everyone to make it to at least one of the services for this week. I also urge parents to do the same with their children, at least those of school age and up. Make the appropriate plans, even at the expense of “convenience.”

It is good for the impressionable souls of your children to experience the Lenten worship of the Church. In the Church we encounter God and not mammon. We are losing the battle with cell phones, twitters, TV sitcoms, “American idols” and the rest in our “spend and entertain yourselves at all times and at all costs don’t be silent or still for one second go for it and don’t slow down for anything including God culture.” There are times that we must say NO to that and keep our focus on God. Great Lent is that time. Or, as the Apostle Paul said: “Redeem the time, for the days are evil.” (EPH. 5:16) Your next-door neighbor may or may not have the Church to bring holiness, virtue and basic human decency into their lives – but you do!

Actually, before we get to Monday evening, participating in Forgiveness Vespers and the rite of forgiveness is a blessed way to begin the Lenten season. Forgiveness Vespers begins after some refreshments following the Liturgy.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On Lenten Practices

Dear Parish Faithful,

As we “gird our loins” for the lenten struggle that commences next Monday, March 7, I will periodically send out some reminders about the various types of practices that we embrace on a more intense level during this season. There are three such articles attached to this letter, [in printable PDF format] dealing respectively with prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Please read them carefully at your convenience.

In Christ,
Fr. Steven