Wednesday, April 20, 2011

No One is to Go Away Hungry

Dear Parish Faithful,

Our parish website – - has a plethora of excellent resources about Holy Week that would make any further commentary from me rather superfluous. These resources explain Holy Week and Pascha from various inter-related perspectives: liturgical, scriptural, theological, spiritual, etc. I highly encourage everyone to carefully read through some of this wonderful material so as to deepen your own personal experience of the beauty and depth of Great and Holy Week. This may be especially true for those who are new to the Orthodox Church. This Week of the Lord’s Passion can get rather overwhelming, so perhaps a prior insightful explanation of the various services can prove to be more than a little helpful.

What I did want to comment on is a very problematic practice that has become a (dubious) “tradition” among many of the Orthodox faithful: to leave the midnight Paschal service before it is completed - or even before the reception of Holy Communion. There is the initial exodus of some following the paschal procession itself and the announcement of the Resurrection. After hearing “Christ is Risen!” preferably in a language other than English, some of these faithful disappear into the night, more intent on eating lamb than partaking of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. It is as if the “drama”of experiencing the transformation of the church from darkness to light is satisfying enough; or perhaps everything to follow is simply too anti-climatic and thus unable to further hold the attention of these annual visitors to the church. My mother’s friend once referred to this group as Easter Orthodox Christians. Others “enjoy” the paschal Matins and its wonderful hymnography and the well-known melodies developed within traditionally Orthodox countries. This group will melt away as the paschal Matins draws to an end. The “usual” Divine Liturgy to follow does not hold the promise of the same delights as the annual uplift of the Paschal canon sung in a memorable style that provokes the nostalgic memories of childhood experiences. Or, to complete the picture, others will stay through a portion of the Liturgy, but not prepared or intent on receiving Holy Communion, they too will depart into the night for whatever further celebratory observances are planned.

I recall a striking example of this from my past. When serving a mission parish in London, Ontario, there was another large Orthodox parish in the city that was quite “ethnic” in its over-all composition. This parish, which regularly saw about two-three hundred worshippers at a given Sunday Liturgy would have to rent a large hall in order to accommodate the huge crowd that would appear for the midnight pascha service. The priest told me that there would be from two-three thousand Orthodox faithful at the beginning of the paschal procession at midnight. (Where had they been “hiding” all year?). He further told me that about one-half of that large crowd would leave after the initial “Christ is Risen,” not even re-entering the hall/church; and that by the time of Holy Communion in the Liturgy, only about three-four hundred remained. This was a routine occurrence year after year. This is Orthodoxy as a cultural phenomenon, but not as a living Faith that can transform one’s life.

Now, the midnight Paschal services, culminating with the Divine Liturgy, is the culmination and climax of a long and exhausting week that demands a certain stamina. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I am tired near the end of the week. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” and it is possible that our bodies will get the better of us as the services unfold. One can get to feel poorly, or light-headed, and reluctantly be forced to leave early. This can happen. For those with children, even with the best of intentions, you may have a “meltdown” on your hands half-way through the services, rather than that sleeping child blissfully stretched out on a pew as was the initial “strategy” for making it through the long night. Such a “family drama” may preclude the possibility of staying for the duration of the services. Obviously, I am not alluding to these very real scenarios. I am addressing the issue of … just leaving for no particularly pressing reason. Somehow, this has become an Orthodox “tradition” – dubious as it is.

When we encounter the exodus of Easter Orthodox Christians out of the church on Pascha – the “night brighter than the day” – we are encountering the reduction of Pascha to the level of custom, “tradition,” cultural and/or ethnic phenomenon that has more of an “Easter holiday” atmosphere, than the celebration of the paschal mystery of the “death of death” in and through the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. In this approach, Easter is a one day event culminating in a special family meal with other family traditions. But the paschal mystery is an all-together different reality that begins on the night of Pascha, culminating in the Divine Liturgy and the reception of the Eucharist. This is the one Divine Liturgy of the Church’s annual cycle in which all Orthodox Christians need to receive Holy Communion – even if it means “hanging on” just a little bit longer. That is the whole meaning of the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom read near the conclusion of Matins. Prepared or unprepared, the Master is inviting us to the table that is laden with Christ, our paschal Lamb. How can we ignore that invitation? To leave the Liturgy before this blessed communion with Christ at the paschal Liturgy is to somehow deeply misunderstand the deeper meaning of Pascha, the Liturgy and the Eucharist.

Remaining for the blessing of the paschal baskets is enjoyable and good fellowship, but insignificant in comparison to receiving the “food” of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ. As the Paschal Service book states it:

The altar table is fully laden with the divine food: the Body and Blood of the risen and glorified Christ. No one is to go away hungry. The service books are very specific in saying that only he who partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ eats the true Pascha.

Even though this may not be an issue for our local parish, this is just a reminder of the riches in store for the faithful on the brilliant night of Pascha. We greet all of our visitors on that night with a spirit of hospitality – and wish that many of them would stay a bit longer. And we hope and pray that no circumstances take that possibility away from us.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Very Path of Glory

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is another excerpt from the remarkable essay, “Redemption,” from the great Orthodox theologian, Fr. Georges Florovsky (+1979), as we prepare again to stand at the foot of the Cross as we move through Great and Holy Week:

Whatever may be our interpretation of the Agony in the Garden, one point is perfectly clear. Christ was not a passive victim, but the Conqueror, even in His uttermost humiliation. He knew that this humiliation was no mere endurance or obedience, but the very path of Glory and of the ultimate victory.

Avoiding Death - Modern Culture's Pathology and the Defeat of Shame

Dear Parish Faithful,

This well-written letter from our catechumen, Nicole Lyons, deserves not only a careful reading, but some real “meditative” thought. The lecture she is summarizing reveals some frightening things about our culture – beginning with the trivialization of “ the mystery of death” itself. A secular culture has no “answer” for death, and thus flees from its presence. Even Christian churches are turning funerals into “celebrations” of the life that is over, rather than addressing the reality of death (and the victory over death by Christ’s Resurrection). And, frankly, it can get rather superficial. God forbid that you mention the “forgiveness of sins” within these services of celebration! Such churches are capitulating to the prevailing “death-denying” atmosphere of a spiritually-lost culture. This week we are the midst of contemplating the Gospel which offers the only acceptable “answer:” the death of death in and through the resurrecting death of Christ.


Fr Steven

Yesterday I listened to a podcast called "Modern Death, Millennial Mourning: The Challenge of Twenty-first Century Grief," by Sandra Gilbert, former president of the Modern Language Association (MLA). I think her main field is English and Literature.

Anyway, the lecture was basically about how our culture avoids talking about / thinking about death to a pathological degree. Instead of having funerals, people now can gather at a country club without the body even present, to "celebrate" the life of the departed. Instead of interring the body, you can now pay companies to make diamonds or windchimes out of the dearly departed's ashes--or pencils, for that matter (about 250 pencils can be made from each body, which can be handed out at the funeral, or "celebration," as the case may be).(It's entirely possible that balloons could also be procured.) She mentions a few factors for this, one of them is the fact that we've lost a cultural vocabulary with which to comfort each other meaningfully (e.g. why offer to pray for/ with someone when no one believes in God anymore?) But she also discusses the rhetoric of Freud, when he discussed grief and bereavement, who likened those emotional processes to a sickness that must be cured, and that out of that thinking came things like the 7 Stages of Grief. So that when people talk about grief, it is in the concept of "getting better" as soon as possible rather than really recognizing that grief stays and lingers unlike a curable disease.

Anyway I thought of you because of some things you've said in the past regarding orthodox views of mortality, death, body and soul. Also, how in your homily yesterday you reminded us that death was not part of God's plan, and how there is somehow a connection between sin and death. Gilbert I think is really trying to grapple with what grief even is, in a culture that--in most realms of life, not just grief--incessantly admonishes us to be happy, be better, forget the past, move on (ASAP), be productive, etc. She also points out the degree of shame that a widow feels when her spouse dies--not necessarily guilt that the death could have been avoided, but just a pervading and inexplicable sense of shame that death touched their lives. She notes that this is something she's never seen addressed by popular psychology, yet it shows up in many grief narratives; shame is something you can't talk yourself out of, unlike guilt. I don't think Gilbert is a Christian--a theist, perhaps--but this was a very poignant observation on her part. When we think about the connection between death and sin, and the shame that Adam and Eve felt over their sin when they used fig leaves to cover themselves, it makes me wonder if all of our cultural pathology is not just an inability to face the fear of death in a secular worldview, but also the fact that without turning to the Christian God, we also have no means to deal with the shame of death. I think, because Christ trampled down death by death, He also reckoned with the shame of death, and our own shame in the face of death.

Anyway--sorry for the long email. After listening to it yesterday afternoon, I'm clearly still thinking about it. Plus I wasn't sure if you would actually get a chance to listen to it, b/c I don't know if you use podcasts. Just in case, here is the address:
You have to scroll down to find the 07. April 2008 lecture.


The 'Must' of Divine Love

Dear Parish Faithful,

The following is an excerpt (with a few more to come) from a brilliant essay by Fr. George Florovsky (+1979) entitled, simply “Redemption:”

"The mystery of the Cross is beyond our rational comprehension. This “terrible sight” seems strange and startling. The whole life of our Blessed Lord was one great act of forbearance, mercy and love. And the whole of it is illuminated by the eternal radiance of Divinity, though that radiance is invisible to the world of flesh and sin….

"Christ came not only that He might teach with authority and tell people the name of the Father, not only that He might accomplish works of mercy. He came to suffer and to die, and to rise again. He Himself more than once witnessed to this before the perplexed and startled disciples. He not only prophesied the coming Passion and death, but plainly stated that He must, that He had to, suffer and be killed. He plainly said that “must” not simply “was about to.” … “Must” [Gk. dei] not just according to the law of this world, in which good and truth is persecuted and rejected, not just according to the law of hatred and evil. The death of Our Lord was in full freedom. No one takes His life away. He Himself offers His soul by His own supreme will and authority. “I have authority” (JN. 10:18). He suffered and died, “not because He could not escape suffering, but because He chose to suffer,” as it is stated in the Russian Catechism. Chose, not merely in the sense of voluntary resistance, not merely in the sense that He permitted the rage of sin and unrighteousness to be vented on Himself. He not only permitted but willed it. He must have died according to the law of truth and love. In no way was the Crucifixion a passive suicide or simply murder. It was a Sacrifice and an oblation. This was the necessity of divine Love."

From Volume Three of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, p. 99-100.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Enable Us to See the Holy Week of Thy Passion

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We have completed the forty days which profit our souls.
Now let us beg the lover of man; enable us to see the Holy Week
of Thy Passion,
That we may glorify Thy mighty work,
Thy wonderful plan for our salvation,
Singing with one heart and voice,
O Lord, glory to Thee! 

(Great Vespers of Lazarus Saturday)

Today is the fortieth and final day of Great Lent. We are now preparing for the twin feasts of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. The Church exults in proclaiming Christ the “Vanquisher of Death” and He that comes “in the Name of the Lord,” as a prelude to the sobriety and solemnity of Holy Week.

I am trying something a bit different today: I am simply re-sending the meditation I wrote on the first day of Great Lent, March 7. I can understand those who may not feel the need or have the desire of re-reading it. However, I thought that perhaps it could serve the purpose of allowing us to assess or evaluate the past forty days and the goals that we set ourselves for this Lenten season. As I wrote and asked forty days ago: Will we persevere or will we … wimp out?! And, as I wrote just last week, I believe: Have we finished with a “kick” or are we limping over the finish line? Of course, such assessments and evaluations can be spiritually dangerous: a “good Lent” can lead to self-righteousness or pride. But I trust that if that is happily the case, everyone has enough humility and maturity not to indulge in such foolish fantasies; rather any Orthodox Christian will thank God for His gracious presence in accompanying us through the course of the Fast.

Yet, regardless of how we assess the last forty days, we are now preparing to “go up to Jerusalem” and to accompany our Lord to the Cross and then stand in awe by the empty tomb. There is nothing quite like Holy Week, and it demands as much attention and focus as we are capable of giving it. If the Cross and Resurrection together reveal the love of God at its most intense; if, finally, what we claim through our worship and faith is actually true then it can be no other way. The liturgical services will take us on that journey. Even when we are not able to be present, it is not because “worldly pursuits” have enticed us away. May our homes truly become “little churches” during the course of Holy Week.

For whatever it is worth, here is the meditation from forty days ago:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Orthodox Understanding of Acts of Mercy

Dear Parish Faithful,

An excellent piece that reminds us of one of the most important components of our Lenten efforts.

Fr. Steven


Fr. Thomas Hopko

Christ commanded his disciples to give alms. To "give alms" means literally "to do" or "to make merciful deeds" or "acts of mercy." According to the Scriptures the Lord is compassionate and merciful, longsuffering, full of mercy, faithful and true. He is the one who does merciful deeds (see Psalm 103).

Acts of mercy are an "imitation of God" who ceaselessly executes mercy for all, without exception, condition or qualification. He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

To "do mercy" means to do good to others in concrete acts of charity. It does not mean, in the first instance, to forgive, or to "let off sinners." A merciful person is one who is kind, gracious, generous and giving; a helper and servant of the poor and needy. For example, St. John the Merciful of Alexandria was a bishop who helped the poor and needy; he was not a judge who let off criminals.

Mercy is a sign of love. God is Love. A deed of merciful love is the most Godlike act a human being can do. "Being perfect" in Matthew's Gospel corresponds to "being merciful" in Luke's Gospel. "Perfection" and "being merciful" are the same thing.

To love as Christ loves, with the love of God who is Love, is the chief commandment for human beings according to Christianity. It can only be accomplished by God's grace, by faith. It is not humanly possible. It is done by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. One can prove one's love for God only by love for one's neighbors, including one's worst enemies, without exception, qualification or condition. There is no other way.

To love God "with all one's strength" which is part of "the first and great commandment" means to love God with all one's money, resources, properties, possessions and powers.

Acts of mercy must be concrete, physical actions. They cannot be "in word and speech, but in deed and truth" (First letter of John and letter of James).

Jesus lists the acts of mercy on which human beings will be judged at the final judgment (Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25). Acts of mercy are acts done to Christ himself who was hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, in prison and "sick" i.e. wounded for our transgressions on the Christ, taking up of our wounds, and dying our death.

Christian acts of mercy must be done silently, humbly, secretly, not for vanity or praise, not to be seen by men, "not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing", etc.

Christian acts of mercy must be sacrificial. By this, we understand that we must not simply give to others what is left over. We have to be sharing our possessions with others in ways that limit ourselves in some way (The Widow's Mite).

Acts of mercy should be done without qualification or condition to everyone, no matter who, what or how they are (Parable of the Good Samaritan).

Christians, when possible, should do acts of mercy in an organized manner, through organizations and communities formed to do merciful deeds. Throughout its history the Christian people have had many forms of eleemosynary institutions and activities.

Being the poor Christians are not only to help the poor; they are themselves to be the poor, in and with Jesus Christ their Lord. Christians are to have no more than they actually need for themselves, their children and their dependents.

How much is enough? How much is necessary? What do we really need? How may we use our money and possessions for ourselves, our families, our children and our churches?

These are the hardest questions for Christians to answer.

*Fr. Thomas Hopko is Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and currently serves at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Inapproprite Material for Church?

Dear Parish Faithful,

I have an amusing anecdote to share with everyone from yesterday (some would even say “cute,” but as you may have surmised by now, such a description is not quite my style). Be that as it may, it was related to me yesterday that following the homily on St. Mary of Egypt – some of which touched on her struggles with the passion of lust – one of our church school age students was heard to say: “That was inappropriate!” Well, glad to hear that someone was listening. My aim, however, was “realism” and finally edification; to deal with the story of St. Mary’s life as it presented itself in its pre-conversion and post-conversion aspects. However, once you start talking about sex in Church …

What is quite amazing, is the level of “inappropriate” discourse in the actual narrative of The Life of St. Mary of Egypt, written by St. Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem. When the monk Zosimas begs St. Mary to openly reveal to him her life as it has unfolded – including its sinful beginning, we hear the following confession from the saint:

Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall, how, while there, I at first ruined by maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality. It is more becoming to speak of this briefly, so that you may just know my passion and my lechery; for about seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain – here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. Do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.

After boarding a ship that was sailing to Jerusalem, carrying on board some pilgrims going to the holy city for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (one of many fascinating pieces of liturgical history embedded in the Life), St. Mary continues her dreary history of a “life of a great sinner,” further embellished by some fine rhetorical flourishes:

How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ear can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage? And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits His return to Him. … I was not content with the youths I had seduced at sea and who had helped me get to Jerusalem; many others – citizens of the town and foreigners – I also seduced.

Considering that this Life is prescribed to be read aloud in its entirety in church on the fifth Thursday in Great Lent, this is fairly “racy” material! Perhaps an eyebrow was raised when we read this last week in church, especially for those who may have heard the actual text for the first time. Obviously, the listener is to be struck by the self-destructiveness of such behavior, rather than allowing his or her imagination to run wild with “filling in the details.”

However, if you want to avoid “inappropriate” material for the future, then you have to stop reading … the Bible! Or, at least certain episodes, which would include, but not be limited to: Ham “seeing the nakedness” of his father (Noah), an expression that some biblical scholars understand as a euphemism for copulation or possibly castration; Sodom and Gomorrah (GEN. 18); and David and Bathsheba (II SAM. 11). Yet, these unseemly episodes are so woven into the fabric of certain stories; or flesh out the full character of key biblical figures, that ignoring “sexually explicit material” only serves in truncating the text and losing its all-too-human quality, including the human propensity to sin.

Life can get messy and murky. Often enough, that murkiness is never better expressed than through human sexuality and its misuse and/or abuse. The Bible respects this aspect of human life, and thus it remains realistic, rather than project the unreality of a perfectly-formed philosophical system or structure onto life’s inherent messiness in a fallen world. Then, “we call it as we see it,” and hope that the ending is as powerful and inspiring as the repentance of St. Mary of Egypt, whose great sin was covered by a great repentance; one that to this day deeply moves our minds and hearts when we hear it yet again.

For the future, I am going to try and stick with more appropriate material!

Fr. Steven

Saturday, April 9, 2011

How Much of This Has Been Made Ours?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

St. Andrew of Crete’s Canon of Repentance is chanted on the first four evenings of Great Lent. That is the “perfect” beginning, in that Great Lent is a “school of repentance.” But the Canon is prescribed to be chanted in its entirety on the Thursday of the fifth week of Great Lent – almost at the very end. What is the purpose of repeating the Canon well into the Lenten season? An excellent answer is provided by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his celebrated book Great Lent:

If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a “summary” of repentance and its fulfillment. If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our Lenten effort: how much of all this has truly been made ours? How far have we come along the path of repentance? (Great Lent, p. 78)

Great Lent has a way of “getting away from us,” as the season wears on. Often, our well-intentioned good beginning – together with all of the goals we set for ourselves during these “all-revered days” - are undermined for a variety of reasons, including the “fatigue factor” (see the Monday Morning Meditation from earlier in the week). This is clearly behind Fr. Alexander’s analysis. Perhaps the re-intensification of that initial zeal for Great Lent as we draw near to its completion; and then its carry-over into Great and Holy Week will be the “reward” for those who were present at the service yesterday evening (more, by the way, then we have had in the past for this particular service).

In addition to St. Andrew’s Canon of Repentance (which, if done in its entirety, would include about one hundred eighty troparia with the attendant bows!), the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, written by St. Sophronios Patriarch of Jerusalem, is also prescribed to be read in its entirety together with the Canon at the same service. This we did yesterday evening. As Archbishop Kallistos comments about the place of St. Mary of Egypt in the life of the Church:

Just as the fourth Sunday is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the model of ascetics, so the fifth celebrates St. Mary of Egypt, the model of penitents. Her life … sets before us a true verbal icon of the essence of repentance. (The Lenten Triodion, p. 56)

Concerning the reading of this Life within the context of a liturgical service of the Church, Panayiotis Nellas writes the following:

Furthermore, St. Mary of Egypt is likewise present. The reading of her life does not have as its aim simply to move the faithful. It plays in the service an organic part which is at once deeper and more real. The Orthodox faithful know very well that the feast day of a saint is not a simple honoring of a holy person or a recollection of her life for didactic reasons. Rather, it is a real participation in her life, her struggles, her victory and her glory. The reading of her place takes place in order to bring the saint amongst us in a true and real manner with her whole life and all her struggles.

… Thus the liturgical reading of the life of St. Mary makes the saint present in the assembly of the faithful in a sacramental manner, so that she can accompany them and struggle with them in the contest of repentance and prayer. For this reason, at the end of each ode of the Great Canon there are two troparia in which the faithful address themselves to her:
"God Whom you loved and for Whom you longed, Whose path you Followed, O Mother, found you and granted you repentance in His Compassion. Pray, therefore, that we may be freed from sin and Adversity." (Ode Seven)

As the Canon exhorts us to repentance, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt places before our gaze a spectacular instance of repentance as embodied in one of the great saints of the Church. In an historical person of flesh and blood, we encounter the real fruits of repentance. And we discover the great “cost” of repentance, that only through “blood, sweat and tears” is the movement back toward God even possible. St. Mary of Egypt’s life can prove to be very jarring – perhaps even offensive – to our middle-class standards of Christian behavior and moral rectitude; but it is precisely in the radicalness of her repentance that we can witness the depths of the Gospel promise of salvation for any and all sinners who sincerely repent. No sin is too great for the mercy of God; for it was St. Gregory the Theologian who said somewhere that our sins are like drops of water in the ocean of the divine mercy. Hers was the life of a great sinner, and it resulted in a great repentance. We are convinced that we are not great sinners, but what is the corresponding depth of our repentance?

In a further note by Archbishop Kallistos, this may prove to be of some interest to those familiar with St. Mary’s extraordinary life, and the seemingly impossible nature of her life in the desert:

Some modern writers have questioned the historical accuracy of St. Sophronios’ narrative, but there is in itself nothing impossible about such a story. In the year 1890 the Greek priest Joachim Spetsieris found a woman hermit in the desert beyond the Jordan, living almost exactly as St. Mary must have done. (The Lenten Triodion, p. 56)

We will again turn our attention to St. Mary of Egypt as we commemorate her on the upcoming Fifth Sunday of Great Lent. That commemoration will begin on Saturday evening and the celebration of Great Vespers, the service that inaugurates a new liturgical day. Many of the stichera of that service are in honor of St. Mary of Egypt.

This evening we will chant the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God in its entirety, a long structured hymn called “one of the great marvels of Greek religious poetry” by Archbishop Ware.

Fr Steven

Monday, April 4, 2011

Limping Down the Stretch? Or Finishing with a Kick?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The grace of abstinence, radiant with the light of God, shines this day upon us more brightly than the sun; illumining our souls, it drives away the clouds of sinful passions. Embracing it with joy, let us all run with good courage, and finish its course rejoicing; and filled with gladness let us cry to Christ: Sanctify those who complete the Fast with faith, O loving Lord. (Monday Vespers in the Fifth Week).

Leaving aside Holy Week for a moment, we now have less than two weeks remaining in Great Lent. That means that we are two-thirds of the way through the Lenten season. These last two weeks, therefore, can be likened to something of a “stretch run” leading us to the “finish line.” In a race, the good runner will never be content with merely finishing, especially if that means limping over the finish line and collapsing in a state of total exhaustion. The good runner will finish with a “kick” that brings him to the finish line with a final burst of energy that will arise out of a mysterious inner reserve that will surprise his opponents and perhaps even himself. This would be a medal or a crown fully deserved.

We could apply such an image to ourselves as we struggle to “complete the course of the Fast” (Prayer before the Ambo in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts). We too struggle to complete the “stretch run” of the last third of Great Lent, strengthened by a sense of perseverance and commitment to the Lord and His Church that draws upon a mysterious inner reserve that is, in turn, nourished by the grace of God, and not only the strength of our autonomous selves. I am sure that no one wants to crawl toward the end of Great Lent, or turn Great Lent into an endurance test that we force ourselves to complete with a grim smile and clenched teeth. We further hope to experience a sense of gladness rather than the expected exhaustion, or at least the mingling of the two. This image of the race has its scriptural foundations: “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” And, as in the arena, we too are surrounded by a large throng, but in this case it is a “great cloud of witnesses.” As runners, of course, will not compete burdened by any weight, so we too are exhorted to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” (For the entire passage, see HEB. 12:1-2)

The Apostle Paul transforms the “games” of the ancient world, with some of its events into a further image of perseverance and ascetical effort, so as to encourage all Christians to “fight the good fight:”

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (I COR. 9:25-27)

We have other images taken from the world in order to describe what we like to call today – somewhat artificially - our “spiritual lives:”

Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlists him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to take the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything. (II TIM. 2:3-7)

Why do athletes, or soldiers, or farmers – as in the images employed by the Apostle Paul from his immediate environment – work so much harder and with such great dedication for their goals; while Christians are often lukewarm, indifferent, or only mildly interested in the pursuit of their goal which is communion and fellowship with God?! Is it because the goal seems less immediate or, to state that question another way, more abstract? Is it because we believe that God “loves” us whether we are committed to the Christian life or not?

Those types of questions are never easy to answer. However, what we can do is expend the effort needed to be genuine “co-workers” with God in the pursuit of “taking Lent seriously” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s phrase) as we enter its “stretch run” and try and live up to that exalted title of “Orthodox Christian.”