Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Rapture, Part 3: 'Beam Me Up' Theology

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

“It is much better to think that our death will come before the end of the world rather than the end of the world before our death.” ~ St. Nikolai Velimirovich

One last return to the subject of the “rapture” as I continue to think and read about it based upon some of the many responses I have received subsequent to my article of Tuesday. Perhaps I “struck a nerve” with my article, because I am receiving letters and responses from all over and from people I have never corresponded with before. I am hearing many stories – a couple of which I have already shared with you – about how belief in the rapture has shaped the faith and practice of many, though in ways that strike me as spiritually unhealthy. Fear and anxiety over not being “raptured” but “left behind” is a consistent theme in what I am hearing. Is that “Good News?” Some form of “rapture theology” is probably much more prevalent within American Protestantism than I have realized. Just by being “out there,” as it were. And it may have insinuated itself into the minds of many, even within churches that do not teach it. Has that happened to anyone in our own parish community? If you have believed in, accepted, or been influenced by some variation or other of the teaching on the rapture emanating from certain fundamentalist Protestant groups, I encourage you to confidentially share that with me, so that we can discuss it together. I am not heresy-hunting. I am trying to be pastoral and helpful. I am convinced, together with our entire theological Tradition, that this is a very false and dangerous teaching, precisely because of its inaccuracy and the false promises that it is using to gain adherents, often by fear.

Do not confuse the rapture with a belief in the Parousia (Second Coming of Christ), something we do believe in and confess in the Creed. To summarize again: The rapture is about Christians being taken up in the air to meet Christ who will come to gather up all true Christians, who will then return to heaven together with Christ so as to be kept safe from the seven-year tribulation that will engulf and basically destroy the earth as we know it. Only then will Christ return with finality (seven years later) in order “to establish a Jerusalem-based kingdom on earth.” This is all based on a hopelessly artificial reading of DAN. 9:25-27. As I wrote earlier, one can be “raptured” out of one’s car; from one’s work desk; from out of the shower (I would assume); and with no forewarning. In her book The Rapture Exposed, Barbara R. Rossing calls this “beam me up” theology. In her book, she further distinguishes the scriptural references to resurrection and the Parousia (Second Coming of Christ) from the non-scriptural term “rapture” :

The majority of New Testament passages on which dispensationalists base the notion of Rapture concern either resurrection or Jesus’ second coming – neither of which is the same as the Rapture, despite dispensationalists’ claims.

Resurrection is the foundational event for Christian faith. Ancient Christian creeds proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead and declare that “We believe in the resurrection of the dead,” a belief shared by all Christian traditions today. But this is certainly not the same as saying that believers will be “Raptured” up from the earth to heaven. (The Rapture Exposed, p. 31)

This belief in the rapture is only about 170 years old. It was invented by the British Evangelical preacher John Nelson Darby, supposedly inspired by a vision that a fifteen year old Scottish girl by the name of Margaret MacDonald had in 1830. According to the historian Martin Marty, this teaching was then “shipped to America, and exported to the world.” As I study this recent phenomenon of Protestant dispensationalism with its attendant belief in the Rapture, I am discovering some of the pitfalls inherent in a rigidly “literal” interpretation of the Scripture. If everything written in the Bible has to have happened or be fulfilled “to the letter,” than account must be made for “unfulfilled prophecy” (supposedly the case in DAN. 9:25-27). This is when highly speculative interpretations that violate other scriptural teachings are made, none of which are spelled out in a literal manner. As I wrote earlier, the word “rapture” is not found in the Scriptures! The Bible is not so simplistic, and it cannot be subjected to a pseudo-scientifically determined timeline in which a series of divine “dispensations” are discerned concerning the end of the world. As the biblical scholar Craig Hill pointedly writes:

“Ironically, in their effort to interpret the Bible literally and consistently, proponents of the Rapture have mangled the biblical witness almost beyond comprehension. It is the Bible itself, this wonderfully diverse and complex witness to God and Christ, that has been left behind.” (Quoted in The Rapture Exposed, p. 42)

When Jesus spoke of the end of history – in what I would consider to be “symbolic” language – He emphasized that “that hour” is known is meant to remain unknown:

But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father. (MK. 13:32)

In place of obsession, fear and calculation, Christ taught about vigilance and preparedness:

Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. watch therefore – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. (MK. 13:33-37)

I strongly believe that we should carefully heed the words of St. Nikolai Velimirovich, found as a heading to this meditation, that each one of us should prepare for our own personal death – and our subsequent judgment – as an event that will occur before the end of the world. Preparation means a life of faith in Christ strengthened by prayer, almsgiving and fasting. If, by the “dispensation” of God, the order was to be reversed, then we will be prepared for the glorious future prepared for those who love God wholly and unconditionally.

Fr. Steven

The Rapture, Part 2: Failure to Launch

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

I received some interesting letters made in response to my article on “The Heresy of the Rapture” from yesterday. So, I would like to make a few short comments and then share a text from a good biblical scholar that summarizes the incoherent and non-biblical claims of “rapture theology.” I read a more detailed account of this false prophet’s “recalculation” that now points to an October date for the supposed rapture. He sounded blissfully unapologetic for misleading so many people this past weekend, and perhaps ruining their lives in the process. As often happens in the case of unfulfilled prophecy, a kind of “theological spin” is employed to demonstrate that the prophecy was not really that inaccurate, but needs to be carefully re-interpreted so as to salvage something of the prophet’s reputation and the future of the “movement.” (This is precisely what Jehovah’s Witnesses did after their failed prophecy of the end of the world in 1914). So, we are hearing that some kind of “spiritual judgment” occurred on Saturday, as a preliminary for the rapture that will now occur in October. Basically, we are being told, no further preaching has to be done, for it is now too late for repentance, because the soon-to-be raptured elect and the unfortunate “left-behinds” have already been determined. Whatever the case may be, there is no real purpose on spending any more time on such sheer nonsense.

I did, however, want to share a closing section of a very well-written book by Barbara R. Rossing, entitled The Rapture Exposed – The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. The author is a professor of New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her book is a careful study of the New Testament texts that are incorrectly interpreted by rapture theologians, and a an over-all study of biblical prophecy and apocalypticism. Her Epilogue contains the following, under a sub-section entitled “Wrestling With the Bible: A Prophetic Clothesline or a Blessing?”

The Bible is difficult to understand, and apocalyptic passages such as the book of Revelation and Matthew 24-25 are some of the hardest. The temptation is to make up a system to give answers – to create a “prophetic clothesline” and then hang biblical passages on it. But the Bible gives us neither a clothesline nor a timeline nor a system – it gives us a relationship with God! To read the Bible’s hardest passages is like wrestling with God, much like Jacob who wrestled through the night at the river Jabbok. You grapple to make sense of the words, you hold on, you struggle for clarity, you seek to wrest answers for all your questions. What God gives you instead of a system of answers is a blessing, a new name – a living relationship. You are forever changed by the encounter. You have seen the face of God.

We could examine each of the many biblical passages that dispensationalists love to cite. The fact is that not one single biblical passage lays out the dispensationalists’ overarching chronology of Rapture followed by seven years of tribulation followed by Jesus’ return to earth (emphasis added). They have to piece this grand narrative together like stringing clothes on a clothesline. There is no two-stage return of Christ in the Bible, no escapist Rapture from earth for born-again Christians.

Jesus will return – once. Until then, we are always with Jesus and he is with us – Emmanuel. Our life is held in God’s time. And we are called to live in wakefulness, to pray as the final verses of Revelation do, “Amen, come Lord Jesus.”

The Rapture Exposed, p. 186

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Heresy of the Rapture

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

I was barely aware of the story over the weekend concerning a small(?) group of Fundamentalist Christians who were awaiting the “rapture” that would anticipate and prepare the world for its demise and the final judgment. I must have lagged behind in keeping up with the news – or at least certain newsworthy stories. Yesterday, however, I read a lead article about the self-appointed “preacher” who found himself “flabbergasted” that his calculation of May 21, 2011, as the day of the “rapture” did not actually materialize. I believe that he is now in hiding, though he did boldly predict that he now believes that a date in October of this year will be the actual day of the “rapture.” His poor followers are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered dream and return to the endless challenges of the “daily crosses” we often must bear in the quotidian reality of “this world.”

As an Orthodox Christian I am perfectly indifferent to any and all dates that may be calculated concerning the so-called “rapture,” for the simple but important reason that we do not believe that there will be a rapture as envisioned by various Protestant sectarians since the 19th c. This is a teaching – or belief – that has never been part of the Church’s Tradition and which we can probably label a “heresy” with some legitimacy. We believe that this is a false teaching that is contrary to the Scriptures and the ongoing Tradition of the Church. As I just mentioned, the origin of the rapture teaching is as recent as the 19th c. And I believe that the teaching is credited to a certain John Darby. This is a part of what is further termed Protestant “dispensationalism.” However, the twelve(!) volumes of the fictional Left Behind series by Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins have recently popularized “rapture theology” with probably disastrous results for many Christians who were taken in by this bogus and fear-creating theology. And this “theology” is painfully superficial and artificial, based upon a misreading of a few biblical texts (I THESS. 4:13-18; MATT. 24:39-42; JN. 14:1-2) These authors – regardless of their sincerity – ironically became multi-millionaires as they wrote about the end of the world and the last judgment, in a series of best-sellers. Might as well enjoy yourselves and come to terms with “mammon” while waiting for Jesus to take you out of the this world of tribulation and sorrow! There is also a strong militarist “right-wing” component to the Left Behind series that has political implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East. Fortunately, it does seem as though a good deal of this has died down in recent years as this series of books has lost some of its momentum. I never felt the slightest temptation to read any of this literature, not even for the sake of maintaining an awareness of what was attracting so much attention.

Another irony is that many biblical literalists cannot support their claims from the Scriptures. For example: The word “rapture” does not appear in the Bible! It is an artificial construction, based upon cutting and pasting together the biblical passages that are mentioned above. For those who are blissfully ignorant of rapture theology, perhaps a short description may be helpful. The “rapture” claims that Jesus will descend from heaven and take up true believing Christians into the air with Him – hence the “rapture” (from the Latin raptio, “to snatch”); and hence all of those unanticipated driver-less cars that will be careening around our streets and freeways as so many weapons that God can further use to punish the non-believers. Christ will then essentially “turn around” and “return” to heaven with these true believers who will be spared the seven years of horrible tribulation unleashed upon the earth before He returns again in a definitive manner to inaugurate the end of the world and the last judgment. We are now presented with a two-part Second Coming of Christ that again has no biblical or creedal support. This scenario offers the false comfort to Christians that they will not have to share the sufferings of the world with their fellow human beings, legitimately prophesied in the Scriptures for the “end of the world” This is also blatantly in contradiction to the Scriptures (see MATT. 24:21-22).

As Orthodox Christians, we believe in the Second Coming of Christ, as stated in the Nicene Creed, when “He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.” But Orthodox theologians do not spend/waste their time calculating the time of the Parousia, nor do they attempt to describe what is essentially indescribable. Vigilance and preparedness are essential virtues according to the teaching of Christ. Our own deaths will come soon enough, and these will serve as our “personal judgments” before the Final Judgment for which we pray to have a “good defense.” There is more than enough there to occupy us in the interval. As a Serbian proverb says: Work as if you will live to be a hundred; and pray as if you will die tomorrow.

Another dreary effect of these stories is that the media and non-believers can mock Christians or Christianity for these supposedly non-fulfilled prophecies. I understand there were entire websites devoted to ridiculing this latest group and their vigilance in waiting to be raptured up on May 21. There were even “rapture parties.” The gleeful chatter and cynicism of the unbelieving world was very much a part of this sad story. Christianity remains in some minds to this day to be preoccupied with “Judgment Day” and the fear of God – together with God’s wrath toward sin and disbelief. Deservedly so one could argue, but it keeps the Gospel on the defensive and again sends very confusing signals as to what various Christians believe. Concentration is taken away from the love of God expressed so powerfully in the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ; of the sacramental life of the Church; of a life of serious prayer; and of the joy in the hearts of believers who trust in the further fulfillment of the promises of God.

Finally, there are the deeply disappointed, disenchanted, confused, and bewildered Christians who actually believed this “prophet.” Many of them distributed their assets and could be facing a bleak future of readjustment to life in the world. Now what do they do? Who now to listen to? How many will abandon their faith in Christ as they will feel as if Christ “let them down?” I feel very sorry for these people and hope that they can put their lives back together again on a solid footing with their basic Christian faith intact, though with a greater capacity for true discernment and a better knowledge of the Scriptures.

Just a few thoughts on yet another failed prophecy on the end of the world. Apparently, it’s back to work for everyone.

Fr. Steven

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Of Gods and Men, A Movie Review

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

The following is something of a review of a current film entitled “Of Gods and Men.” I disclose the ending of the film in the review, so if you have any previous desire to see this film, be forewarned that this review contains a “spoiler.”

Earlier in the week, presvytera Deborah and I went to see a film that did not have “entertainment” as its primary purpose. The result was that one’s attention span and intelligence were treated respectfully by both the film’s form and content. The further result was to have seen a film that leaves a deep impression that makes the viewer feel and think in a serious manner far beyond the rolling of the last credits and the ride home from the theatre. Such a “cinematic experience” reminds one of the potential of films to engage the mind and heart and not simply our immediate sensory impressions. The film is entitled “Of Gods and Men,” and it is directed by Xavier Beauvois. This is a French production (yes, you have to read the subtitles) that is based on the tragic incident of eight Roman Catholic Trappist monks who were killed by Muslim extremists in Algeria in 1996. At the end of the film and the dramatic events recounted with a riveting intensity, we learn that the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths, and the exact identity of the extremists remain mysteriously hidden to this day. Yet the fact of their death at the hands of an extremist Muslim group active in Algeria at the time is an established fact.

The story that unfolds is paced in such a manner that the daily – and unexciting - rhythm of the monks living in community is realistically recreated. As Trappist monks, these men lived a very austere life that was consciously reduced to the essentials of work, study and prayer. Simplicity, modeled on the Gospel, is the ideal. Scenes of the monks at prayer pervade the film and remind the outside world of the seriousness of the monastic vocation. However, this very quotidian life that concentrates on interior perfection is penetrated by the growing menace outside the gates of the monastery; and the threat of violence hangs over the monastery in a palpable manner as reports of other deadly terrorist attacks on civilians become known to the monks. This film is thus serious, tense and openly “religious” for its honesty in exploring deep questions of faith and trust in God among a humble group of men under intense pressure and even the awareness of the very real possibility of a violent death.

Another strength of the film is that it is free of a didactic element that “preaches” about the glory of a life of renunciation; and it is also free of the pietistic effect of transforming these Trappist monks into bold and brave martyrs. Yet, there are sections, especially toward the end of the film, in which the audience is confronted with some intense and impressive Christocentric reflections, such that the more secular viewers may find this intimidating, challenging, puzzling or the cause of some uneasiness at hearing the unapologetic meditations of men fully devoted to Christ. However, outside of the scenes of worship, accompanying by the plain chant of the monks, the film, in fact, concentrates on their inner struggle and resistance to the notion of a martyric death. The monks are shown repeatedly in dialogue with each other precisely about remaining in the monastery or returning to the safety and serenity of their French homeland. One monk passes through what is clearly a crisis of faith. He wonders aloud what conceivable purpose his death at the hands of militant terrorists would achieve. Why not choose to live, deepen one’s relationship with God and offer service to the world in an open-ended future? Without glorifying these monks, what emerges is their slow and steady commitment to their monastic vocations as they make their final decision in the end; and their additional commitment to their peaceful Muslim neighbors.

For though their monastery is the result of the earlier French colonization of Algeria, the monks have a good relationship with the poor neighbors in their rather remote rural location. One of the monks runs a health clinic for the local inhabitants which is flooded on a daily basis primarily with many Muslim women and their children. They depend upon his services and respect his humanitarian aid. The abbot of the monastery – wonderfully portrayed as an intellectual and somewhat austere figure – has mastered the Koran in the original Arabic and thus understands the religious sensibilities of the local population. He is shown in friendly dialogue with some of the leading men of the Muslim community. Obviously, there is no intention of proselytizing the Muslims on the part of these Roman Catholic monks. Peaceful co-habitation and mutual respect appears to be their main objective. (I recall in a documentary about Mt. Sinai, that the Orthodox monks of the ancient monastery of St. Katherine’s, also cultivated a friendly relationship with the native Bedouin tribesmen, even blessing their lambs and passing out Easter eggs on the day of Pascha). In today’s world those relationships both appear as idyllic and non-realistic.

The performance are uniformly excellent, without any pretense or artificiality. In fact, there is almost the feel of an intimate “docu-drama” to the film. But that may be just as much a result of the “artfulness” of the director. I am unaware of the location of the shooting of the film, but the cinematography of what is supposed to be rural Algeria with both its rolling hills and vineyards together with the rugged terrain of its barely accessible roads, is beautifully conceived and presented. The camera at times moves languidly over the landscape. Even if one knows the outcome ahead of time, the film remains tense from an early part until the end, gripping one’s attention in the presence of a human drama that embraces life and death and ultimate questions of how to discern the will of God in a situation filled with danger and tension.

If you are seeking some relief from the formulaic world of Hollywood film-making, I would highly recommend this film. “Of Gods and Men” will also perhaps make any Christian viewer (re)-think his or her own Christian faith and our own commitment to both a Christian worldview and lifestyle; and the depths of our commitment to Christ in a perilous and dangerous world.

Fr Steven

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Do We Want to be Healed?

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

On the Fourth Sunday of Pascha, we heard the account of Jesus going up to Jerusalem for a “feast of the Jews,” and there healing the paralytic (as we refer to him in our liturgical tradition) “by the Sheep Gate” and a pool “in Hebrew called Bethesda (also called Bethzatha or Bethsaida).” (JN. 5:1-2) Interestingly, twentieth century archaeological discoveries have revealed the accuracy of the evangelist’s description, including the existence of the “five porticoes” mentioned in the Gospel. (v. 2) This man had been ill for “thirty-eight years.” (v. 5) In popular piety, this pool had healing properties, but this apparently older and unaided man had learned to accept his condition without much hope for any future recovery or restoration of his health. Yet, following a short dialogue between Jesus and the paralytic, we are amazed to be informed that “at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.” (v. 9)

A very significant question is recorded in the Gospel as being at the heart of that short dialogue between Jesus and the paralytic. For Jesus asked him directly and poignantly: “Do you want to be healed?” (v. 6) As much as we may anticipate a heartfelt and resounding “Yes!” from the paralytic, what we actually hear is his excuse for why he has not been able to avail himself of the curative properties of the pool up to that point in time: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” (v. 7) The paralytic had been taught by hard experience that any misplaced enthusiasm at the prospect of being healed would only end up in further disappointment. Thus, his evasive response is both explanatory and defensive. Yet, here is an instance, not usually encountered in the healing done by Jesus of physical sickness in the Gospels, of a healing that is not in response to faith; for Jesus says to the man after hearing his uncommitted answer: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” (v. 8) The effect, however, is identical to the healing of another paralytic (who did display faith in Jesus) as recorded in the Gospel According to St. Mark: “And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went before them all.” (MK. 2:12)

I believe that it is worth the effort to explore the question that Jesus posed to the paralytic with what may prove to be an unsettling directness: “Do you want to be healed?” Our immediate reaction is that we, of course, want to be healed of whatever sickness we may have. It would appear as if we had completely lost our senses to answer otherwise. If our body is broken, there would be nothing more that we could possibly desire. In fact, as Christians, we may agonize when our prayer for such healing remains seemingly unanswered. Yet, we all claim that the waters of the baptismal font have healed us from both the ultimate effects of sin and death. We believe “in one baptism for the remission of sins” (Nicene Creed); and we further confess to believe that: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (ROM. 6:4) This is why we further confess in the Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life in the world to come.” All Christians are persons who claim to have been healed by Jesus in what is literally a life-changing manner. We can even live, to one degree or another, free of the fear of death!

And yet, that question – “Do you want to be healed?” - stubbornly persists as if awaiting a thoroughly thought-out response that recognizes all of the implications of an affirmative answer. Because if we really want to be healed by Jesus in a holistic manner, then we must change the way that we lead our lives. We must commit to an endless warfare against the passions; to struggling daily with temptations; and to further struggle against what is often an open and unapologetic self-centeredness and crass selfishness. We must make every effort to shift our self-love to a love of God and neighbor. To accept the healing presence of Christ is to overcome, through humility and prayer, all of our resentment and anger; to forgive others – even our enemies – of the myriad offenses that we are convinced we have suffered from their hands. Further, our lives cannot be dedicated to the pursuit of status, money, the acquisition of material wealth and power in our inter-human relationships. We cannot judge or condemn others, and always place ourselves in a brilliant light totally blinded to our own defects and sins. And when we fall victim to all of these sins due to our weaknesses and lack of vigilance, we must be prepared to repent of our sins and sincerely confess them, begging Christ for His forgiveness; and with the resolve to try and sin no more. What we must do, in short, is accept the dynamic implications of being created in the “image” of God with the universal vocation of growing in the “likeness” of God. Difficult as it may sound, all of this is “Good News” because it comes from God, in and through Christ and the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.

If there is any accuracy to the description above of what being healed by Jesus implies for our lives, then are we convinced that we are ready to give a resounding and unhesitant “Yes!” to the question of Christ: “Do you want to be healed?” Are we convinced that we would not deflect the question in another direction or provide the rationalizations or excuses that would prove to be as evasive as those of the paralytic? As with the paralytic, perhaps we have grown quite accustomed and “comfortable” with our ailments and the thought of such radical change may prove to be too challenging. Why change if the life we are presently leading is satisfying enough? Yet, if I have any insight whatsoever into how we understand the Gospel, I believe that that troubling question, formulated by Jesus during His ministry by the pool of Bethesda, is being posed to us on a daily basis whether we acknowledge it or not. If, indeed, “Christ is in our midst,” then He is so present with the healing power and authority which is His as the crucified and glorified Son of Man.

We inevitably learn that we cannot just “take” from Jesus, but that we must “give” back in return. This giving in return, however, is not “payment” for “services rendered.” It is the free, humble and heartfelt thanksgiving that overwhelms the mind and heart of a person who truly believes that he or she has been saved and redeemed – truly “bought with a price” – by Jesus the Messiah and Son of God. This resembles the one leper in ten who returned to Jesus to thank Him after being healed: “and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” (LK. 17:11-17) Or the Gadarene demoniac who “went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” (LK. 8:39) Like the paralytic, the leper, and even the demoniac, we have also been healed and therefore only one response is possible: to joyfully embrace the change of life implied by answering “Yes” to the question that Jesus asks, “Do you want to be healed?”

Fr. Steven

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Risen Lord

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Instead of a meditation this morning, I have attached a lengthier article that I prepared last year about the Resurrection of Christ. Most of you have probably already read it; but perhaps others have not. It has been somewhat revised and expanded. It is a more systematic presentation of the material that I presented in the homily yesterday on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women: the interweaving of the three essential aspects of the Resurrection of Christ -

1) the empty tomb;
2) appearances of the Risen Lord to His disciples; and
3) the transformation of the disciples into bold apostles.

I always like to use this particular Sunday to remind ourselves of the historical dimension of the Lord’s Resurrection as presented in the four canonical Gospels.

Read The Risen Lord (PDF format, suitable for printing).

in Christ,
Fr Steven

Friday, May 6, 2011

Break On Through (To The Other Side)

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ is Risen!
Indeed He is Risen!

The Orthodox Church’s claim that Pascha is “the Feast of Feasts” is far more than poetic rhetoric. On the most basic level, it reminds us that the very existence of the Church is dependent upon the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection “from the dead.” The Feast of Pascha makes that abundantly clear with an intensity that can be overwhelming. This, in turn, reinforces the blunt apostolic insight from the St. Paul: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (I COR. 15:14). No amount of modern “reinterpretation” of the Lord’s resurrection to the contrary can effectively silence or refute what the Apostle wrote. The Christian Faith – and the Church – stands or falls on the truthfulness of the bodily resurrection of Christ. The Apostle Paul further warns us that a non-resurrected Christ has even worse consequences for those who would mistakenly proclaim a resurrection that never actually occured: “We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God the he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true the dead are not raised” (v. 15). Finally, and with a brutal honesty that reveals the Apostle’s clarity of thought, he does not shrink from exposing the futility of purpose that a non-resurrected Christ would collapse into: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (v. 19). That assessment sounds just about right to me.

Yet after decisively dealing with such theoretical scenarios, St. Paul confidently proclaims the Gospel that he had himself received (literally that which was “handed over” or “traditioned” to him): “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I COR. 15:20). Therefore, when someone dies, we do not have to “grieve as others do who have no hope” (I THESS. 5:13). Christian hope is directed to the future and the eschatological fulfillment of God’s providential care for, and direction of, our common human destiny, culminating in a transfigured cosmos and “the redemption of our bodies” (ROM. 8:23). This is only possible if the “last enemy” – death itself – has been overcome from within, revealed to the world in and through the Risen Lord. Little surprise, then, that Pascha is the “Feast of Feasts” and “Holy day of Holy Days” if all of the above is what we indeed celebrate! Pascha has inaugurated the current paschal season of forty days – culminating in the Ascension - during which we intensify our focus on the Lord’s triumph over the sting of death. We, too, with the Apostle Paul exclaim with glad hearts: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I COR. 15:57).

The natural cycle of life and death can weary the human heart with the inescapability of its endlessly reoccurring patterns: “Vanity of vanities! … All is vanity…. A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (ECCLES. 1:2,4). “And therefore,” according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “the burden of time, this rotation of beginnings and ends, is meaningless and tiresome.” Our dissatisfaction with this closed cycle undermines the very claim that it is all “natural,” and therefore acceptable to the human spirit. On the contrary, human beings are always seeking an escape into whatever “reality” will allow us at least some temporary relief from the oppressiveness of a closed universe forever marred by corruption and death. If not Stoic resignation – “the impassibility or even indifference of the sage” (Fr. Florovsky) - then perhaps a desire to transcend the limitations imposed upon us by “nature,” will lead to a desperate search for an ecstatic experience – the dionysian impulse.

If I may indulge in a pop culture reference from the heady rock music of the past (about forty years ago now!), there exists a song that more-or-less captures this inchoate desire for liberation: “Break on Through (to the Other Side).” For the moment forgiving the fatal excesses and self-indulgent pretensions of the singer-songwriter of this popular song; we can hear in its strained lyrics the human need to pass over (“break on through”) into a realm (“the other side”) that promises a heightened experience of reality that our mundane world cannot deliver. Of course, this can begin with “religion” or what we call “mysticism” (often a dangerous combination of mist + schism as I have heard it described). On a more secular level, the search for transcendence can be attempted through science or art. Within the context of the song we are now discussing, however, this possibly/probably refers to the rebellion associated with transgressing moral and ethical norms that seem to be restrictive and not liberating. This would be the dead world of bourgeois middle-class values supported by an insufferably bland moralistic Christianity. In other words, to all that the word “suburbia” implied in the 60’s. This is justified by the individual desire for self-autonomy, “freedom,” or a stance against hypocrisy. Only God knows how much of this was only a self-justification for indulging the passions and acting irresponsibly. In other words, the quest for freedom can easily degenerate into “license.” When the imagination fails, there is always the more prosaic and ever-popular “eat, drink and make merry, for tomorrow we die.” When practiced with serious abandon, though, this leads to a “breakdown” rather than a “breakthrough.” (Alas, this was the fate of our singer-songwriter).

All of these attempts to “break on through to the other side” can be both exhilarating and dangerous; heroic or pathetic; inspiring or disgusting. When pursued with a seriousness that reveals the human spirit’s refusal to submit, not only to mediocrity, but to the laws that eternally legislate the “house of the dead” that our world has become through human sinfulness, then such attempts at self-transcendence can earn our respect. Yet, an air of futility permeates all such autonomous attempts at self-liberation, for the human person has no such inherent capabilities apart from the power of God. A wholly different issue is raised by promethean pride that resists any “authority” greater than the self – including God. (It was the anarchist Bakunin who said: “If God exists, then I am a slave”). Here we cross over into the world of “mystical insolence” and demonic rebellion.

Yet, it is only Christ who has truly “broken through” to the “other side.” Again, this claim can only be made based upon the “fact” of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Death itself – the fear of which subjects us to “lifelong bondage” - has been transcended in the voluntary death of Christ; a “resurrecting death” that was revealed to the Lord’s astonished disciples when He appeared among them following His burial and said: “Peace be with you.” (JN. 20:19) This was not a case of resuscitation and the resumption of natural life within the time and space of this world. For the Apostle Paul writes: "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never did again; death no longer has dominion over him” (ROM. 6:9). The human spirit’s “natural” desire for self-transcendence is no longer wasted on rebelliousness, utopian dreams, or nihilistic despair. Now it is Truth itself which has set us free. And this Truth is Christ. It is actually the will of a merciful and loving God that desires this for us; and God has acted to make this possible by raising Christ from the dead, the “first fruits” of a general resurrection that we await in patient expectation of God fulfilling the promises made to us “according to the Scriptures.”

We can close these “fragments” with again turning to Fr. Georges Florovsky who, employing some of the remarkable liturgical hymns that illuminate our celebration of Pascha, describes the one meaningful “breakthrough - our liberation from death - in the following manner:

Amidst the darkness of pale death shines the unquenchable light of Life, the Life Divine. This destroys Hell and destroys mortality. “Thou didst descend into the tomb, O Immortal, Thou didst destroy the power of death” (kontakion). In this sense Hell has been simply abolished, “and there is not one dead in the grave.” For “he received earth, and yet met heaven.” Death is overcome by Life. “When Thou didst descend into death, O Life Eternal, then Thou didst slay Hell by the flash of Thy Divinity” (Vespers of Great and Holy Friday).

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Conflicted Thoughts on the Killing of Osama bin Laden

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!

You either heard the news late last night, or woke up this morning to the announcement that Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaida, had been killed by an American operative strike. I was informed last night, so we turned on the television and, after a great deal of analysis, we heard President Obama make the official announcement of Bin Laden’s death. The speech was concise and very rhetorical in reminding us of just how Bin Laden has been perceived in the minds of the American public since 09/11/01: as a cold-hearted terrorist and mass murderer who was the mastermind behind the death of almost three thousand Americans on the infamous day. This allowed the president to make the statement that most Americans – including many Christians – would agree upon: justice was served in the intense manhunt and killing of Bin Laden. This, in turn, serves as a full vindication and justification of the operation itself.

Yet, I received two emails this morning that were both negative reactions to the images of people openly celebrating the death of Bin Laden. Is such a reaction even Christian was the basic question that was posed; and that is a good and legitimate question. In trying to think through a reaction and response, I then received a third email from Andrew Hill, one of our parishioners. Andrew’s reaction was a fine articulation (Andrew teaches philosophy at Xavier University) of some of the moral and ethical issues raised by the manner in which Bin Laden was killed; the celebratory atmosphere mentioned above that has clearly troubled some; and the Christian response to his death. Especially helpful were his comments of the balance of mercy and justice that we find in God’s activity toward the world – a perennial theological dilemma that is difficult to resolve. And, of course, Andrew mentions that most difficult of all Christian virtues: love of the enemy. Instead of writing up a commentary of my own, I am content with allowing Andrew’s “conflicting thoughts” and his balanced response serve as a good guide for trying to formulate a Christian reaction to the news of Bin Laden’s death. Please read what he has to say.

I would be willing to share any further comments about the issues outlined above, but I would like to avoid an exchange of more-or-less political comments/commentary on Bin Laden’s death (we will be able to hear and read endless analysis on that front for days to come).

In Christ,
Fr. Steven

From: Andrew Hill
Sent: Monday, May 02, 2011 11:46 AM
To: Fr. Steven Kostoff
Subject: Conflicted Thoughts

Good morning Father,

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

I've had a lot of conflicting thoughts this morning about the death of bin Laden. If you've got a few minutes, I'd like to vent them to you.

It seems terribly inappropriate for a Christian to delight in death, especially during this Paschal season, when we celebrate the victory of life over death. But it also seems that a Christian ought to love justice, and that rejoicing in justice is an entirely Christian reaction. So it seems that a Christian ought to be able to rejoice in the justice of this day, while at the same time mourning the tragedy that justice required death.

And it seems that for Christians, mercy must always be loved more than justice. And it would be terribly hypocritical for me to want mercy for myself, but justice for others. But it also seems that God primarily (though not exclusively) extends His mercy where there is repentance, and justice everywhere else. So if a Christian thinks that bin Laden should have been spared justice, then it seems that he is trying arrogantly to set a "higher" moral standard for men than the one we find in God Himself.

And, as Christians, we are commanded to love our enemies. Christ died for bin Laden, and every Christian should love bin Laden and pray for his salvation. But I can't help but think that he has a better chance of working out his salvation in death than he did in life.

On a normal day, I find it very difficult to take on the mind of Christ. But on days like this, I really worry about whether I even have the slightest idea of what it means to follow Christ.