Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Place of the Cross ~ in the Church, and in our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful,

The current Feast of the Elevation/Exaltation of the Cross allows us go a long way in dispelling a stereotype that has developed concerning the Orthodox Church. This stereotype claims that the Orthodox Church is the Church of the Resurrection and/or Transfiguration of Christ at the expense of the Cross. Upon a closer and more balanced examination, this claim loses credibility. The Cross has a central and abiding place within the Orthodox Tradition - theological, spiritual, liturgical, iconographic, and more. For the sake of brevity, the terse expression of St. Gregory Palamas (+1359), synthesizes more than a millennium of the patristic tradition of the Christian East, when he declared in one of his homilies: “The Lord’s Cross discloses the entire dispensation of His coming in the flesh, and contains within it the whole mystery of this dispensation.”

Liturgically, the focus on the Cross can hardly be described as minimal. Great and Holy Friday is at the very heart of the Church’s liturgical tradition, when concentration of the Savior’s death on the Cross is treated with the greatest of solemnity and pathos. The crucified, dead and buried Master is surrounded by the faithful in a series of services that are emotionally intense and theologically rich in expression. This day serves as the prototype of every Friday (and actually every Wednesday ) within the Church’s liturgical tradition when the Cross is the “theme” of those days, reflected in the hymnography of the day. That connection is strengthened accordingly by designating Wednesdays and Fridays as “fasting days.” The Cross and fasting have been linked together from the very earliest days of the Church’s history. To this day, practicing Orthodox Christians are expected to fast on those days as an expression of honoring and calling to remembrance the Cross of the Lord.

The current Feast of the Cross – one of the Twelve major fixed Feasts of the liturgical year - is one among others that again will focus our attention on the Cross throughout the year. The mid-point of Great Lent, the third Sunday, is called the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. As on this current Feast, the Cross is decorated with flowers, brought into the center of the church by means of a solemn procession, and then venerated with the same hymn – “Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship, O Master; and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify” - accompanied by prostrations. At the end of the service the faithful approach and kiss the ‘life-giving wood” of the Tree of the Cross. Another feast on August 1, though not as observed, is called the “Procession of the Cross.” Neglected or not, the same rite of procession and veneration is prescribed for this feast as for the other two we are describing here.

Another practice, which comes to the Orthodox so naturally, but may strike the outside observer as strange, is that at the end of the Divine Liturgy all of the faithful approach the bishop or priest, and reverently kiss the hand-held Cross that is presented to them. (I am unaware of this practice outside of the Orthodox Tradition, but I could simply be ignorant about this). Each person then receives a piece of “blessed bread” – the antidoron in the Gk. – before leaving the church. Again, for someone raised from childhood in the Orthodox Church this is so natural that it remains indelible in the minds of those who grew up Orthodox even if they leave the Church at some point in time. The point here is that it is one more clear expression of the over-all role of the Cross within the life of the Church. Our last gesture before departing from the Church back to our daily lives is venerating the Cross and committing ourselves in the process of remaining loyal to Christ crucified.

Of course, “making” the sign of the Cross over oneself is another perfectly natural practice for Orthodox Christians – and shared by other Christian traditions, as this is one more practice that can traced back into Christian antiquity. In fact, it is about as natural as breathing! The reason behind this practice and clear yet profound. As I have written elsewhere: The Church and our personal lives are placed under the sign of the Cross, both as an emblem of victory and of our willingness to bear our personal crosses in our daily struggles against sin, temptation, the devil, and all manner of evil. Throughout the entire Liturgy, whenever we glorify God, we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves, revealing our faith in Christ, the “Lord of Glory” (I COR. 2:8) crucified for our sakes according to the will of the Father and “through the eternal Spirit.” (HEB. 9:14)

Non-Orthodox Christians who visit an Orthodox Church, and who may be aware of this practice, will still comment on the frequency with which Orthodox believers will make the sign of the Cross over themselves during the services. Of course, the naturalness of this act should never take away from the concentration and care that needs to accompany this outward sign if it is to have any meaning.

Perhaps we should finally mention the fact that most Orthodox Christians wear a cross. This is not meant to be one more piece of “matching jewelry” or displayed in an ostentatious fashion. Rather it is a humble practice of again recognizing the place of the Cross in the divine dispensation and in our personal salvation. It also implies the “self-denial” that we need to practice as true disciples of Christ. (The next meditation will explore this theme in more detail).

Reflecting upon this summary of the place of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives, one may not only come to the conclusion that the Orthodox do not neglect the Cross, but that their devotion to the Cross may be a bit excessive! But that is hardly the case. What needs to be remembered is that a holistic approach to the Christian Faith combines the “outward” and the “inward.” Feast Days, processions, prostrations, veneration, signings, etc. are the outward manifestations of the Church’s inner vision of the literally cosmic and then deeply personal dimensions of the Cross. This vision based on faith, is then proclaimed to the world in a variety of ways, each of which tries to capture something of the greatness of God’s love revealed in the Cross. For the Cross is the “mystery” of God’s will for the world and its salvation. (cf. EPH. 1:3-10) For the Cross is believed to be “breadth and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (EPH. 3:18-19)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

God's Love - Shown Through the Cross

Dear Parish Faithful,

In preparation for the upcoming Feast of the Elevation/Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross on September 14, the Sunday preceding the Feast is designated simply as the “Sunday before the Cross.” This anticipatory focus on the Feast of the Cross alerts us to its importance in the consciousness of the Church. If we have the “mind of the Church,” then our own minds and hearts can be elevated and exalted upward toward the Son of Man who will be “lifted up” on the Cross for our salvation. This is precisely where the Church directs our attention with the upcoming Feast in mind. For in addition to the appointed Gospel reading at yesterday’s Liturgy, this second reading was taken from the Gospel According to St. John:

No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (JN. 3:13-17)

It is this passage, of course, that contains the well-known and magnificent text referred to simply as “John 3:16.” (Even those who never read the Gospels have either heard this verse somewhere or seen it displayed on a billboard, on a side of a barn along the highway, or even overhead on the tail of a helicopter as I once saw it at a baseball game). God (the Father) will “send” His Son – clearly the pre-existent Son – into the world (kosmos in the Gk.) that God loved into existence, and continued to love even though the world had fallen from its initial purpose and destiny. That “fall,” however conceived, meant that all was perishing. For human beings created for a relationship with God, this resulted not only in a death attended by guilt, regret, anxiety and fear; but also in the loss of life’s meaning and purpose. The biblical concept and reality of sheol/hades was no real consolation. A good deal of idolatry – the worship of “false gods” - is generated by a desperate search for some meaning in life; for something to attach to that will lift us up beyond the mundane and material aspects of existence. To believe in nothing is to be predisposed to believe in anything.

The expression that God “gave” us His Son is to point to the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation, which is the Cross, where again, the Son of man will be “lifted up.” And it is Jesus who is the Son of man. Behind the historical commemoration of this Feast, which is the discovery of the “true Cross” in the fourth c., we discover the Cross as the “place” where God wiped away our sin in and through the death of the Crucified Lord. In this way the “world” is “saved” through Christ, and we need no longer “perish” if we believe in Him. The “eternal life” of this salvation process is not an endless extension of time, nor is it the extension of biological existence (bios in Gk.) but something all together qualitatively different, as in true or abundant life with and in God beyond the vicissitudes of time (zoe in Gk.).

“Money makes the world go ‘round” is a cliché that many think and believe is true. Perhaps it seems most true to the very rich or the very poor. (As Hazel Motes of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood said: A man with a new car don’t need redemption). The very rich may believe that they have discovered the secret to life’s meaning in the accumulation of great wealth; and the very poor may be convinced that a good life has been denied to them because they have been left out of the distribution of the world’s wealth One attitude can easily lead to arrogance, and the other to despair. But anyone struggling with economic distress, financial instability or making ends meet, will either willingly or reluctantly ascribe – to one degree or another – to the cliché that money is the energy and power that drives life and the “world.”

However, if we ascribe to the Gospel as revealing not only relative truths, but Truth itself in all of its majesty and glory; then we will realize that it is ultimately love that makes the world go ‘round. This is not a sentimental counter-cliché. It is the love of God that is the “energy” that created the cosmos “in the beginning.” This love is the pouring forth of the eternal love that dwells within the Trinity and which as an “uncreated energy” gives, sustains, and redeems human life made “in the image and likeness of God.” Because of God’s steadfast love, the world which was created is now also saved by that same love. For God does want to condemn the world but precisely to save it.

When we “bow down” before the decorated Cross during the Feast of the Elevation/Exaltation of the Cross, it is this Truth that we acknowledge and rejoice in.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Glory to You, for every step of my life

Dear Parish Faithful,

Glory to You, for our tireless thirst for You …

Glory to You, Who have inspired in us dissatisfaction with earthly things …

Glory to You, Who clearly abide where there is kindness and generosity of heart …

Glory to You, Who send failures and sorrows to us so that we might be sensitive to the sufferings of others …

Glory to You, Who have raised love higher than anything on earth or in heaven …

Glory to You, Who destroy our useless plans…

Glory to You, Who humble pride of heart to save us …

Glory to You, Who have raised up Your Church as a refuge of peace for an exhausted world …

Glory to You, all Holy Father, Who have willed us Your Kingdom,
Glory to You, all Holy Son, the Way, the Truth, and the Life,
Glory to You, all Holy Spirit and life-giving sun of the future age,
Glory to You for everything, O Divine Trinity, all bountiful,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

From the Akathist Hymn “Glory to God for All Things!”

A small group of the parish faithful were able to hear, absorb and perhaps assimilate these wonderful praises of God – and the entire akathist hymn – that we sang and chanted yesterday evening in the church. To glorify God is the best way to greet the Church New Year and begin our own spiritual renewal. I was recently informed that the actual author of the hymn was a Bishop Trifon Turkestanov, who perished during the Red Terror unleashed by Stalin in the 1930’s. What a gift he has left the Church! For the bishop to articulate his indomitable faith through a kind of lyrical and poetic theology seems to be a certain sign of the grace of the Holy Spirit working in him amidst his sufferings. The height, the depth, the breadth and the width of his glorification of God is overwhelming in its all-inclusiveness. The few who made the effort yesterday evening were richly rewarded.

Although hardly acknowledged in our fast-paced contemporary world, I hope that the Church New Year will bear fruit for each and all on a personal and parish level. Our “resolutions” from the secular new year last January are probably long broken if not totally forgotten. Perhaps, then, we can practice the “self-examination” that the Apostle Paul speaks of, and commit ourselves to follow Christ – not according to our selective and subjective “likes” and “dislikes”of what we find in the Gospel and in the Church – but in a spirit of obedience to the One who is the crucified and risen Lord of the Church, the world, the historical process and the cosmos:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.
(MATT. 22:37-40)

Our discussion of the Church New Year raises the issue of time and our stewardship of the time that God has allotted to us. We all know that we have a finite and not infinite amount of time in that allotment. Aware of our finite nature, and the fact that we do not have an endless amount of time ahead of us, the Apostle Paul exhorts us to “redeem the time.” He is basically saying that Christ must be at the center of our endeavors and desires to properly benefit from the time given to us as a gift from God. We may plead that we are “too busy” to place God first in our lives. I cannot resist to respond by saying that if you are “too busy” for God, then you are simply “too busy!” This implies making the changes necessary to leave room and time for God. What will you have to “sacrifice” in the process? Probably not a whole lot when you recall the words of Christ: "For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (MK. 8:36) It may be as “simple” as replacing certain ingrained patterns of living with others that at least potentially draw you closer to God.

What can we do on a practical level that would deepen our experience of God and bring us deeper into the life of the Church? We exist as Christians on the personal and parish levels. In both areas there is room to expand our hearts as we expand the amount of time necessary to fulfill the words of Christ to make God and neighbor our first priority. At home, we can:

+ Be regular in daily prayer by devising and adhering to a “Rule of Prayer.” This means that everyone needs a good Orthodox Prayer Book. This Rule needs to be practiced with consistency and attention – in both the morning and the evening. The Prayer of the Hours could punctuate your days with the remembrance of God while at work or home. (I can provide you with that prayer if you do not have it). The Jesus Prayer can be on your lips at any time during the day.

+ Read the Scriptures with some consistency. Becoming “scripturally literate” is essential for a Christian.

+ Make a point of even a short prayer or blessing before sitting down to a meal – alone or with the family. All that you have is ultimately from God. We need to recognize this in a concrete manner.

+ Honor and observe the fasting days of the liturgical year.

+ Offer the Prayers of Preparation for Communion before the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. These are found in any good Orthodox Prayer Book.

+ Respond to those in need of your help and assistance when the opportunity arises.

On the parish level, here are some items to consider:

+ Become more than a “Sunday morning only” participant in worship. Incorporate the Saturday evening Great Vespers into your life with some kind of pattern: once-a-month, for example. Honor the Feast Days by making room on your personal calendars so as to be present.

+ Become more aware of being a steward of your time, talent and treasure. Is there a parish ministry that you feel drawn toward? Please speak with me if that is the case. Be responsible in the ministry that you are already committed to. Be a “cheerful giver” of your treasure for the upbuilding of the church. Trusting in God’s love, overcome any reluctance to share of your material and financial blessings by pledging generously to the church.

+ Become more aware of the diversity of persons that you worship together with. Everyone who walks through the door is your neighbor. We are members of the Body of Christ, not mere “individuals” who accidentally worship in the same church. Meet those that you do not know. Avoid judging others by appearance. No one is “better” than the next person, regardless of social status or other worldly considerations. We are all sinners seeking salvation from the “Physician of our souls and bodies.”

Rejoice in being an Orthodox Christian! Rejoice in being able to come to church and worship the living God! Rejoice in the people that you have providentially met in the Church! Rejoice in Christ our Savior!

Glory to You, for every sigh of my sadness,
Glory to You, for every step of my life, for every moment of joy,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.