Monday, November 28, 2011

Restoring a Proper Thanksgiving Balance

Dear Parish Faithful Friends in Christ,

In an article entitled “A Moveable Fast,” the scholar Elyssa East summarized the history of our American Thanksgiving, and the intentions and practices of the early New England colonists toward this national feast. Initially, she writes,Thanksgiving was built around the Christian rhythm of fasting and feasting. Bearing that in mind, she also offered her own commentary on how this national celebration has changed over the years:

In the nearly 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, the holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross overconsumption, but the New England colonists never intended for Thanksgiving to be a day of gluttony. They dished up restraint along with gratitude as a shared main course. What mattered most was not the feast itself, but the gathering together in thanks and praise for life’s most humble gifts. Perhaps this holiday season we could benefit from restoring a proper Thanksgiving balance between forbearance and indulgence.

This sounds like a fair commentary on how the past Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend is now approached and practiced by contemporary Americans. What adds further to this confusion is not simply the matter of anticipating a good feast on Thanksgiving Day and enjoying the guilty pleasure of over-eating together with family and friends; but the fact that “overconsumption” and “indulgence” are hardly limited to one day’s big meal. Those terms are now more appropriately directed toward “Black Friday” (not sure what the term means) and today’s “Cyber Monday.” There seems to be a perceptible shift away from the food feast toward the frenzy of shopping and spending with a zeal that would possibly be admirable if it was only directed toward something not so openly and unabashedly self-indulgent. The only restraint is in the size of one’s pocketbook; but if that empties out there is always the credit card! We may soon reach the point when our neighbor will no longer greet us with the conventional “have a happy Thanksgiving.” Rather, it may become “have a successful Black Friday!” Clearly, a sense of balance and proportion has disappeared from the lives of many Americans, as consumerism displaces a sense of thanksgiving.

Over the last four days what predominated in your lives as Orthodox Christians? Did you fail to come to church for one of the Thanksgiving Day services but somehow manage to be “out and about” at the stores for Black Friday? If so, how did that happen? How does such a choice hold up to your theoretical priorities? Are we better described as Eucharistic beings or as consumers? When presented with a choice, will it be for the Church and what the Church represents; or will it be “the world” and what the world represents?

I realize that it is easy to be critical of our consumer-driven society. And perhaps priests and pastors “over-indulge” in just such a predictable routine. My intention, at least, is not to moralize or chastise. After all, I am also a consumer! Rather, I am more-or-less thinking out loud, and sharing the questions raised by such thinking. Now that the holiday weekend is behind us, can we “pick up where we left off?” That further question only makes sense if indeed we had begun to observe the Nativity Fast in anticipation and preparation for the Feast on December 25, and then postponed that effort for the weekend that we just enjoyed. Now that we are returning to the normal routines of our daily lives, do we have the strength and commitment to embrace “the Orthodox Way” of life that understands only too well the pitfalls and temptations of overconsumption and indulgence?

The “battle of the calendars” is perhaps never so fierce as during these last few weeks before Christmas. We can do the “jingle-bell rock,” or we can curb our passions. When we were baptized – no matter how many years ago - we prayed that God would strengthen us as “invincible warriors of Christ our God;” and that we would “keep the Orthodox Faith.” That vocation is tested on a daily basis – including this particular day.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Inconvenient Feast?

Dear Parish Faithful,

According to the liturgical calendar for this year, the next of the Twelve Major Feast Days is Monday, November 21 – the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple. This means that the festal Great Vespers with the blessing of the loaves and anointment with oil will be served this coming Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. The Liturgy will then be served on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. Certain Feast Days are called immovable, for they occur on the same date every year – Nativity on December 25; Theophany on January 6 – as is the case with the upcoming Entrance of the Theotokos. Yet, occurring on the same date every year means that these Feasts will be celebrated on a different day of the week every year in a cyclical fashion. The moveable Feasts are those that are determined by the annual changing date of Pascha – Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday; Ascension and Pentecost. These Feast occur on the same day every year, but on a different date. So the over-all festal life of the Church – comprised of Feasts honoring the Lord and the Thetokos – is something of a rhythm between moveable and immovable dates, lending to this cycle a rather dynamic quality. Yet, this poses challenges for us living out our Faith in a contemporary setting.

For parish life, the most challenging day and time of the week to have a service is on Sunday evening. For what I would assume are a variety of reasons, parishioners simply do not return to church for a service on Sunday evening. For many or most it is probably not even on one’s ecclesial radar screen. Yet the church calendar is what it is, and this year the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple will be celebrated on Sunday evening/Monday morning. With our pattern of poor attendance for Sunday evening services, and a work schedule beginning on Monday morning, the prospects for a “festal” Feast Day are rather bleak. In the ongoing “battle of the calendars” – ecclesial and secular - that we may be aware of or not, this one looks like a definite setback. Work is work on Monday morning, but is it really the case that Sunday evening has to remain a “black hole” of sorts in our over-all parish life? Is it really well-nigh “impossible” to return to church for a festal service honoring the Theotokos on Sunday evening? Are these even meaningful questions in today’s world? Or are these those types of esoteric and arcane questions that the caste of Orthodox priests are prone to indulge in?

Preparing for the service on Sunday evening, I know ahead of time that the church will be near-empty for the service. After many years, I am quite accustomed to that, but it still remains a less than exciting prospect. However, that is not the point, because it not about me and whatever interior attitude I may bring to the service. It is not about whatever “disappointments” a parish priest may experience. In every parish there are parishioners who are justifiably disappointed with the priest. After awhile, such concerns can become rather fruitless. Actually, it is about all of us as an Orthodox Christian community. And my pastoral goal is to try and invigorate everyone in the parish with a sense of commitment to the Church’s celebration of the festal cycle; a cycle of services that gives us the opportunity to re-live and actualize the saving events of God’s dispensation for our salvation. And this may mean making adjustments in our lives that will make that possible. On November 21, we are able to celebrate, together with the Virgin Mary, her entrance into the Temple of the Lord as one of the first acts of her preparation to be the Theotokos. Bearing this in mind, everyone will have to (re-)examine his/her stewardship of time and energy and determine whether or not you on a personal level, or all on a communal level, can commit on a deeper level to be aware of that festal cycle and to participate when we are able even if and when that commitment proves to be challenging or “inconvenient.” Where is our treasure? Where are our priorites? What really motivates us? These are the general question below the surface.

Yet, perhaps I can pose a more direct question: Just how challenging or inconvenient will it be on this coming Sunday evening to return to church for the festal Great Vespers? (Or, if possible, for the Liturgy on Monday morning?) Each person or household will have to answer that question on their own. The answers, of course, will be multiple and quite varied. But I again repeat that I hope that that is at least a meaningful question that everyone will think over. To repeat: The calendar is what it is for this year, and we will have some choices to make on Sunday – consciously or not. If it gets down to socializing; going to see a film; or watching one more football game; what does such a choice say about your response to the previously-mentioned commitment to the life of the Church? Is it possible to tear yourselves away from those choices and choose the Church instead? Of course, anyone can rationalize and say: “I have already been to church once today, and that is enough!” Yet again, thinking outside of the box, or moving outside of your comfort zones, you may just decide: let’s go to church and honor the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple!

Perhaps this may seem like making a bit too much over one service. I acknowledge that. But I began to think about this earlier in the week as I looked ahead to our liturgical cycle and then decided to write about it, treating this service as something of a microcosm that encompasses other pressing questions of our Church life. In addition, this does offer me the pastoral possibility of periodically raising those types of questions that you may gloss over or ignore. We tend to settle into routines that are hard to break, and the routine of “only once on Sunday” is particularly entrenched.

The Feasts of the Church are wonderful. They are deeply expressive of what we believe and even of who we are. They connect us to Christ in a mystical manner. They allow us to continually praise and venerate the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos. Most Christians today have no awareness of them. We want to remain the Church that not only has a festal cycle “on paper,” but one that brings us together in faith and love as a community committed to Christ and His Body the Church. We will have that opportunity this coming Sunday evening and/or Monday morning with the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple.

Great Vespers on Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m.
Divine Liturgy on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m.
Resources for the Feast

Monday, November 14, 2011

Preparing for Christmas ~ Embracing the Orthodox Way

Dear Parish Faithful,
As mentioned last Friday, the Nativity Fast will begin tomorrow, November 15. Commit yourselves individually and as a family to embrace the “Orthodox Way” of preparing for Christmas. The “world” has really little to offer or add to our understanding of Christ’s nativity in the flesh. Rather, it’s the same old tired package of distractions that leave you “hungering and thirsting” for the very thing you may have neglected in frantically and frenetically trying to have a “merry Christmas.” We are again presented with a gift of forty days than can “profit our souls.” Fast now to feast then, rather than feast now to fizzle out then. Let your church calendar guide you into the Scripture readings, saintly commemorations and fasting discipline that lead us to the Winter Pascha of spiritual renewal.

Fr Steven

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Depth of our Faith and the Experience of God

Dear Parish Faithful,

The book we are currently reading in our Adult Education Class, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh - Essential Writings, was edited by Gillian Crow, who also wrote an excellent introduction about the metropolitan’s life and spiritual development. She was his diocesan secretary for the last ten years of Metropolitan Anthony’s life. She has also written a full-scale biography of the metropolitan, entitled This Holy Man, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 2005. As the book of his Essential Writings was compiled for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians, she has included some passages that provide some good background into the Orthodox ethos. Here are three such paragraphs from her Introduction that may say something that we already know, but in a manner that neatly and clearly summarizes the living faith and practice of the Church. Such reminders are good for those of us who are Orthodox, so that we do not lose sight of the depth of our Faith and the experience of God in the routine of conventional church-going:

In fact, the timelessness of Orthodoxy refers to the Kingdom of God, a realm outside time, a realm where earthly considerations – whether those of the fourth or twenty-first centuries – do not hold sway. When we partake of one of our services we are in the eternal “now,” we share in an experience, however veiled, of heaven on earth. At the Incarnation God became man; he came down to us and to our level – in order to draw us up to him; and our faith, our worship, our Christian life, are a participation in God’s eternal life, in the wondrous “now” of the Kingdom, rather than in the world and its secular culture.

Thus the incense, the myriads of candles, the singing, the colorful icons and frescoes are not optional ornamentation. They are ways of using all our human senses to glorify God and to become aware that we are in his presence. Our worship exemplifies a sense of wholeness that runs through Orthodoxy. We do not like dividing worship from belief, body from soul, prayer from fasting, faith from works. Indeed, the word “Orthodoxy” is often described as meaning right faith and worship – not one or the other but both together. Our worship expresses our faith.

We experience how the lightness of fasting is an aid to prayer (conversely everyone knows the sluggishness produced by overeating). We understand how the body as well as the soul responds to God and will share in the Resurrection. We do not see the body as a temporary suit of clothes, defiled by sin, that becomes redundant at death. We remember that we are unique creatures of body and soul together, both destined for Eternity, and that Christ cared for the whole human person, and healed bodies as well as souls. We are vividly aware that all our sins are committed with our bodies, but are moved by the desires of the soul; so they cannot be separated. Similarly, Orthodoxy has never been faced with the opposition of faith to works that caused such division in Western Christianity. We see faith and works as two sides of the same coin that cannot be separated.”

From Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh – Essential Writings, Introduction, p. 20-21.

The True Nature of The Bodiless Hosts

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A few brave souls – four to be exact – were in church early Tuesday morning for the Akathist Hymn to the Archangel Michael and the Bodiless Hosts that we commemorate on that day, November 8. Following the service, I was speaking with one of our Church School teachers about the nature of angels and how we convey this to our children. One of our first tasks, I believe, is to overcome the caricature that has developed over the centuries over the appearance and role of angels. (Do adults also need to be liberated from this same caricature?)

That caricature imagines angels to be puffy and fluffy “cherubs” that are basically rosy-cheeked floating babies; Cupid-like, they carry bows and arrows that appear harmless enough; they are often naked, but at times their “private parts” are covered in what can only be described as a celestial diaper. How these Hallmark card fantasies - based on Renaissance-era deviations from the sacred and profound iconography of the earlier centuries, both West and East - can be associated with the “Lord of Sabaoth” and the celestial hierarchy of angels that surround the throne of God with their unceasing chant of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is something of an unfortunate mystery.

The Scriptures and the Holy Fathers only describe powerful celestial beings that serve God and fulfill His will for the well-being of the human race and our salvation. Angels are not eternal or immortal by nature. They are creatures, coming forth from the creative Word of God perfected by His Spirit. St. Basil the Great teaches that angels were created before the visible world, based on JOB 38:7 – “When the Stars were made, all my angels praised me with a loud voice.” These gender-less being are described by St. Gregory the Theologian as “a second light, an effusion or participation in God, in the primal light.” And whenever a human being is visited by an angel and receives this heavenly messenger’s revelation, his/her first impulse is to bow down and worship this celestial visitor as a divine being! Warm and fuzzy feelings with any impulse toward cuddling and kissing are hardly implied in the biblical texts. Actually, our use of the term “angel” – based on the Gk. angelos or “messenger” - is a generic term used to describe all of the many kinds of heavenly hosts that we find described and named in the Scriptures. In fact, this celestial hierarchy, according to St. Dionysios the Areopagite, is comprised of a triad of ranks, three angelic orders in each rank. The names are scriptural, but the triads have been conceived of by St. Dionysios:

First Rank: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones
Second Rank: Authorities, Dominions, Powers
Third Rank: Principalities, Angels, Archangels

This structuring of the celestial hierarchy has had an enormous influence on the angelology of the Church.

Actually, St. John Chrysostom tells us that even these names and “classes” do not exhaust the heavenly ranks of angelic beings:

… but there are innumerable other kinds and an unimaginable multitude of classes, which no words can be adequate to express…. From this we see that there are certain names which will be known then, but are now unknown.

With his great ability to summarize and synthesize the Church’s living Tradition, St. John of Damascus (+749), gives us this description of what an angel actually is in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith:

An angel, then, is a noetical essence, perpetually in motion, with a free will, incorporeal, subject to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature. The Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence.

I hope that even this very brief description of the true nature of the bodiless hosts of heaven – based on the Scriptures and the Fathers – will restore a genuine sense of awe and veneration before these incredible beings that only further amaze us with the creative power, energy and will of God.