Saturday, December 29, 2012

Recovering a Genuinely Christian Vocabulary

The Incarnate Word Reclining

Dear Parish Faithful,


He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.  -  St. Athanasius the Great

Within the Church we have a biblical/theological vocabulary that is very expressive of what we believe as Christians.  These words are drawn primarily from the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils and the theological writings of the great Church Fathers, such as St. Athanasius the Great, quoted above.  As responsible, believing and practicing Christians, we need to know this vocabulary at least in its most basic forms.  As we continually learn a new technology-driven vocabulary derived from computers to smart phones; we need to be alert to the traditional vocabulary of the Church as it has been sanctified over centuries of use.  And this vocabulary should be natural to us – not something foreign, exotic and “only for theologians.”  It does not take a great deal of effort to be theologically literate, and there is no excuse not to be.  I recall something that a visiting Xavier professor said to me after he came to our parish to hear Archbishop Kallistos Ware a few years back.  He said that you must have a “theologically-literate parish” after Archbishop Ware’s brilliant talk on eschatology (Do you know the meaning of that word?!).  It was encouraging to hear him say that, and I like to believe that it was an accurate assessment.  Those words were meant to be a genuine compliment and, as the parish priest, it was gratifying to hear them.

As we continue to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, a key term that must be part of the vocabulary of all Orthodox Christians is incarnation.  The nativity of Christ is the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth.  Or, we simply speak of the Incarnation, immediately knowing what that word is referring to.  If we turn to the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, we find the term defined somewhat blandly, in that kind of clipped, compact and objective style found in most dictionaries:

in•car•na•tion \in-kär-`nā-shǝn\ n (14c)  1  a  (1):  the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form  (2) cap:  the union of the divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ.

In the Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, the Orthodox theologian Fr. John McGuckin begins his definition under a fairly long entry of this term as follows:

Incarnation  Incarnation is the concept of the eternal Word of God (the Logos) “becoming flesh” within history for the salvation of the human race.  Incarnation does not simply refer to the act itself (such as the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin, or the event of Christmas); it stands more generally for the whole nexus of events in the life, teachings, sufferings, and glorification of the Lord, considered as the earthly, embodied activity of the Word. (p. 180)

Speaking of expanding our theological vocabulary, we need to further know that we translate the key Greek term Logos as Word, referring, of course, to the Word of God who was “with God” and who “was God” according to St. John’s Gospel “in the beginning.”  We also refer to the Word of God as the “Son,” “Wisdom,” and “Power” of God.  It is this Logos/Word of God who becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth.  The key verse that is the classical expression of the Incarnation in the New Testament is found in the Gospel according to St. John:  “And the Word (Logos) became flesh”  (JN. 1:14).  Incarnation is derived from the Latin word “in the flesh.”  The Greek word for Incarnation would be sarkothenta, meaning “made flesh.” So the Incarnation of the Word of God is the “enfleshment”of the Word, and here “flesh” means the totality of our human nature.  The Word has assumed our human nature and united it to Himself in an indissoluble union that restores the fellowship of God and humankind.  The sacramental life of the Church is based on the Incarnation, and the potential for created reality to become a vehicle for spiritual reality.  The ultimate manifestation of this is the Eucharist, and the bread and wine “becoming” the Body and Blood of Christ.

Christmas is the time of the year to recall all of this profound reality and recover a genuine Christian vocabulary that expresses our Faith about as well as that is humanly possible. This further means that theological words are not dry and abstract concepts when approached with not only respect, but with awe and wonder.  This makes our reading and studying of our theological Tradition exciting – as well as humbling. The words reveal life-transforming truths that if received with prayer and thanksgiving enhance and expand our minds and hearts, so that we might have the “mind of Christ.”

Friday, December 21, 2012

In the Fullness of Time

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Epistle reading for the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity is short, but powerful and profound in all of its revealed implications:

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, “Abba!  Father!”  So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.  (GAL. 4:4-7)

This is a key text in how the Apostle Paul also affirms the Incarnation of the Son of God as a human being.  This is Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.  If God “sent forth his Son” it means that the Son already existed, or as we say in our theology, the Son “pre-existed” His earthly existence as a human being as the eternal Son of the eternal Father.  The Son did not come into existence as a new person when He was “born of a woman;” rather the eternal Person of the Son now assumed our human nature and began to live as Jesus of Nazareth, “born under the law.” Being “born of a woman” affirms his true humanity, that Jesus is one of us.  Being “born under the law” affirms his unique role within the messianic role that Israel was destined to have among the nations.

One of the most well-known and theologically-rich hymns that we sing is found in the Vespers of the Nativity.  Actually, this hymn combines a keen sense of how God acts within history together with yet another glorification of the Incarnation:

When Augustus ruled alone upon the earth, the many kingdoms of men came to an end, and when Thou wast made man of the pure virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed.
The cities of the world passed under one single rule, and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead.
The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar, and we the faithful were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead,
when Thou, our God, wast made man.
Great is Thy mercy, O Lord!  Glory to Thee!

This magnificent hymn is clearly expanding upon the Gospel of St. Luke’s account of the historical conditions under which Christ entered the world:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.  This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  (LK. 2:1-2)

Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor (27 B.C. – 14 A.D.), and he inaugurated the “glory days of Rome” during the early years of Christ’s life.  In fact, it is said that he inaugurated the pax romana, the Roman peace that supposedly made for a more stable and less militant world.  Everything from Roman roads to Roman administration served the Empire and the peaceful world that the Empire protected and prolonged.  For this Augustus was even called “Lord” and “Savior.”  This was, of course, a political conceit because it was Rome’s military might that ruled the world of the Mediterranean and ruthlessly suppressed any sign of dissidence.  Roman taxation and Roman garrisons throughout the Empire were oppressive rather than liberating.  This was especially true in Israel, where the Roman presence was a cause of great anguish, for how could the People of God be ruled by Caesar and not the Lord who expressed His will for the destiny of Israel by the revelation of the Law? 

It was into this world that the Son of God was incarnate.  He was a King, but a King who did not rule by coercion supported by militant means.  For His Kingdom was that of God, and through His teaching the virtues implanted in the minds and hearts of human beings were meant to first inwardly transform lives so that peace could radiate outwardly from the inward source of a repentant heart oriented toward God.  St. Luke was being polemical, if you like, by revealing to us the “real” Lord and Savior in the nativity of Jesus of Nazareth.  That particular point in time – an event that has led us to calculate time differently – was the “fullness of time” when God acted on our behalf and for our salvation.  Our hearts should not be directed to Augustus, or to whatever political power may rule with endless promises of prosperity and peace:  “Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.”  The evangelist is directing our hearts toward the mystery revealed in Bethlehem, when both the cosmos and the world – represented by angels and humble shepherds – joined together in praising and worshiping the newborn child wrapped in swaddling clothes.  There is not a great deal of room left here for sentimentality and warm feelings.  St. Luke is revealing a particular historical theology that reveals that God acts within human history to redeem us from the horrors of sin and death.  For the Child will eventually His life up on the Cross for our salvation.

As we approach the festal date of December 25, I hope that our attention and our hearts can focus on the mystery of the Incarnation.  If we plan appropriately, we can be sure that before all else we are committed to be in church in order to worship Christ, the Son of God who entered the world “when the time had fully come.”  The forty-day Advent Fast culminates in the Feast of the Lord’s advent into the world in the flesh.  As Israel was prepared by God to receive its Messiah, we have been prepared within the Church to again actualize this Mystery hidden before the ages but now revealed to us within the Church.  The festal Liturgy on the morning of December 25 needs to take precedent over all of our other warm family traditions that are meant to further fill our homes with the radiant presence of Christ.  How can we properly celebrate Christmas without first being in church to worship the newborn Christ and receive the Eucharist?  I certainly anticipate a church filled with joyful worshipers.  For those who will be out-of-town with family, I further hope that you were able to find an Orthodox church close enough so that you too may worship Christ away from home.   Our humble witness to the world is that we place Christ at the very heart of our lives – as families and as a parish family.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Heart Untouched?

Dear Parish Faithful,

“Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?” (LK. 17:17)

In St. Basil the Great’s First Prayer in Preparation for Holy Communion, he acknowledges – and we acknowledge along with him when we offer this prayer up to God – that we are so often “thankless and graceless.”  St. Basil makes this claim after enumerating what “Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ our God” has done for us:  taken on our human nature, suffered crucifixion for our sake, and renewed our human nature by His own blood.  Yet still, says the saint, we remain “thankless and graceless.”  So much for building up our self-esteem!  Is that in reality a pious and rhetorical exaggeration embedded in a prayer meant to inspire genuine feeling within us; or has St. Basil simply articulated a “hard truth” about our human nature “corrupted by sin” - to borrow yet another phrase from his magnificent prayer?

Based on experience, it is hard not to believe that St. Basil is correct in his over-all assessment, and that he has done us a great service in reminding of this unfortunate characteristic of our human nature, a characteristic brought to life vividly in the Gospel narrative of Christ healing ten lepers, but only being thanked by one of them – and that one was a Samaritan!  (LK. 17:11-19)  The failure of nine lepers to return to Christ and offer thanksgiving is singled out for an unflattering comment; while the return of the Samaritan leper is singled out for open praise.  Christ most certainly does not need or demand our thanksgiving!  What he pointed out was for the sake of those healed and for those who witnessed the healing.  Healing is meant to touch the body and the “heart,”  so that the healed one’s life is totally redirected toward God.  Sometimes, however, the body can be healed, but the heart left untouched. That Gospel passage – heard just last Sunday – is a reminder that we can fall prey to just such a temptation:  to have been healed by Christ and yet to either “forget” to return to Him in thanksgiving; find other distractions more compelling; or simply to do so in outward form only.  I just coincidentally read in a book about another ecclesiastical figure that the famous Western medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his Summa Theologiae:  “It is evident that every ingratitude is a sin.”  That was based on the logic that since gratitude and thankfulness were virtues, their opposite must be a sin.  However one may assess that “scholastic” logic, it seems to ring true.

In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s classic work, For the Life of the World, we heard his unique voice recalling our initial vocation to be “eucharistic beings,” human beings who offer gratitude and thanksgiving to God in the full awareness that all things come from God and have the potential to lead us further toward God.  This includes the very food that we eat on a daily basis.  We can eat and drink unto ourselves, and thus we eat and drink ultimately unto death.  Or we eat and drink to the glory of God, and then food becomes sacramental as a means of uniting us with God.  Our heavenly Father restored the eucharistic meaning of food precisely in the Eucharist, when He gave to us the flesh and blood of the Son of Man for our lives and “for the life of the world.”  The bread and wine represent all food and all life as offered up to God in a spirit of profound thanksgiving to the very Source of life.  We, in turn, receive this food back now as Holy Communion, through which we are united to Christ and have Christ dwelling within us.  Fr. Schmemann captures this approach to life in his chapter entitled, simply, “The Eucharist:”

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.  Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.  But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ.  In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being.  He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be. (p. 38)

I hope that you will agree with me that to say we have a great deal to be thankful for is a massive understatement.  This does not refer to what we have but to who we are:  sinners now healed by Christ and made worthy to enter the Kingdom of God.  The “leprosy” of our sin has been cleansed away.  Now we need to turn back to the source of our healing, praise God with a loud voice, and fall down at the feet of Jesus and give Him thanks.   Just like the Samaritan.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

St Nicholas, A Living Rule of Faith

Dear Parish Faithful,

“God is wonderful in His saints, the God of Israel!”

I would like to wish everyone a blessed St. Nicholas feast day, and more specifically I would like to wish all of our parish members with the name of Nicholas a blessed name day.  Yesterday evening we were able to serve and celebrate a  wonderful Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast, and it is clear that St. Nicholas remains a beloved saint among our parish faithful, for the service was quite well-attended, including a fair share of our Church School children and young adults.  We hope that same spirit carries over into the weekend as we prepare for our St. Nicholas Day pageant and charity dinner on Sunday.

As we well know, St. Nicholas was a bishop who served in Asia Minor in the opening decades of the fourth century.  As a hierarch of the Church, he was a man who had authority meaning, further, that he was someone to be respected and obeyed.  This has been a characteristic of the Church’s hierarchy “from the beginning,” as we heard in the Epistle reading appointed for St. Nicholas and other great hierarchs of the Church:  “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (HEB. 13:17).  This sacramental, pastoral and administrative authority of the episcopos (bishop) was further strengthened by the Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early second century:

Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop.  Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated.  Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church.  (To the Smyrnaens, 8)

These well-known exhortations, many of which became the basis for later Church canons pertaining to the authority of the hierarchy, could certainly be multiplied from a variety of impressive sources. Yet, it is therefore quite significant that the troparion for St. Nicholas mentions nothing of the bishop’s authority, but rather stresses his pastoral image and care for his flock:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

As Fr. Thomas Hopko has written, this troparion “ … has become in Orthodox liturgical services the ‘general troparion’ for most canonized bishops of the Church, thus revealing the ‘mind of the Church’ about what a Christian pastor should be.”  (The Winter Pascha, p. 40)

Granting the role of authority that a bishop “inherits” in his consecration to the episcopacy, the Church concentrates on the qualities of a true pastor, of one who will “shepherd” the flock entrusted to him by the Lord that the bishop sacramentally represents to and for his flock.  The troparion has nothing to say about “power” or “authority.”  Quite the opposite!  We hear of humility, abstinence and even poverty.  These are Christ-like characteristics that we learn of from the Gospels.  Only by manifesting such qualities is the bishop a man who will receive the support, love and obedience of his flock in a spirit of trust and confidence in his leadership. This happens when a bishop leads by example.  He then becomes a living “rule of faith” as the troparion opens with, meaning essentially that the bishop is a living, flesh-and-blood realization of the Gospel.  Whenever we experience a “crisis of leadership” in the Church, it is precisely such Christ-like characteristics that are so painfully lacking in the Church’s hierarchy.  The faithful realize this, and the whole Church then suffers from a lack of trust and confidence in that leadership.

In relation to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, there is a fine passage from the great iconographer, Leonid Ouspensky, who summarizes the Church’s love of this great saint throughout the centuries:

The quite exceptional veneration of St. Nicholas is well known.  He is revered not only by Christians but often also by Muslims.  In the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, among the days of the week dedicated to the Savior and to different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only three persons are singled out by name:  the Mother of God, John the Forerunner and St. Nicholas.  The reason for the special veneration of this bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings, is evidently that the Church sees in him the personification of a shepherd – of one who protects and intercedes. According to his Life, when St. Nicholas was raised to the dignity of bishop he said: ‘The office demands a different type of conduct, so that one may live no longer for oneself but for others.’  This ‘life for others’ is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men:  his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth.  This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death.  Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit.  (Quoted in Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

Following Christ faithfully, St. Nicholas endures as the purest manifestation of authority and leadership in the Church:  a living rule of faith, practicing humility, abstinence and voluntary poverty as an example to his flock.

O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well,
And now wearing your unfading crown,
you intercede for our souls. 
(Vespers of the Feast of St. Nicholas)

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Testing of our Patience

Dear Parish Faithful,

I would like to expand on a point that I included in last Sunday’s homily concerning the nature of the Nativity/Advent Fast.  That would be about the necessary virtue of patience that accompanies any period of preparation in the life of the Church.  We are directed to observe a fast as we prepare for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh.  This is only for forty days, but that can seem like a very long period to make some alterations and adjustments in our lifestyles!  Clearly, it has its challenges, all of which we are very much aware of.  We know that  the “sacred” number of forty – years or days – is a very scriptural number, always implying a period of expectation and fulfillment, a movement begun and completed in accordance with the express will of God.  That could be the forty years of Israel’s wandering in the desert, or the Lord fasting for forty days in the wilderness.  Yet, less specifically, we need to understand the great length of time that Israel was forced to wait for its deliverance.  If we think in terms of Abraham to Christ, we become aware of the 3x14 generations that St. Matthew lists in the opening genealogy of his Gospel.  That is a long history indeed, filled with God’s providential care for His chosen people, but also filled with apostasy and betrayal on the part of Israel.  A history embracing Israel’s victories against its surrounding enemies, but also its subjugation and humiliation at the hands of other enemies.

While this tumultuous and even torturous history of Israel was unfolding, the prophets were both exhorting and chastising the people, but also speaking of deliverance.  Although this is a very complex development, there were clear indications among the prophets of a Messiah figure – sometimes very human, but at times a transcendent figure – around whom and in whom these longings for deliverance were concentrated.  He would be the Lord’s Anointed, and as such he would proclaim deliverance and salvation to Israel.  That profound and poignant sense of longing for deliverance is beautifully expressed in the two hymns found in the opening chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel, the first from St. Zechariah (LK. 1:67-79); and the other, the Magnificat of the Theotokos (LK. 1:46-55). One needs only to read the Book of Isaiah to get a sense of this messianic longing which took on universal dimensions, so that all the peoples of the earth would come to know the one true God and then come to Zion to worship Him.  We read of The Prophet, the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant of the Lord, and of the Messiah throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament.  This basic human longing for regaining a “lost paradise” in one form or another was gathered around these mysterious figures “promised” by the prophets who, in turn, were those chosen by God to deliver God’s word to the people of Israel.  But many generations were disappointed that these prophetic promises were not fulfilled in their time.

If we can appreciate this sense of waiting and longing, we can understand better how we, as contemporary Christians, in a very modest sense, are re-living or actualizing the experience of Israel as we await the advent of our Lord in a specially-designated period known as the Nativity/Advent Fast.  This designated forty days serves as a microcosm of Israel’s testing and preparation. Waiting implies expectation, perhaps even a certain sense of excitement. (Ask your children about that!). But it also implies patience, stabilized and strengthened by trust and faith in God, especially when we encounter obstacles, temptations, doubts, diversions and distractions.  Therefore, if Israel waited for the Lord’s Anointed, so will we as the New Israel of God.  Of course, we know and believe that the Messiah has come as Jesus of Nazareth, and our festal cycle again allows us to also re-live and actualize that advent on an annual basis, so as to renew our sense of fulfillment of the prophecies of old, and to again “greet” the newborn Christ Child with great joy and thanksgiving to God for working out our salvation “in the midst of the earth.”  All Christian believers of all ages can experience a child-like joy in the birth of Christ, the Son of God who became flesh.  We have the decided advantage of knowing all of this in advance, and this has been expressed very powerfully in the Epistle to the Hebrews, wherein the author, after reminding the early Christians of the great faith of the saints who lived before Christ, further reminds them of the great privilege of having lived in the time of fulfillment:  “And all these, though well-attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect”  (HEB. 11:39-40).

We cannot join “the world” in its indifference to Christ. And we cannot descend to the level of the crass commercialization of Christmas.  We are, after all, Christians!  Our goal is to fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul (heard last Sunday as the Epistle reading):  “I therefore … beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”  (EPH. 4:1-3).  This will test our patience, our trust in God, and our faith.  It has never been otherwise.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

'But our commonwealth is in heaven...'

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (MATT. 22:21)

The 2012 presidential election is now over, and President Barak Obama has been re-elected, creating a sense of satisfaction, joy and post-election euphoria for over 59,000,000 million US citizens; while Mitt Romney’s defeat has created a sense of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and post-election blues for over 57,000,000 million US citizens.  No other event in our country’s shared political and social life involves so many people focusing their attention and passion on that singular event as does the presidential election every four years.  Given the emotional and intense partisanship created by the presidential election, we thank God that the process remains orderly and peaceful, and that the results are accepted without overt expressions of civil unrest – something that remains a real threat in other countries throughout the world.  Life goes on.  At that level the democratic process is highly successful.  (However, I read that as many as 23% of population claimed that the election adversely affected inter-family relationships.  Hopefully, those relationships will heal with time).  If anyone has awakened with a post-election “hangover” further irritated by disappointment or even anger, I would suggest following the gracious lead of Mitt Romney, who said in his concession speech that he would pray for president Obama’s success for the sake of the country.  We do this, of course, in every major liturgical service within the Church when we offer the following prayerful petition to God:  “For the president of our country, for all civil authorities, and for the armed forces, let us pray to the Lord.”  We need every president – despite the litany of unrealizable promises that we hear - to succeed at some level regardless of our political party loyalties.  We all co-exist in the same country, regardless of ideological or party differences.  And we all want a promising future for our children and grandchildren – though we live with the knowledge that nothing is guaranteed.

In the New Testament there do exist passages that display a positive assessment of the civil authorities, beginning with the well-known words of the Apostle Paul:  “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  (ROM. 13:1)  Elsewhere, we read in one of St. Paul’s pastoral epistles:  “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.  This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I TIM. 2:1-4)  Yet, the words of Christ cited above make it clear that “Caesar’s” authority is limited to the political sphere of our lives, pervasive as that may seem to be at times.  Ever since Aristotle, at least, there is a deeply-entrenched belief that we, as human beings, are best defined as being a “political animal.”  There is no denying that that is true to a certain extent, but it fails to account for us as spiritual beings who have received the “breath of life” from God, making each and every one of us “a living being.” (GEN. 2:7)  In that sense, Caesar cannot touch the “things that are God’s” – our soul, our conscience, our heart and our relationship with and ultimate loyalty to God.  In fact, the teaching of Christ leaves room for peaceful civil disobedience, when the “things of God” clash with the “things of Caesar.”  Any law that we, with a good conscience, believe violates the Law of God, we have every “right” to protest with all of the legal means at our disposal and to resist at least on an internal level.  Even if we think we are fighting a losing battle.  That is true for a democracy and not just limited to more totalitarian regimes.  So, we can pray for our civil authorities, even though we may (vehemently) disagree with certain of their policies that clash with our Christian worldview.

I do hope that if you find yourselves aligned with the disenchanted this morning, that you not only “move on” – a rather superficial admonition often callously and cynically tossed off by the victors – but continue holding in respect the process we thankfully embrace for electing our public officials, including the president of these our United States.  (There’s always the next election!). Again, life goes on.  For any mature citizen – and especially for a Christian – party affiliations must be subordinate to a desire for the common good, regardless of just how hard you may have to swallow, or how tightly you may have to grit your teeth.  That common good is the prayer of the Church which can lift us above the level of the merely political into the bright light of the Kingdom of God.

But our commonwealth (Gk. politeuma) is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ …”  (PHIL. 3:20)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Faith, Voting, and our Ultimate Loyalty

Dear Parish Faithful,

Tomorrow is Election Day 2012.  By late Tuesday evening or early Wednesday morning, the American people, within the democratic process, will have either re-elected President Barack Obama, or replaced him with Gov. Mitt Romney as the new president.  It has been a brutal campaign in many ways, and potentially divisive as party allegiances have been sharply drawn and fiercely defended.  This evening, in our Fall Adult Education Class, we read and discussed together a fine article entitled “The Kingdom of God:  the Apostle Paul’s Perilous Proclamation.”  The final section of the article is further entitled “Application of Paul’s Proclamation for Orthodox Christians Today.”  The author, John Fotopoulos, offers an excellent paragraph in this section that makes essential reading before voting tomorrow, at least in my opinion.  This, because he places this election and “politics” in general, within a much wider context that is about our ultimate loyalty.  Here is that challenging paragraph as we conclude the eve of the election and prepare to exercise our right to vote tomorrow:

“Paul’s proclamation declares in no uncertain terms that Christian identity is to be found primarily in the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Paul did not ask the Roman Christians that he converted to renounce their Roman citizenship, but he did remind them that their true citizenship was in heaven from where they were expecting their savior to return.  Today in the contemporary American political scene, many politicians and televangelists have framed Christian faith and identity as loyalty to a particular political party.  Some Americans cannot even imagine the possibility of being a Christian without loyalty and support of some political party.  But what light do Paul’s writings shed on these ideas?  For Paul it would seem that political affiliations are permissible, but this should not be the source of one’s views or identity, nor should it be the chief focus of one’s loyalty.  Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God are to inform an Orthodox Christian’s identity, and this is to be the source of an Orthodox Christian’s thought and ideals.  One or another social or political issue must not define the views and political affiliations of Orthodox Christians, but rather these views and affiliations should b shaped by the totality of the gospel message.  In short, Orthodox Christians are not to pick and choose what they find appealing and what they do not in the gospel.  Paul the Apostle challenges Orthodox Christians to bring their beliefs, affiliations, concerns, and behavior into union with the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, something for which no human leader, political party, social group, or nation can serve as substitute.” (. 39-40)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or Treat?

Dear Parish Faithful,

Trick or Treat?

Just a few words about the current “feast” of Halloween.  For Christians, at least, there is more than one approach to this widely-celebrated and ever-popular day.  On the one hand, there are those who make it a matter of principle to avoid Halloween at all costs.  This position is based on the historical roots of this day in pagan and  even “demonic” associations from the past – the All Hallow’s Eve, when the powers of darkness were temporarily unleashed upon the world in one form or another.  It is precisely the pagan roots of Halloween from the past that convince some Christians that Halloween must be avoided.  Personally, I believe that this is a legitimate position that some Christians will sincerely arrive at. This position need not be scoffed at as “extreme,” “overly-zealous” or, finally, “fanatical.” It is, simply, a particular position arrived at after some careful reflection and thought. There is nothing wrong with a principled “reading” of the culture.  Of course, such Christians must avoid the shrill denunciation of other Christians who do not agree and thus observe Halloween after their own manner. And, over-emphasizing the “demonic” has its own inherent dangers and temptations.  Constant fear of the prevailing culture can become obsessive and spiritually unhealthy. On the other hand, it is the vast body of other Christians who simply approach Halloween as a more-or-less innocuous one-day celebration that does not take itself too seriously, and thus trivializes the “demonic” in the form of ghosts, ghouls, goblins and haunted houses all contrived to maximize the “fright factor” to one degree or another. This will include putting on a costume, “trick-or-treating” around the neighborhood, or going to a Halloween party. Usually, this is all far too “tacky” to create any sort of negative effect.  It is an opportunity for children to enjoy themselves as Halloween relieves them temporarily from their daily routines with a bit of fantasy.  Perhaps the greatest thing to fear is the amount of candy our children will consume within just a few days time. Who wants a child on a sugar high! (Have you ever noticed the slight disappointment registered on a child’s face when you drop a box of raisins or a pencil in their bag?). Or, alternatively, Halloween can be deflected toward a kind of harvest feast celebration that underplays the “fright factor” by consciously choosing to stress a wholesome Fall atmosphere that appreciates the changing seasons. Anyone for apple cider or apple-dunking amidst the bales of hay and pumpkins?  Halloween, thus, can evoke many different responses among Christians, a few of which I just briefly outlined. There is room for legitimate disagreement here. In my opinion, this is ultimately a matter of choice that each Christian family makes for itself.  If I were asked, I would advise families to avoid costumes that somehow play into the darker images implied by  Halloween - vampires, witches, devils, ghouls, etc.  No matter how trivial or innocuous, such images are meant to evoke “dark forces” or “evil” at some level and, as a matter of principle, should be avoided by Christians.

Personally, I can never quite understand the obsession with Halloween that is so entrenched in our culture. (Though, as a boy, I was a happy participant in trick-or-treating). I understand that it is now a billion dollar industry! Why adults choose to dress up for the day in more-or-less silly costumes is also rather baffling to me. Is it a sign that people need to “celebrate” something – anything – that removes them from the mundane reality of daily living?  In a secular society, there no longer exist that many “feast days” that promise a glimpse of something “other.”  Is Halloween in its present commercialized and trivialized form a rather pitiful substitute for what were once celebrations of divine and transcendent realities of the Christian year?  Or perhaps we like to pretend to be a little frightened by “unseen forces” in a controlled and non-dangerous environment.  This also supplies a bit of escapism.  Whatever the case may be, the day will come and pass quickly enough, and then it’s back to “real life.”

Monday, October 29, 2012

True Wealth, True Poverty

Dear Parish Faithful,

Turning one more time to St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, we again encounter his inimitable manner of challenging conventional notions of everyday reality – in this case notions of wealth and poverty  Basing his interpretation of how the Gospel itself challenges us to rethink some of our most basic notions, St. John aspires to guide us in the process of thinking anew of what we perceive to be “true” wealth and “true “ poverty. St. John is trying to place our understanding of wealth and poverty within the wider context of our needs and desires.  What do we need?  What do we desire?  Are needs and desires synonymous or are they often in conflict?  In a passage from his homilies on the parable, he writes the following:

Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires.  We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth.  So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money.  If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.

In a society as materialistically oriented as our own, these are rather subversive ideas. You will not hear them from a politician.  Only God alone knows to what extent our desires far outstrip our needs.  We are daily subjected to a merciless assault on our senses, pounding into our minds a myriad of desires that convince us that we are still “missing something” – in this case actual “things” – without which we remain poor and incomplete.  As Christians we probably do not do so well in combating these assaults.  And thus we find ourselves caught between the call of the Gospel and the lure of endless acquisitiveness. Of course, no one wants to languish in the hopeless plight of Lazarus. In fact, it is our responsibility as Christians to relieve the sufferings of any Lazarus that we may encounter, rather than idealize or romanticize such abject poverty. (Poverty does not exist because God wills it, but rather because we, as human beings, allow it, at least to the extent of our indifference toward alleviating it). Yet, is the rich man of the parable anymore desirable as an image to aspire toward?  The figure in the parable is a rather pitiable character in the end:  empty, regretful and languishing in the torment of not being able to go back and do it the “right way.”

St. John Chrysostom - “the Golden-Mouth” - has the gift of bringing the parables to life in a challenging manner so that we can rethink some of our most common notions.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Removing the Costumes of our Roles

Dear Parish Faithful,

St. John Chrysostom had many insights into our lives as Christians based on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, beyond the one I shared in Monday’s meditation.  His homilies are very rich, and he had an extraordinary gift of uncovering multiple layers of meaning from within a given scriptural text.  He combined this with lively and insightful commentary based on his own contemporary world, drawing analogies that would bring the scriptures to life for his flock.  One clear theme in the parable is that of our fate after death, meaning the judgment we will face based upon how we led our lives.  Within the context of analyzing this parable, the judgment will determine who is truly “wealthy,” and who is truly “poor.”  The rich man was condemned and Lazarus was received into the bosom of Abraham.  This may challenge a more conventional notion of God’s judgment, and St. John was determined to explore this further. Though a fierce critic of the theatre in his day (the theater was notorious for its immorality) St. John drew a probing analogy based on its mode of operation and our own life stories in order to draw out the implications of life, death and judgment.  Wealth and poverty can be very relative distinctions in this world and thus far removed from their ultimate meaning. The following passage is from one of the homilies collected in the book On Wealth and Poverty:

Just as in the theatre, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are; so also now when death arrives and the theatre is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world.  When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealth, others poor, some of high class, others of no account.

St. John appears to be asking each of us who takes the Gospel seriously – just who are you really underneath the various roles that you take on in this life? Strip away those roles and what will be revealed?  Another meaningful way, indeed, of approaching the issue of wealth and poverty!

A Radical Critique of Selfishness

Lazarus and the Rich Man
Dear Parish Faithful,

“And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”  (LK. 8:14)

There is an interior connection between the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31), heard yesterday at the Divine Liturgy.  For the “rich man” of the parable is the embodiment of a person who has been “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” as described in the Parable of the Sower.  Brushing aside the teaching of the Torah, and the Jewish emphasis on charity as one of the great acts of true piety, the rich man remained coldly indifferent to poor Lazarus who was clearly visible at his very gate.  Preoccupied with fine linen and sumptuous feasting (v. 19), the rich man was scarcely prepared in his heart to alleviate the sufferings of Lazarus, sufferings that were exemplified by the dogs that licked his sores (v. 20).  Such indifference is frightening when seen in the light of the many scriptural admonitions that either chastise the neglect of the poor: “He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard;” or encourage his care: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (PROV. 21:13; 19:17)  And the severity of the consequences of such neglect of the poor is vividly described in the parable’s “reversal of fortune,” with the rich man languishing in hades, unable to be relieved of his torment there. The contrast of his fate and that of Lazarus being carried into the “bosom of Abraham” by a heavenly escort is striking. (v. 22-23)

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was delivered with the Pharisees in mind, for right before Jesus proclaimed the parable, we hear this unflattering description of the Pharisees:  “The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him.  But he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’.” (LK. 16:14-15)  Whatever or whoever may have prompted the words of the Lord during his ministry, our concern now is with our own attitude and treatment of the poor.  To think or believe otherwise is to fail to “hear” the parable as it is proclaimed today for our chastisement or encouragement. The words of the Lord – the “Gospel truth” – cannot be properly assessed within the narrow limits of any political allegiances – Democrat or Republican; nor even of a wider-scoped ideology – liberal or conservative.  The Gospel transcends these categories as something far greater and infinitely more demanding of our allegiance.  At a time when neither political parties nor even political ideologies existed or had any real impact on the prevailing cultural or social assumptions of the time, St. John Chrysostom (+407) delivered a series of brilliant homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  (These seven homilies now exist in English translation under the title on Wealth and Poverty).  With his impressive knowledge of the Scriptures; his unmatched rhetorical skills; but most importantly his profound zeal for the moral and ethical teaching of the Gospel; St. John offered a radical critique of selfishness and a radical exhortation to overcome such selfishness for the sake of the poor.  Challenging conventional notions of what theft is, he famously expanded its definition by meditating deeply on the parable at hand:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation.  What is this testimony?  Accusing the  Jews by the prophet, God says, ‘The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.’ (MAL. 3:8-10)  Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor.  He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth.  And elsewhere the Scripture says, ‘Deprive not the poor of his living.’ (SIR. 4:1)  To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.  This is why God has allowed you to have more; not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need … If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you … For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.  (On Wealth and Poverty, homily two)

This is a radical teaching, though again not based on any particular social or political philosophy.  For St. John the “true philosophy” was adherence to the Gospel.  St. John is primarily concerned with uncovering the meaning and implications of what we discover in the Scriptures.  If that is challenging to the point of seeming “impossible’” or of least taking us way out of our “comfort zones,” then rather than “soft-pedaling” the Gospel message, St. John would continue in the hope of inspiring us to strengthen our efforts and to put on “the mind of Christ.”

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Thoephilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.”  (LK. 1:1-4)

That, of course, is the well-known introduction by St. Luke the Evangelist to the third of the canonical Gospels that he compiled with great care and a determination to present the “truth” of the ministry and then the death and resurrection of Christ.  And it is the holy apostle and evangelist Luke that we commemorate today, October 18.  From the Menologion, or calendar of the year providing a brief account of the saints and feasts of the Church, we read this succinct entry about St. Luke:

This Apostle was an Antiochean, a physician by trade, and a disciple and companion of Paul.  He wrote his Gospel in Greek after Matthew and Mark, after which he wrote the Acts of the Apostles, and dedicated both works to Theophilus, who, according to some, was Governor of Achaia (i.e. Greece).  He lived some eighty-six years and died in Achaia, perhaps in Patras, the capital of this district.  His emblem is the calf, the third symbolic beast mentioned by Ezekiel (1:10), which is a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial and priestly office, as St. Irenaeus says.

The dismissal hymn in Tone 5 (troparion) to St. Luke praises him for his service to Christ and to the Church:

Let us praise with sacred songs the holy Apostle Luke,
the recorder of the joyous Gospel of Christ
and the scribe of the Acts of the Apostles;
for his writings are a testimony of the Church of Christ.
He is the physician of human weaknesses and infirmities.
he heals the wounds of our souls,
and constantly intercedes for our salvation.

And the kontakion in Tone 2:

Let us praise the godly Luke;
he is the true preacher of piety,
the orator of ineffable mysteries
and the star of the Church,
for the Word, Who alone knows the hearts of men,
chose him, with the wise Paul, to be a teacher of the Gentiles!

At Vespers yesterday evening, one of the apostikha stood out as an excellent summary of the contents of St. Luke’s Gospel, outlining some of the unique features of this particular Gospel and then moving on to mention St. Luke’s role as the Apostle Paul’s traveling companion.  Although highly rhetorical as usual, this particular aposticha remains as a good teaching tool:

Rejoice, blameless writer of the Gospel of joy;
you have recorded for us the conception and preaching of the Baptist;
the wondrous Annunciation to the Mother of the Lord;
the ineffable Incarnation and Birth of the Word Who came forth from her womb;
His temptations, miracles, and parables,
His Passion, Cross and death,
the glory of His risen body recognized in the breaking of the bread,
His glorious Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
As a faithful witness you compiled the Acts of the Apostles.
You were Paul’s companion in travel and his great consolation,
The beholder of divine mysteries and light of the Church.
Guard us all, O glorious healer!

Is everyone able to identify all of the references above?  Is everyone able to enumerate some of the miracles and parables that are unique to St. Luke, meaning that they cannot be found in any other of the remaining three Gospels?  Is everyone aware of some of the different details found only in St. Luke’s account of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ?  Does everyone know the events compiled by the evangelist in the Acts of the Apostles?  As the years go by and as we continue to read the Gospels over and over, I believe that we begin to distinguish between Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – their style, their particular emphases and approach, and the material that is found in only one of the Gospels.  The point is not about “passing a test” concerning our knowledge of the “facts.” . (Though, periodically, the “Bible” as a category does shows up on Jeopardy). The point is rather to have a scriptural mind that is very familiar with the Gospels precisely because we turn to them on a daily basis for our immersion in the “joy” that is found there because they make Christ alive to us.

I recall many years ago an interview of William F. Buckley by Charlie Rose.  Buckley was asked what books and writers have had the greatest influence on him, and he unhesitatingly responded:  "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."  An awkward silence ensued, and Charlie Rose quickly changed the subject!  So, who are the writers and what are the books that have most deeply influenced our thinking, our worldview, and our approach to life?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Consecration of the New Church at the Monastery of the Dormition

Fr Roman, Mother Abbess Gabriela (w/pectoral cross) and the sisterhood with the new church under construction in the background.

Dear Parish Faithful,

 The monastery was founded by three nuns from Romania, in a desire to pursue missionary work and spread Orthodoxy further into America. This vision had to be fulfilled through a monastic structure; not by importing or recreating a glorious past, but by drawing on the traditions of the past that keep alive the Orthodox faith.

(The nuns of the monastery)        

By the grace of God, presvytera Deborah and I, together with fellow-parishioners Jennifer Haynes and Amanda Wheelock, were able to travel to Rives Junction, Michigan, for the consecration of the new church at the Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery which has been located there since 1987.  Hence, the consecration of the new church coincided with the 25th anniversary of the monastery’s establishment.  I am not able to estimate crowd sizes very well, but together we guessed that there were around five hundred faithful – clergy and laity – assembled together for the event.  It was a memorable event for the nuns of the monastery , and we rejoice that we were able to participate in the consecration/celebration together with them.  The beautiful natural setting of the monastery; the warm embrace of the mothers and sisters; and the spontaneous fellowship with one’s fellow pilgrims increased that sense of rejoicing threefold.  It was good to be there!

Having arrived well into the evening on Friday – just about when the Vigil was drawing to a close – we were up bright and early for the cycle of services that would  mark the consecration itself.  There was a definite splendor and liturgical fullness to the Service of Consecration and the Divine Liturgy to follow, for there were four bishops con-celebrating – led by Archbishop Nathaniel – about twenty-five priests and six deacons, and a host of sub-deacons and other servers. The mothers and sisters of the monastery provided the choir, together with other visiting nuns and monks.  From the initial procession of the holy relics from the old chapel to the courtyard of the new church, through to the dismissal of the Liturgy, the services stretched over a five-hour period.  Orthodox stamina, developed over years of liturgical experience, served everyone very well, for clergy and laity alike stood throughout the services.  I was invited to serve and brought along my vestments.  However, one thing caught me off-guard, so to speak, and tested whatever stamina I may have had to the full.  Except for the consecration of the altar table and the interior of the new church, we were outdoors for at least four of those five hours – and the temperature in Michigan probably did not reach 50 degrees on Saturday!  Clergy vestments can be burdensome on a hot summer day; but they provide scant protection from a chilly day outdoors.  Mercifully, it was not a windy day, but even the slightest breeze seemed to penetrate to the bone, and thus remained most unwelcome.  We were all in it together, and that collective effort was most helpful.
Still, it was indeed a challenge to remain attentive and prayerful, when thoughts of endurance impinged upon the mind!

However, in addition to the intense and expressive prayer that so characterizes Orthodox worship, the mind could find rest elsewhere on this crisp Fall day.  I briefly alluded to the beautiful natural setting of the monastery in south central Michigan, and it would be difficult to over-emphasize that beauty which is intensified precisely during the Fall.  Though located near a country road that has its periodic traffic, the monastery has a definite rural setting that already in itself is a relief from the urban setting most pilgrims briefly leave behind.  We fail to realize the extent to which one can miss a peaceful environment until you are in the midst of one. The clusters of magnificent trees that collectively stretch as far as the eye can see, resplendent with a variety of vivid and vibrant Fall colors – flaming red, bright orange and golden yellow - not only surround the monastery grounds but seem to enfold those grounds with a protective embrace.  In some mysterious manner, one can sense the participation of the natural world in the ongoing prayer of the monastery that in turn hallows those grounds.  With its well-tended gardens and flower beds thoughtfully placed throughout the monastery, the nuns manifest a deep respect and sense of stewardship for the world of nature that we can easily lose sight of. Here, that intuitive longing for the restoration of harmony between God, human beings and the natural world seems to be within one’s grasp.  “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works; in wisdom has Thou made them all!

The new church now stands at the very center of the monastery grounds as it will be at the center of the spiritual life of the community, filled with daily prayer rising to God as incense in His sight. Further, it is now at the center of that protective embrace of the natural world described briefly above.  In that setting there is a real grandeur and beauty about it. The new church at the Dormition Monastery was designed in that unique style that is characteristic of Romanian Orthodox church architecture, I believe going back well into the medieval period of that country’s Orthodox Christian history. This is a beautiful temple truly raised to the glory of God.  It has been constructed and adorned with great care and love.  The interior is decorated with fine examples of classical Byzantine iconography. It is that “sacred space” that is consecrated – offered to God – as the dwelling place of God that also serves as a foretaste of the beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is thus a fine example of that Orthodox intuition of the saving power of beauty.  There are some “finishing touches” yet to be completed, so I eagerly anticipate my next return visit to the monastery to see the church in an even more completed form.

The consecration of a new church can be a rare experience for many of the faithful.  It is an elaborate service that is comprised of processing around the new temple three times with the holy relics that will eventually find their resting place in the new altar table, accompanied by prayer and scriptural reading before actually entering the church.  Once inside the church, the concentration is on the new altar table that is essentially “baptized” – or “consecrated” - by being washed with holy water and anointed with blessed oil.  The holy relics are then sealed with a hot wax into the new altar table and the altar table is “robed” or “vested” with a beautiful new cloth prepared for that purpose.  The walls of the church are also anointed with a blessed oil and sprinkled with holy water.  But there was one very special event that was certainly a splendid “surprise” for many of the faithful.  According to what I was told was a Romanian tradition, every person present at the consecration – men, women and children – were blessed to enter into the sanctuary behind the iconostasis, and encircle the newly-consecrated altar table.  Since women are not usually blessed to enter the sanctuary – except for those with a special blessing, usually within a monastic community – this was indeed a unique opportunity. Presvytera Deborah was deeply moved by the experience.  It was the first time she had been blessed to enter the sanctuary in her entire life. 

At the banquet to follow, Fr. Roman spoke of the role of the monastery within the life of the Church at large.  He reminded us that the monastery is not “owned” by the nuns.  Their names do not appear on any of the property deeds.  The monastery is open to any of the faithful, or to any interested inquirers into the Orthodox Faith or monastic tradition.  As the beautiful new brochure that serves to introduce the monastery to the outside world simply states:  “The first major activity of the monastery after prayer is hospitality.  St. Paul says:  Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (HEB. 13:2)  The monastery thus belongs to the Church – the living and breathing People of God who comprise the one Body of Christ, in service to the one Head – our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the perfect place to retreat to even if briefly.  The Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery will remind of us are calling and vocation as Christians in a world filled simultaneously with both temptations to abandon our vocation and inspiration to fulfill that vocation with ever-greater commitment and intensity.  Our parish of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church has established a strong bond with Mother Gabriela and the other mothers and sisters of the community.  We are fully committed as a parish to continually strengthen that already-existing bond.  Participation at this last weekend’s consecration of the new church there by a representative group from our parish was one more step toward that goal.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Coptic Fragment: Much Ado About Nothing?

Dear Parish Faithful,

You may be aware of a recent news item concerning a fragment, written in Coptic, that purports to make a claim that Jesus had a wife.  This is probably a good example of “much ado about nothing.”   Or a good example of how anything that challenges traditional Christianity is immediately newsworthy.  As I was going to comment a bit about this new “find,” I came across this recent article that summarizes the Vatican’s take on the issue together with that of many New Testament scholars.  Here is the article for you to read at your convenience.  As this article makes abundantly clear, a great deal of research needs to be done on the authenticity of this fragment before any other analysis can be made.

Fr. Steven

'Gospel of Jesus' Wife' papyrus is a fake fragment, Vatican says
By Naomi O'Leary

An ancient papyrus fragment which a Harvard scholar says contains the first recorded mention that Jesus may have had a wife is a fake, the Vatican said Friday.

"Substantial reasons would lead one to conclude that the papyrus is indeed a clumsy forgery," the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said in an editorial by its editor, Gian Maria Vian. "In any case, it's a fake."

Joining a highly charged academic debate over the authenticity of the text, written in ancient Egyptian Coptic, the newspaper published a lengthy analysis by expert Alberto Camplani of Rome's La Sapienza university, outlining doubts about the manuscript and urging extreme caution.

The fragment, which reads "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" was unveiled by Harvard Professor Karen King as a text from the 4th century at a congress of Coptic Studies in Rome last week.

Her study divided the academic community, with some hailing it as a landmark discovery while others rapidly expressed their doubts

"It's really pretty unlikely that it's authentic," University of Durham Professor Francis Watson told Reuters after he published a paper arguing the words on the fragment were a rearrangement of phrases from a well known Coptic text.

Watson, who has previously worked on identifying forged gospels, said it was likely to be an ancient blank fragment that was written over in the 20th or 21st century by a forger seeking to make money.

Watson argues that the words on the fragment do not fit grammatically into a larger text.

"It's possible to get hold of an old bit of unwritten-on papyrus and write some new stuff on it," Watson said. "There is a market for fake antiquities throughout the Middle East ... I would guess that in this case the motivation might have been a financial one."

Academic debate

Manuscript experts who heard King's presentation quickly took to their blogs to express doubts, noting that the letters were clumsy, perhaps the script of someone unused to writing Coptic.

Writing from the conference, early Christian scholar Christian Askeland said specialists there were divided between two-thirds who were extremely skeptical, and one-third convinced the fragment was false.

"I have not met anyone who supports its authenticity," Askeland wrote from a session of the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, where King gave her paper.

In an email to Reuters after the conference ended and before the Vatican editorial, King said: "Whether, in the end, the fragment will be shown to be authentic is still to be finally determined, but the serious conversation among scholars has begun."

During the conference King stressed that the fragment did not give "any evidence that Jesus was married, or not married" but that early Christians were talking about the possibility.

AnneMarie Luijendijk, associate professor of religion at Princeton University, said she concluded that the fragment was indeed an authentic, ancient text, written by a scribe in antiquity.

"We can see that by the way the ink is preserved on the papyrus and also the way the papyrus has faded and also the way the papyrus has become very fragmentary, which is actually in line with a lot of other papyri we have also from the New Testament," Luijendijk told Reuters during the conference.

The idea that Jesus was married resurfaces regularly in popular culture, notably with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown's best-seller "The Da Vinci Code," which angered the Vatican because, among other things, it was based on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children.

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married and the Catholic Church, by far the largest in Christendom, says women cannot become priests because Christ chose only men as his apostles.


Friday, September 28, 2012

The Sign of the Son of Man, Part 2

Dear Parish Faithful,

I wrote earlier of living by and under the “sign” of the Cross, and practically about how we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves – a practice which clearly goes back to the ancient Church.  We belong to Christ – the crucified Lord of Glory.  However, we need to maintain a certain vigilance, because there are other “signs” competing for our loyalty – and even for our time, talent and treasure.  Although I admittedly do not encounter this much in my life today – though I believe a daily horoscope can still  be found in the newspaper - you may perhaps find yourself answering the question one day:  “What is your sign?” or “What sign are you under?”   This is all about the strange world of astrology, still a lucrative – if not ludicrous – enterprise in today’s sophisticated and highly-technological world.  (Astrology affirms my dreary conviction that people will believe in anything!).  Basically limited to vague and affirmative predictions concerning  romantic relationships and financial speculation  - at least on the popular level - the claim is made that your birthday determines the Zodiac sign under which you live and which has some mysterious way of determining your personality and your destiny.  This was popular in the time of the early Church, even among emperors and highly-placed officials, and has retained its hold to this day.  Many of the Church Fathers contributed devastating critiques of the claims of astrologers that are still effective to this day.  (There is an old joke that I am tempted to share here:  A person came to Confession and acknowledged to the priest that he periodically checks his astrology chart.  And the priest responded: “ Oh, and what does it say?”)    Referring to the bizarre world of astrological signs here is simply to point out one of many examples of the concept of a “sign” as a powerful and potent “symbol/representation” of an underlying reality to which human beings will devote themselves - often with heart, soul, mind and strength.  To place oneself under the sign of the Cross is to offer one’s heart, soul, mind and strength to God in a consciously  Christocentric manner.  (MK. 12:30)

The more marginalized signs, like those of the zodiac, are assumedly easy for Christians to ignore.  But the one pervasive “sign” that impinges upon everyone and which demands our attention is none other than: $$$!    The “dollar sign,” or, as we may say, the “almighty dollar” is an integral part of our lives.  For many, it “makes the world go ‘round.”  Questions and concerns about money loom large in our lives. However, with a reeling economy, we should be deeply sympathetic to all persons who have lost their jobs and who are suffering great anxiety concerning the future of their families. Many well-intentioned and hard working people find themselves facing financial hardships that are determined by factors well beyond their control.  Admittedly, it is difficult to reflect upon “ultimate questions” of God and salvation when one is uncertain about the most primary – if not primal – needs of food, shelter and clothing.  When this reaches the point of genuine hunger for one’s “daily bread” then the world is facing a crisis that is both economic and moral.  Wretched and pervasive poverty is not just God’s problem (“Why and how does God allow this to happen?”); but also our problem (Why and how do fellow human beings allow this to happen?”). This should awaken a sense of sympathy, compassion and support from those who are blessed with ample resources.  As St. John Chrysostom said:  “What you do for the poor and to the sick and to prisoners you do Christ.”  That is perhaps one crucial dimension of the place of money in our lives.

But we know that the “$” can awaken a myriad of enticements and temptations that can tightly grip the heart, soul, mind and strength of just about anyone who consciously or unconsciously succumbs to its lure.  And then the “$” becomes the “sign” that one lives by or under.  This “passion” can exist under a legion of expressions:  acquisitiveness, greed, conspicuous consumption, consumerism, materialism, avarice, etc.  We can begin to measure the meaning of life, or that allusive “pursuit of happiness” based upon material wealth – and judge others accordingly –  primarily, if not exclusively.  The quest for the virtues can be eclipsed by our quest to accumulate material wealth as the supreme virtue.  To live under the dollar sign can shrink one’s heart and squeeze the virtues of sympathy and compassion right out of it.  There can be a Scrooge hidden within all of us once the lure of the “$” becomes pervasive.   Jesus understood the nature of this struggle perfectly well: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon”  (MATT. 6:24).  And the Apostle Paul reinforces this in equally strong language:  “For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (I TIM. 6:10).  We are thus meant to use money, but not to serve or love money.   Christian Stewardship is about the vigilant use of time, talent and treasure, embracing these gifts both with a sense of gratitude for the blessings that ultimately derive from God; and an openness to share our treasure beyond our immediate and essential concerns.

We may have the best of intentions to place ourselves under the sign of the Cross, but then somehow drift off and find ourselves under the sign of the dollar –  or under any other sign that is foreign to the meaning of the Cross of Christ.  We are surrounded by endless temptations to shift our loyalties away from Christ to some other “lord” or “god.”  But if the “sign of the Son of Man” is the Cross, then challenging though it may be, this is the sign we want to live by and under as Christians.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Sign of the Son of Man, Part 1

Dear Parish Faithful,

 "Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven…"
 (MATT. 24:30)

Contemporary scholars debate the meaning of the word “sign” in the words of Christ found in the above passage that describes, in highly symbolic terms, His parousia or return in glory.  This sign, whatever it may be, will be impossible to miss or misinterpret.  It will overwhelm those who are present to observe it and stand in its shadow, so to speak.  Yet, for many of the Church Fathers – including St. John Chrysostom - the word “sign” in this passage refers to the cross of the Savior.  Commenting on this passage as found in the Gospel According to St. Matthew, St. John writes the following:

“The cross will be brighter than the sun.  The sun will be darkened and hide itself.  The sun will appear at times when it would not normally appear. .. For having the cross as the greatest plea, the Son of man thus comes to that judgment seat, showing not only his wounds but also the reproach of his death.”  (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 76.3.)

The Church Fathers were in direct continuity with the New Testament in their emphasis on the Cross in the divine economy.  There was no conceivable way to legitimately underemphasize or somehow “get around” the centrality of the Cross. If Jesus was Lord, then His lordship had been fully revealed following His death on the Cross: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified”  (ACTS 2:36).   St. Paul knew that the Cross of the Lord was a “stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” (I COR 1:23).  It was no different in the centuries to follow, including the great Patristic Age when the Church Fathers offered their great commentaries on the Scriptures.  And it is no different today:  there will always remain a deep sense of incomprehension before the mystery of the Cross.  How can suffering and death be the path to glorification and life with God?  St. Paul, however, did not flinch from what God had revealed, and he drew his own hard conclusion:  “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”  (I COR. 1:18).  Even more emphatically for the great apostle, the Cross and Christ are so closely bound together, that both are  considered to be “the wisdom of God” (I COR. 1:20-25).  The Cross may be “foolish,” “low,” and “despised,”  (I COR. 1:27,28) but it is Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”  (I COR. 1:30).  In a beautiful image from St. John Chrysostom, we hear him say that “I call Him King because I see Him crucified.”

The Cross does not stand alone, but is always linked to the Resurrection of Christ, the event that reveals the inner meaning of the Cross and its fulfillment.  Without the resurrection of Christ, the Cross would indeed remain an instrument of suffering and death, having the “last word” in a fallen and irredeemable world.  We express the unity of Cross and Resurrection  liturgically, through the powerful hymn that accompanies our veneration of the Cross as now during the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross:

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

This organic and inextricable union of the Cross and Resurrection is beautifully expressed in every celebration of the Liturgy, when immediately after the reception of the Eucharist we chant:

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One.  We venerate Thy Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Thy holy Resurrection; for Thou are our God, and we know no other than Thee; we call on Thy name.  Come all you faithful, let us venerate Christ’s holy Resurrection!  For, behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world.  Let us ever bless the Lord, praising His Resurrection, for by enduring the Cross for us, He has destroyed death by death.

Christians live under and by the Sign of the Cross.  Many Christians – certainly the Orthodox -  even “make” this sign over their bodies when they “cross themselves.”  This can, of course, be nothing but an empty gesture, or a vestige of a cultural tradition that has long lost any power or significance in our lives.   The sign of the Cross can even be manipulated in a manner dangerously approaching superstition:  as if the cross was a sort of charm or talisman that protects one more-or-less magically.  However, let us assume that we are no longer subject to such crass temptations. Let us further assume that our intentions are to treat the sign of the Cross with respect and reverence.  At this point there may be additional and more subtle temptations that we must contend with.  If we compartmentalize our lives in such a way that “religion” –  or even God – is consciously or unconsciously only a part of our lives, or apart from our daily lives, then we can find ourselves living under or by a different “sign” than that of the Cross.  How can that happen?

(To be continued)