Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Greatest Man Born of Woman

Dear Parish Faithful,

This evening, at 6:00 p.m., we will serve the Vesperal Liturgy in commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (August 29).  Even though not numbered among the Twelve Great Feast Days of the liturgical year, there exists an entire cycle of feasts in honor of St. John:

September 23 – Conception of St. John
January 7 – Synaxis of St. John (his unique role in the Baptism of Christ)
June 24 – Nativity of St. John
August 29 – Beheading of St. John

As in the Feasts of the Lord and of the Mother of God, we actualize the major events in the life of the Forerunner and Baptist John, all of which are scripturally-based, and honor and reverence this greatest of the prophets called, by Christ, the “friend of the bridegroom.”  The Mother of God “fell asleep” in the Lord peacefully and surrounded by those who loved her and cared for her.  She fulfilled the type of death that we always pray for in the Liturgy:  “A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ our God.”   St. John, however, suffered a horribly violent death as he was beheaded by the order of Herod Antipas, a victim of the cruelty of his “wife” Herodias and the seductive maneuverings of her daughter Salome.  St. John had to walk along the lonely road of martyrdom in the end.  Yet, we can “celebrate” his death – violent though it was - because it was through his death that he continued to preach to those in Hades (the realm of the dead), awaiting deliverance from the Savior, a deliverance that came through Christ’s own death and resurrection.  The Risen Lord then brought St. John into His eternal Kingdom.   Both St. John and the Mother of God are considered the two greatest intercessors in the life of the Church. They are the two that flank the Risen and Glorified Christ in the icon of the Deisis , praying for the well-being of the members of the Body of Christ.

August 29 is a “strict fast day” because St. John was a great ascetic and because of the nature of his death.

Hopefully, we will honor St. John with a church full of worshippers this evening at 6:00 p.m.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

History, Blasphemy, and Russia

Dear Parish Faithful,

I was gathering some more information so as to write a reflection/opinion on the recent controversy in Russia generated by the female singing group with the unfortunate name of “Pussy Riot” (wince).  As you probably know, these three women were recently sentenced to two years in prison for their “protest song and dance” inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.  They were arrested, tried and convicted of “hooliganism and blasphemy.”  However, as I was trying to gather some more background information, someone sent me the following article written by Frederica Mathewes-Green, the prolific Orthodox author who always has something interesting and insightful to say about her chosen topics.  She has one particular approach to this event, and that is to offer a brief historical sketch that will allow to bring some context to this controversial “performance” inside of a church.  That context is very helpful because it allows us to understand the offensiveness of how the women chose to protest the rule of Vladimir Putin, and even the newly-established relationship between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church.  For the moment, then, we can all read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s article.

Personally, I wish that the women chose a different forum for their protest – even outside in front of the church would have been more appropriate for a public demonstration against the government.  Be that as it may, I fully agree with Mathewes-Green’s opinion that the women should not have received a prison sentence as punishment.  All things considered, I believe that that was far too harsh.  Community service of some sort – directly related to the Church? – would have been much more appropriate, I believe.   At least, though not until after the sentencing by the judge if I am not mistaken, the Church issued an official statement asking for mercy from the civil authorities.  Perhaps the Church was hoping that the judicial system would commute the sentence when all was said and done.

I haven’t read anything about the case for a couple of days now, so if you have any more information that would update or correct my brief comments above, please share them with me.

Fr. Steven


The Original post can be found here.

History, Blasphemy, and Russia
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Frederica in Arts, Orthodoxy, The Culture
[August 22, 2012]

 When the “Pussy Riot” protesters were sentenced last week for their performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, a friend asked me why Orthodox Christians were so upset about what they’d done. For him, this was clearly a political protest. It was aimed at a too-close entwining of church and state, so it took place in a church. What’s the big deal?

 But, in practice, there’s a difference. If you protest at a government building, you impact people in that government. If you protest at a business, you impact people in that business. But when you protest at a church, you don’t hit only those in power. You hit all the ordinary people, too, the ones who don’t have any influence or power. They come to church on a weekday afternoon just to pray, because they’re worried or sad about something. When someone mocks their faith it wounds them. It wounds their fellow-believers all over the world, who have no connection at all to the target of the protest.

 What caused this pain was that the women sang a song that contained obscenities and a parody of a prayer. Those on the outside might not get why it was so hurtful. Well, for one thing, the altar in an Orthodox church is felt to be especially holy; it’s not like the stage of a church auditorium. Because Christianity grew out of Judaism, the altar is like the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple.

 But the form of the protest, a mocking and obscene prayer, also hit on particular, and painful, memories. My spiritual father, Fr. George Calciu, spent 21 years in communist prison. (He died in 2006). He was subjected to the brainwashing process, and they used both physical and emotional torture. They mocked everything and everyone he loved—his wife, his child, his faith. A centerpiece of the brainwashing program was to subject prisoners to parody church services, with obscene and mocking prayers.

All Christian prisoners endured this abuse. Millions of clergy, monastics, and lay people died for their beliefs. Fr. George survived, and, thanks to the efforts of Romanian expatriates like Eugene Ionescu and Mircea Eliade, he was freed in 1984.

 It’s not that long ago.

The problem was the mockery of our prayers, not the protest against Putin and the official church. There are many Christians who share these women’s concerns, and our faith has a long history of prayer for deliverance from unjust rulers. A sincere prayer might have had an entirely different effect; it might have attracted allies everywhere. Sincerity is always better than mockery.

 Also, the church where this happened has a sensitive history. The original Christ the Savior Cathedral was built in the 19th century, modeled on the finest Byzantine architecture and filled with treasures of art and iconography. In 1931, the Soviets destroyed it—they blew it up. You can see the footage online. Artworks were thrown in a pile and burned—destroyed specifically because of their religious content, like the Buddha statues dynamited in Afghanistan.

 But in the 1990’s there grew up a popular movement to rebuild the Cathedral. A million citizens of Moscow donated to the fund. The new cathedral is identical to the one that was destroyed. So this church has a significant story: it was destroyed by the powerful, and rebuilt by the people.
The new cathedral was consecrated in 2000. It’s not that long ago.

What’s the right punishment in such a case? We could try picturing analogous incidents, imagining protesters invading a mosque or a synagogue and chanting obscene parodies of the worshippers’ prayers. But I don’t know that there’s a need for punishment. Community service would be better. These women could use their talents to gather and tell the stories of those who lived through the bad times, and the stories of those who did not make it through. That would be something we could all agree on—a project that could bring healing and understanding, and strengthen memory against future abuse.

 When you’re young and strong, like these women are, it can be hard to imagine that anyone was ever weak, or suffering, or persecuted, or afraid. You might think, “It can’t happen here.” But it did happen—right there. And not that long ago. We know this from history: if you forget the times when the faithful were mocked with abusive and obscene words, it won’t be long before we’re hearing those words again.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Virgin Mary - The Great Example

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos
(Kontakion of the Dormition)

Yesterday evening, we celebrated the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos, often referred to as the Dormition.  The service was a Vesperal Liturgy, and we must have had the best attendance to date for this wonderful Feast.  Just how good was our attendance?  With the exception of the Christmas day Liturgy, this is the first time we have ever had to cut up two large prosphora loaves for a non-Sunday Liturgy in order to have enough blessed bread for post-Communion and post-Liturgy distribution.  And not a single piece remained!  That is how good our attendance was.  Of course, this is only “meet and right,” as the Feast is the culmination of two-week period of preparation through the Dormition fast.  This was, then,  a truly fitting completion to the cycle of Great Feasts that begins in September and ends in August.  As one of our beloved professors – “Prof” to many of his students - from seminary once said:  The inner strength of a parish is determined by its veneration and love of the Mother of God.  Through “our firm hope in her intercessions,” (Kontakion) this is becoming an integral part of our parish’s inner life.

This Feast is observed by the Roman Catholic Church on this same day of August 15, but entitled The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  And in the Roman Catholic Church, the Assumption has been recently promulgated as a dogma (1950); an official status, at least, that this Feast does not have in the Orthodox Church.   You will find many Orthodox Churches in North America using that title of the Assumption, but the Feast is actually entitled the Koimesis (Gk.) or Dormition of the Theotokos.  What does that mean?  The actual word “Dormition” is not found in my dictionary, the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition!  However, the more prestigious Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus:

Noun:  (in the Orthodox Church)  the passing of the Virgin Mary from earthly life. Origin:  late 15th c. from French, from Latin dormitio(n-) ‘falling asleep,’ from dormire ‘to sleep’

As stated above, the actual Greek term for the Feast is koimesis, also a word deriving from the verb “to sleep.”  (A koimeterion, or cemetery, is a place where people are “sleeping”).  Thus, we commemorate the death of the Theotokos, but death within the reality of the Church is a “falling asleep” from which the believing Christian will be awakened by resurrection.  Though not proclaimed as an “official” dogma, the Orthodox Church’s Tradition teaches that this eschatological (“end-time”) hope has already been fulfilled in the life and death of the Mother of God.  This is what is meant when we sing in the troparion that the Theotokos has been “translated to life;” and in the kontakion that “she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!”   As Archbishop Kallistos Ware explains:

The Resurrection of the Body, which all Christians await, has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact.  That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category:  for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now.  (The Festal Menaion, p. 64)

Since the Virgin Mary is not the “great exception,” but the “great example” as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, perhaps we could say that the Feast of her falling asleep is the prototypical funeral service for all Christians.  In other words, her “funeral service” as commemorated and actualized in the Feast, serves as the great example for all Christian funeral services:  a “falling asleep” in the Lord in anticipation of being fully “translated” into the Kingdom of God, soul and body, at the end of time.  So when we celebrate the Feast of the Dormition, we are anticipating our own deaths as a “falling asleep” in the hope that the Lord will in turn come for our soul (as depicted in the icon of the Feast) as our body is consigned to the earth in a koimeterion as we await the “resurrection of the dead.”  This is magnificently described by St.  Paul:

“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed.”  (I COR. 15:52)

In the life, death and destiny of the Virgin Mary, we witness one of the most basic revelations of the entire New Testament:  that “all things are possible with God”  (MK 10:27).  To further “meditate” on that actuality, the special hymn to the Theotokos in the Liturgy of the Feast, replacing the usual “It is Meet and Right,” presents us with a series of “impossibilities” rendered “possible” by the grace of God in the life of the Theotokos:

The limits of nature are overcome in you, O Pure Virgin:  for birthgiving remains virginal and life is united to death!  A virgin after childbearing and alive after death!  You ever save your inheritance, O Theotokos.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Loaves and the Eucharist

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Meaning of Jesus' Miracles, Part II:
The Loaves and the Eucharist
continued from 'The Meaning of Jesus' Miracles'

“And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples …”  (MATT. 14:19)

“ Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples …"  (MATT. 26:26)

Even a superficial glance at the two verses above reveal the deep similarities between the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish on the one hand, and the establishment of the Eucharist itself on the other.  The verbal identity in both accounts is based on the Greek original.  We could say that the miracle of the loaves and fish clearly anticipates and prepares for the institution of the Eucharist.  Jesus nourished the souls and bodies of the many people who came to hear Him speak, and who then found themselves hungry in a “lonely place” with only five loaves and two fish at hand.  The teaching and food of this miracle that occurred on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee establishes a pattern that we follow to this day in the Liturgy.  In the same order, we first hear the Word of God proclaimed in the reading of the Scriptures, through which we hear the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels; and then, “hungry for more,” we receive the food of the Eucharist – Christ Himself – as it enters our members, our veins and our hearts (Post-communion Prayer of Thanksgiving).  

The multiplication of the loaves and fish must have been quite an overwhelming event.  It is not explicitly stated in St. Matthew’s account that the crowd of people was aware of its source of food.  We do not hear of the usual reaction of wonder and awe in the presence of one of Christ’s dynamic acts.  Perhaps many of the crowd were aware of the fact that the food that sustained them had its source in Jesus, and that they could not account for that in a purely natural manner.  Be that as it may, the reader of the Gospel is aware of what actually occurred and is able to glorify God for the action of the Lord.  The world of nature will yield to its Lord and Creator for the sake of those who are recipients of divine compassion and care.  Here, indeed, was a great miracle.  Yet, I would propose that we are present and  are witnesses of an even greater “miracle” each and every time we assemble for the Liturgy.   Our offering is also humble:  a prepared loaf of bread that we term “prosphora” (from the Gk. word for offering) and a relatively small amount of wine in a cruet.  And then this humble offering of the most basic food and drink will become, through the grace of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the very Body and Blood of Christ.  Here, indeed, is an even greater miracle!  There is nothing else like it in the entire world.

I hope that we never lose sight of what we are actually doing and experiencing on at least a weekly basis.  It is painful to think that we can walk out of the church at the end of the Liturgy – or casually, if not eagerly, enter the church hall for the food and drink of the “coffee hour” - somehow untouched by the overwhelming miracle of the Eucharist that we are so privileged to be a part of by the grace of God.  We cannot allow familiarity to breed some form or another of indifference or obtuseness within us when the Lord is acting on our behalf in such a powerful manner.  That would be a sin.  It is quite difficult to maintain a consistent spiritual vigilance.  But it is precisely this very vigilance that we must protect and preserve when we approach the Eucharist.  That is the responsibility we all share for the gift of witnessing an incomparable miracle that was anticipated and prepared for us when Jesus, out of compassion, multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed the five thousand.