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.