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)