Friday, December 13, 2013

30th Anniversary of Fr Alexander Schmemann's Repose

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Today is the 30th anniversary of the repose of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who died on this date in 1983.  The OCA website has as its lead article today a nice summary of Fr. Alexander's life and accomplishments.  Fr. Alexander was both a brilliant mind and a charismatic personality.  

I had the honor of studying at St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York while he was the dean and still a healthy and dynamic presence on campus.  (I graduated in 1981 and Fr. Alexander became sick with the cancer that would take his life in 1982).  I studied Liturgical Theology with Fr. Alexander for,  I believe, two years, and I had other courses with him.  

My approach toward liturgical theology and the Liturgy more specifically has once and for all been shaped by Fr. Alexander. He was a very great presence in the chapel as he loved to serve as the chief celebrant often during Saturday night vigils, the Liturgy and many of the Feast Days. Serving the paschal Liturgy with Fr. Alexander my last Pascha at the seminary while I was a deacon, was one of the great "highlights" of my three years at St. Vladimir's.  

When Sophia was born, he made a point of visiting our modest apartment in Yonkers that was off campus, spending some time with us and giving Sophia his blessing.  

Regardless of his flaws and faults, I consider him to have been a great man who had a profound vision of the potential of Orthodox Christianity in North America, and who imparted that vision to his students in a lively and inspiring fashion.  

I have never met a person who seemed to enjoy life to the extent that Fr. Alexander did.  But this was always in the context of an Orthodox worldview that he grasped organically and intuitively. He may have been the key figure behind the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America in 1970.  

I made a point of returning to New York for Fr. Alexander's funeral at St. Vladimir's.  This, too, was an extraordinary and unique experience.   When I said good-bye to one of his daughters before leaving for my return trip home, and commenting to her on the over-all effect of the funeral service, she smiled as she said that it was just like Pascha!  There is a fourteen-minute youtube video of his funeral, and many more resources that can be accessed from the OCA website.

I would highly recommend his books to you, if you have yet to read anything  that he has written.  The starting point would be his classic For the Life of the World...

-- Fr Steven

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Eucharistic Beings, in a Eucharistic Society, centered on the Eucharist

Dear Parish Faithful  & Friends in Christ,

We recently heard the Gospel reading from St. Luke in which Christ healed ten lepers, but only one  leper - and a Samaritan at that - returned to Him to offer thanksgiving:

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed,  turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face as Jesus' feet, giving him thanks.  Now he was a Samaritan.

This prompted Jesus to ask out loud:   

"Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" ( LK. 17:11-19)  

Therefore, in addition to the healing of the ten lepers that occurred instantaneously — "And as they went they were cleansed" — and which demonstrated that Jesus was not made unclean by close proximity to these lepers; we encounter what is perhaps an even deeper meaning to this narrative, and that would be the centrality of thanksgiving in one's relationship with God. 

The nine lepers who were healed, but who failed to return before Christ to praise God and offer thanksgiving for their healing, may have rejoiced in their new-found good health; but perhaps they remained in a self-absorbed preoccupation that blinded them to the real nature of their healing, and thus made that healing not as thorough, complete, and "holistic" as it was meant to be.

Perhaps we should add that in no way was Jesus being petulant or even petty in demanding thanksgiving from those who He had helped (unlike us when we are offended when we do not receive our "deserved" thanksgiving when we render someone a favor or good deed).  To state the obvious, Jesus does not need such a response to satisfy any interior motivations or hidden agendas!  The Lord's sole concern is that His heavenly Father be glorified for His great mercy and acknowledged as the source of all that is "good."  Christ wants us to manifest our "eucharistic" nature often obscured by a self-generated sinfulness that leaves us "missing the mark" (the meaning of the Gk. word for sin - amartia).

To be thankful  (from the Gk. eucharistia or thanksgiving) is a profound biblical reality and practice:  "O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good ..."  This is just as dominant a theme in the New Testament as in the Old:  "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth ..."  This brings to mind just how thoroughly we stress the role of thanksgiving in our lives as Christians. 

I would stress three inter-related themes that hopefully characterize our lives and of which we are quite conscious:

1) We are "Eucharistic beings."  Created according to the image and likeness of God we receive our lives and all that is in the world around us as a gift from our Creator.  We are not self-sufficient beings, but dependent upon God for all things.  We are fully human when we are eucharistic, offering thanksgiving to God in a spirit of humility and gratitude.  Thus, it belongs to our deepest human nature - our very interior structure - to be eucharistic.  A non-eucharistic person is dehumanized in the process.

2)  We belong to a "Eucharistic society."  This is one more way of describing the Church.  It is as members of the Body of Christ that we fulfill our role as eucharistic beings by a constant sense of thanksgiving and gratitude.  The Church supports the world and is the "place" within the world where the eucharistic dimension of our humanity is expressed on behalf of the entire world and creation:  "Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all, and for all."  And that offering is made with a deep sense of thanksgiving.  For within the Church we respond with faith to the ultimate Gift of God, and that is Christ, the Savior of the world.  If the world fails in its vocation to be eucharistic, we continue to uphold the world by precisely being eucharistic.

3)  We receive the Eucharist.  Here, the term Eucharist refers to the very Body and Blood of Christ, or Holy Communion as we also call it.  The Divine Liturgy can be called the Eucharistic service of the Church in and during which we receive the Eucharist after we thank God for the entire economy of our salvation:  "And we thank Thee for this Liturgy which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands ..."  Ideally, at least, we want to arrive at church for the Liturgy not with a sense of fulfilling a "religious obligation," but imbued with a deep sense of thanksgiving before our "awesome God" Who has done everything possible to endow us with His Kingdom which is to come.  Unworthy though we may be, God has made us worthy to receive the Eucharist as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in His eternal Kingdom.

We have a common vocation as "Eucharistic beings," that belong to a "Eucharistic society," and who receive as a free gift of grace the Eucharist.  For this we are profoundly thankful to God!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'Eucharistic Beings' or consumers? — Restoring a proper balance to Thanksgiving.

Jesus Christ with the First 'Eucharistic Beings'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever!"  (Psalm 136:1)

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

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

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

Over the next four days what will predominate in your lives as Orthodox Christians?  Will you fail to come to church for the Service of Thanksgiving Day  this evening, but somehow manage to “shop until you drop" at the stores for Black Friday?  How does such a choice hold up to your theoretical priorities - that "in theory" we place God above all?  Are we better described as Eucharistic beings or as consumers?  When presented with a choice,  will it be for the Church and what the Church represents; or will it be “the world” and what the world represents?

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

The “battle of the calendars” is perhaps never so fierce as during these last few weeks before Christmas.  We can do the “jingle-bell rock,” or we can curb our passions.   When we were baptized – no matter how many years ago - we prayed that God would strengthen us as “invincible warriors of Christ our God;” and that we would “keep the Orthodox Faith.”  And that vocation is tested on a daily basis - especially when the temptation toward "indulgence" is so strong.  I hope that everyone can find a balance between enjoying Thanksgiving Day and the family traditions that surround it; while at the same time keeping sight of the very reason that allows us to be eucharistic beings  in the first place.  And that reason is Christ.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Entrance of the Theotokos - Sanctifying Time through the Feasts of the Church

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Today let Heaven above greatly rejoice ..."

I will assume that today began and will continue as a normal weekday for just about everyone who reads this email communication.  In addition to our responsibilities, tasks, appointments and over-all agendas, that may also imply the tedium associated with daily life. Another day will come and go, never to be repeated again in the unceasing flow of time ...  However, today (November 21) also happens to be one of the Twelve Great Feast Days of the Church's liturgical year:  The Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple.  For those who came to the service yesterday evening, that may be more apparent; but if we "keep time" with our Church calendar, as well as with our regular calendars, we may not be "caught off guard" by the coming of the Feast.  The festal cycle of the Church sanctifies time. By this we mean that the tedious flow of time is imbued with sacred content as we celebrate the events of the past now made present through liturgical worship.  Notice how often we hear the word "today" in the hymns of the Feast:

"Today let us, the faithful dance for joy ... "

"Today the living Temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, she who alone among women is pure and blessed ..."

"Today the Theotokos, the Temple that is to hold God is led into the temple of the Lord ..." 
(Vespers of the Feast)

Again, we do not merely commemorate the past, but we make the past present.  We actualize the event being celebrated so that we are also participating in it.  We, today, rejoice as we greet the Mother of God as she enters the temple "in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all."  Can all - or any - of this possibly change the "tone" of how we live this day?  Is it at all possible that an awareness of this joyous Feast can bring some illumination or sense of divine grace into the seemingly unchanging flow of daily life?  Are we able to envision our lives as belong to a greater whole: the life of the Church that is moving toward the final revelation of God's Kingdom in all of its fullness?  Do such questions even make any sense as we are scrambling to just get through the day intact and in one piece, hopefully avoiding any serious mishaps or calamities?  If not, can be at least acknowledge that "something" essential is missing from our lives?

I believe that there a few things that we could do on a practical level that will bring the life of the Church, and its particular rhythms into our domestic lives.  As we know, each particular Feast has a main hymn called the troparion.  This troparion captures the over-all meaning and theological content of the Feast in a somewhat poetic fashion.  As the years go by, and as we celebrate the Feasts annually, you may notice that you have memorized these troparia, or at least recognize them when they are sung in church.  For the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple, the festal troparion is the following:

Today is the prelude of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind,
The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all,
Let us rejoice and sing to her:  Rejoice, O Fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation!

A great Feast Day of the Church is never a one-day affair.  There is the "afterfeast" and then, finally, the "leavetaking" of the Feast.  So this particular Feast extends from today, November 21, until Monday, November 25.  A good practice, therefore, would be to include the troparion of the Feast in our daily prayer until the leavetaking.  That can be very effective when parents pray together with their children before bedtime, as an example. Perhaps even more importantly within a family meal setting, would be to sing or simply say or chant the troparion together before sitting down to share that meal together.  The troparion would replace the usual prayer that we use, presumably the Our Father.  All of this can be especially effective with children as it will introduce them to the rhythm of Church life and its commemoration of the great events in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Do you have any Orthodox literature in the home that would narrate and then perhaps explain the events and their meaning of the Great Feast Days?  (This will also be the focus of the homily on Sunday). Reading this together as a family can also be very effective.  A short Church School session need not be the only time that our children are introduced to the life of the Church.  The home, as we recall, has been called a "little church" by none other than St. John Chrysostom.  Orthodox Christianity is meant to be a way of life, as expressed here by Fr. Pavel Florensky:

The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved.  That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct experience ... to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once into the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way.  There is no other way.  (The Pillar and Ground of the Truth)

As this Feast Day falls during the Nativity Fast, the Church calendar tells us that "fish, wine and oil" are allowed today.

[NOTE: Special articles and resources on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos and all the Great Feasts are available on our parish website.]

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Nativity Fast: Reawakening Our Zeal for God

Dear Parish Faithful,

[We have now entered] the forty-day fasting season that leads us toward the Feast of the Lord's Nativity.  Every year the radical nature of the Incarnation should startle us by its very mysteriousness and by the depth of the love of God that it so marvelously reveals.

Every household should plan out its own "domestic strategy" of prayerful observance of the fast.  This strategy is one of the tools that we use in the "spiritual warfare" that is always being waged, often under the surface of normal daily life.  Sensitivity to this spiritual warfare means that we are not unduly distracted or lost in the rush of daily affairs to such an extent that we forget about our relationship with God outside of Sunday's Liturgy.  It means that we are concerned about the health and well-being of our souls as much as that of our bodies.  It further means that we do not continually put off or postpone our return to God under the excuse of being overwhelmed with life's problems.

The Nativity Fast is thus an essential tool in reawakening our zeal for God, and a commitment to repent and return to the "one thing needful."  On a more focused level, it will protect us from turning the Christmas season into a whirlwind of shopping, spending, eating and drinking.  We will learn patience and self-discipline as we await the Feast to fully celebrate.  And it will mean that we will be able to identify ourselves as practicing Orthodox Christians.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Becoming Rich Toward God

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Throughout the Orthodox world, the same basic liturgical calendar is used, though there are some minor differences between the Byzantine-based and Slavic-based calendars.  This means that the Sunday Liturgy lectionary - the appointed scriptural readings for the Lord's Day - are practically identical.  Thus, I am assuming that in Guatemala on Sunday, I will be hearing the same Gospel that you will hear at our Liturgy here in the parish.  And that will be of the Parable of the Rich Fool/Landowner.  This is a relatively short parable, so I will simply present it below so that we will have it read before Sunday's Liturgy:

And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'  And he said, 'I will do this:  I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'  But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things your have prepared, whose will they be?'  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."  (LK. 12:16-21)

Whenever I hear this particular parable, I think of the words of Tevye the Dairyman in Shalom Aleichem's delightful Yiddish stories about that warm and attractive character.  (Also, of course, the main character in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof"). In his musing about God one day, Tevye said:  "The more man plans, the harder God laughs."  Profound theological thought from a poor dairyman!

It is hard to recall a more straightforward parable in terms of its over-all meaning and intent.  The Lord is here speaking of the inevitability and unavoidability of impending death.  Death is universal and ubiquitous.  And it remains the great equalizer between rich and poor. More specifically, though, the Lord is here dramatizing an unexpected death, one that catches a person totally unprepared and thus rendered a "fool" in the process.  The rich landowner's foolishness is revealed in the fact that he had forgotten about God in his pursuit of his "treasure."  His forgetfulness is his foolishness. There is no indication that the landowner was a particularly sinful person.  He may have even seemed pious and God-fearing on the surface.  But Christ often specifically warns  against surface appearances, or what we call "lip service" to God, while the heart is actually quite distant.  Then again, the word sin, from the Gk. amartia, actually means "missing the mark."  So, while a person may refrain from committing sinful acts, that same person can be completely "missing the mark" when it comes to a real relationship with God.  One can have social status and be totally lost at the same time.  The rich landowner reached a point where he began to evaluate everything in life based on the "self" and not on God.  His "portfolio building" resulted in an impoverished relationship with God.

Universal truths are often taken for granted or limited to banal platitudes of recognition.  This is probably the most true when we speak of our own impending deaths.  It is so true, that that very truth has lost any revelatory dimension.  There is also the unconscious denial and the rationalizations that we use to "cope" with the hard truth of death.  And we cannot spend our time living in fear of an unexpected death.  That would only paralyze our capacity for living.  Yet, how many human beings throughout the world will this very day experience what the rich landowner of the parable did!  A "cardiac episode," a fatal accident, victimization through a horrific crime.  This is the "stuff" of daily living.  And these things will happen to countless human beings this very day.  A Christian needs to have a realistic awareness of precisely such possibilities.  But beyond such a realistic awareness, hopefully a life rich toward God.

This parable is not about creating a sense of fear or trembling in the face of death.  Our Christian hope is meant to liberate us of just such anxiety and fear.  However, I believe that we can speak of a "warning" given to us by the Lord.  Or perhaps a call to vigilance and preparedness.  Of setting our "priorities" in order, as we may say today. We need not be so swept up in our activities and pursuits that we forget God in the process.  There is no real excuse for that. Such an outcome renders our "successes" null and void. When we inevitably die and leave behind everything that we have accumulated, we can either hear the words, "Fool!" as in the parable; or "Well done, good and faithful servant!"  According to Christ this will depend on whether or not we spent a lifetime trying to get "rich towards God."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Just Who is the Real Rich Man?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."  (LK. 16:31)

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is the only parable that has a named character; and the only parable in which Jesus describes the "afterlife."  In these two instances it remains unique among the Lord's parables.  It is a parable extremely rich in content, with a rather complex structure based upon a "reversal of fortune,"and filled with multiple themes.  Yet, certainly one of those many themes is quite apparent and revealed with a stark directness:  the consequence of ignoring the poor and needy, embodied in Lazarus, the poor man at the gate. (Is he given a name to emphasize this point in a personal and less-forgettable manner, so that his character takes us beyond an anonymous example of the poor?). The rich man in hades (the biblical realm of the dead) bears the consequence of his indifference to Lazarus and his unwillingness to share.  St. John Chrysostom explored this theme of wealth and poverty with unrivaled insight and depth in his famous series of homilies on this parable (a collection of homilies that now exists in English and which every member of the Church should read). St. John would always challenge the conventional wisdom of his own age, by interpreting the Scriptures in such a way that would turn our accepted values upside down so that we would be able to look at things in a new and startling light.  In a famous passage from his homilies, he challenges our conventional notions of what true wealth and true poverty actually are.  He does this by asking just who is the real rich  man and who is the real poor man:

"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."

I rather doubt that this will change the minds of very many of us about the true nature of wealth and poverty.  Conventional wisdom - combined with observation and life experience - does tell us that wealth has to do with money, possessions, status and power; and that poverty has to do with lacking any and all of these things.  Many of us "deep down" crave to be wealthy, and we certainly fear the specter of poverty.  Yet, St. John was neither a simpleton nor a na├»ve dreamer.  He knows of the corrosive effect on the wealthy of a life primarily dedicated to more and more acquisition and how this becomes obsessive and compulsive; and he knew many Christians personally that sought a life of simplicity and through that pursuit discovered a different type of wealth that had the presence of God as its source.  St. John was also aware of the judgment of God which differs radically from our own limited understanding of the "bigger picture."

Many people are forced to struggle to makes ends meet - and perhaps dream of hitting the lottery - and can only watch with envy the lifestyles of "the rich and famous" that entice such dreams. Perhaps, then, St. John makes some sense about the obsessive "collection of many possessions," the fulfillment of "many desires" and the effect of being "greedy for many things;" and how a "successful" pursuit of this captivating dream can be more impoverishing than enriching.  And then St. John got the point of the parable: in some cases it can be too late to change.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Hearing, Living, and Bringing Forth Fruit

'Christ the Sower', by Fr Luke Dingman

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  (LK. 8:8)

Intent on trying to practice what I preach, I spent some time this week thinking over the parable of the Sower and the Seed (LK. 8:5-15) that we all heard together at the Liturgy last Sunday.  To really "hear" what the Gospel proclaims in church is to concentrate on the words of the sacred text; to absorb what was heard as well as possible in the mind and heart; to reflect upon this "word" well beyond the limits of the Liturgy; and then, hopefully and by the grace of God, to put into practice in our own lives the living word of the Gospel. The parable of the Sower and the Seed is actually rather complicated and multi-layered in terms of its major theme(s).  I turned to a few commentaries, both from the Church Fathers and from contemporary biblical scholars for addition insight.  And here I discovered an interesting approach from a certain Klyne Snodgrass in an excellent study of the parables in a book entitled Stories With Intent - A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. I would like to share his concluding reflections on this parable, a reflection that has a definite pastoral dimension to it.  The over-all content and concerns that Snodgrass raises - together with its particular language and vocabulary - have a clearly Evangelical tone to them, but the point is well-made about "hearing" the word and then "living" the word.  That point seems to capture the true intent of this marvelous parable.

The parable emphasizes both receptivity and bearing fruit.  Two of the three sowings that fail describe people who respond positively to the message.  They even hear the message with joy, but their hearing is still superficial.  Receiving the kingdom with joy is not enough - a message the modern church desperately needs to hear.  Faith that is temporary and unproductive is not true faith.  Most pastors would be quite happy if people received the word with joy or made claims about faith, but this parable asserts that people can receive the word with joy and still be guilty of hardness of heart.  Any hearing that does not result in productive living in relation to the Father is not valid hearing. As C. Keener observes, "The only conversions that count in the kingdom are those confirmed by a life of discipleship."  Fear that a concern for productive living leads to legalism only shows how much people have misunderstood Jesus' message.  Does initially receptive hearing that eventually fails  raise the question of eternal security?  People are overly vexed with the question of eternal security because of inadequate understanding of faith.  This parable does not address the question of eternal security; it raises the question of inadequate and unproductive hearing.  Churches should not be complicit in allowing people to think an initial response unaccompanied by productive living is saving faith. 
 ... The parable is about hearing that leads to productive living, and adapting the parable will mean enabling people to move past merely hearing words - even with joy - to hearing that captures the whole person.  People think they can look like giant oaks without putting down deep roots.  When they realize how much effort it takes to put down deep roots, they too often settle for being bramble bushes.
— Stories of Intent, p. 176

Actually, it is within the Orthodox Church, and the ongoing Tradition of the Church that reveals the same Christ, "yesterday, today and forever" (HEB. 13:8), that we have the supreme capability of putting "down deep roots."  We also learn that we need not be obsessed with the question of "eternal security."  We place our lives in the hands of a loving and forgiving God and leave judgment to His wisdom and mercy. That process, however, is far from guaranteed by mere membership. It is more about hearing the word with a good and honest heart, and bringing forth fruit with patience. (LK. 8:15)  This is what the saints have taught us through example throughout the entire history of the Church.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Thundering Message

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ raises the Son of the Widow of Nain
We recently heard the powerful account of Jesus raising from the dead the widow's son at Nain (LK. 7:11-16).  This particular event is unique to St. Luke's Gospel. In his Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, the biblical scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, summarized the over-all impression left by this extraordinary event in the following manner:

This incident, only in Luke, shows the Evangelist's special delight in portraying Jesus not only overwhelmed with pity at the sight of tragedy but also turning with kindly regard toward women (cf. 7:36-50; 10:38-42) ... This narrative possesses the charm, color, and pathos of an excellent story:  two large crowds meet, approaching from different directions; the silence with which Jesus touches the bier and stops the funeral procession; the thundering message, calmly spoken, bringing the dead back to life.  (The Jerome Biblical Commentary)

Truly, it is nothing less than a "thundering message" when Jesus said:  "Young man, I say to you arise!"  (LK. 7:14).   And when the young man "sat up and began to speak" we should be able to understand, however dimly, the reaction of the crowd: "Fear seized them all; and they glorified God" (7:16).  The pathos of this story is further increased by the fact that the young man was "the only son of his mother, and she was a widow" (7:12).  There was no existing social safety net within first century Israel that would provide support for this woman.  Without a son who could help provide for her, this widow would have been totally dependent upon the good will and the charity of her neighbors in the small village that Nain was known to have been.  Hence, the power of the simple statement that accompanies the young man's restoration to life:  "And he gave him to his mother" (7:15).  What a reunion that must have been!  Now St. Luke makes it clear just who it was who encountered this funeral procession and dramatically brought it to a halt:  "And when the Lord who saw her he had compassion on her" (7:13).  It was "the Lord."  This was the first of many times throughout his Gospel that the Evangelist Luke will use this exalted title for Jesus.  The Greek ho Kyrios — the Lord — is the translation found in the Septuagint of the divine name Yahweh.  Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, this title reveals that as the Lord, Jesus has power over both life and death.  Anticipating his own resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ brings this young man back to life, revealing that even death is not beyond His authority and capacity to give life.

We are not told how this young man died.  In our contemporary world, death can be more-or-less defined in a clinical manner.  The shift in this clinical definition has moved toward a final determination of "brain death."  Be it the cessation of breath, permanent "cardiac arrest," or the brain death just mentioned, we can identify death and its effect on our biological organism.  And so could anyone in the ancient world, where death was such a more immediate and "up close" reality compared to the rather antiseptic experience of death that we promote today in a attempt to distance the living from the dying as well as that is possible.  But as Christians, we certainly understand death in a way that moves far beyond its current clinical definition and determination.  That is because we understand life in such a way that the clinical is transcended by the mysterious:  "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (PS. 8:4). Conversant with a biblical anthropology that refuses to limit a human person to his or hers biological functions, we perceive ourselves in a more complex and meaningful manner.

There are many ways over the centuries that within our theological tradition we have elaborated on that inexhaustible biblical affirmation that we are created  "according to the image and likeness of God."  The Church Fathers will speak of the human person as a psychosomatic union of soul and body. Or, following the Apostle Paul of a union of spirit, soul and body. (I THESS. 5:23)  Because of some of the Greek philosophical connotations - primarily dualism - of using the terminology of soul and body, there has been a concerted movement within theological circles today to use the more biblically-based terms of "spirit and flesh" to describe the mystery of human personhood.  Whatever the exact terminology employed to describe the fullness of human existence, the essential point being made is that the human person is more - much more - than "what meets the eye."  We are even greater than the angels according to some of the Fathers, because we unite in our person the "spiritual" and  the "material" as the pinnacle of God's creative acts. We have our biological limitations, but we can still know the living God!  Even though we are so frail in our humanity, the psalmist can still exclaim in wonder:  "Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor" (PS. 8:5).

In describing the mystery of death as it pertains to all creatures, including human beings, the psalmist says (and we hear this at every Vespers service):  "When you take away their spirit, they die and return to their dust" (Ps. 104:29).  This is what happened to the young man from Nain regardless of whatever may have been the immediate cause of his death.  Something had happened that could not be fully described as merely brain death. His "spirit" had been taken away and his flesh was destined to return to the dust.  Another expression that became almost classical as a theological description of death - and which essentially means the same thing - is that of the "separation of soul and body."  Either way, the wholeness and integrity of the human person is lost in death.  This is what renders death a tragedy and why the Apostle Paul can refer to death as "the last enemy." When the Lord brought this only son of his mother to life again, the spirit of the young man returned to his flesh - or the soul to his body - and he began to live again in the full meaning of that word.  Yet, this is not resurrection in the fullness of that word's meaning as we apply it to Christ:  "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9).  The young man was resuscitated to life. He lived — and died — again, to then await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, a resurrection prefigured and promised by the Lord's resurrection and victory over death.  The same can be said of the synagogue elder Jairus' daughter and, of course Lazarus, the friend of Christ who had been dead for four days.

We are told today that we are essentially a walking bag of chemicals with an evolved consciousness.  This further implies that at death this biological organism collapses, all consciousness is irreversibly lost, and that final oblivion is our common fate. The Scripture revelation that we accept as coming from God tells us something radically different.  To hear the Gospel is to fill us with the faith, hope and love that can only come from the living God.  It is to hear of a different destiny and one that makes life infinitely more meaningful and hopeful.  We too can cry out together with the crowd at Nain: "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and "God has visited his people!"  (LK. 7:16).  And living within the Church we know that this is the Lord who "shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end."

Monday, September 16, 2013

Struggling with the Scandal of the Cross

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Come, O People!  Let us fall down in worship before the blessed Tree.  (Vespers of the Exaltation/Elevation of the Cross)

On September 14, we began our festal celebration of the Feast of The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, to give the Feast its full title.  This feast has a full octave (Leavetaking on September 21), thus stressing the importance of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives.  It is up to us to maintain our concentration on the Cross throughout this week, and hopefully to remain vigilant in our approach to the Cross in our personal prayer life, including the veneration of the Cross within our households.  To further stress our attention toward the Cross, we recall the Third Sunday of Great Lent – the Adoration of the Cross – and the less well-observed Feast of the Procession of the Cross on August 1.  And, importantly, every Wednesday and Friday is a day of commemorating the Cross, one of the reasons that we fast on those two days on a weekly basis.

It was the Apostle Paul who already experienced the rejection of the Cross within his lifetime; and who thus anticipated this rejection throughout the centuries, when he very succinctly and profoundly captured the unbelieving world’s attitude toward the Cross in this well-known text:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I COR. 1:23-24)

This leads the Apostle to one of his most astonishing and paradoxical insights:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  (I COR. 1:26)

The “scandal” for the Jews who were contemporary with the Apostle Paul would be the claim that the Messiah was crucified.  The “folly” for the Greek/Gentile would be the claim that the divine would even enter the realm of flesh and blood and “become” human, for it was “the Lord of glory” who was crucified according to the Apostle Paul.  As the biblical scholar Richard Kugelman put it:

The gospel message shocks Jewish nationalism and Greek intellectualism.  The Jews expected and demanded signs, i.e. spectacular miracles that showed divine intervention.  They looked for a messiah who would inaugurate their nation’s sovereignty over the Gentiles by a display of miraculous power (Mt. 12:38; 16:4; Jn. 4:48; 6:30-31).  The Greeks searched for “wisdom,” i.e., philosophies that pretended to give a satisfactory explanation of man and the cosmos.

God, in and through Christ, transformed what was shameful, weak, lowly and despised – a crucified man – into “our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (I COR. 1:30)  The entire passage of I COR. 1:18-31 deserves careful, close and constant study.  It remains fascinating, and highly instructive, that even non-Christians who profess to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, struggle terribly with the scandal of the Cross.  This is clearly the case with Islam.  Jesus is treated with great respect in many passages in the Qur’an – even to the point of acknowledging His virginal conception in a passage that clearly resembles the Annunciation from the Gospel According to St. Luke! (Qur’an, 3:45-47)  However, the crucifixion is treated in a way that bears no resemblance to the Gospel accounts:  “yet they did not slay him, neither crucify him, only a likeness of that was shown to them”  (4:156-159).

The Muslims believe that someone else – a figure unidentified by the Qur’an – was crucified in the plance of Christ, but not Jesus Himself. The Muslim scholar Dr. Maneh Al-Johani wrote:  “The Qur’an does not elaborate on this point, nor does it give any answer to this question.”  Clearly, the “scandal” of the Cross is too much for Muslim sensibilities, since Jesus is for them a great prophet sent by God.  Muslims further believe that Jesus was raised to Heaven, yet before He died, clearly an odd teaching that again is meant to completely distance Jesus from His crucifixion.  If there is anything agreed upon today among New Testament scholars — believers and skeptics alike — it is that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion by orders of Pontius Pilate in the early 30’s of the Christian era.  This lends a certain fantastic quality to these claims of the Qur’an.

There is more than a passing resemblance here with an early Christian heresy known as docetism from the Gk. word meaning “to appear.”  In other words, it only “appeared” that Christ was actually crucified and died on the Cross.  St. Ignatius of Antioch (+c. 110) vehemently rejected this heresy in its initial inception, early in the 2nd century:

Be deaf, then, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died … He was truly raised from the dead, when His Father raised Him up … (Epistle to the Trallians, 9)

St. Ignatius very poignantly asks:  what is the purpose of suffering martyrdom for the Lord (as he did in the Roman arena) if the sufferings of Christ were an illusion?  Should a Christian suffer in the flesh if his Lord did not?

But if, as some godless men – that is, unbelievers – say, his suffering was only apparent (they are the apparent ones), why am I in bonds, why do I pray to fight with wild beasts?  Then I die in vain.  Then I lie about the Lord.  (Trallians, 10)

Although, as Christians, we “venerate” the Cross, we do not “worship” the Cross.  We worship the One Who was crucified upon the Cross for our salvation. Indeed, with the Apostle Paul we call Him the “Lord of glory.”  Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet in a chain of prophets sent by God.  He is the fulfillment of the prophetic testimony to His coming, as He is the fulfillment of the Law. (MATT. 5:17)  We believe, as we chant in the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy, that He is the “Only-Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God … Who without change didst become man and was crucified.”  The Cross remains “an unconquerable token of victory,” an “invincible shield.”  In fact, it is for this reason that in our practice, we

Kiss with joy the Wood of salvation, on which was stretched Christ the Redeemer.  (Small Vespers)

Christianity does not exist because of what it holds in common with other great world religions, but because of what is unique and distinctive about it, primarily the Incarnation, redemptive Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is because of our love for Christ that beginning on the personal level, we must promote respect, tolerance, and peaceful co-existence with sincerely believing people of other religions.  I see no other way for those who claim to follow the crucified Lord of glory.  This should in no way undermine our sense of Christian distinctiveness – “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (ACTS. 4:12) – but actually demonstrates our loyalty to Christ who never compels but invites with outstretched arms upon the Cross.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Nativity of the Theotokos

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The church was quite filled – and the “Communion line” was quite long – yesterday morning for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos.  And Great Vespers on Saturday evening was also well-attended and therefore “festal” in nature.  Coming as it does right after the beginning of the Church New Year, this Feast allows us a good start that we further hope we can sustain as the liturgical year unfolds before us.  As a straightforward and joyous feast of commemorating the birth of the Virgin Mary, we receive a “taste” of the joyousness of life from within the Church that is often obscured by life’s challenges, difficulties and tragedies.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it like this:  

In and through this newborn girl, Christ – our gift from God, our meeting and encounter with Him – comes to embrace the world.  Thus, in celebrating Mary’s birth we find ourselves already on the road to Bethlehem, moving toward to the joyful mystery of Mary as the Mother of God.

In an age of cynicism and unbelief, to encounter the purity of Mariam of Nazareth – the Virgin Mary and Theotokos – is to see life with a restored vision that, again, is only possible from within the Church.  Goodness, purity of heart and faithfulness to God are embodied realities lived by real human persons.  Such a restored vision of life will strengthen our sense of the inherent goodness of life that sin may obscure, but never obliterate.  Yet,  if  we can no longer “see” that, then we have lost something absolutely vital to our humanity, and we need to repent and embrace that “change of mind” that will restore our own humanity. 

Some will undoubtedly see nothing but a stereotype of the “feminine” here, but perhaps Fr. Schmemann has something worthwhile to say his approach to the “image of woman” as manifested in the Virgin Mary:

The Virgin Mary, the All-Pure Mother demands nothing and receives everything.  She pursues nothing, and possesses all. In the image of the Virgin Mary we find what has almost completely been lost in our proud, aggressive, male world:  compassion, tender-heartedness, care, trust, humility.  We call her our Lady and the Queen of heaven and earth, and yet she calls herself “the handmaid of the Lord.”  She is not out to teach or prove anything, yet her presence alone, in its light and joy, takes away the anxiety of our imagined problems.  It is as if we have been out on a long, weary, unsuccessful day of work and have finally come home, and once again all becomes clear and filled with that happiness beyond words which is the only true happiness.  Christ said, “Do not be anxious … Seek first the Kingdom of God” (see Mt. 6:33).  Beholding this woman – Virgin, Mother, Intercessor – we begin to sense, to know not with our mind but with our heart, what it means to seek the Kingdom, to find it, and to live by it.  —Celebration of Faith, Vol. 3

On the day following the Feast – in this case today, September 9 – we commemorate the “ancestors of God,” Joachim and Anna, the father and mother of the Virgin Mary according to the Tradition of the Church.  This is a consistent pattern within our festal and liturgical commemorations:  On the day after a particular feast, we commemorate the persons who are an integral part of that feast day’s events.  For example, the day after Theophany we commemorate St. John the Baptist; and on the day after Nativity, we commemorate the Theotokos.  Therefore, because of the essential role of Joachim and Anna in the current Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity, today is the “synaxis of Joachim and Anna”  and we thus bring them to mind in an effort to  discern and meditate upon their important place in this festal commemoration.

The source of their respective roles is the Protoevangelion of James, a mid 2nd c. document.  As Archbishop Ware has written:  

The Orthodox Church does not place the Protoevangelion of James on the same level as Holy Scripture:  it is possible, then, to accept the spiritual truth which underlies this narrative, without necessarily attributing a literal and historical exactness to every detail. 

One of those “spiritual truths” alluded to by Archbishop Ware is the account of both Joachim and Anna continuing to pray with faith and trust in God’s providence even though they were greatly discouraged over the “barrenness” of Anna.  A lack of children in ancient Israel could easily be taken for a sign of God’s displeasure, thus hinting at hidden sins that deserve rebuke. Though disheartened, they continued to place their trust in God, refusing to turn away from God though thoroughly tested as to their patience.  Perseverance in prayer in the face of discouragement is a real spiritual feat that reveals genuine faith.  The conception and then birth of the Virgin Mary reveals to joyous outcome of their faith and trust in God.  Perhaps this is why we commemorate Joachim and Anna as the “ancestors of God” at the end of every Dismissal in our major liturgical services, including the Divine Liturgy:  We seek their prayers as icons of an everyday faith that is expressed as fidelity, faith and trust in God’s Law and providential care.

Joachim and Anna could also be witnesses to a genuine conjugal love that manifests itself in the conception and birth of a new child.  Their union is an image of a “chaste” sexual love that is devoid of lust and self-seeking pleasure.  The strong ascetical emphases of many of our celibate saints may serve to undermine or obscure the blessings of conjugal love is envisaged in the Sacrament of Marriage.  In fact, through its canonical legislation going back to early centuries, the Church has struggled against a distorted asceticism that denigrates sexual love even within the bonds of marriage as a concession to uncontrollable passions.  The Church is not “anti-sex.”  But the Church always challenges us to discern the qualitative distinction between love and lust.  The icon of the embrace of Joachim and Anna outside the gates of their home as they both rush to embrace each other following the exciting news that they would indeed be given a child, is the image of  this purified conjugal love that will result in the conception of Mary, their child conceived as all other children are conceived.

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos has four days of Afterfeast, thus ending with the Leavetaking on September 12.  That allows us to then prepare for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on September 14!

Friday, August 30, 2013

The 'Two Ways' and the Church New Year

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to  proclaim
the acceptable year of the Lord.”   (LK. 4:18-19)

The beginning of the Church New Year occurs on September 1.  This is also referred to as the Indiction, and there are both religious and political reasons behind this date, as the Church was accommodating itself to the realities of a Christianized Roman Empire by the fourth century. This year September 1 will coincide with the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, and so it is only a two days away from now.  Though hardly commemorated today with much attention, the fact that it will fall on the Lord’s Day this year may bring to the ecclesial New Year a bit more attention than usual.  Living as we do in a completely different and secularized society from the Roman/Byzantine world in which our church calendar was more-or-less fully developed, we have a difficult time conceiving of any new year commemoration other than that of January 1.  Be that as it may, if we want to understand the liturgical year with its developed rhythm of feasting and fasting, we will need to embrace “the mind of the Church” to some extent to make that understanding attainable.  As Orthodox Christians we live according to the rhythms of two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – and often enough we are caught up in a “battle of the calendars.”  That is a struggle that can strain our choices and possibilities when we make decisions that affect the use of our “time, talent and treasure.” The appointed Gospel reading for the Church New Year is LK. 4:16-22, from which the scriptural text above is taken.  Every year is potentially “the acceptable year of the Lord,” but from our all too-human perspective that will be determined by how we approach each year as it comes to us in our appointed time in this world.

Recently, but with a more focused intention, I applied two contrasting terms toward our approach to the Dormition Fast that occupied us at the beginning of August for two weeks. Those contrasting terms were convenience and commitment.  I said that our approach to this recent fast was  determined by our choice of seeking the way of convenience or of making a commitment.  A choice of convenience will lead to being uncommitted and thus negligent of whatever discipline is set before us.  I believe that we can expand the use of these terms to now embrace our approach to the Church New Year or even beyond to our very approach to life as Christians.  As we approach the Church New Year we can ask ourselves:  Do I choose convenience over commitment when these terms apply to my relationship to God and with the Church? ?  Is my first concern when the “distribution” of my time, talents and treasure is under consideration reduced to a matter of convenience; or do I first think in terms of my commitment to the Lord?   Am I therefore trying to “fit” the Church into my life rather than trying to “fit” my life into the fullness of life offered in the Church?  At the beginning of the Church New Year on Sunday – a beginning that not only implies, but offers the gifts of repentance, renewal and regeneration – these may be questions worthy of our heartfelt and serious consideration.

It may seem too simplistic to ask these questions in a stark “either/or” manner.  Life is a bit more complicated than that.  The choices of convenience and/or commitment – made consciously or unconsciously - can be seen as relative terms that often overlap and get entangled in ways that only further accentuate life’s complexities.   Nevertheless, with the utter seriousness with which the Scriptures confront us with the “God question” we do find set before us a rather stark choice between “two ways:”  and that would be between life and death.  These are not choices that impinge upon our biological well-being.  Rather, “life” and “death” are choices that depend upon our commitment to not only believing in God’s existence, but of our willingness to live according to the commandments of God.  That is why the choice is presented in a very straightforward, unambiguous manner.  The stakes are that high.  It is not as if the teaching found in the Scriptures lacks an awareness of the difficulties of life; or of what we like to refer to as life’s “nuances.”  But in the Scriptures we find the “ultimate questions” presented with a clarity that, again, demands a clear choice with a full understanding of just what is at stake.  For ultimately, there is an “either/or” distinction when it comes to our decision for or against God.

The term “Two Ways” was from the beginning of the Church’s life even a technical term found in the earliest Christian literature.  Although not a part of the New Testament, this is perhaps best illustrated by the very early document (1st. c.) known as The Didache.  This document opens with a classic expression of this teaching:

There are two ways: one is the Way of Life, the other is the Way of Death; and there is a mighty difference between these two ways. 
The way of life is this:  first, that you shall love God who created you; second, your neighbor as yourself; all those things which you do not want to be done to you, you should not do to others. (Didache, 1:1-2)

This clearly echoes the direct teaching of Christ found in the Gospels, of course.  And in the Gospel According to St. Matthew, we hear the Lord’s own versions of this choice of the Two Ways:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.  (MATT. 7:13-14;24-27)

Yet, the Christian teaching of the Two Ways finds its first and most definitive expression in the Old Testament.  There, as something of a final summation of the lengthy discourse of Moses to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, the following is recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy:

But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.  If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.  (DEUT. 30:14-18)

The Church calendar with its New Year commemoration on September 1 can be more than a quaint and antiquated remnant from the past.  And it can even be more than a formal reminder that we will begin the annual cycle of feasting and fasting by celebrating the great Feasts of the liturgical year – important as this is.  The Church New Year, perhaps coming after a long and “busy” summer, can remind us with a biblical urgency that the choice of the Two Ways may not be a once-in-a-lifetime decision; but one that needs annual renewal that can only be accomplished through repentance and that “change of mind” that directs us toward God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength (MK. 12:30).  Let us search our hearts about this carefully.  This deserves our time and attention more than anything else.  This is not an inner examination that can be postponed to a more “convenient” time.  Rather, it is a time of “commitment” to the really essential question that shapes our lives decisively.  As the Lord asked the Apostle Peter, so the Lord asks us if we love him. Are we able to answer Him as did St. Peter: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  (JN. 21:17)


Friday, August 23, 2013

The 'Image of God' in Man

From Fr. Thomas Hopko:

Sometimes the “image of God” in humans is identified with their spirit, soul, or mind.  This is misleading and inaccurate.  Humans are made “according to God’s image and likeness” to have divine qualities, and so to be and act as God is and acts, in the wholeness of their humanity.  To be and act in a divine manner, humans must first of all be spiritual (pneumatikos, noetikos, logikos).  But they must also be psychic and bodily, in male and female forms.  The spirit/pneuma (or mind/nous or word/logos) is to govern a person’s soul and body with their emotions and passions.  If the “spirit” alone were God’s image in creatures, then bodiless powers, i.e. angels, and not human beings, would be made “according to God’s image and likeness.” 

We must note here as well that God is not “a spirit.”  God is completely different (totaliter aliter) from creatures in every way.  To refer to God as “spirit” is as anthropomorphic as to speak of God’s eyes or hands.  In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says “God is Spirit” to indicate that God is not located anywhere, and must be worshipped “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).  The Lord here is not making a metaphysical statement about God’s being, which, according to the Orthodox church fathers’ interpretation of the Bible, as well as their personal mystical experience, is “beyond being [hyperousios]” and even “beyond divinity [hypertheos]”.”

The Orthodox patristic teaching is that humans, to be truly human, are to be by God’s grace (kata charin theou), good will (kat’ evdokian), action (kat’ energeian), and power (kata dynamin) everything that God Himself is by nature (kat’ ousian).  Their creaturely constitution as spiritual, psychic, and bodily beings make this deification possible.”

From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction, p. 19.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Feast of the Dormition and Dying a 'Deathless Death'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Just a reminder that we will celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos this evening with the Vesperal Liturgy, beginning at 6:00 p.m.  I am eagerly anticipating a church filled with worshippers as we commemorate the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary and her translation to the Kingdom of God.  This will end the two-week Dormition fast that has prepared us for the feast.

The Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.”  For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:

I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people did and “Platonists” afterwards.  By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives.  —  From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.

To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:

For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break.  For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil.  Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it.  As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person.  — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.

St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:

By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil.  – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.

This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!”   The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.”  Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast.  Looking forward to seeing you this evening!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Isn't it Strange?

Dear Parish Faithful,

This is not quite my “style” but it makes some challenging – and very true – points that we should all be aware of, think about and possibly try to transform.  But we will never be able to change as long as we cling to the deep-rooted patterns that we have enabled over the years of our life …   As we celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ, we need to humbly seek some manner in which we can “transfigure” the dead patterns of our life into the living patterns of the Gospel; or into what Dostoevsky called “living life.”

Fr. Steven


Isn't it strange
How a 20 dollar bill seems like such a large amount when you donate it to church,
But such a small amount when you go shopping?

Isn't it strange
How 2 hours seem so long when you're at church,
And how short they seem when you're watching a good movie?

Isn't it strange
That you can't find a word to say when you're praying but..
You have no trouble thinking what to talk about with a friend?

Isn't it strange
How difficult and boring it is to read one chapter of the Bible but
How easy it is to read 100 pages of a popular novel or ZANE GREY book?

Isn't it strange
How everyone wants front-row-tickets to concerts or games but
They do whatever is possible to sit at the last row in Church?

Isn't it strange
How we need to know about an event for Church 2-3 weeks
Before the day so we can include it in our agenda,
But we can adjust it for other events in the last minute?

Isn't it strange
How difficult it is to learn a fact about God to share it with others;
But how easy it is to learn, understand, extend and repeat gossip?

Isn't it strange
How we believe everything that magazines and newspapers say but...
We question the words in the Bible?

Isn't it strange
How everyone wants a place in heaven but....
They don't want to believe, do, or say anything to get there?

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Dormition Fast: A Challenge and a Choice

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Today is the beginning of the relatively short Dormition Fast that always covers the first two weeks of August (1-14), culminating in the Feast of the Dormition on August 15.  We will celebrate the Feast with a Vesperal Liturgy on Wednesday evening, August 14.  As has become our tradition, we will place the tomb in the center of the church, decorate it with flowers, venerate the icon of the blessed repose of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God – Miriam of Nazareth - and sing hymns of praise at her “translation” into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Not a celebration to be missed!  Please mark your calendars and prepare to be present for this beautiful Feast. 

Every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice.  In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.”  We can choose convenience, because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly inconvenient.  It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial, and an over-all concerted effort.  It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summer) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance.  To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance.  So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church.  I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of further growth in our life “in Christ.”  A may rather mean a missed opportunity. 

Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.”  Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful.  It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ” which we have as a gift within the life of the Church.  That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes.  I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes.  (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes).  It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.

My opinion and observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree.  We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals, and that may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present “way of life.”  It is hard to prevail in the never-ending “battle of the calendars.”  The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church.  In fact, it is usually quite indifferent  and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment.  Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us.  But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired.  That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our  lives.  In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding - to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today! 

I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience.  We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy.  With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls.  We can lift up our “drooping hands” in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving.  The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death; or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Dormition Fast is our spiritually-vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration.  “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!”  (II COR. 6:2)