Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Our Father, Pt 3: 'Hallowed Be Thy Name'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is another excerpt from the commentary of St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain on the Lord’s Prayer:

Hallowed be Thy Name

Perhaps the Name of God is not holy, and for this reason we must ask for it to be hallowed?  How can this be?  Is He not the fount of holiness?  Is not everything made holy by Him, both heavenly and earthly things?  So how is it that the Lord now tells us to hallow His Name?  The Name of God in and of itself, is holy and above-all holy and the fount of holiness, and as soon as it is named, everything for which it is called upon is hallowed, while it itself does not sustain any increase or decrease in holiness.  However, God desires and wishes that His Name be glorified by all of His creatures, just as the Prophet and Psalmist David says:  “Bless the Lord, all ye His works” (PS. 102:20).  And He demands this not so much for His sake, but so that they may be hallowed by Him and glorified.  For this reason, no matter what we do, all must be done for the glory of God, according to the Apostle:  “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (I COR. 10:31).  That is, whether you are eating, or drinking, or anything else, do all things for the glory of God, so that the Name of God may be hallowed also by us.

And it is hallowed when we do good and holy works, just as our faith is holy.  When men see our good way of life faithful Christians give glory to God Who grants us wisdom and strengthens us to do good, while unbelievers come to the knowledge of the truth, seeing how our works confirm our faith, just as the Lord commands us saying:  “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (MT. 5:16)

St.  Nikodemos of the Holy Mountatin, Concerning Frequent Communion of the Immaculate Mysteries of Christ including A Thorough Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Our Father, Part 2

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a response I received to today’s earlier meditation based on the Lord’s Prayer.  There are some more wonderful insights into this inexhaustible prayer that I wanted to share with everyone.  I thank Alexis for putting this together.

Fr. Steven

Subject: RE: Monday Midday Meditation

Good Evening Fr. Steven

Sunday’s Gospel reading, your homily and our post Liturgy discussion prompted me to look for a booklet that I received some time ago from the Mothers & Sisters of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, PA.  This booklet is entitled Our Father: Meditations on The Lord’s Prayer by Mother Alexandra.   It is beautifully crafted providing a prayer rule which focuses on one line of the prayer at a time, every day, once in the morning and once in the evening.   The prayers were composed by Mother Alexandra and the booklet is no more than 16 short pages, but overwhelmingly profound in its simplicity.  You are most likely familiar with it.  (Perhaps we can order a few from the monastery for the bookstore or library.)

The foreword penned by Mother Alexandra is in its own way another meditation that I wanted to share with you:

Taken from Author’s Foreword

Jesus gave His disciples a new rule of prayer rather than a new prayer.  We could visualize the Lord’s Prayer as a discipline planned out like the rungs of a ladder mounting up to the Heavenly Kingdom for which we pray.

First, we recognize God as our Father because in creating us, he loved us.  We then acknowledge our dependence upon Him and hallow His name.  We realize our need of His Kingdom which we can reach only by obedience to His Will.  God grants our daily requirements, we need ask for nothing more; except for mercy.  For this we have to pay the price: give to others the forgiveness we ask for ourselves.  To the attainment of Heaven belongs the overcoming of evil, the determination to say: ‘get thee hence Satan’.

If in the prayers [here Mother Alexandra is referring to the meditations/prayers she wrote in the pages that follow the foreword] ‘I’ is used in preference to the ‘we’, it is to underscore the need for each one of us to recognize our personal commitment in bearing each day our individual responsibility for the coming of the Kingdom.

In our Father is unity and oneness as we worship Him in spirit and truth.

Truly, a beautiful work that provides a basic yet powerful prayer rule to help us focus on the “one thing needful”…communion with God without Whom, we cannot sustain.

In Christ,

Our Father, Part 1

Dear Parish Faithful,

Our Father …

In the homily at the Liturgy yesterday – and then in the post-Liturgy discussion to follow  – I concentrated on the Lord’s Prayer, so as to align our main subject of the day with the Church School curriculum.  All of our classes, on the appropriate level for each class, studied and discussed the Lord’s Prayer yesterday.  In this way, the entire parish – young and old alike – focused on one and the same subject.  In this case that would be the incomparable and all-embracing prayer that the Lord Himself gave to us as a gift which perfectly expresses – through the practice of prayer – what we both need and ultimately desire from the God who is our heavenly Father.  The goal of our religious education is  always to deepen our faith and to strengthen our personal and communal relationship with God. Thus, as a parish family we pray in common to “Our Father who art in heaven.” To further capture the sense of awe that the great Church Fathers felt when writing about the Lord’s Prayer, we have these words from St. John Chrysostom:  “What prayer could be more true before God the Father than that which his Son, Who is Truth, uttered with His own lips.”  If this prayer is not only scriptural, but uttered by the Son of God “with His own lips,” then it is the “perfect prayer” unsurpassed by any other.  It is a direct revelation from the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.  As St. Augustine wrote in the fifth century:  “If we pray rightly, and as becomes our wants, we say nothing but what is already contained in the Lord’s Prayer.”

It is the great privilege of the Christian to call upon God as “Our Father.”  This is because we belong to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  And further it is the Spirit of God who grants us this gift in a mysterious manner, working in our hearts.  The Apostle Paul made this clear in two particular passages in his Epistles:  “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba!  Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir”  (GAL. 4:6-7).  And, again:  “When we cry, 'Abba!  Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (ROM. 8:15-17).  The Son of God is the eternal Son of the eternal Father by nature. We are the adopted “sons” of God by grace.  This is why St. Paul affirms that we are “fellow heirs with Christ.”

The inexhaustible richness of the Lord’s Prayer has been brought out by commentaries from the early Church to recent writers on the meaning of the prayer.  A good synthesis of the approach of the Church Fathers comes from St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809).  He wrote a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer that incorporates the insights of the Fathers that went before him, and whose writings he carefully studied and deeply respected.  I would like to share a few of the passages from his work entitled Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer over the course of the next few weeks.  Here is his Foreword to the Explanation, summarizing the over-all depth and fullness of the Lord’s Prayer:

The Lord’s Prayer, my brothers, according to St. Maximos, includes seven lofty subjects:  theology, sonship, equality with the angels, the enjoyment of eternal life, the restoration of human nature, the destruction of the law of sin, and the abolition of the tyranny of the devil.  The beginning of the “Our Father” includes the subjects of theology and sonship, for it simultaneously teaches us that God is by nature the Father of the Son and the Emitter of the Holy Spirit, and that according to creation and grace, He is our Father, and we His sons.  The words “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” include the subject of equality with the angels, by which words we ask to be united with the angels, and, just as the will of God in heaven is done by the angels in heaven, so also must His will be done by us who are on earth.  The phrase, “Give us this day our superessential (daily) bread,” includes the subject of the enjoyment of eternal life.  The restoration and union of human nature is attested to by the words, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” for, when we forgive our enemies, we are united and no longer divided because of a difference of opinion and will.  The distancing of sin far from us is disclosed by the words, “And lead us not into temptation,” and by saying this we ask that we not enter into temptation proceeding from the law of sin.  And the phrase, “But deliver us from the evil one,” represents the destruction of the devil’s tyranny.  (From the book Concerning Frequent Communion of the Immaculate Mysteries of Christ, including a thorough explanation of the Lord’s Prayer)

Some further passages will follow.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rebuking the Tempter, and Following Jesus

Christ being Tempted by Satan

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is the Leavetaking of Theophany, the great feast commemorating the Baptism of the Lord and the revelation of the Holy Trinity at the Jordan River.  It is this open manifestation of God that accords this feast the name Theophany and not the Nativity of Christ.  For, as St. John Chrysostom says:  “Why, then, is this day called Theophany?  Because Christ made Himself known to all – not then when He was born – but then when He was baptized.  Until this time He was not known to the people.”  It was His baptism at the hands of the Forerunner that inaugurated the public ministry of Christ – a public ministry that will begin with the words recorded in the Gospels and which continue to reverberate through the centuries to this day with a call and a challenge that is meant to shake all of humanity out of a false sense of complacency and comfort:  “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (MATT. 4:17).  According to Christ there is something more than the joys and sorrows that inevitably accompany the natural cycle of life and death.  Acknowledging this with thanksgiving, the very pinnacle of our communal worship of God in the Liturgy begins by “blessing” the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the opening doxology. Yet, before these powerful words are uttered in the Gospels; and before the Lord will begin His ministry of demonstrating the Kingdom of Heaven’s presence through His words and deeds culminating in the Cross and Resurrection; there is an event of tremendous significance that further prepares Christ for His messianic ministry:  The Temptation/Testing in the Wilderness (MATT. 4:1-11; MK. 1:12-13; LK. 4:1-13).  The nuances of the Greek word behind this event allows us to think in terms of “temptation” or “testing.”  Perhaps we could say that Christ was tested when God allowed Him to be tempted by the devil. Either way – or with a combination of both terms – the forty days spent by Jesus in the wilderness will shape Him and His ministry to Israel and to the world by defining an image of the Messiah that He will reject and one that He will embrace.

It is highly significant that it is the Spirit who “led” Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (MATT. 4:1).  Nothing in the life of Christ is accidental.  In all things He is led by His heavenly Father acting through  the Holy Spirit, including this “face-to-face” encounter with the evil one.  The austere and unsettling figure of the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s famous Legend embedded in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, refers to the devil as “the dread and intelligent spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being.”  It is this dread spirit who will tempt Christ through the three questions that will test the fidelity of Christ to His unique messianic vocation as willed by His heavenly Father.  Dostoevsky, through the tragic figure of the Grand Inquisitor, further reveals the power and non-human source of these powerful temptations, when the Inquisitor says in his monologue:  “By the questions alone, simply by the miracle of their appearance, on can see that one is dealing with a mind not human and transient but eternal and absolute.  For in these three questions all of subsequent human history is as if brought together into a single whole and foretold; three images are revealed that will take in all the insoluble historical contradictions of human nature over all the earth.”  In other words, these three temptations were not “invented” or “made up” by the evangelists for dramatic effect.  The very “perfection” of the temptations posed by the devil reveal their veracity.

And what are these three temptations?  According to St. Matthew’s account, they begin with the following as Jesus in fasting and experiencing hunger in the wilderness:  “And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’.”  This was followed by the second temptation to test God’s fidelity to Him after the devil “took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, less you strike your foot against a stone’.”  The final temptation was grandiose and sweeping in its scope:  “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’.”  In Dostoevsky’s particular and profound interpretation of Christ’s encounter with the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus refuses to receive obedience through miracle, mystery and authority as represented in these three tantalizing temptations.  By  compelling  human beings to believe in Him by overwhelming them with the miraculous; by exploiting a sense of mystery to attract human beings to follow him; and by appealing to the human need for security through external authority; Christ would have accepted and approved of a distorted understanding of human nature.  In Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christ, as attainable as these “powers” may be for the Son of God, each one in its own way violates the gift of human freedom given to us by God and appealed to by Christ.  It is for this very reason that Christ did not come down from the Cross as He was “tempted” to do by those who mocked Him.  Even if freedom is a burden as well as a gift, it is the true vision of humanity created “in the image and likeness of God.”  We, in turn, freely choose to follow Christ, the crucified “Lord of glory.”

Dostoevsky had his particular concerns when he resorted to the temptation in the wilderness to dramatize the dialectics of human freedom and coercion in an unforgettable manner in The Brothers Karamazov.  Within the context of the Gospels, we can say that Christ had to overcome the temptation to be a particular kind of Messiah that was not in accord with the will of God.  He was not declared to be His Father’s “beloved Son” at the Jordan River so as to be a militant Messiah who ruled through power.  The words of God the Father at the Jordan were clear echoes from the Suffering Servant songs from the prophet Isaiah.  And the Suffering Servant would heal us by His “stripes.”  His very suffering would be redemptive.  And therefore that suffering (on the Cross) was essential to the divine economy.  To overcome such temptations as man, the Lord resorted to prayer and fasting in the wilderness – the spiritual weapons given to us all in the Church for precisely the same purpose in the “wilderness” of a fallen world:  to strengthen the “inner man” against false and pretentious promises.  We can accomplish this by relying on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”  (DEUT. 8:3). We further heed the words, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (DEUT. 6:16).  And we also follow Christ who reminded us:  “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (DEUT. 6:13).  Christ refuted the evil one’s false counsel by the power of the scriptural word.  Another clear lesson for us in our relationship with the Holy Scriptures.  As the “root” of a new humanity, Jesus re-enacts the history of Israel, but He “passes” the type of test that Israel “failed” to pass in its earlier forty-year wanderings in the wilderness.  In fact, as the New and Last Adam He reverses the effects of Adam’s disobedience through His faithful obedience to the Father. It may sound startling to us today, but Jesus was “perfected” precisely through obedience!

Our human will was healed by the human will that the Son of God assumed and united to His divine will in the Incarnation.  Before the Garden of Gethsemane, the perfect expression of that healing through obedience may just be the temptation/testing in the wilderness.  As the final temptation was beaten back by Christ, He was able to say to the tempter:  “Begone, Satan!”  Our goal is to be able to rebuke the tempter with the same words when we are also tempted/tested – perhaps on a daily basis!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Blessed New Year!

I would like to begin by wishing everyone a blessed New Year.  While I am a few days late, the new year 2013 is just beginning, and we still have a long way to go.  So a greeting at this point is not altogether untimely.  I am avoiding the usual cliché of wishing everyone a “happy” New Year, simply because that terms evokes something so ephemeral and elusive that it threatens to lose any significant meaning through an almost mindless and constant repetition.  Certainly, the word “happy” has a meaning that it easily understood and shared by all, for we all share emotional, social and cultural expectations and perceptions that allow for a common discourse regarding our goals and ideals.  Otherwise, we would not be able to communicate effectively. But when questioned for clarification, perhaps it is then that the elusiveness behind the concept of happiness becomes more apparent and our definitions become more uncertain.  Are we “happy” when we get everything that we want?  Would “having it all” make us truly happy?  Would winning one of those gigantic lotteries exponentially increase our level of happiness beyond the conceivable?  Or, are we happy when we manage to avoid any calamities or tragedies?  Does a life free of hardship or heartbreak render us happy?  Put another way, are we happy when we experience pleasure and avoid pain?  Just how happy can we be when others around us are suffering or experiencing tragedy?  Can you be happy when someone close to you is unhappy? Not easy questions to answer, I believe.

In a provocative essay by the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kokakowski, titled “Is God Happy?” the author strikes a blow to those who may equate their success with genuine happiness, however we define that term:
There are, of course, people who consider themselves happy because they are successful:  healthy and rich, lacking nothing, respected (or feared) by their neighbors.  Such people might believe that their life is what happiness is.  But this is merely self-deception; and even they, from time to time, at least, realize the truth. And the truth is that they are failures like the rest of us.

The term “blessed” – much more biblical and with a deeper resonance – calls to mind a relationship with God.  We are blessed by God, and we bless God in return:  “Bless the Lord, O my soul! Blessed art Thou, O Lord!”  We need only to recall the Beatitudes spoken by Christ.  But the Beatitudes tell us that those who are blessed are so because they are “meek;” because they “mourn;” that they “hunger and thirst after righteousness;” and that they are blessed because they are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Not exactly what is on the mind of most people when that glittering ball dropped in New York’s Times Square!  When all the kissing ended and toasts had been made, and when all the confetti had landed and the balloons had popped, a question inexorably forced itself upon the festive gathering:  Now what?  Perhaps that is why countless people are really quite un-happy.  Looking in the wrong place makes the search for happiness a rather unattainable—and even unsatisfying—pursuit.  Because happiness is such an ephemeral experience with a “here today, gone tomorrow” quality about it, after many years one can become discouraged or cynical due to its impermanence.  All the promises implied by the “pursuit of happiness” may never be quite delivered.  And that can cause a reaction filled with disappointment or discontent.  By resisting the blessedness that comes from a Source beyond the temporal and passing quality of daily life, we could be missing the “one thing needful” that brings blessedness to our lives.  To be blessed is to seek a “quality of life” marked by greater depth and permanence.  It cannot be taken away by an unforeseen accident or even tragedy.  This is because blessedness is God-sourced.

Now, of course, no one in his or her right mind will ever wish to be unhappy, for no one wishes to be more-or-less miserable.  If happiness is what we are seeking, there are countless moments in life when we experience that happiness – together with joy, contentment, deep satisfaction, perhaps even a certain ecstasy.  Life yields so many wonderful possibilities for such deeply sought-after experiences.  For many, it is those experiences that “keep us going,” so to speak.  And for many, life is the pursuit of connecting those moments ever more closely. That may be true for all human beings at all times, but for Christians, those experiences are again deepened by and through a living faith in the living God.  Such experiences are good in and of themselves, but they also offer a foretaste of a far deeper reality:  “But as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’”  [1 Corinthians 2:9-10].  I believe, then, that if we are seeking to have a “blessed” New Year, then what we are seeking is to become closer to God and to grow in our relationship with Him.  It is to look beyond the superficial enticements that pose as true happiness for more challenging but much more satisfying relationships and accomplishments within the very human spheres of our daily lives. Our resolutions would then be active attempts at true repentance.  When all is said and done, it is truly blessed to put God above all.

Again, I wish one and all a Happy—rather, a Blessed!—New Year!!!