Friday, June 28, 2013

The Holy Spirit's presence in the Church

Dear Parish Faithful,

We are drawing near to the close of the (fast-free) Week of Pentecost.  The Leavetaking is tomorrow, on the Feast of the Apostles Peter & Paul!  That will make for some interesting rubrics, indeed.  At the same time, it is fitting in that the two great apostles were clearly vessels of the Holy Spirit in their fruitful ministries to both the circumcised and uncircumcised, respectively.  I simply wanted to share a fine passage from Fr. John Breck who wrote a summary paragraph of the role and work of the Holy Spirit in the divine economy, and in the life of Christian believers.  This passage gives us a sense of the extraordinarily rich and varied aspects of the Spirit’s presence in the Church which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  I am breaking down Fr. John’s paragraph in a more systematic manner:

The Spirit …

+  Prays within us and on our behalf (ROM. 8:26).

+  He works out our sanctification (ROM. 15:16; I COR. 6:11; II THESS. 2:13; GAL. 5:16-18).

+  He pours out God’s love into the hearts of believers, enabling them to address the Father by the familiar and intimate name, “Abba” (ROM. 5:5; 8:15-16; GAL. 4:6).

+  He confirms out status as “children of God” through His indwelling presence and power (ROM. 8:16; GAL. 4:6).

+  He guides and preserves the faithful in their ascetic struggles against the passions (GAL. 5:16).

+  And He serves as the source and guarantor of our “freedom” from the constraints of the Law, a freedom which enables us to behold the glory of the Lord  (II COR. 3:17-18).

Looking up these passages in the Bible may further prove to be helpful in gaining a sense of the ongoing and endless gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to the Church and to our personal lives.


To add a little bit more to these “fragments,” I would like to include a passage from Veselin Kessich’s book The First Day of the New Creation.  In his discussion about Pentecost, Prof. Kessich offers a good summary of the Orthodox position concerning the issue of the filioque.  As Orthodox Christians, we continue to recite the Nicene Creed in its original form, without the interpolation of the filioque, the Latin term that means “and from the Son,” when proclaiming the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father.  Prof. Kessich summarizes the Orthodox position based upon a careful reading of the Scriptures.  The “filioque controversy” remains to this day a divisive point of contention between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches respectively – and those Western churches that also use the term.  The point to be made is not about remaining entrenched in a polemical position, but to try to come to some understanding as to why the Orthodox have never embraced this later addition to the Nicene Creed.  In the words of Prof. Kessich:

“It is equally true that the Fathers sends the Spirit (JN. 14:16,26).  The Son sends the Spirit, but the source of the Spirit is the Father, for the Spirit proceeds from the Father (JN. 15:26). The verb “proceed” that is used in JN. 15:26 is ekporeuomai.  When it is said that the Son “comes forth” from the Father the verb is exerchomai.  St. John consistently uses the latter verb whenever he speaks of the Son coming forth from the Father (8:42: 13:3; 16:27f.; 16:30; 17:8).  The Spirit and the Son have the same and only origin.  They are two distinct persons.  Their missions are not identical.  Although the Spirit had not been given because Jesus was not yet glorified (JN. 7:39), yet it is nowhere stated in St. John’s Gospel that the Spirit “proceeds” from the Son as he proceeds from the Father.  Therefore, there is no filioque here.”

Nothing like some good biblical exegesis to make’s one day brighter and more glorious!

'Think About These Things'

Dear Parish Faithful,

At yesterday evening’s Bible Study, we read this marvelous passage from the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (4:8-9):

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

The Apostle exhorts us to “think about these things.”  That may actually take some effort on our part.  For without having the time to pause and “think about these things,” we may have lost the inclination to do so.  It would be spiritually hazardous to think that such virtues as enumerated here somehow come to us automatically, simply because we are “church-going” Christians.  I therefore believe that it is imperative that we listen to the Apostle Paul and “think about these things”  and in so doing give ourselves the opportunity to search out all that is wholesome in life.  In this passage, St. Paul has essentially borrowed a list of virtues that were common within various Greek philosophical schools current in his lifetime.  The pursuit of such virtues would lead to the “good life,” for only a life dedicated to such a pursuit would be considered worthy of living.   St. Paul apparently continued to respect this centuries-old tradition.  We should bear this in mind whenever confronted with other religious beliefs or serious philosophical schools of thought.  As much as we may disagree with them about some fundamental issues from our Christian perspective, there is also much to be found that is honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise that are taught and promoted by these other religions and philosophies.  To think otherwise would be to succumb to the temptations of a sectarian mind.  A sect is a group that cannot find anything of value outside of its narrowly-defined borders. This eventually breeds some form of obscurantism and narrow-mindedness, if not eventually fanaticism.  A “catholic” mind as understood by the great Church Fathers can rejoice in whatever is true even if found outside of the Church.

At the same time, the Apostle has included this exhortation in an epistle that is thoroughly and consistently Christocentric.  The living reality of Christ permeates all of St. Paul’s thoughts and actions.  There is nothing that is worthy of pursuit that is outside of Christ.  For the Apostle Paul nothing will be able to compare with the knowledge of Christ.  And this “knowledge” is not intellectual but deeply experiential.  In one of his most famous passages in Philippians (3:7-8) he writes:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse (Gk. skivala = rubbish, dung, excrement,) in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him …”

Anything that is of the truth somehow belongs to Christ and comes from Christ – even if not acknowledged.  So the virtues that St. Paul exhorts the Philippians to pursue are found in Christ in a most preeminent form.  Those virtues – though taught and found elsewhere - will find there most perfect manifestation in Christ.  Yet the point remains that we can rejoice in all that is good wherever we encounter it.  The Apostle assures us that with such an approach to life, the “God of peace” will be with us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

To Make Room for the Holy Spirit

Dear Parish Faithful,

As stated earlier, Pentecost Sunday is also called “Trinity Sunday.”  The One God is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  One God, therefore, worshipped in three Persons.  We are not Unitarians, but we believe in, worship and adore the “holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity.”  To believe otherwise about God is to place oneself outside of the Orthodox Faith.  Although primarily concentrating on the Holy Spirit, the following hymn from the Vespers of Pentecost magnificently reveals God’s Trinitarian nature:

The Holy Spirit was, is and ever shall be
Without beginning, without an end,
Forever united and numbered with the
   Father and the Son.
He is Life, and life-creating,
The Light, and the Giver of Life,
Good in Himself, the Fountain of
Through whom the Father is known
   and the Son glorified.
All acknowledge one Power, one Order,
One worship of the Holy Trinity.

Christ referred to the Holy Spirit as the “Paraklete” (Gk. Paráklētos) often translated as the “Comforter” (other translations include “Counselor” and “Advocate”).  The Holy Spirit comforts and consoles our restless hearts with the presence of the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom we ascend to the Father.  The Holy Spirit comforts us with the peace and joy of God in a world filled with much sadness and anguish.  He comforts us with a living sense, here and now, of a bright and glorious world – the Kingdom of God – that awaits us when we leave this one.  The Holy Spirit is the “pledge” of our future inheritance.

We need to make room for the Holy Spirit in our hearts, by cleansing our hearts from any evil presence.  Just as no one would pour a precious ointment or perfume into a jar that reeks with a stale odor; so God does not send the Holy Spirit into hearts that reek with sin and the stench of innumerable passions.  Actually, the Holy Spirit assists us in that very cleansing process, if we so desire that purification with our entire being.  We pray on a daily basis to the Holy Spirit, the “Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth” that the Spirit would “come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity.”  The Holy Spirit will make us “Spirit-bearers” and not merely “flesh-bearers” if we seek the Spirit’s presence with faith, hope and love.  The Holy Spirit overcomes our weaknesses on our behalf:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself interceded for us with sighs too deep for words.” (ROM. 8:26)

Ultimately, we pray to the Holy Spirit:  “and save our souls, O Good One!”

Friday, June 21, 2013

Hastening to be Present for Pentecost

Dear Parish Faithful,

“For Paul … was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.”  (ACTS 20:16)

I believe that all members of our parish should try and imitate the zeal of the Apostle Paul by making sure that all effort is expended to be present for the great Feast of Pentecost this coming Sunday.  Pentecost Sunday is not like an “ordinary” Sunday (since Sunday is the Lord’s Day, there essentially is no such thing as an “ordinary” Sunday; but that is a theme for another day).  There is no place to be but in church for the Feast.  Pentecost is the culmination of the paschal mystery that extends back to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is the Day of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church of the New Testament.  For the first time in fifty days, we will sing “O, Heavenly King,” as we pray for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon us, as the Spirit descended upon the disciples in the Upper Room on the first Christian Pentecost.  We will also “bend the knee” for the first time in fifty days, as we offer up the specially-appointed prayers of the Vespers of Pentecost, to be served immediately following the Divine Liturgy.

Actually, the Feast begins at the festal Great Vespers on Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m.  It is at this service that we will begin our celebration of Pentecost.  A near-empty church, with a three-person choir is hardly a “festal” celebration worthy of the Great Feast of Pentecost.  A near-empty church and a three-person choir would reveal a sad but unavoidable disconnect between our claim to be a parish of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” and the reality of our parish life.  Perhaps the festal Great Vespers of Pentecost can snap us out of our post-paschal-Sunday-morning-only slump that annually descends upon the church with a dreary regularity.   God always blesses us with new beginnings, and Pentecost is one such glorious opportunity to renew our spirits and (re)turn to the Lord.

Let us hasten, as did the Apostle Paul, to the church for the full celebration of Pentecost!

Saturday, June 22 — Great Vespers at 6:00 p.m.
Sunday, June 23 — Hours at 9:10 a.m.
                  Divine Liturgy at 9:30 a.m.
                  Vespers of Pentecost immediately following the Liturgy

Scriptural Readings at the Liturgy for Pentecost:

Epistle:  ACTS 2:1-11
Gospel:  JN. 7:37-52; 8:12

Monday, June 17, 2013

'To Lift Up Our Minds to Heaven'

Dear Parish Faithful,

“The Lord said to my lord:  ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’.” (PS. 110:1)

We have recently celebrated Ascension Thursday.  That places us in the time of the “Afterfeast,” with the “Leavetaking” ahead of us this coming Friday.  And, of course, we have the glorious Feast of Pentecost to look forward to next Sunday.  For the time being, then, we continue to celebrate the glorification of Christ and in so doing we celebrate our own glorification, for the Lord lifted up into heaven our human nature, initially assumed in the Incarnation.  Or, as Fr. Thomas Hopko wrote with a certain precision:

The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.

In his book The First Day of the New Creation, Prof. Veselin Kesich summarized the link between the Resurrection and the Ascension like this:

The resurrection of Christ is an act of God in history, the final eschatological event.  The resurrection is never presented in the New Testament as an isolated event, standing by itself.  It is linked with the cross which preceded it, and with the ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit, which would follow.  Just as the meaning of the cross is revealed in the resurrection, so the ascension shows us the meaning of Christ’s bodily resurrection.  The resurrection gives meaning and unity to the events of the past and the future.

As St. John Chyrsostom said:  “We who seemed unworthy of the earth are now raised to heaven.”  In continuity with this, Fr. George Florovsky (+1979) wrote the following:

The Lord not only opened to man the entrance to heaven, not only appeared before the face of God on our behalf and for our sake, but likewise ‘transferred man’ to high places.

Christ is not absent because He has ascended. He is present, but in a different manner than during His earthly ministry.  He is with God, so He is actually everywhere.  He has transcended all limitations of time and space. He is forever present – “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world” – through the Holy Spirit “Who fills all things.”

In what I consider one of the best short meditations on the Ascension of Christ, Fr. Lev Gillet writes the following:

Jesus does not return to his Father in isolation.  It was the incorporeal Logos that descended among men.  But today it is the Word made flesh, at the same time true God and true man, that enters the Kingdom of heaven.  Jesus takes there with him the human nature in which he is clothed.  He opens the gates of the Kingdom to humanity.  We take possession, in some way by anticipation, of the blessings which are offered to us and possible for us.  Places are reserved for us in the Kingdom provided we continue faithful.  Our presence is desired and awaited there.
So the ascension renders the thought of heaven more present and more alive for us.  Do we think enough of our permanent dwelling-place? For most Christians heaven is envisaged as a kind of postscript, an appendix to a book of which life on earth constitutes the actual text.  But the contrary is true. Our earthly life is merely the preface to the book.  Life in heaven will be the text – a text without end.

A wonderful passage, full of life and hope!  Why, then, is it seemingly impossible to lift up our minds to heaven where our lives are “hid with Christ in God” and to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God?” (COL. 3:1-3)  Is it because we are enchanted with the beauty of the material creation to such an extent that we already feel that we are experiencing “heaven on earth” here and now?  Or is it that we are so caught up in a life of compassionate and so-suffering love for the suffering ones of this world – that we see Christ in every human face – that our vision and energy are contained within the sadness of this world?  In my humble opinion, this all sounds “excusable.”  Or at least these are the types of activity that God calls us to in order to make us worthy “citizens of heaven.”

But what if we are so enamored of the things of this world that do not have much to do with either beauty or co-suffering love – ambition, self-promotion, crass materialism, etc. – that thoughts of heaven are dismissed as irrelevant?  Or if our thoughts of heaven extend no longer than the duration of the Liturgy on Sunday morning, quickly to yield to the distractions of our post-Liturgy planning for the day?  Or perhaps heaven is no more than a vague wish that somehow, some part of us can survive the inevitable experience of death?

In the light of the glorious Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, I hope that these are fair questions that deserve some meditation and reflection.

Monday, June 10, 2013

What Does It Mean to be a Christian?

Dear Parish Faithful,


“The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”  (ACTS 11:26)

There are many and varied ways that one can approach the question, “Just what does it mean to be a Christian?”  This title, though subject to abuse and indifference today from a large part of our society, is still one that a believing Christian must take responsibly and then act accordingly.  It is therefore good to periodically reflect upon what it means to be a Christian – especially if we take that title seriously.

I have therefore attached a remarkable piece by Fr. Thomas Hopko. We were communicating about some other issues, and he sent me this recently.  Actually, I am pretty certain that I have already shared this with the parish, but that was probably a couple of years ago, I believe.  Now we can again reflect/meditate on what Fr. Hopko has written with great insight and a good deal of “Christian” common sense.  His many years of theologizing, teaching, serving, directing, leading, etc. is wonderfully distilled in the simple but essential points of his “list” that we can now read and try to embody to the glory of God.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

How can I know?

How can I know God as God really is, if there is a God at all?

How can I know Christ as God’s Son; the way, the truth and the life, the light of the world?

How can I know the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of God and Christ, the life-giving Spirit of truth?

How can I know the Church as God’s people, the body of Christ, the pillar and bulwark of the truth, “the fullness of him who fills all in all”?

Orthodox Christian scriptures, saints and spiritual teachers advise us to do the following things as faithfully and honestly as we can, and then see what happens.

1. Truly desire to know, and be prepared to do whatever it takes to know.  Humbly and courageously put into practice what you come to know, whatever the cost.  Do not lie to yourself.  Do not argue with others.  Do not engage in religious or theological disputations.

2. Pray for enlightenment, even if your prayer is “to whom it may concern.”  Pray something like this:  “God, if you exist, reveal yourself to me, show me your truth.”  If you somehow believe in God, pray “God, reveal yourself to me as you really are.  God reveal your Son Christ to me.”  Do not look for anything particular to happen.  Let whatever happens happen.  And go with it.

3. While praying this way, read through the New Testament very slowly at least three times.  This will prove that you really want to know. Take the time and make the effort to do this.  Be patient and proceed slowly. Do not be bothered about what you don’t understand.  Try to put into practice what you do understand.  Whatever is clearly an understandable teaching of Christ or one of the apostles, like St. Paul or St. John, try to put it into practice.  For example, do not lie, do not steal, do not fornicate.  Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, forgive those who hurt you.  Strive to have love, truth, joy, peace, goodness, purity, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, self-control.

4. Go to Orthodox Church services as you can.  Just be there and listen.  Do not judge the people who are there in any way.  Do not be bothered about what you don’t understand.  Don’t pay much attention to the singing or the rituals.  If you are a confused and troubled member of the Orthodox Church, do not serve, read or sing in the choir during this period.  Also, do not participate in church councils, committees, organizations or activities.  Just be there.

5. Do not lie about anything, do not consciously harm anyone, try to be kind and good to everyone you meet, without exception, especially difficult people.  If possible, do some good work for others, even if just for an hour or two a week, as secretly as possible.   Try not to let people see or praise what you are doing. Also if possible, give away some money secretly to those in need.

6. If you are not married, do not engage in any sexual acts at all, of any kind, even with yourself alone.  If you’re married, let your conjugal love be pure.  Act for the good of your spouse, not yourself.  When you fail in any of these things, don’t “freak out” or get depressed, but calmly start again to try to keep yourself pure.

7. Do not eat too much.  Don’t eat unhealthy foods.  Don’t get drunk.  Don’t take drugs.  Try to eat and drink less than normal a couple of days a week, e.g. on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Be thankful for the food and the drink that you have.

8. Sit in total silence at least 10 to 15 minutes a day, or even up to 30 minutes a day if you can, watching the thoughts that come to your mind and letting them go with a prayer:  “God [if you are there] enlighten my mind.  God [if you are there] help me with this.  God [if you are there] help these people who come to my mind.”

9. Try to speak as little as possible without irritating others.  Try not to make your opinions known or accepted in conversations, unless you are asked.  Listen to others.  Be attentive to their presence and their needs.  Don’t argue with anyone about anything.  Don’t condemn anyone for anything, no matter what.

10. Find someone that you fully trust and share with them your thoughts, feelings, dreams, hang-ups, compulsions, etc. in detail.  Don’t go into detail about sexual things, or about other people.  Discuss in detail your family of origin and your childhood experiences, good and bad.  Focus on what memories distress and sadden you, and what memories bring you joy.

11. Do a “check list” for possible food, alcohol, drug or sex addictions, and other addictions that you think you may have, like, e.g. rage, gambling, shopping, television, computer activities, etc.  If you see that you are compulsively addicted in some way to eating, drinking, drugs, engaging in sex, etc. enter a treatment program and get help.

12. Do your work and/or your studies to the best of your ability; carefully, responsibly, conscientiously and devotedly.  Live a day, even a part of the day, at a time.  Focus fully on what you are doing at any given moment.  Focus on good things.  Fill your life with good things.  Do not think much about bad things or bad people.  Let go of falsehood, evil and darkness, and cling to goodness, truth and light.

Friday, June 7, 2013

“All my angels praised Me!”

Dear Parish Faithful,


This is an earlier meditation posted on the OCA’s website:

 “All My angels praised Me!”

Recently, I was speaking with one of our parish’s Church School teachers about the nature of angels and how we convey this to our children.  One of our first tasks, I believe, is to overcome the caricature that has developed over the centuries over the appearance and role of angels.  (Do adults also need to be liberated from this same caricature?)

That caricature imagines angels to be puffy and fluffy “cherubs” that are basically rosy-cheeked floating babies.  Cupid-like, they carry bows and arrows that appear harmless enough.  They are often naked, but at times they appear to be covered in what can only be described as a celestial diaper.  How these Hallmark card fantasies, based on Renaissance and Baroque-era deviations from the sacred and profound iconography of the earlier centuries both West and East, can be associated with the “Lord of Sabaoth” and the celestial hierarchy of angels that surround the throne of God with their unceasing chant of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is something of an unfortunate mystery.

The Scriptures and the Holy Fathers only describe powerful celestial beings that serve God and fulfill His will for the well-being of the human race and our salvation.  Angels are not eternal or immortal by nature.  They are creatures, coming forth from the creative Word of God perfected by His Spirit.  Saint Basil the Great teaches that angels were created before the visible world, based on Job 38:7 – “When the Stars were made, all my angels praised me with a loud voice.”  These genderless beings are described by Saint Gregory the Theologian as “a second light, an effusion or participation in God, in the primal light.”  And whenever a human being is visited by an angel and receives this heavenly messenger’s revelation, his or her first impulse is to bow down and worship this celestial visitor as a divine being!  Warm and fuzzy feelings with any impulse toward cuddling and kissing are hardly implied in the biblical texts.  Actually, our use of the term “angel” – based on the Greek angelos or “messenger”—is a generic term used to describe all of the many kinds of heavenly hosts described and named in the Scriptures.  In fact, this celestial hierarchy, according to Saint Dionysios the Areopagite,  is comprised of a triad of ranks, three angelic orders in each rank.  The names are scriptural, but the triads have been conceived of by Saint Dionysios:

  • First Rank:  Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones
  • Second Rank:  Authorities, Dominions, Powers
  • Third Rank:  Principalities, Angels, Archangels

This structuring of the celestial hierarchy has had an enormous influence on the angelology of the Church.

Actually, Saint John Chrysostom tells us that even these names and “classes” do not exhaust the heavenly ranks of angelic beings.  “There are innumerable other kinds and an unimaginable multitude of classes, for which no words can be adequate to express,” he writes.  “From this we see that there are certain names which will be known then, but are now unknown.”

With his great ability to summarize and synthesize the Church’s living Tradition, Saint John of Damascus (+749) gives us this description of what an angel actually is in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.  “An angel, then, is a noetical essence, perpetually in motion, with a free will, incorporeal, subject to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature.  The Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence.”

I hope that even this very brief description of the true nature of the bodiless hosts of heaven – based on the Scriptures and the Fathers – will restore a genuine sense of awe and veneration before these incredible beings that only further amaze us with the creative power, energy and will of God.