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)