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."