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!