Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Christ is Born!"

Dear Parish Faithful,


Not only is Christmas long gone by now, but we have also reached the final day on which we openly celebrate the Nativity of Christ.  On January 1 - the day of the Civil New Year - we commemorate the Circumcision of the Lord on the eighth day after His birth.  Following this we will begin to prepare for the great Feast of the Theophany of the Lord on January 6.  However, as we leave the open liturgical celebration of the Nativity, I wanted to share a very small excerpt from the justifiably famous Nativity Homily of St. Gregory the Theologian (+395).  If you have ever wondered about the origin of our festal greeting of "Christ is Born!" you will see that it was first said by St. Gregory as the beginning of his homily. From here, it was eventually incorporated into the Church's liturgical tradition through its use in the  first ode of the Nativity Canon of Matins; and then as the greeting and response that we use among ourselves as a kind of imitation of the paschal greeting of "Christ is Risen!"  St. Gregory was a profound theologian and a gifted orator, who employed the rhetorical techniques of late antiquity to great effect in describing the Mystery of the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God.  He also revels in the paradox of how divinity and humanity - the eternal and the temporal - are uniquely united in the Person of the Son of God made flesh:

        Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!  Christ is from heaven, go to meet Him.  Christ is on earth, be lifted up.  "Sing to the Lord,
        all the earth," and, say both together, "Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice," for the heavenly one is now
        earthly. Christ is in the flesh, exalt with trembling and joy:  trembling because of sin, rejoicing because of hope.  Christ
        comes from the Virgin ... Who would not worship the one "from the beginning?"  Who would not glorify the "last?"

        ... I myself will proclaim the power of this day. The fleshless one takes flesh, the Word is made coarse, the invisible one
        is seen, the impalpable one is touched, the timeless one makes a beginning, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man,
        "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and for all ages."  Let Jews be scandalized, let Greeks mock, let heretics talk
        until their tongues ache.  They will believe when they see Him ascend into heaven, and if not then, at least when they      
        see Him coming from heaven and sitting as judge.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

There would be no Cross without the Nativity

"Nativity of Christ" Russian Icon Triptych

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

It was St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.) who said (somewhere) that the Son of God did not die because He was born; but rather that He was born in order to die.  The Incarnation finds its fulfillment in the Death and Resurrection of the Savior.  This is signified by the fact that the newborn child is wrapped in swaddling cloths (LK. 2;12), and this "wrapping, " in turn, strongly resembles his burial wrapping in "linen cloths" (JN. 20:6) following his crucifixion.  The cave of the Lord's birth resembles and prefigures the tomb in which he was buried.  This is why myrrh was one of the gifts of the wise men, for myrrh was used specifically for burial.  These similarities and connections are depicted in the iconography that accompanies the biblical texts.

This is simply a short introduction to a fine passage being presented today from Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou, who nicely establishes the theological link between the Nativity of the Lord and Great and Holy Friday.  The Feast Days that we celebrate are not just a loose collection of fragments from the life of Christ; but deeply and organically related in their essential unity that reveals the Mystery of Christ in its various aspects:

    Why is there such a similarity between these two apparently very different feasts - the one a joyful celebration of life, the other a sorrowful commemoration of death?    Because in both feasts the Church is inviting us to consider the same paradox.  On Great Friday, the paradox is how can God, who is eternal - who has no end - be  killed?  On Christmas Eve, the paradox is how can God, who is eternal - who has no beginning - be born?

        How is He contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain?  How held in His Mother's arms, He who is in the bosom of the Father?
        This is according to His good pleasure, as He knows and wishes.  For being without flesh, willingly He was made flesh; and He Who
        Is, for our sake has become what He was not.  Without departing from His own nature he has shared in our substance.  Wishing to
        fill the world on high, Christ was born with two natures.  ( Matins of the Nativity, Kathisma after the Polyeleos)

    God entered the world in order to take on the fullness of human existence, which means not only the fullness of human life, but also the fullness of human death.  He  was made in our "image and likeness" in order to die like us and raise our humanity with Him to God the Father, to restore and complete in us His image and Likeness  in which we were made.  Thus we cannot remember the Lord's birth without also considering His death and Resurrection.   There would be no salvation for humanity  without the Cross, but there would be no Cross without the Nativity.
(Meditations for Advent by Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou)

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Great Mystery of the Incarnation.

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christmas is actually the Feast of the Nativity/Birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is actually the Feast of the Incarnation - of the Word becoming flesh (JN. 1:14).  As we draw closer to December 25, I would like to provide everyone with a modest-sized anthology of excerpts from the Fathers of the Church and contemporary theologians on precisely that great Mystery.  These texts will also include the Mystery of the Motherhood of the Virgin Mary; for it is impossible to speak of the Incarnation without including the Mother of the Incarnate One.  The Virgin Mary is bound to her Son (and God) in a manner wholly unique to  her incredible vocation. Se is the Mother of the Son of God who received His flesh from her. We should marvel all the more, when we realize that she was chosen for this vocation from all eternity.  These texts are meant to be deeply-pondered over (as the Theotokos pondered these things in her own heart) in the hope that we continue to contemplate the Mystery "hidden before the ages" with a sense of awe and prayerful thanksgiving.  And perhaps these texts will assist us in focusing our dispersed minds and hearts that are driven to distraction by the other attractions of the Season, on the Incarnate Lord.

This first text from St. Nicholas Cabasilas (+14th c.)  has become something of a "classic" as it beautifully balances the divine initiative and the free response of the Virgin Mary:

    The Incarnation of the Word was not only the work of Father, Son and Spirit - the first consenting, the second descending, and the third overshadowing - but it was also the work
    of the will and faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect
    without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin.  Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously
    wills to offer him.  Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.

Here is an excerpt from a homily by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, a very prominent hierarch from 19th c. Russia.  Met. Philaret was known and respected not only as an excellent theologian, but also as a genuine ascetic, and an outstanding preacher.  In fact, he may be best known for his superb homilies in which deep thought and a kind of exalted style of expression combine to impart a sense of the majesty and holiness of God in His activity toward the world.  The following short text is actually a small excerpt from a homily on the Feast of the Annunciation.  But the Incarnation actually occurs when the Son of God is conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  Thus this passage bears witness to the essential role that the Mother of God fulfills in the Incarnation, very similar to what I shared yesterday from St. Nicholas Cabasilas.

    During the days of the creation of the world, when God uttered his living and mighty words: Let there be ... the Creator's words brought creatures into existence.  But on
    the day, unique in the existence of the world, when Holy Mary uttered her humble and  obedient Let it be, I would hardly dare to express what took place then - the word
    of the creature caused the Creator to descend into the world.  God uttered his word here also:  You will conceive in your womb and bear a son ... he will be great ... and    he will reign over the house of Jacob forever.  But again that which  is divine and incomprehensible occurs - the word of God itself defers its action, allowing itself to be
    delayed by the word of Mary:  How can this be?  Her humble Let it be was necessary for the realization of God's mighty Let it be.  What secret power is thus contained
    in these simple words:  Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your will - that it produces an effect so extraordinary?  This marvelous power
    is Mary's pure and perfect self-dedication to God, a dedication of her will, of her thought, of her soul, of her entire being, of all her faculties, of all her actions, of all her
    hopes and expectations.
The following is from St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444), the great patriarch of that thriving cosmopolitan city, and perhaps the Church's greatest "Christologian" (if such a term actually exists).  Or, we could say that St. Cyril is one of the Church's greatest theologians who wrote with exceptional penetration, depth and insight about the Person of Christ.  In the heat of a very polemical atmosphere, in which St. Cyril had to defend the Church's understanding of the Person of Christ against the inadequate, misleading, and even heretical teachings of one Nestorius, St. Cyril was able to explain the union of the divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ in such a convincing manner, that his approach is to this day accepted as the criterion for Orthodoxy.  He did this by defending the term Theotokos for the Virgin Mary when that term was attacked and rejected by Nestorius.  If the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Second Person of the Trinity - the eternal Word and Son of the Father - then she must be granted the title of Theotokos, for God was born of her in the flesh that He received from her.

His most complete treatment of an Orthodox understanding of the Person of Christ (Christology) may be in his major work known as On the Unity of Christ. Below is just one excerpt from a book overflowing with endless insights into the Mystery of the Incarnation.  Notice how St. Cyril endlessly develops the paradox of God becoming man, building on and extending the Apostle Paul's pregnant phrase:  "He was rich but became poor for our sake, so that we might be enriched by his poverty" (II COR. 8:9)  This became one of the Fathers most cherished methods for explaining the wonder of the Incarnation.

    Christ is understood as the Heavenly Man, not as if He brought down His flesh from on high and out of heaven, but because the Word who is God came down from
    out of heaven and entered our likeness, that is to say submitted to birth from a woman according to the flesh, while ever remaining what he was, that is one from on
    high, from heaven, superior to all things as God even with the flesh.  This is what the divine John says about him somewhere:  "He who comes from above is above
    all" (JN. 3:31).  He remained Lord of all things even when he came, for the economy, in the form of a slave, and this is why the mystery of Christ is truly wonderful.
    ... Indeed the mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful.  For God was in humanity. He who was above all
    creation was in our human condition; the invisible one was made visible in the flesh; he who if from the heavens and from on high was in the likeness of earthly    
    things; the immaterial one could be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all
    righteousness was numbered among transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death.  All this followed because the body which tasted death belonged to no
    other but to him who is the Son by nature.  Can you find any fault in any of this ...

    On the Unity of Christ, p. 61)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Homily of Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Dear Parish Faithful,

As is our tradition, at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy I always read to the parish the final homily of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, given on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. This was the last time that Fr. Alexander served the Liturgy before his death a few weeks later on December 13 (the day of the repose of Fr. Herman of Alaska).  It is a short, concise, but extraordinary "last testament" from a man who knew he was dying. It is a perfect expression of all that Fr. Alexander believed in and committed himself to as an Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, teacher and writer.  That homily is accessible from the link below:

Fr. Alexander Schmemann was the dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary for many years and up until the time of his death in 1983. (I graduated from the seminary in 1981 and Fr. Alexander became sick with the cancer that would take his life the following year) He was the most charismatic person that I ever knew personally, and it was a great privilege and joy to be a seminarian when he was still a vigorous and illuminating presence. The atmosphere in a room was always transfigured the moment that Fr. Schmemann entered it, and his presence was almost magnetic in how he attracted immediate attention.  And he almost always had something memorable to say. Some people are naturally charismatic, and I think that this was true in the case of Fr. Schmemann.  However, I also believe that his charisma was derived from the fact that he was imbued with a profound sense of gratitude for the gift of life and for the gift of salvation in Christ.  Fr. Alexander had an extraordinary sense of the gift of life in all of its variety and richness.  There was hardly anything about "life" that he did not enjoy; and for him this all came together in the Liturgy when we offer the world back to God in adoration with the words: "Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee of all and for all."

When Fr. Schmemann died in 1983, a brief tribute to him was filmed by CBS News.  Reminding me of this, Mother Paula (Vicki Bellas) sent me the following note and link.  I would like to share it with anyone who may be interested.  Fr. Alexander appears briefly at the beginning, so there is a brief glimpse of him and his style. The rest is a series of tributes to him from various bishops, scholars, friends, etc. including the words of Fr. Thomas Hopko, who was his son-in-law.  The video ends with Fr. Alexander's funeral, an extraordinary event that I returned to New York for.  I recall approaching Matushka Anne Hopko (Fr. Alexander's daughter) and making a comment about the unique atmosphere of the funeral. She smiled, and then replied:  "Yes, just like Pascha!"  That response caught the essence of Fr. Schmemann's life - and his death.

Bless Father, perhaps you have seen this.

Interview by Fr Tom Hopko

Monday, November 24, 2014

On Death and Our Daily Lives

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Orthodox Prayer Book under the heading "Before Sleep," we find the following:  "A Prayer of St. John of Damascus, said pointing at the bed."  This particular prayer begins in the following manner:

    O Master Who lovest mankind, is this bed to be my coffin?  Or wilt Thou enlighten my wretched soul with another day?

As St. John was a monk we could, of course, dismiss or ignore such a prayer as "monastic excess" or even as a morbid and medieval fixation on death.  (It seems that whenever our contemporary ears  encounter anything  strange, unfamiliar or jarring from the past the label of "medieval" allows us to disengage from any thoughtful consideration of what is being said).  If we are sleepy, but essentially healthy, as we prepare for bed on any given evening, then it seems quite unlikely - thank God! - that our bed will serve as our coffin as we prepare to enter into it. The inevitable seems safely postponed for the moment and we feel confident that we will rise with the sun the following morning.  And yet a moment of serious reflection on our common destiny - that great equalizer that we call death - should alert those who are spiritually vigilant, that such a prayer cannot simply be dismissed as either monastic or morbid. Understood in the over-all context of how and for what we may pray before sleep according to the Prayer Book and our personal prayers, it is an open-eyed, and hence realistic, reminder that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  (GEN. 3:19)  Perhaps a bit more poignant for those of us who are working on a second half-century that will most assuredly not be completed.

This theme comes to mind on this Monday morning because of yesterday's Gospel reading at the Liturgy:  the short parable of the "rich fool" as found uniquely in LK. 12:16-21.  Short but devastating.  The foolish landowner is far-reaching in his plans for the future.  He will tear down his old barns, now inadequate to store his abundant crops, and build "larger ones."  Anticipating the enjoyment of a life of ease based upon his accumulated wealth, he says:

    I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry."  (LK. 12:19)

However alluring, this was not to be.  For the very next thing we hear in this parable are these frightening words:

    But God said to him, 'Fool!  This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure
    for himself, and is not rich toward God.  (LK. 12:20-21)
Such planning is mere foolishness in the eyes of God.  (As Tevye the dairyman said: "The more man plans, the harder God laughs").  The brevity of life and the uncertainty of our end has - although containing a timeless and universal truth but perhaps because of sheer repetition - often been reduced to the level of a pious cliché or religious platitude.  For that reason, spiritual vigilance is essential.  In the Church's spiritual tradition we are exhorted to cultivate the "remembrance of death." And yet our highly-secularized society convinces us to practice the "forgetfulness of death."  Which is more realistic? Or true to life?  Try as we might, we cannot forget death, of course.  So, as living human beings "go for it" in terms of life in this world the unwanted "remembrance of death" is there to trouble the mind.  In his book, God With Us, Fr. John Breck, in a chapter entitled "The Thought of Death" captures this underlying and unresolved tension:

    A great many people actually do chastise their soul with the thought of death.  They suffer acute anxiety at the thought that their life will come to and end,
    that they will die and be buried in the earth.  They fear death because of the unknown.  What lies beyond the threshold behind that veil?  Heaven?  Hell?
    Nothing?  The dread of death, which provokes questions like this, can, with tragic irony, push a person over the brink and into suicide. (p. 101)

The "remembrance of death" taken in isolation, especially among those who "have no hope" (I THESS. 4:13), can have a horrible effect upon the soul. It only makes sense to forget about it!  The Christian practice of the "remembrance of death" needs to be the result of a lively faith in Christ, the Vanquisher of death, for it to be the spiritually positive practice it is meant to be.  St. Paul has said it with an unmatched clarity and eloquence from the very dawn of Christianity:

    If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have
    hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a
    man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  (I COR. 15: 17-22)

From an intolerable reality that leaves us as creatures to be pitied, death itself becomes a passage to life in the risen Lord.  St. John Chrysostom could therefore write: "what was the greatest of evils, the chief point of our unhappiness, what the devil had introduced into the world, in a word death, God has turned into our glory and honor."  With the powerful words of both the Apostle Paul and St. John in mind, we can fully understand what Fr. John Breck further relates in his chapter about the thought of death:

    Our physical death remains before us, certainly and inevitably.  But is has been emptied of its power.  For those who are "in Christ," true death
    occurs at baptism, when we go down into the baptismal waters, then rise up from them, in a mimesis, or reactualization, of Christ's own death
    and resurrection.  Baptism effects a "new birth," but only because it signifies the death of the "old Adam," or former being. (p. 101)

The daily practice of the "remembrance of death" is a Christian practice that - besides its realism as mentioned above - allows us to further meditate upon the overflowing love of God that has been poured out for our salvation in Christ, the "Coming One" whose death has overcome death, fully revealed in His glorious  resurrection.  It may not be the most timely subject for dinnertime conversation or the banter of the workplace; but it has a crucial and time-honored place in our prayer life and in our "search" for those essential truths that we meditate on throughout the course of our lives. Imbued with a Christian realism that we embrace with open eyes and the virtue of hope that leaves the future open-ended, we can consciously avoid the foolishness of the rich man of the parable, but rather heed the teaching of St. James:

    Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain; whereas you do not know
    about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall
    do this or that."  (JAS. 4:13-15) 



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Only Wonder Grasps Anything

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I was reading an article that was dealing with the issue of the possible convergence between theology and science. The specific theme of the article was an analysis of the current Pope's remarks on the compatibility of belief in God and evolution. Not addressing that specific issue here, I did want to share an interesting metaphor attributed to Albert Einstein on the wonder of the created universe that the article closed with:

The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they were written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books - a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects."

I can never quite get a hold on just where Einstein stood on the "God question." Perhaps he was deliberately elusive about this ultimate question. Yet, a metaphor as the one above, certainly has a theistic ring about it; but I have read elsewhere that he did not accept the notion of a "personal God." However, this passage seems to point toward a conscious "Designer." I certainly read the metaphor in that light, as the author of the article also read it; and for which reason he closed his remarks with it. Be that as it may, Einstein's passage reminds me of something St. Gregory of Nyssa said back in the 4th c. (and St. Gregory was clearly one of the greatest minds of the 4th c. - and beyond for that matter):

"Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything."

Some of the things said by the Church Fathers are better left to stand without further commentary - as I believe is true of these words of St. Gregory - but rather meditated, reflected and thought over for their deepest meaning. As denizens of the information age, the question for us may be the following: Is there anything that truly fills us with wonder? And what good is a mind packed with information but unable to experience a sense of wonder when reflecting upon the seemingly infinite order of created things, both animate and inanimate? I am convinced that the Church is the "place" that we can maintain our sense of wonder to a remarkable degree. How can it be otherwise when we believe that the very creative Word of God became incarnate as a "little Child," and that after suffering the Cross He was raised from the dead?

Fascinating as it is, the question of the "how" of the existence of the universe - and of our place in it - is insignificant when compared to the "why" of the existence of the universe. We believe and we affirm that everything that exists does so because God exists and the God who exists is the "maker of heaven and earth of all things both visible and invisible." © 2014 Microsoft Terms Privacy & cookies Developers English (United States)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful,

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

On November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25.  (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today.  This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously.  The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. Because of that tension, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously.  To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical. It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy!  From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.  

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleashing the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.  Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.”  An awareness – combined with sharing - of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies.  To speak honestly, this is a difficult  and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies?  I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance.  Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to. The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us  the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?  Do we care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days.

Friday, November 7, 2014

On "Spiritual Warfare"

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "legion;" for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter into these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered into the swine and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned. 

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons had been healed.

LK. 8:30-36) 

 The text above - a partial account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac - served as one of two epigraphs for Fyodor Dostoevsky's gripping novel that was entitled, simply, Demons. (The novel has also been translated, less accurately, as The Possessed). For Dostoevsky, living and writing in 19th c. Russia, the "demons" were the newly-emerging revolutionaries who were not only determined to overthrow the Russian monarchy; but also committed to abolish belief in God and the Orthodox Christian culture that was shaped by that belief. Aspiring to such a radical rejection of the prevailing political, social, cultural, and religious order, these revolutionaries were named "nihilists," for they believed, essentially, that nothing was sacred or beyond their desire to destroy. Out of the ashes of this nihilistic disorder something resembling a utopian society was to emerge, now cleansed of any dead remnants from the past. Dostoevsky was hoping that the nihilistic revolutionaries of his era would self-destruct as did the demons - called "legion" - of the Gospel account. In his compelling novel that is precisely what happens, but Dostoevsky was enough of a realist to realize that the outcome could be different, especially with the decay that was eroding the effectiveness of the very institutions he was hoping would withstand such an onslaught. And the reality was that this nihilistic orgy of violence would occur in the generation following his death in 1881. Thus, Dostoevsky uncannily "prophesized" the later Russian Revolution that engaged in precisely such a sweepingly destructive movement against what was considered a God-established order. But the person who would repent of such nihilistic tendencies and to return to faith in Christ was to enjoy the transformative experience of "sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind." Demons proved to be an unforgettable artistic actualization of the Gospel account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and what it means to turn to Christ.

It is only in St. Luke's account that we read that wonderful verse of the healed demoniac sitting at the feet of Jesus. Yet, the story of the Garasene demoniac also appears in the Gospels of Sts. Mark and Matthew. It is thus a story that must have made a strong impact on the early Church. Details will differ - St. Matthew actually records the healing of two demoniacs instead of one - but the intense drama of this narrative cannot but stand out against the bleak background of the rugged landscape, the tombs where the demoniac(s) lived in isolation, and of course the cliff with the abyss below that swallowed up the herd of trampling and frenzied swine. It is an account that more-or-less assaults our modern sensibilities - especially a kind of rationalistic and moralistic Christianity. The realm and reality of the demonic and the "spiritual warfare" implied by recognizing such a realm and reality opens up our minds and hearts to both the irrational and supra-rational world of the Gospel in which Christ has come to "bind" the "strong man." This is a fierce battle that demands a greater commitment to Christ and the Gospel than conventional Sunday morning church attendance.

It is just such a deeper commitment that will perhaps "reward" us with sitting at the feet of Jesus "clothed" in our right mind. (A weaker commitment may mean that we are content with standing in the back of the room at a safe distance and only occasionally listening - or listening only when we hear something that appeals to us, while shutting out the "hard sayings"). Sitting at the feet of Jesus implies listening to his words, allowing them to penetrate our hearts, and acting upon them to the extent that we are able. We claim that Christ is the "Lord and Master" of our lives. Such a claim means that there is really no other place that we want to "sit" and absorb and be nourished by what we are hearing. To be in our "right mind" does not simply mean that we have not been diagnosed with a clinically-defined mental disorder. It implies a clarity of vision and a "worldview" grounded in the reality of God's existence and gracious presence. It also means freedom from moral, ethical and spiritual disorders. Perhaps to sit at the feet of Jesus and to be clothed and in our right mind indicates a state of spiritual sanity. With a surrounding world engulfed in modes of behavior that can only be considered "insane," the Church remains the "place" where we retain our sanity. That may take some time and some work. The "demons" must first be expelled. We must fear the abyss of destruction that swallows up the possessed swine of the Gospel account. Then we can join the ranks of the saints and sit at the feet of Jesus "clothed and in our right mind." 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Where do we start?

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the first session of this year's Fall Adult Education class, we discussed the first chapter of Fr. Andrew Louth's book Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. This chapter had an interesting title: "Thinking and doing; being and praying: where do we start?" Fr. Andrew makes the claim that "these are fundamental human activities. It is the case, I would suggest, that we do not exactly learn to do these things - we engage in these simply by being human - what happens is that we learn what is involved in doing these things." (p. 3) He adds to this a bit more, by saying: 

 " ... we already know the world in some sense, simply by living in it, and what philosophy does is help us to reflect on what is involved in that knowledge of the world. So it is with theology: thinking and doing, being and praying, are activities we all engage in at some level or another." (p. 3) 

 In his excellent book, Fr. Andrew is trying to link theology directly with experience, or what he would call "engagement" with God. This, of course, involves worship and prayer. Here is passage in which he sums this up quite nicely: 

 "This sense of theology as rooted in experience, and yet the idea that this experience is beyond us, so that we are constantly pushed back to repent, to turn again to God: this seems to me absolutely central to the Orthodox experience of theology, of coming to know God." (p. 7) 

 Theology leads us to repentance, because "true" theology - a direction experience of God - is an overwhelming experience of the mystery which is God; a mystery before which we are aware of our sinfulness. 

At the close of this opening chapter, Fr. Andrew includes an extraordinary text that comes from Fr. Pavel Florensky, a brilliant Russian Orthodox theologian from the early 20th c. Fr. Florensky - a living refutation of all that Bolshevism and the Russian revolution stood for - ultimately perished in a Soviet prison camp around 1937. In this short excerpt from his monumental book, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, Fr. Florensky captures the essence of what it means to live and move within the reality of the Church. There is real depth and beauty in this passage, I believe. A text perhaps to reflect on as we, in turn, live and move within the Church to this day: 

 the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life - not in the abstract, not is a rational way. If one must nevertheless apply concepts to the life of the Church, the most appropriate concepts would be not juridical and archaeological ones but biological and aesthetic ones. What is ecclesiality? It is a new life, life in the Spirit. What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty. Yes, there is a special beauty of the spirit, and, ungraspable by logical formulas, it is at the same time the only true path to the definition of what is orthodox and what is not orthodox. 

The connoisseurs of this beauty are the spiritual elders, the startsy, the masters of the "art of arts," as the holy fathers call asceticism. The startsy were adept at assessing the quality of the spiritual life. The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but it is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved. That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct orthodox experience ... to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very elements of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way. (p. 14-15)

Monday, October 27, 2014

St John Chrysostom: 'On Wealth and Poverty'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christians of East and West will agree that one of the premier preachers in the entire history of the Church is St. John Chrysostomos - the "Golden-mouthed."  His "presence," of course, is most alive in the Orthodox Church as we celebrate the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on a weekly basis; find his icon adorning the apses and naves of many Orthodox churches; celebrate his various commemorations on the ecclesiastical calendar with some consistency (September 14, November 13, January 30); and read his homilies of a pronounced moral and ethical nature with great appreciation for his wonderful insights to this day.  Not all Orthodox Christians know St. John's life as well as they should - but all have heard of him and from him! 

Yet, if St. John were to be with us today, I rather doubt that he would be "popular" - at least not in the conventional sense of that word.  We would find his relentless preaching of the Gospel altogether too challenging, or even too demanding of us as Christians, both in our relationship with God and with each other.  In fact, we know that it was St. John's uncompromising  adherence to the precepts of the Gospel that led to his untimely and even tragic death in the year 407.

Before that great drama of ecclesiastical intrigue unfolded in the imperial city of Constantinople, St. John was a presbyter in the large cosmopolitan city of Antioch.  In the year 388 or 389, we know that he delivered a series of homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31).  These magnificent homilies, combining an endless stream of insights into the parable together with an unmatched rhetorical skill, clearly demonstrate why St. John is, indeed, the "Golden-mouthed," and why he is considered to this day one of the Church's greatest biblical exegetes.

These homilies exist in English translation, published as part of the "Popular Patristic Series" by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.  This collection of homilies is appropriately entitled On Wealth and Poverty.  I bring all of this up on this particular Monday morning, because it was during yesterday's celebration of the Liturgy (of St. John Chrysostom!) that the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was read.  (Since there is some divergence in the lectionary among various Orthodox churches, those following the Greek/Byzantine tradition had a different reading assigned for yesterday).  Be that as it may, I would like to offer just a few excerpts from these homilies to perhaps further impress the Lord's parable upon our minds and hearts, so that what we heard yesterday is not forgotten today in the rush of our hectic lives.

The parable deals with "otherworldly" and "worldly" reality - for death, judgment, paradise (the "bosom of Abraham"), hades, etc. are an integral part of a parable that also tells us about wealth and poverty.  There is, then, an "eschatological extension" to wealth and poverty according to the Lord.  It is in death, St. John tells us, that our true "face" is revealed:

Just as in the theatre, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are, so also now when death arrives and the theatre is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account.  (Homily II)

In the parable, we hear of a stark "reversal of fortune," as Lazarus is escorted to the "bosom of Abraham" by the angels; and the rich man (does his lack of a name signify his loss of true personhood through indulgence and gratification?) is delivered to Hades.  This reversal is revealed to the rich man in sober, simple, yet utterly shattering words:

Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  (LK. 16:25

Here is just one example from among many of St. John developing this particular theme:

... Therefore when you see anyone living I wickedness but suffering no misfortune in this life, do not call him lucky, but weep and mourn for him, because he will have to endure all the misfortunes in the next life, just like the rich man.  Again, when you see anyone cultivating virtue, but enduring a multitude of trials, call him lucky, envy him, because all his sins are being dissolved in this life, and a great reward for his endurance is being prepared in the next life, just as it happened for this man Lazarus.  (Homily III)

No one has surpassed St. John for drawing out the moral implications of what is revealed by the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels.  He does not hesitate in following the Gospel in turning upside down the "values" of this world.  Hence, his words concerning true wealth and poverty:

Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires.  We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired every one's money.  If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.  (Homily II)

I recall that St. John once said that two of the most dangerous words in our vocabulary are "mine" and "thine."  These words divide more than they unite.  They can relieve us of our responsibility toward the neighbor that God points in our direction.  In a passage that would have fairly radical social implications if applied consistently, St. John redefines "theft" based upon his reading of the Scriptures:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that only theft of others' goods but also the failure to share one's goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation ... (Here St. John cites passages such as MAL. 3:8-10 and SIR. 4:1, and then continues) ...  To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught then when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.  This is why God has allowed you to have more:  not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need ... If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give account of the funds which were entrusted to you ... For you obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.  (Homily II)

I am not trying to spoil your next shopping mall excursion - or for those like me, the next trip to the bookstore - but it is essential to be aware of the great gulf that separated conspicuous consumption from biblical stewardship!

Perhaps St. John Chrysostom's closing words from his Second homily will prove to be a fitting conclusion for us today:

... If it is possible for you, remember everything I have said.  If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.  If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom be glory, honor and might, to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and every and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reflections on Autumn

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

     From my personal and, admittedly, "subjective" perspective, there is nothing quite like the Fall among the four seasons.  For me, this season's greatest attraction is found in the flaming red, orange, yellow and golden leaves that transform familiar trees into a series of neighborhood "burning bushes," each one seemingly brighter than the other.  When combined with a piercing blue sky on a sunlit day and a certain crispness in the air, I find myself more vividly aware of the surrounding world and thankful for God's creation.  On a somewhat more "philosophical note" - more apt to emerge, perhaps, on an overcast, windswept day - we may realize that this "colorful death" signals the fleeting nature of everything beautiful in this world, "for the form of this world is passing away."  (I COR. 7:31)  And yet this very beauty and the sense of yearning that accompanies it, is a sign of the beauty ineffable of the coming Kingdom of God.

     Growing up on a typical city block in Detroit, I distinctly recall a neighborhood "ritual" that marked this particular season:  the raking and burning of leaves that went on up and down the entire block once most of the leaves had spiraled and floated to the ground.  Everyone on the block raked the leaves down toward the street and into neatly-formed mounds of color that rested alongside the curb.  Then they were lit and the task of raking now became that of tending and overseeing the piles of burning leaves.  This usually occurred after dinner for most families but one could still see the shimmering waves of heat that protected one from the early evening chill and the ascending ashes rushing upward.  Please momentarily forgive my politically incorrect indifference to the environment, but I thoroughly enjoyed those small bonfires near the curb as the pungent smell of burning leaves filled the air.  This unmistakable smell would, as I recall, linger in the air for a couple of weeks or more as different neighbors got to the task at different times. ("Playing with matches" and the simple fascination with fire was, of course, an added attraction for a young and curious boy).

     The entire scene embodied the wholesomeness of a 50's first-grade reading primer, as "Mom" and "Dad," together with "Dick" and "Jane" (and perhaps "Spot," the frisky family dog) smilingly co-operated in this joint, familial enterprise.  The reading primer would reformulate this "celebration" of healthy work and a neatly-ordered environment into a staccato of minimally-complex sentences:  "See Dad rake;" "Dick and Jane are raking too;" "Here comes mom!"  ("Mom," of course, would invariably be wearing a pretty dress, and "Jane" a skirt, during this outdoor activity).  This all served to increase the budding student's vocabulary while reinforcing a picture of an idealized - if not idyllic - American way of life.  Since my parents were peasants from a Macedonian village, we never quite fit into that particular mode - especially when my mother would speak to me in Macedonian in front of my friends!   And yet I distinctly remember teaching my illiterate mother to read from those very "Dick and Jane" primers so that she could obtain her American citizenship papers, which she proudly accomplished in due time.   

     Before getting too nostalgic, however, I will remind you that all of this, for me at least, was taking place at the height of Cold War anxiety and another clear memory from my youth:  the air-raid drills in our schools that were meant to prepare us and protect us from a Soviet nuclear strike.  (Khrushchev's shoe-pounding exhibition at the United Nations, together with his ominous "We will bury you!" captured the whole mood of this period).  These carefully-executed air-raid drills were carried out with due solemnity and seriousness - lines straight and no talking allowed!  We would wind our way down into a fairly-elaborate - if not labyrinthine - series of basement levels that were seemingly constructed, and thus burdened, with the hopeless task of saving us from nuclear bombs!   We would then sit in neatly-formed rows monitored by our teachers, and apparently oblivious to the real dangers of the Cold War world, until the "all clear" signal was given allowing us to file back to our classrooms.  Thus did the specter of the mushroom cloud darken the sunny skies of "Dick" and "Jane's" age of innocence.

     I must acknowledge that my short nostalgic digression does not offer a great deal to meditate upon.  So as not to entirely frustrate that purpose - and because I began with some brief reflections on the created world - I would like to offer some of the wonderful praises of the beauty of the world around us from the remarkable Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things."  This hymn, which has become quite popular in many Orthodox parishes, was composed by an Orthodox priest when he was slowly perishing in a Soviet prison camp in 1940.  In unscientific, yet theological-poetic imagery, he reminds us of what we are often blind to:  God's glorious creation.  Would he also have "missed" all of this if his life was as free as ours are to be preoccupied with daily concerns and cares that leave no time or room to look around in wonder?

O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest.  Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun's golden rays and the scudding clouds.  All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness.  Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love.  Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever.  In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry:  Alleluia!  (Kontakion 2)

You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise.  We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing.  We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams.  We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey.  We can live very well on Your earth.  It is a pleasure to be Your guest.  (Ikos 2)

I see Your heavens resplendent with stars.  How glorious You are, radiant with light!  Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars.  I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side.  Your right arm guides me wherever I go.  (Ikos 5)
Fr. Steven