Friday, January 31, 2014

Where is the Feast on Sunday?

Dear Parish Faithful,

What I call our nation's "Secular Pascha" is scheduled for this Sunday, February 2.  That would be Super Bowl XLVIII.

I always found these Roman numerals pretentious - as if an historical event of lasting significance, worthy of being etched in stone, is about to unfold before our rapturous eyes.  It is, after all, only a game(!) in what has been famously called the "toy department of life," i.e. the world of North American professional sports. Not only is it the Super Bowl, but it is played on Super Sunday. The interminable and ubiquitous pre-game "hype," the prowess of the military on display, the advertising industry at its most nakedly commercial, and a half-time show that always holds out the possibility of forbidden pleasures, or at least of some level of acceptable public titillation, all contribute to transform this Sunday into the prime secular event of the year.

"There is nothing new under the sun," but some (moral) progress has been made over the centuries, however.  Even though we still find our major cities as the homes of large stadiums/coliseums that dominate the landscape as a source of civic pride, packed to the brim with enthusiastic crowds intensely loyal to their respective teams; these "games" are no longer gladiatorial combats that culminate in blood and gore (as in the  days of the Roman Empire, let us say).  Though engaged in what remains a relatively violent game (the concussion and permanent brain damage issues will plague the NFL for years to come), our contemporary "gladiators" are committed to at least a formal display of sportsmanship. And a fairly intricate set of rules that are meant to contain the mayhem on the field thus place concentration on the skill levels needed to dazzle and entertain the cheering crowds (who pay a "pretty penny" for its tickets).  So, indeed, progress has been made (at least in North America, because to this day, I still would not want to be a referee in a soccer game in Brazil).

NFL Degenerative Brain Disorder: This slide from UCLA shows the build-up of tau protein (in red) in two former NFL players' brains.

Not at all trying to spoil anyone's "party" on Sunday, but simply placing Super Bowl Sunday within a wider context while trying to offer a bit of well-meaning critical commentary that may result in a needed deflation of the game's pretensions to historical significance.  A little perspective may prove to be useful.

While doing so, I would also like to point out the fact that this Sunday, February 2, is one of the great Feast Days of the Church's liturgical year:  The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple.  This "event" will pass unnoticed within our secular society and, I would imagine, only generate faint ripples of enthusiasm within the Church.  My pastoral concern is not with our secular society's obsessions, but with our own "priorities."  I would like to hope that there exists some familiarity with the liturgical calendar that has already made many of you aware of this coming Sunday's feast.  This is really a fine example of the "battle of the calendars." I always wonder at what point in the day people sit down in front of their TV sets before the actual Super Bowl game begins.  One hour?  Two hours?  That, I believe, is called "pre-game."  I suppose that it is meant to promote excitement and anticipation as well as provide "analysis" leading up to "kick-off."  (Speaking of "kick-off" I would assume that most fans make every effort to not miss it.  Do we, as Orthodox Christians, make the same effort to be present for the beginning of the Divine Liturgy?).

This is probably not the best of comparisons, but we also gather in church on the "eve" of the Feast - this is called Great Vespers  - as a kind of "initial entry" into the feast itself.  We begin to contemplate the extraordinary events that the Feast actualizes for us in an atmosphere of prayer and praise.  We will then "depart in peace" with the "oil of gladness" glistening on  our foreheads, and bread crumbs in our hands, as we will have been anointed in honor of the Feast as well as having received a piece of blessed bread. The Hours on Sunday morning that precede the Liturgy provide a modest entry point also.  Despite an empty church, we continue to chant these Hours with regularity.

Our own Orthodox "Super Sunday" - the Feast Day of Pascha - will be celebrated on April 20 this year.  Our great Feast Days cluster around the "Feast of Feasts" as something  as stars around the sun.  One of those will be celebrated this Saturday evening (6:00 p.m. and Sunday morning (9:30 a.m.): The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple.  May it gladden our hearts, for as Christ said:  "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Two Statements on 'Sanctity of Life'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

It was a week ago Sunday, that we observed the "Sanctity of Life Sunday" within the Orthodox Church in America. We remind ourselves and reaffirm our commitment to life as a sacred gift from God on an annual basis on this designated day; and we do this in the context of "protesting" the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 that legalized abortion in our country. 

Abortion as a practice and legal right certainly seems as if it is here to stay; and this in turn can slacken our own sense of opposition or, more affirmatively, our own position concerning the sacred gift of life as "God-sourced."  That position can not be reconciled with a culture that promotes what essentially amounts to "abortion on demand."  We need to be "counter-cultural" when the laws of Caesar clash with the Law of God. Thus, remaining vigilant and interiorly alert to the moral and ethical issues involved in the abortion debate still remains a moral imperative for us as Orthodox Christians.

With that is mind, I have attached two statements from two very different figures and written in two very divergent styles each with its own particular "tone."  I just discovered a remarkable passage from Mother Teresa who cuts to the heart of the matter when she raises the issue of love in relation to abortion in such a persuasive manner.  This is an approach that stems directly from the Gospel proclamation that "God is love."  She is trying to remind both mothers and fathers - together with any society that wants to consider itself a community of justice and ethical integrity - that love is not an emotion, but an overwhelmingly essential component of a  moral life that demands sacrifice and which is meant to govern our "choices."

And it is this word and concept of "choice" that stands at the center of our second contribution from David Bentley Hart.

This is from his book Atheist Delusions and from the chapter entitled "The Age of Freedom."  In a short paragraph I believe that Bentley Hart dissects with precision what he calls "an almost mystical supremacy" of "choice" that dominates our culture and perception of human life.  That is, if you are convinced that there exists nothing greater than the autonomous individual and his or her "choices."

Two very different passages that converge in that both speak with eloquence and  insight into the life-and-death issue of abortion.  Please feel free to respond with any comments or questions.

— Mother Teresa —

The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child – a direct killing of the innocent child – murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love, and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even his life to love us.
So the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love – that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts.
By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble.
So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.

— David Bentley Hart —

…And even the majority of unbelievers are aware that human nature and human society place not merely necessary but desirable limits upon the will’s free exercise.  Nevertheless, we live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve.
The will, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself.  This, for many of us, is the highest good imaginable. And a society guided by such beliefs must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular 'moral metaphysics':  that is, the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward a higher end.  We are, first and foremost, heroic and insatiable consumers, and we must not allow the specters of transcendent law or personal guilt to render us indecisive.
For us, it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good, and this applies not only to such matters as what we shall purchase or how we shall live.  In even our gravest political and ethical debates – regarding economic policy, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, censorship, genetic engineering, and so on – “choice” is a principle not only frequently invoked, by one side or by both, but often seeming to exercise an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.
—From Atheist Delusions, p. 21-22

Monday, January 27, 2014

What is the Parish?

Dear Parish Faithful,

I recently asked someone for some help on the Greek word for "parish," and in return received this substantial and impressive summary of the long history of the word as it has appeared in various languages in addition to the original Greek. I will assume that this will also be of interest to you and I am therefore sharing it with you this (cold) Monday morning:

The word "parish" has its origins both in scriptural use and from territorial references used in the Roman Empire. The word "parish" itself is derived from the Anglo-French parosse (about 1075), later as paroche (about 1292), then in Old French paroisse, and from Latin paroechia meaning a  diocese. 
In Greek, παρоικία (paroikia) meaning "district" or "diocese,"  is derived from the Greek παρά (beside), οίκος (house). The Greek term παρоικία, "district" or "diocese," originally meant "sojourn in a foreign land" (in the Septuagint) or "community of sojourners," with reference to the Jewish people in a foreign land, later with reference to earthly life as a temporary abode (1st century A.D.), and also in 1 Peter  1:17, 2:11); whence the term was applied to the "Christian community" as a whole (3rd century), then to the "diocese" (3rd century), and ultimately "parish" (4th century).

The English language word "parish" is derived from the alternate Latin spelling parochia (which came from the Greek: πάροχος = "riding in the same chariot as," "beside the chariot of"), a local official in the Roman provinces who furnished public officials with food and other supplies when they passed through the local area.

What I was particularly interested in  was the understanding of the Greek paroikia as used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made a couple of centuries before Christ).  There, the paroikia was understood to be a "community of sojourners;" something of a "pilgrim people" who are moving beyond the constraints and restrictions of  a purely historical  existence.  The paroikia, especially in its Christian manifestation, is moving toward the great Sabbath rest as envisioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Ch. 4). In that same Epistle, we hear:  "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come" (13:14). This is beautifully expressed in the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, probably from the early 2nd c. In this passage, the author is trying to explain the Christian perception and experience of life in this world, and he expressed this in words that are well-known to this day:

For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens.  For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country... Though destiny has placed them here in the flesh, they do not live after the flesh; their days are passed on the earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens.

Thus, the very existence of the parish struck me as another meaningful Christian paradox.  On the one hand, we seek stability in our parish life.  The over-all structure of the parish as it is organized on a local level, with the presence of a parish priest who is not looking for an opportunity to "move on;" together with its various ministries and a sound financial basis, is meant to make the community stable for the present and hopefully into at least the foreseeable future.  This stability is the enduring sign of genuine commitment on the part of the faithful flock to the Gospel and it local manifestation in the parish.  Anyone visiting the parish will be able to  sense this, and for those who are further attracted to the Orthodox Faith, this is a very important factor. Without stability the parish may seem to be "floating along" and scrambling to survive from year to year - if not from day to day.

On the other hand, as we heard expressed in the texts cited above, the paroikia/parish may be stable, but it is actually moving toward a greater reality — the Kingdom of God in all of its fullness and beauty, when "God may be everything to every one" (I COR. 15:28).  Stability does not mean permanence and an unchanging static existence.  There is no permanence in "this world: "For the form of this world is passing away" (I COR. 7:31) We remain a pilgrim people, and we can never get too comfortable in this world.  The parish is stable; and yet the parish is dynamic.  Is there such a thing as "dynamic stability?"  As we all contribute to the stability of the parish - and as we hope to "hand it over" one day to our children and grandchildren - we also realize simultaneously that we are a "community of sojourners" with no permanent place in this world:  "For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (COL. 3:3).

Friday, January 10, 2014

Atheist Delusions

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A fairly recent book (2009) that stands out for its overall intellectual persuasiveness — based on a richness of content combined with a splendid and consistently rich prose — is entitled Atheist Delusions - The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. The author is David Bentley Hart, and in a fairly short span of time he is now considered one of the most trenchant and gifted Christian philosphers/theologians writing today.  He also happens to be an Orthodox Christian, but Hart hardly ever makes reference to that in his writings. 

The title of the book is openly polemical, as Hart's purpose is to respond to the well-known atheist Richard Dawkins, and his book entitled The God Delusion.  This short note is not meant to be a book review, but I would like to include a blurb extracted from a review by the scholar Geoffrey Wainwright of Duke Divinity School.  Wainwright's assessment of Atheist Delusions includes the following : 

Provoked by and responding to the standard-bearers of the "New Atheism," this original and intellectually impressive work deftly demolishes their mythical account of 'the rise of modernity.'  Hart argues instead that the genuinely humane values of modernity have their historic roots in Christianity.

I am simply attaching what I found to be a passage characteristic of what I have called the author's intellectual persuasiveness; and that it proves to be a magnificent summation of Hart's over-all thesis that Christianity was the greatest movement in the entire history of Western culture — at least since it appeared — and that its appearance effected a "revolution" in human culture and values.  We may have forgotten this, if we are even aware of the profound impact the Christian Gospel made when it entered the world during the time of pagan Rome's ascendency over the world of late antiquity.  Since a good deal of Christianity today seems tired and lifeless, we need such a reminder to perhaps inject a bit of life into our own commitment to the Christian Gospel. I shared this yesterday evening with our Fall Adult Education Class as a positive assessment of the early Church's accomplishment as that was the subject of this year's class.  I find the passage so impressive, that I wanted to share it with everyone else.  This particular paragraph was meant by Hart to offer a summary of  the book's over-all content and purpose.

The Christian “Revolution”
From Atheist Delusions – The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies
By David Bentley Hart

This book chiefly – or at least centrally – concerns the history of the early church, of roughly the first four centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of late antiquity. My chief ambition in writing is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting:  how enormous a transformation Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power; its ability to create moral communities where none had existed before; and it elevation  of active charity above all other virtues.  Stated in its most elementary and most buoyantly positive form, my argument is, first of all, that among all the many great transitions that have marked the evolution of Western civilization, whether convulsive or gradual, political or philosophical, social or scientific, material or spiritual, there has been only one – the triumph of Christianity – that can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution:” a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s  prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good.  To my mind, I should add, it was an event immeasurably more impressive in its cultural creativity and more ennobling in its moral power than any other movement of spirit, will, imagination, inspiration or accomplishment than any other movement in the history of the West.  And I am convinced that, given how radically at variance Christianity was with the culture it slowly and relentlessly displaced, its eventual victory was an event of such implausibility as to strain the very limits of our understanding of  historical causality.

Atheist Delusions, p. x-xi

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