Thursday, March 27, 2014

Remaining Steadfast... with the Lord's help!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday evening was our most well-attended Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts so far this Great Lent.  At the service we heard the following stichera that sounds like a deeply encouraging call to remain steadfast in the course of the Fast, in imitation of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself:

The fast, the source of blessings,
now has brought us midway through its course.
Having pleased God with the days that have passed
we look forward to making a good use of the days to come,
for growth in blessings brings forth even greater achievements.
While pleasing Christ, the giver of all blessings, we cry:
O Lord, who fasted and endured the cross for our sake,
make us worthy to share blamelessly in Your paschal victory,
by living in peace and rightly giving glory to You
with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

As we begin "to run out of gas" at this midway point, it is encouraging indeed to be reminded that our own Lenten efforts find their source in Christ, who not only "fasted," but who also "endured the cross for our sake."  Jesus did not give up because He was either tired or distracted.  His whole life was a steady journey to the Cross that He would voluntarily ascend, again, "for our sake."  Basically, everything that Christ did and said was "for our sake."  Our modest efforts, combined with and/or manifesting our faith, find their meaning in the possibility that we may be considered "worthy to share blamelessly" in the Lord's "paschal victory."  If Great Lent is a "journey to Pascha," then the prospect of not completing our journey should be a frightening and sobering one.  This annual journey toward the "paschal victory" of Christ is a microcosm of our entire life's journey toward our ultimate goal of experiencing the paschal victory of life over death.

Temptations abound, all with the potential to divert us from our goal.  This being the case, some of the most encouraging words we can hear are found in the Epistle to the Hebrews:  "For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted" (HEB. 2:18).  Knowing through experience what it means to be tempted, as the Lord was in His humanity, He is compassionate towards all of us. 

In another magnificent passage in Hebrews, we are further encouraged:

"For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning" (HEB. 4:15).  

Since the Lord Jesus Christ is the "great high priest who has passed through the heavens" (HEB. 4:14), a great blessing has been bestowed upon us:

"Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need" (HEB. 4:16). 

Not a harsh Judge, but a great and compassionate high priest - this is our Lord Jesus Christ!

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Cross: 'To Refresh Our Souls and Encourage Us'

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

“Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection, we glorify.”

This hymn – together with the accompanying rite of venerating the Cross – replaces the usual Trisagion hymn during the Divine Liturgy on the Third Sunday of Great Lent. According to The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, the full title of this mid-lenten commemoration is “The Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.” Notice, that though our concentration is on the Cross of our Lord, the hymn culminates with the Resurrection.  This is in full agreement with the Gospel passages in which Christ reveals to His disciples that He is bound for Jerusalem and death on the Cross and that He will rise on the third day. (MK. 8:31; 9:31; 10:34)
In a wonderful commentary, The Synaxarion sets before our spiritual sight the meaning of this particular commemoration and its timing: 

The precious and Life-Giving Cross is now placed before us to refresh our souls and encourage us who may be filled with a sense of bitterness, resentment, and depression.  The Cross reminds us of the Passion of our Lord, and by presenting to us His example, it encourages us to follow Him in struggle and sacrifice, being refreshed, assured and comforted. [p. 78]

Hopefully, the first three weeks of the Fast – even if we have truly “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” [Galatians 5:24] – have not led us to experience “bitterness, resentment and depression!”  However, we could be suffering from precisely those spiritual wounds for other reasons and diverse circumstances in our lives, both external and internal.  My own pastoral experience tells me that this is probably – if not assuredly – the case.  And there is no better time than Great Lent to acknowledge this.  Such acknowledgment could lead to genuine healing if pursued in a patient and humble manner.

How, then, can we be healed?  Perhaps the Sunday of the Cross reveals our basic starting point.  The Cross of our Lord, placed before our vision, can release us from our bondage to these passions when we realize that Christ transformed this instrument of pain, suffering and death into an “emblem of victory.”  Christ has absorbed and taken our sins upon Himself, nailing them to the Cross. In the process, “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Him" -- or, in some variations, “in it,” meaning the Cross [Colossians 2:15].  These “principalities and powers” continue to harass us to this day, but if we are “in Christ,” then we can actualize His victory over them and reveal their actual powerlessness.  Our lenten journey is leading us to the foot of the Cross and to the empty and life-giving tomb, and the Third Sunday of Great Lent anticipates our final goal so as to encourage us.  Again, from The Synaxarion:

As they who walk on a long and hard way are bowed down by fatigue find great relief and strengthening under the cool shade of a leafy tree, so do we find comfort, refreshment, and rejuvenation under the Life-Giving Cross, which our Holy Fathers 'planted' on this Sunday.  Thus, we are fortified and enabled to continue our Lenten journey with a light way, rested and encouraged. [p. 79]

Certainly none of the above is meant to deflect our attention away from the “scandal of the Cross” by poeticizing this scandal away in pious rhetoric.  We must never lose sight of the sufferings of our Lord on the Cross, and the “price” He paid to release us from bondage to sin and death.  The world in its indifference will never come to understand the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice.  So as not to lose sight of the utter horror of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment, I would like to include a passage from Martin Hengel’s book Crucifixion:

Crucifixion satisfied the primitive lust for revenge and the sadistic cruelty of individual rulers and of the masses.  It was usually associated with other forms of torture, including at least flogging.  At relatively small expense and to great public effect the criminal could be tortured to death for days in an unspeakable way.  Crucifixion is thus a specific expression of the inhumanity dormant within men which these days is expressed, for example, in the call for the death penalty, for popular justice and for harsher treatment of criminals, as an expression of retribution.  It is a manifestation of trans-subjective evil, a form of execution which manifests the demonic character of human cruelty and bestiality. [p. 87]

So much for the “noble simplicity and greatness” of the ancient world!  But there is “nothing new under the sun,” and fallen human nature is just as cruel and evil today.  Again, Christ absorbed all of that human cruelty and bestiality on the Cross.  This was a scandal, for the Son of God died the death of a slave on the Cross [Philippians 2:8].  Now, as a “new creation” in Christ, we must of course manifest our freedom from precisely that dark and demonic abyss into which human beings can plunge, and manifest the transfiguration of our human “energy” into the virtues that are so wonderfully revealed in the lives of the saints.  This was the prayer of the Apostle Paul when the light of the crucified and risen Lord began to shine in a world of darkness: 

May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us [or you] to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the Kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [Colossians 1:14]

The Church understands and will put before our gaze the sufferings of the Lord during Holy Week.  But it is also from within the Church that we come to know the victory of Christ achieved through His death on the Cross and fully revealed in His Resurrection.  Thus the marvelous paradox of venerating a “Life-Giving Cross!”  The rhetoric of the Church’s language is thereby not empty but revelatory of a mystery that has been accomplished in our midst.  The Synaxarion concludes its section on “The Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross” with the following prayer, a fitting way, I hope, to conclude this meditation: 

O Christ our God, through the power of the Holy Cross, deliver us from the influence of our crafty enemy and count us worthy to pass with courage through the course of the forty days and to venerate Thy divine Passion and Thy Life-Giving Resurrection.  Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art good and full of love for mankind.  Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

St Basil's Liturgy: Deserving our Deepest Attention and Overwhelming Awe

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

During the five Sundays of Great Lent we turn to the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great for our Eucharistic celebration on the Lord's Day.  This Liturgy is used another five times during the year, two more of which are during Holy Week - Thursday and Saturday.  (The other three times are the Feasts of Nativity and Theophany, and then on St. Basil's day of commemoration, January 1).   This Liturgy is known for its long(er) prayers, some of which may challenge our capacity to stand still in concentration and prayerful attention.  But what prayers!  They strike me personally as being unrivaled in our entire Tradition for their beauty of expression and the depth of their theological/spiritual content.  Even though we are hearing them in translation, that beauty and depth remain intact and shine through quite well.

Now St. Basil did not sit down and "compose" the entire Liturgy "from scratch," to use that expression.  The basic structure of the Liturgy was already an essential element of the Church's living liturgical Tradition.  However, there is every reason to believe that he is responsible for the magnificent Anaphora prayers.  These prayers reflect St. Basil's intense preoccupation with the Church's Trinitarian faith - that we worship the One God as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the Son and the Holy Spirit being consubstantial with the Father as to their divine nature, and thus co-enthroned and co-glorified  with the Father from all eternity. (St. Basil wrote a separate magnificent treatise On the Holy Spirit, demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit through his knowledge of the Scriptures and the Church's liturgical Tradition).

That belief in the Holy Trinity, though present "in the beginning" of the Church's proclamation of the Gospel, was under attack during the turbulent fourth century, with the Arian heresy and its various offshoots stirring up seemingly interminable debate and dissension. St. Basil was one of the premier exponents of the Church's faith that the one God is the Holy Trinity; and he helped establish the classical terminology of the Church in expressing that Faith:  God is one in "essence" (Gk. ousia), yet three distinct "Persons" (Gk. hypostaseis).  That terminology remains intact to this day.  The opening Anaphora Prayer, "O Existing One, Master, Lord  God, Father almighty and adorable! ..." is steeped in praise and glorification of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and thus deserves our deepest attention and sense of overwhelming awe as we stand in the presence of the Holy Trinity and as we join the angelic powers in "singing, shouting, and proclaiming: Holy!  Holy!  Holy!  Lord of Sabaoth! ..."

In profound relationship to the prayers of the Liturgy revealing the Church's belief in the Holy Trinity, we find St. Basil's unrivaled expression of the divine "economy" (Gk. oikonomia) throughout. This refers to God's providential dispensation/design toward His creation - culminating in the salvation of the world - in and through the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ.  If I were asked to present to an interested inquirer the most compelling and succinct expression  of the divine economy as taught and proclaimed by the Orthodox Church, I would definitely refer this person to the long Anaphora Prayer of St. Basil's Liturgy beginning where the Thrice-holy left off:

"With these blessed powers, O Master who lovest mankind ..."  

After praising God "for the magnificence of Thy holiness,"  we begin to prayerfully recall - and thus make present - the full extent of His providential dispensation toward the world:

"When Thou didst create man by taking dust from the earth, and didst honor him with Thine own image, O God ..."  

This long remembrance takes us through what we refer to as the "Fall," through the promises of the prophets — "foretelling to us the salvation which was to come ..."  — all the way through to the Lord's Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and even Second Coming:

"Ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of Thy majesty on high, and He will come to render to every man according to his works ..."

 Further recalling, and thus actualizing "the night in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world," this entire process will culminate with the Epiklesis, or Invocation of the Holy Spirit "to bless, to hallow and to show" that the bread and wine of our offering will "become" the Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We will then receive the Holy Gifts "for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting."

Today, the Orthodox faithful are blessed in that the prayers of St. Basil's Liturgy are read aloud so that the entire gathered assembly of believers may actually "hear" the prayers that reveal the Lord God's Trinitarian nature and the divine economy together with the consecration of the Holy Gifts.  In the past that may have not been so, and even today it is not so in all Orthodox churches.  So we thank God for our own liturgical revival which has so enlivened our contemporary worship experience with full parish participation in the Church at prayer and praise.

However, and admittedly, there is one prayer that is usually read while the choir is singing (at least that is what we do here in our parish); and that is a final prayer near the very end of the Liturgy that the priest will say while facing the Table of Preparation and the remaining Holy Communion that will eventually be consumed by the priest, and while the choir is singing "Blessed be the name of the Lord, henceforth and forevermore" three times:

The mystery of Thy dispensation, O Christ our God, has been accomplished and perfected as far as it was  in our power;
for we have had the memorial of Thy death; we have seen the type of Thy Resurrection; we have been filled with Thine
unending life; we have enjoyed Thine inexhaustible food; which in the world to come be well-pleased to vouchsafe to us
all, through the grace of Thine eternal Father, and Thine holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto
ages of ages.  Amen.

This summation of the meaning, purpose and experience of the Liturgy is an "awesome" claim that perhaps may strike us in its awesomeness  even more effectively if we break the prayer down into its component parts:

  • We have had the memorial of the Lord's death;
  • We have seen the type of the Lord's  Resurrection;
  • We have been filled with the Lord's unending life;
  • We have enjoyed the Lord's inexhaustible food;
  • We ask to continue in this partaking in the world to come;
  • All this through the grace of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!

That is quite a Sunday morning experience which we so blandly describe as "going to church!"  Clearly the remainder of the day is all downhill - no matter what we do!  When we begin the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great we know that we have a long road ahead of us.  That will require some patience, concentration, and a willingness to "stay with it" through to its dismissal.  If we are able to do that, then the "rewards" are inestimable.  It will also test our deepest desires about what is "the one thing needful" in our lives and what is the treasure of our hearts.  Yet, the Sundays of Great Lent are a unique opportunity to further our movement towards the Lord as we move through Great Lent and our lives toward the gladsome light of the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Resistance to False Gods
Dear Parish Faithful,

I continue to read David Bentley Hart, the brilliant Orthodox theologian/philosopher who has a "way with words" and yet simultaneously offers a trenchant critique of contemporary culture and an impassioned defense of the Christian revelation.  One of his most well-known essays is "Christ and Nothing (No Other God)" from his book of collected essays, In the Aftermath - Provocations and Laments. 

I am lifting a passage out of this article because it refers to the "Lenten privations" and the "Christian asceticism" that we embrace; but places these in the larger context of  a "refusal of secularization" that we must be vigilant about because it can lead us astray toward false gods.  His writing takes a good deal of careful reading and concentration, even in such a short passage as the following.  But the richness of his thought and the insights there on display are indeed "provocative" as Hart "laments" the moral morass and stagnation of the post-Christian world:

To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the Lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture - all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.  
It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are - even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant - usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices.  
It means in short self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as resolute as the refusal of the ancient Christians to burn incense to the genius of the emperor.  
This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add:  Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by world-weariness or malice towards creation; it is a different kind of detachment, the cultivation of the pure heart and a pure eye, which allows one to receive the world and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of Marian waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness.  
Paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christians asceticism is the practice of love, what Maximus the Confessor calls learning to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God and it leads more properly to a grateful reverence ...

Take your time to "unpack" that paragraph and think upon these things!

Almsgiving and Lent

Dear Parish Faithful,

When we enter Great Lent, we may understandably concentrate on renewing our prayer life and then on putting some real effort into fasting according to the discipline of the Church. This is "meet and right" and expected of all Orthodox Christians.  However, we always want to make sure that we embrace the three basic practices that Christ assumes His disciples will follow, which are almsgiving/charity, prayer and fasting.  In fact, in MATT. 6 where Christ makes this teaching explicit, almsgiving is mentioned before prayer and fasting (MATT. 6:2-4)  With this in mind, I offer the following  observations together with a parish project that we will take on over the next few weeks:

To me, personally, there is nothing in the world right now that is more poignant, heart-breaking and horrific than the massive suffering of children in Syria.  Four years of brutal and bitter civil war has resulted in the death of over 100,000 children.  That is a staggering and depressing figure.  One would have to have a stone-cold or frankly "dead" heart not to be moved to tears when watching the brief images of this  innocent suffering on nightly news reports.  Homelessness; the lack of basic food and water and hospital supplies combined with unsanitary conditions; and the fear of further attack has led to appalling conditions that have robbed children of their childhoods and the security of home and family. I am not even sure how many orphans have been created over the last four years.  I think we can make our own modest contribution  as a Christian community to help alleviate these appalling conditions.

With our comfortable life-styles and sources of income there is no reason that we cannot raise a minimum of $2,000 during this Great Lent that we could then send to the IOCC for care and distribution.  IOCC is an outstanding Orthodox charitable institution that has far-reaching projects on a world-wide basis.  (Please click on the link below to trace this and read more about IOCC at your convenience). They are obviously quite engaged in Syria.  As you may recall a passage that I sent out before Lent began by Vassilios Papavasiliou; the money that we save on food and entertainment during Great Lent could be donated to those in need so that we expand our Lenten efforts beyond our immediate concerns - pious and well-meaning that they may be.

We will have a basket by the Cross this Sunday to begin collecting everyone's donation.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Being Guarded 'In The Fast'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is the Wednesday of the Second Week of Great Lent.  The appointed hymnography for the day gives us a great deal to reflect and meditate upon:

Stretched out and slain upon the Cross, O Christ, You have slain the serpent, our enemy, the source of evil.
You have restored to life those who were killed by his bite.  Therefore I entreat You, O Savior:  give life to my deadened soul, for to You I turn in prayer and fasting!
(Matins - Sessional Hymn after the Second Reading from the Psalter)
As we pass through the solemn time of abstinence, let us blow the trumpet and loudly cry:  Through the Fast, life has blossomed in the world, and the death that comes from self-indulgence is destroyed.  By the power of Your Cross, O Christ the Word, guard Your servants in the Fast!
(Matins - Sessional Hymn after the Third Reading from the Psalter)

According to our weekly liturgical cycle, every Wednesday is dedicated to the commemoration of the "life-giving Cross" (which is why Wednesdays are fast days throughout the year).  This, of course, continues throughout Great Lent, but perhaps with an even greater focus because our Lenten journey will ultimately place us at the foot of the Cross.  The "serpent, our enemy, the source of evil" is finally defeated upon the Cross, fulfilling the protoevangelion (first proclamation of the Gospel) rather enigmatically announced in Genesis, when God solemnly curses the serpent with these words:

"I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal."  (GEN. 3:15)  

The "seed" of the serpent/Satan are his spiritual offspring who continue to bring evil into the  world.  The "seed" of the woman is that messianic line which culminates in the Savior. The serpent will "bruise" his heel - the suffering on the Cross - while the woman's offspring will "bruise" (the word can actually mean "crush") the serpent when, through the Cross and Resurrection, Christ destroys any real power of Satan ("You have slain the serpent"). This is the cosmic battle between Good and Evil that takes place upon the Cross and the victory belongs to "Christ the Word!"  We read the Book of Genesis during Great Lent, and we also read the Epistle to the Hebrews at the Saturday and Sunday liturgies.  The fulfillment of the protoevangelion is powerfully expressed in chapter two of that epistle:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.  (HEB. 2:14)

We enter into the victory of Christ over the Evil One through our Baptism into Christ; and we renew that victory with our annual commemoration of the Paschal mystery.  And yet, that annual commemoration/actualization only has meaning if our own lives are centered upon Christ through "prayer and fasting."  Overcoming "self-indulgence" is a key component of Great Lent, without which we remain subjected to the passions and the "death" that is the only outcome of serving the passions of self-indulgence.  So we "guard" ourselves from such a horrible fate "in the Fast!"

Friday, March 7, 2014

The End is Approaching

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Here is a "Lenten thought" from outside the Tradition, but one that expresses the Tradition very well:

"One should go easy on smashing other people's lies. Better to concentrate on one's own."  (Iris Murdoch)


The End is Approaching

The Great Canon that we chant at the beginning of Lent (and again during the Fifth Week) was written by St. Andrew of Crete.  He lived for many years as a monk in the Holy Land, but eventually became the Archbishop of Crete and died in the year 712.  Many hymns and canons that are used to this day in the Church are attributed to him, but his greatest and most enduring work is the Great Canon of Repentance which has nourished countless generations of Orthodox Christians in our understanding of true repentance.  Actually, St. Andrew wrote the Great Canon for his own personal edification, as a heartfelt expression of his own desire to repent as fully as possible before his life drew to a close. Because of its depth, the sincerity of its compunctionate  tone, the incredible knowledge of the Bible on display, and its beauty of expression; the Great Canon has entered into the Church's communal life as a spiritual and theological masterpiece of liturgical poetry.  Even though the pronoun "I" is used throughout the Canon, it is often  meant to express each person's experience of the process of repentance; something like a collective "I." Thus, as you read the Canon there is hardly a hint as to its author, but there is at least a few "autobiographical" troparia that allow us a glimpse of St. Andrew himself.  We heard this particular and rather poignant troparion yesterday evening in Ode One of the Canon:

O Savior, do not cast me down to hell, even though in old age I lie at Your gate empty of virtue. But in Your love for mankind forgive my sins before I die.  (Wednesday evening, Ode 1)

So apparently, St. Andrew wrote the Canon near the end of his life, or at least when he considered himself to be of "old age."  He did not want to rest assured of his own virtue as he approached death and judgment.  Rather, he continued to repent and seek forgiveness of his sins. For anyone who may be creeping up on "old age" - or for anyone who is at least willing to admit that the years are "adding up" a bit - there are other "autobiographical" troparia that encourage us  also to take a sober look at our lives as they begin to inexorably "push on" toward the inevitable end:

The inward being is wounded, my body is weak; my spirit is ill, and the word is powerless. Life is giving way to death and the end is near.  What shall I do when the Judge comes and I must stand before Him?  (Monday evening, Ode 9)
The end is approaching, O my soul - it is approaching!  So why do you not care or prepare yourself for it?  Arise!  The time is short!  The Judge already stands at the door.  Life is vanishing like a dream - so why do you continue living in vanity?  (Monday evening, Ode 4)

And then there is the Kontakion that is sung while we all kneel:

My soul, my soul arise!  Why are you sleeping? The end is approaching and you will be confounded.  Awake then, and we watchful, that you may be spared by Christ God, Who is everywhere present and fills all things. (Kontakion following Ode 6)

Anyone of us, of course, who is more self-assured than St. Andrew is of his or her own virtue - or who is pretty much satisfied with one's standing before God - may find these pleas to God a bit overwrought.  However, if that is the case, we may want to think hard on this troparion:

I have no tears, no repentance, no compunction - O my God and Savior, grant these to me! (Wednesday evening, Ode 2)

Does all of this "remembrance of death" (which, however one may react, sounds quite honest and realistic) mean that St. Andrew believes that he is a sinner in the hands of an angry God?  Is he in despair over his salvation?  That is hardly the case, because the living Tradition that St. Andrew lived in and imparted to others as a bishop and hymnographer does not begin with such a theological presupposition.  For St. Andrew, and for all Orthodox Christians, Christ is our merciful Savior, the One who awaits our repentance and love and "who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth."  (I TIM. 2:4)  Ultimately, what is on display in the Great Canon is St. Andrew's overwhelming sense of the limitless love of Christ.  The Canon is an expression of his great sorrow over his own sin in the light of the limitless love of Christ. And he knows, in the depths of his heart that Christ will forgive him if he truly repents. This is expressed with great warmth and assurance throughout the Canon:

You are the sweet Jesus, You are my Creator: in You, O Savior, I shall be justified.  (Monday evening, Ode 3)

You offered Your Body and Blood for all, O crucified Word, that I might be renewed and washed. You surrendered Your Spirit to the Father that I might be brought to Him. (Wednesday evening, Ode 4)

I know You as a calm haven from the storm of transgressions, O Christ my Savior.  Protect and deliver me from the depths of my innermost sin and despair. (Wednesday evening, Ode 6)

Here is a person who spent his life concentrating on his relationship with Christ and who bore the fruits of that life through his equal assurance of the great love of Christ.

Whether or not we are facing "old age" and are aware that the "end is approaching" like St. Andrew, we are always capable of expressing sorrow for our sins and thereby our deeply- felt  need to repent.  We thank God for St. Andrew's Great Canon of Repentance, which is a great gift to the Church down the ages.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

'Now is the Acceptable Time' ~ Lent as 'Beginning'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We have had excellent attendance for the first two parts of the Great Canon of Repentance on Monday and Tuesday evening of this first week of Great Lent.  That includes some of our Church School age children and young adults.  I encourage others of you to be present either this evening at 7:00 p.m. or tomorrow evening.  And then there is the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on Friday evening at 6:00 p.m.  I believe that a "good beginning" to Lent can go a long way toward a "good ending."

It certainly may seem premature - if not a bit ludicrous -  to already allude to the end of Great Lent.  Having just embarked on this journey, the end is not quite yet in sight! But I bring this up with a pastoral purpose in mind.  I have, in previous years, raised the question:  "Is there life after Lent?"  With this question I am asking whether or not there is something good and wholesome that we practiced in Great Lent that we can take with us once the season is over.  If so, then it may be then that we can speak of a "good lent." Yet, how often do we immediately go back to our earlier patterns of living as if Great Lent never really occurred?  Or, as if Lent was some kind of pious interlude  interrupting our "normal" way of living to which we eagerly return as we wipe our brow in gratitude that the ordeal is over!  Obviously, we bring the fasting element to Great Lent to an end.  But there is hopefully more to the season than adherence to fasting rules.

Bearing this type of approach and experience in mind, I would offer the following pastoral and practical advice:  Is there some practice, habit or attitude in your life right now that you very much desire to eliminate from your life?  Or, to pose that question with a bit more bluntness:  Is there any such thing in your life that you should eliminate from your life as a Christian?  Something sinful or at least something that undermines your relationship with God and your neighbor?  With some effort, determination and focus - nourished by prayer, humility and a reliance on the grace of God - why not let this Lent be the "beginning of the end" of that practice, habit or attitude that you desire/need to overcome once and for all? Then there would indeed be "life after Lent!"  Taking lent seriously forces us to come to terms with our sinful inclinations, as well as serve as the appointed opportunity to face up to and to struggle against those very inclinations with their eradication in mind as a goal.

If we look to our profound spiritual tradition in the Church, we know how the great saints of the past catalogued the more universal and characteristic "bad habits" that either tempt or actually afflict us to one degree or another.  These "bad habits"/vices the Fathers called "the passions" (Gk. ta pathi)  The presence of the passions would preclude the possibility of obtaining "purity of heart." The classic list of the eight passions, first drawn up by Evagrius of Pontus (+399), called the great "psychologist of the desert," include:

1.  gluttony
2.  lust
3.  avarice
4.  anger
5.  dejection
6.  spiritual listlessness/lassitude (the technical word behind this being akedia )
7.  vanity
8.  pride

A certain "self-love" - here understood as an unhealthy self-absorption or self-regard - is the "mother of the passions" according to Evagrius. We hear about these passions and their harmful spiritual effect in the Great Canon of Repentance:

A soiled garment clothes me - one shamefully stained with blood flowing from a life of passion and love of fleshly things.

I fell beneath the weight of the passions and the corruption of my flesh, and from that moment has the Enemy had power over me.

Instead of seeking poverty of spirit, I prefer a life of greed and self-gratification; therefore, O Savior, a heavy weight hangs from my neck. (Tuesday evening, Ode 2)

Rhetoric or reality?  You have to decide for yourself as you stand quietly in church as these troparia (verses) from the Canon ring out. 

Actually, these passions begin as "thoughts" (Gk. logismos/oi) that assail the mind.  (So that same list may at times be called the "eight thoughts").  When entertained and acted upon, the thought enters and lodges itself in the heart, and once rooted there it is a difficult process to uproot that particular passion.  What may begin as a temptation from the evil one, will eventually become an ingrained action or attitude that has gained control over us.  We are then basically "programmed" to return to that thought or action as our will to resist has become thoroughly weakened.  Thus, what is an "unnatural" - because sinful - passion seems to be quite "natural" to us after endless repetition!  In our contemporary vocabulary, these very passions are called addictions, though the term addiction is usually used for more concrete vices such as alcohol or drug abuse.  Yet, according to our spiritual tradition, we can become as "addicted" to gluttony, avarice or pride as others may be to alcohol or drugs!  The ultimate goal is not elimination of the passions, but their replacement with the virtues.  Can gluttony and lust be replaced by self-control? Avarice by generosity?  Anger by patience or even meekness? Vanity and pride by humility?  Warfare against the passions - the negative way of describing this struggle -  is simultaneously an effort to acquire the virtues, a more positive way of describing the same struggle.

Is there anything in that list that we need to work on overcoming?  The very universality of the list makes that a real possibility!  Is anyone just sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again, even when we acknowledge that it is either sinful or detrimental to our own lives or relationships - beginning, again, with God and neighbor?  Only then, however, will we seriously enter into the battle against a certain passion.

Of course, if that all sounds a bit "heavy," or as something that will have to be approached professionally or therapeutically, there may be many simple but very human and positive actions and attitudes that we may desire to embrace beginning with Great Lent and continuing with beyond the forty days and Pascha.  Acts of kindness, concern and compassion, perhaps.  Do we need to visit a sick friend or call a housebound aunt on the phone more often than we are now doing?  Do we need to work at becoming a more positive presence in our work environment? Can we work at becoming more considerate toward others?  Are we as charitable or willing to share our resources with others as we can be - especially with the poor and dispossessed?  Do we need to change our attitude toward people we disagree with ideologically or politically?  Do we still retain vestiges of racial, social or ethnic prejudices that are based on nothing but worn-out stereotypes?  With a certain focus on our "church lives," can we begin to read the Scriptures with greater regularity?  Or practice charity, prayer and fasting with greater care? Finally, are we interested in becoming a decent human being that just may enrich the lives of others around us?!

As the Apostle Paul wrote:  "Now is the acceptable time."  Great Lent can become the "beginning of the end" of a way of life we need to abandon; and the "beginning of the beginning" of the acquisition of the virtues we desire to embrace and practice.  All this "through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit."  I therefore believe that there is indeed abundant "life after Lent!"

Monday, March 3, 2014

As We Start the Fast Together . . .

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Perhaps I can briefly summarize a few points from yesterday morning's homily here as the First Week of Great Lent begins.

Great Lent is a journey toward Holy Week and the Paschal mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ.  Essentially, Great Lent is about Christ and our relationship with Him, a relationship that always need constant vigilance and renewal.   Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are tools that assist us in growing closer to Christ.

A spiritually-healthy approach to and attitude toward Great Lent is also essential.  This is expressed quite well by Fr. Thomas Hopko at the beginning of his book The Lenten Spring:

The Church welcomes the Lenten spring with a spirit of exultation.  She greets the time of repentance with the expectancy and enthusiasm of a child entering into a new and exciting experience.  The tone of the church services is one of brightness and light.  The words are a clarion call to a spiritual adventure, the summons to a spiritual feat.  There is nothing gloomy here, nothing dark or remorseful, masochistic or morbid, anxious or hysterical, pietistic or sentimental.  The Lenten spring in the Church is one of splendor and delight.  It breathes with the exhilaration of those girding up to "fight the good fight, for the One who loves them and has given Himself to them for the sake of their salvation. — The Lenten Spring, p. 9.

Thinking that Great Lent is about repressing our desires - or even "sacrificing" something - is probably caused by the fact that we are venturing outside of our "comfort  zones" that are based on an established pattern of living that has become habitual.  Great Lent is not oppressive, but liberating. But moving toward liberation can very well be painful, at least initially.  It is an ascetical effort that demands self-discipline.

Every household must work out a "domestic strategy" for observing Great Lent.  The fasting rules are rigorous, so each household needs to accommodate these rules to its own peculiar capacity.  Straining ourselves beyond that capacity does not serve a good purpose.  It can only lead to frustration and irritation.  However, we should still try and maximize our efforts, as minimalism is ineffective. This goes far beyond how we fast from certain foods and drinks.  We might just ask ourselves how much time we spend on empty entertainment - and what can replace it. The point is to create a "lenten atmosphere" in the  home, an awareness that we are engaged in meaningful task as a household.

Great Lent is a communal effort ultimately.  We are in this together. We embark upon Great Lent as a community.  We offer mutual support to each other through prayer, a willingness to help others in need, spiritually-healthy conversation - even the sharing of recipes!  Our own personal efforts are strengthened when we realize that others are engaged in the same struggles.  We must respect the fact that our fellow parishioners are observing Great Lent, without judging others or comparing ourselves with them.

In hearing the chosen Gospel reading for Forgiveness Sunday (MATT. 6:14-21), we realize that our Lenten efforts are meaningless unless we are willing to forgive others their offenses against us - real or imagined.   That forgiveness may be a slow processes in some cases, but it must remain our ultimate goal.  To choose not to forgive is to live contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote of "taking Lent seriously." Serious is not synonymous with gloomy.  The Fathers speak of a "bright sadness" that captures the need to repent of our sins, but also the utter joy of experiencing the forgiveness of God.  May that be our common experience.