Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Incarnation: A word about the Word!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.” ~ Saint Athanasius the Great

Within the Church we have a biblical/theological vocabulary that is very expressive of what we believe as Christians.  These words are drawn primarily from the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, and the theological writings of the great Church Fathers, such as Saint Athanasius the Great, quoted above.  As responsible, believing and practicing Christians, we need to know this vocabulary at least in its most basic forms.  As we continually learn a new technology-driven vocabulary derived from computers to smart phones, so too we need to be alert to the traditional vocabulary of the Church as it has been sanctified over centuries of use.  And this vocabulary should be natural to us – not something foreign, exotic and “only for theologians.”  It does not take a great deal of effort to be theologically literate, and there is no excuse not to be.

As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, a key term that must be part of the vocabulary of all Orthodox Christians is Incarnation.  The Nativity of Christ is the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth.  Or, we simply speak of The Incarnation, immediately knowing what that word is referring to. 

If we turn to the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, we find the term defined somewhat blandly, in that kind of clipped, compact and objective style found in most dictionaries:

  • in•car•na•tion \in-kär-`nā-shǝn\ n (14c)  1 a (1):  the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form (2) cap:  the union of the divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ.

In the Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, the Orthodox theologian, Father John McGuckin, begins his definition under a fairly long entry of this term as follows:

  • Incarnation  Incarnation is the concept of the eternal Word of God (the Logos) “becoming flesh” within history for the salvation of the human race.  Incarnation does not simply refer to the act itself (such as the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin, or the event of Christmas); it stands more generally for the whole nexus of events in the life, teachings, sufferings, and glorification of the Lord, considered as the earthly, embodied activity of the Word [p. 180].

Speaking of expanding our theological vocabulary, we need to further know that we translate the key Greek term Logos as Word, referring of course to the Word of God Who was “with God” and Who “was God,” according to Saint John’s Gospel “in the beginning.”  We also refer to the Word of God as the “Son,” “Wisdom,” and “Power” of God.  It is this Logos/Word of God Who becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth.  The key verse that is the classical expression of the Incarnation in the New Testament is found in the Gospel according to Saint John 1:14:  “And the Word (Logos) became flesh.” 

This profound paradox of the Word-become-flesh is found in the well-known kontakion of the Nativity, written by St. Romanos the Melode.  He begins his wonderful hymn with that paradox captured in the following manner:  "Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One; and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One ..."

Incarnation is derived from the Latin word “in the flesh.”  The Greek word for Incarnation would be sarkothenta, meaning “made flesh.” So the Incarnation of the Word of God is the “enfleshment”of the Word, and here “flesh” means the totality of our human nature.  The Word has assumed our human nature and united it to Himself in an indissoluble union that restores the fellowship of God and humankind.  The sacramental life of the Church is based on the Incarnation, and the potential for created reality to become a vehicle for spiritual reality.  The ultimate manifestation of this is the Eucharist, and the bread and wine “becoming” the Body and Blood of Christ.

Christmas is the time of the year to recall all of this profound reality and recover a genuine Christian vocabulary that expresses our Faith about as well as what is humanly possible. This further means that theological words are not dry and abstract concepts when approached with not only respect, but with awe and wonder.  This makes our reading and studying of our theological Tradition exciting – as well as humbling. The words reveal life-transforming truths that if received with prayer and thanksgiving enhance and expand our minds and hearts, so that we might have the “mind of Christ.”

*I have attached a marvelous Prayer to Jesus Christ Emmanuel that I just received from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City.  I may try to incorporate it into our liturgical celebration, but thought you may want to use it in your personal prayer as we prepare for the advent of the One who is Emmanuel - God With Us.

Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ Emmanuel (PDF)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fr. Alexander Schmemann and 'The Divine Child'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Last Sunday, December 13, was the anniversary of Fr. Alexander Schmemann's death in 1983.  St. Vladimir's seminary sent out what you can read below in honor of one of the great Orthodox thinkers and teachers of the 20th c.  His homily on the "Divine Child" is wonderful, and I think it will prove to be deeply insightful for all who take the time to read it.

Fr. Steven

+ + +

On this day 32 years ago, our beloved dean Father Alexander Schmemann fell asleep in the Lord.

Fr. Alexander was a world-renowned priest, professor, seminary dean, theologian, speaker, and author. His life was devoted to the liturgical renewal and revival within the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially the Orthodox Church in America.

Today we give thanks to God for his life and his legacy. Memory eternal!

A sermon by Fr. Alexander

Monday, December 14, 2015

St Herman of Alaska: 'Crucial to the celebration of Christmas, especially in America'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yesterday, December 13, we celebrated and commemorated Blessed Fr. Herman of Alaska.  He arrived in Alaska in 1794, and remained there until his repose in the Lord on December 13, 1837.  He was officially glorified by the Church on August 9, 1970. 

While working primarily with the Aleut Indians, he remained a simple monk (he was never ordained) and was a teacher, pastor and spiritual guide for them.  His most famous words are often found on his icons written on a scroll that he is shown holding in his hands:  "From this day forward, from this hour, from this moment, let us love God above all else." Very simple, but also challenging and elusive.  To love God "above all else"  may be our desire but so many things get in the way of it!

The Scriptural readings appointed to be read on the day of commemorating St. Herman, reveal to us how the saints - men, women and children - appeared to accomplish the "impossible," for these words of the Apostle Paul and Christ Himself, are believed to have been embodied in the lives of the saints:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.  Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  (GAL. 5:22-6:2)
... And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:  "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.  Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.   (LK. 6:20-23)

Fr. Thomas Hopko, in his book The Winter Pascha, wrote the following about Blessed Fr. Herman:

By American standards, Saint Herman of Alaska, like the Lord Jesus Himself, was a miserable failure. He made no name for himself.  He was not in the public eye.  He wielded no power. He owned no property.  He had few possessions, if any at all.  He had no worldly prestige. He played no role in human affairs.  He partook of no carnal pleasures. He made no money. He died in obscurity among outcast people.  
Yet today, more than a hundred years after his death, his icon is venerated in thousands of churches and his name is honored by millions of people whom he is still trying to teach to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness which has been brought to the world by the King who was born in a cavern and killed on a cross. The example of this man is crucial to the celebration of Christmas - especially in America.

What Fr. Thomas wrote was certainly true of Blessed Fr. Herman, and by way of extension these words accurately describe the perception that many of "this world" will have toward the saints of God - "losers" with very little to show for themselves. Yet, how the Gospel overturns the ways of the world!  And still it is the world that has such a strong pull on our desires and goals.  Truly, the ways of the human heart are mysterious.

The saints give us insight to this "other way" of the Gospel, offering us inspiration and flesh and blood examples of an evangelical life as we continue the North American legacy of Blessed Fr. Herman into the 21st century.

Our parish website has a wealth of material about St. Herman of Alaska.  Here is the link to all of those wonderful resources for your convenience:

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Nativity Narratives

Dear Parish Faithful,

Something a bit different this Friday morning ...

The Evangelist Luke
At yesterday's morning Bible Study, our participants were "treated" to a surprise - a "pop quiz" that dealt with the Nativity narratives in the Gospels of Sts. Matthew (1-2) and Luke (1-2). The group was overjoyed. 

Since the two accounts of the details surrounding the birth of the Lord are often quite different, the quiz tested everyone's awareness of which familiar events belong to which of these two Gospels.  We, of course, unconsciously harmonize the two Gospels, which is quite fine; but it is also very helpful to be able to make those distinctions. In this way, we learn the "mind" of each evangelist and his intentions in telling the account of the Lord's Nativity in his particular manner. Since you may also be studying the Nativity narratives at the moment, I thought that you would also like to be "treated" to the same quiz.

Notice the key at the top of the page.  As you will see, you will have to choose one of four possible answers to each question.  I would suggest taking the quiz and then checking your "grade" on your own.  If your score leaves you a bit unimpressed, then I would suggest re-taking the quiz after familiarizing yourselves with the two distinct Nativity accounts.  I will supply the answers next week.

Could be a good learning (and humbling?) experience!

At the same time, I am also attaching a list of the common elements that can found in both Sts. Matthew and Luke.  This is equally important to grasp, since these converging elements are thus found in two distinct traditions about the Lord's Nativity.

Nativity Narrative Test (PDF)

Eleven Shared Points in the Two Infancy Narratives (PDF)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Redeeming the Time

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil."  (EPH. 5:15-16)

We heard the verse above during the Epistle reading at the Divine Liturgy yesterday.  To "walk"- in the context of this epistle - is a metaphor for how we conduct our lives.  We can live wisely or unwisely.  To "walk" unwisely means that we can easily resemble a "fool."

Avoiding such a "false step," but on the contrary walking with wisdom, will depend on how much effort we put into "making the most of the time."  This can also be translated as "redeem the time."  To "redeem" the time is, first, not to "waste time," especially on what is superfluous.

More positively, it could mean to spend our time in worthwhile pursuits, seeking to do the good in all of life's various circumstances.  We are a child of God at all times, not only when we are in church or before the icons in our domestic prayer corner.  How we live and how we interact with others, is basically how we express our Christian faith on a daily basis.

On a deeper level, to "redeem the time" could also mean to sanctify time, both remembering and honoring the fact that the full expanse of our lives - our "lifetime" - is a gift from God, for as humans our lives unfold within the time of this world as created by God.  Our time is limited because our lives are of finite duration.  An awareness of this, can go a long way in how we appreciate - and therefore "redeem" - the time.

We are drawing closer to December 25 and the celebration of the Lord's Incarnation.  We can "redeem" this time within the rhythm of ecclesial time, the time of the Church.  We need to pick up where we perhaps left off for the long Thanksgiving Day weekend.  We have "feasted" along with our fellow Americans; now let us fast as Orthodox Christians. To squander a season of preparation before a Feast by neglecting prayer, almsgiving and fasting is to act "unwisely" if we claim to be serious Orthodox Christians.  Any struggle against our lower instincts to eat, drink and be merry as the most meaningful pursuits in life, is one sound way of redeeming the time.

The Apostle Paul writes that "the days are evil." In a fallen world, every single day presents us with the possibility - if not probability - of encountering evil on a grand or limited scale.  To somehow believe the days we are living in are not all that evil, is to be lost in a wishful thinking divorced from any rational perception of reality. We live in a time wherein people have forgotten God, and through this forgetfulness lose sight of our basic humanity.  To de-sanctify the world (by claiming that the world is an autonomous reality and a result of blind forces)  is to debase humanity, for only through faith in God can we have faith in the goodness of human nature.

We can be "in the world," but not "of the world" if we choose to "make the most of the time, because the days are evil."  One of the key words here is "choose."  Do we really have a hard choice to make?  Hardly! In my humble opinion, within the grace-filled life of the Church the choices before us are very easy to make!

Here is a "simple" prayer (but just try to put it into daily practice) from a holy elder that teaches us how to redeem the time:

O God, be attentive unto helping me.
O Lord, make haste to help me.

Direct, O Lord God everything that I do, read
and write everything that I say and try to
understand to the glory of Your holy Name.
From You have I received a good
beginning and my every deed ends in You.

Grant me O God, that I might not anger You,
my Creator, in word, deed or thought, by may
all my deeds, counsels and thoughts be to the
glory of Your most holy Name.  Amen.

From the diary of Elder Anthony of Optina, 1820