Monday, March 23, 2015

The Life-Giving Cross

Dear Parish Faithful,

In the Orthodox Church, the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord are bound together in a unified mystery, though they remain distinct events in the unfolding of the divine economy.  As Archimandrite Roman Braga writes:

        The Cross, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ are of great importance in the history of our salvation.
        Without them the Incarnation of the Son of God would have no meaning. We know that the Orthodox Church in her liturgical and
        spiritual ascetic life never separates the Cross of Christ from the mystery of the Resurrection and the Resurrection as the victory of
        the Cross.  This is why the Cross is called "life-giving," and the Resurrection is the source of joy in the entire life of the Church.
        (From "The Cross and the Resurrection")

A careful study of the New Testament - especially in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul - would yield the same insight.  Whenever St. Paul refers to the Cross, he will shortly thereafter refer to the "glory" that the Cross imparts to believers.

This is made abundantly clear in two of the most profound hymns in the Church that beautifully and inextricably unite both Cross and Resurrection.  Whenever we venerate the Cross liturgically - as on the Third Sunday of Great Lent - we replace "Holy God" in the Liturgy with the following hymn that I will assume we all know so well:

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fasting with tongue, eyes, hands and feet... Fasting wisely

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Continuing our lenten journey

O holy and honored Trinity, as we now enter upon the third week of the Fast, keep us safe from harm and condemnation.  Enable us rightly to pass through the time that remains, and to fulfill all Thy commandments so that, offering up our hymns of praise, with a pure conscience we may attain the glorious Resurrection [Matins, Monday of the Third Week].

As the hymn above reminds us, we have entered the third week of the Fast.  The two weeks that we have gone through now belong to our irretrievable past.  They may have been fruitful, or they may have been wasted.  So we may be building on an already solid foundation, or we may just be getting started.  Either way, from this point on we press on toward the goal of the “glorious Resurrection.”  If we follow the commandments of Christ, and if we keep our conscience pure, the Resurrection will be far more than a “colorful” tradition that lasts about as long as Easter Sunday.

Great Lent is forty days long.  This is based on our Lord’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness, an event understood both as a temptation and a testing.  These forty days were a concentrated microcosm of Israel wandering in the desert – and “fasting” – for forty years.  The point is the continuity of the effort, modest though our efforts may be in comparison to Israel or Christ.  While in the wilderness, Israel was allowed no time off.  There were no hotels or spas along the way!   The wandering Israelites could not “take a break” and break their fast, and then, well-rested, resume their journey through the harsh Sinai desert.  The same was true for Christ.  There was no such relief.  It was an arduous forty day period that tested His human nature to the fullest extent.  When it was over, Jesus truly hungered.

Times are far different now, and we belong to a class of people who generally live in comfort – or perhaps succumb to dreams of entitlement.  Our limitations probably appear a good deal sooner when we are called upon to practice restraint and discipline.  In this regard, we are probably “weaker” than our spiritual ancestors.  Yet, hopefully we do have some reserves of patience and perseverance to carry us through the season of abstinence.

At the same time, we know that Great Lent is not only about bodily abstinence.  With a bit of the perseverance mentioned above, we just may be able to pull that one off.  Great Lent is also about our relationships with others and how we view and act within the world around us.  This is nicely addressed by Saint Dorotheos of Gaza in the following passage, typical of our saintly guides in the deeper aspects of our spiritual lives:

"In fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue.  One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not looking at vain things … not looking shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.  When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great.  A person who fasts wisely … wins purity and comes to humility … and proves himself a skillful builder."

These are helpful words as we begin the third week of Great Lent, a point when the novelty or initial enthusiasm behind our efforts begin to evaporate.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him!

Dear Parish Faithful,

I am sure that many of our psalter readers have already come across  Psalm 42 (which actually begins Book II of the Psalter according to the Hebrew canonical division).  And this psalm begins with a beautiful image that has captured the minds and hearts of theologians, artists and believers throughout the centuries:

As a hart longs for flowing streams,
so longs my soul for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God? (v. 1-2, RSV)

A "hart," of course is a deer, usually applied to the red dear when over five years old.  And "soul" - not to be confused with the Greek use of the word referring to a "substance" distinct from the body - can be translated as "my whole being," or simply as "I."

As the biblical scholar Robert Alter comments on this opening:

The poignancy of this famous line reflects the distinctive tone of this supplication, which instead
of emphasizing the speaker's suffering expresses above all his passionate longing for God. 
(The Book of Psalms - Translation with Commentary, p. 148)

 This supplication indicates that this psalm is an individual lament; and a lament deepened by unidentified men treating his faith in God with a skepticism. that amounts to cruel taunting.  The lament is further expressed by the psalmist being grieved that he does not have access to the Temple in Jerusalem where he could enjoy being in the presence of God, and where he apparently took part in processions leading to the Temple:

My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me continually,
"Where is your God?"
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (v. 3-5)

Yet, the last verse above is a kind of refrain in this psalm and expresses his ultimate faith in God (also in v. 11)

For our immediate purpose of meditation and reflection, I would like to explore that beautiful beginning of the psalm and its possible impact on us as we read it.  Here is a person - the psalmist - who "longs" for the "living God."  This longing can be translated as "yearning" or "desiring."  And the "living God" is One who is not an abstract concept or a philosophical ideal. God is not an arid intellectual construct of our minds, but the God "of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" who invites us into a relationship with Him that will satisfy all the longings of our whole being.  At this point, a certain question arises with an irresistible inevitability:  Just what do I long/yearn for/desire more than anything else?  What is "out there" that can serve as "flowing streams" that can actually satisfy my thirst for that "something" in life that makes my life meaningful? It belongs to our very nature to have that longing. A host of wonderful possibilities arise (we will not concentrate here on those desires awakened by our baser passions, centered around money, sex and power):  Do I long for good health and a long life more than anything else?  Is it a wonderful and loving spouse that would satisfy my every desire?  Would it be for loving children who are not only successful in life, but who are also good human beings with wholesome characters that bring honor and respect to our families?  Perhaps it is a circle of faithful friends with whom I can share all of the joys and sorrows of life, always trusting in their support and love?  I would have a difficult time understanding someone who would not have a strong desire for those very things just enumerated. 

Yet, the psalmist carries us toward an even deeper longing, into that non-temporal and spatially unrestricted reality that corresponds to an inherent thirst for transcendence that exists at the heart of our personal being.  This longing cannot quite be satisfied by the best of finite conditions, relationships and fulfilled earthly desires.  It can only be satisfied by the living God:  "ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same" (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).  The inexhaustible space in the depths of our hearts can only be filled in a satisfying manner by the presence of God. If I read the Scriptures correctly, any conceivable desire - including the good ones mentioned above - that is more intense than the desire for God would be idolatry. And that never ends well.  That our surrounding culture works to suppress that longing for God, or to re-direct it to the finite world of space and time as the only reality is truly sad and can only lead to tragic results for countless persons, as well as deflating our experience of the world around us.  Jesus began by challenging us to "change our minds" and re-direct our lives toward God first, and then our families, neighbors, and the beauty of the world around us will open up to new and deeper relationships and well as to a more penetrating gaze.  He also declared: "Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also."

So, what is it that we desire with our whole being?  Coming to terms with that question may be a good thing to try and accomplish during this Great Lent.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Prayer is a lifeline to God

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is an excerpt from an article entitled "The Great Fast of 2015" from the newsletter The Talanton of the St. Gregory Palamas Monastery here in Ohio.
The article concentrates on the practice of prayer during Great Lent; possibly its restoration when we allow prayer to "fall by the wayside" during the course of the year.

    Prayer is a lifeline to God.  There are the lifelines that we know are used for those who sail the seas and there are the lifelines of the
    land locked. I am told that in the olden days of the northern Unites States, winter was a time when the snows were so high that you
    could not see where you are going.  There was a rope that was secured at the house and a visitor to the privy took one end with him
    so that on returning to the house a clear and direct path could be made by the person who had ventured out of the house in a blizzard.
    This rope was a straight line to the house.

    For the Christian, prayer is that lifeline.  It is the activity most appropriate and natural to us because we were made with a certain
    openness and inclination to communicate with and to know our Creator. Prayer is a natural activity; it is analogous to breathing
    oxygen; it is analogous to drinking fresh water, or eating of the fruits of paradise.  Prayer is the spiritual breath of life, the spiritual
    food and drink that keeps us alive and keeps our feet firmly on the path that leads to the Kingdom.

    Without prayer an Orthodox Christian suffocates, is disoriented and emaciated by the cares and changes of this life.  Prayer keeps us
    in contact with a reality which is the reason for life itself.  Communion with God is the goal and the reason for our existence.

    The Talanton, February 2015, p.3.