Saturday, May 30, 2015

Two Reflections on the Meaning of Life and Death

Fr. Roman Braga of blessed memory.
Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Attached below, you will find two extraordinary pieces that I hope you will take the time to read carefully. 

The one on Archimandrite Roman Braga was written by Dr. Dan Henshaw.  Dr. Henshaw was Fr. Roman's personal physician throughout Fr. Roman's last illness and final death process.  It amounts to an eyewitness bedside account of the death of a person who was "righteous" in the full biblical sense of that term: "Blessed are the righteous ... " 

If we can speak of the "art of living," then we need to acknowledge the "art of dying," and that is present in these deeply-felt reflections.  In fact, Fr. Roman's entire life was a preparation for its inevitable end.  (Something to think long and hard about). His death may not have been "painless," but it appears to have been "blameless and peaceful," and we can be assured that he presented a "good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ." Ultimately, there is more here than the much-desired "death with dignity." Dr. Henshaw delivered this talk at the memorial meal of Fr. Roman on the day of his funeral and burial.  The pain and suffering of Fr. Roman's death process are not hidden, but again, you sense "other realities" also at work here.  In fact, I believe that we are here given a momentary glimpse into the paschal nature of death that we seek based on the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.

In short, there is much to be learned and meditated upon in this brief, but powerful witness from Dr. Henshaw.

The other essay by Archimandrite Vasilios is a profound supplement to what Dr. Henshaw witnessed in Fr. Roman.  It is a deeply-conceived and thoroughly Christocentric reflection upon the meaning of life and death from a revered elder and man of deep prayer.  This essay takes us into the deepest depths and layers of Orthodox Christianity.

I would like to thank Presvytera Deborah for preparing these two works for distribution to the parish.

Fr. Steven

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Ascension ~ The Meaning and the Fullness of Christ's Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,

"I ascend unto My Father, and your Father, and to my God, and Your God.” (JN. 20:17)

According to the mind of the Church, the Risen Lord is also the Ascended Lord and, therefore, in the words of Fr. Georges Florovsky: “In the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection.” I would refer everyone to the complete article by Fr. Florovsky, a brilliant reflection on the theological and spiritual meaning of the Lord’s Ascension. This article is accessed from our parish website together with a series of other articles that explore the richness of the Ascension. In addition to Fr. Florovsky’s article, I would especially recommend The Ascension as Prophecy. With so many fine articles on the Ascension within everyone’s reach, I will not offer up yet another one, but I would like to make a few brief comments:

Though the visible presence of the Risen Lord ended forty days after His Resurrection, that did not mean that His actual presence was withdrawn. For Christ solemnly taught His disciples – and us through them – “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (MATT. 28:20) The risen, ascended and glorified Lord is the Head of His body, the Church. The Lord remains present in the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church. This reinforces our need to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, through which we receive the deified flesh and blood of the Son of God, “unto life everlasting.”

Christ ascended to be seated at “the right hand of the Father” in glory, thus lifting up the humanity He assumed in the Incarnation into the very inner life of God. For all eternity, Christ is God and man. The deified humanity of the Lord is the sign of our future destiny “in Christ.” For this reason, the Apostle Paul could write: “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (COL. 3:3)

The words of the “two men … in white robes,” (clearly angels) who stood by the disciples as they gazed at Christ being “lifted up,” and recorded by St. Luke (ACTS. 1:11), point toward something very clear and essential for us to grasp as members of the Church that exists within the historical time of the world: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The disciples will remain in the world, and must fulfill their vocation as the chosen apostles who will proclaim the Word of God to the world of the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. They cannot spend their time gazing into heaven awaiting the return of the Lord. That hour has not been revealed: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.” (1:7) The “work” of the Church is the task set before them, and they must do this until their very last breath. They will carry out this work once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit – the “promise of my Father” - as Christ said to them. (LK. 24:49) Whatever our vocation may be, we too witness to Christ and the work of the Church as we await the fullness of God’s Kingdom according to the times or seasons of the Father.

In our daily Prayer Rule we continue to refrain from using “O Heavenly King” until the Day of Pentecost. We no longer use the paschal troparion, “Christ is Risen from the dead …” but replace it from Ascension to Pentecost with the troparion of the Ascension:

Thou hast ascended in glory,
O Christ our God,
granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit;
Through the Blessing they were assured
that Thou art the Son of God,
the Redeemer of the world.

Fr. Steven

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Ascension: Our Destiny in Christ

The Ascension of Christ, 15th c., Novgorod

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

You were born, as was your will, O our God.
You revealed Yourself, in Your good pleasure.
You suffered in the flesh, and rose from the dead,
trampling down death by death!
Fulfilling all things, you ascended in glory ...
(Vespers of Ascension)

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven,
and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered, and was buried.
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.
(Nicene Creed)

The two texts above - one from the Feast of the Ascension and the other a portion of the Nicene Creed - are wonderful expressions of the great mystery of the "descent" and "ascent" of the Son of God. The eternal Son of God becomes the Son of Man, descending into our world to live among us and to teach us about, and prepare us for, the Kingdom of God. This is what we call the Incarnation.

This movement of descent is only completed when Christ is crucified and enters the very realm of death on our behalf. There is "nowhere" further to descend (in)to. Thus, there are no limits to the love of God for His creatures, for the descent of Christ into death itself is "for our salvation." The Son of God will search for Adam and Eve in the very realm of Sheol/Hades. He will rescue them and liberate them as representative of all humankind, languishing in "the valley of death." Since death cannot hold the sinless - and therefore deathless - Son of God, He begins His ascent to the heavenly realm with His resurrection from the dead. And He fulfills this paschal mystery with His glorious ascension.

As St. Paul writes: "He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things." (EPH. 4:10) The One who ascended, however, is now both God and man, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified Jesus Christ who is now seated at "the right hand of the Father," far above the heavens. It is the glorified flesh of the Incarnate Word of God which has entered into the very bosom of the Trinity in the Person of Christ. As St. Leo the Great, the pope of Rome (+461) taught:

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of Heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest Heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father.

This is simultaneously our ascension and our glorification, since we are united to Christ through holy Baptism as members of His Body. Therefore, St. Paul can further write: "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (COL. 3:3) Out of our physical sight, we now "see" the glorified Christ through the eyes of faith. St. Leo further explains how important this spiritual insight is:

For such is the power of great minds, such the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eyes; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what is visible.

The Feast of the Ascension is not a decline from the glory of Pascha. It is, rather, the fulfillment of Pascha, and a movement upward toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the joyful revelation of our destiny in Christ. To return to the opening theme of the marvelous acts of God moving from the Incarnation to the Ascension, I would like to turn to St. Leo one more time for his understanding of that entire movement:

It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men's sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.

It is always wonderful when a Feast is ... festal! And it is most festal when many faithful members are present worshiping and glorifying God. The Feast of the Ascension has a full octave, which means that we commemorate this great event until May 29th this year. According to St. Luke, once the disciples beheld Christ ascend into heaven, "they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God." (LK. 24:52) The "temple" is our common place of worship. Hopefully, we too, will continually be in the temple blessing God.

Fr. Steven

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Stirrings of a Life-Changing Encounter

Dear Parish Faithful,


"So the woman left her water jar,
and went away into the city . . ." 
~  Gospel According to John 4:28

A Samaritan woman came to Jacob's well in Sychar, a Samaritan city, at the same time that Jesus sat down by the well, being wearied by his journey.  The evangelist John provides us with a time reference: "It was about the sixth hour" (JN. 4:6) - i.e. noon.  The Samaritan woman had come to draw water from the well, a trip and activity that must have been an unquestioned daily routine that was part of life for her and her fellow city-dwellers. 

The ancients had a much more active sense that water = life than we do today with the accessibility of water that we enjoy and take for granted:  from the kitchen tap, the shower, or the local store.  On the basic level of biological survival, Jacob's well must have been something like a "fountain of life" for the inhabitants of Sychar. 

Therefore, it is rather incredible that she returned home without her water jar, a "detail" that the evangelist realized was so rich in symbolic meaning that he included it in the narrative recorded in his Gospel (JN. 4:5-42).  And this narrative, together with the incredible dialogue embedded in it, is so profound that every year we appoint this passage to be proclaimed in the Church on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the fifth Sunday after Pascha.  Why, then, would the Samaritan woman fail to take her water jar home with her?

Her "failure" was based on a discovery that she made when she encountered and spoke with Jesus by Jacob's well.  For even though the disciples "marveled" that Jesus was talking with a woman (v. 27), Jesus himself began the dialogue with the woman perfectly free of any such social, cultural or even religious restraints.  As this unlikely dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman unfolded by the well, it was revealed to the woman that Jesus was offering her a "living water" which was qualitatively distinct from the well-water that she habitually drank (v. 11).  This "living water" had an absolutely unique quality to it that the Lord further revealed to the woman:

Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."  (v.13-14)

A perceptive and sensitive woman who was open to the words of Jesus, as the dialogue continued she responded with the clear indication that she had entered upon a process of discovery that would lead her to realize that she was speaking with someone who was a prophet and more than a prophet: "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw." (v. 15)  Her thirst is now apparent on more than one level, as her mind and heart are now opening up to a spiritual thirst that was hidden but now stimulated by the presence and words of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus will now disclose to her one of the great revelations of the entire New Testament, a revelation that will bring together Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles:

But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (v. 23-24)

A careful reading of St. John's Gospel indicates that under the image of water, Jesus was speaking of his teaching that has come from God; or more specifically to the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For at the Feast of Tabernacles, as recorded in JN. 7, Jesus says this openly to the crowds who had come to celebrate the feast:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink.  He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water'."  Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.  (7:37-39)

Overwhelmed and excited, inspired and filled with the stirrings of a life-changing encounter, the Samaritan woman "left her water jar, and went away into the city and said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ"?" (v. 28-29)  It is not that the contents of her water jar was now unimportant or meaningless.  That would be a false dichotomy between the material and the spiritual that is foreign to the Gospel. The Samaritan woman will eventually retrieve her forgotten water jar and fill it with simple water in fulfillment of her basic human needs. For the moment, however, she must go to her fellow city-dwellers and witness to Christ!  They, in turn, will eventually believe that Jesus is "indeed the Savior of the world." (v. 42)

There are indeed innumerable "wells" that we can go to in order to drink some "water" that promises to quench our thirst.  These "wells" can represent every conceivable ideology, theory, philosophy of life, or worldview; in addition to all of the superficial distractions, pleasures, and mind-numbing attractions that will offer some relief from the challenges and oppressive demands of life.  For a Christian, to be tempted to drink the water from such wells would amount to nothing less than a betrayal of both the baptismal waters that were both a tomb and womb for us; and a betrayal of the living water that we receive from the teaching of Christ and that leads to eternal life. It is best to leave our "water jars" behind at such wells, and drink only that "living water" that is nothing less than the "gift of God." (JN. 4:10)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mid-Pentecost: “Glistening with splendor!”

Dear Parish Faithful,


Ever since Holy Week and Pascha, I have been quite preoccupied with catching up with "things."  I therefore have not been able to sit down and work on a thoughtful meditation over these last few weeks.  However, since the meaning and purpose of our festal cycle does not change from year to year - thank God! - I thought it appropriate to share a past meditation on today's Feast of Mid-Pentecost.

What I wrote in the past - if of any value whatsoever - should not already be "dated" and thus irrelevant for today.  Especially as my theme below is concerned with our own personal approach to, and inner appropriation of, the spiritual significance of the current Feast of Mid-Pentecost as it calls on us to reflect on both Pascha and Pentecost.

As Orthodox, we are "Paschal" and "Pentecostal" Christians. At least in theory.  It is up to each and every one of us to also be so in practice.


Mid-Pentecost: “Glistening with splendor!”

Today finds us at the exact midpoint of the sacred 50-day period between the Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost.  So, this 25th day is called, simply, Midfeast or Mid-Pentecost.

Pentecost (from the Greek pentecosti) is, of course, the name of the great Feast on the 50th day after Pascha, but the term is also used to cover the entire 50-day period linking the two feasts, thus expressing their profound inner unity.  Our emphasis on the greatness of Pascha—the “Feast of Feasts”— may at times come at the expense of Pentecost, but in an essential manner Pascha is dependent upon Pentecost for its ultimate fulfillment.  

As Prof. Veselin Kesich wrote, 
“Because of Pentecost the resurrection of Christ is a present reality, not just an event that belongs to the past.”  Metropolitan Kallistos Ware stated that “we do not say merely, ‘Christ rose,’ but ‘Christ is risen’—He lives now, for me and in me.  This immediacy and personal directness in our relationship with Jesus is precisely the work of the Spirit.  Any transformation of human life is testimony to the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. God constantly creates new things and glorifies Himself in His saints, in order to make it known that the Word of God became flesh, experiences death on the cross, and was raised up that we might receive the Spirit”  (The First Day of the New Creation, p. 173).

Be that as it may, there is a wonderful hymn from the Vespers of the Midfeast that reveals this profound inner connection:

“The middle of the fifty days has come, beginning with the Savior’s resurrection, and sealed by the Holy Pentecost.  The first and the last glisten with splendor.  We rejoice in the union of both feasts, as we draw near to the Lord’s ascension—the sign of our coming glorification” (Vespers of the Midfeast).

Pascha and Pentecost “glisten with splendor” – what a wonderful expression!  Yet, this very expression which is indicative of the festal life of the Church, may also sound embarrassingly archaic to our ears today.  This is not exactly an everyday expression that comes readily to mind, even when we encounter something above the ordinary!

However, that could also be saying something about ourselves and not simply serve as a reproach to the Church’s less-than-contemporary vocabulary.  Perhaps the drab conformity of our environment; the de-sacralized nature of the world around us, together with its prosaic concerns and uninspiring goals; and even the reduction of religion to morality and vague “values,” make us more than a little skeptical/cynical about anything whatsoever “glistening with splendor!”  How can Pascha and Pentecost “glisten with splendor” if Pascha is “already” (though, only 25 days ago!) a forgotten experience of the past, and if the upcoming feasts of Ascension and Pentecost fail to fill us with the least bit of expectation or anticipation? 

To inwardly "see" how Pascha and Pentecost "glisten with splendor" then our hearts must "burn within us" as did the hearts of the two disciples who spoke with the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus (LK. 24:32).  At the empty tomb, the "two men ... in dazzling apparel" told the myrrh-bearing women to "remember" the things that the Lord had spoken to them while He was still in Galilee (LK. 24:6)

Only if we "remember" the recently-celebrated Holy Week and Pascha can any "burning of heart" that grants us the vision of the great Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost "glistening with splendor" possibly occur.  Only prosaic and drab events - or those that are superficially experienced - are quickly forgotten.  

The Lord is risen, and we await the coming of the Comforter, the “Spirit of Truth.”  These are two awesome claims!

The Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).  This exhortation from the Apostle is a great challenge, for experience teaches us that “the things that are on earth” can be very compelling, immediate and deeply attractive, while “the things that are above” can seem abstract and rather distant; or that they are reserved for the end of our life as we know it “on earth.”

The Apostle Paul is exhorting us to a radical reorientation of our approach to life—what we may call our “vision of life”—and again, this is difficult, even for believing Christians!  Yet, I would like to believe that with our minds lifted up on high and our hearts turned inward where God is – deep within our hearts – not only will the feasts themselves “glisten with splendor,” but so will our souls.  Then, what the world believes to be unattainable, will be precisely the experience that makes us “not of the world.”

May the days to come somehow, by the grace of God, “glisten with splendor!”  As it is written:

“The abundant outpouring of divine gifts is drawing near.  The chosen day of the Spirit is halfway come.  The faithful promise to the disciples after the death, burial and resurrection of Christ heralds the coming of the Comforter!” (Vespers of the Midfeast)

Fr. Steven.