Friday, December 30, 2016

'Always Winter, but never Christmas!'

Dear Parish Faithful,


C.S. Lewis, something of a 20th c. Christian apologist, wrote a very endearing series of books that serves as a Christian allegory avidly read by both children and adults to this day.  That series is, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia; and perhaps the most popular book in the series is the first one, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

In this opening volume, we read of the enchanting kingdom of Narnia, populated by talking animals together with mythical fauns, wood sprites, but also some menacing creatures who personify evil in servitude to the wicked White Witch. 

Narnia is introduced to the reader through the eyes of the four English children - Edmund, Peter, Lucy and  Susan - who find themselves transported there, after having passed through the magical wardrobe found in their eccentric uncle's home in the countryside. 

Yet Narnia, for all of its paradisaical charm, is languishing in the thrall of the White Witch, and thus engulfed with a sense of foreboding and gloom.  And one of the creaturely denizens of Narnia - Mr. Tumnus - finds an utterly apt phrase that perfectly captures the dreariness and bleakness of this fallen Kingdom:  "It is always winter but never Christmas."  A chilling thought if there ever was one! 

The starkness of that phrase is found in the unspoken implication that a world in which it is "never Christmas," is a world in which there is no Christ.  If there is no Christ, then the "Light of Wisdom"[1]  has not shone on us to free us from the captivity of ignorance. If there is no Christ then there is no "Sun of Righteousness" to bring light and warmth into the minds and hearts of its inhabitants.  And if there is no Christ, then there is no "Orient from on high" that dawns upon a fallen world with the bright hope of redemption and reconciliation with God.  A winter season unrelieved by the joy of Christmas, understood primarily as the celebration of Christ's birth, would clearly be bleak indeed. At least this would be true for Christian believers.

Perhaps - and precisely as Christian believers - we have lost a sense of such potential bleakness because of what we have contributed to turning Christmas into.  Or, perhaps the certainty of our annual celebration of Christmas has resulted in a certain complacency, always a temptation when we can take something for granted.  Christians who suffer from persecution might have a very different appreciation for the deeper meaning of Christmas.

"It is always winter and never Christmas." This phrase from C. S. Lewis has become synonymous with a world devoid of the child-like joy that always imparts a sense of an over-arching purpose to life; or a sense of hopefulness even when life seems to conspire against the very concept of hope. 

The "Christmas spirit" may not last long in our fast-paced world, but if it does for only the "twinkling of an eye" then for those few moments we will be thankful to our Lord Jesus Christ who, though the "eternal God," became for our sake "a little Child." [2]

[1]  'Light of Wisdom', 'Sun of Righteousness', and 'Orient from on high' are specific phrases from the Troparion for the Nativity of Christ.

[2] From the Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas and Martyrdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Gospel reading for the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is Matthew 2:1-12.  This passage proclaims the Good News that the Savior was born in Bethlehem according to the biblical prophecies.  

The star guides the Magi and they, in turn, bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Child in acknowledgment that He is unique and a true King, testified to by cosmic signs that even the Gentile Magi can properly interpret.  Joyous as this is, there is already a hint of the ultimate destiny of Christ in that myrrh is used in the burial customs of the Jews.

On the Second Day of the Nativity, we complete the reading of the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel—2:13-23, which immediately introduces us to the tragic reality of the massacre of the innocent boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.  The previous joy of the Savior’s Nativity is replaced by the wailing and lamentation of the mothers of these innocent children, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” [Jeremiah 2:18].

The shadow of the Cross lay across the infancy narratives in this Gospel, for in the immediate post-Nativity period, these male children become the first of many martyrs who must die because Christ has entered the world, as many of the powerful of this world—following the dark example of King Herod—will not receive Him; they will actually despise Him and turn against His followers.  Thus, the suffering of innocent children is somehow taken up by God as an offering in a sinful world that fluctuates between light and darkness.  

And we must acknowledge that the suffering of innocent children continues to the present time - a suffering directly caused by human wickedness. We now understand that the cave of the Nativity anticipated the tomb of Christ’s burial, and that the swaddling clothes anticipated the grave clothes with which Christ would eventually be bound following His death on the Cross.

On the Third Day of the Nativity, we commemorate the Protomartyr Stephen, the first to die for his faith in Christ in the post-Resurrection community of the newborn Church.  St. Stephen's lengthy speech to his fellow Jews, in which he upbraided them for their lack of faith; and in which he proclaimed Jesus as the Risen and Ascended Christ is recorded in ACTS 7.  His brutal martyrdom by stoning followed as his testimony resulted in a furious and deadly rejection of his convicting words. In fact, "they gnashed their teeth against him." (ACTS 7:54) 

Martyrdom has always been a distinct and powerful witness to Christ.  Actually, “from the beginning” the Incarnation and Martyrdom are inextricably joined together in a world torn by the tension between darkness and light.  To our great joy, we know "that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (JN. 1:5)  

The kontakion for the Feast of Saint Stephen captures the movement between the joy of Christ’s birth and the sobering reality of what Christ’s coming meant for some:

Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh and became our guest;
Today His servant is stoned to death and departs in the flesh:
The glorious first martyr Stephen!

There is no greater witness to Christ than that of the martyrs—flesh and blood men, women and children who gave their lives for the Lord in the sure hope and assurance that eternal life awaited them in the Kingdom of God. 

If we exchange a “Merry Christmas” with others, we always need to be mindful of the commitment we are making to the newborn Christ.  As we temporarily indulge in the days of the Feast, we realize that the Christian life is ultimately a commitment to discipline and restraint, even the “crucifixion” of the flesh with all of its desires, in order to “witness” to Christ as disciples who believe that His advent in the flesh, culminating in His death and resurrection, has prepared a place for us in His eternal Kingdom where there is “life everlasting.”

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Incarnation: A word about the Word!

Toward recovering a genuine Christian vocabulary.

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 continue 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.”  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.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Nativity Narratives

Dear Parish Faithful,

"The glory of this Child was, that a virgin should bring him forth into the world, and the glory of the Virgin Mother was, that she should have for a Son, a Man who was at the same time God."  — St. Augustine of Hippo

At the beginning of the Nativity Fast I sent out a "Nativity Narrative Test" that was to test your knowledge of the accounts of Christ's Nativity as found in the Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Luke. This was also meant to stimulate your personal reading of the Nativity narratives during this season - especially if you took the quiz and scored poorly! 

When we read these two Gospels we encounter quite a bit of difference in detail.  A good deal of that is accounted for by the fact that St. Matthew's Gospel clearly narrates the events around the Lord's birth from the perspective of St. Joseph; and St. Luke narrates certain events clearly from the perspective of the Virgin Mary. 

Nevertheless, these divergent traditions have provided a good deal of fodder for skeptical readers of the Gospels, who stress these differences with the goal of undermining the integrity of the Gospel accounts. This is a curious case of "reverse fundamentalism" (although coming from scholars/academics): Any discrepancies in the literal reading of these narratives mean that these narratives forfeit their truthfulness.  This is a fundamentalist approach if there ever was one!

However, my point here is not to further explore this issue. My goal, for the  sake of balance, is to simply draw up a list of the many points of  full  - and "fundamental!" -  agreement between Sts. Matthew and Luke on the major events of their respective accounts of Christ's Nativity.

To make my task all that much easier, I am relying on - and conveying to you - just such an exhaustive list compiled by one of the premier American biblical scholars of recent times. This would be Raymond Brown (+1998), who wrote a massive book entitled The Birth of the Messiah, an incredibly detailed commentary on the Nativity narratives as found in the Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Luke. 

As an introduction to his massive study of the Gospels - including their differences at certain points - Brown composed the following list of "points shared," all of which are very significant:

a)  The parents to be are Mary and Joseph who are legally engaged or married, but have not yet  come to live together or have sexual relations (MATT. 1:18; LK. 1:27,34).

b)  Joseph is of Davidic descent (MATT. 1:16,20; LK. 1:30-35)

c)  There is an angelic announcement of the forthcoming birth of the child (MATT. 1:20-23; LK. 1:30-35)

d)  The conception of the child by Mary is not through intercourse with her husband (MATT. 1:20,23.25; LK. 1:34).

e)  The conception is through the Holy Spirit (MATT. 1:18,20; LK. 1:35)

f)  There is a directive from the angel that the child is to be named Jesus (MATT. 1:21; LK. 1:31)

g)  An angel states that Jesus is to be the Savior (MATT. 1:21; LK. 2:11)

h)  The birth of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together (MATT. 1:24-25; LK. 2:5-6)

i)  The birth takes place at Bethlehem (MATT. 2:1; Lk. 2:4-6)

j)  The birth is chronologically related to the reign (days) of Herod the Great (MATT. 2:1; LK. 1:5)

k)  The child is reared at Nazareth (MATT. 2:23; LK. 2:39)

From The Birth of the Messiah, by Raymond E. Brown, p. 34-35.

Ultimately, the main point for all of us is to know the Gospel narratives of Christ's Nativity as thoroughly as possible - "inside out" we could say - and marvel at the birth of the Messiah, a Savior, who is "Christ the Lord." (LK. 2:11)

By the way, if you missed that "Nativity Narrative Test" from a few weeks back, but would still like to give it a try, you will find it as an attachment.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Three Key Events on December 13

Dear Parish Faithful,

St Herman of Alaska
Today's date of December 13 has a great deal of significance for Orthodox Christians in North America, especially for those of us within the Orthodox Church in America, and even for our local parish of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit.  

On this date we commemorate the repose in the Lord of Blessed Fr. Herman of Alaska (+1837). We had a wonderful Great Vespers service yesterday evening to commemorate his rebirth into the Kingdom of God (and, if you count our guests, we reached "double digits" in attendance!).  

I have attached his Life from the OCA website. It is very detailed and thus quite lengthy and may take more than one sitting to read through it all. But St. Herman is one of our few North American saints and we should get to know of his wonderful and holy life as well as possible:

Life of St Herman of Alaska (OCA)

In addition, I would like to include a paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko's reflection on Fr. Herman as found in his popular book The Winter Pascha.  The entire chapter was read yesterday evening following the service:

By American standards, St. 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 that 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. (p. 47-48)

It was on December 13, 1983, that Fr. Alexander Schmemann also reposed in the Lord.  Fr. Alexander is one of the greatest figures in the emergence of an autocephalous Orthodox Church here in North America.  It is Fr. Alexander who initiated the liturgical revival in our parishes that make us now strong eucharistic communities.

I studied under him and served with him as an acolyte and  briefly as a deacon in my three years at St. Vladimir's seminary in New York. When our daughter Sophia was born, he visited our humble apartment in Yonkers, NY to see her, congratulate us and spend some time with us. And  believe me, Fr. Schmemann  visiting your apartment was a big thing!

Again, to quote Fr. Hopko from The Winter Pascha:

For those who knew him, and those who will yet come to know him, the day of Fr. Alexander's death will always be a precious part of the Church's celebration of the Christmas-Epiphany season. (p. 49)

When Fr. Schmemann died in 1983, a brief tribute to him was filmed by CBS News.  Reminding me of this, Mother Paula (Vicki Bellas) sent me the following note and link.  I would like to share it with anyone who may be interested.

Fr. Alexander appears briefly at the beginning, so there is a brief glimpse of him and his style. The rest is a series of tributes to him from various bishops, scholars, friends, etc. including the words of Fr. Thomas Hopko, who was his son-in-law.  The video ends with Fr. Alexander's funeral, an extraordinary event that I returned to New York for.  

I recall approaching Matushka Anne Hopko (Fr. Alexander's daughter) and making a comment about the unique atmosphere of the funeral. She smiled, and then replied:  "Yes, just like Pascha!"  That response caught the essence of Fr. Schmemann's life - and his death.

"Bless Father, perhaps you have seen this."
CBS Documentary on Fr. Alexander Schmemann (OCN)

Interestingly enough there is an entry on Fr. Alexander at Wikipedia with a listing of all of his publications. Here is the link:
Fr. Alexander Schmemann (Wikipedia)

And it was also on December 13, that our former parishioner Mother Paula was tonsured as a nun at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, PA.  I believe this was in 2010. Mother Paula was known in the parish before her tonsuring by her name "in the world" of Vicki Bellas. She transferred to our parish in the early 90's and stayed with us until 2003 when she left for the monastery to "test" her vocation.  I was the one who drove her to the monastery in the Fall of that year.  

When the time for her tonsuring came, a sizeable group from our parish made the trip for the service.  That group consisted of:  Presvytera Deborah and myself, Roberta Robedeau and our former parishioners Dan and Cristina Georgescu, together with the Callender family and Jeannie Markvan and Elena Drach. We somehow managed to stay just ahead of a snowstorm blowing through the region at that time.  

The hieromonk Fr. Alexander Cutler [formerly the Igumen at St. John the Theologian Skete in Hiram, OH] served as the celebrant of the tonsuring, and Fr. Thomas Hopko and I served together with him. It was an emotional event for all of us who were there.  

Many people journey through life, never quite finding a true "vocation," so Mother Paula was blessed in discovering hers through faithfulness to Christ and a life of prayer and service. It is not a parish footnote that a monastic has come out of our parish community.  Rather, it is a true blessing. We can only say "well done" and wish her Many Years!

See also:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

'Let us give thanks unto the Lord!'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?"  (LK. 17:17)

The cleansing of the ten lepers (LK. 17:11-19) is clearly a remarkable story that reveals the exousia, or authority, of Christ over sickness. Yet, in addition, it is a healing story that is just as much about the need to offer thanksgiving to God whenever we are a recipient of His abundant mercy.

As the story opens, we first hear the plaintive and pathetic cry from these lepers:  "And as he entered the village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, 'Jesus, Master, have pity on us'." (v.12-13)  Did these lepers truly believe that Jesus could do something for them that no one else could possibly do?

In response to whatever level of faith they may have had, Jesus cleansed the ten lepers simply by His word:  "When he saw them he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to priests."  And as they went they were cleansed." (v. 14).

Lepers, of course, were not allowed to be near the other members of their community, for they were declared to be unclean and therefore, ritually impure (LEV. 13:45-46; NUM. 5:2-3).  Their cleansing not only freed them from a debilitating illness that left its victims visibly disfigured; but it also restored them to fellowship in their community.  Their ostracism was now over. 

According to the Law, the priests that Jesus sent them to would declare their healing and make that restoration to society a possibility.  Yet, considering the enormous generosity of Christ in being the source of both their cleansing and restoration, we read with great surprise that only one of them returned to Jesus in order to thank Him:

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell at his feet, giving him thanks. (v. 15-16)

What adds to our surprise is that this newly-cleansed leper "was a Samaritan." (v. 16) We know that Jews and Samaritans were hostile to each other and that "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans." (JN. 4:9) In the light of that reality, it is all the more significant that there was a Samaritan among the ten lepers. Perhaps, as lepers, they were forced to keep company; but could it be possible that in their misery they understood that they shared a common humanity that transcended their ethnic/cultural/religious barriers?   So, perhaps in their collective misery, these lepers overcame their mutual hostility as they remained together on the outskirts of the village. 

Be that as it may, Jesus wanted to point out the incongruity of a Samaritan returning to offer thanks to God, while His fellow Jews failed to do so. And then Jesus asks what is a very convicting question that goes to the very heart of the matter:  "Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner"?"  (v. 17-18)  Even Jesus calls the Samaritan a "foreigner!"  (It is of note that it was a foreigner - Naaman - who returned to Elisha after being healed of leprosy (II KINGS 5:15, LK. 4:27). But the question "cuts deep," we can say. 

Christ does not "need" to be thanked.  Jesus is not petulant; and He is not offended by the cleansed lepers who failed to return as did the Samaritan. It was the lepers who needed to offer thanksgiving or praise to God for what had been done for them.  That was the point that Christ drew attention to through His publicly-stated question.  Significantly, Jesus tells the Samaritan:  "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well."  (v. 17)  Did the cleansed and thankful leper receive more than the others had done?

St. Athanasius the Great implies this in his comments on this passage:

"They thought more highly of their cure from leprosy than of him who who had healed them.... Actually, this one was given much more than the rest. Besides being healed of his leprosy, he was told by the Lord, "Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you."  You see, those who give thanks and those who glorify have the same kind of feelings. They bless their helper for the benefits they have received.  That is why Paul urged everybody to 'glorify God with your body.'  Isaiah also commanded, 'Give glory to God'."  — Festal Letter 6

The leprosy that was treated with fear and great caution in the Scriptures can serve as a vivid metaphor for human sin. In the Orthodox Tradition, we treat sin more as a sickness than as the breaking of a commandment.  Sin is more of a "condition" than a "crime."  It is, actually, the "human condition" into which we are born when we enter this world. Thus, "Since all are sinners and fall short of the glory of God" (ROM. 3:23), we all need to be healed by God.  And we all have been: through the redemptive death of Christ on the Cross and His Resurrection from the dead. And then through our personal death to sin and resurrection to life with Christ through the mystery of Baptism. (ROM. 6:3-11) 

For this we give thanks to God from a hear overflowing with gratitude, thanksgiving and love because we are overwhelmed by what God has done for us in and through our Savior Jesus Christ.  We may have been healed through Baptism, but without the response of thanksgiving, this healing remains incomplete, and it will not bear much fruit. 

On the Lord's Day we come to the Eucharistic service of the Church - the Liturgy - which is the Service of Thanksgiving, we could say. Our presence signifies our own "return" to the Lord in response to His healing presence in our lives. (For the baptized who do not return to thus give thanks, we find a resemblance to the healed lepers who failed to return in order to praise God). And it is then that we offer thanksgiving to God as we offer ourselves up to God through the sacrifice of Christ actualized in the Liturgy.  And then we receive the Eucharist - the "thanksgiving food" - to nourish us in this movement of growing love toward the most Holy Trinity:

"Eucharistisomen to Kirio!"  -  "Let us give thanks unto the Lord!"

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Capable of Thanksgiving

Dear Parish Faithful,

"And we thank Thee for this Liturgy which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands..."  — Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

I have been able to read a good deal of Orthodox theology over the years - and the years are adding up - but to this day, I have never encountered a writer who has expressed with such eloquence and power the insight that we are created to be eucharistic beings, such as Fr. Alexander Schmemann has done.  
Throughout his long priestly ministry, and through his many wonderful books, this was a theme that he continually returned to: the human person as oriented toward God as a being who is eucharistic at the deepest level of existence.  We are our most human when we consciously and with profound gratitude offer thanksgiving (Gk. eucharistia) to the living God who has created us.
This was Fr. Alexander's compelling reading of the Genesis creation accounts and what it means for human beings to be made "according to the image and likeness of God."  Dying of cancer, Fr. Alexander served his last Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. He was able to deliver a short homily that is now known throughout the OCA as, simply, "The Thanksgiving Homily," in which he uttered a beautiful opening thought that memorably captured the "catholicity" of his vision and understanding of life: 

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

This particular sentence and the whole of this final homily served as a kind of summation of his deeply-conceived and felt intuition of life and the Christian Gospel. For Fr. Alexander, the human person is, of course, "homo sapiens" and "homo faber," but at the most basic level of existence the human person is "homo adorans" - a being instinctively inclined toward worship. We find an expression of this insight in Fr. Alexander's classic book For the Life of the World:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion. (p. 5)

This entire book - an absolute "must read" for contemporary Orthodox Christians - was a new, refreshing and transformative way of understanding and experiencing the Sacraments of the Church, freeing these Sacraments from a stultifying scholastic theology that threatened to reduce them to "religious actions" that would isolate them from the experience of life.  Since I am trying to focus on Fr. Alexander's eucharistic intuition of life, I would like to include a justifiably famous passage from this same book:

When man stands before the throne of God, when, he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. 
Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man.  Eucharist is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven. 
But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be, (p. 23)

At the time when that was written (around 1960 in the original Russian, I believe - English translation 1963) to the present day, that passage is something like a "breath of fresh air" that brings to life in a very vivid manner what it means to participate in the Divine Liturgy/Eucharist.
How utterly bland, then, is our conventional term "attending church!"  The Eucharist is our recovery - again and again - of who we now are in Christ.  That "recovery" is a life-long process that makes each and every Liturgy a new and fresh experience, or at least so potentially.  We may grow old, but the Liturgy never grows old.  And it can never grow boring no matter how many liturgies one may "attend!"  As Fr. Alexander further wrote:

Eucharist was the end of the journey, the end of time. And now it is again the beginning, and things that were impossible are again revealed to us as possible. (p. 30)

These short reflections were prompted by the Gospel account of the healing of the ten lepers (LK. 17:11-19), read at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy and just this last Sunday.  This passage is as much about thanksgiving as it is about the actual healing of the lepers. I therefore hope to write a few words about this passage later this week.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Finding 'Snatches of Silence'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Several years ago, Newsweek magazine carried an article written by Julia Baird under the rubric of psychology, titled “The Devil Loves Cell Phones”—a rather unexpected and somewhat jarring title considering the secular orientation of such a mass media journal as Newsweek.

The article - as timely today as when it first appeared - was a one-page commentary based upon a review of a new book by Sara Maitland, titled A Book of Silence.  Baird begins by reminding us that “in the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believed that Satan did not want human beings to be alone with God, or with each other, fully alert and listening.”  She then quotes Maitland, who makes the provocative statement that the mobile or cell phone is a “major breakthrough for the powers of hell.” 

We are further informed that Maitland “spent more than a decade pursuing silence like a hunter its prey.”  As part of this pursuit, Maitland spend 40 days—a perfect choice of time period!—“in an isolated house on a windy moor” in Scotland. 

Maitland writes,  “I am convinced that as a whole society we are losing something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding culture, and that somehow, whatever silence might be, it needs holding, nourishing and unpacking.”  She claims that her physical sensations were heightened—her porridge tasted better and she “heard different notes in the wind, was more sensitive to temperature, and emotional.”  Beyond that, she “experienced great happiness, felt connected with the cosmos; was exhilarated by the risk and peril in what she was doing; and discovered a fierce joy, or bliss.”

Baird then comments on the over-all impact of the book.  “It is a strikingly refreshing book to read, in the midst of the clamor and din, ever-mounting distraction, yelling TV pundits, solipsistic tweeting, and flash-card sentiment of our Internet age,” she writes.  “It made me realize what a profound longing many of us have for silence, how hard it is to find, and how easily we forget how much we need it.” 

A contention from Maitland sounds like something I would read in an article about Orthodox Christian hesychasm from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: “Maitland rails against the idea of silence as void, absence, and lack—insisting it is positive and nurturing, and something more profound that must be actively sought.” 

Silence, for the saint, allows us to hear “the still, small voice of God,” as did the Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb.  This is the key to genuine prayer.  It is in the "silence" of prayer that we can truly encounter Christ. This is the goal of what we call the "Jesus Prayer."

Julia Baird rails a bit more against our noisy culture, observing how “we often talk about distraction, and the banality of a culture that seems to smother deep thought or time-sucking contemplation—we tweet sneezes, we blink and record it for our friends, we sprint to be the first to speak.  The anonymity of the Internet has been replaced by hyper-identity; the idea of shutting up and staring at a rock, piles of sand, or blinking stars for hours, if not weeks, seems profoundly counter-cultural.”

I would add that a 40-day fasting period before the Great Feast of our Lord’s Nativity sounds quite counter-cultural!  The volume will intensify in the days leading to Christmas.  And not a whole lot of that noise will be in praise of the mystery of the Incarnation. 

Perhaps we can find some snatches of silence amidst the cacophony of sounds that will swirl around us.  We may begin by limiting our smart phones to necessary usage, and not allow it to be a toy in our fidgety hands combined with a need to be distracted.  The smart phone is fast becoming a “security blanket.”  And Facebook certainly contributes to the "noise" pervading the world.

Baird includes in her article this passage from C. S. Lewis’ fascinating work, The Screwtape Letters, in which we “hear” of hell’s furious noise:

“the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless and virile….  We will make the whole universe a noise….  We have already made great strides in this direction regards the earth. The melodies and silences of heaven will be shouted down in the end.”

It may prove to be difficult, but maybe we can find a way not to add to that ungodly din.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Redeeming the Time

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In Ephesians 5:15-16 we read, "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil."  To "walk" -- in the context of this passage -- 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 children 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 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 during this long and enjoyable Thanksgiving Day weekend.  We have just 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.  One more obvious example of the "battle of the calendars."

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 their 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 the diary of Elder Anthony of Optina [1820] 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, O God, that I might not anger You, my Creator, in word, deed or thought, but 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

Monday, November 14, 2016

Overcoming Stress - The Orthodox Way

Dear Parish Faithful,

Are you feeling "stressed out" these days? Rather overwhelmed with various cares and anxieties?  Are things pulling apart, rather than holding together? If so, here are some wise words from a Romanian elder that, if put into practice, may bring some consolation to your mind and heart.  

All such counsel is merely an elaboration on the words of Christ concerning anxiety, found in MATT. 6:25-34, culminating in:  "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well."

Quotations from the newly reposed (+ Oct. 30) Archbishop Justinian Chira of Romania

When you are distressed, when you are upset, when in temptations, be untroubled. Go to your brother and talk to him:

“How are you, brother?”  Do not tell him you came because you are very troubled. Discuss trivialities. Sadness may scatter and you may receive strength from his strength.

Prayer has the grace to make the eternal fountain of joy sprinkle our soul. The soul from which springs no voice of prayer unto Heaven is like a deserted house, full of cobwebs, inhabited by the birds of darkness alone. A soul that does not know how to pray will never know what happiness is, even when owning all the riches of the earth. True prayer is Holy labor.

Stress is formed from exaggerated concern. From concern, and concern only. Every evil comes from this exaggerated concern.

We must preserve and cultivate our longing for God, our longing for the Mother of God, our longing for Saints. Let us seek to cancel the barriers that cool us off spiritually, that harden our hearts, those that make us forget God.

When Jesus is truly known and obeyed, then peace prevails in our soul, our family, our country and in the world.

I will stand by the gate of Heaven and wait for all of you to arrive!

Monday, October 31, 2016

An Introduction to 'Time and Despondency'

Dear Parish Faithful,
In yesterday's post-Liturgy discussion, we were treated to a short, but excellent presentation by our former parishioner, Dr. Nicole Roccas. Nicole spoke of her forthcoming book that will be titled Time and Despondency.  In fact, she actually read the first couple of pages of her Introduction for us yesterday.

It was all quite intriguing, and based on these few pages I am now eagerly anticipating the release of her book sometime next year.  A fruitful discussion ensued as Nicole was able to take on a few good questions in our short time frame.  In her book, she will be dealing with the phenomenon of despondency, and how that universal affliction relates to time.  Thus, though she will be dependent for her analysis of despondency as found in the penetrating insights of the desert dweller and writer, Evagrius of Pontus, she will make a new contribution to that analysis by relating it to the concept of time - the subject of her doctoral dissertation - and, of course, placing her analysis within a contemporary setting that will speak to us today.

This brought to mind a former meditation on that theme that I wrote a few years back (2012), based on a book review of the theme of despondency, which is one of many translations of the Gk. word akedia (Latin, accedie; rendered in English as acedia), almost a technical term that describes one of the many "passions" that can afflict us today as it did the early Christian ascetics. (This was a Lenten meditation, but this theme is not restricted to a particular liturgical season).

Reading through this meditation, I believe that Nicole and I are interpreting akedia it in a very similar way, so if you missed her discussion yesterday, perhaps some of the ideas she presented  can also be found here.  I believe that her use of the term despondency works better over-all than the word depression. It is my humble opinion that if anyone believes that he or she is not suffering from akedia/despondency on some level, then that person is further suffering from self-delusion.

Acedia and Us and Our Lenten Effort

Monday, October 24, 2016

To notice the Lazarus in our midst

Dear Parish Faithful,

My intention was to write a new meditation on the powerful parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man this morning, following yesterday morning's Liturgy in which we were directed "Let us attend!" before we heard the parable read in church. However, other pressing concerns and obligations did not allow for that plan to come to fruition. 

In case anyone may be interested, here are two meditations from the past that deal with the parable in a very direct manner.  The first is from the OCA webpage archives and the second from my Meditations blog on our parish website.  The meditations are actually similar in content - and both depend on and incorporate some of the writings of St. John Chrysostom - but in case you like choices...

As someone remarked to me yesterday:  Poor people make us feel uncomfortable, and some of our avoidance of those environments in which we may encounter the poor is perhaps our unconscious reaction to that discomfort. 

Is part of that discomfort our conscience speaking within us of the disparity between our own comforts in comparison with others who are without any?  Lazarus is that type of person who evokes that very reaction, as he must have been a "sorry sight" indeed with his sores and all.  Our challenge is to find humanity in the very persons who seem to have been stripped of it.  The image of God is often obscured - but never defaced.  This is why Christ challenges us to notice the Lazarus in our midst.

Alleviating the Plight of the Poor

Just Who is the Real Rich Man?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Vespers and the Fulfillment of Time

Dear Parish Faithful,

I understand that our Church School studied the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple in their respective classes yesterday.  To remind everyone, the Church School curriculum this year is "The Life of Christ."  They have already covered the Lord's Nativity, so the Meeting of the Lord (LK. 2) follows chronologically.  They are well ahead of the liturgical cycle! 

Some of the younger children colored an icon of the Meeting of the Lord. The Righteous Symeon, one of the key figures found and described by St. Luke the Evangelist in his Gospel is, of course, in that icon. One of the most beautiful hymns in the Scriptures was uttered by St. Symeon when he behold and then held the Christ Child in his arms. 

Often, this hymn is referred by the Latin of its opening words - Nunc Dimittis. We all know that hymn by heart as it is invariably sung or chanted at every single Vespers service - Daily, Great or Festal. But we can include it hear to help us focus on the power of its words:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,
   according to Thy word;
for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation
   which Thou hast prepared before the face of Thy people.
a light to enlighten the Gentiles
   and the glory of Thy people Israel.
  (Lk. 2:29-32)

I bring this to our attention because I spoke of this hymn in the homily yesterday in the context of pointing out the theological structure of the Vespers service. 

This first of the services of our daily liturgical cycle has a profound theological structure to it that embraces and expresses the four essential components of an Orthodox Christian world view. And these are: 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) Redemption; and 4)  Kingdom. 

I would like to write about this in more detail in the future; but for the moment, I will simply point out that St. Symeon's Hymn points us toward the Kingdom which is to come, and which he speaks confidently about entering having - by the grace of the Holy Spirit - recognized the Messiah in the little Child cradled in his arms.  St. Symeon thus believes that he can now "depart" - that is, die - "in peace," with that inner certainty that he will now be held within the embrace of God. 

Thus, this hymn is eschatological in its orientation, pointing us toward the End, which is the beginning of life in God's eternal Kingdom. With his usual eloquence, Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes the experience of St. Symeon as follows:

Symeon ... stood for the whole world in its expectation and longing, and the words he used to express his thanksgiving have become our own.... He had beheld the One he had longed for. He had completed his purpose in life, and he was ready to die. 

But death to him was no catastrophe. It was only a natural expression of the fulfillment of his waiting.  He was not closing his eyes to the light he had at last seen; his death was only the beginning of more inward vision of that light. 
In the same way Vespers is the recognition that the evening of this world has come, which announces that Day that has no evening. In this world, every day faces night; the world itself is facing night. It cannot last forever.
Yet the Church is affirming that an evening is not only an end, but also a beginning, just as the evening is also the beginning of another day.  In Christ and through Christ it may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening...
We come into the presence of Christ to offer Him our time, we extend our arms to receive Him.  And He fills this time with Himself.  He heals it  and makes it - again and again - the time of salvation.  (For the Life of the World, p. 44-45)

A wonderful vision by which we end one day and begin another in the grace-filled life of the Church.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Wisdom of the Divine Philosophers - Volume Two

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I thought I would share this book promotion that I just received.  This is Volume Two of a series that I have turned to before for some great insights into the "spiritual life" that we find among the great saints of the Church. That is their specialty!  

I like to occasionally send these out to everyone so that we can collectively listen carefully to this "wisdom of the divine philosophers."  Perhaps you remember or saved some of the gems from Volume One. 

And again, these "philosophers" are not Heraclitus, Pythagaros, Socrates or Plato.  They are the great teachers of the Church - the ones we call the Holy Fathers & Mothers - from ancient times or of more recent times.

The promotion below offers an excellent sampling of what may be found in this Volume Two.  Please read them carefully. These are the types of sayings that invite meditation and reflection. Even that deep "pondering" that allows us to unpack what on the surface seems like a short and pithy insight.  

I am particularly drawn to the practical wisdom conveyed below by the Elder Joseph the Hesychast ( a 20th c. saint, by the way) on the issue  of "anger management."  Just think how much grief we could save ourselves and those around us by "attending" to his advice!  

The saying of St. John Climacus is deeply profound.  He understands the cause of our fear of death; yet takes us beyond that into the realm of judgment, making a real distinction between a natural fear of death" and the "terror of death." The other sayings below may have other forms of appeal.

You may even desire to purchase the book! 

That is St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833) on the cover. He once said, somewhat enigmatically:

"Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved."


Volume Two of Wisdom of the Divine Philosophers features spiritual counsels from our Orthodox saints and elders that are categorized under 67 topics. They will provide you with a wealth of wisdom to help guide you on the path to salvation.

$13.95 plus $2.00 shipping

Order online at
Or Call: 412-736-7840


On Humility:

In the mercy of God, the little thing done with humility will enable us to be found in the same place as the saints who have labored much and been true servants of God.

~ St. Dorotheus of Gaza

We should try to have good thoughts which will radiate from us. A meek and humble person is always very pleasant to be with, for he emanates peace and warmth. That person may not say a single word, yet we rejoice to be in his presence.

~ Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica †

On Worry:

If the head of a family is burdened with cares and worries about the future of his family, he will have no peace. All the members of the family will feel his unrest. They will know that something is wrong, but they will not know exactly what. We can see how much our thoughts influence others. Misunderstandings in the family also happen because of our thoughts.

~ Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica †

On Anger:

Never correct someone with anger, but only with humility and sincere love. When you see anger ahead, forget about correcting for a moment. When peace has returned, then your powers of discernment are functioning properly and then you can speak beneficially. Since man was created rational and gentle, his is corrected far better with love and gentleness. An angry and irritable man is not accepted into the Kingdom of God even if he raises the dead. Therefore, suppress anger with all of your might, and you will find it weaker the next time.

~ Elder Joseph the Hesychast †

On Repentance:

This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.

~ St. Isaac the Syrian

Fear of death is a property of nature due to disobedience, but terror of death is a sign of unrepented sins.

~ St. John Climacus

On the Soul:

If human beings...could see their inner ugliness, they would not pursue external beauty. When our souls have so many stains—so many smudges—are we going to be concerned, for instance, about our clothes? We wash our clothes, we even iron them and we are clean outside; while inside—well, do not ask!

~ St. Paisios the Athonite

On Prayer:

Whatever we do without prayer and without hope in God turns out afterwards to be harmful and defective.

~ St. Mark the Ascetic

Always let the remembrance of death and the Prayer of Jesus, being of single phrase, go to sleep with you and get up with you; for you will find nothing to equal these aids during sleep.

~ St. John Climacus

On Evil:

Those who have realized how dangerous and evil is the life they lead, the devil succeeds in keeping in his power mainly by the following simple, but all powerful suggestion, “Later, later; tomorrow, tomorrow.”

~ St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite
Phone:  (412) 736-7840

Friday, October 7, 2016

Let Us Attend!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Take heed then to how you hear."  (LK. 18:18)
Make sure that you never refuse to listen when He speaks."  (HEB. 12:25)

We are blessed with hearing the Scriptures at every Divine Liturgy, be it the Lord's Day or any other day on which the Liturgy is celebrated. Therefore, we will hear at least one reading from an Epistle and one from a Gospel.  When the calendar so designates it, there may be two readings.  When there exists a complicated convergence of feast days and commemorations, there are even Liturgies at which there may be as many as three prescribed readings! 

The readings from the Scriptures are the culminating moments of the first part of the Liturgy, referred to as the "Liturgy of the Word," or "The Liturgy of the Catechumens."  Before we commune with Christ in the Eucharist, we commune with Him through the inspired words of the Holy Scriptures - the words of the Word.  This is the public proclamation of the Word of God, meant to complement each believer's personal or "domestic" reading of the Scriptures. 

Just as we pray both liturgically and personally; so we hear/read the Scriptures both liturgically and personally.  Each is essential to support and make the other meaningful.  To ignore one or the other is to impoverish our relationship with Christ.

By the presence of the Spirit, our minds are open to the full meaning of the sacred texts that we hear. This was revealed to all Christians of all generations on the Road to Emmaus, when the Risen Lord encountered Cleopas and an unknown disciple:  "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (LK. 24:27).

Following this encounter and the "breaking of the bread," during which these disciples recognized the Risen Lord, "They said to each other, 'Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures'?"  (LK. 24:32). 

Christ speaks to us today through the reading of the Scriptures, thus making it possible for us today to experience the identical "burning of heart" when we, too, make the time to read the Scriptures. As Fr. John Behr succinctly said: "In the Church, we are still on the road to Emmaus."

Due to the great importance of the liturgical proclamation of the Scriptures, these readings are prefaced by a dialogue between the celebrant, the designated reader and the gathered faithful.  I will concentrate here on the liturgical reading from the Gospel, aware that the preparation for the Epistle also has its own solemn and very similar introduction.  Before the reading from the Gospel, we thus always hear:

Priest or Deacon:  Wisdom! Let us stand aright.  Let us listen to the Holy Gospel.

Bishop or Priest:  Peace be unto all.

Choir:  And to your spirit.

Priest or Deacon:  The reading from the Holy Gospel according to Saint _____.

Choir:  Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee.

Priest:  Let us attend!

This solemn dialogue both reveals to us that we are about to do something of great importance:  proclaim the living Word of God amidst the assembled believers - clergy and laity alike. And this prefatory dialogue is therefore meant to get our attention. 

In fact, the final words before the actual reading are:  "Let us attend!"  In some translations, it may be:  "Let us be attentive!"  In simple English it could be:  "Pay attention!"

Right before this we are first directed to "stand aright."  This is lost in some translations, which twice read "Let us attend," as a translation of two different Gk. words in this dialogue. When we hear "Let us attend" for the first time, this is actually "Let us stand aright," based on the Gk. command "Orthi" which means more-or-less literally "stand aright."  The second "Let us attend!" is based on the Gk. word proskhomen.

The point is that standing at attention is a potentially better bodily posture than sitting for the gathering of our (scattered?) thoughts, as well as simply a bodily posture that expresses greater respect for listening to the Lord teaching us through the words of the Gospel. Strange as it may sound to us, there is something of the soldier standing at solemn attention as he is about to hear his "orders" that must be faithfully fulfilled.  This is an image that is found often in Christian antiquity. 

In our Liturgy today, it is a time when there should be no movement in the church, and nothing to distract us from hearing the Gospel with an attentiveness that expresses our love of the Gospel as the "precious pearl" worth more than anything else. An outer silence in the church will hopefully facilitate an inner stillness within our minds and hearts that honors the Gospel reading as the sharing of the "words of eternal life" on our behalf.

As a possible "test" to measure our actual attentiveness at a given Liturgy, we can ask ourselves later in the day - or perhaps even during the week! - what was the Gospel reading that I heard earlier in the Liturgy? 

An attentive listening of the Gospel would mean that we can identify the evangelist and, even more importantly, the prescribed text for the day.  And the same should hold true for the Epistle reading.  "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" 

If our ultimate goal is to live out the teachings of the Gospel beyond the initial hearing of the Gospel, then our awareness of the text, accompanied by a "burning of heart" will allow us to meditate upon a given passage with the goal in mind of actualizing the teaching heard in our daily lives.  How would any of this be possible if we forget the Gospel reading once we leave the church? (The homily is meant to support that process - but that may or may not happen!).

If we forget the Gospel reading, that means that we may have "attended" church, but that we were not "attentive" in church. To "be" there cannot be reduced to our bodily presence.

To further emphasize the great significance of the Gospel reading at the Liturgy, there is a wonderful prayer said by the celebrant before we actually get to the dialogue outlined and commented on above.  This prayer is placed immediately after the final alleluia verse following the Epistle reading.  And it prepares us for the ensuing dialogue. 

For this reason alone it is my humble opinion that this "prayer before the Gospel" must be chanted/read aloud by the celebrant of the Liturgy - the bishop or priest. That is the practice in our parish. Why should a prayer that embraces everyone present be read "silently" by the clergy alone?  

Though we have heard this prayer countless times, perhaps bringing it to mind here will be helpful.  For the attentive reader of the Scriptures, there are various scriptural passages that are gathered together, alluded to, or paraphrased in this prayer, a few of which will be pointed out:

Illumine our hearts (II COR. 4:6), O Master who lovest mankind, with the pure light (REV. 21:23-25) of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind (EPH. 1:18; LK. 24:45) to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down carnal desires (II PET. 2:10), we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living (I COR. 2:12), both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee (PHIL. 2:13). For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Obviously, a good deal is made of the Gospel Reading at each and every Liturgy. This is because the Gospel is "Good News" to be attentively listened to and obeyed. Familiarity may dull our appreciation of this, but we must always struggle against familiarity leading to spiritual laziness or inattentiveness.  When (over-) familiarity turns to boredom then we are facing a spiritual crisis of sorts.

Putting aside any such temptation, let us acknowledge how privileged and blessed we are to "stand aright" in church at the Liturgy and to hear the Holy Gospel.  "Let us attend!"

Monday, October 3, 2016

Cycles of the Orthodox Calendar (and why they matter)

Dear Parish Faithful,

I just received this notice from our former parishioner Nicole Roccas:

I wanted to pass this along to you, you may want to share it with people. It's an infographic I made about the cycles of the Orthodox year. It basically explains some of the early history of our calendar, and why this is beneficial for our faith. It's something I worked on over the summer.

Some of you may remember Nicole better by her maiden name of Lyon.  Nicole was part of our parish before marrying her husband Basil and moving to Toronto, Canada. (Nicole and Basil were first "betrothed" here in our parish, before their "crowning" in Toronto).  Nicole's first encounter with the Orthodox Church was in our parish, when she attended a Lenten retreat with Fr. Thomas Hopko as our guest speaker. Following that Retreat, she became an enthusiastic inquirer, and was eventually catechized and chrismated in our parish. There is more information about Nicole and her current work at her blog reached by the link below.

Her infographic is both fascinating and highly informative.  Please give it your attention, as it will prove to illuminate our liturgical year for you.  You are all familiar with my phrase "the battle of the calendars."  Here, then, is an excellent introduction to the Church calendar, a good balance if you are more familiar with the secular calendar.  The calendar is about time - we can almost say about the "mystery of time" - and how time is both "redeemed" and "sanctified" in the Church.  Thus, the Church calendar is not simply a succession of dates and commemorations, but a profound revelation of the meaning of time as it is now directed toward the Kingdom of God.

Cycles of the Orthodox calendar (and why they matter)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Delighting in God’s creation!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ.

I understand that today at 10:21 A.M.  EDT the Fall season will begin. From my personal—and, admittedly, “subjective”—perspective, there is nothing quite like the fall among the four seasons.  For me, one of this season’s greatest attraction is found in the flaming red, orange, yellow and golden leaves that transform familiar trees into a series of neighborhood “burning bushes,” each one seemingly brighter than the other.  When combined with a piercing blue sky on a sunlit day and a certain crispness in the air, I find myself more vividly aware of the surrounding world and thankful for God’s creation. 

On a somewhat more “philosophical note”—more apt to emerge, perhaps, on an overcast, windswept day—we may realize that this “colorful death” signals the fleeting nature of everything beautiful in this world, “for the form of this world is passing away” [1 Corinthians 7:31].  And yet this very beauty, and the sense of yearning that accompanies it, is a sign of the beauty ineffable of the coming Kingdom of God.

Growing up on a typical city block in Detroit, I distinctly recall a neighborhood “ritual” that marked this particular season:  the raking and burning of leaves that went on up and down the entire block once most of the leaves had spiraled and floated to the ground.  Everyone on the block raked the leaves down toward the street and into neatly formed mounds of color that rested alongside the curb.  Then they were lit and the task of raking now became that of tending and overseeing the piles of burning leaves.  This usually occurred after dinner for most families, but one could still see the shimmering waves of heat that protected one from the early evening chill and the ascending ashes rushing upward.  

Please momentarily forgive my politically incorrect indifference to the environment, but I thoroughly enjoyed those small bonfires near the curb as the pungent smell of burning leaves filled the air.  This unmistakable smell would, as I recall, linger in the air for a couple of weeks or more as different neighbors got to the task at different times. (“Playing with matches” and the simple fascination with fire was, of course, an added attraction for a young and curious boy.)

The entire scene embodied the wholesomeness of a 50’s first-grade reading primer, as “Mom” and “Dad,” together with “Dick” and “Jane” (and perhaps “Spot,” the frisky family dog) smilingly cooperated in this joint, familial enterprise.  The reading primer would reformulate this “celebration” of healthy work and a neatly ordered environment into a staccato of minimally complex sentences:  “See Dad rake;” “Dick and Jane are raking too;” “Here comes mom!”  (“Mom,” of course, would invariably be wearing a pretty dress, and “Jane” a skirt, during this outdoor activity).  This all served to increase the budding student’s vocabulary while reinforcing a picture of an idealized—if not idyllic—American way of life.  

Since my parents were peasants from a Macedonian village, we never quite fit into that particular mode—especially when my mother would speak to me in Macedonian in front of my friends!  And yet I distinctly remember teaching my illiterate mother to read from those very “Dick and Jane” primers so that she could obtain her American citizenship papers, which she proudly accomplished in due time.

Before getting too nostalgic, however, I will remind you that all of this, for me at least, was taking place at the height of Cold War anxiety and another clear memory from my youth:  the air-raid drills in our schools that were meant to prepare us and protect us from a Soviet nuclear strike.  (Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding exhibition at the United Nations, together with his ominous “We will bury you!” captured the whole mood of this period.) These carefully-executed air-raid drills were carried out with due solemnity and seriousness—lines straight and no talking allowed!  We would wind our way down into a fairly elaborate—if not labyrinthine—series of basement levels that were seemingly constructed, and thus burdened, with the hopeless task of saving us from nuclear bombs!  We would then sit in neatly formed rows monitored by our teachers, and apparently oblivious to the real dangers of the Cold War world, until the “all clear” signal was given, allowing us to file back to our classrooms.  Thus did the specter of the mushroom cloud darken the sunny skies of “Dick” and “Jane’s” age of innocence.

I must acknowledge that my short nostalgic digression does not offer a great deal for reflection.  So as not to entirely frustrate that purpose—and because I began with some brief reflections on the created world—I would like to offer some of the wonderful praises of the beauty of the world around us from the remarkable Akathistos Hymn, “Glory to God for All Things.”  

This hymn, which has become quite popular in many Orthodox parishes, was said to have been composed by an Orthodox priest when he was slowly perishing in a Soviet prison camp in 1940.  In unscientific, yet theological-poetic imagery, he reminds us of what we are often blind to:  God’s glorious creation.  Would he have “missed” all of this if his life was as free as ours are to be preoccupied with daily concerns and cares that leave no time or room to look around in wonder?

“O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest.  Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds.  All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness.  Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love.  Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever.  In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry:  Alleluia!” [Kontakion 2].

“You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise.  We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing.  We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams.  We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey.  We can live very well on Your earth.  It is a pleasure to be Your guest” [Ikos 2].

“I see Your heavens resplendent with stars.  How glorious You are, radiant with light!  Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars.  I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side.  Your right arm guides me wherever I go” [Ikos 5].

Brings to mind Dostoevsky’s enigmatic phrase:  “Beauty will save the world.”