Monday, January 25, 2016

The Christian Revolution

Dear Parish Faithful,
During the homily yesterday, I referred to a remarkable passage out of a remarkable book by the Orthodox philosopher/theologian David Bentley Hart.  He was explaining the over-all purpose of his  book Atheist Delusions - The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies and in the process produced a powerful paragraph about the revolutionary nature of the Christian Gospel as it pervaded the Graeco-Roman world of the first century A.D. and then beyond.  This is what we now refer to as late antiquity.  

Living in our own contemporary world, we can be unaware of the radical reassessment of reality offered by the Gospel. All I could do was offer a brief and inadequate summary of Bentley Hart's thesis yesterday.  So, I thought to share this part of the book's Introduction with this packed paragraph which, in its own way "speaks volumes."

The Christian “Revolution”
By David Bentley Hart

This book chiefly – or at least centrally – concerns the history of the early church, of roughly the first four centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of late antiquity. My chief ambition in writing is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting: 
how enormous a transformation Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power; its ability to create moral communities where none had existed before; and its elevation  of active charity above all other virtues. 
Stated in its most elementary and most buoyantly positive form, my argument is, first of all, that among all the many great transitions that have marked the evolution of Western civilization, whether convulsive or gradual, political or philosophical, social or scientific, material or spiritual, there has been only one – the triumph of Christianity – that can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution:” a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s  prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good. 
To my mind, I should add, it was an event immeasurably more impressive in its cultural creativity and more ennobling in its moral power than any other movement of spirit, will, imagination, inspiration or accomplishment than any other movement in the history of the West.  And I am convinced that, given how radically at variance Christianity was with the culture it slowly and relentlessly displaced, its eventual victory was an event of such implausibility as to strain the very limits of our understanding of  historical causality.

Atheist Delusions, p. x-xi

Friday, January 22, 2016

Life: “The most sublime expression of God’s creative activity”

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Friday, January 22, 2016 marks the 43rd Anniversary of the infamous Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973 that effectively legalized unrestricted access to abortion in the United States of America.  Despite reports of impending ominous weather, tens of thousands of people of faith—including many Orthodox Christians—will march in the nation’s capital to express our strong disagreement with such a law, thus providing us with a glaring and painful example of finding something morally and ethically unacceptable, though it is “legal.”

Our “peaceful protests”—violent protests by “pro-life” advocates are hardly justifiable—afford us the opportunity to remind ourselves of the Church’s ancient rejection of abortion.  As the Church began to expand in its initial period of growth, in came into contact and conflict with the Roman Empire and the proliferation of beliefs and practices that characterized the Empire’s prevailing culture.  As the “superpower” of its day, the Empire imposed itself both militarily and culturally on its far-flung territories and inhabitants.  Both abortion and infanticide were widespread practices, hardly challenged, I believe, for the most part.  An early formulation of Christian resistance to these practices can be found in the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a document that dates back to the early second century, in which we read,

“Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt children; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant” [II, 2].

In the fourth century, Saint Basil the Great wrote the following:

“Those who give potions for the destruction of the child conceived in the womb are murderers, as are those who take potions which kill the child” [Letter 188, Canon 8].  

Saint Basil clearly does not apply all of the responsibility for this decision upon the mother of the child, but includes those who provide the “service.”  In today’s world, one can only imagine the enormous pressure placed upon a young and vulnerable woman to “terminate” an “unwanted pregnancy” by those around her, including her “medical advisors.”  The pressure increases with the psychological assurance that what is legal cannot be wrong—though one’s maternal intuitions and instincts may be offering an internal protest of a different nature.

It is essential to offer a positive response rather than simply rejecting abortion as immoral, though our very human instincts make such a rejection perfectly natural.  As Christians, we must continue to affirm the sacred gift of life within the context of what some have gone so far as to name a “culture of death”—in my opinion, not an unfair characterization.  I find such an affirmation at the very beginning of Father John Breck’s wonderful book, The Sacred Gift of Life, as he embarks on a theological, bioethical and pastoral articulation of what the Church has proclaimed “from the beginning”—the victory of life over death in Christ.

“Orthodox Christianity affirms that life is a gift, freely bestowed by the God of love,” Father John writes.  “Human life, therefore,
"is to be received and welcomed with an attitude of joy and thanksgiving.  It is to be cherished, preserved and protected as the most sublime expression of God’s creative activity.  God has brought us ‘from non-being into being’ for more than mere biological existence.  He has chosen us for Life, of which the ultimate end is participation in the eternal glory of the Risen Christ, ‘in the inheritance of the saints in light’” [Colossians 1:12; Ephesians 1:18].

We cannot simply be content with denouncing abortion as a evil practice, true as that may be.  We must actively seek to alleviate the conditions of those tempted into such a decision because of their harsh environments or marginalized social status.  Compassion—more than judgment—can be a much more effective response to a deeply troubling practice that wounds the sensibility and soul of any Christian who is aware of the God of life, Who has granted us life abundantly in Christ Jesus.

Currently, every sign indicates that the practice of abortion is here to stay in our secularized society that is experiencing a kind of moral/ethical  erosion produced by an ever-expanding moral relativism. (And this moral relativism has elevated "choice" to almost sacred status; while "life" suffers debasement as it is divorced from faith in God). 

I am not hearing any presidential candidate publicly speak against abortion, regardless of his/her party's platform or personal position.  Why risk undermining one's popularity over a "dead issue?" This can be discouraging.  However, a sense of vigilance and discernment should never be far from our minds, directing us to the theological, moral and ethical themes that are irreducible to pragmatic or utilitarian concerns.  If "human life" is ... "the most sublime expression of God's creative activity," then that is the only Christian "choice" to make.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Threefold Path of Ascent to God

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to our ecclesiastical calendar, every year on January 17 – this past Sunday most currently - we commemorate one of the truly extraordinary saints of the Church; and one whose impact on the Church’s historical and spiritual development can hardly be over-estimated. And that would be St. Anthony the Great (+356) who is universally proclaimed as the “Father of monasticism.”

St. Anthony withdrew from the world to seek the Kingdom of God with an intensity and focus that was humanly speaking, practically “impossible,” but as the Lord said, “with God all things are possible” (MATT. 19:26).  He was inspired toward this act of radical withdrawal when he heard the words of the Lord in church one Sunday: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (MATT. 19:21).  After many years of prayer, fasting and vigil in the desert — during which he had to battle countless demons — St. Anthony learned that whatever he “accomplished” in the ascetic life was made possible by the grace of God. His Life became one of the most widely-read and influential books of the Church in late antiquity, the reading of which was instrumental in the spiritual development of Blessed Augustine of Hippo (+430); and has maintained its powerful attraction to this day. Perhaps the fact that it was written by St. Athanasius the Great (+373) has a great deal to do with that.

Some of St. Anthony’s most memorable “sayings” have been recorded and thus preserved throughout the centuries, so that his ancient wisdom can guide us to this day, whether we are married, celibate or a monastic. In the Alphabetical Collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we hear his voice reaching to us from the 4th c. desert of Egypt with a timeless wisdom:

“This is the great work of a man: always to take blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.” (4)

If that produces a sense of discouragement or anxiety, St. Anthony further taught the “positive” side of this insight:

“Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He even added: “Without temptation no-one can be saved.” (5)

He also said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” (9)

The desert became the arena of the spiritual struggle of ascending toward God. In fact, there eventually emerged over time a “threefold path of ascent” that profoundly outlined the course of outward action and inner activity that would lead a human person toward God. This is usually attributed to Evagrios of Pontus, whose works survive under the name of Neilos the Solitary. He has been called the great “psychologist of the desert” based on his insights into the working of the spirit in fighting off temptation and drawing closer to God in prayer.

At this point, I would like to introduce the work of one of my excellent students from my recently-completed Fall semester at XU. She had to analyze the threefold path of ascent as handed down from Evagrios in its three aspects of 1) praktiki; 2) physiki; and 3) theologia. Her answers were extremely well-done, and reflected a sound assimilation of the ideas expressed, rather than a simple rote memorization. It is always encouraging to witness quality work at the end of the semester, and I would like to share that with you:

Praktiki: “Praktiki” is the first part of the “Threefold Path of Spiritual Ascent” prescribed by Evagrius of Pontus. It refers to the practice of virtues and the practical application of spirituality in one’s daily life. It involves a constant “warfare against the passions” in order to acquire virtues and purify the heart. This stage of one’s spiritual journey is often referred to as the “active life,” and must begin with repentance, culminating in a purification of the passions. This purification is made manifest and leads to what Evagrius calls “apatheia,” the “gateway to love.” “Apatheia” involves spiritual freedom; in such a state one no longer yields to temptation. 

Physiki: “Physiki” is the second stage of Evagrius’ threefold path. This is referred to as “natural contemplation.” It is important to note that this part of the path does not necessarily follow praktiki; it may occur simultaneously. “Physiki” involves a way of looking at the world that sees it as it truly is; as God made it to be. In this way, it is a way of seeing God through nature, or even seeing nature through God. In turn, one can come to better understand oneself and one’s essence as a human being through contemplating and understanding God’s uncreated energies and how he manifests them in nature. An understanding of the “logos” or “word” is essential to physiki, as it forms the inner essence of all created things.

Theologia: “Theologia” refers to the contemplation of God. Prayer is the primary way to practice such contemplation. The two main types of prayer, liturgical prayer and personal prayer, are both essential to deepening one’s understanding of God. In both types of prayer, one’s goal should be to achieve “hesychia,” (inner stillness) or undistracted prayer. Liturgical prayer is a communal experience in which people gather to pray in communion with one another, usually engaging in oral, or spoken prayer. Personal prayer involves private contemplation and meditation. There are many different ways to pray. One type of prayer that is especially popular in the Orthodox Church is monologic prayer, which involves focusing one’s prayer on a single word or phrase.

Well-done indeed!  This is an essential part of our Tradition that all Orthodox Christians need to be aware of.

But now comes the truly hard part: Doing our utmost to put such a profound teaching into the practice of our daily lives at least on a level that would lift us up ever so slightly toward God!

Friday, January 15, 2016

More Wisdom on Prayer...

Dear Parish Faithful,
From the book Wisdom of the Divine Philosophers, here are some words about prayer from the Holy Fathers and saints of the Church:

"As our body cannot live without breathing, so our soul cannot keep alive without knowing the Creator; for the ignorance of God is the death of the soul."  ~ St. Basil the Great

"Exhort yourself, force yourself, to prayer and every good work, however contrary be your inclination.  As a lazy horse, driven by a whip, is compelled by man to walk and to trot, even so must we coerce ourselves into performing every kind of labor, and how much more, to pray. God, beholding your efforts and your labor, will grant you zeal and inclination.  Habit of itself creates the inclination, and, it might be said, attracts us toward prayer and good deeds."  ~ St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

"Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God.  But pray as you have been taught, saying:  Thy will be done in me (LK. 22:42).  Always entreat Him in this way that His will be done.  For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this."  ~ Evagrios the Solitary

"Prayers at home are an introduction, a preparation for prayers in Church.  Thus he who is not accustomed to pray at home can seldom pray diligently in Church. Experience bears witness to this: anyone can observe it for himself."  ~ St. John of Kronstadt

'Prayer... Encounter with the Living God'

Dear Parish Faithful,
I am now in possession of what appears to be a wonderful and wonderfully helpful book by one of today's most prominent and exciting new theologians:  Metropolitan Ilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church.  This new book has just been published by SVS Press.

This little book is the "perfect" starting point for anyone looking for some deep and practical insights into the "art of prayer."  It is a gift when a profound theologian can condense his vast knowledge and hopefully his personal experience of God in an extremely accessible and readable version that is meant for just about anyone who is a serious practicing Christian, but who may feel that there is something elusive and difficult about establishing a meaningful, consistent and effective prayer life.  His Eminence manages to say a great deal in a very limited amount of space, so every sentence is important and deserving of careful thought and reflection. 

As Met. Ilarion writes in the opening paragraph of the book:
Prayer is an encounter with the living God.  Christianity gives man direct access to God, who listens to man, helps him, and loves him. This is the fundamental difference between Christianity and, for example, Buddhism, in which during meditation the one praying deals with a certain impersonal super-being, in which he is immersed and in which he is dissolved, but he does not feel God as a living Person.  In Christian prayer, man feels the presence of the Living God.

And he writes elsewhere:
God does not need words; He needs men's hearts.  Words are secondary; of paramount importance are the feelings and dispositions with which we approach God.

I am sure that we will eventually obtain some copies for our parish bookstore.  Please speak with Nancy Farison if you would like to pre-order or reserve a copy.

Monday, January 11, 2016

'One Baptism for the remission of sins...'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins” [Nicene Creed]

The Great Feast of Theophany is more ancient that that of Christ’s Nativity.  In fact, it was precisely on January 6 that the Church first celebrated Christ’s birth (and the adoration of the Magi), together with His baptism in the Jordan.  These events—of the greatest significance not only in the life of Christ but in the “economy” of our salvation—were united in one celebration known as “Theophany,” which means “manifestation of God.”  (The Feast is also referred to as “Epiphany,” which simply means “manifestation.”)  In His Nativity and in His Baptism, Christ is “manifested,” or “revealed,” to the world as the Light of the world in order to dispel the darkness of ignorance and spiritual blindness which are the direct result of sin.  This Feast of Theophany is also referred to as the “Feast of Lights.”  It was in the fourth century that we began to celebrate our Lord’s Nativity (and the adoration of the Magi) as a separate and unique event on December 25, while January 6 remained as the Feast of Theophany, on which Christ’s Baptism was commemorated.

Why did the Feast of January 6 retain the title “Theophany/Epiphany” instead of December 25, when the manifestation of the eternal Light was first revealed in His Nativity in the flesh?  Saint John Chrysostom writes that it is “because it was not when He was born that He became manifest to all, but when He was baptized; for up to this day He was unknown to the majority.”

But not only was the Lord Jesus revealed to the world as He began His public ministry with His Baptism in the Jordan at the hands of Saint John the Baptist.  The Holy Trinity was manifested, for the “voice of the Father” bore witness to His beloved Son, and the Spirit, “in the form of a dove,” descended and rested upon the Son.  The Trinitarian nature of God was manifested when Christ came to the Jordan to be baptized.  Paraphrasing St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the Father anoints, the Son is anointed, and the Holy Spirit is the ointment.

Yet, if Baptism is for the “remission of sins,” then why is Christ baptized, for He is without sin [1 Peter 2:22; Hebrews 4:15]?  The liturgical texts repeatedly ask and answer this question for us in the following manner: “Though as God He needs no cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan,” and “As a man He is cleansed, that I may be made clean.”  Christ is representative of all humanity.  He is baptized for our sake.  It is we who are cleansed and regenerated when He descends into the waters of the Jordan.

For with Christ, and in Christ, our human nature—the human nature He assumed in all of its fullness in the Incarnation—descends into the cleansing and purifying waters of the Jordan (anticipating sacramental Baptism), so that the very same human nature may ascend out of the waters renewed, restored and recreated.  As the New and Last Adam, He “sums up” all of us in Himself—for this reason He became man.  The Spirit descends and rests upon Christ, so that our humanity may be anointed in Him.  Saint Athanasios the Great writes, “when He is anointed… we it is who in Him are anointed….  When He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized.”  Every Baptism is an “extension of” and a “participation in” the one, unique Baptism of Christ; just as every Eucharist is an “extension of” and a “participation in” the one, unique Mystical Supper.  Actually, all of creation participates and is sanctified by the manifestation of God’s Son in the flesh: “At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heavens enlightened.”

We die to sin in Baptism and are raised to new life—for this reason the baptismal font is both tomb and womb, as Saint Cyril of Jerusalem tells us.  Our pre- and post-baptismal lives must manifest some real change, according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa (+395).  In fact, I would like to append a few paragraphs from some of Saint Gregory’s writings about Baptism from his Great Catechism in order to allow him to describe the meaning of that need for change.  Saint Gregory wrote in the fourth century—a time when he could presuppose adult baptism as the norm—but we can apply his teaching to our own consciousness of being Christians as we grow up in the Faith following “infant Baptism.”

Saint Gregory writes:

When discussing Baptism and spiritual birth, we have to consider what happens to our life following Baptism.  This is a point which many of those who approach the grace of Baptism neglect; they delude themselves by being born in appearance only and not in reality.  For through birth from above, our life is supposed to undergo a change.  But if we continue in our present sinful state, then there is really no change in us.  Indeed, I do not see how a man who continues to be the same can be considered to have become different when there is no noticeable change in him…. 
Now the physically born child certainly shares his parents’ nature.  If you have been born of God and have become His child, then let your way of life testify to the presence of God within you.  Make it clear Who your Father is!  For the very attributes by which we recognize God are the very marks by which a child of His must reveal His relationship with God.  ‘God is goodness and there is no unrighteousness in Him…  The Lord is gracious to all…  He loves His enemies…  He is merciful and forgives transgressions.’  These and many other characteristics revealed by the Scripture are what make a Godly life…
If you are like this and you embody the Spirit of God, then you have genuinely become a child of God, but if you persist in displaying evil, then it is useless to prattle to yourself and to others about your birth from above.  You are still merely a son of man, not a son of that Most High God!  You love lies and vanity, and you are still immersed in the corruptible things of this world.  Don’t you know in what way a man becomes a child of God?  Why, in no other way than by becoming holy!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Let Us Receive 'The Blessing of the Jordan'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men ... awaiting our blessed hope, the appearance of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ ..."  (Titus 2:11-13)

To use its full title, yesterday evening we celebrated THE THEOPHANY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, a title that we usually summarize as "Theophany" (sometimes "Epiphany").  With just about sixty(!) worshippers in the church for the Feast, we can then truly say that our communal celebration was festal.  Truly, an excellent beginning to the New Year.  The Theophany commemorated on January 6, is actually the original date on which the Lord's Nativity was observed, together with the Visitation of the Magi, and the Baptism of Christ.  This nexus of events are distinct "theophanies," or "manifestations of God" to the world, each of which reveals the presence of Christ as a light illuminating the world, as well as being the long-awaited Messiah and Savior.  It was in the 4th c. that our current Christmas day of December 25 was established slowly throughout the Christian world.  The Nativity of Christ was a more hidden theophany; while the Baptism was more open in nature.

From the appointed Epistle reading of the Feast, TIT. 2:11-14, 3:4-7, we learn of two "appearances" (the Gk. word is epiphania) of Christ:  basically His Incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, and His Parousia, or Second Coming.  Thus, the first appearance was in the past; while the second will be in the future. The first appearance was in humility; the second will be in glory. We live in the present, between these two appearances. We commemorate the one, and await the other. And our mode of life should reflect the fact that we have been baptized "into Christ."  

In his Epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul refers to this baptism as "the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" (3:5).  The purpose of this baptism was "so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life" (3:7).  The appearance of the grace of God and the grace that we receive in Baptism is "training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world" (2:12).  Baptism essentially allows us - by the grace of God - to transcend our biological mode of existence; so that we are now open-ended beings capable of transformation by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Although subject to our biological condition, we are not enslaved to it, with "no exit" in sight. That is a potential gift unique to human beings.

At the Third Royal Hour for Theophany, we heard a beautiful passage from the Prophet Isaiah, who anticipated the transforming power of Baptism and the mode of life that would accompany it:

Thus says the Lord: "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless; plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:  though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool."

The Baptism of the Lord is directly related to our own personal baptism.  This was prophetically delivered to Israel; anticipated by John's baptism in the River Jordan for the "remission of sins;" and now actualized in the Church each and every time that a person - infant, child, adolescent, adult - "puts on Christ" in the sanctified waters of the baptismal font. The Feast of Theophany brings that to life for us as we now, as then, receive the "blessing of the Jordan."

The Leavetaking of Theophany is not until January 14. That means that we continue to celebrate the Feast this Sunday at the Liturgy.  We will again have the Great Blessing of Water immediately following the Liturgy with our Church School present.