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.