Wednesday, May 24, 2017

'Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Thirty-Ninth (and final) Day

'Did not our hearts burn within us...' (LK 24:32)

Today we say farewell to the paschal season as we have reached the thirty-ninth day, with tomorrow's fortieth day being the great feast of the Ascension of Christ. This year, in a series of homilies, I have tried to keep us focused on the Risen Christ and His appearances to His female and male disciples as found recorded in the Four Gospels. 

Below, I have shared a few further passages on the Resurrection beginning with the great Byzantine mystic, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and then followed by some of our most prominent contemporary Orthodox voices. Each witnesses to the same Risen Lord, but each with a particular point of view that reveals the inexhaustible mystery of Christ's victory over death. 

It is now time to celebrate the glorification of Christ at the right hand of the Father in the feast of the Ascension.  We will serve Great Vespers this evening (May 24) at 7:00 p.m. and the Divine Liturgy on Thursday morning, May 25 at 9:30 a.m.


"That most sacred formula which is daily on our lips does not say, "Having believed in the Resurrection of Christ," but, "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One." How then does the Holy Spirit urge us to say, "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ," which we have not seen, as though we had seen it, when Christ has risen once for all a thousand years ago, and when even then without anybody's seeing it?  Surely Holy Scripture does not wish us to lie?  

"Far from it! Rather, it urges us to speak the truth, that the resurrection of Christ takes place in each of us who believes, and that not once, but every hour, so to speak, when Christ the Master arises in us, resplendent in array and flashing with the lightnings of incorruption and Deity... 

"Those to whom Christ has given light as He has risen, to them He has appeared spiritually. He has been shown to their spiritual eyes. When this happens to us through the Spirit He raises us up from the dead and gives us life. He grants us to see Him, who is immortal and indestructible. More than that, He grants clearly to know Him who raises us up (EPH. 2:6) and glorifies us (ROM. 8:17) with Himself, as all the divine Scripture testifies."

St. Symeon the New Theologian (+1022) from Discourse Eleven - Of Christ's Resurrection


"Christ's resurrection was such an indisputable fact for early Christians and there was such a deep meaning associated with this event, that the Apostle Paul could, without hesitation, say to the addressees of his epistles: 'If Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain' (I COR. 15:14).

"The whole apostolic preaching was built on the witness of Christ's resurrection - a witness that was so surprising that the apostles said concerning it: 'We have seen with our eyes', that 'which we have looked upon and our hands have handled' (I JN. 1:1).

"And though not one of the apostles saw the very moment of Christ's Resurrection, they all saw the risen Christ, who repeatedly appeared to them, strengthening them in faith. Even those who did not see the risen Christ with their physical eyes, like the Apostle Paul and all the subsequent generations of Christians, for instance, saw his resurrection with the eyes of the soul, and their confidence in Christ's resurrection was as strong as that of the apostles."

Metropolitan Ilarion Alfeyev from Vol. II of Orthodox Christianity - Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church

"Christ's resurrection is the greatest event in history. It is a matter of deification and resurrection of the human nature and of a hope for deification and resurrection of our own person.  

"Since the medicine has been found, there is hope of life.  Through Christ's Resurrection both life and death acquire another meaning.  We do not regard as life the whole of the events of history, but communion with God. And we do not regard as death the end of the present life, but the human person's withdrawal from Christ, while separation of the soul and body is not death, but a temporary sleep.  

"The Apostle Paul, precisely because he feels united with the Risen Christ, can confess:  'For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, not things present not things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord'."

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos from The Feast of the Lord


"Dead once for all on the Cross, outside the walls of Jerusalem, and resurrected on the third day after His burial, Christ continues to die and to rise, mystically,  mysteriously, until the end of the age, in each person whose nature He has assumed.  

"Before the scandal and the horror of death - of all the daily deaths such as sickness, hatred, injustice, the destruction of our natural environment, physical and psychic disorders - the Resurrection of Christ traces a path of light. It produces an abundant flow of life in the midst of death, it transforms death into a "passage" (Pascha). 

"The Paschal mystery is an invitation to keep our lamps lit (LK. 12:35). It introduces us to another aeon, which is a new dimension, the anticipation of the world to come, the Kingdom already secretly present among us."

Michael Quenot from The Resurrection and the Icon

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Paschal Reminiscences

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


While preparing for the priesthood, I was ordained as a deacon of the Church for my last three months at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in New York (1981).  I was thus able to serve together with Frs. Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Thomas Hopko, as well as with others in the "old chapel" during that brief period of time. That alone remains a memorable experience.  

This also meant that I was able to serve as a deacon during Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha of my final year at St. Vladimir's. In the late morning of Pascha Sunday, Presvytera and I arrived early as we were gathering at the chapel for the Paschal Vespers, served an noon. 

As we began to socialize a bit before the service, I found myself standing on the porch of the chapel and looking out and absorbing this wonderful day and the setting of the chapel amidst an array of colorful flowers and teeming bushes.  The day was calm and mild and the sun was shining brightly.  The exhaustion of the previous Holy Week and the long paschal Liturgy earlier that morning seemed to momentarily disappear. Fr. Schmemann then joined me on the porch, dressed in his white paschal cassock, and also clearly enjoying this "perfect day."  

After a bit of silence he said something to me that has always stayed with me. Now, for some reason, there were times when he would not call me by my first name, but would address me in his French-Russian accented way as "Kostoff."  And this was meant in a friendly, not a formal way. So, on this occasion, he leaned over and said, "Kostoff, it is a day like today that makes life meaningful." 

This was a typical example of Fr. Schmemann's use of understatement. He thoroughly disliked pious rhetoric, long-winded theological conversations - "teaching God" he would bitingly say -  and he was equally impatient with sentimentality.

Thus, all he needed to say was that this beautiful Pascha Sunday made life meaningful. These words were about Christ and His victory over death in His Resurrection. That is what makes life meaningful. We had just completed our annual celebration of that life-creating victory, culminating hours earlier in the joyous midnight Paschal Liturgy which we served together. The beauty of the day simply further enhanced the life-changing meaning of the Resurrection of Christ. 

Fr. Schmemann was a  thorough realist. He harbored no illusions about the destructive power of sin and the tragedy of history and life filled with sin. And, of course, there is death itself, overshadowing and undermining our quest for the "meaning of life." Fr. Schmemann was thus implying that without Christ's victory over sin and death, one is hard-pressed to find ultimate meaning in life. Or that all such attempts pale before the tangible reality of the Risen Christ.  That is how I understood his words, that "it is a day like today that makes life meaningful." 

I like to think that it was our shared "worldview" and our joint membership in the Church, that instantly revealed to me what he was conveying to me with this understated remark that came to him naturally.  There was no need to "spell it out." It was a shared understanding. I do not recall how I responded, if I did at all. I am hoping that I simply nodded my head in agreement without trying to respond with something clever. Why spoil the moment!  

We were eventually joined by a host of other priests and deacons (one of whom was Fr. John Meyendorff, the brilliant Church historian and Patristics scholar), and someone then offered to take a group photo of us all in front of the "old chapel." I have this photo to this day and at times look at it fondly and nostalgically.  By the following year, after I had graduated, the new chapel was in place.

To add another reminiscence from that same celebration of Pascha, I would share that during the earlier midnight Liturgy, while we were in the sanctuary, Fr. Schmemann leaned over and said to me, "Kostoff, a logical positivist could never understand all of this." Interesting comment in the middle of the Liturgy! 

For Fr. Schmemann a "logical positivist" would have a truncated understanding of life, for the very reason that he was trying to understand everything through the categories of logical thought. Yet life, in all of its manifestations and beauty - as well as in its imperfections and irrationality - is far greater than logic. (The personal tragedy of placing logic above life was one of the major themes pursued by Dostoevsky with great penetration in his later novels). At least that is how Fr. Schmemann would see things, and I would fully agree with him. It is hard to work God into the structure of thought pursued by the logical positivist. Thus, the Christian revelation remains foreign, if not incoherent, to such a way of thinking. I am sure that that was implied in Fr. Schmemann's quick aside to me in the sanctuary. But I believe that there was more.

The Paschal Liturgy, as the culmination of the long and emotionally-draining experience of Holy Week, is something like an "explosion of joy." There is something "child-like" in all of the movement and singing: the procession, the initial proclamation that "Christ is Risen!" followed by the joyous singing of the paschal canon, of "Let God Arise," and "The Angel Cried." The paschal services have meaningful structure, but formality and stuffy solemnity are abandoned in the light of joyously acknowledging and experiencing the presence of the Risen Lord. 

In all of this we transcend the merely logical; not that what we are doing is "illogical" but the experience of paschal joy carries us to another level of reality. It was this paschal joy that I believe Fr. Schmemann was saying escapes the more narrow confines of the 'logical positivist." And I am glad that he shared another memorable thought with me at that very moment! 

He realized that what we were doing would seem like foolishness to others, but that is besides the point. Without such joy Christianity is reduced to moral prescriptions and proscriptions. In fact, Fr. Schmemann would often quote the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who would reproach Christians for having no joy, in order to make the point that a joyless Christianity was a contradiction in terms and unworthy of the attention of others.

It was quite an experience to be around Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and I hope that you will enjoy these shared paschal reminiscences that have stayed with me through the years of my priestly ministry.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Probing Question of Christ: 'Do You Want to be Healed?'

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,


When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (JN 5:6)

In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John we find the account of the healing of the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and the profound discourse that follows. Archeologists have fairly recently discovered this pool, demonstrating the accuracy of Saint John’s description. This passage, of course, is always read on the Fourth Sunday of Pascha.

The paralytic had taken his place among a human throng of chronic misery, described by the evangelist as “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed” [verse 3].  Being there for 38 years and not being able to experience what were believed to be the healing capacities of the waters of the pool, the paralytic seemed resigned to his destiny.

Then Jesus appeared.  He saw the paralytic and He knew of his plight.  And then Jesus asked the paralytic a very pointed and even poignant question: “Do you want to be healed?” [verse 6].

Surprisingly, considering what must have been his own misery, the paralytic’s answer was less than direct and not exactly enthusiastic: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me” [verse 7].

Nevertheless, and even though the paralytic does not commit himself to an act of faith in the healing power of Jesus, he receives the following directive from Jesus: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  And then, in that somewhat laconic style of describing the healing power of Christ that characterizes the Gospel accounts, we read simply, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked” [verse 9].  The “sign” is that Christ can restore wholeness to those in need.

I believe that we need to concentrate on the question Jesus posed to the paralytic, “Do you want to be healed?”  (The King James version of the question is:  “Wilt thou be made whole?”)  For, if the various characters that Jesus encountered in the Gospels are also representatives or “types” of a particular human condition, dilemma, or state of being, then the question of Jesus remains alive in each generation and is thus posed to each of us today.

If sin is a sickness, then we are “paralyzed” by that sin to one degree or another of intensity.  But do we really want to be healed of the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives?

The answer seems obvious, even a “no-brainer,” but is that truly the case?  Or, are we more-or-less content with continuing as we are, satisfied that perhaps this is “as good as it gets” in terms of our relationship with God and our neighbors? 

Do we manage to politely deflect the probing question of Christ elsewhere, counter-posing a reasonable excuse as to what prevents us from exerting the necessary energy from our side?  Our teaching claims that we must also contribute to the synergistic process of divine grace and human freedom that works together harmoniously for our healing.

Perhaps it is easier and more comfortable to stay as we are – after all, it’s really not that bad - a position reflected in the non-committal response of the paralytic.  For to be further healed of sin will mean that we will have to make some changes in our life, in our interior attitudes and in our relationships.  It certainly means that we will have to confess our faith in Christ with a greater intensity, urgency and commitment.  Are we up to that challenge?

Actually, we could more accurately say that we have already been healed.  That happened when we were baptized into Christ.  (There are baptismal allusions in the healing of the paralytic by the pool of water).

Every human person is paralyzed by the consequences of sin, distorting the image of God in which we were initially created.  Baptism was meant to put to death the sin that is within us.  We were healed, in that baptism is the pledge to life everlasting, where death itself is swallowed up in the victory of Christ over death.  For we are baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

So, with a slight variation, the question of Christ could also imply: Do you rejoice in the fact that you have been healed, and does your way of life reflect the faith and joy that that great healing from sin and death has imparted to you?  Are you willing to continue in the struggle that is necessary to keep that healing “alive” within you?

Direct and simple questions can get complicated, often by the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives.  We can then get confused as to how to respond to such essential questions.  Every time we walk into the church we are being asked by Christ, “Do you want to be healed?”  Responding with a resounding “yes!” would be a “sign” of the faith, hope and love that are within us by the grace of God.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Shuddering Awe

Dear Parish Faithful,


I have attached a "meditation of old" (2009!) entitled "A Shuddering Awe."  This is, of course, a description of the Myrrhbearing Women as they "fled" from the empty tomb after making that discovery and after being "evangelized" by the angel from within the tomb.  What does a "shuddering awe" have to do with us today?  The meditation makes an attempt to deal with that question.

A Shuddering Awe

In the Gospel According to St. Mark, we hear of the discovery of the empty tomb by the myrrhbearing women "very early on the first day of the week" (16:1). This would be the day after the Sabbath, or our Sunday - the "Lord's Day." 

Since that astonishing morning until this day, Sunday is the most prominent day of worship for Christians, for it was on this day that the resurrection of the Lord was made manifest to the world. And that manifestation was first made to the group of women disciples we know collectively as "the myrrhbearers."

St. Mark specifically mentions "Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome" who "bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him" (16:1). These loyal and loving women had come, somewhat counter-intuitively, to anoint the body of the dead Jesus, though they were aware of the large stone that had been rolled "against the door of the tomb" (15:46). 

Or, perhaps it was a deeper intuition that brought them to the tomb in the hope that they could fulfill their ministry to the Lord. St. Mark narrates: "And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen" (16:2). The "risen sun" is certainly a wonderful anticipation of what the women were soon to discover. Yet, having arrived at the tomb where Jesus had been laid, "looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; for it was very large" (16:4).

The myrrhbearing women will now enter an empty tomb. Indeed, why was it empty? The empty tomb needed interpretation, or the women would be lost in distressful and fruitless speculation. 

The interpretation of the empty tomb will simultaneously be the proclamation of the "Good News." The interpreter and proclaimer will be "a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe" (16:5), clearly an angel. And that means that which he proclaims will be a divine revelation. 

In his presence, the women "were amazed" (16:5). The strength of the Gk. word for "amazed" (used only here in the entire NT by St. Mark) has been further translated as "a strong feeling of awe and agitation in the face of the numinous" (D. E. Nineham), or even a "shuddering awe." (A. E. J. Rawlinson). 

It is at this point in the dramatic narrative that we hear the "Good News" referred to above: 

"And he said to them 'Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him'." (16:6) 

The tomb is empty because Jesus had been raised from the dead! It was the will of God, that the women have the privilege of discovering this. In the words of Peter Chrysologus:

He did not roll back the stone to provide a way of escape for the Lord but to show the world that the Lord had already risen. He rolled back the stone to help his fellow servants believe, not to help the Lord rise from the dead. He rolled the stone for the sake of faith, because it had been rolled over the tomb for the sake of unbelief. He rolled back the stone so that he who took death captive might hold the title of Life.  —SERMON 75.4

This is a bodily resurrection, and not in some vague spiritual or "metaphorical" sense. Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified and buried, had been raised. The "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith" are one and the same. The resurrection reveals an awesome transformation, but it is Jesus of Nazareth who is transformed, thus assuring the continuity that is essential to reveal the victory over death that occurs in the resurrection.

The myrrhbearers then hear a further revelation from the angel: "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you" (16:7). This is in fulfillment of Christ's earlier words: "But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee" (14:28). The Gospel According to St. Matthew will record such an appearance of the Risen Lord to His disciples in Galilee (MATT. 28:16-20). 

Then the women, apparently in that same state of amazement "fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid" (16:8). 

I hope and pray that at some point in the paschal season; or at any time during the year — or during our lifetime! — we too can "tremble" and be filled with "astonishment" that Jesus has been raised from the dead. 

Is this an enigmatic ending to the initial discovery of the empty tomb and the proclamation of the resurrection? Did the myrrhbearing women fail in their ministry as "apostles to the apostles" because of their (initial) silence? 

I believe that St. Mark is leaving us with the overwhelming sense of precisely encountering a divine reality that initially did leave the women speechless. As a scholar of this Gospel has written:

The women's profound emotion is described in order to bring out the overwhelming and sheerly supernatural character of that to which it was the response (see also 4:41, 6:30, 9:15), and perhaps to suggest to the reader that if he has even begun to understand the full significance of what had occurred, he too will be bound to respond with amazement and godly fear." (D. E. Nineham, St. Mark, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, p. 447-448).

It is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that the Orthodox Church proclaims to this day with faith, conviction and the certainty that God has acted "in Christ Jesus" within history in a decisive and "eschatological" manner, in order to reclaim, restore and renew His fallen creation. 

Of course, other Christian churches proclaim the very same victory over death in the Resurrection of Christ. However, the Resurrection understood as the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has been challenged, "reinterpreted," or rejected by a fair share of biblical scholars and theologians. 

We need to be fully aware that the bodily resurrection of Christ does not refer to a resuscitated corpse. There is a tremendous element of transformation in the "spiritual body" of the Lord. The mysterious aspect of this transformation is conveyed in many of the scriptural texts that try and describe — perhaps less than adequately, or at least not exhaustively — the risen life of the Lord. 

Also, a resuscitated Jesus would have died again, as did Lazarus, the daughter of the elder Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain. But St. Paul affirms: "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9). 

There has "arisen" a sad division amongst Christians over this essential issue. To follow Jesus or to believe in Him apart from His bodily resurrection and all that that implies for Christology, anthropology, and eschatology, etc., is to follow "another Gospel." (GAL. 1:7) Such a Jesus did not "trample down death by death." It is a different Jesus and a different religion.

The further words of Peter Chrysologus captures the choice before us when contemplating the empty tomb:

Pray that the angel would descend now and roll away all the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen, for just as the heart in which Christ lives and reigns is heaven, so also the heart in which Christ remains dead and buried is a grave. May it be believed that just as he died, so was he transformed. Christ the man suffered, died and was buried; as God he lives, reigns, is and will be forever.  —SERMONS 75.4


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

'The new is fulfilled... Be made new!'

Dear Parish Faithful,


PASCHA:  The Seventeenth Day

I greet everyone from lovely Livonia, MI!

"Today salvation has come to the world, to things visible and to things invisible. Christ is risen from the dead; rise with him. Christ has returned to himself; return. Christ is freed from the tomb; be freed from the bonds of sin. The gates of hades are opened, and death is destroyed, and the old Adam is put aside, and the new is fulfilled. If anyone in Christ is a new creation, be made new."

St. Gregory the Theologian

We are also commemorating the second anniversary of the repose of Archimandrite Roman Braga, a genuine confessor of the Faith, and a man thoroughly imbued with a profound paschal joy.

Friday, April 28, 2017

An Encounter Like No Other

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Among the Myrrhbearing Women, it is clear that Mary Magdalene is something of a "first among equals."  In the Synoptic Gospels she is always listed first among the other women whose names are recorded by the Evangelists (MATT. 28:1: MK. 16:1; LK. 24:10).  In the Gospel According to St. John, she is the only one of these remarkable women actually named by the Evangelist.  

That St. John also knew the tradition of multiple women visiting the tomb of Christ "on the first day of the week" (JN. 20:1) is indicated by Mary Magdalene using "we" when returning from the tomb and excitingly telling the disciples what she/they discovered there, mistaken though she was as to the reason:  "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know here they have laid him" (JN. 20:2).  

And it is St. Mark and St. John who record the fact that she is the first of the women to actually see the Risen Lord (MK. 16:9: JN. 20:14).  In addition, it is the Evangelist Mark who informs us that Jesus had "cast out seven demons" from Mary Magdalene (v. 9).  

St. Mary Magdalene thus stands out among these outstanding, though self-effacing women, who are now known throughout the world wherever the Gospel is proclaimed.  The Myrrhbearing Women were privileged to be the first human beings to discover the empty tomb, and the first as a body to behold the Risen Christ (MATT. 28:9).

This coming Sunday we will hear the account in St. Mark's Gospel about the role of the Myrrhbearing Women in the discovery of the empty tomb as we commemorate the Myrrhbearers on the Third Sunday of Pascha (MK. 15:43-16:8).  This is the only Sunday during the paschal season that we hear from a Gospel other than St. John's. 

However, I would like to return to St. John's Gospel for the purpose of this meditation and share a few words about the extraordinary encounter between the Risen Lord and Mary Magdalene recorded there (20:11-18). This is an encounter like no other.  I recall the renowned British biblical scholar C. H. Dodd writing that this  account in St. John's Gospel has no remote counterpart in all of the ancient literature of the Graeco-Roman world.  It is absolutely unique.

At first, as recorded above, Mary Magdalene believed that the tomb was empty because "they have taken the Lord out of the tomb" (20:2). This was her "natural" reaction to the fact of the empty tomb. She then temporarily disappears from the narrative as we hear of Sts. Peter and John discovering the empty tomb, prompted by her troubling words. But after this discovery "the disciples went back to their home" (v. 17).  Then, Mary appears again "weeping outside the tomb" (v. 11). When she stoops to look into the tomb she is surprised by the presence of two angels, who pointedly ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She again repeats her despairing belief that "they have taken away my Lord" (v.13). At this point "she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus" (v. 14). 

And then that remarkable dialogue and encounter occurs.  

At first Jesus will repeat the words of the angels: "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" (v.15)  Still fixated on the mistaken belief that someone has removed the body of Jesus, Mary, for the third time repeats that assertion to "the gardener" hoping that he will cooperate in disclosing the whereabouts of the body of Jesus.  

And then all is transformed "in the twinkling of an eye" when the Risen Jesus pronounces her name: "Mary" (v. 16). That is all that was necessary, and Christ prepared us for that immediate recognition upon hearing one's name pronounced:

"I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father ... "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand."  (JN. 10:14, 27-28)

When the Risen Good Shepherd speaks her name she immediately recognizes His voice as foretold in the words above and she responds with the endearing title: "Rab-bo'ni!" (The evangelist parenthetically informs us that this means Teacher). 

This encounter like no other is actually consummated through the seemingly simple pronouncement of a name and a title exchanged with both love and devotion between Christ and His disciple Mary Magdalene. I believe that this moment of recognition would be impossible to express in words. We can only bow our heads in silence and awe. Or, perhaps like the other Myrrhbearing Women, "trembling and astonishment" (MK. 16:8) will come upon us if we allow the full power of this encounter to enter our minds and hearts. 

For Mary, bewilderment, despair and confusion give way to joy and regeneration.  That the setting was a "garden" is no accident. Now, upon returning to the other disciples for a second time, a new message is delivered to them, for St. John tells us: "Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'" (v. 18).

At one point in this incredibly momentous morning, Mary Magdalene told the angels that "they have taken away my Lord."  St. Thomas said when also coming to recognition of the Risen Lord: "My Lord and my God!" In these words, both of these saints made it very personal

The encounter with Christ, regardless of the circumstances is always something deeply personal.  Each unique human being has a unique relationship with Christ. We say that He is our Lord, but we equally say that He is my Lord. Therefore, I would like to quote again the deeply encouraging words of Fr. Alexander Men who, when commenting on the events of JN. 20, wrote:

"Therefore today, on this Paschal day, let each of you, returning home, carry in his heart this joy and the thought that the Lord has appeared to me, too. He is risen for me, and speaks for me, and remains with me, and will forever be as my Lord, as my Savior, as my God. May the Lord protect you!"

A pious tradition has St. Mary Magdalene greeting the Roman emperor Tiberius with the words "Christ is Risen!"  These words reverberate to this day with the glorious "good news" of life out of death.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Risen Lord 'appears tangibly to each person...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


PASCHA - The Twelfth Day

Archpriest Alexander Men (+1990):

Today we should give thought to one important thing that not everyone remarks upon when turning to Holy Scripture, when reading about those bright days during which the Lord appeared after His Resurrection. He appeared to many, and to each person differently. 
In one circumstance it was the weeping Mary Magdalene, lonely and grieving at the empty tomb; in another it was Peter, bewildered and confused, having returned from the garden where He had found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then we see the disciples on the sea. John senses Him in his heart and recognizes Him, while Peter throws himself into the sea and hurries to Him. And, as we read in the epistles of the Apostle Paul, among the last to whom the Lord appeared was he, Paul-Saul, who had persecuted the Church of God.
This continues even now. Christ, risen invisibly, appears tangibly to each person. In the lives of each of us who has felt the proximity of other worlds if only for a moment, a meeting with the Risen Lord is accomplished; He comes to each person, knocking at the door of his heart, finding words for each. 
It is our task to listen, our task to respond to this knocking, for the Lord has come to save, spiritualize, and transform the lives not just of everyone, but of each one of us.
Therefore today, on this Paschal day, let each of you, returning home, carry in his heart this joy and the thought that the Lord has appeared to me, too. He is risen for me, and speaks for me, and remains with me, and will forever be as my Lord, as my Savior, as my God. May the Lord protect you!

Christ is Risen!

Monday, April 24, 2017

More on the Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,


" ... If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."  (I COR. 15:14)

More on the Resurrection

Following yesterday's Liturgy, we had a lively discussion on the resurrection of Christ.  For those who would like to study the various aspects of the Resurrection further, I would like to recommend a few different books on the subject:

First, from my professor at St. Vladimir's Seminary: Veselin Kesich. He wrote an excellent book that I have read many times over the years, The First Day of the New Creation.  This is a wonderful in- depth study of not only the Resurrection, but also the Ascension of Christ and Pentecost. I have learned a great deal from this book. Highly recommended!

There is also a copy (or two) in the parish library.

Another wonderful book is by Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon. The author is an iconologist (and perhaps an iconographer), and this is a very detailed examination on how we depict the Resurrecton of Christ iconographically.  

The book is lavishly illustrated with many beautiful Orthodox icons, and the author covers others besides that of the Resurrection. A book you can endlessly turn to for learning more about iconography, as well as the Resurrection.

Another remarkable study of the Resurrection is a book by Francis Moloney, SDB, entitled The Resurrection of the Messiah - A Narrative Commentary on the Resurrection Accounts in the Four Gospels

The author offers a series of very detailed reading of the various Gospel resurrection accounts.  His interpretations are endlessly fascinating and very compelling.

One more book is by a scholar who has spent almost his entire scholarly career on studying and writing about the Resurrection of Christ: Gerald Collins, SJ. He has published many books on the subject, and a more recent one, Believing in the Resurrection is quite comprehensive and excellent. His book is especially strong on working out the implications of the Resurrection for how we lead our lives as Christians.

Another Subject

Whenever the topic turns to the Sign of the Cross, the discussion always gets especially lively(!), and that happened yesterday yet again. Why do we make the sign of the Cross the way that we do?  Has it always been done this way?  Why do non-Orthodox Christians make the sign of the Cross differently? Ultimately, which is the "right way?"

There is a fairly-recent book by an Orthodox writer, that is an excellent historical and theological study of how the sign of the Cross has developed from the earliest centuries of Christianity. The book is The Sign of the Cross - the Gesture, the Mystery, the History by Andreas Andreopoulos.  The author answers many such questions as those posed above. The book is endorsed by Frederica Matthews-Green, and the prominent Orthodox theologian, Fr. Andrew Louth. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

'In the death of the Lord, the power of the Resurrection becomes apparent'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!
Indeed He is Risen!

Fr. George Florovsky (+1979) was arguably the greatest Orthodox theologian of the 20th c. He is known for rediscovering the great Church Fathers and restoring this "patristic dimension" to Orthodox theology. Here is a wonderful passage that captures his compressed style that still contains a wealth of insights into the deepest meaning of the divine economy inspired by his reading of the Church Fathers:

The Whole Christ, Head and Body.  The death of the Savior revealed that death held no power over him. The Lord was mortal in respect of His complete human nature; for even in the original nature there was a capacity of death. 

The Lord died, but death could not keep Him. He was the eternal life, and through His death He destroyed death. His descent into Hades, the kingdom  of death, is the powerful revelation of life. By descending into hades, He gives life to death itself. And by the resurrection, the powerlessness of death is revealed. 

In the death of the Lord, the power of the resurrection becomes apparent, which is concealed but intrinsic to every death. The parable of the wheat can be fully applied to His death. In the case of the body of the incarnated, the period between death and resurrection has been shortened. The seed grows to perfection in three days: triduum mortis

During this mystical triduum mortis the body of the Lord was transfigured, glorified, and clothed in power and light. The resurrection happened by the power of God, and by the same power the general resurrection will happen on the last day. In the resurrection the incarnation is perfected, a victorious revelation of life in the human nature. Immortality was grafted on to humanity.

The resurrection of Christ was not only His victory over His own death but over death in general. In His resurrection the whole human nature is resurrected, but not so that all rise from the graves, for mankind still must die. But death has become powerless, and the whole human nature has received the ability to be resurrected.

From In Ligno Crucis (On the Tree of the Cross) - The Church Fathers' doctrine of redemption interpreted from the perspective of Eastern Orthodox theology (1947)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Pascha and Pop-Culture

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!  
Indeed He is Risen!

At the paschal Vespers on Sunday afternoon, I read aloud Bishop Paul's "Paschal Address" to the parishes of our dioceses.  In his very interesting introduction, he quoted the lyrics from a song by the group Pearl Jam, "A Better Man."  I know the name of Pearl Jam, but not their music. Others present were well aware of this song, however. 

Be that as it may, this use of a pop-culture reference by no less a distinguished figure than our diocesan hierarch served to legitimize my own such pop-culture references from time to time.  (It wasn't all such a waste of time after all!) 

Anyway, somewhat emboldened by his reference, I looked into our website archives and found this meditation from 2011, entitled "Break on Through to the Other Side." The song belongs to one of the more notorious rock groups from the past, The Doors.  Surprisingly enough, the song title lends itself remarkably well - though heavily re-interpreted in the process - to a legitimate paschal meditation on the Resurrection of Christ.

Therefore, if anyone is interested, here is the link to that meditation:

Break On Through (To The Other Side)

It is only Christ who has truly “broken through” to the “other side.” This claim can only be made based upon the fact of the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

'I am Lazarus'

Dear Parish Faithful,

To turn back to Lazarus Saturday for a moment, I wanted to share some excellent comments by a contemporary biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, as he offers an in-depth exegesis (interpretation) of the incomparable narrative of Jesus raising Lazarus to life.  His comments are so effective because of how convincingly he relates the entire episode to our lives today as Christians facing the exact same dilemmas and challenges - beginning with the challenge to faith that the reality of death raises.

Be that as it may, Byrne writes the following:

Lazarus is a character with whom anyone who reads the Gospel can identify. "I" am Lazarus - in the sense that Jesus left his "safe country" to enter this world, placing his life in mortal danger in order to save me from death, to communicate, at the cost of his own life, eternal life to me.
I am the "friend" of Jesus - he or she whom he loved. For me Jesus has wept. Before my tomb, so to speak, he has wrestled with the cost of life-giving love. It is to call me forth into life, to strip from me the bands of death that Jesus has come into the world and given his life. So I am to read the  forthcoming account of the passion and death of Jesus with intimate personal involvement, knowing that Jesus is undergoing all this insult and suffering for love of me and to give life to me."

The story of Lazarus, with its full acceptance of human death and grieving, with its realism about the cost of giving life, with its invitation to enter upon a deeper journey of faith, speaks as powerfully to the present as it did to the past.
God is neither indifferent to the distress death brings nor unsympathetic to our struggles of faith. More than anything else in the gospel, Jesus' demeanor in John 11 expresses divine involvement in human grief and suffering. In the person of the Son, God becomes vulnerable physically and psychologically, to death. At its deepest level the story of Lazarus invites us to believe in God as the One who gives life in death and out of death.
To every believer, confronted like Martha with mortality, Jesus addresses his words: "Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" (11:40)  Each of us has a perfect right, indeed an invitation, to write ourselves and our world into the script - to be, each one of us, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved and for whom he gave his life.

When Christ goes to the Cross, He does so on behalf of all humanity, but each person can say: He is dying so that I can have abundant life.

Friday, April 7, 2017

'Earthly Life Ceases'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We have completed the forty days which
   profit our souls.
Now let us beg the lover of man;
enable us to see the Holy Week of Thy passion,
that we may glorify Thy mighty work,
Thy wonderful plan for our salvation,
singing with one heart and voice,
O Lord, Glory to Thee!

(Vespers of Lazarus Saturday)

"The mysteries of the Orthodox cult reach their culminating point and their greatest power in the services of Holy Week and Easter. The beauty, the richness and the power of these services take possession of the soul and sweep it along as upon a mystic torrent."
(The Orthodox Church by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov)

I came across the phrase above - "earthly life ceases" - at the beginning of Fr. Thomas Hopko's explanation of Holy Week.  What could he mean by saying that "earthly life ceases"?  It is certainly not meant to be taken "literally;" because, if so, Fr. Hopko would not be much of a thinker or theologian! 

The phrase "earthly life ceases" is not about death and dying. It is, rather, about how we conduct our lives during that week we designate in the Church as "holy and great." This becomes clear when we look at the entire sentence from Fr. Hopko: "Earthly life ceases for the faithful as they 'go up to Jerusalem with the Lord' (Matins of Holy Monday). "

During the approaching Holy Week, we will continue to arise each morning to a new day, carry out our commitments and responsibilities, and find rest from our labors in the peace of sleep - as well as "eat and drink" to keep alive! But we do these quotidian things in this "week of weeks" with an intense focus on the paschal mystery of Christ's redemptive death and life-giving Resurrection.

Our sense of reality shifts as we realize - hopefully through the experience of participation - that what is taking place in church through liturgical worship is Reality at its most full and complete. Other concerns, important as they are, are laid aside or postponed as much as that is possible. I believe that this is what Fr. Hopko was trying to convey when he wrote that "earthly life ceases" during Holy Week.  Only then could we, as the faithful, and in a good spirit, go up to Jerusalem with the Lord:

As the Lord was going to His voluntary passion,
He said to the Apostles on the way,
"Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,
and the Son of Man shall be delivered up, as it is
   written of Him."
Come, therefore, let us also go with Him,
purified in mind.
Let us be crucified with Him and die through Him
to the pleasures of this life.
Then we shall live with Him and hear Him say:
"I go no more to the earthly Jerusalem to suffer,
but to my Father and your Father,
to my God and your God,
I shall raise you up to the Jerusalem on high
in the Kingdom of Heaven."

(Matins of Holy Monday)

What might all of this mean on the practical level? How will this effect our lives during Holy Week? How important will it be for each one of us to "go up to Jerusalem with the Lord?"

As a pastoral response, I would say that during Holy Week there are three basic places that Orthodox Christians know and find themselves at:  the home, work/school - and the church.  Exceptions may abound with other unavoidable(?) commitments, but I believe that this basic trinity of places could be a helpful starting point from which we ground ourselves, gain perspective, and around which we plan as we assess the possibilities and priorities of Holy Week in our lives.

Certainly, this is not the time to seek entertainment or those other distractions that may appear attractive. And it is certainly not the time for a "vacation" - even if the children happen to be out of school. If, during Great Lent, we have managed to already put some of this into practice, then the approaching Holy Week is the time of an even greater effort in this direction. Our "free time" in the evenings could be redeemed by making it "church time." 

If we are unable to attend any of the services, I would suggest that we transform our homes to some extent by seeking some level of stillness or relative silence. And if, over the years, you have purchased your own copies of the Holy Week service books, you could read those in the quite atmosphere of your homes when unable to be in church. Challenging, no doubt, but certainly not impossible, for "with God all things are possible."  (MATT. 19:26)

As an Orthodox Christian no one can say: "Holy Week caught me unawares" - not with a preceding forty days of Great Lent!  Well aware in advance of the date of Pascha, hopefully some preparatory scheduling has already been accomplished. So, the above is written in the spirit of pastoral care and guidance.  I am not trying to "tell" anyone what to do. As I like to formulate it: I am a pastor - not a policeman! 

But we are all in this great mystery together.  And the source of this "mystery hidden for ages by God who created all things" (EPH. 3:9) is the limitless love of God: "But God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us" (ROM. 5:8). And this mystery of an active - even "crucified" - love on the part of God draws us into that communion of love as the redeemed and transformed People of God, being "built ... upon the rock" (MATT. 7:24) of our belief in the redemptive Death and life-giving Resurrection of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

I hope that one and all truly enjoys a blessed Holy Week and Pascha!

Friday, March 31, 2017

St Mary of Egypt, An Icon of Repentance

Dear Parish Faithful,

An Icon of Repentance

Icon of St Mary & St Zosimas, by Fr Andrew Tregubov

Yesterday evening (March 30), we read and heard the entire Life of St. Mary of Egypt in the church as we also chanted a part of St. Andrew's Canon of Repentance.  It seemed like we had present the largest group ever for this service.

In that Life we heard that St. Mary died on April 1, in the year of our Lord 522 A.D.  Thus, April 1 is the date on which her name appears on our Church calendar as her day of commemoration.  Her "death day" is her "birthday" into the Kingdom of Heaven.  And we also commemorate her on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, coming up this weekend.  So, a good deal of recent and immediately upcoming focus on St. Mary of Egypt, that great "icon of repentance." 

A few years back (2011) I wrote a Meditation on St. Mary entitled "Inappropriate Material for Church?"  The point of the Meditation was to reflect upon the heavy stress on unlimited sexual license that we hear about in the opening section of her Life, a focus that can raise an eyebrow or two since it is read in church. If you would like to read more about this, here is a link to that Meditation.

In fact, I have written quite a few meditations - admittedly somewhat repetitious - that include St. Mary's Life or combine it with further comments on St. Andrew's Canon.  Those can be accessed here. At the end of the first meditation on this page, there is a link to The Life of St. Mary of Egypt in its entirety, included here for your convenience.

Or, there is a lengthy portion available on the OCA webpage.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Fifth Week of Lent: 'Summary and Fulfillment'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Beginning today, we have a very full series of lenten liturgical services in the church for the remainder of the week.  Here is the schedule with some explanatory words that may inspire you further to "take Lent seriously" and come to church to worship and pray:

Wednesday at 6:00 p.m.
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

"The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is one of the great masterpieces of Orthodox piety and liturgical creativity. It reveals in its form and content the central Christian doctrine and experience, namely that our entire life must be spent in prayer and fasting in order that we might enter into communion with Christ who comes at the end as a 'thief in the night'.

"It tells us that all of our life, and not only the time of Great Lent, or one day of the Fast, is completed  with the Presence of the Victorious Christ who is risen from the dead. 

"It witnesses to the fact that Christ will come at the end of the ages to judge the living and the dead and to establish God's Kingdom 'of which there will be no end'. It tells us that we must be ready at His coming, found watching and serving, in order to be worthy to 'enter into the joy of the Lord'."

- Fr. Thomas Hopko

Thursday at 7:00 p.m.
The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete,
and The Life of St. Mary of Egypt

"If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a 'summary' of repentance and its fulfillment.  If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our lenten effort:  how much of all of this has truly been made ours?  How far have we come along the path of this repentance?" 

- Fr. Alexander Schmemann

"The Life of St. Mary of  Egypt is read, so that the intellect and will of the believer may be detached from love of the world and, following in the footsteps of the saint, may be guided into the heart of the desert, into the heart of the mystery of repentance."

- Panagiotis Nellas

Friday at 7:00 p.m.
The Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos

"Theologically, poetically, and musically, one of the most profound and beautiful compositions bequeathed to us by Byzantium's sacred hymnographers is the Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos. In this unparalleled  composition, Orthodox Christianity bears eloquent witness to its unshaken belief in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the Church's devotion to the 'Virgin who conceived and bore a Son'."

- Holy Transfiguration Monastery

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Real 'Stairway to Heaven'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A pop-culture awareness that has staying power over about a forty-five year period is an immediate recognition of the song titled "Stairway to Heaven."

Even for those born well after the date of the song's initial appearance (1972) know that it was written by the now-legendary rock group Led Zeppelin.  I, for one, will openly "confess" to seeing and hearing this song performed live more than once!  I even recall reading an article that somehow managed to calculate that - up to a certain date, at least - it was the most-played song in rock radio history. Yet, I further recall hearing once that the members of Led Zeppelin were "sick and tired" of their famous song!

If not quite arresting, the title is at least attractive. Perhaps it awakens a vague longing deep within our soul: Is there a "stairway to heaven?"  Some sort of path to another reality that lifts us above the mundane and everyday cares of life?  Was there some formula hidden within the song's lyrics that pointed to that alluring path?

Admittedly, I always found the lyrics rather opaque and esoteric. (Certain members of Led Zeppelin were clearly taken by the esoteric and fantastic, obvious from some of their other songs).  Perhaps that simply added to the song's charm as devotees spent inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to decipher or unpack the tantalizing meaning of the song just beyond our grasp. A lot of pseudo-serious literature was actually generated - and passionately argued about - back then offering various interpretations of "Stairway to Heaven's" meaning. And the song did have a compelling energy behind it as its slow beginning moved toward a crescendo of a driving and now classic rock guitar solo.

Yet, the famous "Stairway to Heaven" is so contextualized in a moment of long ago pop culture history, that you can only wonder what the heady commotion was really all about. After forty-five years, it is now just another very recognizable "rock classic;" or, to say that in a slightly more deflating manner, just another "oldie."  For some, it may serve to awaken a certain nostalgia for the past. Or, for others, to a past that they would like to forget!

Certainly no one is drawn to analyzing  those opaque lyrics which really had nothing much behind them in the first place. Obscurity is often mistaken for depth. However, this is not the place to come down on Led Zeppelin and their famous song from the past.  Everyone, including the members of the group, have certainly "moved on."

These brief comments on the song "Stairway to Heaven" were prompted by the fact that on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate St. John Climacus, austere author of the famous treatise The Ladder of Divine Ascent. 

I refer to St. John's spiritual classic as the real "stairway to heaven," because after many centuries it is read to this day with great seriousness and pious devotion by Christians as precisely a sure guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, St. John offers a fine definition as to what it means to be a Christian:

A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity. (STEP 1)

St. John was writing for monks, but to the married Christian he had this to say:

Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourselves from the church assemblies. (STEP 1)

More specifically, the abiding popularity of his famous treatise is all the more apparent for Orthodox Christians, for as Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes:

With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more often than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus. 
Every Lent in Orthodox monasteries it is appointed to be read aloud in church or in the refectory, so that the monks will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty tines in the course of their life.  
Outside the monasteries it has also been the favorite reading of countless lay people in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and throughout the Orthodox world.  The popularity of The Ladder in the East equals that of The Imitation of Christ in the West, although the two books are altogether different in character.  
(Introduction to The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 1)

The great abbot of Mt. Sinai (+c. 650) writes with clarity and depth about the interior "withdrawal" from worldliness; the struggle with the passions; the acquisition of the virtues; and the final ascent of the soul into the realm where faith, hope and love are the final stages of that ascent that prepares the believer for the incomprehensible glory yet to be experienced when God will be "all in all:"

Love, by its nature, is a resemblance of God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility ...    Love grants prophecy, miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity. (STEP 30)

St. John's work clearly betrays the monastic milieu from which it emerged, but since those very passions that plague us remain unchanging; and since the very virtues we struggle to acquire also remain unchanging; and since our goal is the Kingdom of Heaven, then his writings more importantly have a timeless and eternal quality to them. Such a text is never really "dated." It does not belong to a particular movement or fad. The Ladder is an enduring monument of spiritual depth that flows from the Gospel. Thus, its singular characteristic and popularity as an enduring classic.

Now, St. John himself was inspired by the vision of the Patriarch Jacob of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven "and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!" (GEN. 28) Christ refers to this same vision in JN. 1.  St. John will develop this image with greater detail and this is a very effective teaching tool, for again to refer to the words of Archbishop Kallistos:

His ladder has thirty rungs or steps, one for each year in the hidden life of Christ before His baptism. John's ingenious use of the ladder-image soon became part of the spiritual imagination of the Christian East, and is frequently represented in panel icons, refrectory frescoes and illuminated manuscripts.  (Introduction, p. 11)

I cannot in the brief space of a meditation offer a detailed outline of The Ladder. I believe the best version available in English translation to be that which belongs to The Classics of Western Spirituality series:  John Climacus - The Ladder of Divine Ascent, translated by Colm Luibheld and Norman Russell, Introduction by Kallistos Ware, Paulist Press, 1982.  

I further believe that this would be an invaluable acquisition for one's library, and it could be read slowly and prayerfully over an extended period of time. 

Some of the book's content may appear foreign, but there will be so much that will resonate deeply and stay with the serious reader that what is foreign will seem unimportant.  

However, there is an extraordinary passage in Step One that so beautifully captures the meaning of the Gospel, and of God's love of his creation and creatures, that I would like to share at least this much.  This passage takes on an even greater meaning when we recall that St. John was fiercely ascetical and at times impatient with false teaching. But here he is truly expansive and he embraces all of humankind:

God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of believers and unbelievers, of the just or the unjust ... of monks or those living in the world, of the educated or the illiterate, of the healthy or the sick, of the young or the very old.  He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception. "For God is no respecter of persons." (Rom. 2:11)

Although employing what is essentially identical images, I believe that we can say with real assurance that The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on much, much firmer ground and has greater staying power than whatever is quite the endpoint of "Stairway to Heaven."  In fact, I may be reproached for even making the comparison! Yet, the association of images, and further reflection on the surrounding "culture" that produced each work - and which is embodied within each work - came to mind as we move into the Fourth Week of Great Lent.  

In an age of post-modernism and shifting narratives that compete for our attention, there is nothing quite like the "rock" on which the Gospel is firmly planted and not to be moved; while other enticements built on the shifting sands of impermanence are swept away by time (MATT. 7:24-27). 

St. John built his house on the Gospel and thus continues to nourish us to this day with his wise counsel:

Baptized in the thirtieth year of His earthly age, Christ attained the thirtieth step on the spiritual ladder, for God indeed is love, and to Him be praise, dominion, power.  In Him is the cause, past, present, and future, of all that is good forever and ever. Amen. (Concluding "Brief Summary and Exhortation)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Connecting the Cross with our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful,

Over the years I have accumulated a group of meditations centered on the meaning and purpose of the Cross, attempting to connect the Cross of the Lord with our lives as Orthodox Christians, as we commit ourselves to the noble task of working out our salvation "in fear and trembling." 

In case anyone would be interested in having a "second look" at any one of them, I have compiled a series of links, and also provided the title given to each one, hopefully capturing something of the over-all content of each meditation. They are arranged to move backwards chronologically.

I just discovered that the meditation, "Through the Cross ... Joy!" has been posted on

Fr. Steven

"People of the Cross" (Sept. 2016)

"Cross-bearers - Not Simply 'Cross-wearers'" (April 2016)

"Before Thy Cross, We Bow Down in Worship" (Sept. 2015)

"The Life-Giving Cross" (March 2015)

"The Sign of the Son of Man" (Sept. 2012)

"The Place and Necessity of the Cross" (March 2011)

"The Place of the Cross - In the Church, and In Our Lives" (Sept. 2011)

"Through the Cross - Joy!" (March 2010)

"Inscribing the Cross in our Hearts" (Sept. 2010)

"We Belong to the Crucified One" (Sept. 2008)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

'This is the great work of a human being...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT:  The Twenty-Fifth Day

"In time of religious peace, we take up our cross and follow Christ by putting our evil passions and desires to death through virtuous living. But when persecutions come, we must despise our own life, give up our soul for the sake of our Faith and therefore take up our cross and follow the Lord, so as to inherit eternal life. 'He that finds his life,' says the Scripture, 'shall lose it; and he that loses his life for My sake shall find it.' (MATT. 10:39)

- St. Gregory Palamas

"Sin is a blazing fire. The less fuel you give it, the faster it dies down; the more you feed it, the more it burns."

- St. Mark the Ascetic

"This is the great work of a human being: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath."

- St. Anthony the Great