Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Marriage and Essential Equality

Dear Parish Faithful,

I wrote this meditation eight years ago. This year I have had four weddings scheduled within about a two-and-a-half month period (one will be celebrated out-of-town in a couple of weeks), so the controversial passage of Ephesians 5 will be heard with more frequency than ever before. For those interested I am re-issuing this meditation. Perhaps those most troubled by the Apostle Paul's teaching should read this carefully. There is no real attempt to convince, but to offer a broader perspective than mere rejection.

Marriage and Essential Equality


We have a few marriages coming up in our parish life so I wanted to make a few comments, forward some sound interpretive texts, and try to make some sense, in a contemporary setting, of our use of scripture in the wedding service. At all Orthodox Christian marriage services, one of the prescribed readings is from the Epistle to the Ephesians (5:22-31). In today's social and cultural context, that reading is more than a little controversial. So, in a loud and clear voice we hear the Apostle Paul's admonition:

Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (EPH. 5:21-33)

At that point in the service, eyes roll in disbelief, heads shake in disagreement, and glances are exchanged in dismay. If you look and listen very carefully, you may even detect a knowing smile or even an unintentional snort among the many gathered people. Of course, many Orthodox simply accept the reading as part of an unchanging tradition; regard such quaintness as part of Orthodox conservatism; and "move on" with the flow of the service. The bride and groom are convinced that the passage does not reflect contemporary attitudes toward marriage; or that it certainly does not apply to their upcoming life together. They convey this to each other in mutually reassuring and loving glances; or a warm squeeze of the hands. They, too, then settle in for the remainder of the service. The non-Orthodox present may feel as if they have been transported back in time by a few centuries. "Colorful," perhaps, but ultimately irrelevant. It is like an unexpected bad note at a wonderful symphony that creates a modestly perceptible wave of uneasiness, only to be absorbed into the greater beauty of the whole service which leaves everyone deeply impressed. 

Yet, is the passage in point that unendurable? Or, more pointedly, is the Apostle Paul actually a glorified misogynist?

My intention is not to defend the Apostle Paul, nor is it to compel assent to his teaching by an attempt to convince everyone of how "right" he actually is. My concern here is very modest: to at least try and understand what the Apostle Paul is saying before we dismiss him as "patriarchal" or "chauvinist." 

The passage from Ephesians is indeed jarring and it does indeed seem to be at the very least outdated. But who takes the time and makes the effort to try and come to terms with the Apostle's goal and the context out of which this passage emerges? Is he (ab)using his authority to subordinate women to the dominance of men? I, for one, do not find such charges very convincing. 

Many scholars have gone a long way in demonstrating that the Apostle Paul can hardly be labeled a misogynist. In fact, considering contemporary attitudes to women in the Apostle's Paul's social, cultural, and religious context, he had a liberating attitude toward women - as indeed Christ Himself had. It is the Apostle Paul who also wrote: "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (I COR. 7:4). It is impossible to conceive of a Jewish or pagan contemporary of St. Paul's to say anything like that. And, of course, it is the Apostle Paul who "elevated" the status of women to be equal to that of men with his famous: " ... there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (GAL. 3:28).

An excellent contemporary Orthodox commentary on St. Paul's Ephesian text comes, in my opinion, from Fr. John Breck, found in his remarkable book THE SACRED GIFT OF LIFE. In this book he has a wonderful and insightful chapter entitled "Sexuality, Marriage and Covenant Responsibility." This chapter is seventy-two pages long, and is itself like a small book on marriage from an Orthodox Christian perspective. I cannot recommend this chapter highly enough for any Orthodox Christian who would like to have a better grasp of these essential topics. Under a section entitled "Equality of the Sexes," Fr. John does not hide the "facts of history:"

Within ancient Israel and throughout most of the life of the Church there has been a striking and, to most people's minds, an unjust balance with regard to the requirements for sexual fidelity and responsibility. The burden has weighed far more heavily on women than on men. This is due in part to a legacy of disproportion that we can call in today's jargon "sexist patriarchalism." (p. 83-84)

In his usual balanced style, Fr. John responds to this with a paragraph where he directly deals with some of the teachings and implications of St. Paul's Ephesian text used in our Marriage Service. Agree with him or not, I believe that Fr. John has something worth thinking about as he reflects holistically and deeply on the Apostle's teaching :

In theory, if not in practice, this condition has been done away with by the "great reversal" brought about by Jesus Christ. St. Paul's declaration, "in Christ there is neither male nor female," means that the socially and culturally conditioned inequality between the sexes is abolished: it does not exist in the mind of God and has no place within the church communities. It also means that in Christ men bear equal responsibility with women for upholding a moral ethos which is conducive to preserving the integrity of family life.
Consequently, the husband is no less responsible than his wife for preserving familial structure, stability and nurture necessary for the proper raising of their children. The husband is also as responsible as the wife for fulfilling the prescriptions of Ephesians 5. If the wife "submits" herself to her husband as to the Lord, her submission mirrors that of the Church in relation to Christ. Conversely, if the husband exercises headship, he does so by reflecting the actions and attitudes of Christ toward his Body, the Church. (The verb hypotasso is correctly rendered "submit" in this context, not "subject," as in so many English translations. It denotes a voluntary act of love rather than subjection to constraints imposed by the husband or social convention.)
The husband is to love his wife "as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" in a sacrificial self-offering of disinterested love. The key to this mutual relationship is provided in Eph. 5:21, a verse that introduces the entire passage: "Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ." The submission, in other words, is reciprocal. It involves both parties equally yet in different ways: the wife through acceptance of the husband's responsibility for "headship," and the husband through loving service offered to his spouse. (p. 84)

Fr. John, in a very revealing footnote, honestly expresses our own difficulties with such a term as "headship:"

The concept of "headship" is one that needs a great deal more explanation than it has received to date. To what degree is it inherent in the conjugal relationship, and to what degree is it culturally conditioned? And in modern society, where both spouses are often the breadwinners, or where the husband assumes domestic chores while the wife pursues a career, how is the husband's "headship" to be exercised? (p. 84)

Nevertheless, even with such an honest reservation, Fr. John goes on to say this of the life between husband and wife:

The responsibilities and obligations of the conjugal relationship are mutual and fully equal. Husband and wife exercise different "functions" within the family, just as the priest and laity do in the "family" of the parish community. Those functions, however, are complementary. They are effective only to the extent they are based on the full and unconditional equality of each party with regard to ontological status and spiritual value.
Authentic hierarchy, in the Holy Trinity or in the Church, presupposes just such equality ... (p. 84-85)

These few passages may not do real justice to the richness of Fr. John's thoughts on "sexuality, marriage, and covenant responsibility," but they may at least indicate some of the direction of his thought. As quoted above, Fr. John is courageous enough to even explore the terribly unpopular concept of "hierarchy" raised by the Pauline teaching on "headship." 

But in a truly holistic Orthodox fashion, he makes it clear that if that concept is not to be rejected as anachronistic, or abused in a conservative manner, then it must be understood in its most exalted trinitarian application before applying it to human life. His conclusion is very important and must always be kept in mind:

Hierarchy presupposes and in fact requires the essential equality of its constituent members, an equality that derives from the fact that each member is created in the image of God and each one is called in equal measure to attain to the divine likeness. (p. 85)

I repeat: the Apostle Paul does not need any defense, but I am hoping that we can make the effort to understand what he is saying in the light of his teaching that "there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (GAL. 3:28). That makes more sense to me than an unenlightened dismissal of the scriptural text when we hear these words in church, as we will in the very near future.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Perfect Ending to the Perfect Day

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Although the day has passed, and is therefore now in the irretrievable past, I would like to explain why I believe that it was the "perfect time" to have come to Saturday evening's Great Vespers a couple of days ago.

It struck me as the "perfect time" because it came at the end of what can only be described as a (near) "perfect day." Saturday was a truly beautiful day or, as some would say, a gorgeous day. Well into the Fall at this point in time, it was not only warm, but the drenching sunshine, the pellucid clarity of the blue sky, and the changing colors of gold, yellow, orange and red still clinging to the trees combined to make each of us instinctively - or perhaps consciously - grateful for the simple joy of being alive. "Glory to You for the Feast Day of life!" we hear in the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things." What a day to wake up to and have your spirit lifted up in the process! As Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, it was the kind of day on which life made a great deal of sense. And such a day offered many opportunities for a variety of activities: working around the house (many of those leaves are now on the ground and need to be raked up); children playing in the yard; a trip to the park; a long walk, etc. The list can easily go on.

It is my humble opinion that the "perfect" culmination to such a day would have been to come to Great Vespers and truly thank God through the prayers and hymns of the service for the gift of such a day. (It is possible that someone may have said or thought that it was too nice of a day to "interrupt" by going to church. But, as the saying goes, better to not even go there ...) 

During the day, we may have paused for a moment and thanked God for its beauty, but the entire structure of Great Vespers is such that we offer our thanksgiving to God from within the Church as "ecclesial beings." It is not the impersonal forces of "Mother Nature" that we worship, but our heavenly Father, "the Maker of heaven and earth and of all things both visible and invisible." Again, that worship is most perfectly expressed from within the Church in our liturgical prayer. The very atmosphere of the church and our prayerful attention greatly magnifies our awareness of this truth. 

As mentioned above, from within the Church, our instinctive awareness of "goodness, truth and beauty," becomes a conscious awareness culminating in worship and thanksgiving. The service at the end of the day helps us to remember this. And perhaps this is something we forget without the liturgical service of Great Vespers.

Every Vespers service begins with Psalm 104, which is a form of "poetic theology," a hymn to the divinely-ordained diversity, order and purpose of all of creation: "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom has Thou made them all!" Therefore, on the one hand, as the day wanes, and the sun begins to set, Great Vespers comes at the day's end so that we thank God for the enjoyment and experiences of that day - good or bad. 

On the other hand, according to the Scriptures "there was evening and morning, one day" (GEN. 1:5), so the evening service of Vespers begins the next day liturgically - and on Saturday evening that means the Lord's Day. As the sun sets, we sing an ancient hymn to Christ, the "Gladsome Light" Who illuminates the darkness of the world with a light that cannot be "overcome" (cf. Jn. 1:5). In our liturgical theology we proclaim the "sanctification of time," indicating by this term the divine source of time and its (re)direction toward the Kingdom of Heaven made possible through the Death and Resurrection of Christ - the major theme of Sunday, the Lord's Day. And like the Elder Symeon, we can "depart in peace" - today and at the end of our earthly lives - for our eyes, too, have seen the salvation that God has "prepared before the face of all people."

I repeat: it struck me that being at Great Vespers was the perfect ending to the perfect day that last Saturday was. We had eight hours or more to enjoy it. Plenty of time for a great deal of activity. Then, we offer back an hour of our time to the God who makes all things possible. This is not an "interruption" in our day, but a "culmination" of the day. 

For the sake of emphasis, I used the term "perfect time" somewhat rhetorically when I began this meditation on being present at last Saturday's Great Vespers service. It is always the "perfect time" - rain or shine - when we include our presence in church as we make our plans and plot out our days as they come to us as gifts from God. Many such days have passed, and hopefully there are many more yet to come.

Friday, October 6, 2017

'See God in People'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On another of my neighborhood walks, I came across some more "sidewalk graffiti" in front of the Williams Street Elementary school here in Norwood. Of the many new slogans scrawled in chalk beneath your feet as you walk along reading the words on the pavement, I encountered: "See Good in People." (It hasn't rained for awhile, so it has lasted for some time now).

This thought could probably be a bit grammatically-enhanced, but then again it has a real directness to it as it is. So what can we make of this "sidewalk semi-evangelism?" It is a positive message that is encouraging the students to look for the "good" in others, which would also lead them to respecting each other. It therefore presupposes that there is "good" to be found in everyone, a basically "upbeat" appraisal of human nature. We like to protect our children from early symptoms of cynicism.

The "good" is a pretty comprehensive word, that would include kindness, friendliness, honesty, sincerity, patience, tolerance, compassion, and a willingness to help, to mention some of the more meaningful descriptions of the "good." Basically, the "good" is about the pursuit of virtue. It further encourages the students to look past the outer and more superficial levels - looks, clothing, etc.

Yet, to "see" the good means that is there will be times when one must look beyond the "bad" that also appears from time-to-time in student relations. Young children can also be mean-spirited toward one another. Inappropriate words can be exchanged, even fights can break out. That is why rules of conduct exist in our schools. We need to be realistic about human nature also.

And that is why we, as Orthodox Christians, encourage our children to come to Confession by the age of seven. At that age they can distinguish within themselves what is "good" and what is "bad." And they need to recognize and admit what is "bad," or what we call sin. This is all very Orthodox! Which is why I referred to this slogan as "semi-evangelism."

To further "orthodoxize" this sidewalk slogan, one would simply have to eliminate one vowel from the word "good" - the second "o" - and then it would read "See God in People."

In our current cultural/social setting which is fiercely secular in any public forum, that would prove to be, of course, "too much." Which is fine. I am simply expanding upon my own train of thought when I first read "See Good in People" during an evening walk. My mind had something to focus on for the rest of the way home.

We can see God in other people because that is the express will of God: to see the "other" as created in God's "image and likeness" with an eternal destiny and the promise and potential of being a deified creature that will "shine like the sun" in the Kingdom of God. That is a very positive assessment of human nature! 

Every person we encounter has that potential destiny according to our understanding of God's revelation. We respect that and thank God for it. We need to "see" that and keep it firmly in mind, since we are frequently deeply disappointed with our actual daily encounters and in the world around us. (We should be even more disappointed in our own inability to manifest the light of God's image within us and confess that when it happens).

We thus maintain an over-all positive assessment of human nature together with a very realistic understanding of the distortions our human nature can undergo through life's journey and challenges. And those distortions can reach hideous proportions: Someone just shot over five hundred people in one of our American cities. That can only be understood - if we can possibly "understand" this at all - as a total capitulation to the "dark side." This is why Dostoevsky spoke of God and the devil battling for mastery of the human heart. (He actually derived that thought from St. Macarius the Great, an early desert father).

To "see God in people" can only help us overcome the manifold prejudices that inflict such a blight on our human relationships. Can we teach our children to "see good in people" if we do not, based on some prejudice we stubbornly cling to?

It is almost impossible to be totally prejudice-free or, on a somewhat different level, to be free of all cynicism. But that is what Christ expects of those of us who bear His name. As we continue to journey through life, I continue to believe that without succumbing to "romanticism," superficial idealism," or "sentimentality," we need to and can "See Go(o)d in People!"

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Let Us Attend! - The Divine Liturgy and the Scripture Readings

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Take heed then to how you hear."  (LK. 18:18)  
Make sure that you never refuse to listen when He speaks."  (HEB. 12:25)
We are blessed with hearing the Scriptures at every Divine Liturgy, be it the Lord's Day or any other day on which the Liturgy is celebrated. Therefore, we will hear at least one reading from an Epistle and one from a Gospel.  When the calendar so designates it, there may be two readings.  When there exists a complicated convergence of feast days and commemorations, there are even Liturgies at which there may be as many as three prescribed readings!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishop or Priest:  Peace be unto all.

Choir:  And to your spirit.

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

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

Priest:  Let us attend!

This solemn dialogue both reveals to us that we are about to do something of great importance:  proclaim the living Word of God amidst the assembled believers - clergy and laity alike. And this prefatory dialogue is therefore meant to get our attention. In fact, the final words before the actual reading are:  "Let us attend!"  In some translations, it may be:  "Let us be attentive!"  In simple English it could be:  "Pay attention!"

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

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

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

As a possible "test" to measure our actual attentiveness at a given Liturgy, we can ask ourselves later in the day - or perhaps even during the week! - what was the Gospel reading that I heard earlier in the Liturgy? An attentive listening of the Gospel would mean that we can identify the evangelist and, even more importantly, the prescribed text for the day.  And the same should hold true for the Epistle reading.  "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

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

To further emphasize the great significance of the Gospel reading at the Liturgy, there is a wonderful prayer said by the celebrant before we actually get to the dialogue outlined and commented on above.  This prayer is placed immediately after the final alleluia verse following the Epistle reading.  And it prepares us for the ensuing dialogue. For this reason alone it is my humble opinion that this "prayer before the Gospel" must be chanted/read aloud by the celebrant of the Liturgy - the bishop or priest. That is the practice in our parish. Why should a prayer that embraces everyone present be read "silently" by the clergy alone?  Though we have heard this prayer countless times, perhaps bringing it to mind here will be helpful.  For the attentive reader of the Scriptures, there are various scriptural passages that are gathered together, alluded to, or paraphrased in this prayer, a few of which will be pointed out:

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

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

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Divine Liturgy - 'The Liturgy of the Word'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"We need to take refuge with the Church, to drink milk at her breast, to be fed with the Scriptures of the Lord. For the Church  has been planted in the world as a paradise."

- St. Irenaeus of Lyons

"We are said to drink the blood of Christ not only when we receive it according to the rite of the mysteries, but also when we receive his words, in which life dwells, as he said himself: 'The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life'."

- Origen
At yesterday's Liturgy I delivered a second homily about the meaning and practice of the Liturgy. Here is the briefest of outlines:

+ I began by sharing a passage from Fr. John Meyendorff, a great Orthodox historian and theologian, on the paschal nature of the Liturgy. This passage from darkness to light; and from death to life is the basic and most fundamental truth of the Liturgy. It is the crucified, risen and glorified Lord who is in our midst.

+ When we come to the reading of the Scriptures and the ensuing homily, we have reached the culminating point of the first half of the Liturgy - the Liturgy of the Word or of the Catechumens, as it is usually called. The two texts cited above already reveal to us the great power of the Scriptures. We are proclaiming the "words of the Word" (of God) at every Liturgy. That is why we first hear: "Let us Attend" before the actual reading. It is one thing to hear the Gospel; and another to listen with attention. In a very real sense, we commune with Christ in and through his living word, before we commune with him in the Eucharist. There is this "double Communion" at every Liturgy which we need to be mindful and respectful of. Therefore, arriving at the Liturgy after the Gospel means that one is not properly prepared to receive the Eucharist and should refrain from doing so.

+ The first part of the Liturgy is filled with litanies, antiphons and prayers. The first two antiphons are based on psalmody. The hymn attached to the second homily, "Only begotten Son of God," is thoroughly paschal in nature and is one example of how the paschal mystery permeates the Liturgy.

+ There is the immovable structure of the Liturgy - what remains unchanging; but every Sunday we sing and chant the various troparia and kontakia which change from Sunday to Sunday. The resurrectional troparia and kontakia rotate in an eight-week cycle according to the appointed tone of the week. The number eight is chosen for its symbolic value: the Liturgy is celebrated on the "eighth day" of the week - the day of the Kingdom which takes us beyond the time of this world signified by our seven-day week. We also sing troparia and kontakia commemorating the particular saints or events which fall on a given Sunday. Yesterday, we commemorated St. Romanos the Melode, the very creator of the kontakion, whose icon is on one of our deacon's doors.

+ In the Gospel yesterday, we heard from Jesus to "love our enemies." This does not mean to be emotionally attached to them. It means to treat them in a certain way. If our enemy "hates" us and treats us accordingly, and if we then "hate the hater" -  and treat them accordingly - then we are no different and the cycle of hostility and perhaps violence simply perpetuates itself. And there is a lot of hate going around these days. To follow Christ and the Gospel means we need to rise above it as well as possible. Very difficult and very challenging. But it is an effort we need to make if we come to the Liturgy and hear the Gospel.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Divine Liturgy - Introduction

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The divine liturgy is  truly a heavenly service on earth, in which God himself, in a particular, immediate and most clear manner is present and dwells with men, for he himself is the invisible celebrant of the service; he is both the offerer and the offering. There is on earth nothing higher, greater, more holy, than the liturgy; nothing more solemn, nothing more life-giving."

- St. John of Kronstadt
Keeping the words of Fr. John of Kronstadt in mind, I am going to offer a "few" homilies in the upcoming weeks on the meaning and practice of the Divine Liturgy. By way of reminder, and by way of keeping those who were not at yesterday's Liturgy informed of what I began with, I am simply summarizing the major points from yesterday - both from the Liturgy and the post-Liturgy discussion.

I did remind everyone at the outset of the homily that it could seem like we were merely reviewing what we already knew for the most part. But in the Church to review means to renew - to renew our commitment to Christ, to the Church, and to our deepest possible experience that is offered to us in the Divine Liturgy. Renewal is an ongoing process that is essential in our relationship with God. In short, to review is to renew.

+ The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as served and celebrated today, is the result of a long process of development. — From the apostolic "breaking of bread" to the ongoing experience of the Liturgy to this day, we find a remarkable continuity of meaning and experience. The Liturgy is identical with itself all through the history of the Church. We all experience the same presence of Christ and the reception of the Eucharist as did the earliest Christians in the apostolic Church. On that level the Liturgy is unchanging. Yet, there have been many changes, additions, embellishments and expansive elements in the outward form of the Liturgy. We are essentially serving a Byzantine-style Liturgy that did not reach its completed form until the late medieval period within the context of the Eastern Christian world, centered in Constantinople, now Istanbul. You can trace this development in a fine book by Hugh Wybreth on the Liturgy.

+ The very title of "Divine Liturgy" is deeply meaningful. — Liturgy is from the Gk. leitourgia meaning the "common action" or "common work" of the assembled people. This is just one more word from the realm of ancient Greek culture "baptized" by the Church to now refer to the assembly of the Christian faithful prepared to offer its "common action/work" of being the People of God and Body of Christ - the Church - in a given local setting. Liturgy is something that we do. There are no passive participants. By praying together with the prayers of the Liturgy and sealing those common prayers with our collective "amen," we are all doing something in common and communal. To come to church is "to liturgize" within the framework of the Liturgy.

+ The Liturgy is "divine" because it is ultimately from God. — We gather to worship the living God - the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Liturgy is about God before it is about us. This sense of the holiness of God pervades the Liturgy: "Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of Sabbaoth!" If we actualize the presence of Christ in the Liturgy, then Christ is the Gift of God to us and for us. We are thus working with God in the Liturgy as we prepare to encounter Christ in the Gospel and in the Eucharist.

+ We begin the Liturgy with the solemn doxology: "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..." Our destination is announced from the beginning. — The Kingdom of God is an already present reality that we perhaps most clearly perceive and experience precisely in the Liturgy. We "ascend" into the Kingdom in the Liturgy and from the heavenly banquet table we receive and partake of the the Lamb of God "slain before the foundation of the world." We thus anticipate the Kingdom that will come at the end of history here and now in the Liturgy. We even "remember" the "second and glorious coming" in the anamnesis.

+ St. John of Kronstadt has got it right: there is nothing comparable to the Liturgy for Orthodox Christians. — It is the heart and soul of parish life from which everything else flows outwardly into our lives and into the world as we carry it with us when we "depart in peace."

+ Next Sunday, I will concentrate on the first part of the Liturgy culminating with the reading of the Scriptures.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Glory to God for Autumn

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

(Here is an older meditation from over a decade ago. I thought to bring it back to life in case anyone would be interested in something that deals with the season of Fall that begins today).

Glory to God for Autumn

Fall officially begins at 4:02 p.m. (East Coast time) on Friday, September 22.  And that means later today. From my personal—and, admittedly, “subjective”—perspective, there is nothing quite like the fall among the four seasons.  For me, one of this season’s greatest attractions is found in the flaming red, orange, yellow and golden leaves that transform familiar trees into a series of neighborhood “burning bushes,” each one seemingly brighter than the other.  When combined with a piercing blue sky on a sunlit day and a certain crispness in the air, I find myself more vividly aware of the surrounding world and thankful for God’s creation.

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

Growing up on a typical city block in Detroit, I distinctly recall a neighborhood “ritual” that marked this particular season:  the raking and burning of leaves that went on up and down the entire block once most of the leaves had spiraled and floated to the ground.  Everyone on the block raked the leaves down toward the street and into neatly formed mounds of color that rested alongside the curb.  Then they were lit and the task of raking now became that of tending and overseeing the piles of burning leaves.  This usually occurred after dinner for most families, but one could still see the shimmering waves of heat that protected one from the early evening chill and the ascending ashes rushing upward. Please momentarily forgive my politically incorrect indifference to the environment, but I thoroughly enjoyed those small bonfires near the curb as the pungent smell of burning leaves filled the air.  This unmistakable smell would, as I recall, linger in the air for a couple of weeks or more as different neighbors got to the task at different times.

The entire scene embodied the wholesomeness of a 1950s first-grade reading primer, as “Mom” and “Dad,” together with “Dick” and “Jane” (and perhaps “Spot,” the frisky family dog) smilingly cooperated in this joint, familial enterprise.  The reading primer would reformulate this “celebration” of healthy work and a neatly ordered environment into a staccato of minimally-complex sentences:  “See Dad rake;” “Dick and Jane are raking too;” “Here comes mom!”  This all served to increase the budding student’s vocabulary while reinforcing a picture of an idealized—if not idyllic—American way of life.

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

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

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

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

O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest.  Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds.  All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness.  Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love.  Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever.  In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry:  Alleluia! [Kontakion 2]
You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise.  We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing.  We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams.  We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey.  We can live very well on Your earth.  It is a pleasure to be Your guest.  [Ikos 2]
I see Your heavens resplendent with stars.  How glorious You are, radiant with light!  Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars.  I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side.  Your right arm guides me wherever I go. [Ikos 5]

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

'Wood is healed by Wood'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Let all the trees of the forest rejoice,
For their nature is sanctified by Christ who planted
   them in the beginning,
And who was Himself outstretched on the Tree.
At its exaltation today we worship Him and glorify
- Canon hymn from the Matins of the Feast.

The Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross raises a myriad of themes—Biblical, historical, theological, etc.—upon which to meditate.  One such theme is what we call a typological reading of the Scriptures.  This is a profound way of discovering the inner connection between persons, events, and places of the Old Testament—what we would call “types”—with their fulfillment as “antitypes” in the New Testament.  Thus, Adam is a type of which Christ—the last Adam—is the antitype:  “Adam… was the type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14).

Through typology, we learn that the Old Testament can now be read as anticipating the Person of Christ and the saving events recorded in the New Testament, without undermining the integrity of the historical path of ancient Israel as the People of God, entrusted by God with a messianic destiny. 

One such typological application is expressed in an intriguing and paradoxical manner through one of the hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.  As we sing in one of the verses from the festal Great Vespers, 

“For it is fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the suffering of him who was condemned because of wood.”

What a truly wonderful phrase: “wood should be healed by wood!”  Yet, what is this “wood” to which the hymn refers?  How does wood “heal” wood?  

In both instances, the wood is clearly the wood of two trees—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as found in Genesis 2, and the wood of the Tree of the Cross.  In disobedience to the command of God, the man and woman of Genesis 2—Adam and Eve—ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  This was the one tree, the fruit of which it was not safe for them to eat: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).

The freedom and self-determination of the first man and woman were tested by this divine commandment.  In a celebrated interpretation of this passage, Saint Gregory the Theologian (+395) draws out the meaning of this command and its consequences.  “[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on,” he writes.  

“This law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of and which one he might not touch.  This latter was the tree of knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us—let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction or imitate the serpent.  But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time.  The tree was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy, just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk”  (Second Oration on Easter, 8).

Saint Athanasius the Great (+373) express this in similar terms.  

“Knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation God secured the grace given to them by a command and by the place where He put them.  For He brought them into His own garden and gave them a law so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise or incorruption in heaven.  But if they transgressed and turned back and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death that was theirs by nature,  no longer to live in paradise but cast out of it from that time forth to die and abide in death and corruption”  (On The Incarnation, 3.4).

The theme of the initial innocence of Adam and Eve—their lack of maturity and their need for spiritual growth and maturation—was quite characteristic of the Church Fathers, being found as early as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (+c. 200).  “Therefore, the ‘wood’ of this tree proved to be death-dealing, not because God made it such ‘in the beginning,’ but because it was partaken of in a forbidden manner and not ‘at the proper time,’” he wrote.  

Nothing created by God is evil by nature; rather, all is “very good.”  But misdirected free will can pervert the good into something that is evil.  The gift of the promise of deification is a God-sourced gift, not a self-sourced gift.

On the other hand, the Tree of the Cross is precisely the wood through which the first disobedience was undone by the One Who died on it in obedience to the will of the Father.  The Tree of Life that was in the Garden was the actual “type” of the Tree of the Cross on Golgotha.  The last Adam—Christ—healed us of the sin of the first Adam.  (As early as Saint Justin the Martyr, it was taught that the Virgin Mary was the “new Eve” also because of her obedience to the Word of God).  

The Cross is therefore “the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass.  For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam is by the Cross himself deceived, and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity is overthrown in headlong fall” (Sticheron, Great Vespers). 

Obedience is hardly a virtue that is found attractive or worthy of pursuit in today's world; but a great virtue nevertheless due to the Lord's obedience to the will of his heavenly Father when he willingly - obediently - ascended the Cross for our salvation.

According to a pious tradition, the place of the skull—Golgotha—is the place where Adam was buried when he died.  The blood that flowed from Christ “baptized” that skull as symbolic of the sons of Adam (and Eve) being given renewed and eternal life by the blood shed by Christ on the Cross—the Tree of Life.  As we sing in one of the Litiya hymns for the feast, “The Tree of true life was planted in the place of the skull, and upon it hast Thou, the eternal King, worked salvation in the midst of the earth.  Exalted today, it sanctifies the ends of the world.”  (We might note here that it is in this light that in icons of the crucifixion, we generally see the Cross of Christ “planted” on the skull of Adam, with an inscription that reads “the Grave of Adam.”)

“Wood is healed by Wood!”  This is the good news revealed in the typological interpretation found in the liturgical hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, together with the biblical exegesis of the Church Fathers.  This is why we honor and venerate the Cross by literally bowing down before it in adoration.  The Cross was at the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel, though an instrument of shame in the ancient world.  But this did not deter the Apostle Paul from proclaiming that Gospel is the power of God.  “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).  And we also cannot be “ashamed” of the Tree of the Cross through which “joy has come into the world.”

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Crucified King of Glory

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On September 14 we celebrate the Feast Day of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross—to give the Feast its full title.  This is the day that we liturgically commemorate and venerate the Cross that was placed in the middle of the church toward the end of the service the prior evening.  The Feast will then have a full “octave” for its celebration – thus making it an eight-day Feast which serves to stress the importance of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives. 

To further turn our attention toward the Cross, we recall the Third Sunday of Great Lent — the Adoration of the Cross — and the less well-observed Feast of the Procession of the Cross on August 1.  And, importantly, every Wednesday and Friday is a day of commemorating the Cross, one of the reasons that we fast on those two days on a weekly basis.

Prominent as the Cross may be for Christians, it is the Apostle Paul who very succinctly and profoundly captured the unbelieving world’s attitude toward the Cross in his well-known text: 

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).  

This leads the Apostle to one of his most astonishing and paradoxical insights: 

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:26).

The “scandal” for the unbelieving Jew would be the claim that the Messiah was crucified.  The “folly” for the Greek/Gentile would be the claim that the divine would even enter the realm of flesh and blood and “become” human, let alone suffer death on a cross.  Yet God, in and through Christ, transformed what is shameful, weak, lowly and despised—a crucified man—into “our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” [1 Corinthians 1:30].  The entire passage of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 deserves careful, close and constant study. 

It remains fascinating, and highly instructive, that even non-Christians who profess to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, struggle terribly with the scandal of the Cross.  This is clearly the case with Islam.  Jesus is treated with great respect in many passages in the Qur’an, even to the point of acknowledging His virginal conception in a passage that clearly resembles the Annunciation account in the Gospel According to Saint Luke [Qur’an, 3:45-47]! 

However, the crucifixion is treated in a way that bears no resemblance to the Gospel accounts: “Yet they did not slay him, neither crucify him, only a likeness of that was shown to them” [4:156-159].  The Muslims believe that someone else—a figure unidentified by the Qur’an—was crucified in the place of Christ, but not Jesus Himself.  The Muslim scholar Dr. Maneh Al-Johani wrote, “The Qur’an does not elaborate on this point, nor does it give any answer to this question.” 

Clearly, the “scandal” of the Cross is too much for Muslim sensibilities, since Jesus is for them a great prophet sent by God.  Muslims further believe that Jesus was raised to Heaven, yet before He died—clearly an odd teaching that again is meant to completely distance Jesus from His crucifixion.  If there is anything that is agreed upon today among New Testament scholars—believers and skeptics alike—it is that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion by orders of Pontius Pilate in the early 30s of the Christian era.  This lends a certain fantastic quality to these claims of the Qur’an.

There is a close resemblance here with an early Christian heresy known as docetism—from the Greek word meaning “to appear.”  In other words, it only “appeared” that Christ was actually crucified and died on the Cross.  Saint Ignatius of Antioch (+c. 110) vehemently rejected this heresy in its initial inception early in the second century: 

“Be deaf, then, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, Who was of the family of David, Who was of Mary, Who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died ... He was also truly raised from the dead, when His Father raised Him up….”  [Epistle to the Trallians, 9].

Saint Ignatius very poignantly asks, what is the purpose of suffering martyrdom for the Lord (as he did in the Roman arena) if the sufferings of Christ were an illusion?  Should a Christian suffer in the flesh if his Lord did not?  As he writes,

“But if, as some godless men—that is, unbelievers—say His suffering was only apparent (they are the apparent ones), why am I in bonds, why do I pray to fight wild beasts?  Then I die in vain.  Then I lie about the Lord” [To the Trallians, 10].

We do not “worship” the Cross.  We worship the One Who was crucified upon the Cross for our salvation.  Indeed, with the Apostle Paul we call Him the “Lord of glory” [1 Corinthians 2:8].  Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet in a chain of prophets sent by God.  He is the fulfilment of the prophetic testimony to His coming, as He is the fulfilment of the Law [Matthew 5:17].  There are no prophets to follow Him with any further additions to the Christian revelation.  We believe, as we chant in the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy, that He is the “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God ... Who without change didst become man and was crucified.”  The Cross remains “an unconquerable token of victory” and “an invincible shield.”  In fact, it is for this reason that in our practice, we “kiss with joy the Wood of salvation, on which was stretched Christ the Redeemer” [Small Vespers].

Christianity does not exist because of what it holds in common with other great world religions, but because of what is unique and distinctive about it, primarily the Incarnation, redemptive Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is because of our love for Christ that beginning on the personal level, we must promote and practice mutual respect, tolerance and peaceful co-existence with sincerely believing people of other religions.  I see no other way for those who claim to follow the crucified Lord of glory. 

However, this should in no way undermine our sense of Christian distinctiveness—“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]—but actually demonstrate our loyalty to Christ Who never compels but invites, with outstretched arms upon the Cross.

Friday, September 8, 2017

To See Life with 'Restored Vision'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The church was quite filled – and the “Communion line” was quite long – at yesterday evening's Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos.  There is a long day behind us by the time we get to the service, and so it is very encouraging to see so many of the parish faithful make the effort to be present for the Feast.  Coming as it does right after the beginning of the Church New Year, this Feast allows us a good start that we further hope we can sustain as the liturgical year unfolds before us.  As a straightforward and joyous feast of commemorating the birth of the Virgin Mary, we receive a “taste” of the joyousness of life from within the Church that is often obscured by life’s challenges, difficulties and tragedies.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it like this: 

In and through this newborn girl, Christ – our gift from God, our meeting and encounter with Him – comes to embrace the world.  Thus, in celebrating Mary’s birth we find ourselves already on the road to Bethlehem, moving toward to the joyful mystery of Mary as the Mother of God.

In an age of cynicism and unbelief, to encounter the purity of Mariam of Nazareth – the Virgin Mary and Theotokos – is to see life with a restored vision that, again, is only possible from within the Church.  Goodness, purity of heart and faithfulness to God are embodied realities lived by real human persons.  Such a restored vision of life will strengthen our sense of the inherent goodness of life that sin may obscure, but never obliterate.  Yet,  if  we can no longer “see” that, then we have lost something absolutely vital to our humanity, and we need to repent and embrace that “change of mind” that will restore our own humanity.

Some will undoubtedly see nothing but a stereotype of the “feminine” here, but perhaps Fr. Schmemann has something worthwhile to say in his approach to the “image of woman” as manifested in the Virgin Mary:

The Virgin Mary, the All-Pure Mother demands nothing and receives everything.  She pursues nothing, and possesses all.
In the image of the Virgin Mary we find what has almost completely been lost in our proud, aggressive, male world:  compassion, tender-heartedness, care, trust, humility.  We call her our Lady and the Queen of heaven and earth, and yet she calls herself “the handmaid of the Lord.” 
She is not out to teach or prove anything, yet her presence alone, in its light and joy, takes away the anxiety of our imagined problems.  It is as if we have been out on a long, weary, unsuccessful day of work and have finally come home, and once again all becomes clear and filled with that happiness beyond words which is the only true happiness. 
Christ said, “Do not be anxious … Seek first the Kingdom of God” (see Mt. 6:33).  Beholding this woman – Virgin, Mother, Intercessor – we begin to sense, to know not with our mind but with our heart, what it means to seek the Kingdom, to find it, and to live by it.  (Celebration of Faith, Vol. 3)

On the day following the Feast – September 9 – we commemorate the “ancestors of God,” Joachim and Anna, the father and mother of the Virgin Mary according to the Tradition of the Church.  This is a consistent pattern within our festal and liturgical commemorations:  On the day after a particular feast, we commemorate the persons who are an integral part of that feast day’s events.  For example, the day after Theophany we commemorate St. John the Baptist; and on the day after Nativity, we commemorate the Theotokos.  Therefore, because of the essential role of Joachim and Anna in the current Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity, today is the “synaxis of Joachim and Anna”  and we thus bring them to mind in an effort to  discern and meditate upon their important place in this festal commemoration.

The source of their respective roles is the Protoevangelion of James, a mid 2nd c. document.  As Archbishop Ware has written: 

The Orthodox Church does not place the Protoevangelion of James on the same level as Holy Scripture:  it is possible, then, to accept the spiritual truth which underlies this narrative, without necessarily attributing a literal and historical exactness to every detail.

One of those “spiritual truths” alluded to by Archbishop Ware is the account of both Joachim and Anna continuing to pray with faith and trust in God’s providence even though they were greatly discouraged over the “barrenness” of Anna.  A lack of children in ancient Israel could easily be taken for a sign of God’s displeasure, thus hinting at hidden sins that deserve rebuke. Though disheartened, they continued to place their trust in God, refusing to turn away from God though thoroughly tested as to their patience.  

Perseverance in prayer in the face of discouragement is a real spiritual feat that reveals genuine faith.  The conception and then birth of the Virgin Mary reveals to joyous outcome of their faith and trust in God.  Perhaps this is why we commemorate Joachim and Anna as the “ancestors of God” at the end of every Dismissal in our major liturgical services, including the Divine Liturgy:  We seek their prayers as icons of an everyday faith that is expressed as fidelity, faith and trust in God’s Law and providential care.

Joachim and Anna could also be witnesses to a genuine conjugal love that manifests itself in the conception and birth of a new child.  Their union is an image of a “chaste” sexual love that is devoid of lust and self-seeking pleasure.  The strong ascetical emphases of many of our celibate saints may serve to undermine or obscure the blessings of conjugal love as envisaged in the Sacrament of Marriage.  In fact, through its canonical legislation going back to early centuries, the Church has struggled against a distorted asceticism that denigrates sexual love even within the bonds of marriage as a concession to uncontrollable passions.  The Church is not “anti-sex.”  But the Church always challenges us to discern the qualitative distinction between love and lust.  The icon of the embrace of Joachim and Anna outside the gates of their home as they both rush to embrace each other following the exciting news that they would indeed be given a child, is the image of  this purified conjugal love that will result in the conception of Mary, their child conceived as all other children are conceived.

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos has four days of Afterfeast, thus ending with the Leavetaking on September 12.  That allows us to then prepare for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on September 14!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

'Making Room' for Christ and His Church

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel! (I Cor 9:16)

Although rather overlooked and perhaps inconsistently observed for that very reason, the Church New Year (September 1) nevertheless allows us the opportunity to review, reassess and then renew our commitment to our lives in the Church. That would also include our commitment to the living God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for as Orthodox Christians we experience the mercy and love of God in and through Jesus Christ within the grace-filled life of the Church.

Commitment raises issues as wide-ranging as our use of time, our resources and our energy, here understood as what deeply "moves" us to live and act in a certain way.  Commitment reveals just what we are "passionate" about. That raises further wide-ranging challenges to our pursuit of the life "in Christ" as there is just so much "out there" to be passionate about, and hence to commit ourselves to.  Or so it would seem.

And thus, as our lives crowd up with a combination of unavoidable demands and our own more personal choices, we realize that we only have "room" for so much in our lives. We are all very committed to the well-being of our families; so assuming that as a matter of course, we can then ask the questions: Just what is the extent of my commitment to Christ and the Church? To what extent do I have room for the Church in my life? 

If we make the honest assessment that, in answer to this question, I really have only a limited amount of room for the Church; and that because of that I find myself compartmentalizing my "religious" and "normal" life rather unconsciously; then a further question persists: To what extent do I make room for the Church in my life?

This is a more probing question, because to make room for the Church in my life, I must make some hard choices and consciously change some priorities. I may have to make some sacrifices concerning those ever-important components of time, resources and energy. Being committed to Christ and the Church is not about finding a "comfort zone" and then staying within its confines; it is about breaking out of that comfort zone in order to encounter the "living God" which is meant to be an awesome experience: "and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). Or, as Christ Himself said decisively: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt 6:21).

Taking up the challenge to make room for Christ and the Church we can initially explore this on the level of parish life.

Over the years, I have tried to consistently maintain what I call the "three pillars" of parish life: worship, education and charity. There is more to parish life, but I begin with these three components, for if they are strong than the parish will be strong - and spiritually healthy.

Worship, education and charity are hopefully rather self-explanatory and therefore do not need to be analyzed in detail. However, by way of reminder we could say in summary fashion that we begin with the worship of God as expressed above in the text from Hebrews; we deepen our faith in God through education by seeking to learn about our shared Orthodox faith in a communal setting of support and fellowship; and through charity we extend the love of Christ for the world by sharing of our own parish and personal wealth with the "least of these my brethren" (Matt 25: 40).  Once we make our commitment to these "pillars" we will be cheerful givers in support of the parish's life and activities. In fact, Christian stewardship can be added as an essential "fourth pillar" of parish life!

I spoke initially of reviewing, reassessing and renewing our commitment to Christ and the Church. Focusing as we are on parish life, is it possible that you could extend your present parish participation further by expanding your commitment to worship, education and charity on the parish level? And also become a more faithful steward of your time, resources, and energy? If room needs to be made, are you able to actually make that room regardless of the "cost?"

Of course, each and every member of the parish must make that choice on a personal or family level. (On that more personal and family level other elements of commitment may come to mind, from praying together, reading the Scriptures, helping our neighbors, etc.). If anyone is quite content with how things stand presently, then so be it - that is in and of itself a choice to be made.

However, if you think there may be something "missing" from the patterns of your life, then I hope this reminder of what our parish is committed to in the service of Christ and the Gospel, will serve as something worthy of your reflection with the goal of offering up the "first fruits" of your lives to the living God.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Can't Get No Satisfaction... Thank God!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Relatively speaking, the meditation being presented here was written some time ago - Fall 2007.  I am quite sure that anyone who read it then has long forgotten it!  But for those who are new to the parish, and for those who are willing to give it another read, I thought that it would have a certain resonance since it was only yesterday evening when we chanted the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God For All Things"  as we acknowledged the Church New Year beginning on September 1.  I say that because there are certain thoughts expressed in the Hymn that led me to write this particular meditation.

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Can't Get No Satisfaction... Thank God!

"My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." —Psalm 42:2 
"I can't get no satisfaction" —The Rolling Stones

"I (Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones must be considered one of the great all-time "classics" of the pop/rock music world.

I remember it well from the Summer of 1965. With its driving guitar riff and raspy-voiced lyrics giving a kind of pop-articulation to the disaffection of the lonely and alienated urbanite who, try as he might, just cannot succeed at "satisfying" the material and romantic/sexual goals droned into his mind on the radio and TV; this song - regardless of its actual intentions - managed to say something enduring about the "human condition." (I wonder if the various members of the Rolling Stones ever experience any genuine satisfaction after many years of fame and fortune).

Be that as it may, a rather odd connection came to me between this song and a verse from "The Akathist of Thanksgiving" that we sang and chanted yesterday evening for the Church New Year beginning today, September 1. In Ikos Six of the akathist, one of the verses in the refrain reads as follows:

Glory to You, Who have inspired in us dissatisfaction with earthly things.

Both the Stones' song and the Orthodox hymn speak of "no satisfaction" or "dissatisfaction." However by "earthly things," the author of this remarkable hymn does not mean the natural world in which God has placed us. The refrain of Ikos Three makes that abundantly clear:

Glory to You, Who brought out of the earth's darkness diversity of color, taste and fragrance,
Glory to You, for the warmth and caress of all nature,
Glory to You, for surrounding us with thousands of Your creatures,
Glory to You, for the depth of Your wisdom reflected in the whole world ...

To the purified eyes of faith, the world around us can be a "festival of life" ... foreshadowing eternal life" (Ikos Two). The "earthly" can lead us to the "heavenly."

"Earthly things" in the context of the Akathist Hymn and the Orthodox worldview expressed in the Hymn, would certainly refer to the very things the Rolling Stones song laments about being absent - material and sexual satisfaction seen as ends in themselves. But whereas the song expresses both frustration and resentment as part of the psychic pain caused by such deprivation, the Akathist Hymn glorifies God for such a blessing! In the light of the insight of the Akathist Hymn, we can thus speak of a "blessed dissatisfaction." The Apostle Paul spoke of a closely-related "godly grief." (On this point, I would imagine that the Apostle Paul and Rolling Stones part company).

This just may prove to be quite a challenge to our way of approaching something like dissatisfaction.

Our usual instinct is to flee from dissatisfaction "as from the plague." Such a condition implies unhappiness, a sense of a lack of success, of "losing" in the harsh game of life as time continues to run out on us; and the deprivation and frustration mentioned above.

Why should we tolerate the condition of dissatisfaction when limitless means of achieving "satisfaction" are at our disposal? To escape from a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction, don't people resort to alcohol, drugs and sex as desperate forms of relief? Or unrestrained and massive consumer spending? And we should not eliminate "religion" as one of those means of escape.

If those means fail, then there is always therapy and medication as more aggressive means to relieve us of this unendurable feeling.

Sadly, many learn "the hard way," that every ill-conceived attempt to eliminate dissatisfaction through "earthly things" only leads to a further and deeper level of this unsatiable affliction. Sadder still, there are many who would "forfeit their soul/life" just to avoid the bitter taste of dissatisfaction!

If the living God exists as we believe that He does, then how could we not feel dissatisfaction at His absence from our lives? What could possibly fill the enormous space in the depth of our hearts that yearns for God "as a hart longs for flowing streams." (Ps. 42:1)

It is as if when people "hear" the voice of God calling them - in their hearts, their conscience, through another person, a personal tragedy - they reach over and turn up the volume so as to drown out that call.

If we were made for God, then each person has an "instinct for the transcendent" (I recall this term from Fr. Alexander Schmemann), that can only be suppressed at an incalculable cost to our very humanity.

In His infinite mercy, the Lord "blesses" us with a feeling of dissatisfaction so that we do not foolishly lose our souls in the infinitesimal pseudo-satisfactions that come our way. Therefore, we thank God for the gift of "blessed dissatisfaction!"

When we realize that we "can't get no satisfaction," then we have approached the threshold of making a meaningful decision about the direction of our lives. The way "down" can lead to that kind of benign despair that characterizes the lives of many today. The way "up" to the One Who is "enthroned above the heavens" and the Source of true satisfaction.

The Rolling Stones uncovered the truth of an enduring condition that we all must face and must "deal with." I am not so sure about the solution they would ultimately offer ... but in their initial intuition they proved to be very "Orthodox!"

May the Church New Year fill us with "blessed dissatisfaction" so that we desire to seek and love God all the more!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Imitating God's 'Loving Faithfulness'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Your mercy is greater than the heavens, your faithfulness reaches to the skies." (Ps 108:5)

In the fine article "God's Mercy and Faithfulness," the biblical scholar, Jerome Kodell, begins with quoting from the Prologue of St. John's Gospel, wherein we hear twice of God's "grace and truth" (Jn 1:14,17). In Greek these two terms are charis and aletheia. Yet, these two key Greek terms are rooted in the Old Testament and the Hebrew phrase hesed w' emeth. These deeply suggestive words can mean "love and truth," "mercy and  faithfulness," "kindness and fidelity." And it was only of the God of Israel, the God who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, that such terms could be attributed.

In summarizing this absolute difference between Israel's experience of God based on the concepts of hesed w' emeth, and that of the surrounding nations, Kodell writes the following:

When the two concepts are brought together in the tradition they describe the God of Israel as "faithful love" or "loving faithfulness," a stunning revelation. 
YHWH is not like the gods of other nations, fickle, moody, vindictive, focused on themselves and interested in their adherents only as servile pawns: in other words, mirror images of the weak humans who created them.
The God of Israel is not self-focused, but is turned toward God's sons and daughters and only wants to help them receive what is best for them. Love in biblical terms is not a feeling but a decision to seek what is best for the other. God not only loves but is love (I Jn 4:8). This is the message of hesed
True love always involves faithfulness, but that quality is reinforced by the combination with emeth: "Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, because of your mercy and faithfulness." No other god was ever loving or faithful toward his or her worshipers. In fact, this attitude is completely foreign to the idea of deity in the nations surrounding Israel.

Yet, as Kodell further writes, this concept and experience of God must transform human lives and human relationships. He then further writes:

To be a child of this God means living in loving fidelity and faithful love toward our brothers and sisters. There is never reason to withdraw our love from someone, no matter how they disappoint or mistreat us, or no matter how sinful we perceive them to be. God never withdraws love from us, no matter what we do. God is faithful love and loving faithfulness and calls us to imitate him as God's own dear children.

There is always a profound reciprocity between who God is and who we are meant to be!