Friday, August 18, 2017

A 'Deathless Death' - Hope and Leaven for a world filled with death

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yet More Death - We hear again of two more mass-terrorist attacks in Europe, this time in Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, Spain. At least fourteen people were killed and hundreds wounded. Truly, a horrific event. The Islamic State group is taking "credit" for the attack. Those who kill in such a manner only serve to dehumanize themselves. Yet, innocent persons are the tragic victims of this process. We can only openly deplore the resort to this type of violence that is meant to spread mayhem, fear and intimidation within normal levels of society. Or so that seems to be one of the key motives behind such attacks.

Looking at the world today, one is tempted to think that things are spinning out-of-control. Divisiveness seems like a stronger attraction than unity as insular group mentality seems to plague the entire spectrum of what we label "the right" and "the left."

On the surface our own theological/spiritual vision of life seems to be ineffective in changing the world. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that that vision works as a "leaven" or as a "mustard seed" that cannot be visually seen to expand or grow. But there is imperceptible growth beneath the surface, as the leaven effects the whole loaf and the mustard seed grows into a tall tree (Matt 13:31-33). These are parabolic images of the Church. And it is through the vision of life that we embrace in the Church that we preserves our sanity and retain our humanity as "children of God" (Jn 1:12).  That is our witness to the world today.

Even if the commemorations that mark the internal life of the Church may seem hardly "relevant" to a confused and violent world today, perhaps, on further reflection, what we are doing in the Church is precisely for the sake of the world and its ultimate salvation.

Therefore, the recent feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the sign of hope in a world filled with death and destruction caused by human sinfulness. It is not an archaic celebration but an affirmation of life beyond the narrow confines of our short earthly existence. It is the sign of hope when hope seems to be in short supply. And it reminds us that victims of irrational violence are not merely "gone" but, by the grace of a loving God, "translated to life."

The following meditation is offered in that spirit of hope that the Church brings to the world.


The Dormition of the Theotokos - Celebrating a 'deathless death'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and peaceful ... let us ask of the Lord."

We continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos through the Leave-taking next Wednesday. For the Feast, in the center of the church was the tomb with a beautiful icon of the Mother of God in blessed repose to be venerated by the faithful.  (This icon will remain in the tomb which will be put back in its new normal spot in the back of the church, where everyone can venerate the image until the leave-taking of the Feast  on August 23). 

Dormition, of course, means "falling asleep," the Christian term par excellence for how we approach the mystery of death. And here we further approach the paradox, from a Christian perspective, of death itself: the "last enemy" that causes great anguish and grief; but yet which now serves as a passage to life everlasting, and thus a cause for festal celebration in the death of the Mother of God. For the Virgin Mary truly died, as is the fate of all human beings; and yet "neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos" who has been "translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!" 

Without for a moment losing sight of the reality of death (notice the weeping apostles around the body of the Theotokos on the Dormition icon), from within the Church we can actually celebrate death during this "summer pascha" because of the Resurrection of Christ.

Thus, the Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.”  For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:

I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people die and “Platonists” afterwards.  By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives.  —  From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.

To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:

For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break.  For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil.  Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it.  As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person.  — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.

St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:

By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil.  – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.

This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!”   The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.”  Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Statement on the events in Charlottesville, VA

Dear Parish Faithful,

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28)

In the light of current events, perhaps we need to state the obvious:

As members of the Orthodox Church committed to following the precepts of the Gospel, we clearly deplore and reject any notions of "white supremacy" and any groups that continue to provocatively espouse any such reprehensible claims - the KKK, neo-Nazis, "white nationalists," etc. 

Any and all forms of racism and bigotry are foreign to the Gospel of Christ. The Church needs to proclaim the moral vision of the Gospel that upholds the integrity and equality of all human beings called to be "children of God." 

It is one thing to have a lively and informative debate based on either "liberal" or "conservative" principles - clearly the hallmark of a healthy democracy - but this is not what is at issue today following the tragic events of this last weekend. 

The Orthodox Church in no way offers any support or legitimacy to movements that support notions of "white supremacy" or, for that matter, any and all forms of racial, ethnic or cultural claims of superiority. The Church actually rejected any such claims as a heresy under the name of "philetism" in the nineteenth century.

Below is the pastoral encyclical from our Holy Synod of Bishops addressing the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend. 

Fr Steven Kostoff

Holy Synod of Bishops issues statement on recent tragic events in Charlottesville, VA

A statement on the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, VA was issued and signed by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon and the members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on August 16, 2017.

The complete text of the statement appears below and in PDF format.

Statement of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, Who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. — Colossians 1:16-18

August 16, 2017

To the Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America,

Recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have highlighted the presence of un-Christian rhetoric and violent actions within our communities. At the same time, the response to these events by our civil leadership has unleashed a nationwide debate which has created a certain moral ambiguity, which in turn is fostering further division. Such a climate requires a clear response from the Church.

The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America joins people of faith and good will across the United States, Canada and Mexico in unequivocally, unreservedly and unambiguously rejecting words and actions which perpetrate, support or encourage hatred, violence, racism, white supremacy, white nationalism or neo-Nazism. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that every human being is a child of God, created in His image and likeness, and therefore we are all brothers and sisters whatever our race, nationality or creed.

At the same time, we also reject the climate of condemnation of the individuals carrying out these heinous activities. Indeed, Jesus rebuked his disciples when they suggested that he violently retaliate against his enemies. “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:55-56). The Church offers to all—without exception—not condemnation but a path to forgiveness and peace in Christ.

As the Orthodox prayer of confession says: “O Lord God, the Salvation of Thy servants, gracious, bountiful and long-suffering, who forgives us concerning our evil deeds, and desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his way and live: Show Thy mercy upon Thy servants and grant unto them an image of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance, pardoning their every transgression, whether voluntary or involuntary…”

We reject hatred and violence, and as Orthodox Christians we are also committed to the ministry of reconciliation. We encourage our clergy and faithful to hold fast to the Christian message of healing, salvation and love offered by Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. At the same time, we exhort our clergy and faithful to reject any attempts by individuals or groups to claim for themselves the name of “Orthodox Christian” in order to promote racism, hatred, white supremacy, white nationalism or neo-Nazism. This is in keeping with the Holy Gospels, the decisions of the Holy Councils and the experience of the Saints.

We remind the faithful that the Orthodox Church in America does not restrict membership to those of a particular race or nationality and has historically welcomed all, going back to the Alaskan Mission which embraced the indigenous peoples of that land and continuing to this day in the multicultural and multi-ethnic context of North America.

Brothers and sisters, Saint Justin Martyr, writing at a time when Christians were persecuted in the second century, said, “We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.” May that same spirit be ours today as well.

With our paternal love and blessings,

The Most Blessed TIKHON, Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada

The Most Reverend NATHANIEL, Archbishop of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate

The Most Reverend NIKON, Archbishop of Boston, New England and the Albanian Archdiocese

The Most Reverend BENJAMIN, Archbishop of San Francisco, and the Diocese of the West

The Most Reverend ALEJO, Archbishop of Mexico City and the Diocese of Mexico

The Most Reverend MELCHISEDEK, Archbishop of Pittsburgh and the Diocese of Western Pennsylvania

The Most Reverend MARK, Archbishop of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania

The Most Reverend IRÉNÉE, Archbishop of Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Canada

The Most Reverend MICHAEL, Archbishop of New York and the Diocese of New York and New Jersey

The Most Reverend ALEXANDER, Archbishop of Toledo, Dallas, the South and the Bulgarian Diocese

The Right Reverend DAVID, Bishop of Sitka and Alaska

The Right Reverend PAUL, Bishop of Chicago and the Midwest

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'Beyond Death and Judgment' - The Dormition of the Theotokos

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We enjoyed a truly wonderful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos yesterday evening. Attendance was very strong, there was a full choir, and the Vesperal Liturgy both lively and prayerful. As always, it was good to see some of our parish children and young adults present and worshiping. This "summer pascha" has steadily become an integral event of our parish life. And this is "meet and right."

American Christianity has been shaped by the Protestant ethos, and that basically means that there is no real place for the veneration of the Mother of God. This was primarily based upon a reaction against the perceived excesses of the medieval West's Marian piety by the early Protestant reformers. In a short time, this reaction became a thorough rejection - at times quite vehement - in many Protestant circles. So the Virgin Mary pretty much disappeared from Protestant worship and piety. Perhaps the classic example within Church history of "throwing out the baby with the bath water."

Orthodox Christians cannot succumb to any such truncated form of the Church's living Tradition.(However, there have been clear signs recently of a "recovery" of the role of the Virgin Mary in some Evangelical circles). One of my beloved professors from seminary always used to say that a sign of a spiritually strong parish is that parish's devotion to the Mother of God. For she is the personal image of the Church - warm, embracing, nurturing, protecting.

Since the Dormition has no biblical source, this feast slowly developed over the course of the first five centuries of the Church's history on the basis of a wide variety of sources - primarily narratives, rhetorical homilies and theological poetry/hymnography (Much of this material now exists in English translation). There is no one authoritative text or document.

However, though details may differ, a tradition emerged that tells of how the apostles were miraculously brought back to Jerusalem in order to surround the bedside of the Virgin Mary as she lay dying. Upon commending her holy soul to her Son and Savior, she peacefully "fell asleep" in death (the meaning of the word dormition) in the presence of the apostles who stood weeping and grief-stricken by her bedside. With great solemnity they buried her pure body which had itself been the "tabernacle" of the King. The traditional place of her burial is a tomb close to Gethsemane. When the tomb was opened on the third day so that the Apostle Thomas, who arrived late, could venerate the body of the Theotokos, it was found to be empty. The "Mother of Life" was thus "translated to life!"

Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarizes the Church's understanding of this tradition in the following manner:

Without insisting of the literal truth of every element in this account, Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body - like His - was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives wholly in the Age to Come. 
The Resurrection of the Body, which all Christians await, has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact. That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category: for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now. (The Festal Menaion, p. 64)

Fr. Thomas Hopko further elaborates on the meaning of this beautiful Feast and how it "relates" to every generation of Christians:

Thus, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the celebration of the fact that all men are "highly exalted" in the blessedness of the victorious Christ, and that this high exaltation has already been accomplished in Mary the Theotokos.
The feast of the Dormition is the sign, the guarantee, and the celebration that Mary's fate is the destiny of all those of "low estate" whose souls magnify the Lord, whose spirits rejoice in God the Savior, whose lives are totally dedicated to hearing and keeping the Word of God which is given to men in Mary's child, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

The Leavetaking of the Feast is on August 23. That means that we continue to sing and chant the troparion and kontakion of the Feast in our liturgical services until then, in addition to the other hymnography of the Feast. I would strongly urge everyone to incorporate these hymns into your daily rule of prayer, including their use when you bless your meals as a family, replacing the Lord's Prayer up until the Leavetaking. If you can't sing these hymns, you can certainly recite them! This is how we bring a remembrance of the Feasts into our homes. The troparia and kontakia of the major Feasts are included in many Orthodox Prayer Books, but if you do not have the texts available at home, I am including them here:

Troparion of the Dormition

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not
forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!

Kontakion of the Dormition

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life
by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!

The decorated tomb of the Theotokos, containing an icon of her sacred body in blessed repose, will be back in its usual place and open to our veneration whenever we enter the church. The great Feasts extend in time, giving us the opportunity of integrating them into our lives in a meaningful way.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Desire to remain in the Divine Glory

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Lord, it is well that we are here." 
(MATT. 17:4)

I have some lingering thoughts from yesterday's Leavetaking of the Transfiguration:

When Peter was on Mount Tabor in the presence of the transfigured Lord, he could only desire to prolong that mysterious experience. For Jesus had there revealed to the three disciples - Peter, James and John - His true nature as the eternal Son of God when He appeared to them resplendent in divine glory. When Moses and Elijah appeared and were speaking with Jesus this only further enhanced this incredible event in the mind of Peter, leading him to cry out: 

"Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah" (MATT. 17:4).

Jesus did not answer him directly, for while Peter "was still speaking ... a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him'" (17:5).  This further theophany was the "answer" that Peter received! At this, "the disciples ... fell on their faces, and were filled with awe" (17:6). But once Jesus "touched them, saying, 'Rise, and have no fear'" (17:8), it was time to descend from the height of the mountain and return to "ordinary reality" — Mount Tabor having been a taste of "extraordinary reality."

This descent from the mountain back into the world of everyday events and the conditions of the fallen world was essential, for Christ had yet to ascend the Cross as He had earlier prophesied (MATT. 16:21-23). In fact, while on the mountain, St. Luke refers to this as Christ's "... exodus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem" (LK. 9:31). As difficult as it was, this is what the disciples had to "listen" to.

Speaking of "back to reality," upon descending from the mountain, Jesus was immediately approached by a despairing father who wanted his son to be healed of his epilepsy, something his other disciples were unable to do, though given the "authority" to do so (MATT. 10:1). Troubled by this lack of faith, Jesus cried out, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long  am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" (17:17). At this point, Jesus cured the boy.

Although Peter did not know what he was saying on the mountain (LK. 9:33), it is hard for us to fault him for wanting to remain in the embrace of the uncreated light of divine glory. Whenever we are close to God, it only seems natural to say with Peter, "Lord, it is well that we are here." Thus, I believe that that natural response would be our own when gathered together to worship God, especially in the Divine Liturgy. By way of analogy and experience, we symbolically "ascend the mount" when we arrive for the Liturgy, in the process "laying aside all earthly cares."

During the Liturgy, we claim to be in the presence of the Holy Trinity: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." We will join the angelic powers in glorifying the Holy Trinity with their chant of "Holy! Holy! Holy!" We will first be nourished by Christ in the words of the Gospel; and then be further nourished as we will partake of Christ in the Eucharist. The Epistle to the Hebrews captures this with great power in a passage that seems to describe the experience of believers gathered in worship:

"who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come ... " (HEB. 6:4-5).

It is this experience that leads me to say that the rest of our day following the Liturgy is all "downhill!" If not literally, then at least figuratively as we "descend" back into the world.  For what could we possibly do; where could we possibly go; who could we possibly meet that would somehow surpass such a liturgical experience?!  It will be a better day for having first come to the Liturgy, but no matter how that day unfolds, it will remain anticlimactic! However, if we "depart in peace" - that is, with the peace of Christ "which surpasses all understanding" (Phil 4:7), the day will remain blessed.

This only renders it all the more curious when we are impatient with the time spent in the Liturgy.

Perhaps this is impelled by our fast-paced culture, when our days are a series of unrelated events one piled on the other, and demanding constant motion as we move from one place to another. If we are constantly "driven to distraction," then the meaningful unfolding of the Liturgy — which in itself is potentially an experience outside of time — will of necessity seem "too slow." And that very impatience may formulate itself as a series of blunt questions along the lines of: Why does the Liturgy take so long? Or, what can we do to make the Liturgy shorter?  

Those questions can never be answered in a satisfactory manner. Be that as it may, this impatience can manifest itself in a variety of "complaints" disguised as observations:

+ the homily is too long;
+ the choir is singing too slowly;
+ too many prayers are being read out loud;
+ there are so many communicants;
+ there is an extra service/blessing/prayer at the end of the Liturgy.

All of this only sabotages the possibility of the kind of positive experience outlined above. So, perhaps we can ask ourselves a very simple question if we are ever tempted with "liturgical impatience": Just what is the rush?

And once we realize that there is no rush, then we can begin to experience the depth, power and beauty of the Liturgy - from its opening doxology: "Blessed is the Kingdom," to the closing: "Let us depart in peace" — and everything in between!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Transfiguration: Cultivating the Image of Divine Beauty

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We will reach the Leavetaking of the Transfiguration of Christ on Sunday. Just a few more thoughts before we get there.

The mysterious presence of Beauty is revealed on Mt. Tabor in an overwhelming manner when Christ is transfigured there resplendent in divine glory. This is the beauty of the first-formed human creatures, created to reflect the beauty of the divine nature, for by grace they - and we - were created in the image and likeness of God.  And they were placed in a world that also reflected this divine beauty.  That is why God, after completing the creation process, declared that is was all "very good."

Yet, the presence of sin marred that beauty. This lost beauty was restored to humanity when the Son of God assumed our human nature, uniting it to His divine Person and revealing the glory of God in a human being. Thus, on Mt. Tabor, Christ reveals the beauty of His divine nature and the beauty of our created human nature. This is why the Transfiguration is often referred to as a Feast of Beauty.

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky (+1881) famously and somewhat enigmatically once said:  "Beauty will save the world." Yet, Dostoevsky also realized that in a world filled with sin, beauty can evoke responses that fall short of any saving value. In fact, beauty can even degenerate toward sin and sensuality, as one of Dostoevsky's greatest creations, Dmitri Karamazov, acknowledged with great anguish.

Therefore, for Dostoevsky beauty itself had to be "saved" and linked to Truth and Goodness. Thus, for the Russian novelist, beauty is not simply an aesthetic concept, but one that must have a moral, ethical and spiritual dimension for it to be rightly perceived and experienced. And for Dostoevsky as well as for not only great artists, but the great minds of the Church, beauty is not an abstract concept or Idea. Beauty is a Person, and this Person is Christ.  In Christ, Truth, Goodness and Beauty are harmoniously united.  This is why Dostoevesky also spoke of the "radiant image of Christ."  In another famous passage from his pen, found in a letter of his, Dostoevsky articulated his personal "creed:"

I have constructed for myself a symbol of faith in which everything is clear and holy for me.  The symbol is very clear, here it is:  to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, profounder, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ and not only is there nothing , but I tell myself with jealous love that never could there be.

It is these qualities that make Christ such an attractive figure that a well-disposed mind and heart not unduly influenced by the marks of a fallen world will almost naturally turn to as an "ideal," but again as a concrete living Person. There is a passage from Fr. Alexander Elchaninov (+1934), taken from his personal diary after his death, that captures that same intuition as found in Dostoevsky:

It is impossible not to love Christ. If we saw Him now, we should not be able to take our eyes off Him, we should "listen to him in rapture;" we should flock round Him as did the multitudes in the Gospels.  All that is required of us is not to resist. We have only to yield to Him, to the contemplation of His image - in the Gospels, in the saints, in the Church - and He will take possession of our hearts.

Here, again, there is an inherent moral, ethical and spiritual dimension from that beauty that flows outward from Christ. This is rendered in the form of very practical and concrete advice in the words of Vladimir Solovyov (+1900), for many the greatest Russian philosopher known to us:

Before any important decision, let us evoke in our soul the image of Christ. Let us concentrate our attention upon it and ask ourselves:  Would He Himself do this action? Or, in other words: Will He approve of it or not?
To all I propose this rule: it does not deceive. In every dubious case, as soon as the possibility of a choice is offered to you, remember Christ.  Picture to yourself His living Person, as it really is, and entrust Him with the burden of your doubts.
Let men of good will, as individuals, as social factors, as leaders of men and peoples, apply this criterion, and they will really be able, in the name of truth, to show to others the way toward God.

This concreteness is all the more interesting, for Solovyov was often a highly speculative thinker. That what he wrote just over a century ago is hardly a public ideal any longer is to our great loss.  It is our role to maintain and cultivate the image of divine beauty in our lives as seen in the face of the incarnate and transfigured Christ as a  sacred obligation.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Feast of Theology: The Transfiguration, the Heart of the Orthodox Faith

Dear Parish Faithful,

On August 6 we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This feast is thus embedded in the time of the Dormition Fast, but still retains all of its festal splendor, as we experienced this last weekend.  What a truly blessed Feast! 

The Transfiguration is particularly rich in essential theological themes that reveal the very heart of our Orthodox Christian Faith. These dogmatic/doctrinal themes are expressed poetically throughout the services - Vespers, Matins, Liturgy - of the Feast in an abundant variety of hymnographical forms. The troparion and kontakion of any given Feast offer a "summary" of the Feast's over-all meaning and place in God's oikonomia (divine dispensation):

Thou wast transfigured on the Mount, O
Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy
disciples as far as they could bear it. Let
Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners!
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O
Giver of Light, glory to Thee! (Troparion)

On the mountain wast Thou transfigured, O Christ God,
and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it;
so that when they would behold Thee crucified, they would
understand that Thy suffering was voluntary, and would
proclaim to the world that Thou art truly the Radiance
of the Father!  (Kontakion)

Over the years and through repeated use, many of the faithful know these hymns by heart. If we listen carefully, or even study it outside of the services, the hymnography reveals very profound truths in the realm of Christology (the Person of Christ, both God and man); anthropology (the human person created in the image and likeness of God); triadology (the dogma of the Trinity); and eschatology (the Kingdom of God coming in power at the end of time).


On Mt. Tabor, when transfigured before His disciples, our Lord reveals to His disciples - and to all of us - His divine nature "hidden" in humility beneath the human nature of His flesh:

Enlightening the disciples that were with Thee, O Christ our Benefactor, Thou hast shown them upon the holy mountain the hidden and blinding light of Thy nature and of Thy divine beauty beneath the flesh.

The nature that knows no change, being mingled with the mortal nature, shone forth ineffably, unveiling in some small measure to the apostles the light of the immaterial Godhead. (First Canon of Matins, Canticle Five)

As St. John of Damascus has written: 

"He was transfigured, then: not taking on what he was not, nor being changed to what he was not, but making what he was visible to his own disciples, opening their eyes and enabling them, who had been blind, to see. This is what the phrase means, "He was transfigured before their faces" (Matt 17:2); he remained exactly the same as he was, but appeared in a way beyond the way he had appeared before, and in that appearance seemed different to his disciples." (Oration on the Transfiguration)


Christ is fully and truly human. He is without sin. Thus, He is the "perfect" human being, by revealing to us the glory of human nature when fully united to God - something that we lost in the Fall. To be filled with the glory of God in communion with God is the true destiny of human beings and thus the true revelation of our human nature. By assuming our human nature, Christ has restored that relationship:

For having gone up, O Christ, with Thy disciples into Mount Tabor, Thou wast transfigured, and hast made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendor of Thine own divinity. (Aposticha, Great Vespers)

Thou hast put Adam on entire, O Christ, and changing the nature grown dark in past times, Thou hast filled it with glory and made it godlike by the alteration of Thy form.  (First Canon of Matins, Canticle Three)

In the words of Archbishop Kallistos Ware:  

"In the light of Christ's face that was so strangely and so strikingly altered upon the mountaintop, in his garments that became dazzling white, all human faces have acquired a new brightness, all common things have been transformed. For those who believe in Christ's Transfiguration, no one is despicable, nothing is trivial or mean."


The Three Persons of the Holy Trinity were revealed on Mount Tabor, as they were revealed in the Jordan at the time of the Lord's Baptism. On Tabor it is again the voice of the Father, and the Spirit now appears in the form of a luminous cloud. Every revelation and action of God's is trinitarian, for the Father, Son/Word and Holy Spirit act in perfect harmony revealing thus the unity of the one divine nature:

Today on Tabor in the manifestation of Thy Light, O Word, Thou unaltered Light from the Light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as Light and the Spirit as Light, guiding with light the whole creation.  (Exapostilarion, Matins)

Again, in the words of St. John of Damascus: 

"For God is recognized as one, in three hypostases (Persons). There is one substance of Godhead: the Father who bears witness, and the Son to whom he witnesses, and the Spirit who overshadows him." (Oration on the Transfiguration)


The Lord reveals by anticipation in His transfiguration on Mount Tabor, both his approaching Resurrection and the glorious appearance that we await at His Second Coming. He also reveals the transfiguration of our own lowly human nature in the Kingdom of God, where the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven. Thus, this is a Feast of Hope, as well as a Feast of Divine Beauty, as we anticipate His eternal and unfading presence and our transformation in Him, also eternal and unending:

Thou wast transfigured upon Mount Tabor, showing the exchange mortal men will make with Thy glory at Thy second and fearful coming, O Savior.  (Sessional Hymn, Matins)

To show plainly how, at Thy mysterious second coming, Thou wilt appear as the Most High God standing in the midst of gods, on Mount Tabor Thou hast shone in fashion past words upon the apostles and upon Moses and Elijah.  (Second Canon of Matins, Canticle Nine)

We bless fruit on this Feast because all of creation awaits transfiguration at the end of time. Even the garments of Christ were shining forth with a radiance brighter than the sun. The blessed fruit represents this awaited transfiguration when the creation will be freed from bondage. In earlier times, the grapes themselves would be used for the eucharistic offering of wine.

The importance of the Transfiguration is shown by the fact that it is recorded in three of the Gospels: MATT. 17:1-13; MK. 9:2-8; LK. 28-36. It is also clearly alluded to in II PET. 1:16-18.

To appeal one final time to St. John of Damascus:

"Let us observe these divine commandments with total concentration, so that we too may feast upon his divine beauty; and be filled with the taste of his sweetness: now, insofar as this is attainable for those weighed down by this earthly tent of the body; but in the next life more clearly and purely, when the 'just shall shine like the sun,' when they shall be released from the body's necessities, and shall be imperishable, like angels with the Lord, at the time of the great and radiant appearance of our Lord and God and Savior from heaven, Jesus Christ: with whom may glory be given to the Father, with the Holy Spirit, now and to the endless ages of ages. Amen." (Oration on the Transfiguration)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Driven to Distraction, Called to Attentiveness

Dear Parish Faithful,

Did You Know?

"Beginning in 2009, the New York Times ran a series of articles called "Driven To Distraction," focusing on accidents and fatalities involving distracted drivers. (In 2012, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 570,000 accidents, and 3,328 fatalities, the latter marking a 9% increase from the previous year). The series expanded to include "Distracted Doctoring," reporting on the large number of surgeons who are placing personal calls during surgery; on medical technicians who are texting while running cardio-pulmonary bypass machines; and anesthesiologists who are shopping online for airline tickets."

"Distractions created by social media in the work place cost the American economy $650 billion per year, with social media interruptions occurring every ten minutes, and with workers spending 41% of their time on Facebook. In the US alone, over 12 billion collective hours are spent browsing on social networks every day. The average college student spends 3 hours a day checking social sites, but only 2 hours a day studying."

These two paragraphs have been taken from the article "Attentiveness and Digital Culture" by Archimandrite Maximos Constar, printed in the journal DOXA, a publication of the Monastery of the Holy Archangel Michael (Canones, New Mexico). This is a somewhat abbreviated form of the paper that Archimandrite Maximos delivered at the International Conference on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care, Athens, 7-9 May, 2015. 

Copies of DOXA and Pt. I of this paper were distributed last week following the Liturgy. It is a challenging article for those who are nearing the "addictive state" when it comes to social media and our over-all digitally-driven culture.  

The opening sentence of the paper sounds an alarm with a sober assessment of this new culture:

"Having promised us a technological utopia, our ubiquitous and intrusive cyberculture has instead precipitated a spiritual crisis in which human experience has been systematically fragmented and the coherence of the self isolated and disconnected, preventing us from seeing and experiencing the wholeness of life."

Not exactly a compliment.

For those who may be interested to read further, I have a copy of the entire article - Pts. I & II - which also contains many fascinating footnotes and references.  Please let me know, and I will make you a copy. The positive side of the article is a very fine discussion of "spiritual attentiveness," a key concept in our Orthodox spiritual tradition.  As a Church Father would, Archimandrite Maximos will not only offer a powerful critique of an existing cultural and social norm, but also offer a theologically-based alternative that leads to a greater perception and experience of the "life in Christ." 


About ten days, I sent out some wonderful "Counsels" of the Elder Porphyrios (of Kavsokalivia). I recently discovered that the elder was officially glorified/canonized as a saint on November 13, 2013, by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. His feast day on the calendar is December 2. The Orthodox Church has its "latter day saints!"

Homilies on Two Great Feasts
As we celebrate the great Feasts of the Transfiguration and Dormition at this time of year, you may want to read what the Church Fathers thought and taught concerning these events in the life of Christ and the Theotokos. Here are links to two remarkably full collections of patristic homilies:

Light on the Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord

On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Dormition Fast: Commitment vs. Convenience

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

August 1 is the beginning of the relatively short Dormition Fast that culminates with the celebration of the Great Feast of the Dormition on August 15.

 As we contemplate our own destiny in that of the Theotokos, it is theologically and spiritually appropriate that this is the culminating major Feast Day of the liturgical year. The preparatory fast is very well-placed, falling as it does at the midpoint of summer.

Coming after the relatively slow and  "silent" month of July, liturgically speaking, the ascetical effort that we are called to embrace can potentially lift us up out of any spiritual torpor that may be afflicting us. This is especially true if the summer heat has taken its toll on us both physically and spiritually.  Spiritual vigilance can replace the apathy and indifference that may be clinging to us at this time of year. As we honor the "translation" of the Mother of God into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God, we simultaneously experience the much-needed spiritual renewal of our being through the time-honored and life-affirming practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting (Matt 6:1-18).

Yet, every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice.  In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.”  

We can choose convenience because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly in-convenient.  It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self denial, and an overall concerted effort.  It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summer) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance.  To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance.

And perhaps we need to admit that as middle-class Americans we are impatient with inconvenience, since just about every aspect of our lives today is meant to amplify convenience as a "mode of existence" that we need to embrace "religiously." We may think and feel that we are entitled to live by the "philosophy" of convenience!

So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church.  I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of furthering our growth in the life “in Christ.”  It may rather mean a missed opportunity.

Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.”  To be committed means to care - the spiritual antidote to the passion of acedia which literally means "not caring."

Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful.  It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ.” And this we have as a gift within the life of the Church.

That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes.  I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes.  (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes).  It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.

My observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree.  We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals and admittedly there are times when that may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present way of life. Yet, the Church as  "second choice" can easily harden into an automatic and unchallenged principle. It is hard to prevail in the never-ending “battle of the calendars!”  The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church.  In fact, it is usually quite indifferent and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment.  Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us.

But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired.  That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our lives.  In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding – to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today!

I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience.  

We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy.  With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls.  We can lift up our “drooping hands” and strengthen our "weak knees" (Heb 12:12) in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving.  

The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death—or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Dormition Fast is our spiritually vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration.  “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!”  (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

'Precious Vessels' #3: Elder Porphyrios

Dear Parish Faithful,

I thought to share a few more of the "Counsels" of yet another 20th c. elder, in this case the Elder Porphyrios (1906-1991). Here was a man who lived in very impoverished conditions and who therefore only had a few years of formal education, but who was wise in the Spirit. And he reached this high level of spiritual virtue, though struggling with many illnesses - kidney problems, a hernia, a heart attack, stomach hemorrhaging, and eventually blindness - throughout his life. He lived his life in many diverse places in Greece, and spent the last six months of his life on Mount Athos. 

It was said of him: "Elder Porphyrios taught that Christ's greatest desire was for the unity of the faithful, for each member of the Orthodox Church to identify with the struggle and pain of his brothers and sisters, to carry one another's burdens and to live our lives as though we are one body." (Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 105)

It was also said of him that he repeated over and over again the words of Christ's that we find in His "High Priestly Prayer" in the Gospel According to St. John: "That they may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (JN. 17:21).  We spent some time discussing these words of Christ in this Summer's Bible Study. Be that as it may, there is a good deal to reflect upon in the wisdom offered below.

Counsels of the Elder Porphyrios

  • Christ is our Friend, our Brother; He is whatever is beautiful and good. He is everything. In Christ there is no gloom, melancholy or introversion, whereas man suffers from various temptations and situations which make him suffer. Christ is joy, life, light, the true  light, which makes man glad, makes him fly, makes him see all things, see all people, suffer for all people, and want all people to be with him, close to him.
  • Our love in Christ must reach all places, even to the hippies in Crete. I very much wanted to go there, not to preach to  them, or to condemn them, but to live with them, without sin of course, and leave the love of Christ to speak of itself, which transfigures life.
  • There is an electric generator and in the room is a lamp. If, however, we don't flip the switch, we will remain in darkness. Similarly, there is Christ and there is the soul. If, however, we don't flip the switch of prayer, our soul will not see the light of Christ and will remain in the darkness of the devil.
  • I am not afraid of hell and I do not think about Paradise. I only ask God to have mercy on the entire world as well as on me.
  • What is the spiritual battle? Well, the soul is a garden divided into two parts. On one half are planted thorny bushes, and on the other half, flowers. We also have a water pump with two taps and two channels. The one guides the water to the thorns and the other to the flowers. I always have the choice to open one or the other tap. I leave the thorns without water and they dry up, I water the flowers and they blossom.

Elder Porphyrios is now recognized by the Church as a saint. He was glorified and entered into the calendar of saints in November 2013 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

  • Continue along your path. The devil will come with his tempting thoughts and will tug at your sleeve, so as to disorient you. Don't turn to him, don't start a conversation with him, and don't oppose him. In this way the devil will get bored and will leave you alone.
  • When I became a monk I felt better. Even my health improved. Although previously I had been sickly, afterwards I became healthier, with the ability to bear labors with psychical courage. Above all, however, I felt eternal. The Church is a mystery. Whoever enters the Church doesn't die, he is saved, is eternal. Thus I always feel eternal, as though immortal. Having become a monk I believe that death does not exist. This thought captivates me.
  • Orthodox asceticism is not just for the monasteries, but also for the world.
  • When asked how one should vote, the Elder responded in parable. The Orthodox Church is like a brooding hen. Under Her wings she covers black chicks and white chicks, yellow chicks and chicks of every different color.
  • What can politicians do for you? They are confused by their psychical passions. When a person is unable to help himself, how can he help others? We are also to blame for this situation. If we were Christians, we would be able to send to parliament, not a Christian political party of course, but Christian politicians, and these things would be different.
  • Today people want to be loved and for this reason  they are unsuccessful. The correct way is to not be interested in whether or not people love you, but whether or not you love Christ and people. This is the only way that the soul is fulfilled.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

'Precious Vessels' #2: The Elder Epiphanios of Athens

Dear Parish Faithful,

"I am not afraid of death. Not, of course, because of my works, but because I believe in God's mercy."  - The Elder Epiphanios of Athens

I would like to continue with sharing some of the wonderful "Counsels" of the elders found in the book I am currently reading: Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit. (I initially wrote about this book and the practice of eldership on July 5). 

The second (Greek) elder covered in the book is Elder Epiphanios of Athens (1930-1989). 

It was said of him: "As a child of  two he would tell people of his desire to become a priest, and donning a sheet, would play priest. From the tender age of five he attended all the services of the local church, fasting and preparing for Holy Communion in the same way as the Church prescribes for adults" (p. 63). 

The elder was indeed ordained as a priest later in life, and for the most part served the faithful in the city of Athens.  He wrote twenty-two books and numerous articles during his ministry. He founded a monastery later in life a few hours away from Athens. Having prepared for his funeral he died in 1989 at the age of 58.

Here are some of his Counsels:

  • "When I study the Holy Scripture and the patristic books, I leave the earth and go to Heaven.... I don't manage to write my thoughts in time, for I am flooded as with flakes of snow. I feel as though my pen has wings."
  • "I want whoever is near me to feel that he has room to breathe, not that he is suffocated. I don't call anyone to me. I don't hold onto to anyone. I don't chase anyone away. Whoever wants comes, whoever wants stays, whoever wants leaves. I don't consider anyone a supporter or a follower."
  • "True love is like the flame of a candle. However many candles you light from the flame, the initial flame remains unaffected. It doesn't lessen at all. And every freshly lit candle has as much flame as the others do."
  • "Parents should love their children as their children and not as their idols. That is to say, they should love their children as they are and not how they would like them to be - to be like them."
  • "Whoever fears God doesn't fear anything else."
  • "God appointed the salvation of the world to His Son and not to us.... We must first look at our soul and if we can, let's help five or six people around us."
  • "Don't sit glued to the television ... Guard yourselves from the means of mass blinding."
  • "I have made an agreement with God: I will empty my pockets in almsgiving and He will fill them. He has never violated our agreement. Will I violate it? May it never happen!"
  • "When someone is free, he has rights and responsibilities. When he marries, he has few rights and very many responsibilities. When, however, he has children, he doesn't have any right at all, but only responsibilities."
  • "My heart only has entrances. It doesn't have exits. Whoever enters remains there. Whatever he may do, I love him the same as I loved him when he first entered into my heart. I pray for him and seek his salvation."
  • "My worst hell is to realize that I have saddened a beloved person."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

'Sitting at the feet of Jesus...'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This last Sunday we heard St. Matthew's account of the healing of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matt. 8:28-9:1). The following meditation is about the same event, but as it was narrated by St. Luke. 

As is often the case, the details may differ (St. Luke tells us that this occurred in "the country of the Gerasenes") but the same over-all meaning can be found as in this text as in St. Matthew's.  I first look at how a major 19th c. novelist grappled with this extraordinary text, before then turning to a wonderful detail peculiar to St. Luke's Gospel.

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "legion;" for many demons had entered him.  And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.  Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter into these.  So he gave them leave.  Then the demons came out of the man and entered into the swine and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country.  Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.  And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons had been healed.

(LK. 8:30-36)

The text above - a partial account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac - served as one of two epigraphs for Fyodor Dostoevsky's gripping novel that was entitled, simply, Demons.  (The novel's title has also been translated, less accurately, as The Possessed). 

For Dostoevsky, living and writing in 19th c. Russia, the "demons" were the newly-emerging revolutionaries who were not only determined to overthrow the Russian monarchy; but also committed to abolish belief in God and the Orthodox Christian culture that was shaped by that belief.  Aspiring to such a radical rejection of the prevailing political, social, cultural, and religious order, these revolutionaries were named "nihilists," for they believed, essentially, that nothing was sacred or beyond their desire to destroy.  Out of the ashes of this nihilistic disorder something resembling a utopian society was to emerge, now cleansed of any dead remnants from the past.

Dostoevsky was hoping that the nihilistic revolutionaries of his era would self-destruct as did the demons - called "legion" - of the Gospel account. In his compelling novel that is precisely what happens, but Dostoevsky was enough of a realist to realize that the outcome could be different, especially with the decay that was eroding the effectiveness of the very institutions he was hoping would withstand such an onslaught. And the reality was that this nihilistic orgy of violence would occur in the generation following his death in 1881.

Thus, Dostoevsky uncannily "prophesied" the later Russian Revolution that engaged in precisely such a sweepingly destructive movement against what was considered a God-established order.  But  the person who would repent of such nihilistic tendencies and return to faith in Christ was to enjoy the transformative experience of "sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind."  This is basically what happens to a major character in the novel. Demons thus proved to be an unforgettable artistic actualization of the Gospel account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and what it means to turn to Christ.

It is only in St. Luke's account that we read that wonderful verse of the healed demoniac sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Yet, the story of the Garasene demoniac also appears in the Gospels of Sts. Mark and Matthew. It is thus a story that must have made a strong impact on the early Church. 

Details will differ - St. Matthew actually records the healing of two demoniacs instead of one - but the intense drama of this narrative cannot but stand out against the bleak background of the rugged landscape, the tombs where the demoniac(s) lived in isolation, and of course the cliff with the abyss below that swallowed up the herd of trampling and frenzied swine.  It is an account that more-or-less assaults our modern sensibilities -  especially a kind of rationalistic and moralistic Christianity.  The realm and reality of the demonic and the "spiritual warfare" implied by recognizing such a realm and reality opens up our minds and hearts to both the irrational and supra-rational world of the Gospel in which Christ has come to "bind" the "strong man." 

This is a fierce battle that demands a greater commitment to Christ and the Gospel than conventional Sunday morning church attendance. 

It is just such a deeper commitment that will perhaps "reward" us with sitting at the feet of Jesus "clothed" in our right mind.  (A weaker commitment may mean that we are content with standing in the back of the church at a safe distance and only occasionally listening - or listening only when we hear something that appeals to us, while shutting out the "hard sayings").

Sitting at the feet of Jesus implies listening to his words, allowing them to penetrate our hearts, and acting upon them to the extent that we are able.  We claim that Christ is the "Lord and Master" of our lives.  Such a claim means that there is really no other place that we want to "sit" and absorb and be nourished by what we are hearing. 

To be in our "right mind" does not simply mean that we have not been diagnosed with a clinically-defined mental disorder.  It implies a clarity of vision and a "worldview" grounded in the reality of God's existence and gracious presence.  It also means freedom from moral, ethical and spiritual disorders. 

Perhaps to sit at the feet of Jesus and to be clothed and in our right mind indicates a state of spiritual sanity.  

With a surrounding world engulfed in modes of behavior that can only be considered "insane," the Church remains the "place" where we retain our sanity.  That may take some time and some work. The "demons" must first be expelled. We must fear the abyss of destruction that swallows up the possessed swine of the Gospel account.  Then we can join the ranks of the saints and sit at the feet of Jesus "clothed and in our right mind."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Saturday Evening Great Vespers and Christian Martyria

Dear Parish Faithful,

As our usual pattern of over-all poor parish attendance at Great Vespers on Saturday evenings is once again the norm with the coming of Summer, I wanted to re-issue a short meditation about this service that I wrote after a visit by His Grace, Bishop Paul, and his comments about the positive nature of this service and our Christian martyria. Whether anything changes or not, I believe that many of you are missing something important in our parish life, and should at least give it some consideration. The "invitation" to the service comes, ultimately, from God: "Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ ..." is the first hymn that we sing at Great Vespers. Since we would consider any other Saturday evening invitation with great care and attention - and probably accept it - we may want to think of applying that same care and attention to the things of God.

The Saturday Evening Great Vespers and Christian Martyria

Continuing a series of short meditations based upon Bp. Paul's talk on the content and shape of a contemporary Christian martyria (meaning witness), I would like to apply it to the Saturday evening service of Great Vespers.

Actually, the first topic that Bp. Paul addressed to those of us present last Saturday evening following the service, was the missionary content of the Great Vespers service, a real point of contact and a potential source of  appeal to an inquirer or non-Orthodox visitor to the church.

In fact, His Grace shared his opinion that Great Vespers is the best introductory service to such an inquirer/visitor.  Its compactness has something to do with this, but he stressed primarily the content of the service.  This service proclaims the Gospel - it is "evangelical" - because it proclaims the Crucified and Risen Lord. This could be an element of strong appeal to a visitor hungering for the truth of the Gospel.

However, first and foremost, the service of Great Vespers on Saturday evening is for the members of the Church! 

Saturday evening Great Vespers is a splendid proclamation of the Death and Resurrection of Christ at the heart of the service.  Meaning that in addition to the basic structure of the service which remains the same, the hymnography (called stichera and aposticha) is devoted to glorifying the Crucified and Risen Lord.

Great Vespers not only prepares us for the Lord's Day on Sunday - the Day of Resurrection in our weekly liturgical cycle - but we actually enter into the Lord's Day at the service on Saturday evening. As it is written in the Scriptures:  "And there was evening and there was morning, a second day" (GEN. 1:8).  Liturgically, therefore, Sunday begins during the service on Saturday evening, following the biblical reckoning of time. Returning to the theme of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, a random selection from the eight tones will eloquently make the point:

We stand before Thy life-bearing tomb unworthily, O Christ God,
Offering glory to Thine unspeakable tenderness of heart.
Thou hast accepted the cross and death, O sinless One,
To grant resurrection to the world, as the Lover of man.
Saturday Vespers, Stichera, Tone 1 

Descending from heaven to ascend  the cross,
The eternal Life has come for death -
To raise those who have fallen;
To enlighten those in darkness!
O Jesus, our Savior and Illuminator, glory to Thee!
Saturday Vespers, Aposticha, Tone 8

As one of the expressions of an Orthodox Christian martyria in the contemporary world mentioned by Bp. Paul, we can leave the cares and attractions surrounding us, enter into the prayerful atmosphere of the church, and praise the Crucified and Risen Lord on Saturday evening as we prepare for the Lord's Day. At least, with some kind of pattern or regularity. This is our witness that the life of the Church comes first in our lives.

Certainly this is a "little cross!"  And it should be a "joyous cross" that we assume lightly and gladly.  We are, after all, according to St. John the Evangelist, "children of God!"

I am not trying to twist anyone's arm, and I do not work through "guilting" anyone into anything.  I am simply trying to raise parish awareness of an integral part of our parish life and the liturgical cycle at the heart of our communal worship. And I have been doing this for years. In this way, we can grow beyond the usual (and to this day relatively small) "Vespers crowd" as our personal and communal martyria to the secular world's indifference toward Christ.  My appeal is to make the martyria concrete and practical in its effect. I believe this was Bp. Paul's point.

Plan on coming to a Great Vespers service in the near future, and let that be a beginning, a starting point for expanding your participation in the liturgical life of the Church by integrating the Lord's Day cycle into your life as an event to be anticipated and embraced with regularity.  Allow the Bible Study, the great Feasts and Saturday evening Great Vespers to assume a place in your lives that manifests the modest Christian martyria that nevertheless reveals a great deal about our life in the Church.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sayings from the 'Golden-Mouthed'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Some fine quotations from St. John Chrysostom ("Golden Mouthed"). These were prepared by Presvytera Deborah.

Fr. Steven

  • If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.
  • Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.
  • No matter how just your words may be, you ruin everything when you speak with anger. 
  • Happiness can only be achieved by looking inward & learning to enjoy whatever life has and this requires transforming greed into gratitude.
  • When you are weary of praying, and do not receive, consider how often you have heard a poor man calling, and have not listened to him.
  • If you wish to leave much wealth to your children, leave them in God's care. Do not leave them riches, but virtue and skill. For if they learn to expect riches, they will not mind anything besides, and their abundant riches shall give them the means of screening the wickedness of their ways.
  • The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path.    (Was this a message for me? - Fr Steven)
  • The rich man is not one who is in possession of much, but one who gives much.
  • God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Elders and Eldresses - Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Forget your sins; our Christ has blotted them out from the Book of Life."  (Elder Amphilochios of Patmos)

I am currently reading the book Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit - The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece (2003). In this case. the title pretty well conveys the contents of the book. A further notation informs us that the material in this book has been "compiled, written, translated from the Greek, and edited with a preface, introduction, notes, and glossary," by H. Middleton.

There are eight such elders of Greece covered in the book, with each elder's life described in the form of a short biography. All of the elders lived primarily in the 20th c. Following the biography, there is an appended section to each chapter under the heading of  'Counsels'.  In this section, we hear the voice of each elder through a short sampling of their more memorable sayings. And this might be the heart of the book.

The elder (fem. eldress) are key figures in Orthodox spirituality.  Either male or female, these are great guides of the spiritual life known for the depth of their faith, the wisdom of their teaching, the perspicacity of their discernment, in addition to being living icons of the great virtues of humility, patience and love. All of the elders covered in this book had an air of sanctity and holiness about them.

In his famous novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky has an artistic version of an elder - Zosima by name - as a key character of the novel, whose presence pervades much of the novel's drama as a beacon of light and inspiration. In the process of developing his literary elder, Dostoevsky includes the chapter "Elders" in which he provides some background to this figure in Orthodox history and spirituality (he had occasion to visit and speak with the prominent 19th c. Russian elder Ambrose of Optina).  In attempting to capture the role of the elder, Dostoevsky wrote the following:

What is an elder? An elder is  one who takes your soul, your will into his soul and into his will. Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it to him under total obedience and  with total self-renunciation.
A man who dooms himself to this trial, this terrible school of life, does so voluntarily, in the hope that after the long trial he will achieve self-conquest, self-mastery to such a degree that he will, finally, through a whole life's obedience, attain to perfect freedom - that is, freedom from himself - and avoid the lot of those who live their whole lives without finding themselves in themselves.

In the 20th c., we have a passage from Archbishop Kallistos Ware, who spent some time at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos. While there, in his early years of spiritual formation as an Orthodox Christian, he was blessed with having met the first elder covered in this book, Amphilochios of Patmos (+1970). Archbishop Kallistos has left us a fine sketch of this living elder that is included in Precious Vessels:

What most distinguished his character was his gentleness, his humor, the warmth of his affection, and his sense of tranquil yet triumphant joy. His smile was full of love, but devoid of all sentimentality. Life in Christ, as he understood it, is not a heavy yoke, a burden to be carried with sullen resignation, but a personal relationship to be pursued with eagerness of heart. He was firmly opposed to all spiritual violence and cruelty.
It was typical that, as he lay dying and took leave of the nuns under his care, he should urge the abbess not to be too severe on them: "They have left everything to come here, they must not be unhappy."
Two things in particular I recall about him. The first was his love of nature  and, more especially, of trees... 
A second thing that stands out in my memory is the counsel which he gave when, as a newly-ordained priest, the time had come for me to return from Patmos to Oxford, where I was to begin teaching in the university. He himself had never visited the west, but he had a shrewd perception of the situation of Orthodoxy in the Diaspora. 
"Do not be afraid," he insisted. Do not be afraid because of your Orthodoxy, he told me; do not be afraid because as an Orthodox in the west, you will be often isolated and always in a small minority. Do not make compromises but do not attack other Christians; do not be either defensive or aggressive, simply be yourself." 
(Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 48-49).

Together with some of you reading this meditation, I had the blessed opportunity to meet and speak (and serve Liturgy together with) another contemporary elder, Fr. Roman Braga of the Monastery of the Dormition in Rives Junction, MI.  His funeral a couple of years ago was a memorable experience.

Be that as it may, I would like to include a few choice "counsels" from Amphilochios of Patmos, as compiled in this book. Hopefully, these few words will pass on something of the great love of Christ the elder had within his heart and how this love had a profound effect on every other aspect of the elder's life, from creation to human persons - saints and sinners alike. Hopefully, everyone will find something here worthy of meditation and application.

From the "Counsels" of the Elder Amphilochios of Patmos

  • Consider all people to be greater than yourself, though they may have many weaknesses. Don't act with hardness, but always think that each person has the same destination as we do. Through the grace of God I consider all people to be saintly and greater than myself.
  • I was born to love people. It doesn't concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.
  • When a person partakes of Holy Communion he receives  power and is enlightened, his horizons widen and he feels joy. Each person experiences something different, analogous to his disposition and the flame of his soul. One person feels joy and rest, another peace, another a spirit of devotion and another an inexpressible sympathy towards all things. Personally, I have often felt tired, but after Holy Communion I felt myself completely renewed.
  • Love Christ, have humility, prayer and patience. These are the four points of your spiritual compass. May the magnetic needle be your youthful Christian heart.
  • We must love Christ; this is necessary for the life of our soul. We also need to love God's creation: animals, trees, flowers, birds, and above all, the most perfect of God's creation, men and women.
  • Whoever plants a tree, plants hope, peace, and love, and has the blessings of God.
  • When someone opens your heart, I'd like him to find nothing there but Christ.
  • An egotistic person doesn't attract anyone. And if someone is attracted, that person will soon distance himself. The spiritual bond becomes indissoluble only when it meets a child-like spirit of innocence and holiness.
  • He who is without love cannot be called a Christian, lest we mock Christianity.
  • My children, I don't want Paradise without you.

From Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 51-61.