Thursday, December 28, 2017

Christmas and Martyrdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Gospel reading for the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is Matthew 2:1-12.  This passage proclaims the Good News that the Savior was born in Bethlehem according to the biblical prophecies.

The star guides the Magi and they, in turn, bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Child in acknowledgment that He is unique and a true King, testified to by cosmic signs that even the Gentile Magi can properly interpret.  Joyous as this is, there is already a hint of the ultimate destiny of Christ in that myrrh is used in the burial customs of the Jews.

On the Second Day of the Nativity, we complete the reading of the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel—2:13-23, which immediately introduces us to the tragic reality of the massacre of the innocent boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.  The previous joy of the Savior’s Nativity is replaced by the wailing and lamentation of the mothers of these innocent children, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” [Jeremiah 2:18].

The shadow of the Cross lay across the infancy narratives in this Gospel, for in the immediate post-Nativity period, these male children become the first of many martyrs who must die because Christ has entered the world, as many of the powerful of this world—following the dark example of King Herod—will not receive Him; they will actually despise Him and turn against His followers.  Thus, the suffering of innocent children is somehow taken up by God as an offering in a sinful world that fluctuates between light and darkness. 

And we must acknowledge that the suffering of innocent children continues to the present time - a suffering directly caused by human wickedness. We now understand that the cave of the Nativity anticipated the tomb of Christ’s burial, and that the swaddling clothes anticipated the grave clothes with which Christ would eventually be bound following His death on the Cross.

On the Third Day of the Nativity, we commemorate the Protomartyr Stephen, the first to die for his faith in Christ in the post-Resurrection community of the newborn Church.  St. Stephen's lengthy speech to his fellow Jews, in which he upbraided them for their lack of faith; and in which he proclaimed Jesus as the Risen and Ascended Christ is recorded in ACTS 7.  His brutal martyrdom by stoning followed as his testimony resulted in a furious and deadly rejection of his convicting words. In fact, "they gnashed their teeth against him" (ACTS 7:54).

Martyrdom has always been a distinct and powerful witness to Christ.  Actually, “from the beginning” the Incarnation and Martyrdom are inextricably joined together in a world torn by the tension between darkness and light.  To our great joy, we know "that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (JN. 1:5). 

The kontakion for the Feast of Saint Stephen captures the movement between the joy of Christ’s birth and the sobering reality of what Christ’s coming meant for some:

Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh and became our guest;
Today His servant is stoned to death and departs in the flesh:
The glorious first martyr Stephen!

There is no greater witness to Christ than that of the martyrs—flesh and blood men, women and children who gave their lives for the Lord in the sure hope and assurance that eternal life awaited them in the Kingdom of God.

If we exchange a “Merry Christmas” with others, we always need to be mindful of the commitment we are making to the newborn Christ.  As we temporarily indulge in the days of the Feast, we realize that the Christian life is ultimately a commitment to discipline and restraint, even the “crucifixion” of the flesh with all of its desires, in order to “witness” to Christ as disciples who believe that His advent in the flesh, culminating in His death and resurrection, has prepared a place for us in His eternal Kingdom where there is “life everlasting.”

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Incarnation: A word about the Word!

Toward Recovering a Genuine Christian Vocabulary

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.” ~ Saint Athanasius the Great

Within the Church we have a biblical/theological vocabulary that is very expressive of what we believe as Christians.  These words are drawn primarily from the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, and the theological writings of the great Church Fathers, such as Saint Athanasius the Great, quoted above.  As responsible, believing and practicing Christians, we need to know this vocabulary at least in its most basic forms.  As we continually learn a new technology-driven vocabulary derived from computers to smart phones, so too we need to be alert to the traditional vocabulary of the Church as it has been sanctified over centuries of use.  And this vocabulary should be natural to us – not something foreign, exotic and “only for theologians.”  It does not take a great deal of effort to be theologically literate, and there is no excuse not to be.

As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, a key term that must be part of the vocabulary of all Orthodox Christians is Incarnation.  The Nativity of Christ is the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth.  Or, we simply speak of The Incarnation, immediately knowing what that word is referring to.

If we turn to the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, we find the term defined somewhat blandly, in that kind of clipped, compact and objective style found in most dictionaries:

  • in•car•na•tion \in-kär-`nā-shǝn\ n (14c)  1 a (1):  the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form (2) cap:  the union of the divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ.

In the Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, the Orthodox theologian, Father John McGuckin, begins his definition under a fairly long entry of this term as follows:

  • Incarnation — Incarnation is the concept of the eternal Word of God (the Logos) “becoming flesh” within history for the salvation of the human race.  Incarnation does not simply refer to the act itself (such as the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin, or the event of Christmas); it stands more generally for the whole nexus of events in the life, teachings, sufferings, and glorification of the Lord, considered as the earthly, embodied activity of the Word [p. 180].

Speaking of expanding our theological vocabulary, we need to further know that we translate the key Greek term Logos as Word, referring of course to the Word of God Who was “with God” and Who “was God,” according to Saint John’s Gospel “in the beginning.”  We also refer to the Word of God as the “Son,” “Wisdom,” and “Power” of God.  It is this Logos/Word of God Who becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth.  The key verse that is the classical expression of the Incarnation in the New Testament is found in the Gospel according to Saint John 1:14:  “And the Word (Logos) became flesh.”

This profound paradox of the Word-become-flesh is found in the well-known kontakion of the Nativity, written by St. Romanos the Melode.  He begins his wonderful hymn with that paradox captured in the following manner:  

"Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One; and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One ..."

Incarnation is derived from the Latin word “in the flesh.”  The Greek word for Incarnation would be sarkothenta, meaning “made flesh.” So the Incarnation of the Word of God is the “enfleshment”of the Word, and here “flesh” means the totality of our human nature.  The Word has assumed our human nature and united it to Himself in an indissoluble union that restores the fellowship of God and humankind.  The sacramental life of the Church is based on the Incarnation, and the potential for created reality to become a vehicle for spiritual reality.  The ultimate manifestation of this is the Eucharist, and the bread and wine “becoming” the Body and Blood of Christ.

Christmas is the time of the year to recall all of this profound reality and recover a genuine Christian vocabulary that expresses our Faith about as well as what is humanly possible. This further means that theological words are not dry and abstract concepts when approached with not only respect, but with awe and wonder.  This makes our reading and studying of our theological Tradition exciting – as well as humbling. The words reveal life-transforming truths that if received with prayer and thanksgiving enhance and expand our minds and hearts, so that we might have the “mind of Christ.”

*I have attached a marvelous Prayer to Jesus Christ Emmanuel that I just received from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City.  I may try to incorporate it into our liturgical celebration, but thought you may want to use it in your personal prayer as we prepare for the advent of the One who is Emmanuel - God With Us.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

'Mankind was my business!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The over-all theme of the Parable of the Great Supper, heard last Sunday at the Liturgy, had to do with how being "busy" can easily lead to excuse-making of a dubious kind because we then justify postponing our relationship with God based upon those very excuses. But as Christ said in the parable, the Master of the Supper was not impressed.

'Mankind was my business!' (still from 'Scrooge', 1951)

This somehow connects in my mind with a certain literary classic. Over the years I have read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (and seen more than one film version!). For me, one of the most effective passages in the book, is toward the beginning, when the Ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve. By this time, the miserly and miserable character of Scrooge has been masterfully etched in by Dickens. And to this day, the name of Scrooge is synonymous with avarice, greed, and a joyless and meaningless accumulation of profit. Earlier, Scrooge had articulated some of the utilitarian philosophy of the 19th c. when he coldly said in reference to the poor and prisoners, "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

The Ghost of Marley returns to haunt Scrooge, but Marley himself is in great torment and anguish. Imprisoned in chains that he cannot free himself of, Marley is doomed to roam the earth as a restless spirit witnessing human suffering that he cannot alleviate because he ignored that suffering selfishly during his time on earth. Of the chains, Marley says:

"I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

With a deep, bitter regret, Marley then confesses:

"My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house - mark me! - in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!... Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one's life opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

At this point in this somewhat macabre dialogue between the two, Scrooge begins to grope for some signs of hope and relief as he intuitively realizes that Marley is speaking words of warning to him for his cold-hearted scorn for the rest of humanity. When Scrooge protests the working of an unseen providence, by saying "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," we then hear what may be the most significant - and well-known - passage in this scene:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

It held up its chains at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Anticipating the regret of a life not well-lived is a frightening thought. Especially if it comes down to having been too busy!

Good literature is capable of leaving strong indelible images that are much more effective than a well-argued treatise. Dickens' characters were always exaggerated or "larger than life," as we may say. But they then "typify" a great deal about life in the process.

Besides the necessary business that makes up our lives, and which must be done carefully and responsibly, just what else are we so "busy" with? Does that business also lead us away from charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence? Are we presently scurrying around, making sure that we will have a "Merry Christmas," while also turning our eyes downward so that we too cannot "see" the blessed Star that guides us to the Incarnate Christ? Are we going to somehow be able to "fit" the Church into our "Business?" Both the parable from Sunday and Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol raise the issue of our stewardship of time and the Christian truth that "mankind is our business."

Monday, December 18, 2017

Inexcusable Excuse-Making

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Parable of the Great Supper (LK. 14:16-24), heard yesterday as the prescribed Gospel pericope for the Second Sunday Before Nativity, we were offered a revealing glimpse into humankind's inexhaustible propensity for making excuses. This unending flow of excuses is often cloaked as tightly-argued rationalizations, served up with an unassailable logic, and promoted with sincere conviction. Psychologically, excuse-making is not to be confused with lying - at least on the conscious level (though this distinction can get a bit murky, in that we can actually believe our own lies as we believe in our excuses). These excuses serve to free us from responsibility, disentangle us from awkward situations, or even undermine our own well-being due to blindness or some hidden perversity of character.

It seems as if we "inherited" this propensity for making excuses from Adam and Eve as the story of the Fall unfolds in the Book of Genesis. After disobeying the divine commandment by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve offer excuses as to why they both succumbed to the serpent's insinuations (GEN. 3). These excuses were blatant evasions of moral responsibility. They covered up a refusal to repent. They assigned blame elsewhere, but accepted none for themselves. And these excuses were made directly to God! How strong, therefore, is the human need to fabricate excuses to rationalize away our sins! We see the same pattern depressingly repeated by children, corporate executives, clergy of the Church, and by husbands and wives in our homes. The domestic "paradise" established potentially within the Mystery of Marriage is undermined by the same processes that destroyed the original Eden of the first man and woman: temptation, assent, sin, refusal to repent, feeble excuses to justify and avoid responsibility, and negative consequences to follow. The "image and likeness of God" is obscured by this "dark side" of the human condition.

Returning to the parable found in St. Luke's Gospel, we hear that Christ relates a story about "A certain man who gave a great supper and invited many" (14:16). This is clearly an image of our heavenly Father's gracious invitation to experience the joy of fellowship with God in the eschatological Kingdom. A supper/banquet implies fellowship, sharing, and the joy of communal celebration. It has thus been a constant image of sharing our life with God in the Age to come, culminating in the glorious "marriage supper of the Lamb" in the Book of Revelation (19:9). Even on an "earthly level" it is an invitation that is often readily accepted. Who wants to pass us a sumptuous meal? Nevertheless, with a realism that we can all relate to, the servant of the man who has prepared the supper is forced to hear a series of excuses that are meant to free the recipients of the invitation from the obligation to attend. But so as not to cause offense, they offer excuses that sound reasonable enough. As Christ says explicitly in the parable: "But they all with one accord began to make excuses" (14:18). What, then, does the servant of the parable hear? More or less, the usual:

The first said to him, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' (14:18-20)

Taken from the daily routine of obligations and responsibilities, again we acknowledge the reasonableness of these excuses. (Interpreted allegorically by the Fathers, the excuses, according to a note in the Orthodox Study Bible, refer to "people devoted to earthly matters, to things pertaining to the five senses, and to all the pleasures of the flesh"). However, the "master of the house" was not impressed, for we hear that he became "angry" upon the return of his servant with the news that the supper would only be thinly attended. The master of the house further responds by ordering his servant to bring in other guests, including "the poor, and the maimed and the lame and the blind" (14:21). Discovering that "still there is room" (14:22), the servant is told to "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled" (14:23). The master's hospitality is so abundant, that he will invite and even compel "guests" that according to social etiquette would usually remain uninvited. In other words, those for whom the banquet should have been a natural culmination of an ongoing relationship - the elect of Israel in their chosenness by God - will find themselves on the outside; while wholly unexpected guests - the lawless Gentiles - will be given free and gracious access to the Kingdom prepared before the foundation of the world.

The excuses offered in the parable are easily translated into the one cliche that is ever-present in our daily vocabulary and repeated like a mantra when searching for a formula readily understood by one and all: "I am so busy!" In fact, everyone is not only "so busy," but actually "too busy." Just like the figures in the parable. Therefore, we believe that our level of responsibility is lightened, and expectations for our time and energy must be minimal to be fair. Our relationships may suffer, but that is unavoidable. That is how the world and our lives are structured. So we have the "perfect" excuse as to why we cannot prayer with any regularity; fast with any concentration; and practice charity with any concern. Committed Orthodox Christians are too busy to come to confession, read the Holy Scriptures, or come to non-Sunday liturgical services. Being too busy, we struggle to "fit" God into our busy schedules. If that fails, it cannot be helped - God will understand. Yet, other troubling questions seem to intrude themselves upon the safe haven of pleading the excuse of being busy. Although no claim is being made that the following are a "top ten" of such questions, I do believe that they are an "honest ten:"

1. Were the excuses of the parable enough to justify a broken relationship with God? 
2. What convinces me that the excuse of being busy should satisfy God's "demands" upon me? 
3. Can it be spiritually dangerous to be so busy? 
4. Am I free of any moral responsibility to change the ordering of my life so as to respond to God and neighbor without any excuses to relieve me from doing so?   
5. What are the implications of being "too busy" within the context of my relationship with God? 
6. Is it possible that I have become overly-dependent upon the excuse of always being busy? 
7. What does it mean when we come to the "supper" - the Liturgy - but fail in partaking of the "food" freely-offered - the Eucharist? 
8. What excuses do I offer for refusing the Master's hospitality? 
9. If the excuse is being unprepared, what am I doing to change that pattern? 
10. How do I understand the last words of the parable spoken by Christ: "For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper" (14:24)?

The Parable of the Great Supper becomes quite challenging when given some attention and thought. Although meant to reveal the foolishness of inexcusable excuse-making, it nevertheless reveals what God intends for those who respond to His gracious invitation: the unending joy of the Kingdom of God best characterized as a great and joyous supper where "all is now ready" (14:17). This hospitality is so great that no one is excluded, except through self-exclusion posed in the form of unconvincing excuses not to attend. There is always room. Having been invited, and having accepted this invitation, our task is to overcome the universal propensity of making excuses in order to preserve our self-autonomy and self-regard. We may then join the elect "where the voice of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the goodness of Thy countenance is unending. For Thou art the true desire and the ineffable joy of those who love Thee, O Christ our God, and all creation sings Thy praise forever. Amen." (First Prayer of Thanksgiving After Communion)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Who is to Blame?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

To deride "the commercialization of Christmas" today is to embark on a useless campaign that sounds both quaint and "dated." It is to evoke a platitudinous cliche that evaporates more-or-less simultaneously with its very utterance. It may provoke a sympathetic sigh or knowing nod of the head from your neighbor, but the conversation will have to move forward for it to be of any significance.

As a priest, it is a theme that I may raise in passing - almost as a pastoral obligation - but not one to any longer spend much time or energy on. The utter obviousness of claiming that Christmas has become commercialized is what renders its articulation almost meaningless. At best, we may only shrug our shoulders when reminded of  the contrast between the manger and the mall, and perhaps sheepishly mutter: "What can one do?" 

If there ever was a genuine battle within American culture over this issue, it has long been determined that consumerism has triumphed over any and all forms of resistance - religious or otherwise. Who would have imagined any other outcome when the virtues of capitalism are proclaimed with an almost evangelical intensity in our society? When the almighty dollar is at stake, the Almighty God may well be forgotten. 

The almost gleeful and naked consumerism that characterizes this time of the year has clearly swept aside any forms of dissent or discontent. The lunacy of "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" are mere exclamation points that "seal the deal" and both events are here to stay, and most likely to expand further into our minds and pockets in the near future. It seems as if only deaf ears are being addressed by some still courageous voices crying out from the wilderness in honor and remembrance of the One born in poverty. In a thoroughly secularized society that is proud of its diversity, Christ has long been effectively removed from Christmas.

But we already know all of this...

To me, the far more significant question is how do the countless members of our society who claim to be Christians deal with the rampant and unapologetic "commercialization of Christmas?" Apparently by participating in it at a pace and with a level of eagerness equal to those for whom the birth of Christ means absolutely nothing. Can anyone detect any discernibly different consumer patterns during Christmas displayed by Christians and non-Christians? Do Christians buy or spend less? Are self-designated Christians also found in those lines (pushing and shoving) with non-Christians on "Black Friday?" Are Christians in any less numbers strapped to their seats in front of their computers on "Cyber Monday" spending hours scrolling through a mind-numbing number of sites in search of a deal? I admit to having no data or statistics, but intuitively I can only imagine that Christians are, to say it again, eager participants in the consumer-driven madness of the Season.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? If we live in what is historically a Christian society, how can we answer other than by saying: Christians! To perhaps soften that a bit, at least in terms of a slow cultural acquiescence over time. Legal battles over public Nativity scenes are beside the point. And I say this while I simultaneously wonder: living in 21st century America, could it be otherwise? The level of resistance required to be liberated from any of this would aspire to the level of the heroic. It could be interpreted as being downright sectarian. It could even cause great distress for our children. 

Actually, I am not writing in order to offer an alternative approach as a kind of Christian antidote to curb the consumer within. I must acknowledge that I am a co-consumer with all the rest. Consequently, this is not a condescending Christian denunciation of "worldly people." I am simply trying to take an honest look at "what is" as we approach the Feast of the Nativity. I am sure that there are Christians who have devised well thought-out strategies that are meant to instill different "values" in their children at this time of the year. I must respect that. And, as anything else "under the sun," those strategies are probably accessible on the internet for those who want to do the necessary research.

My more immediate concern is that for us, as Orthodox Christians, there may exist a certain "bipolarity" in the uncritical assumption of the practices and patterns of a secular Christmas and our own ecclesial commitment to piously "attend" Church for the Liturgy on December 25. We can effortlessly move from one to the other without the least sense of an inherent tension between the mystery of the Incarnation occurring within the simple setting of the cave outside of Bethlehem; and the (excessive?) gift-giving to follow which may be obscurely - if not unconsciously -  patterned after the gift-giving of the Magi. Will the Gift get lost amidst all of the other gifts? If such is the case we, as Christians, must realize that we have forfeited any moral high ground. And, while we are at it, we probably need to admit that we, as Orthodox Christians, with a festal calendar that celebrates "the twelve days of Christmas," now basically treat the feast as "one and done." The frenetic pace of the pre-Nativity season renders us exhausted on the first day of the Feast.

Therefore, I do believe that any Christian attempt to deride the "commercialization of Christmas" by Christians who participate in that very commercialization borders dangerously close to hypocrisy. We are better off at turning our criticism inward as we continue to shop and spend with the best of them. Self-reflective criticism will be much more fruitful in the long run and helpful for the well-being of our souls. Perhaps that could lead to some conscious attempts to alter entrenched attitudes and patterns and bring a greater sense of balance back to the Season.

The counter-commercial response is not, of course, to watch one more Nativity film. Nor to make sure we drive by the local church with its "live" Nativity scene replete with little lambs and a stoic donkey. Those are fine family activities, but we must go much deeper than this. We must take seriously the words of Christ: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt 6:21). 

Our modest goal - though fruitful indeed in its consequences - is to "save some space" in our minds and hearts for "the Coming One" whom we hope will be born in those very same minds and hearts, thus taking flesh and becoming incarnate in and to the world through our lives in all of their diversity and fullness. Perhaps we could offer our minds and hearts to the newborn Christ as our gifts in response to Him coming among us as a light shining in darkness. For without Christ all is darkness. Or, as C.S. Lewis described Narnia when under the spell of the bad witch, it was always winter but never Christmas. 

So, even if the phrase the "commercialization of Christmas" has been reduced to a platitudinous cliche, our own annual immersion into that commercialization may render a periodic reminder of some spiritual benefit. With just a minimum of serious thought, Orthodox Christians should not find it difficult to order their priorities in favor of Christ. After all, the miracle is in the manger, not at the mall.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Remembering Father Alexander Schmemann: 'The Mission of Orthodoxy'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a bit more on St. Herman but now combined with the commemoration of Fr. Alexander Schmemann who died on the same date as Fr. Herman - December 13. Some very nice comments below by Matushka Deborah Belonick, writing on behalf of St. Vladimir's Seminary. The contrast she draws between the "saint" and the "man of God" is fascinating, revealing a deep sense of "diversity" in the best sense of that word. 

I have also included a link to a fine documentary based on Fr. Alexander's life following his death in 1983. The documentary has some excellent commentary on Orthodoxy with the voice of the late Fr. Thomas Hopko supplying most of it. You will also see and hear Fr. Schmemann in the documentary.

Remembering Father Alexander Schmemann: 'The Mission of Orthodoxy'

by Deborah Belonick, Director of Institutional and Advancement Communications, St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary

Christ is among us!

This evening in our seminary Chapel—according to “liturgical time,” beginning with Great Vespers—we will commemorate the repose of St. Herman of Alaska, Wonderworker of All America, which occurred December 13, 1837. This evening also, our chapel clergy will serve a panikhida in remembrance of the repose of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s from 1962–1983, which occurred on December 13, 1983.

These two men were so far apart in their life’s circumstances—one monastic, the other married with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; one whose simple life on Spruce Island in Alaska was known mostly only to local inhabitants, the other a cosmopolitan, cultured man whose incisive books and words touched not only seminarians but also thousands of Orthodox Christians and people of many faiths globally; one a severe ascetic, the other a person who enjoyed walking the streets of New York City, taking in its sights, sounds, and energy—and yet, they shared deeply two things: love for Jesus Christ and love for the New World in which they both found themselves after resettling in North America.

I remember, as a seminarian, Father Alexander saying one day in class, “You know, sin is so boring, because ‘sins’ are always the same. But, saints—saints—are endlessly interesting because there is always such variety among them.”

This evening, when I think of St. Herman and Father Alexander—this saint and this man of God—I reflect upon how the varied ways in which they presented the gospel in their adopted land affected thousands and thousands of people, in endlessly interesting ways. Natives of Alaska witnessed astounding miracles and felt the warmth of “Apa” (Father) Herman caring for them; while first, second, and third-generation Orthodox Christians and those of other faiths seeking Truth soaked in Father Alexander’s words as he opened their eyes to the liturgical tradition of the Church and the power of a sacramental life.

On this day, when we are blessed to remember these two distinct servants of Christ, I’d like to share with you one of Father Alexander’s speeches, originally adapted from a lecture given at the 1968 National Conference of Orthodox College Students and printed in Volume III, No.4 of CONCERN, a youth-oriented magazine no longer in publication. Titled, “The Mission of Orthodoxy,” this ever timely presentation summarizes Father Alexander’s thoughts on the still-burning issue of the intersection between faith and culture, as it addresses the question of how to be “truly Orthodox yet fully American.” (Read the entire presentation on our Seminary’s Synaxis Blog.)

Holy Father Herman, pray to God for us! And, may Father Alexander’s memory be eternal!

SVS Press books authored by Father Alexander Schmemann may be found here. And, SVS Press’s beautifully illustrated and charming children’s book titled, North Star: St. Herman of Alaska may be found here.

The Repose of St Herman of Alaska

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today, we celebrate the repose of Blessed Fr. Herman of Alaska, one of our heavenly intercessors of North American Orthodoxy. Here is a narrative of his death that I hope one and all will carefully read. There is a wealth of further material about St. Herman, including his full Life on our parish website that you may also want to explore:

The Repose of Father Herman

The time of the passing had come. One day he ordered his disciple Gerasim to light a candle before the Icons, and to read the Acts of the Holy Apostles. After some time his face glowed brightly and he said in a loud voice, “Glory to Thee, O Lord!” He then ordered the reading to be halted, and he announced that the Lord had willed that his life would now be spared for another week. A week later, again by his orders, candles were lit, and the Acts of the Holy Apostles were read. Quietly, the Elder bowed his head on Gerasim’s chest; the cell was filled with a sweet-smelling odor; and his face glowed, and Father Herman was no more! Thus he died in blessedness, he passed away in the sleep of a righteous man in the eighty-first year of his life of great labor the 25th day of December 1837. (It was the 13th of December according to the Julian Calendar, although there are some records which state that he died on November 28th and was buried on December 26th).

Those sent with the sad news to the harbor returned to announce that the administrator of the colony Kashevarov had forbidden the burial of the Elder until his own arrival. He also ordered that a finer coffin be made for Father Herman, and that he would come as soon as possible and would bring a priest with him. But then a great wind came up, a rain fell, and a terrible storm broke. The distance from the harbor to Spruce Island is not great—about a two hour journey—but no one would agree to go to sea in such weather. Thus it continued for a full month, and although the body lay in state for a full month in the warm house of his students, his face did not undergo any change at all, and not the slightest odor emanated from his body. Finally, through the efforts of Kuzma Uchilischev, a coffin was obtained. No one arrived from the harbor, and the inhabitants of Spruce Island alone buried the remains of the Elder in the ground. Thus the words which Father Herman uttered before his death were fulfilled. After this the wind quieted down, and the surface of the sea became as smooth as a mirror.

One evening, above the village Katani (on Afognak) an unusual pillar of light which reached up to heaven was seen above Spruce Island. Astonished by the miraculous appearance, experienced elders and the Creole Gerasim Vologdin and his wife Anna said, “It seems that Father Herman has left us,” and they began to pray. After a time, they were informed that the Elder had indeed passed away that very night. This same pillar was seen in various places by others. On the night of his death a vision was seen in another of the settlements on Afognak; it seemed as though a man was rising from Spruce Island into the clouds. The disciples buried their father, and placed a wooden memorial marker above his grave. Father Peter Kashevarov, the priest on Kodiak, says, “I saw it myself, and I can say that today it seems as though it had never been touched by time; as though it had been cut this day.”

Having witnessed the life of Father Herman glorified by his zealous labors, having seen his miracles, and the fulfillment of his predictions, finally having observed his blessed falling asleep, “in general, all the local inhabitants,” Bishop Peter witnesses, “have the highest esteem for him, as though he was a holy ascetic, and they are fully convinced that he has found favor in the presence of God.” In 1842, five years after the passing away of the Elder, Archbishop Innocent of Kamchatka and the Aleutians, was near Kodiak on a sailing vessel which was in great distress. He looked to Spruce Island, and said to himself, “If you have found favor in God’s presence, Father Herman then may the wind change.” It seems as though not more than fifteen minutes had passed, said the bishop, when the wind became favorable, and he successfully reached the shore. In thanksgiving for being saved, Archbishop Innocent himself conducted a Memorial Service (Panikhida) over the grave of the blessed Father Herman.

O Holy Father Herman of Alaska, pray unto God for us!

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Heart Untouched?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?” (LK. 17:17)

In St. Basil the Great’s First Prayer in Preparation for Holy Communion, he acknowledges – and we acknowledge along with him when we offer this prayer up to God – that we are so often “thankless and graceless.”  St. Basil makes this claim after enumerating what “Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ our God” has done for us:  taken on our human nature, suffered crucifixion for our sake, and renewed our human nature by His own blood.  Yet still, says the saint, we remain “thankless and graceless.”  So much for building up our self-esteem!  Is that in reality a pious and rhetorical exaggeration embedded in a prayer meant to inspire genuine feeling within us; or has St. Basil simply articulated a “hard truth” about our human nature “corrupted by sin” - to borrow yet another phrase from his magnificent prayer?

Based on experience, it is hard not to believe that St. Basil is correct in his over-all assessment, and that he has done us a great service in reminding of this unfortunate characteristic of our human nature, a characteristic brought to life vividly in the Gospel narrative of Christ healing ten lepers, but only being thanked by one of them – and that one was a Samaritan!  (LK. 17:11-19)  

The failure of nine lepers to return to Christ and offer thanksgiving is singled out for an unflattering comment; while the return of the Samaritan leper is singled out for open praise.  Christ most certainly does not need or demand our thanksgiving!  What he pointed out was for the sake of those healed and for those who witnessed the healing.  Healing is meant to touch the body and the “heart,”  so that the healed one’s life is totally redirected toward God.  Sometimes, however, the body can be healed, but the heart left untouched. That Gospel passage – heard just last Sunday – is a reminder that we can fall prey to just such a temptation:  to have been healed by Christ and yet to either “forget” to return to Him in thanksgiving; find other distractions more compelling; or simply to do so in outward form only.  

I just coincidentally read in a book about another ecclesiastical figure that the famous Western medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his Summa Theologiae:  “It is evident that every ingratitude is a sin.”  That was based on the logic that since gratitude and thankfulness were virtues, their opposite must be a sin.  However one may assess that “scholastic” logic, it seems to ring true.

In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s classic work, For the Life of the World, we heard his unique voice recalling our initial vocation to be “eucharistic beings,” human beings who offer gratitude and thanksgiving to God in the full awareness that all things come from God and have the potential to lead us further toward God.  This includes the very food that we eat on a daily basis.  We can eat and drink unto ourselves, and thus we eat and drink ultimately unto death.  Or we eat and drink to the glory of God, and then food becomes sacramental as a means of uniting us with God.  Our heavenly Father restored the eucharistic meaning of food precisely in the Eucharist, when He gave to us the flesh and blood of the Son of Man for our lives and “for the life of the world.”  The bread and wine represent all food and all life as offered up to God in a spirit of profound thanksgiving to the very Source of life.  We, in turn, receive this food back now as Holy Communion, through which we are united to Christ and have Christ dwelling within us.  Fr. Schmemann captures this approach to life in his chapter entitled, simply, “The Eucharist:”

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.  Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.  But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ.  In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being.  He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be. (p. 38)

I hope that you will agree with me that to say we have a great deal to be thankful for is a massive understatement.  This does not refer to what we have but to who we are:  sinners now healed by Christ and made worthy to enter the Kingdom of God.  The “leprosy” of our sin has been cleansed away.  Now we need to turn back to the source of our healing, praise God with a loud voice, and fall down at the feet of Jesus and give Him thanks.   Just like the Samaritan.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

St Nicholas, A Living Rule of Faith

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“God is wonderful in His saints, the God of Israel!”

I would like to wish everyone a blessed St. Nicholas feast day, and more specifically I would like to wish all of our parish members with the name of Nicholas a blessed name day.  Yesterday evening we were able to serve and celebrate a  wonderful Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast, and it is clear that St. Nicholas remains a beloved saint among our parish faithful, for the service was quite well-attended, including a fair share of our Church School children and young adults.  We hope that same spirit carries over into the weekend as we prepare for our St. Nicholas Day pageant and charity dinner on Sunday.

As we well know, St. Nicholas was a bishop who served in Asia Minor in the opening decades of the fourth century.  As a hierarch of the Church, he was a man who had authority, meaning, further, that he was someone to be respected and obeyed.  This has been a characteristic of the Church’s hierarchy “from the beginning,” as we heard in the Epistle reading appointed for St. Nicholas and other great hierarchs of the Church:  “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (HEB. 13:17).  This sacramental, pastoral and administrative authority of the episcopos (bishop) was further strengthened by the Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early second century:

Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop.  Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated.  Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church.  (To the Smyrnaens, 8)

These well-known exhortations, many of which became the basis for later Church canons pertaining to the authority of the hierarchy, could certainly be multiplied from a variety of impressive sources. Yet, it is therefore quite significant that the troparion for St. Nicholas mentions nothing of the bishop’s authority, but rather stresses his pastoral image and care for his flock:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

As Fr. Thomas Hopko has written, this troparion “has become in Orthodox liturgical services the ‘general troparion’ for most canonized bishops of the Church, thus revealing the ‘mind of the Church’ about what a Christian pastor should be.”  (The Winter Pascha, p. 40)

Granting the role of authority that a bishop “inherits” in his consecration to the episcopacy, the Church concentrates on the qualities of a true pastor, of one who will “shepherd” the flock entrusted to him by the Lord that the bishop sacramentally represents to and for his flock.  

The troparion has nothing to say about “power” or “authority.” Quite the opposite! We hear of humility, abstinence and even poverty.  These are Christ-like characteristics that we learn of from the Gospels.  Only by manifesting such qualities is the bishop a man who will receive the support, love and obedience of his flock in a spirit of trust and confidence in his leadership. 

Perhaps we should add that this is also true of the parish priest in his ministry to the flock entrusted to his care. This happens when a bishop leads by example.  He then becomes a living “rule of faith” as the troparion opens with, meaning essentially that the bishop is a living, flesh-and-blood realization of the Gospel. Whenever we experience a “crisis of leadership” in the Church, it is precisely such Christ-like characteristics that are so painfully lacking in the Church’s hierarchy. The faithful realize this, and the whole Church then suffers from a lack of trust and confidence in that leadership.

In relation to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, there is a fine passage from the great iconographer, Leonid Ouspensky, who summarizes the Church’s love of this great saint throughout the centuries:

The quite exceptional veneration of St. Nicholas is well known.  He is revered not only by Christians but often also by Muslims.  In the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, among the days of the week dedicated to the Savior and to different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only three persons are singled out by name:  the Mother of God, John the Forerunner and St. Nicholas. 
The reason for the special veneration of this bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings, is evidently that the Church sees in him the personification of a shepherd – of one who protects and intercedes. According to his Life, when St. Nicholas was raised to the dignity of bishop he said: "The office demands a different type of conduct, so that one may live no longer for oneself but for others."  This "life for others" is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men:  his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. 
This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death.  Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit.  (Quoted in Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

Following Christ faithfully, St. Nicholas endures as the purest manifestation of authority and leadership in the Church:  a living rule of faith, practicing humility, abstinence and voluntary poverty as an example to his flock.

O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well,
And now wearing your unfading crown,
you intercede for our souls.
(Vespers of the Feast of St. Nicholas)

Friday, November 24, 2017

Redeeming the Time

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In Ephesians 5:15-16 we read, "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil." 

To "walk" -- in the context of this passage -- is a metaphor for how we conduct our lives.  We can live wisely or unwisely.  To "walk" unwisely means that we can easily resemble a "fool." Avoiding such a false step, but on the contrary walking with wisdom, will depend on how much effort we put into "making the most of the time."  

This can also be translated as "redeem the time."  To redeem the time is, first, not to waste time, especially on what is superfluous. More positively, it could mean to spend our time in worthwhile pursuits, seeking to do the good in all of life's various circumstances.  We are children of God at all times, not only when we are in church or before the icons in our domestic prayer corner.  How we live and how we interact with others is basically how we express our Christian faith on a daily basis.

On a deeper level, to "redeem the time" could also mean to sanctify time, both remembering and honoring the fact that the full expanse of our lives — our lifetime — is a gift from God, for as humans our lives unfold within the time of this world as created by God.  Our time is limited because our lives are of finite duration.  An awareness of this can go a long way in how we appreciate -- and therefore redeem -- the time.

We are drawing closer to the celebration of the Lord's Incarnation.  We can redeem this time within the rhythm of ecclesial time, the time of the Church.  We need to pick up where we perhaps left off during this long and enjoyable Thanksgiving Day weekend.  We have just feasted along with our fellow Americans; now let us fast as Orthodox Christians. To squander a season of preparation before a feast by neglecting prayer, almsgiving and fasting is to act unwisely if we claim to be serious Orthodox Christians.  Any struggle against our lower instincts to eat, drink and be merry as the most meaningful pursuits in life is one sound way of redeeming the time.  One more obvious example of the "battle of the calendars."

The Apostle Paul writes that "the days are evil."  In a fallen world, every single day presents us with the possibility -- if not probability -- of encountering evil on a grand or limited scale.  To somehow believe the days we are living in are not all that evil is to be lost in a wishful thinking divorced from any rational perception of reality.  We live in a time wherein people have forgotten God, and through this forgetfulness lose sight of their basic humanity.  To de-sanctify the world (by claiming that the world is an autonomous reality and a result of blind forces) is to debase humanity, for only through faith in God can we have faith in the goodness of human nature.

We can be "in the world," but not "of the world," if we choose to "make the most of the time, because the days are evil."  One of the key words here is "choose."  Do we really have a hard choice to make?  Hardly!  In my humble opinion, within the grace-filled life of the Church, the choices before us are very easy to make!

Here is a simple prayer (but just try to put it into daily practice!) from the diary of Elder Anthony of Optina [†1820] that teaches us how to redeem the time.

O God, be attentive unto helping me.  O Lord, make haste to help me.

Direct, O Lord God, everything that I do, read and write, everything that I say and try to understand to the glory of Your holy Name.  From You have I received a good beginning, and my every deed end in You.

Grant, O God, that I might not anger You, my Creator, in word, deed or thought, but may all my deeds, counsels and thoughts be to the glory of Your most holy Name.  Amen.

From the Diary of the Elder Anthony of Optina, 1820

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Capable of Thanksgiving

Dear Parish Faithful,

"And we thank Thee for this Liturgy which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands..." - Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

I have been able to read a good deal of Orthodox theology over the years - and the years are adding up - but to this day, I have never encountered a writer who has expressed with such eloquence and power the insight that we are created to be eucharistic beings, such as Fr. Alexander Schmemann has done. 

Throughout his long priestly ministry, and through his many wonderful books, this was a theme that he continually returned to: the human person as oriented toward God as a being who is eucharistic at the deepest level of existence.  We are our most human when we consciously and with profound gratitude offer thanksgiving (Gk. eucharistia) to the living God who has created us.

This was Fr. Alexander's compelling reading of the Genesis creation accounts and what it means for human beings to be made "according to the image and likeness of God."  Dying of cancer, Fr. Alexander served his last Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. He was able to deliver a short homily that is now known throughout the OCA as, simply, "The Thanksgiving Homily," in which he uttered a beautiful opening thought that memorably captured the "catholicity" of his vision and understanding of life: 

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

This particular sentence and the whole of this final homily served as a kind of summation of his deeply-conceived and felt intuition of life and the Christian Gospel. For Fr. Alexander, the human person is, of course, "homo sapiens" and "homo faber," but at the most basic level of existence the human person is "homo adorans" - a being instinctively inclined toward worship. We find an expression of this insight in Fr. Alexander's classic book For the Life of the World:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion. (p. 5)

This entire book - an absolute "must read" for contemporary Orthodox Christians - was a new, refreshing and transformative way of understanding and experiencing the Sacraments of the Church, freeing these Sacraments from a stultifying scholastic theology that threatened to reduce them to "religious actions" that would isolate them from the experience of life.  Since I am trying to focus on Fr. Alexander's eucharistic intuition of life, I would like to include a justifiably famous passage from this same book:

When man stands before the throne of God, when, he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.
Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man.  Eucharist is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven.
But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be, (p. 23)

At the time when that was written (around 1960 in the original Russian, I believe - English translation 1963) to the present day, that passage is something like a "breath of fresh air" that brings to life in a very vivid manner what it means to participate in the Divine Liturgy/Eucharist.

How utterly bland, then, is our conventional term "attending church!"  The Eucharist is our recovery - again and again - of who we now are in Christ.  That "recovery" is a life-long process that makes each and every Liturgy a new and fresh experience, or at least so potentially.  We may grow old, but the Liturgy never grows old.  And it can never grow boring no matter how many liturgies one may "attend!"  As Fr. Alexander further wrote:

Eucharist was the end of the journey, the end of time. And now it is again the beginning, and things that were impossible are again revealed to us as possible. (p. 30)

These short reflections were prompted by the Gospel account of the healing of the ten lepers (LK. 17:11-19), read at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy (and we will hear this passage later in December).  This passage is as much about thanksgiving as it is about the actual healing of the lepers. Being present as homo adorans at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy is a witness to our commitment to be "eucharistic beings."

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Entrance of the Theotokos - Sanctifying Time through the Feasts of the Church

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Today let Heaven above greatly rejoice ..."

I will assume that today began and will continue as a normal weekday for just about everyone who reads this email communication.  In addition to our responsibilities, tasks, appointments and over-all agendas, that may also imply the tedium associated with daily life. Another day will come and go, never to be repeated again in the unceasing flow of time ... 

However, today (November 21) also happens to be one of the Twelve Great Feast Days of the Church's liturgical year:  The Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple.  For those who came to the service yesterday evening, that may be more apparent; but if we "keep time" with our Church calendar, as well as with our regular calendars, we may not be "caught off guard" by the coming of the Feast.  

The festal cycle of the Church sanctifies time. By this we mean that the tedious flow of time is imbued with sacred content as we celebrate the events of the past now made present through liturgical worship.  Notice how often we hear the word "today" in the hymns of the Feast chanted at Vespers:

Today let us, the faithful dance for joy...

Today the living Temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, she who alone among women is pure and blessed ...
Today the Theotokos, the Temple that is to hold God is led into the temple of the Lord...

Again, we do not merely commemorate the past, but we make the past present.  We actualize the event being celebrated so that we are also participating in it.  We, today, rejoice as we greet the Mother of God as she enters the temple "in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all."  

Can all - or any - of this possibly change the "tone" of how we live this day?  Is it at all possible that an awareness of this joyous Feast can bring some illumination or sense of divine grace into the seemingly unchanging flow of daily life?  Are we able to envision our lives as belonging to a greater whole: the life of the Church that is moving toward the final revelation of God's Kingdom in all of its fullness?  Do such questions even make any sense as we are scrambling to just get through the day intact and in one piece, hopefully avoiding any serious mishaps or calamities?  If not, can be at least acknowledge that "something" essential is missing from our lives?

I believe that there a few things that we could do on a practical level that will bring the life of the Church, and its particular rhythms into our domestic lives.  As we know, each particular Feast has a main hymn called the troparion.  This troparion captures the over-all meaning and theological content of the Feast in a somewhat poetic fashion.  As the years go by, and as we celebrate the Feasts annually, you may notice that you have memorized these troparia, or at least recognize them when they are sung in church.  For the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple, the festal troparion is the following:

Today is the prelude of the good will of God / of the preaching of the salvation of mankind / The Virgin appears in the temple of God / in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all / Let us rejoice and sing to her: / Rejoice, O Fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation!

A great Feast Day of the Church is never a one-day affair.  There is the "afterfeast" and then, finally, the "leavetaking" of the Feast.  So this particular Feast extends from today, November 21, until Saturday, November 25.  A good practice, therefore, would be to include the troparion of the Feast in our daily prayer until the leavetaking.  That can be very effective when parents pray together with their children before bedtime, as an example. 

Perhaps even more importantly within a family meal setting, would be to sing or simply say or chant the troparion together before sitting down to share that meal together.  The troparion would replace the usual prayer that we use, presumably the Lord's Prayer.  All of this can be especially effective with children as it will introduce them to the rhythm of Church life and its commemoration of the great events in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. 

Do you have any Orthodox literature in the home that would narrate and then perhaps explain the events and their meaning of the Great Feast Days? Reading this together as a family can also be very effective.  A short Church School session need not be the only time that our children are introduced to the life of the Church.  The home, as we recall, has been called a "little church" by none other than St. John Chrysostom.  Orthodox Christianity is meant to be a way of life, as expressed here by Fr. Pavel Florensky:

The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved.  That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct experience ... to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once into the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way.  There is no other way.  (The Pillar and Ground of the Truth)

As this Feast Day falls during the Nativity Fast, the Church calendar tells us that "fish, wine and oil" are allowed today.

NOTE: Special articles and resources on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos and all the Great Feasts are available on our parish website.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Today, Wednesday November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25.  (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today. 

This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously.  The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. Because of that tension, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously.  To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical. It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy!

From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.  

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleash the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.

Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.”  An awareness — combined with sharing — of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies.  To speak honestly, this is a difficult  and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies?

I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance.  Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to.

The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?  Do we care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God", then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days.

Friday, November 10, 2017

10 Ways the Funeral of a Priest is Different from a Layperson’s

Dear Parish Faithful,
I have provided a link to a fascinating article on her Ancient Faith Radio blog from our former parishioner, Dr. Nicole Lyon Roccas. Nicole has written a very well-researched and challenging article comparing the funeral service/rites of an Orthodox priest and a layperson. Her ten points bring up many important aspects of what we mean by the phrase "death and dying," as well as our Orthodox approach to these subjects and how these are reflected in the Orthodox funeral service.

I would like to draw some practical conclusions from what she writes and discuss this openly in church - perhaps at one of our post-Liturgy discussions in the near future. There is much to learn here, beginning with the differences in funeral practices between the clergy and laity, but she extends the discussion much further and raises important questions in the process.

This particular article is longer than what she usually writes, so please give yourselves the needed time to read through it carefully.

Fr. Steven

10 Ways the Funeral of a Priest is Different from a Layperson’s

'And deliver us from the evil one...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

 It has been three days now since the latest horrific act of mayhem took away the lives of so many innocent persons gathered for worship in a small Texas community on Sunday. The images of that unthinkable tragedy are deeply troubling especially, perhaps, when you think of the very young children either killed or terribly wounded and scarred for life. Yet another infamous "record" has been set: the most people gun downed while gathered in a church. I am not convinced that this was a "mental health issue."  Acts this heinous are hard to explain without looking deeper into the human heart where evil can reside waiting to spew forth based upon some provocation or other. The irrationality of evil always leaves us groping for answers.

I explored this approach to these tragic incidents a few years back when a young man slaughtered over thirty students one day on the campus of Virginia Tech. Perhaps you recall that event. I saw that as an "act of evil" and I see Sunday's killings the same way. If anyone would be interested in (re)reading what I wrote then, I have attached that meditation here for your convenience.

Fr. Steven

The Virginia Tech Massacre

V. Rev. Steven C. Kostoff

As more of the harrowing details emerge about the twisted mind of Cho Seung-Hui, the “experts” are slowly assembling a classic profile of a mass murderer. As Northeastern University criminal justice professor James Alan said: “In virtually every regard, Cho is prototypical of mass killers that I have studied in the past 25 years.” He then went on to say: “That does not mean, however, that one could have predicted his rampage.”

Unpredictability, perhaps, remains a consistent trait of such spontaneous outbursts of evil. Obviously, there are countless others who fit the same profile, but who do not make that fateful decision to wreck such violent vengeance on society. The troubling images of this young man rationalizing the irrational from beyond the grave will remain indelible for some time to come. Certainly it was painful to hear the name of, and even comparison with Jesus Christ, spewing forth in the gunman’s irrational rant against his fellow-students and the world. Seeking such an infamous form of “immortality” is difficult for us to conceive. It sounds like sheer madness. Of course, it may be far better to try and understand the mind of persons such as Cho Seung-Hui than to vilify them; but whatever one’s choice about that, I find it difficult to ignore the presence of evil in this latest rampage of violence.

I admit to lacking the necessary psychological and psychiatric skills needed to analyze a mass murderer. And there will be no shortage of such analysis in the days to come as the very human desire to find a “motive” in this case will be doggedly pursued. The effects of being “bullied”, the contentious issue of gun-control, the polarizing effects of social acceptance or alienation, and other important issues will be the focus of discussion and debate once again. 

Yet beyond – or could we even say transcending? – the environmental, genetic, psychological and social factors readily available to our gaze, there remains a “choice” that one makes expressive of the capacity and need for self-determination. At least according to the teachings of Orthodox Christian anthropology. And thus one has the “freedom” to choose to do something that is undeniably evil. In the public forum, though, it seems that the very concept of evil is ignored or treated as a four-letter word. Our secular age is very uneasy with concepts that press toward a more religious/metaphysical/moral dimension. Or perhaps evil is resorted to as an explanation only in the face such horrific events that unfolded on the campus of Virginia Tech.

For Christians the source of evil is the “evil one”; yet in a manner that is never quite susceptible to rational analysis. From our limited perspective it is immensely difficult to unravel that connection in a satisfactory manner. In no way does this allow Christians to somehow lessen the moral responsibility of the perpetrator of evil, as in the limp cliché: “the devil made me/him do it”. We always stand morally responsible for aligning ourselves with evil/the evil one. We come back to the reality of a choice that puts one on a “road to perdition,” and that once embarked upon may prove humanly impossible to turn back from. Perhaps at a certain point one is “too far” along that road, thus leading to a sense of being engulfed by the inevitable or irreversible. Or perhaps to a greater sense of calculation and perverse empowerment when contemplating the effects of a considered course of action.

As Christians we must develop a realistic understanding of the pervasive presence of evil in the world. We take seriously the Apostle Paul’s claim that we live in “this present evil age”. (GAL.1:4) And Christ spoke of “the ruler of this world.” (JN. 12:30) That does not make the Lord and His great apostle - or us for the matter - metaphysical dualists obsessed with the reality of evil as if it were an independent substance, as were the early Gnostics. 

Without being either “optimists” or pessimists” we realize that the vast majority of humankind is made up of good, decent people who do not wish evil on anyone. Most people desire to lead morally-healthy lives pursuing positive and constructive goals. If it was otherwise, life would be unendurable. But as Christians we accept an ethical dualism in the world that keeps us vigilant to the fact that on a daily basis people make choices that can only be described as evil – whether on a minor or major scale. And others suffer because of those choices, including these new innocent victims and their families, friends and communities (and elsewhere throughout the world today). This creates anxiety and fear in us. It fills us with mistrust and suspicion. It is why we lock our doors at night. As I wrote earlier, it has us warily awaiting its next deadly outburst. As such, and in a mysterious manner, this supports the “evil one”.

To expand the two biblical texts above, and thus uncover their powerful meaning, we read that the Apostle Paul actually wrote:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (GAL. 1:4)

And that the Lord declared:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. (JN. 12:31)

The source of evil – the evil one – has been overthrown in an ultimate sense. His “power” is not eternal as is the power, glory and authority of God. This supposed power will be bound and cast away in the “Day of the Lord”.  Suffering – as powerful, absorbing and crippling as it may be – is only temporary. Its effects will be undone and overcome. This is the promise of God. And the living Face of this promise is Christ, Who vanquished the power of sin, death and the devil on the Cross, revealing that victory in His life-giving Resurrection. The evil of “this world” converged on Christ and He absorbed it through love and conquered it through an act of sacrificial love. This does not free us from being the potential victims of evil in the time allotted to us for our lives in this world. If death is the “last enemy,” that in itself is an “evil” we must all endure. It is only our hope in Christ that makes any “sense" in the face of such evil deeds as these recent shootings.

Whatever helpful insights we hear throughout all of the “talk” that will fill the various media sources in the days to come; whatever we can learn to create a society better protected from such outbursts; however we equip social institutions and families to “read” the signs of mayhem waiting to explode; I believe that we need to realize that the ‘battleground” exists within the human heart, where God and the devil struggle for mastery, awaiting the free choices that we will eventually make.