Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Great Lent - Beginning with Forgiveness

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Second Day

"The ceremony of mutual forgiveness,  so far from being merely a ritual form, can be and often is a profoundly moving moment, altering the lives of those who participate. Symbolic gestures of this kind have a decisive effect.  I can recall occasions when this exchange of forgiveness on the threshold of Lent has served as a forceful catalyst, suddenly breaking down long-standing barriers and making possible a true re-creation of relationship. What the Vespers of Forgiveness surely proclaims, in actions that speak louder than words, is that the Lenten voyage is a journey which none can undertake alone. (emphasis added)

"Lent teaches each person to say, not simply 'I', but 'I-and-Thou'; not simply 'me', but 'us'.  In our present-day consumer society, dominated as it is by selfishness and the lust for possessions, that gives Lent a direct contemporary relevance."

"Lent and the Consumer Society" by Archbishop Kallistos Ware (from Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World, p. 79)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Great Lent and Fasting in the Age of The Screen

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Here is an older meditation - in fact almost seven years old to the day!  Nevertheless, I find it to be "relevant" today, perhaps more so, as our screen technology may demand even more of our time.  I touched on some of this during a lively post-Liturgy discussion yesterday, so that led me to the thought of re-sharing this meditation from the past.

Great Lent and Fasting
in the Age of The Screen

GREAT LENT - The First Day

"Enlighten me through prayers and fasting." (Forgiveness Vespers)

I would like to reformulate some thoughts in writing that I presented last Sunday in both the homily and the post-Liturgy discussion. Perhaps I can aim for a bit more precision and over-all coverage in the process.

Within the context of the beginning of Great Lent and our ascetical effort during this season, commonly called fasting, I raised the issue of not only fasting from certain foods and drink - the most basic aspect of asceticism because of our sheer dependence on food and drink - but also of "fasting" from the amount of time we spend daily before a variety of screens - television, computer, tablets, movie, smart phones, etc.

This raises the issue of "Orthodoxy and technology," a fascinating issue and one that should generate a good deal of theological/spiritual reflection when we think for a moment of our overwhelming dependency in the contemporary world on technology. We may be able to live without technology, but we would hardly be able to function without it. However, my goal is much more modest, as I will explain momentarily.

Without entering into a philosophical/theological discussion about technology, we can at least state that Orthodoxy is in no way anti-technological. Although some Orthodox bishops, priests, and monastics may awaken visions of the Amish, there is no real similarity in worldview when it comes to technology. You may just contact any one of those Orthodox persons through their computers and smart  phones - but not the Amish! Or you would be impressed by the websites and over-all computer sophistication of both Orthodox seminaries and monasteries. This is to state the obvious.

The Church has never moved to suppress technology or, for that matter, any progress in all of the sciences. This is a crucial aspect of our human capacity to think and create, setting us apart from the rest of the animal world. Yet, one more issue unavoidably related to this is that of the abuse of technology, when it is severed from any clear moral and ethical restraint. Our thinkers and theologians are struggling to keep up with the exponential and seemingly daily moral/ethical challenges that arises out of the obsessive desire to keep pushing forward the frontier of technological progress.

Avoiding these "heavier" issues in this reflection, I would just like to address the more modest issue of our fasting during Great Lent. Or, of expanding our understanding of fasting to now include the time spent before our various screens as already mentioned above. It is, after all, Great Lent. Some modest changes in lifestyle, or the environments that we create in our homes is an important factor in the over-all lenten effort.

With the ubiquitous screen, the questions arise: Outside of our professional obligations and responsibilities, just how attracted, attached, obsessed or, as extreme as this may sound, "addicted" are we to them? How much of that precious commodity of time do we spend in front of screens that could at best be described as distraction, amusement, entertainment, "killing time," etc.? Can we break through the cycles of surfing, shopping, game-playing, facebooking and blogging that devour huge amounts of our time? And can we show some restraint for the sake of relationships and more serious pursuits which I hope would attract us during Great Lent especially?

To formulate the challenge before us, I would like to turn to an essay written by one of our parishioners, Emily Farison. Emily recently wrote an essay entitled "Less is More." The opening paragraph shows that we are of the same mind in formulating the issues before us:

In the modern world, nearly every direction one turns, surrounding people appear preoccupied by their own little worlds of music, video games, social networking, or the internet. They appear oblivious to anyone or anything, save the technologies that hold their undivided attention. Nearly gone are the days where families would gather together to read, create, play, or converse with each other. The turn of the century bears witness to a rapid-paced world which observes a degeneration in communication and relationships among individuals. Though many remain unaware, this shift brings with it startling changes, affecting present and future generations alike. (p. 1)

Well-stated and to the point! And something to think about in a season of restraint and re-prioritizing. Emily mentions reading, playing, creating and conversing. Are our families and friendships suffering deficiencies in those time-honored activities that are based on mental agility, socializing skills and the deepening or loving relationships? Is it dinner and then off to the screen? Have we mastered the "art of distraction?"

If so, can we possibly be surprised if we find it difficult to pray effectively - that is with some concentration and focus? There is a possible alternative approach: Superfluous time spent before the screen, can now be redirected and spent renewing those activities that are either intellectually stimulating (a good book or creative project), or conducive to personal interaction (game playing); or, on a deeper level, "face-to-face" communion (conversing)? Emily writes further:

Because people do not communicate in person, words and meanings can get misconstrued all too easily. One cannot observe facial expressions or hear tones of voice through the internet, both of which allow the listener to garner a well-rounded impression of what the speaker intends to express ... Nothing compares to quality time given to a person, where one really listens and focuses on getting to know his friends. Human beings are so complex that one cannot get to know anyone very deeply in a diminutive span of time. (p. 9)

Can you imagine a facebook entry that states: "In observing Great Lent, this site will be inactive until April 16, the day I celebrate the Resurrection of Christ?!"

What about the screen of the smart phone? This is a wonderful tool for communication, that has even been "life-saving" as we all know of some such stories. You may have to be a modern-day Luddite to argue against the positive use of the cell/smart phone. The important call, the encouraging call, the "where-in-the-world is my child?" call, even the "emergency" call, are not what needs to occupy us at the moment.

But here also other questions arise: Beyond all of that, has the smart phone become an extension of our very being? Does it seem to be permanently glued to our ears and/or attached to our hands? Are we lost without it? Do we call and chat in order to ... call and chat? (What happened to the spiritual gift of silence?) After all, just a few years ago, we did live without cell or smart phones.

There are styles, colors, sizes, and an endless array of features that turn the smart phone into either a status symbol or a toy - primarily for adults, of course. (Though, at what age now are children equipped with their own phones?). Texting and twittering are producing a certain type of "illiteracy" that is making a wince-creating wreck of the English language, as in: "I luv u." Grammar, spelling, and compound sentences are treated as intrusive. The menus are astonishing for their complexity. The internet is now on your smart phone! And it is also a ready-made camera: Quick! There's little Johnny going to the bathroom ... How adorable!

Is it possible or even meaningful to show any restraint when living in an age of the screen? If not, then we may be facing the following downward trajectory that can quickly spiral out of control: Attractions become attachments; attachments become obsessions; and obsessions become addictions. Or, as the holy Fathers teach, we become the playthings of our "passions." We are no longer in control, but under control of our impulses.

As asceticism is not puritanism, so restraint is not repression. All of our ascetical lenten efforts are ultimately directed to our freedom and liberation - to some degree at least - from the myriad dependencies that occupy our bodies and souls. To fast from meat but then to sit in front of the computer for hours surfing, shopping, game-playing, facebooking and blogging somehow points to a disconnect with the over-all goal of Great Lent as a "school of repentance," or "journey toward Pascha."

Professionally and vocationally, we may be living in the age of the screen. I know that I am. I enjoy and try and make something positive of a "cyberspace ministry," in fact. The irony of writing this meditation on the computer and then launching it out into cyberspace so you will have one more thing to read, is not lost on me.

But the challenge remains to retain a degree of freedom from the technological web that can bind us so tightly. Redirecting a lot of our energy - and time! - to prayer, almsgiving and fasting; the reading of the Scriptures and the lenten liturgical services of the Church, can create in us the joy of liberation from those very bonds.

Challenges and choices abound!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Lenten Reading List

Originally sent to the parish email list on Feb. 15, 2017

Dear Parish Faithful,

I thought to compile a list of more-or-less Orthodox "lenten classics" that you may want to draw from as this year's Great Lent approaches. I have read and re-read these books through the years and they have all had an impact on my spiritual formation.  

Each book here is quite accessible. No dry theology, but a lively approach to God and the spiritual struggles that we all face; as well as deeply-pondered wisdom to guide us in our journey toward not only our annual Pascha celebration, but in our life-long journey to the Kingdom of God. 

As we pray, fast and practice charity during this season, a good book that deepens our understanding of God so that we can build our relationship with God is one more important component to a holistic lenten effort.  

I have kept my personal list to an Orthodox Top Ten.  Some of the suggested titles are specifically lent-oriented; while some are more general in appeal, but would be excellent choices during Great Lent, I believe.

Of course, any such list of good books presupposes that our primary reading source is always the Holy Scriptures.  We begin with the Word of God - the prescribed Old Testament books perhaps, together with the Psalter. During Great Lent we also read from the remarkable Epistle to the Hebrews and the austere Gospel According to St. Mark.  

However, the books on the attached list are certainly more than mere supplementary reading. They are books written by teachers and guides who love God and who desire to awaken that same love of God in our own minds and hearts. 

The books with an asterisk can be found in our parish library.

If you have already read all of these books and are looking for something new, feel free to contact me for further suggestions.

Fr. Steven

Lenten Reading List

Great Lent by Fr. Alexander Schmemann * — Recommended by Arch. Kallistos Ware as the best single volume about Lent in English, this book has become a “classic” that should be read by one and all.  After reading this book, you will never approach the Lenten services in exactly the same way.  In fact, you just may want to come to church more often during Great Lent. This book includes the great appendix chapter, “Taking Lent Seriously” which you will do after reading this book!

+ The Lenten Spring by Fr. Thomas Hopko * — Also already something of a “classic.”  This is a series of forty three-four page meditations on a variety of lenten themes. A wonderful use of the Scriptures and the Church’s Lenten hymnography, together with Fr. Hopko’s endless stream of great insights.

+ The Way of the Ascetics * by Tito Colliander, a Finnish Orthodox lay theologian, and another “classic”(!).  — Short insightful chapters that are very challenging in today’s world  about an “applied Orthodoxy” in our daily living. Also available as an eBook.

+ Prayer: An Encounter With the Living God by Metropolitan Ilarion Alfeyev.  — A relatively new book by one of today’s most prolific and gifted theologians/spiritual directors.  Short straightforward chapters that yield many insights into the practice of serious and effective prayer.  Very practical and quite helpful for that very reason.

+ The Passion of Christ by Veselin Kesich.  — This was my New Testament professor at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  A compact and clearly-written account of the Lord’s death on the Cross. Prof. Kesich walks you through the Lord’s earthly ministry and all of the factors that led to the Lord’s Passion. In only about a hundred pages, this book will illuminate a great deal for you as we move toward Holy Week during Great Lent.

+ The Power of the Name:  The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality by Archbishop Kallistos Ware.  — Certainly the best short introduction to the Jesus Prayer by a lifelong student and practitioner of the great “prayer of the heart.” Arch. Ware distills years of study and practice into an unforgettable forty-page treatise.  Yes – another classic!

+ The Place of the Heart* by Elizabeth Behr-Sigel.  — The author has been described as the “grandmother” of 20th c. Orthodox writers.  A European lay theologian, Behr-Sigel’s book is subtitled “An Introduction to Orthodox Spirituality.”  This is a far-ranging description of how our immensely rich spiritual tradition developed from the Scriptures to the present day.  A very rich presentation. Actually, Arch. Ware’s essay on The Power of the Name is included here as an Appendix.

+ Becoming Human by Fr. John Behr  — A marvelous and profound meditation – accompanied by iconographic images – on the Person of Christ and how Christ is the link toward our own true humanity.  Many great new insights here that Fr. John has put into a short meditative form based on his other scholarly studies of the early Christian tradition.  A profound link is made between Christ – the one true human being – and our own emerging humanity after His image.

God’s Many-Splendored Image by Nonna Verna Harrison * — Verna Harrison is an Orthodox nun, known as Sister Nonna. She is also a highly-respected patristic scholar and theologian.  This book explores “theological anthropology for Christian formation.”  That sounds rather intimidating, but prominent readers have said that “clarity, simplicity, beauty, and depth” characterize the content and style of this book.  A truly wonderful exploration of what it means to be, as a human being, “God’s many-splendored image.”  Insightful observations are made in this book about figures ranging from desert fathers to Albert Einstein. Sister Nonna dedicated the book “to all people whom other people have thrown away. It shows that God does not throw away people.” Who would not want to read a book with a dedication like that?

+ The Sayings of the Desert Fathers – The Alphabetical Collection, Benedicta Ward (editor and translator).  — Here are the multitude of aphorisms, anecdotes and wisdom sayings of the great desert fathers arranged alphabetically (the Gk. alphabet, that is) from the letters Alpha to Omega, and everything in between.  These are the words of life from the great pioneers of Christian asceticism and the spiritual life.  We read the words of Sts. Anthony the Great, Arsenius, and Macarius the Great and a host of other spiritual guides.  An endless source of wisdom that can be read through the years.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Judgment Sunday: 'The end draws near, my soul…'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Here is a fine, albeit short, summary from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s introduction to the Lenten Triodion of the meaning and placement of the Sunday of the Last Judgment - the theme of the third pre-=lenten Sunday:

“The two past Sundays spoke to us of God’s patience and limitless compassion, of His readiness to accept every sinner who returns to Him. On this third Sunday, we are powerfully reminded of a complementary truth: no one is so patient and so merciful as God, but even He does not forgive those who do not repent. The God of love is also a God of righteousness, and when Christ comes again in glory, He will come as our Judge. ‘Behold the goodness and severity of God’ (Romans 11:22).
"Such is the message of Lent to each of us: turn back while there is still time, repent before the End comes. In the words of the Great Canon, ‘The end draws near, my soul, the end draws near; Yet thou dost not care or make ready.  The time grows short, rise up: the Judge is at the door.  The days of our life pass swiftly, as a dream, as a flower.'

“This Sunday sets before us the ‘eschatological’ dimension of Lent: The Great Fast is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Saviour, for the eternal Passover in the Age to Come. (This is a theme that will be taken up in the first three days of Holy Week.)
"Nor is the judgment merely in the future. Here and now, each day and each hour, in hardening our hearts toward others and in failing to respond to the opportunities we are given of helping them, we are already passing judgment on ourselves.”

What are some of the “opportunities we are given” to help others by expanding our hearts in order to embrace their needs? 

These “opportunities” are proclaimed in the Gospel reading appointed for the Sunday of the Last Judgment—Matthew 25:31-46:  to give food to the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, and to come to those in prison. These are the acts of mercy and charity proclaimed by the glorified Son of Man that will be at the basis of our judgment when we – together with “all the nations”—will be “gathered” before Him.  

The glorified Son of Man is our Lord Jesus Christ.  According the imagery of the parable, He will “come in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne” (v. 31).  As the judgment unfolds, there is a separation between the “sheep at the right hand” and “the goats at the left” (v. 33).  

Our response to the “opportunities we are given” to serve Christ by serving those in need is expressed in a particularly profound manner by the Lord: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (v. 40).  

Repeated failure to avail ourselves of these opportunities to serve others in need has harsh consequences according to Christ: the final separation that leaves one a “goat.”  Yet, the consequence is self-inflicted; and not a rigid juridical pronouncement.  Is our faith acting through love (Galatians 5:6), or does our faith never develop beyond the theoretical stage?  These are choices that we make based upon the gift of self-determination bestowed on us by God.

In every parish, various possibilities arise that present these opportunities to serve others.  To minister is to serve; and that is the basic meaning and goal of all parish ministries.  As a parish attempts to embody the Gospel beyond its walls, those ministries directly connected to the teachings of Christ in Matthew 25:31-46 should include the following.

  • Establishing a food and beverage pantry that feeds local residents in need.
  • Offering financial assistance that feeds, clothes and educates needy children and orphans.
  • Visiting those who are hospitalized or home-bound.
  • Initiating a prison ministry that includes visits to inmates, preparing food items, etc.
  • Providing Christmas gifts for poor and needy families, especially those with children.
  • Collecting and distributing clothing to the needy, and especially the homeless.
  • Befriending the lonely, those without families, and others who have no one upon whom they can rely in times of need.

Inevitably, questions arise concerning the extent to which we participate, support and embrace such ministries.  Are these ministries a part of our Christian stewardship of time, talent and treasure?  Are our hearts “in it”or “out of it?”  How do we coordinate the proclamation and teaching of the Gospels – heard at every Liturgy – within our lives as lived out as members of a concrete community?  Does our self-absorption minimize our care for the “other?”  Do we truly believe that we will be judged as Christ declares in the parable?

These very questions can form the basis for a “preparation for Confession” during Great Lent.  

We usually find ourselves examining how well we fasted or failed to fast during that holy season.  Yet, in addition to prayer and fasting, almsgiving and charity are essential for a holistic embodiment of an “evangelical” – i.e. Gospel-based – way of life.  

Perhaps such self-examination will prepare us for the ultimate examination before the Son of Man, when everything will be revealed in absolute clarity.  Of this, we are reminded during Vespers for the Sunday of the Last Judgment as we sing, 

“But, O Savior Who alone lovest mankind, King of the ages, before the end comes, turn me back through repentance and have mercy on me.”

Monday, February 13, 2017

From a Far Country

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"And He said, 'There was a man who had two sons' ..."

This is how Christ begins what is perhaps the greatest of his parables, the one we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but which could easily be titled the Parable of the Two (Lost) Sons or the Parable of the Compassionate Father. With this parable, we are invited to enter the "school of repentance" and sit at the feet of the Master, so that we can hear the words of eternal life and "keep them."

After receiving his portion of the inheritance, even before his father had died, the younger of the two sons "gathered all that he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living." (LK. 15:13) 

This one sober understatement does not demand a great deal of imagination to yield its meaning. We know that loose living refers to a web of wrong choices, bad company, unrestrained satisfaction of "the passions," and forgetfulness of God. This spiritually suicidal combination leads to bankruptcy on a further series of interrelated levels: the material, moral/ethical and spiritual. In no time, the prodigal son is forced to feed "on the pods that the swine ate." (v. 16)

A "far country" can also refer to a hidden place in our interior landscape...

Before succumbing to the temptation of trying my hand at an updated melodramatic script that would luridly describe the sins of the wayward young man of the parable - replete with money, sex and drugs - together with all of the didactic apparatus meant to strengthen our resolve to protect our children (since we are now too old for all of that); I would rather more modestly pause at the words about a journey "into a far country." 

The far country of the parable is geographical, for the young man of the parable ventured far from his home. Yet, a "far country" can also refer to a hidden place in our interior landscape; a "place" in which we can distance ourselves from God and right living to a frightening degree, even if slowly and unintentionally. 

At first, that interior far country can prove to be appealing. It can appease our vanity, protect our pride and/or feed "the passions" that we can nurture even if hidden from the view and censure of others. This is initially stimulating and seems to promise endless delight - perhaps like the endless freedom that an unsupervised dorm may offer to an innocent college student away from the sheltering, but seemingly restrictive, atmosphere of home.

When the emptiness of such a landscape becomes evident, we too can desperately desire to "feed on the pods that the swine ate." The self-serving (or "self-help!") philosophies that we squandered our "inheritance" from God on, will no longer satisfy us, but in a restless and hungry search for something else to replace these, we can even fall to the level of "swinish delights." Anything to relieve our boredom or frustrations. 

Without moving anywhere, and without changing the patterns of our lifestyle, we can still withdraw to a "far country" in that interior landscape that can prove to be as treacherous as any unknown environment of the exterior world. 

It is said of the prodigal son of the parable, that when at "rock bottom," he "came to himself" (v. 17). This is certainly one of the key expressions found in this endlessly rich parable. The young man found his right mind, his sanity was restored, and basically he "got a grip on reality." An undramatic, but perfect way, to describe "conversion," or the process of turning back toward God and the warm embrace of our heavenly Father.

A certain clarity of thought is needed to find our way home when we drift off toward a far country. The short-lived rock band of the late 60's, Blind Faith, had an intriguing song entitled "Can't Find My Way Home." Perhaps that was an honest and clear-sighted assessment of the band's state of mind at that time (money, sex and drugs?), and a poignant recognition of being in a "far country." Two other songs on the album, however, "In the Presence of the Lord," and "Sea of Joy," may have pointed to more promising discoveries. 

Every year, through the lectionary of the Church, especially in this pre-lenten season of preparation, we are powerfully reminded of just how far away from "home" we may actually be in mind and heart. If we have been equally prodigal with the gifts bestowed upon us by God, then we can equally "come to ourselves" and return home to the embrace of our compassionate Father.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Reproaching the Pharisee ~ St Cyril of Alexandria

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ.

Here is some more on the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, from “our Father among the saints,” St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444). St. Cyril, with great rhetorical skill, reproaches the Pharisee for praising himself while pointing out the infirmities of the conscience-stricken publican:

What profit is there in fasting twice in the week if it serves only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity and makes one proud, haughty and selfish? You tithe your possessions and boast about it.

In another way, you provoke God’s anger by condemning and accusing other people of this. You are puffed up, although not crowned by the divine decree for righteousness. On the contrary, you heap praise on yourself. He says, “I am not as the rest of humankind.” Moderate yourself, O Pharisee. Put a door and lock on your tongue. (PS. 141:3)

You speak to God who knows all things. Wait for the decree of the judge. No one who is skilled in wrestling ever crowns himself. No one also receives the crown from himself but waits for the summons of the referee….

Lower your pride because arrogance is accursed and hated by God. It is foreign to the mind that fears God. Christ even said, “Do not judge and you shall not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” (LK. 6:37)

One of his disciples also said, “There is one lawgiver and judge. Why then do you judge your neighbor?” (JM. 4:12) No one who is in good health ridicules one who is sick or being laid up and bedridden. He is rather afraid, for perhaps he may become the victim of similar sufferings. A person in battle, because another has fallen, does not praise himself for having escaped from misfortune. The weakness of others is not a suitable subject for praise for those who are in health.

Commentary on Luke, Homily 120.

"Who Do I Resemble"

In addition, here is a link to an older meditation I wrote on the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, with the title "Who Do I Resemble?" — meaning the publican or the pharisee.  In answering this question, perhaps some deeply honest self-examination may have us squirming in our seats a bit!

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Publican, the Pharisee, and the struggle for humility

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee confronts us with a stark contrast between religious pride and self-righteousness on the one hand, and heartfelt humility and repentance on the other hand. The pharisee, of course, is the one who manifests pride, and it is the publican who manifests humility.

The Lord closes this short parable by declaring the Pharisee “condemned” and the publican “justified.” This is a genuine “reversal of fortune,” upending our preconceived notions of piety and righteousness as forcefully as it must have struck those who initially heard the parable as delivered by the Lord. Yet, that reversal of fortune should not obscure other notable factors also working within this parable.  Being a relatively short parable, perhaps we should include the text here for reference:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get. 
But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even life his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the  other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.  (LK. 18:10-14)

Christ is not condemning the actions of the pharisee. The Lord is not telling us through this parable that the pharisee – or anyone else, and that includes us – is wasting both time and energy by going up to the temple to pray, by fasting and by tithing. These are not being condemned as empty practices, consigning all such practitioners to the barren realm of hypocrisy and religious formalism. 

We, as contemporary Christians, are encouraged to enter the church with regularity and offer our prayer to God, to practice the self restraint and discipline of fasting, and to share our financial resources with the generosity implied by the biblical tithe. We could add other practices to that. In fact, we would do well to imitate the outward actions of the pharisee in practicing our Faith!

Yet, on a deeper and far more significant level, the pharisee got it all wrong. He was consumed by a self-satisfied and self-righteous interior attitude that left no room for God to transform him by divine grace. 

The Pharisee’s prayer was seemingly directed to God, but in reality it was an exercise in self-congratulations (for not being like other sinful men). Here was a man who did not suffer over low self-esteem! 

The pharisee was self-centered, but not God-centered. Something went wrong, and the self replaced God as the center of his energy and passion. The exterior forms of piety that he practiced were disconnected from the interior realm of the heart, where God is meant to dwell and, again, transform the human person from within, so that each person becomes less self-centered and more God-centered with time and patience.

Based on our knowledge of the role of the publican in first century Israel, we can be assured that Christ was not “justifying” the particular “lifestyle” that made the publicans such notorious and despised figures of that world. In fact, they were always included with “harlots” when reference was being made to the marginalized, if not ostracized, members of first century Judaism. 

Rather, the publican was declared “justified” for the very fact that he recognized and was profoundly struck by just how sinful he had become in cheating and defrauding his neighbor as a hated tax-collector working for the occupying Roman authority. He had the experience of true contrition of heart.  He realized that he stood self-condemned before the Lord, yet he did not despair but cried out plaintively,  “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” 

Human persons are not saved as sinners, but as sinners who in humility repent before God and then offer the fruits of repentance.

The hymnography for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee exhorts us to flee from pride and to embrace humility. 

We live in a culture obsessed with the self and thus not only susceptible to, but openly promoting, both pride and vainglory. “In your face” is widely seen as a “heroic” gesture of self-defiance and legitimate self-promotion. Humility is treated as weakness and ineffectual for “getting ahead” or for fulfilling one’s desires. 

We hear the voice of the Lord and we hear the voice of the world. It is our choice as to which voice we will listen to. And that choice will be determined to a great extent by just what the desires that move us to action are actually for. 

“For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Seeking and Saving the Lost

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost."  (LK. 19:10)

At the conclusion of the story of the conversion of Zacchaeus the Jewish tax-collector, Jesus made a solemn pronouncement concerning Himself as the Son of Man who has come to seek and save the lost - the words quoted above from the Gospel. 

Jesus is, of course, the Son of Man - that mysterious and transcendent figure found primarily in the Book of Daniel (7:13-14).  This is one of His many messianic titles, and one of the more exalted ones.  Under the image of the Good Shepherd Jesus also spoke of seeking and caring for the sheep of His flock, those who bear His name and recognize Him.  His ministry is always in response to human need.  But the image of the Son of Man takes on even greater solemnity, for this figure "comes down" from heaven to seek and to save. 

Who are those who are "lost?"  In a sweeping manner, we could say anyone who is disconnected from God, the source of authentic life and spiritual well-being.  

To be blind to the reality of God as the Creator and Sustainer of our existence is to be lost.  To make one's way through life as an autonomous being, unresponsive to God's presence and "desire" to save us, is to be lost. To lack the type of humility that allows a person to acknowledge the corrosive power of sin in our lives, is to be lost.  And to be a self-satisfied Christian, filled with various prejudices and a tendency to judge "others" in a condescending manner, is to be lost.  

To be lost is to be outside of the grace of God in something of a twilight zone of inauthentic existence of sheer randomness where we depend upon our survival skills and a good deal of "luck." 

Thus, Zacchaeus, as the hated tax-collector working for the equally-hated Roman authorities and working to defraud others while he becomes a "rich man" at the expense of others, was lost.  And the "crowd" that murmured against Jesus for going to the home of a sinner, was also lost.  The Son of Man came to save both Zacchaeus and the self-satisfied crowd. According to the story, apparently only Zacchaeus "got it."

To respond to the gracious gift of Christ is to be transferred from the "lost" to the "saved."  It is to be overwhelmed by the love of God that extends to every living creature and to make a pledge of "giving back" to the world and to others in the spirit of Zacchaeus.  

However, the "saved" is not a static category that once entered seals a kind of guarantee from God that it is automatically permanent.  Salvation is a process.  As Archbishop Kallistos Ware put it:  "I have been saved; I am being saved; I will be saved."  He consciously avoided saying "I am saved" in some kind of definitive manner. Salvation is a process — not a state. 

Whenever we revert to the conditions of the pre-conversion Zacchaeus; or to the complacency of the crowd, then we need to repent. 

Perhaps that is why we hear the story of Zacchaeus only five Sundays before Great Lent begins. It is a wonderful story of conversion/repentance and of the power, authority and love of the Son of Man who "came to seek and to save that which was lost."

* * *

Earlier in the week - I believe on Monday and Wednesday - I sent out a couple of meditations (one new and one old) about the story of Zacchaeus. I received a couple of very interesting responses that I have included as further "fragments" for this Friday.  There are some excellent questions and insights to be found in both of these, so I hope that you will read what others in the parish have in mind when hearing and reading about Zacchaeus.


Dear Fr. Steven,

I've been thinking about the Zacchaeus story and trying to meditate on its meaning. When you get a chance, can you please take a look at my notes and help me to dive deeper into this story, so that I can understand what it means for me personally.

Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus - is the climbing representative of our journey through Great Lent to encounter Jesus and see - to experience His light? Technically, I should be experiencing Zacchaeus moments each week and not just at Great Lent. However, something Fr. Hopko said in a podcast about Great Lent has stuck with me - "it's a time for normal Christian activity & behavior...how we should be all year and not some sort of heightened spiritual experience." However, it does seem like it is heightened because of the increase in services, the fasting, the prayers, even the monasteries increase their prayers ... it's hard to wrap my mind around exactly what Fr. Thomas meant. Perhaps he meant not a one and done until next Lent (such as only praying during Lent or only attending extra services during Lent)?

Jesus goes to Zacchaeus' home because of his zeal to see him - does the home mean our hearts?

I noticed that it wasn't until after Jesus goes into Zacchaeus' home that Zacchaeus realizes his need to repent - to change his mind about his previous lifestyle. When he climbed the tree, he didn't know that he needed to change?

And finally, when Jesus said that He came to seek and save the lost - this would mean in whatever way we are lost? perhaps we don't know where (or how) we are lost until Christ enters our home/our heart, but it requires zeal/desire to encounter Christ by climbing/stretching, and then perhaps it would be revealed to us?

All help is greatly appreciated. I realize you're quite swamped, so when you have time. I suppose assurance with meditation comes with time and age?

In Christ,


Dear Father Steven,

In our pride and sinfulness, it appears that everyone has a tendency to look at the Scriptures with the Pharisaical mindset. We look at it objectively, as many do with all aspects of life.

You point out a fatal flaw in Western Christianity's method of exegesis, which I believe you have referred to as scholasticism:  "if we reduce the Gospels to this historical, social and religious context; or rely so heavily on that, then this very 'objectivity' can obscure the deeper meaning of a given passage." This makes the exegete a philosopher, not a Christian saint.

To quote St. Nikolai Velimirovich, ". . . The enormous difference is clearly seen between a pagan philosopher and a Christian saint. The one (the philosopher) looses himself in abstractions, in cleverly twisted words, in logical provocations and in thoughtful sport while the other (the saint) directed his whole mind on the Living God and on the salvation of his soul. The one is abstract and dead, while the other is practical and alive.”

The reading of the Scriptures, if I am understanding all of this correctly, is to develop the Phronema (Mind) of and within the Christian.

Thank you,

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Meeting the Lord in the Temple

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This wonderful Feast of The Meeting of our Our Lord in the Temple commemorates the event recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke (2:22-40). This occurs forty days after the Nativity of Christ. Hence, this particular Feast brings to a close an entire cycle that began eighty days earlier with the onset of the Nativity Fast on November 15. The Circumcision of Christ that occurred eight days after His birth falls between the Feasts of the Nativity and the Meeting. 

One of the hymns for the Meeting nicely brings out this sequence of events, placing them in the context of fulfilling the Scriptures:

Search the Scriptures, as Christ our God said in the Gospels. For in them we find Him born as a child and bound in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger and fed upon milk, receiving circumcision and carried by Simeon: not in fancy nor in imagination but in very truth has He appeared unto the world. To Him let us cry aloud: Glory to Thee, O pre-eternal God. (Great Vespers, Litiya)

It is interesting to note how this hymn stresses the true humanity of the Lord by such expressions as "not in fancy nor in imagination but in very truth." Our Lord did not seem to be human, but He was truly human, otherwise He could not have saved us.  For, as St. Gregory the Theologian famously said: "What is not assumed is not healed."

Christ is brought to the Temple in Jerusalem by His mother and Joseph in fulfillment of the Law (LEV. 12). Unable to afford an unblemished lamb, they offer a pair of turtledoves. Yet, the Mother of God is carrying the unblemished Lamb of God in her arms and then offers Him to the righteous Simeon. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Simeon prophecies to the Virgin Mary: "and a sword will pierce through your own soul also" (LK 2:35). This has always been understood as pointing to the maternal suffering of the Mother of God who will behold her Son dying on the Cross.

In a wonderful homily, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (+1944), revealed the humility of the Lord as the beginning of the path that would lead to His ultimate sacrifice:

The Infant was born on earth - the eternal God in a humble manger, but there was a place for Him in the Temple, for the Temple was built for Him. And He was brought into His Temple, where it pleased His Name to dwell (I Kings 8:29). But He came there not to receive veneration, but to serve many, in the form of a servant, veiling the radiance of His Divinity with the abject humility of the flesh. 
He came there as a son under the law, obedient to the law which He Himself had given to Moses, manifesting Himself as the model of obedience; for He came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. 
His Mother came to dedicate Her firstborn Son to God, to give God the Son to God the Father, and to offer the redemptive and purifying sacrifice. In giving birth to the Infant, She did not know sin; but just as He, sinless, came to receive from John the baptism of repentance, so She too, in Her immaculate birth, came to offer a sacrifice for sin, having in Her arms the One who truly was the Sacrifice for the sins of the entire world... 
It is not for glory but for the offering of sacrifice that the Lord is brought into His house, which had to receive and encompass the One who cannot be encompassed. 
(Churchly Joy, p. 59-60)

If we search carefully, we discover that all of the Feasts commemorating the events in the early life of the Lord also point forward to the sacrifice of the Cross and the life-giving death of Christ. Bound in swaddling cloths and lying in a cave at His Nativity anticipates His later entombment when bound in burial cloths. The blood shed at His circumcision anticipates His blood shed upon the Cross. And being offered as a lamb in the Temple anticipates His sacrificial death as the Lamb of God.

In a very wide context, we realize that the Old Testament "meets" the New Testament when the Messiah is brought to the Temple, the dwelling-place of God. Jesus Christ is now the place of the divine presence, for His flesh is the "temple" of His divinity. The representatives of the Chosen People for this meeting are the righteous elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna. The elder Simeon received Christ into his arms and blessed God in the process.  The Old Testament (Symeon) meets the New Testament (Christ). We are all quite familiar with the magnificent hymn of St. Simeon, known as the Nunc Dimittis, chanted at every Vespers service:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,
which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel. (LK 2:32)

If we, too, could depart from this life with those words on our lips and in our hearts, that departure would be glorious!

Sadly, the prophetess Anna would probably be seen as a "fanatic" today because "She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day" (2:37) for the greater part of eighty-four years! Both Simeon and Anna realized that this meeting was of the deepest significance possible, for the young Child promised to be "the redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38). For this reason, the prophtess Anna "gave thanks to God" (2:38).

Participation in the liturgical cycle of the Feasts is a major component of the "battle of the calendars."  This is especially true when "competing" with entertainment or sports events.

Considering the depth of the great Feasts of the Church's liturgical cycle, expressed in a kind of theological poetry that amplifies what is found in Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church; revealed in beautiful iconography; and further enhanced in our communal liturgical gatherings; it seems only natural for Orthodox Christians to avail themselves of the opportunity to come together in worship whenever possible.

Lacking in "fun," but filled with divine grace, the Feasts make present the events being commemorated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Actually, nothing is lacking - except perhaps "instant replay." But this is more than made up for by the fact that there are no interminable "commercial breaks" that would break the flow of the service. Expert pre- and post-Feast "analysis" is provided by the writings of the Holy Fathers and contemporary Orthodox theologians who offer insightful commentaries on the deepest levels of meaning of the Feast.

There is no final score, but "those who keep my words to the end" are all considered to be "conquerors" promises the Lord (REV. 2:26).

Fr. Steven