Friday, April 28, 2017

An Encounter Like No Other

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then that remarkable dialogue and encounter occurs.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

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

Dear Parish Faithful,


PASCHA - The Twelfth Day

Archpriest Alexander Men (+1990):

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

Christ is Risen!

Monday, April 24, 2017

More on the Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,


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

More on the Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Subject

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

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

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!
Indeed He is Risen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Pascha and Pop-Culture

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!  
Indeed He is Risen!

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

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

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

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

Break On Through (To The Other Side)

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

'I am Lazarus'

Dear Parish Faithful,

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

Be that as it may, Byrne writes the following:

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

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

'Earthly Life Ceases'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

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

(Vespers of Lazarus Saturday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Matins of Holy Monday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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