Wednesday, May 24, 2017

'Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ'


Dear Parish Faithful,


CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!


Pascha - The Thirty-Ninth (and final) Day

'Did not our hearts burn within us...' (LK 24:32)

Today we say farewell to the paschal season as we have reached the thirty-ninth day, with tomorrow's fortieth day being the great feast of the Ascension of Christ. This year, in a series of homilies, I have tried to keep us focused on the Risen Christ and His appearances to His female and male disciples as found recorded in the Four Gospels. 

Below, I have shared a few further passages on the Resurrection beginning with the great Byzantine mystic, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and then followed by some of our most prominent contemporary Orthodox voices. Each witnesses to the same Risen Lord, but each with a particular point of view that reveals the inexhaustible mystery of Christ's victory over death. 

It is now time to celebrate the glorification of Christ at the right hand of the Father in the feast of the Ascension.  We will serve Great Vespers this evening (May 24) at 7:00 p.m. and the Divine Liturgy on Thursday morning, May 25 at 9:30 a.m.

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"That most sacred formula which is daily on our lips does not say, "Having believed in the Resurrection of Christ," but, "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One." How then does the Holy Spirit urge us to say, "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ," which we have not seen, as though we had seen it, when Christ has risen once for all a thousand years ago, and when even then without anybody's seeing it?  Surely Holy Scripture does not wish us to lie?  

"Far from it! Rather, it urges us to speak the truth, that the resurrection of Christ takes place in each of us who believes, and that not once, but every hour, so to speak, when Christ the Master arises in us, resplendent in array and flashing with the lightnings of incorruption and Deity... 

"Those to whom Christ has given light as He has risen, to them He has appeared spiritually. He has been shown to their spiritual eyes. When this happens to us through the Spirit He raises us up from the dead and gives us life. He grants us to see Him, who is immortal and indestructible. More than that, He grants clearly to know Him who raises us up (EPH. 2:6) and glorifies us (ROM. 8:17) with Himself, as all the divine Scripture testifies."

St. Symeon the New Theologian (+1022) from Discourse Eleven - Of Christ's Resurrection

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"Christ's resurrection was such an indisputable fact for early Christians and there was such a deep meaning associated with this event, that the Apostle Paul could, without hesitation, say to the addressees of his epistles: 'If Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain' (I COR. 15:14).

"The whole apostolic preaching was built on the witness of Christ's resurrection - a witness that was so surprising that the apostles said concerning it: 'We have seen with our eyes', that 'which we have looked upon and our hands have handled' (I JN. 1:1).

"And though not one of the apostles saw the very moment of Christ's Resurrection, they all saw the risen Christ, who repeatedly appeared to them, strengthening them in faith. Even those who did not see the risen Christ with their physical eyes, like the Apostle Paul and all the subsequent generations of Christians, for instance, saw his resurrection with the eyes of the soul, and their confidence in Christ's resurrection was as strong as that of the apostles."

Metropolitan Ilarion Alfeyev from Vol. II of Orthodox Christianity - Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church
 
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"Christ's resurrection is the greatest event in history. It is a matter of deification and resurrection of the human nature and of a hope for deification and resurrection of our own person.  

"Since the medicine has been found, there is hope of life.  Through Christ's Resurrection both life and death acquire another meaning.  We do not regard as life the whole of the events of history, but communion with God. And we do not regard as death the end of the present life, but the human person's withdrawal from Christ, while separation of the soul and body is not death, but a temporary sleep.  

"The Apostle Paul, precisely because he feels united with the Risen Christ, can confess:  'For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, not things present not things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord'."

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos from The Feast of the Lord

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"Dead once for all on the Cross, outside the walls of Jerusalem, and resurrected on the third day after His burial, Christ continues to die and to rise, mystically,  mysteriously, until the end of the age, in each person whose nature He has assumed.  

"Before the scandal and the horror of death - of all the daily deaths such as sickness, hatred, injustice, the destruction of our natural environment, physical and psychic disorders - the Resurrection of Christ traces a path of light. It produces an abundant flow of life in the midst of death, it transforms death into a "passage" (Pascha). 

"The Paschal mystery is an invitation to keep our lamps lit (LK. 12:35). It introduces us to another aeon, which is a new dimension, the anticipation of the world to come, the Kingdom already secretly present among us."

Michael Quenot from The Resurrection and the Icon

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Paschal Reminiscences


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!


While preparing for the priesthood, I was ordained as a deacon of the Church for my last three months at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in New York (1981).  I was thus able to serve together with Frs. Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Thomas Hopko, as well as with others in the "old chapel" during that brief period of time. That alone remains a memorable experience.  

This also meant that I was able to serve as a deacon during Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha of my final year at St. Vladimir's. In the late morning of Pascha Sunday, Presvytera and I arrived early as we were gathering at the chapel for the Paschal Vespers, served an noon. 

As we began to socialize a bit before the service, I found myself standing on the porch of the chapel and looking out and absorbing this wonderful day and the setting of the chapel amidst an array of colorful flowers and teeming bushes.  The day was calm and mild and the sun was shining brightly.  The exhaustion of the previous Holy Week and the long paschal Liturgy earlier that morning seemed to momentarily disappear. Fr. Schmemann then joined me on the porch, dressed in his white paschal cassock, and also clearly enjoying this "perfect day."  

After a bit of silence he said something to me that has always stayed with me. Now, for some reason, there were times when he would not call me by my first name, but would address me in his French-Russian accented way as "Kostoff."  And this was meant in a friendly, not a formal way. So, on this occasion, he leaned over and said, "Kostoff, it is a day like today that makes life meaningful." 

This was a typical example of Fr. Schmemann's use of understatement. He thoroughly disliked pious rhetoric, long-winded theological conversations - "teaching God" he would bitingly say -  and he was equally impatient with sentimentality.

Thus, all he needed to say was that this beautiful Pascha Sunday made life meaningful. These words were about Christ and His victory over death in His Resurrection. That is what makes life meaningful. We had just completed our annual celebration of that life-creating victory, culminating hours earlier in the joyous midnight Paschal Liturgy which we served together. The beauty of the day simply further enhanced the life-changing meaning of the Resurrection of Christ. 

Fr. Schmemann was a  thorough realist. He harbored no illusions about the destructive power of sin and the tragedy of history and life filled with sin. And, of course, there is death itself, overshadowing and undermining our quest for the "meaning of life." Fr. Schmemann was thus implying that without Christ's victory over sin and death, one is hard-pressed to find ultimate meaning in life. Or that all such attempts pale before the tangible reality of the Risen Christ.  That is how I understood his words, that "it is a day like today that makes life meaningful." 

I like to think that it was our shared "worldview" and our joint membership in the Church, that instantly revealed to me what he was conveying to me with this understated remark that came to him naturally.  There was no need to "spell it out." It was a shared understanding. I do not recall how I responded, if I did at all. I am hoping that I simply nodded my head in agreement without trying to respond with something clever. Why spoil the moment!  

We were eventually joined by a host of other priests and deacons (one of whom was Fr. John Meyendorff, the brilliant Church historian and Patristics scholar), and someone then offered to take a group photo of us all in front of the "old chapel." I have this photo to this day and at times look at it fondly and nostalgically.  By the following year, after I had graduated, the new chapel was in place.

To add another reminiscence from that same celebration of Pascha, I would share that during the earlier midnight Liturgy, while we were in the sanctuary, Fr. Schmemann leaned over and said to me, "Kostoff, a logical positivist could never understand all of this." Interesting comment in the middle of the Liturgy! 

For Fr. Schmemann a "logical positivist" would have a truncated understanding of life, for the very reason that he was trying to understand everything through the categories of logical thought. Yet life, in all of its manifestations and beauty - as well as in its imperfections and irrationality - is far greater than logic. (The personal tragedy of placing logic above life was one of the major themes pursued by Dostoevsky with great penetration in his later novels). At least that is how Fr. Schmemann would see things, and I would fully agree with him. It is hard to work God into the structure of thought pursued by the logical positivist. Thus, the Christian revelation remains foreign, if not incoherent, to such a way of thinking. I am sure that that was implied in Fr. Schmemann's quick aside to me in the sanctuary. But I believe that there was more.

The Paschal Liturgy, as the culmination of the long and emotionally-draining experience of Holy Week, is something like an "explosion of joy." There is something "child-like" in all of the movement and singing: the procession, the initial proclamation that "Christ is Risen!" followed by the joyous singing of the paschal canon, of "Let God Arise," and "The Angel Cried." The paschal services have meaningful structure, but formality and stuffy solemnity are abandoned in the light of joyously acknowledging and experiencing the presence of the Risen Lord. 

In all of this we transcend the merely logical; not that what we are doing is "illogical" but the experience of paschal joy carries us to another level of reality. It was this paschal joy that I believe Fr. Schmemann was saying escapes the more narrow confines of the 'logical positivist." And I am glad that he shared another memorable thought with me at that very moment! 

He realized that what we were doing would seem like foolishness to others, but that is besides the point. Without such joy Christianity is reduced to moral prescriptions and proscriptions. In fact, Fr. Schmemann would often quote the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who would reproach Christians for having no joy, in order to make the point that a joyless Christianity was a contradiction in terms and unworthy of the attention of others.

It was quite an experience to be around Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and I hope that you will enjoy these shared paschal reminiscences that have stayed with me through the years of my priestly ministry.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Probing Question of Christ: 'Do You Want to be Healed?'


Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,


CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!


When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (JN 5:6)




In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John we find the account of the healing of the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and the profound discourse that follows. Archeologists have fairly recently discovered this pool, demonstrating the accuracy of Saint John’s description. This passage, of course, is always read on the Fourth Sunday of Pascha.

The paralytic had taken his place among a human throng of chronic misery, described by the evangelist as “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed” [verse 3].  Being there for 38 years and not being able to experience what were believed to be the healing capacities of the waters of the pool, the paralytic seemed resigned to his destiny.

Then Jesus appeared.  He saw the paralytic and He knew of his plight.  And then Jesus asked the paralytic a very pointed and even poignant question: “Do you want to be healed?” [verse 6].

Surprisingly, considering what must have been his own misery, the paralytic’s answer was less than direct and not exactly enthusiastic: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me” [verse 7].

Nevertheless, and even though the paralytic does not commit himself to an act of faith in the healing power of Jesus, he receives the following directive from Jesus: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  And then, in that somewhat laconic style of describing the healing power of Christ that characterizes the Gospel accounts, we read simply, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked” [verse 9].  The “sign” is that Christ can restore wholeness to those in need.

I believe that we need to concentrate on the question Jesus posed to the paralytic, “Do you want to be healed?”  (The King James version of the question is:  “Wilt thou be made whole?”)  For, if the various characters that Jesus encountered in the Gospels are also representatives or “types” of a particular human condition, dilemma, or state of being, then the question of Jesus remains alive in each generation and is thus posed to each of us today.

If sin is a sickness, then we are “paralyzed” by that sin to one degree or another of intensity.  But do we really want to be healed of the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives?

The answer seems obvious, even a “no-brainer,” but is that truly the case?  Or, are we more-or-less content with continuing as we are, satisfied that perhaps this is “as good as it gets” in terms of our relationship with God and our neighbors? 

Do we manage to politely deflect the probing question of Christ elsewhere, counter-posing a reasonable excuse as to what prevents us from exerting the necessary energy from our side?  Our teaching claims that we must also contribute to the synergistic process of divine grace and human freedom that works together harmoniously for our healing.

Perhaps it is easier and more comfortable to stay as we are – after all, it’s really not that bad - a position reflected in the non-committal response of the paralytic.  For to be further healed of sin will mean that we will have to make some changes in our life, in our interior attitudes and in our relationships.  It certainly means that we will have to confess our faith in Christ with a greater intensity, urgency and commitment.  Are we up to that challenge?

Actually, we could more accurately say that we have already been healed.  That happened when we were baptized into Christ.  (There are baptismal allusions in the healing of the paralytic by the pool of water).

Every human person is paralyzed by the consequences of sin, distorting the image of God in which we were initially created.  Baptism was meant to put to death the sin that is within us.  We were healed, in that baptism is the pledge to life everlasting, where death itself is swallowed up in the victory of Christ over death.  For we are baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

So, with a slight variation, the question of Christ could also imply: Do you rejoice in the fact that you have been healed, and does your way of life reflect the faith and joy that that great healing from sin and death has imparted to you?  Are you willing to continue in the struggle that is necessary to keep that healing “alive” within you?

Direct and simple questions can get complicated, often by the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives.  We can then get confused as to how to respond to such essential questions.  Every time we walk into the church we are being asked by Christ, “Do you want to be healed?”  Responding with a resounding “yes!” would be a “sign” of the faith, hope and love that are within us by the grace of God.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Shuddering Awe


Dear Parish Faithful,

CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!

I have attached a "meditation of old" (2009!) entitled "A Shuddering Awe."  This is, of course, a description of the Myrrhbearing Women as they "fled" from the empty tomb after making that discovery and after being "evangelized" by the angel from within the tomb.  What does a "shuddering awe" have to do with us today?  The meditation makes an attempt to deal with that question.


A Shuddering Awe




In the Gospel According to St. Mark, we hear of the discovery of the empty tomb by the myrrhbearing women "very early on the first day of the week" (16:1). This would be the day after the Sabbath, or our Sunday - the "Lord's Day." 

Since that astonishing morning until this day, Sunday is the most prominent day of worship for Christians, for it was on this day that the resurrection of the Lord was made manifest to the world. And that manifestation was first made to the group of women disciples we know collectively as "the myrrhbearers."

St. Mark specifically mentions "Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome" who "bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him" (16:1). These loyal and loving women had come, somewhat counter-intuitively, to anoint the body of the dead Jesus, though they were aware of the large stone that had been rolled "against the door of the tomb" (15:46). 

Or, perhaps it was a deeper intuition that brought them to the tomb in the hope that they could fulfill their ministry to the Lord. St. Mark narrates: "And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen" (16:2). The "risen sun" is certainly a wonderful anticipation of what the women were soon to discover. Yet, having arrived at the tomb where Jesus had been laid, "looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; for it was very large" (16:4).

The myrrhbearing women will now enter an empty tomb. Indeed, why was it empty? The empty tomb needed interpretation, or the women would be lost in distressful and fruitless speculation. 

The interpretation of the empty tomb will simultaneously be the proclamation of the "Good News." The interpreter and proclaimer will be "a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe" (16:5), clearly an angel. And that means that which he proclaims will be a divine revelation. 

In his presence, the women "were amazed" (16:5). The strength of the Gk. word for "amazed" (used only here in the entire NT by St. Mark) has been further translated as "a strong feeling of awe and agitation in the face of the numinous" (D. E. Nineham), or even a "shuddering awe." (A. E. J. Rawlinson). 

It is at this point in the dramatic narrative that we hear the "Good News" referred to above: 

"And he said to them 'Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him'." (16:6) 

The tomb is empty because Jesus had been raised from the dead! It was the will of God, that the women have the privilege of discovering this. In the words of Peter Chrysologus:

He did not roll back the stone to provide a way of escape for the Lord but to show the world that the Lord had already risen. He rolled back the stone to help his fellow servants believe, not to help the Lord rise from the dead. He rolled the stone for the sake of faith, because it had been rolled over the tomb for the sake of unbelief. He rolled back the stone so that he who took death captive might hold the title of Life.  —SERMON 75.4

This is a bodily resurrection, and not in some vague spiritual or "metaphorical" sense. Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified and buried, had been raised. The "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith" are one and the same. The resurrection reveals an awesome transformation, but it is Jesus of Nazareth who is transformed, thus assuring the continuity that is essential to reveal the victory over death that occurs in the resurrection.

The myrrhbearers then hear a further revelation from the angel: "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you" (16:7). This is in fulfillment of Christ's earlier words: "But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee" (14:28). The Gospel According to St. Matthew will record such an appearance of the Risen Lord to His disciples in Galilee (MATT. 28:16-20). 

Then the women, apparently in that same state of amazement "fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid" (16:8). 

I hope and pray that at some point in the paschal season; or at any time during the year — or during our lifetime! — we too can "tremble" and be filled with "astonishment" that Jesus has been raised from the dead. 

Is this an enigmatic ending to the initial discovery of the empty tomb and the proclamation of the resurrection? Did the myrrhbearing women fail in their ministry as "apostles to the apostles" because of their (initial) silence? 

I believe that St. Mark is leaving us with the overwhelming sense of precisely encountering a divine reality that initially did leave the women speechless. As a scholar of this Gospel has written:

The women's profound emotion is described in order to bring out the overwhelming and sheerly supernatural character of that to which it was the response (see also 4:41, 6:30, 9:15), and perhaps to suggest to the reader that if he has even begun to understand the full significance of what had occurred, he too will be bound to respond with amazement and godly fear." (D. E. Nineham, St. Mark, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, p. 447-448).

It is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that the Orthodox Church proclaims to this day with faith, conviction and the certainty that God has acted "in Christ Jesus" within history in a decisive and "eschatological" manner, in order to reclaim, restore and renew His fallen creation. 

Of course, other Christian churches proclaim the very same victory over death in the Resurrection of Christ. However, the Resurrection understood as the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has been challenged, "reinterpreted," or rejected by a fair share of biblical scholars and theologians. 

We need to be fully aware that the bodily resurrection of Christ does not refer to a resuscitated corpse. There is a tremendous element of transformation in the "spiritual body" of the Lord. The mysterious aspect of this transformation is conveyed in many of the scriptural texts that try and describe — perhaps less than adequately, or at least not exhaustively — the risen life of the Lord. 

Also, a resuscitated Jesus would have died again, as did Lazarus, the daughter of the elder Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain. But St. Paul affirms: "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9). 

There has "arisen" a sad division amongst Christians over this essential issue. To follow Jesus or to believe in Him apart from His bodily resurrection and all that that implies for Christology, anthropology, and eschatology, etc., is to follow "another Gospel." (GAL. 1:7) Such a Jesus did not "trample down death by death." It is a different Jesus and a different religion.

The further words of Peter Chrysologus captures the choice before us when contemplating the empty tomb:

Pray that the angel would descend now and roll away all the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen, for just as the heart in which Christ lives and reigns is heaven, so also the heart in which Christ remains dead and buried is a grave. May it be believed that just as he died, so was he transformed. Christ the man suffered, died and was buried; as God he lives, reigns, is and will be forever.  —SERMONS 75.4

CHRIST IS RISEN!  INDEED HE IS RISEN!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

'The new is fulfilled... Be made new!'


Dear Parish Faithful,

CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!

PASCHA:  The Seventeenth Day




I greet everyone from lovely Livonia, MI!

"Today salvation has come to the world, to things visible and to things invisible. Christ is risen from the dead; rise with him. Christ has returned to himself; return. Christ is freed from the tomb; be freed from the bonds of sin. The gates of hades are opened, and death is destroyed, and the old Adam is put aside, and the new is fulfilled. If anyone in Christ is a new creation, be made new."

St. Gregory the Theologian

We are also commemorating the second anniversary of the repose of Archimandrite Roman Braga, a genuine confessor of the Faith, and a man thoroughly imbued with a profound paschal joy.