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.

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