Thursday, June 29, 2017

Mammon, and the 'Either/Or' Choice of the Gospel

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Embedded at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ teaches us:  "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (MATT. 6:24).

In these words, Jesus confronts us with an "either/or" choice. The "either/or" dilemma usually means that we have two starkly different choices before us, and also that the stakes are quite high in making that choice. "Either" we choose the one, "or" we choose the other - and the consequences of this choice are far-reaching indeed. 

We could actually say that in this teaching of Christ, we encounter  an ultimate "either/or" choice, because on the one hand we have the choice of God - and for Jesus that is the living God revealed in the Scriptures and human experience - and on the other hand, we have the choice of mammon, an untranslated Semitic expression that means worldly wealth or property.  

Yet, we cannot treat mammon as a neutral term, for the connotation is that this wealth is gained by obsessive pursuit at the cost of a meaningful relationship with God. Jesus made this clear a bit earlier in the same general passage with these words: 

 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves  do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (MATT. 6:19-21) 

To further illustrate the negative effects of the type of wealth associated with mammon, we can turn to St. John Chrysostom who, with his characteristically powerful rhetoric, reveals the dangers of  choosing mammon over God:

Now Jesus calls mammon here "a master," not because of its own nature but on account of the wretchedness of those who bow themselves beneath it. So also he calls the stomach a god, not from the dignity of such a mistress but from the wretchedness of those enslaved.
To have mammon for your master is already worse itself than any later punishment and enough retribution before the punishment for any one trapped in it. For what condemned criminals can be so wretched as those who, once having God for their Lord, do from that mild rule desert to this previous obsession with money? Even in this life  such idolatry trails immense harm in its path, with losses unspeakable. Think of the lawsuits! The harassment, the strife and toil and blinding of the soul!
More grievous, one falls away thereby from the highest blessing - to be God's servant. 

We will gain no benefit from trying to soften the words of Christ. However, I believe that a careful reading of these words does not mean that Jesus is rejecting the ownership of what we like to call "things" or "possessions."  It would be simplistic to reduce this passage to an anti-materialistic diatribe, pure and simple. Certainly Jesus realizes that we are in great need of food and drink, as well as clothing (6:25-33). In fact, it is our responsibility to make sure that persons deprived of such basic needs are provided with them, to the point where our own judgement is at stake. (MATT. 25:31-46) I imagine that Jesus would also realize that we need a car to get to work and back with the earnings for our daily bread! 

Perhaps one important interpretive key in this teaching of Christ would be the use of the term "master," as pointed out for us in St. John's words above. "Master" in this context means that to which we are drawn to obsessively - wholeheartedly, we could say. Something that demands our allegiance and deepest levels of commitment; our undivided attention and zealous pursuit. Or, even more bluntly, if mammon is our master, then we are its servants/slaves. This would be the "treasure" to which are hearts are drawn. But mammon is a treasure unworthy of our hearts!  The effect would be debase our very humanity by such idolatry.

Yet, if God is our "master," then that very wholehearted commitment and zeal, the allegiance and commitment implied in such a relationship, would result in making us God's worthy servants.  And the word "servant" (Gk. doulos) can also mean "slave" - and here with a very positive meaning! So, when Christ uses the verb "serve" (Gk. douleuein) it really means something like "being a slave to." Once again, with God this is good - but with mammon it is not! 

We know that the Apostle Paul often referred to himself as a "servant/slave" of Christ: "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle ... " (ROM 1:1). Further, the apostle includes us in the good results of being a "slave" of God: 

"When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regards to righteousness ... But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life." (ROM 6:20, 22) 

This "either/or" choice, sharply delineated by the term "master," is further reinforced by how Christ will use the words "love" and "hate." 

We almost invariably understand these words to express powerful emotional feelings, as in "I love you," or "I hate you." But these are Semitic expressions that actually mean "allegiance" and "non-allegiance." Some would also remind us that the Semitic expression "to hate" really means "to love less."  

We find this use of hate as meaning to "love less" in the almost shocking words of Christ, when He says: 

"If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." (LK 14:26). 

Clearly, we are not to hear these words as referring to some sort of emotional abhorrence or disgust with our family members - and our own self! In following Christ, we are being challenged to sacrifice what we already love for an even greater love. These words, then, are about ultimate allegiance and the new direction that our lives must take if we are to be His disciples.

The Sermon on the Mount presents us with some of the most arresting and attractive moral, ethical and spiritual teachings ever uttered within the realm of human history. The Sermon reveals Christ as the Teacher. And as the Messiah, Jesus is expressing the very will of God. This is why He can categorically claim: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (MATT. 5:17). Jesus is thus giving us the most perfect interpretation of the Torah (Law). In the process, He is teaching us how to live according to the will of God. 

It is here that we face a challenge: If we are simply aware of the existence of the Sermon on the Mount that will not be enough. A vague awareness of the contents of the Sermon — for Orthodox Christians, the Beatitudes that we hear at every Liturgy may pretty much cover that — may lead us to romanticize or idealize the teachings of Christ found there. We may further be aware of the "lilies of the field" and "the birds of the air." This may sound wonderfully poetic, but the context of those words is about our many anxieties and worries that undermine our trust in God. In that idealized notion of the Sermon, we may put aside the teachings about anger, adultery, divorce, and loving our enemies. Or about striving to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (MATT. 5:48).

In other words, as Christians we need to know the Sermon on the Mount thoroughly, and not just know about it. As a pastoral suggestion, I would say that a regular reading of the entire Sermon (MATT. 5-7) on a monthly or bi-monthly pattern would serve us well. The seeds of the Sermon will be able to grow in time within our minds and hearts. 

When Christ finished the Sermon, we are told that "... the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (MATT. 7:28-29). We are no longer simply "the crowds," but the People of God equally astonished by His teachings and serving Jesus Christ as our Lord and Master. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Christ's Farewell Discourse: Reflections on John 14

Dear Bible Study Participants,

"Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid." 
(JN. 14:1)

I believe we had yet another stimulating session yesterday evening as we read and discussed the extraordinary text of JN. 14. With this chapter we have now entered deeply into the unfathomable depths of Christ's Farewell Discourse. At 14:6, we heard one of the great "I AM" statements from Christ:  "I am the Way (odos), the Truth (aleithia), and the Life (zoe)." In a prayerful way, St. Ambrose reveals the quality of this self-disclosure by Christ:

Lord Jesus, we do follow you, but we can come only at your bidding. No on can make the ascent without you, for you are our way, our truth, our life and strength, our confidence, our reward. Be the way that receives us, the truth that strengthens us, the life that invigorates us. (Death as a Good, 12.55)

Following those words, Christ added: "No one comes to the Father, but by me."  Many of the Church Fathers have offered insightful commentary on these strong words of Christ. One example from among many is found in St. Hilary of Poiters:

Except through him there is no approach to the Father. But there is also no approach to him unless the Father draws us. Understanding him to be the Son of God, we recognize in him the true nature of the Father. And so, when we learn to know the Son, God the Father calls us. When we believe the Son, God the Father receives us. For our recognition and knowledge of the Father is in the Son who shows us in himself God the Father. The Father draws us by his fatherly love, if we are devout, into a mutual bond with his Son. (On the Trinity, 11.33)

Later in the Discourse, Jesus offered powerful words of reassurance to his disciples, and to us, through them:  "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you" (JN. 14:27).  I read a passage from the contemporary biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, yesterday evening, that I would like to share again for its fine insight into the huge difference between the "peace" that comes from Christ, and the "peace" that the world gives:

This is a peace that the world is utterly incapable of giving. Worldly authority can from time to time bring about an absence of hostilities between human beings and human societies; it cannot erode the fundamental insecurity and anxiety at the root of human existence. The peace Jesus is leaving with the disciples extends God's grace and love deep into the human heart. That is why, in the face of his departure, he can repeat the injunction with which he began: "Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid". (JN. 14:1)

At our next session, we will read and study Ch. 15, considered to be at the heart of the Farewell Discourse. As I said yesterday evening, I am still not sure if we will meet next week or in two weeks. That depends on how we celebrate the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul next week. I will keep everyone informed.

Either way, looking forward to our next meeting and discussion. This is one of the major highlights of my week!

Fr. Steven

NOTE: Our 2017 Summer Bible Study continues on Wednesday evenings. Learn more here, and please join us if you are in the area!

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Holiness of the Saints, and Our Calling to Join Them

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday was the First Sunday After Pentecost.  All of the subsequent Sundays of the liturgical year until the pre-lenten Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee sometime next year will be so numbered.  This is not intended to help us count better.  The purpose is to keep before our spiritual sight on  the overwhelming significance of Pentecost in the divine economy. 

The New Testament era of the Church began its existence on the Day of Pentecost with the Spirit’s descent as a mighty rushing wind that took on the form of fiery tongues alighting upon the heads of the future apostles (ACTS 2:1-13).  The Church has always existed, but the Church as a remnant of Israel that would flourish and grow with the addition of the Gentiles began its final phase of existence with the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, Who, seated at the right hand of the Father, would send the Holy Spirit into the world and upon “all flesh” on the Day of Pentecost.  

As St. Epiphanius of Cyprus wrote in the fourth century:  “The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ.”  The simple calendar rubric of numbering the Sundays after Pentecost is one way of reminding us of this essential truth of the Christian Faith.  The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and in and through the sacramental life of the Church we experience something like a permanent pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The First Sunday After Pentecost  is entitled, simply, All Saints.  On this Sunday we commemorate all of the saints of the Church — men, women and children — from her beginning to the present day, including "ancestors, fathers, mothers, patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.”  That is, the entire “cloud of witnesses” that surround us and pray for us as well as serve as models for our own faith.  

God has revealed to the Church His innumerable saints and we rejoice in their continuous presence made possible by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  The divine and co-eternal Spirit, holy by nature, makes human beings holy by grace.  That is why this particular Sunday falls so naturally after the Sunday of Pentecost.  

The word we use for saint is the Greek word for “holy” – agios.   In a real sense, we are celebrating the presence of holiness in the world, incarnate in actual flesh and blood human beings. The descent of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for human beings to become and remain holy.  Without the Holy Spirit human beings can be nice, pleasant and even good – but not holy.  And it is the holiness of the saints that is their one common characteristic, expressed in an endless diversity of vocations.  

Every baptized and chrismated member of the Church is already a saint – a person sanctified and set apart as a member of the People of God – and every such member has the vocation to become a saint.  The phrase often used to capture this paradox of the Christian life is:  “become what you already are.”  This phrase expresses an entire lifetime of striving and struggle to attain, by God’s grace, the highest of vocations – the holiness of a genuine child of God, born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God(JN. 1:13).

On the Sunday of All Saints, we read from the Gospel According to St. Matthew:

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. …
"He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”    (MATT. 10:32-33, 37-38)

We probably have a difficult time relating to such a passage, since we expend an enormous amount of energy — time, talent and treasure — in order to guarantee for ourselves a comfortable life and the closest of possible family relationships.  God and Church may be a part of that choice, but perhaps only as one compartment of life among many.  At times, the greatest of our goals may be to create a certain form of “domestic bliss” to the extent that that is humanly attainable. Nothing else can seem greater or more desirable.  

Jesus, however, makes other claims on us.  And the first of those radical claims is that we must love Him above else – including father and mother, son and daughter.  This is a “hard teaching.”  

Perhaps it is here that we discover the greatest “achievement” of the saints, and the reason behind the sanctity that they often so clearly manifest.  They simply loved Christ before all else.  And there is nothing that can deflect them from that love.  

In no way need this diminish our love for our loved ones.  I believe that if we love Christ before all else, then we would have a greater love for those around us, including our very family members.  To love Christ above all else is to expand our very notion and experience of love.  If we live “in Christ,” we can then love “in Christ.”  Elsewhere, Jesus would claim that this would include our enemies!  

This is a love that will not disappoint. With any other deeper love, there is always the lurking temptation of succumbing to one form of idolatry or another.  Jesus even says that if we love anyone else more than Him, we are not “worthy” of Him!  Clearly, there is nothing easy about bearing the name of Christ and calling oneself a Christian.  Is all of this impossible?  Jesus teaches that With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (MATT. 19:26).

We share the most difficult of vocations – to live up to our high calling in Christ Jesus.  This is not something that we achieve on our own, but a process that includes the grace of God and our own self-determination, what we call our freedom of choice or “free will.”  

There are obstacles that begin with the genetic and the environmental.  There are distractions and temptations too numerous to keep track of.  There is the unbelief of the world around us.  Yet, if we approach this “day by day,” we soon realize that we are simply trying to become genuine human beings, for the glory of God is a human being fully alive, to paraphrase St. Irenaeus of Lyons.  As disciples of Christ, we have the “inside track” to allow us to run with perseverance the race that is before us (HEB. 12:1).  

So, we thank God for the multitude of the saints who not only set an example for us, but who also pray for us unceasingly in the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Fishermen are Most Wise

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Troparion of Pentecost is as follows:

Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,
who has revealed the fishermen as most wise
  by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit;
through them Thou didst draw the world
  into Thy net.
O Lover of Man, Glory to Thee!

It is rather incredible when you think hard on it, that it was essentially a group of former fishermen who traversed the Greco-Roman world and beyond with the Gospel proclamation of the Crucified and Risen Messiah and Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. That they were successful is nothing short of miraculous. 

Of course, the Apostle Paul is a major exception to this, as he was a highly-educated Jew who knew Greek thought and rhetoric very well, and employed both in proclaiming the Gospel. But the Twelve Apostles, on the whole, had a rudimentary education and they hardly were that aware of the greater world around them.  

They were fishermen.  Their initial concern in life was all that goes into making their fishing trade successful. They had to worry about their nets, that they would not break, and then mend them when they did. They worked hard to put their "daily bread" on the table. They had to worry about feeding their families. A "bad night" out on the lake would cost them dearly. And then they were "called" by Jesus, who told them somewhat enigmatically, that they would now become "fishers of men" (MATT, 4:19).  So they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. As disciples during Christ's earthly ministry, they did not quite "get it." They were often obtuse and slow to understand. And they would even betray their Master.

But following the Day of Pentecost, their "nets" would now be filled with men and women "caught" by the compelling and wonderful message of the Gospel, that salvation from sin and death has come in the human form of the incarnate Son of God who, though a crucified Jew, was raised from the dead and glorified at the right hand of God. 

The apostles did not invent this or think it up. They knew this was true by direct experience. They had seen the Risen Lord and they had witnessed His glorious ascension into heaven. 

The fishermen turned disciples, turned apostles, were not philosophers or trained rhetoricians. They were not wise according to the wisdom of this world. They were filled with the Holy Spirit (ACTS 2:4) and this made them "most wise;" but with a wisdom that may have appeared foolish to the "wise men" and "debaters of this age," but was nevertheless a wisdom directly from God (cf. I COR. 1:18-31).  

Once inspired from on high, they would fulfill the Lord's commission to go into the world and "make disciples of all nations" (MATT. 28:16-20).  The apostles knew that their success in drawing the world into their nets was the result of the mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit working through them as they witnessed to Christ in word and deed. They would never attribute any success in proclaiming the Gospel to their own human efforts.

All of this points to the truly miraculous nature of the emergence and spread of the Christian Faith. Considering the lowly origins of the apostles - and that of their Master -  this is unprecedented in human history. 

In purely human terms it could not have succeeded. Not with a dead Messiah and a group of insignificant fishermen promoting their teacher. Only a divine origin can account for the "word of the Cross" penetrating a world that is so often swayed by power and pride - "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (I JN. 2:16). 

The Christian Faith burst forth from the empty tomb that revealed the victory of Christ over death. This new life could not remain hidden. It was meant for the entire world. Hence, the Lord "revealed the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit." 

If you are reading this as a Christian, then you have been drawn into the net of the Lord. You have committed yourself to following the commandments of Christ and to seek first the Kingdom of God. 

This has nothing to do with your level of formal education or your socio-economic status. These may prove to be irrelevant categories when it comes to being filled with the Holy Spirit. The many saints of the Church coming from humble and lowly origins bear this out. What is essential is faith and a readiness to serve Christ and to put Christ first in your life.  

For those in the Church, whatever our background, "with one voice, we glorify the all-Holy Spirit!" (Kontakion of Pentecost)

The Holy Spirit’s Presence in the Church

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Ісon of the Deѕсent of the Holy Ѕріrіt on the Aрoѕtleѕ — One of the oldest known images of Pentecost, from the Syriac Rabbula Gospel – 6th c., Church of Antioch. (Photo:

'Yesterday'—June 4, 2017—we celebrated the Great Feast of Pentecost.  And it seems fitting for me to share a fine passage from Father John Breck, who wrote a summary paragraph of the role and work of the Holy Spirit in the divine economy, and in the life of Christian believers.  This passage gives us a sense of the extraordinarily rich and varied aspects of the Spirit’s presence in the Church, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  I am breaking down Father John’s paragraph in a more systematic manner.

The Holy Spirit …

  • prays within us and on our behalf [Romans 8:26].
  • works out our sanctification [Romans 15:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Galatians 5:16-18].
  • pours out God’s love into the hearts of believers, enabling them to address the Father by the familiar and intimate name, “Abba” [Romans 5:5; 8:15-16; Galatians 4:6].
  • confirms our status as “children of God” through His indwelling presence and power [Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6].
  • guides and preserves the faithful in their ascetic struggles against the passions [Galatians 5:16].
  • serves as the source and guarantor of our “freedom” from the constraints of the Law, a freedom which enables us to behold the glory of the Lord [2 Corinthians 3:17-18].

Looking up these passages in the Bible may further prove to be helpful in gaining a sense of the ongoing and endless gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to the Church and to our personal lives.

I also would like to include a passage from Veselin Kesich’s book, The First Day of the New Creation.  In his discussion about Pentecost, Prof. Kesich offers a good summary of the Orthodox Christian position concerning the issue of the filioque.  As Orthodox Christians, we continue to recite the Nicene Creed in its original form, without the interpolation of the filioque—the Latin term that means “and from the Son”—when proclaiming the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father.

Prof. Kessich summarizes the Orthodox position based upon a careful reading of the Scriptures.  The “filioque controversy” remains to this day a divisive point of contention between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism respectively – and those Western churches that also use the term.  The point to be made is not about remaining entrenched in a polemical position, but to try to come to some understanding as to why the Orthodox have never embraced this later addition to the Nicene Creed.

In the words of Prof. Kesich, 

“It is equally true that the Father sends the Spirit [John 14:16,26].  The Son sends the Spirit, but the source of the Spirit is the Father, for the Spirit proceeds from the Father [John 15:26].  The verb “proceed” that is used in John 15:26 is ekporeuomai.  When it is said that the Son “comes forth” from the Father, the verb is exerchomai.  Saint John consistently uses the latter verb whenever he speaks of the Son coming forth from the Father [8:42: 13:3; 16:27f.; 16:30; 17:8].  The Spirit and the Son have the same and only origin.  They are two distinct persons.  Their missions are not identical.  Although the Spirit had not been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified [John 7:39], yet it is nowhere stated in Saint John’s Gospel that the Spirit “proceeds” from the Son as He proceeds from the Father.  Therefore, there is no filioque here.”

Nothing like some good biblical exegesis to make’s one day brighter and more glorious during this week of Pentecost!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Fulfillment of God's Plan, and Our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Holy Spirit was, is, and ever shall be . . . (Vespers of Pentecost)

It seems to me that we could still go a long way toward increasing our awareness of the greatness of Pentecost as the culminating event of Pascha and the beginning of our lives as Christians in the world.

What, then, can help us to raise our consciousness concerning Pentecost? We can begin by turning to the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

In the Church's annual liturgical cycle, Pentecost is "the last and great day." It is the celebration by the Church of the coming of the Holy Spirit as the end - the achievement and fulfillment - of the entire history of salvation. For the same reason, however, it is also the celebration of the beginning: it is the "birthday" of the Church as the presence among us of the Holy Spirit, of the new life in Christ, of grace, knowledge, adoption to God and holiness.

With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples, the time of salvation, the Divine work of redemption has been completed, the fulness revealed, all gifts bestowed; it belongs to us now to "appropriate" these gifts, to be that which we have become in Christ: participants and citizens of His Kingdom.

The notion of "fulfillment" is central to an understanding of the greatness of Pentecost. Our salvation depends upon the Resurrection of Christ. And our deification depends upon the descent of the Holy Spirit. Glorious as the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ are, these events would lack a sense of completion - or, again, fulfillment - without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit "upon all flesh," thus actualizing the saving power of those events in our lives. As Veselin Kesich wrote: "With Christ's ascension, "our nature ascended" to heaven, and on Pentecost the Holy Spirit "descended on to our nature"." We would not be able to "know" the risen and glorified Christ without the presence of the Holy Spirit among us. In His extraordinary "farewell discourse" found in the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus prepares His disciples for the coming of the Spirit in the following words:

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be with you." (JN. 14:15-17)

"These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." (JN. 14:25-26)
"But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses." (JN. 15:26)

"When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (JN. 16:13)

The "Counselor" spoken of here (Gk. Parakletos, also translated as "Comforter" but it can also mean "Advocate") is clearly the Holy Spirit. We will always be dependent upon the Holy Spirit to properly understand what Christ taught us, and that will be a revelation of "truth." The Holy Spirit keeps everything in the "present," in the now and today of our lives. We do not live off the past events of our salvation, but make those past events a present reality by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the words of Met. Kallistos Ware:

We do not say merely, 'Christ rose,' but 'Christ is risen' - he lives now, for me and in me. This immediacy and personal directness in our relationship with Jesus is precisely the work of the Spirit. (The Orthodox Way, p. 125)

Our salvation, redemption, and eventual deification depend upon the "two hands of God" - the Son and the Holy Spirit. One is never present without the Other, as the Son and Holy Spirit "work" together with the Father in all things, bringing to completion and fruition the eternal design for our life in the Kingdom of God. Again, Prof. Kesich:

Any transformation of human life is testimony to the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. God constantly creates new things and glorifies himself in his saints, in order to make it known that the Word of God became flesh, experienced death on the Cross, and was raised up that we might receive the Holy Spirit.  (The First Day of the New Creation, p. 173)

The Holy Spirit may seem more elusive than the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, but no less indispensible to our life with and in God. It may take some work on our part, but we must struggle if necessary to open up our consciousness, and then our hearts, to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit - the "Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth."

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Fr. Alexander Schmemann: 'Pentecost, the Feast of the Church'

Dear Parish Faithful,

An excellent article by Fr. Schmemann...

Pentecost, the Feast of the Church

by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (+)
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Spring & Summer 1953, Nos. 3, 4, pp 38–42
Synaxis Blog, June 5, 2017:

This past Sunday, we Orthodox Christians heard sermons in our parishes about the meaning of Pentecost, which celebrates the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church throughout the ages.

In this essay, Father Alexander (Dean of St. Vladimir’s 1962–1983) also begins by speaking about major themes that characterize this great feast: the presence and actions of the Spirit in the Church, the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the purification of each person’s soul in the body of Christ.

However, one of the most interesting portions of Father Alexander’s essay, published in 1953, is his explanation of the “Kneeling Prayers,” that mark the Vespers services following the Divine Liturgy for the feast, and that section is reprinted here.


The peculiar characteristic of the Liturgy on the day of Pentecost is that it is immediately followed by a Vesper service that is commonly called “kneeling prayers.” This Vesper service signifies the transition from the first major theme—the joy of the coming of the Spirit—to the second—the prayer for the abiding of the Spirit in us, for His help in our earthly life.

Litany supplications are added: “For the people present who are awaiting the Grace of the Holy Spirit…that the Lord may strengthen us into the attainment of a good and acceptable end… For those who are in need of help.”  

And in the sticheras for “Lord I have cried unto Thee” (which repeat the chvalitny of the Matins service) and in the great prokeimenon, “Who is a great God like our God?,” the fullness of joy comes once more.

But immediately after the prokeimenon, the people are asked to kneel down. This first bending of the knees after Easter signifies the conclusion of the Triodion—the fact that the Church now enters the “narrow path” of struggling, and of the difficult daily acquisitions of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, in this first prayer, we bring to God our repentance and augmented prayers for forgiveness of sins—the first condition for entering into the kingdom, into the perfect joy. In the second prayer, we pray to the Holy Spirit for help, that He would teach us to pray and to follow the true path, that He would enlighten us in the dark and difficult night of our life. Finally, in the third prayer, we remember our fathers and brethren who have departed, who have finished their earthly journey, but who are united with us in the eternal love of the Church.

To every one of these prayers the usual evening prayers are added. So again begins the night of the history of the world, in which the Church has to wander.

In this “night,” the enemies’ tricks are awaiting us: temptations, the whole burden of sin and our feebleness. The joy of Easter has been completed, and we again have to wait for the dawn of the eternal day of Christ’s kingdom. Therefore we are praying on our knees for help and protection, so that we may pass this night and attain to the morning.

However, as we know our weakness, we also know the joy of the Spirit who has come: we know that we have not remained orphans. The benediction at the end of the Vespers service bears His testimony to it: 

“He emptied Himself… came down on earth to take upon Himself our human nature wholly and to deify it… He sent down His Spirit upon His Holy Apostles, who were illumined by the Spirit and through whom the whole world was illumined.”

At the Compline service of the same day a special canon to the Holy Spirit is sung, where we experience once more the feast of His coming and His abiding in the Church. It is significant that all the irmois of this canon, except the first, are taken from the canon of the Nativity! The coming of the Spirit fulfills that which began when the Word became flesh:

“Christ was born, now the Holy Spirit descends as if returning Christ to us, who ‘is and shall be’ in the Church with us forever.”

It would be impossible to enumerate all the details of the services commemorating the Feast of Pentecost, which blend into one perfect harmony, making us truly feel the breathing of the Holy Spirit. This harmony reveals itself fully only in the Liturgy, only in the common act of worship. As we have said, the Feast of Pentecost concludes the Triodion, and we enter the “ordinary season” of the year. However, there are no ordinary days for the Church. Every week has its cycle, which is concluded with its own small Easter—“Sunday.”

The Church is always living a divine-human life. Heaven and earth, promise and fulfillment are mysteriously united in Her. On the Feast of Pentecost, we adorn our churches with flowers and green branches, for the Church is truly an evergreen tree. Therefore on the First Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the memory of all the saints, whose holiness is the glory of the Church and a testimony to the Holy Spirit, who is ever present in Her.

The life of the Church is an eternal Pentecost, the eternal coming of the Holy Spirit, and so, “whosoever thirsteth, let him come and drink” (John 7:37).

Monday, June 5, 2017

Immerse Yourself in the Mystery of Pentecost

Dear Parish Faithful,

We have an extensive amount of literature on Pentecost on our Pentecost resource page from the parish website. You will find articles by Frs. Schmemann and Hopko there, together with some classic patristic texts. As we journey through the Week of Pentecost, you may want to avail yourself of some of this excellent material.

Here are two characteristic excerpts from a famous homily by St. Gregory Palamas (+1359). St. Gregory, of course, as one of the great Church Fathers, was  a profound theologian, a brilliant homilist and a wonderful pastor:

"Now, through the Holy Spirit sent by Him to His disciples, we see how far Christ ascended and to what dignity He carried up the nature He assumed from us. Clearly He went up as high as the place from which the Spirit sent by Him descended.... It follows that at His ascension Christ went up to the Father on high, as far as His Fatherly bosom, from which came the Spirit.

"The Holy Spirit is not just sent, but Himself sends the Son, who is sent by the Father. He is therefore shown to be the same as the Father and the Son by nature, power, operation and honor. By the good pleasure of the Father and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, the only-begotten Son of God, on account of the boundless ocean of divine love for mankind, bowed down the heavens and came down (Ps. 18:9). He appeared on earth after our fashion, lived among us, and did and taught great, wonderful and sublime things truly worthy of God, which led those who obeyed Him towards deification and salvation."

The Divinity of the Holy Spirit

In the excerpt above from St. Gregory, it is clear that we teach that the Holy Spirit is co-eternal, co-enthroned and co-glorified with the Father and the Son. We confess this belief every time we recite the Nicene Creed.

But did you know that the full title of the Creed is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed? That is because our current Creed was formulated at the First and Second Ecumenical Councils - Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. But to spare us from saying the full title of Nicene-Constantinopolitan every time we refer to the Creed, it has been shortened to the Nicene Creed. 

After the First Council held in Nicea, the Creed simply stated that "we believe in the Holy Spirit" with nothing further being stated about that belief. When the divinity of the Holy Spirit was challenged by false teachers following the Council, the Second Council in Constantinople was called in the year 381 in order to further formulate the Church's belief in the divinity of the  Holy Spirit. Thus, the additional declaration: 

"And [we believe] in the Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets."

This is the basis of our belief in the Holy Trinity. By the way, it was at this Second Council that additional and essential beliefs of the Church were formulated in creedal form:

"In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life in the world to come. Amen."

The Vespers of Pentecost was a wonderful example of how we are taught and inspired by the hymnography of the Church. Our hymns often appeal to our intellect and to our hearts simultaneously. Thus, in the second sticheron of the Vespers of Pentecost, we hear the "theological poetry" of our sacred hymnography:

The Holy Spirit was, is, and and ever shall be
Without beginning, without an end,
Forever united and numbered with the
   Father and the Son.
He is Life, and life-creating,
The Light, and the Giver of Light,
Good in Himself, the Fountain of
Through whom the Father is known
   and the Son glorified.
All acknowledge one Power, one Order,
One worship of the Holy Trinity.

The Trisagion Prayers

In our liturgical and personal prayers, we almost invariably begin with the so-called Trisagion Prayers, meaning, more-or-less literally: "The Thrice-holy Prayers." (The word hagios in Gk. means "holy"). This is because we repeat three times:  "Holy God,  Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!"

The basis of praising God three times in this manner is found in the Book of Isaiah, in that heavenly vision granted the prophet, when he beheld God enthroned on high being glorified by the angels as:  Holy! Holy! Holy!  And, of course, we glorify God in the Liturgy with that identical Holy! Holy! Holy!  during the Anaphora. In the Latin tradition, this is called the Sanctus. 

Based on our belief in the Holy Trinity, we believe that with this hymn we are praising the The Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Which means that in our personal prayer, whenever we use the Trisagion on a daily basis(!), we are glorifying the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

In the Vespers of Pentecost, this is beautifully "spelled out" for us, in one of the Apostikha hymns. In the half of the hymn that begins: "Let us worship the Tri-Personal Godhead..." we further sing:

In worshipping Him, let us all say:
Holy God, who made all things
   through the Son,
With the cooperation of the Spirit.
Holy Mighty: through whom we know
   the Father,
Through whom the Holy Spirit came
   into the world!
Holy Immortal: the comforting Spirit,
Proceeding from the Father and resting
   in the Son.
O Holy Trinity: glory to Thee!

As we continue in our use of the Trisagion Prayers this is further reinforced when we pray: 

O most Holy Trinity: have mercy on us!
O Lord (the Father): cleanse us from our sins.
O Master (the Son): pardon our transgressions.
O Holy One (the Holy Spirit): visit and heal our infirmities, for Thy name's sake.

To make all of this abundantly clear to us, we then pray:  "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit," before saying the Lord's Prayer. We thus reinforce our commitment to believing in the Holy Trinity in our daily prayer life, both liturgical and personal. 

We are "monotheists" of a particular kind, meaning that we are "trinitarian monotheists." Pentecost is also called the Feast of the Holy Trinity, for in a definitive manner, God has revealed His trinitarian nature to us in the descent of the Holy Spirit, "on the last day of the Feast, the great day ..." (JN. 7:37)

O most Holy Trinity, glory to Thee!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

'Hastening to be at Pentecost!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Let Us Recover the Greatness of the Feast of Pentecost

At last Sunday's liturgy, we heard from the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES the following passage concerning the Apostle Paul: "For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost" (20:16).

For the Apostle Paul, that would mean a very challenging journey by sea, which always included the threat of storms, shipwreck and/or attack by pirates. But St. Paul was determined to celebrate the great feast of Pentecost with his brothers and sisters "in Christ" in Jerusalem - the home and center of the newly-established Christian Church, now making its impact felt in the Graeco-Roman world of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Pascha and Pentecost were the two major feasts of the apostolic Church. They were powerful communal commemorations and celebrations of the decisive acts that established the Church in the world once and for all: the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, and the descent of the Holy Spirit into the world.

It would be wonderful and deeply encouraging if we could match the zeal of the Apostle Paul for eagerly anticipating this commemoration and making it as certain as possible that we will also gather together with our brothers and sisters "in Christ" for the Feast of Pentecost. Liturgically, that would mean Great Vespers on Saturday evening and the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. 

In our consciousness, we have lost the profound connection between Pascha and Pentecost. 

Pascha, of course, is huge and greatly anticipated; but Pentecost is not. It is treated as a "normal" Sunday, which means most parishioners will be in church (thank God Pentecost is on a Sunday), unless some other "pressing concern(?)" keeps them away without, perhaps, any sense of loss. But the role of Pentecost in the economy of our salvation very much needs to be recovered. Pascha does not simply dissolve into the cares and concerns of our daily lives. It does not just disappear once we no longer sing "Christ is Risen!" Rather, Pascha is completed and fulfilled in the twin Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost.

The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles is the goal of the paschal mystery of the death, resurrection, ascent and glorification of Christ. We actualize the coming of the Holy Spirit through our liturgical commemoration on an annual basis. 

The Holy Spirit is the energy of the Church. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church that makes the Church so unique and unlike any other worldly institution. (The Orthodox Church is the "Pentecostal Church"). This is the Holy Spirit with which we were chrismated after our baptism into the Death and Resurrection of Christ. We seek the renewal of the Holy Spirit in our lives on the Day of Pentecost. Here is also the basis of "parish renewal." We pray to God for that personal and communal renewal each year in the special Kneeling Prayers of the Vespers of Pentecost that we serve immediately following the Liturgy. This is all a great blessing.

I encourage everyone to recover the greatness of the Feast of Pentecost. We have the luxury of making a relatively short trip in the comfort of our cars and therefore do not have to face the "inconveniences" that St. Paul did. Try and include the full celebration by coming to Great Vespers on Saturday evening. 

Since Great Lent is over and parishioners are no longer coming to Confession, Great Vespers is now less-well attended. This is an unfortunate annual pattern (lasting throughout the summer) that has no real justification. This worn-out cycle can be broken but it will take some effort and commitment to the Church's liturgical cycle on the part of everyone. Pentecost is the time and place to begin.

Parents, do not relax your efforts of bringing your children to church because Church School is now over. Pentecost is not the time for an "off Sunday." It is the time to be in church together with the entire "parish family." Speak to your children about Pentecost and prepare them for the Vespers and Kneeling Prayers that will follow the Liturgy.

The liturgical schedule for the Great Feast of Pentecost:

  • Great Vespers with the Blessing of the Loaves and Anointment with Oil - Saturday at 6:00 p.m.
  • Hours of Pentecost - Sunday at 9:10 a.m.
  • Divine Liturgy - Sunday at 9:30 a.m.
  • Vespers with Kneeling Prayers - Sunday, immediately following the Liturgy

Let us prepare for Feast as did the holy Apostle Paul - with zeal and the love of God!