Monday, August 28, 2017

Imitating God's 'Loving Faithfulness'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Your mercy is greater than the heavens, your faithfulness reaches to the skies." (Ps 108:5)

In the fine article "God's Mercy and Faithfulness," the biblical scholar, Jerome Kodell, begins with quoting from the Prologue of St. John's Gospel, wherein we hear twice of God's "grace and truth" (Jn 1:14,17). In Greek these two terms are charis and aletheia. Yet, these two key Greek terms are rooted in the Old Testament and the Hebrew phrase hesed w' emeth. These deeply suggestive words can mean "love and truth," "mercy and  faithfulness," "kindness and fidelity." And it was only of the God of Israel, the God who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, that such terms could be attributed.

In summarizing this absolute difference between Israel's experience of God based on the concepts of hesed w' emeth, and that of the surrounding nations, Kodell writes the following:

When the two concepts are brought together in the tradition they describe the God of Israel as "faithful love" or "loving faithfulness," a stunning revelation. 
YHWH is not like the gods of other nations, fickle, moody, vindictive, focused on themselves and interested in their adherents only as servile pawns: in other words, mirror images of the weak humans who created them.
The God of Israel is not self-focused, but is turned toward God's sons and daughters and only wants to help them receive what is best for them. Love in biblical terms is not a feeling but a decision to seek what is best for the other. God not only loves but is love (I Jn 4:8). This is the message of hesed
True love always involves faithfulness, but that quality is reinforced by the combination with emeth: "Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, because of your mercy and faithfulness." No other god was ever loving or faithful toward his or her worshipers. In fact, this attitude is completely foreign to the idea of deity in the nations surrounding Israel.

Yet, as Kodell further writes, this concept and experience of God must transform human lives and human relationships. He then further writes:

To be a child of this God means living in loving fidelity and faithful love toward our brothers and sisters. There is never reason to withdraw our love from someone, no matter how they disappoint or mistreat us, or no matter how sinful we perceive them to be. God never withdraws love from us, no matter what we do. God is faithful love and loving faithfulness and calls us to imitate him as God's own dear children.

There is always a profound reciprocity between who God is and who we are meant to be!

Friday, August 18, 2017

A 'Deathless Death' - Hope and Leaven for a world filled with death

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yet More Death - We hear again of two more mass-terrorist attacks in Europe, this time in Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, Spain. At least fourteen people were killed and hundreds wounded. Truly, a horrific event. The Islamic State group is taking "credit" for the attack. Those who kill in such a manner only serve to dehumanize themselves. Yet, innocent persons are the tragic victims of this process. We can only openly deplore the resort to this type of violence that is meant to spread mayhem, fear and intimidation within normal levels of society. Or so that seems to be one of the key motives behind such attacks.

Looking at the world today, one is tempted to think that things are spinning out-of-control. Divisiveness seems like a stronger attraction than unity as insular group mentality seems to plague the entire spectrum of what we label "the right" and "the left."

On the surface our own theological/spiritual vision of life seems to be ineffective in changing the world. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that that vision works as a "leaven" or as a "mustard seed" that cannot be visually seen to expand or grow. But there is imperceptible growth beneath the surface, as the leaven effects the whole loaf and the mustard seed grows into a tall tree (Matt 13:31-33). These are parabolic images of the Church. And it is through the vision of life that we embrace in the Church that we preserves our sanity and retain our humanity as "children of God" (Jn 1:12).  That is our witness to the world today.

Even if the commemorations that mark the internal life of the Church may seem hardly "relevant" to a confused and violent world today, perhaps, on further reflection, what we are doing in the Church is precisely for the sake of the world and its ultimate salvation.

Therefore, the recent feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the sign of hope in a world filled with death and destruction caused by human sinfulness. It is not an archaic celebration but an affirmation of life beyond the narrow confines of our short earthly existence. It is the sign of hope when hope seems to be in short supply. And it reminds us that victims of irrational violence are not merely "gone" but, by the grace of a loving God, "translated to life."

The following meditation is offered in that spirit of hope that the Church brings to the world.


The Dormition of the Theotokos - Celebrating a 'deathless death'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and peaceful ... let us ask of the Lord."

We continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos through the Leave-taking next Wednesday. For the Feast, in the center of the church was the tomb with a beautiful icon of the Mother of God in blessed repose to be venerated by the faithful.  (This icon will remain in the tomb which will be put back in its new normal spot in the back of the church, where everyone can venerate the image until the leave-taking of the Feast  on August 23). 

Dormition, of course, means "falling asleep," the Christian term par excellence for how we approach the mystery of death. And here we further approach the paradox, from a Christian perspective, of death itself: the "last enemy" that causes great anguish and grief; but yet which now serves as a passage to life everlasting, and thus a cause for festal celebration in the death of the Mother of God. For the Virgin Mary truly died, as is the fate of all human beings; and yet "neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos" who has been "translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!" 

Without for a moment losing sight of the reality of death (notice the weeping apostles around the body of the Theotokos on the Dormition icon), from within the Church we can actually celebrate death during this "summer pascha" because of the Resurrection of Christ.

Thus, the Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.”  For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:

I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people die and “Platonists” afterwards.  By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives.  —  From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.

To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:

For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break.  For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil.  Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it.  As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person.  — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.

St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:

By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil.  – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.

This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!”   The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.”  Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Statement on the events in Charlottesville, VA

Dear Parish Faithful,

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28)

In the light of current events, perhaps we need to state the obvious:

As members of the Orthodox Church committed to following the precepts of the Gospel, we clearly deplore and reject any notions of "white supremacy" and any groups that continue to provocatively espouse any such reprehensible claims - the KKK, neo-Nazis, "white nationalists," etc. 

Any and all forms of racism and bigotry are foreign to the Gospel of Christ. The Church needs to proclaim the moral vision of the Gospel that upholds the integrity and equality of all human beings called to be "children of God." 

It is one thing to have a lively and informative debate based on either "liberal" or "conservative" principles - clearly the hallmark of a healthy democracy - but this is not what is at issue today following the tragic events of this last weekend. 

The Orthodox Church in no way offers any support or legitimacy to movements that support notions of "white supremacy" or, for that matter, any and all forms of racial, ethnic or cultural claims of superiority. The Church actually rejected any such claims as a heresy under the name of "philetism" in the nineteenth century.

Below is the pastoral encyclical from our Holy Synod of Bishops addressing the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend. 

Fr Steven Kostoff

Holy Synod of Bishops issues statement on recent tragic events in Charlottesville, VA

A statement on the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, VA was issued and signed by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon and the members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on August 16, 2017.

The complete text of the statement appears below and in PDF format.

Statement of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, Who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. — Colossians 1:16-18

August 16, 2017

To the Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America,

Recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have highlighted the presence of un-Christian rhetoric and violent actions within our communities. At the same time, the response to these events by our civil leadership has unleashed a nationwide debate which has created a certain moral ambiguity, which in turn is fostering further division. Such a climate requires a clear response from the Church.

The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America joins people of faith and good will across the United States, Canada and Mexico in unequivocally, unreservedly and unambiguously rejecting words and actions which perpetrate, support or encourage hatred, violence, racism, white supremacy, white nationalism or neo-Nazism. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that every human being is a child of God, created in His image and likeness, and therefore we are all brothers and sisters whatever our race, nationality or creed.

At the same time, we also reject the climate of condemnation of the individuals carrying out these heinous activities. Indeed, Jesus rebuked his disciples when they suggested that he violently retaliate against his enemies. “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:55-56). The Church offers to all—without exception—not condemnation but a path to forgiveness and peace in Christ.

As the Orthodox prayer of confession says: “O Lord God, the Salvation of Thy servants, gracious, bountiful and long-suffering, who forgives us concerning our evil deeds, and desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his way and live: Show Thy mercy upon Thy servants and grant unto them an image of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance, pardoning their every transgression, whether voluntary or involuntary…”

We reject hatred and violence, and as Orthodox Christians we are also committed to the ministry of reconciliation. We encourage our clergy and faithful to hold fast to the Christian message of healing, salvation and love offered by Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. At the same time, we exhort our clergy and faithful to reject any attempts by individuals or groups to claim for themselves the name of “Orthodox Christian” in order to promote racism, hatred, white supremacy, white nationalism or neo-Nazism. This is in keeping with the Holy Gospels, the decisions of the Holy Councils and the experience of the Saints.

We remind the faithful that the Orthodox Church in America does not restrict membership to those of a particular race or nationality and has historically welcomed all, going back to the Alaskan Mission which embraced the indigenous peoples of that land and continuing to this day in the multicultural and multi-ethnic context of North America.

Brothers and sisters, Saint Justin Martyr, writing at a time when Christians were persecuted in the second century, said, “We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.” May that same spirit be ours today as well.

With our paternal love and blessings,

The Most Blessed TIKHON, Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada

The Most Reverend NATHANIEL, Archbishop of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate

The Most Reverend NIKON, Archbishop of Boston, New England and the Albanian Archdiocese

The Most Reverend BENJAMIN, Archbishop of San Francisco, and the Diocese of the West

The Most Reverend ALEJO, Archbishop of Mexico City and the Diocese of Mexico

The Most Reverend MELCHISEDEK, Archbishop of Pittsburgh and the Diocese of Western Pennsylvania

The Most Reverend MARK, Archbishop of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania

The Most Reverend IRÉNÉE, Archbishop of Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Canada

The Most Reverend MICHAEL, Archbishop of New York and the Diocese of New York and New Jersey

The Most Reverend ALEXANDER, Archbishop of Toledo, Dallas, the South and the Bulgarian Diocese

The Right Reverend DAVID, Bishop of Sitka and Alaska

The Right Reverend PAUL, Bishop of Chicago and the Midwest

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'Beyond Death and Judgment' - The Dormition of the Theotokos

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We enjoyed a truly wonderful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos yesterday evening. Attendance was very strong, there was a full choir, and the Vesperal Liturgy both lively and prayerful. As always, it was good to see some of our parish children and young adults present and worshiping. This "summer pascha" has steadily become an integral event of our parish life. And this is "meet and right."

American Christianity has been shaped by the Protestant ethos, and that basically means that there is no real place for the veneration of the Mother of God. This was primarily based upon a reaction against the perceived excesses of the medieval West's Marian piety by the early Protestant reformers. In a short time, this reaction became a thorough rejection - at times quite vehement - in many Protestant circles. So the Virgin Mary pretty much disappeared from Protestant worship and piety. Perhaps the classic example within Church history of "throwing out the baby with the bath water."

Orthodox Christians cannot succumb to any such truncated form of the Church's living Tradition.(However, there have been clear signs recently of a "recovery" of the role of the Virgin Mary in some Evangelical circles). One of my beloved professors from seminary always used to say that a sign of a spiritually strong parish is that parish's devotion to the Mother of God. For she is the personal image of the Church - warm, embracing, nurturing, protecting.

Since the Dormition has no biblical source, this feast slowly developed over the course of the first five centuries of the Church's history on the basis of a wide variety of sources - primarily narratives, rhetorical homilies and theological poetry/hymnography (Much of this material now exists in English translation). There is no one authoritative text or document.

However, though details may differ, a tradition emerged that tells of how the apostles were miraculously brought back to Jerusalem in order to surround the bedside of the Virgin Mary as she lay dying. Upon commending her holy soul to her Son and Savior, she peacefully "fell asleep" in death (the meaning of the word dormition) in the presence of the apostles who stood weeping and grief-stricken by her bedside. With great solemnity they buried her pure body which had itself been the "tabernacle" of the King. The traditional place of her burial is a tomb close to Gethsemane. When the tomb was opened on the third day so that the Apostle Thomas, who arrived late, could venerate the body of the Theotokos, it was found to be empty. The "Mother of Life" was thus "translated to life!"

Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarizes the Church's understanding of this tradition in the following manner:

Without insisting of the literal truth of every element in this account, Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body - like His - was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives wholly in the Age to Come. 
The Resurrection of the Body, which all Christians await, has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact. That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category: for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now. (The Festal Menaion, p. 64)

Fr. Thomas Hopko further elaborates on the meaning of this beautiful Feast and how it "relates" to every generation of Christians:

Thus, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the celebration of the fact that all men are "highly exalted" in the blessedness of the victorious Christ, and that this high exaltation has already been accomplished in Mary the Theotokos.
The feast of the Dormition is the sign, the guarantee, and the celebration that Mary's fate is the destiny of all those of "low estate" whose souls magnify the Lord, whose spirits rejoice in God the Savior, whose lives are totally dedicated to hearing and keeping the Word of God which is given to men in Mary's child, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

The Leavetaking of the Feast is on August 23. That means that we continue to sing and chant the troparion and kontakion of the Feast in our liturgical services until then, in addition to the other hymnography of the Feast. I would strongly urge everyone to incorporate these hymns into your daily rule of prayer, including their use when you bless your meals as a family, replacing the Lord's Prayer up until the Leavetaking. If you can't sing these hymns, you can certainly recite them! This is how we bring a remembrance of the Feasts into our homes. The troparia and kontakia of the major Feasts are included in many Orthodox Prayer Books, but if you do not have the texts available at home, I am including them here:

Troparion of the Dormition

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not
forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!

Kontakion of the Dormition

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life
by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!

The decorated tomb of the Theotokos, containing an icon of her sacred body in blessed repose, will be back in its usual place and open to our veneration whenever we enter the church. The great Feasts extend in time, giving us the opportunity of integrating them into our lives in a meaningful way.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Desire to remain in the Divine Glory

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Lord, it is well that we are here." 
(MATT. 17:4)

I have some lingering thoughts from yesterday's Leavetaking of the Transfiguration:

When Peter was on Mount Tabor in the presence of the transfigured Lord, he could only desire to prolong that mysterious experience. For Jesus had there revealed to the three disciples - Peter, James and John - His true nature as the eternal Son of God when He appeared to them resplendent in divine glory. When Moses and Elijah appeared and were speaking with Jesus this only further enhanced this incredible event in the mind of Peter, leading him to cry out: 

"Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah" (MATT. 17:4).

Jesus did not answer him directly, for while Peter "was still speaking ... a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him'" (17:5).  This further theophany was the "answer" that Peter received! At this, "the disciples ... fell on their faces, and were filled with awe" (17:6). But once Jesus "touched them, saying, 'Rise, and have no fear'" (17:8), it was time to descend from the height of the mountain and return to "ordinary reality" — Mount Tabor having been a taste of "extraordinary reality."

This descent from the mountain back into the world of everyday events and the conditions of the fallen world was essential, for Christ had yet to ascend the Cross as He had earlier prophesied (MATT. 16:21-23). In fact, while on the mountain, St. Luke refers to this as Christ's "... exodus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem" (LK. 9:31). As difficult as it was, this is what the disciples had to "listen" to.

Speaking of "back to reality," upon descending from the mountain, Jesus was immediately approached by a despairing father who wanted his son to be healed of his epilepsy, something his other disciples were unable to do, though given the "authority" to do so (MATT. 10:1). Troubled by this lack of faith, Jesus cried out, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long  am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" (17:17). At this point, Jesus cured the boy.

Although Peter did not know what he was saying on the mountain (LK. 9:33), it is hard for us to fault him for wanting to remain in the embrace of the uncreated light of divine glory. Whenever we are close to God, it only seems natural to say with Peter, "Lord, it is well that we are here." Thus, I believe that that natural response would be our own when gathered together to worship God, especially in the Divine Liturgy. By way of analogy and experience, we symbolically "ascend the mount" when we arrive for the Liturgy, in the process "laying aside all earthly cares."

During the Liturgy, we claim to be in the presence of the Holy Trinity: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." We will join the angelic powers in glorifying the Holy Trinity with their chant of "Holy! Holy! Holy!" We will first be nourished by Christ in the words of the Gospel; and then be further nourished as we will partake of Christ in the Eucharist. The Epistle to the Hebrews captures this with great power in a passage that seems to describe the experience of believers gathered in worship:

"who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come ... " (HEB. 6:4-5).

It is this experience that leads me to say that the rest of our day following the Liturgy is all "downhill!" If not literally, then at least figuratively as we "descend" back into the world.  For what could we possibly do; where could we possibly go; who could we possibly meet that would somehow surpass such a liturgical experience?!  It will be a better day for having first come to the Liturgy, but no matter how that day unfolds, it will remain anticlimactic! However, if we "depart in peace" - that is, with the peace of Christ "which surpasses all understanding" (Phil 4:7), the day will remain blessed.

This only renders it all the more curious when we are impatient with the time spent in the Liturgy.

Perhaps this is impelled by our fast-paced culture, when our days are a series of unrelated events one piled on the other, and demanding constant motion as we move from one place to another. If we are constantly "driven to distraction," then the meaningful unfolding of the Liturgy — which in itself is potentially an experience outside of time — will of necessity seem "too slow." And that very impatience may formulate itself as a series of blunt questions along the lines of: Why does the Liturgy take so long? Or, what can we do to make the Liturgy shorter?  

Those questions can never be answered in a satisfactory manner. Be that as it may, this impatience can manifest itself in a variety of "complaints" disguised as observations:

+ the homily is too long;
+ the choir is singing too slowly;
+ too many prayers are being read out loud;
+ there are so many communicants;
+ there is an extra service/blessing/prayer at the end of the Liturgy.

All of this only sabotages the possibility of the kind of positive experience outlined above. So, perhaps we can ask ourselves a very simple question if we are ever tempted with "liturgical impatience": Just what is the rush?

And once we realize that there is no rush, then we can begin to experience the depth, power and beauty of the Liturgy - from its opening doxology: "Blessed is the Kingdom," to the closing: "Let us depart in peace" — and everything in between!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Transfiguration: Cultivating the Image of Divine Beauty

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We will reach the Leavetaking of the Transfiguration of Christ on Sunday. Just a few more thoughts before we get there.

The mysterious presence of Beauty is revealed on Mt. Tabor in an overwhelming manner when Christ is transfigured there resplendent in divine glory. This is the beauty of the first-formed human creatures, created to reflect the beauty of the divine nature, for by grace they - and we - were created in the image and likeness of God.  And they were placed in a world that also reflected this divine beauty.  That is why God, after completing the creation process, declared that is was all "very good."

Yet, the presence of sin marred that beauty. This lost beauty was restored to humanity when the Son of God assumed our human nature, uniting it to His divine Person and revealing the glory of God in a human being. Thus, on Mt. Tabor, Christ reveals the beauty of His divine nature and the beauty of our created human nature. This is why the Transfiguration is often referred to as a Feast of Beauty.

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky (+1881) famously and somewhat enigmatically once said:  "Beauty will save the world." Yet, Dostoevsky also realized that in a world filled with sin, beauty can evoke responses that fall short of any saving value. In fact, beauty can even degenerate toward sin and sensuality, as one of Dostoevsky's greatest creations, Dmitri Karamazov, acknowledged with great anguish.

Therefore, for Dostoevsky beauty itself had to be "saved" and linked to Truth and Goodness. Thus, for the Russian novelist, beauty is not simply an aesthetic concept, but one that must have a moral, ethical and spiritual dimension for it to be rightly perceived and experienced. And for Dostoevsky as well as for not only great artists, but the great minds of the Church, beauty is not an abstract concept or Idea. Beauty is a Person, and this Person is Christ.  In Christ, Truth, Goodness and Beauty are harmoniously united.  This is why Dostoevesky also spoke of the "radiant image of Christ."  In another famous passage from his pen, found in a letter of his, Dostoevsky articulated his personal "creed:"

I have constructed for myself a symbol of faith in which everything is clear and holy for me.  The symbol is very clear, here it is:  to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, profounder, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ and not only is there nothing , but I tell myself with jealous love that never could there be.

It is these qualities that make Christ such an attractive figure that a well-disposed mind and heart not unduly influenced by the marks of a fallen world will almost naturally turn to as an "ideal," but again as a concrete living Person. There is a passage from Fr. Alexander Elchaninov (+1934), taken from his personal diary after his death, that captures that same intuition as found in Dostoevsky:

It is impossible not to love Christ. If we saw Him now, we should not be able to take our eyes off Him, we should "listen to him in rapture;" we should flock round Him as did the multitudes in the Gospels.  All that is required of us is not to resist. We have only to yield to Him, to the contemplation of His image - in the Gospels, in the saints, in the Church - and He will take possession of our hearts.

Here, again, there is an inherent moral, ethical and spiritual dimension from that beauty that flows outward from Christ. This is rendered in the form of very practical and concrete advice in the words of Vladimir Solovyov (+1900), for many the greatest Russian philosopher known to us:

Before any important decision, let us evoke in our soul the image of Christ. Let us concentrate our attention upon it and ask ourselves:  Would He Himself do this action? Or, in other words: Will He approve of it or not?
To all I propose this rule: it does not deceive. In every dubious case, as soon as the possibility of a choice is offered to you, remember Christ.  Picture to yourself His living Person, as it really is, and entrust Him with the burden of your doubts.
Let men of good will, as individuals, as social factors, as leaders of men and peoples, apply this criterion, and they will really be able, in the name of truth, to show to others the way toward God.

This concreteness is all the more interesting, for Solovyov was often a highly speculative thinker. That what he wrote just over a century ago is hardly a public ideal any longer is to our great loss.  It is our role to maintain and cultivate the image of divine beauty in our lives as seen in the face of the incarnate and transfigured Christ as a  sacred obligation.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Feast of Theology: The Transfiguration, the Heart of the Orthodox Faith

Dear Parish Faithful,

On August 6 we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This feast is thus embedded in the time of the Dormition Fast, but still retains all of its festal splendor, as we experienced this last weekend.  What a truly blessed Feast! 

The Transfiguration is particularly rich in essential theological themes that reveal the very heart of our Orthodox Christian Faith. These dogmatic/doctrinal themes are expressed poetically throughout the services - Vespers, Matins, Liturgy - of the Feast in an abundant variety of hymnographical forms. The troparion and kontakion of any given Feast offer a "summary" of the Feast's over-all meaning and place in God's oikonomia (divine dispensation):

Thou wast transfigured on the Mount, O
Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy
disciples as far as they could bear it. Let
Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners!
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O
Giver of Light, glory to Thee! (Troparion)

On the mountain wast Thou transfigured, O Christ God,
and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it;
so that when they would behold Thee crucified, they would
understand that Thy suffering was voluntary, and would
proclaim to the world that Thou art truly the Radiance
of the Father!  (Kontakion)

Over the years and through repeated use, many of the faithful know these hymns by heart. If we listen carefully, or even study it outside of the services, the hymnography reveals very profound truths in the realm of Christology (the Person of Christ, both God and man); anthropology (the human person created in the image and likeness of God); triadology (the dogma of the Trinity); and eschatology (the Kingdom of God coming in power at the end of time).


On Mt. Tabor, when transfigured before His disciples, our Lord reveals to His disciples - and to all of us - His divine nature "hidden" in humility beneath the human nature of His flesh:

Enlightening the disciples that were with Thee, O Christ our Benefactor, Thou hast shown them upon the holy mountain the hidden and blinding light of Thy nature and of Thy divine beauty beneath the flesh.

The nature that knows no change, being mingled with the mortal nature, shone forth ineffably, unveiling in some small measure to the apostles the light of the immaterial Godhead. (First Canon of Matins, Canticle Five)

As St. John of Damascus has written: 

"He was transfigured, then: not taking on what he was not, nor being changed to what he was not, but making what he was visible to his own disciples, opening their eyes and enabling them, who had been blind, to see. This is what the phrase means, "He was transfigured before their faces" (Matt 17:2); he remained exactly the same as he was, but appeared in a way beyond the way he had appeared before, and in that appearance seemed different to his disciples." (Oration on the Transfiguration)


Christ is fully and truly human. He is without sin. Thus, He is the "perfect" human being, by revealing to us the glory of human nature when fully united to God - something that we lost in the Fall. To be filled with the glory of God in communion with God is the true destiny of human beings and thus the true revelation of our human nature. By assuming our human nature, Christ has restored that relationship:

For having gone up, O Christ, with Thy disciples into Mount Tabor, Thou wast transfigured, and hast made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendor of Thine own divinity. (Aposticha, Great Vespers)

Thou hast put Adam on entire, O Christ, and changing the nature grown dark in past times, Thou hast filled it with glory and made it godlike by the alteration of Thy form.  (First Canon of Matins, Canticle Three)

In the words of Archbishop Kallistos Ware:  

"In the light of Christ's face that was so strangely and so strikingly altered upon the mountaintop, in his garments that became dazzling white, all human faces have acquired a new brightness, all common things have been transformed. For those who believe in Christ's Transfiguration, no one is despicable, nothing is trivial or mean."


The Three Persons of the Holy Trinity were revealed on Mount Tabor, as they were revealed in the Jordan at the time of the Lord's Baptism. On Tabor it is again the voice of the Father, and the Spirit now appears in the form of a luminous cloud. Every revelation and action of God's is trinitarian, for the Father, Son/Word and Holy Spirit act in perfect harmony revealing thus the unity of the one divine nature:

Today on Tabor in the manifestation of Thy Light, O Word, Thou unaltered Light from the Light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as Light and the Spirit as Light, guiding with light the whole creation.  (Exapostilarion, Matins)

Again, in the words of St. John of Damascus: 

"For God is recognized as one, in three hypostases (Persons). There is one substance of Godhead: the Father who bears witness, and the Son to whom he witnesses, and the Spirit who overshadows him." (Oration on the Transfiguration)


The Lord reveals by anticipation in His transfiguration on Mount Tabor, both his approaching Resurrection and the glorious appearance that we await at His Second Coming. He also reveals the transfiguration of our own lowly human nature in the Kingdom of God, where the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven. Thus, this is a Feast of Hope, as well as a Feast of Divine Beauty, as we anticipate His eternal and unfading presence and our transformation in Him, also eternal and unending:

Thou wast transfigured upon Mount Tabor, showing the exchange mortal men will make with Thy glory at Thy second and fearful coming, O Savior.  (Sessional Hymn, Matins)

To show plainly how, at Thy mysterious second coming, Thou wilt appear as the Most High God standing in the midst of gods, on Mount Tabor Thou hast shone in fashion past words upon the apostles and upon Moses and Elijah.  (Second Canon of Matins, Canticle Nine)

We bless fruit on this Feast because all of creation awaits transfiguration at the end of time. Even the garments of Christ were shining forth with a radiance brighter than the sun. The blessed fruit represents this awaited transfiguration when the creation will be freed from bondage. In earlier times, the grapes themselves would be used for the eucharistic offering of wine.

The importance of the Transfiguration is shown by the fact that it is recorded in three of the Gospels: MATT. 17:1-13; MK. 9:2-8; LK. 28-36. It is also clearly alluded to in II PET. 1:16-18.

To appeal one final time to St. John of Damascus:

"Let us observe these divine commandments with total concentration, so that we too may feast upon his divine beauty; and be filled with the taste of his sweetness: now, insofar as this is attainable for those weighed down by this earthly tent of the body; but in the next life more clearly and purely, when the 'just shall shine like the sun,' when they shall be released from the body's necessities, and shall be imperishable, like angels with the Lord, at the time of the great and radiant appearance of our Lord and God and Savior from heaven, Jesus Christ: with whom may glory be given to the Father, with the Holy Spirit, now and to the endless ages of ages. Amen." (Oration on the Transfiguration)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Driven to Distraction, Called to Attentiveness

Dear Parish Faithful,

Did You Know?

"Beginning in 2009, the New York Times ran a series of articles called "Driven To Distraction," focusing on accidents and fatalities involving distracted drivers. (In 2012, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 570,000 accidents, and 3,328 fatalities, the latter marking a 9% increase from the previous year). The series expanded to include "Distracted Doctoring," reporting on the large number of surgeons who are placing personal calls during surgery; on medical technicians who are texting while running cardio-pulmonary bypass machines; and anesthesiologists who are shopping online for airline tickets."

"Distractions created by social media in the work place cost the American economy $650 billion per year, with social media interruptions occurring every ten minutes, and with workers spending 41% of their time on Facebook. In the US alone, over 12 billion collective hours are spent browsing on social networks every day. The average college student spends 3 hours a day checking social sites, but only 2 hours a day studying."

These two paragraphs have been taken from the article "Attentiveness and Digital Culture" by Archimandrite Maximos Constar, printed in the journal DOXA, a publication of the Monastery of the Holy Archangel Michael (Canones, New Mexico). This is a somewhat abbreviated form of the paper that Archimandrite Maximos delivered at the International Conference on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care, Athens, 7-9 May, 2015. 

Copies of DOXA and Pt. I of this paper were distributed last week following the Liturgy. It is a challenging article for those who are nearing the "addictive state" when it comes to social media and our over-all digitally-driven culture.  

The opening sentence of the paper sounds an alarm with a sober assessment of this new culture:

"Having promised us a technological utopia, our ubiquitous and intrusive cyberculture has instead precipitated a spiritual crisis in which human experience has been systematically fragmented and the coherence of the self isolated and disconnected, preventing us from seeing and experiencing the wholeness of life."

Not exactly a compliment.

For those who may be interested to read further, I have a copy of the entire article - Pts. I & II - which also contains many fascinating footnotes and references.  Please let me know, and I will make you a copy. The positive side of the article is a very fine discussion of "spiritual attentiveness," a key concept in our Orthodox spiritual tradition.  As a Church Father would, Archimandrite Maximos will not only offer a powerful critique of an existing cultural and social norm, but also offer a theologically-based alternative that leads to a greater perception and experience of the "life in Christ." 


About ten days, I sent out some wonderful "Counsels" of the Elder Porphyrios (of Kavsokalivia). I recently discovered that the elder was officially glorified/canonized as a saint on November 13, 2013, by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. His feast day on the calendar is December 2. The Orthodox Church has its "latter day saints!"

Homilies on Two Great Feasts
As we celebrate the great Feasts of the Transfiguration and Dormition at this time of year, you may want to read what the Church Fathers thought and taught concerning these events in the life of Christ and the Theotokos. Here are links to two remarkably full collections of patristic homilies:

Light on the Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord

On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies