Monday, October 30, 2017

Image of a True Disciple: The Gadarene Demoniac

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

One of the most challenging narratives in the Gospels has to be the healing of the Gadarene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20; MATT. 8:28-34; LK. 8:26-39). This dramatic event which reveals the power of Christ over the demons will appear to the 21st c. mind as either archaic or even primitive. We may listen with respect and sing "Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!" upon the completion of the reading, but "wrapping our minds" around such a narrative may leave us baffled if not shaking our heads.

The spectacle of a man possessed by many demons, homeless and naked, living among the tombs, chained so as to contain his self-destructive behavior is, to state the obvious, not exactly a sight that we encounter with any regularity. (Although we should acknowledge that behind the walls of certain institutions, we could witness to this day some horrible scenes of irrational and frightening behavior from profoundly troubled and suffering human beings). Add to this a herd of swine blindly rushing over a steep bank and into a lake to be drowned, and we must further recognize the strangeness of this event. This is all-together not a part of our world!

Yet, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the narrated event, which does appear in three of the Gospels, though with different emphases and details - in fact there are two demoniacs in St. Matthew's telling of the story! It is always instructive to compare the written account of a particular event or body of teaching when found in more than one Gospel. This will cure us of the illusion of a wooden literalism as we will discover how the four evangelists will present their gathered material from the ministry of Jesus in somewhat different forms. 

As to the Gadarene demoniac, here was an event within the ministry of Christ that must have left a very strong impression upon the early Church as it was shaping its oral traditions into written traditions that would eventually come together in the canonical Gospels. This event was a powerful confirmation of the Lord's encounter and conflict with, and victory over, the "evil one." The final and ultimate consequence of that victory will be revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

Whatever our immediate reaction to this passage - proclaimed yesterday during the Liturgy from the Gospel According to St. Luke (8:26-39) - I believe that we can recognize behind the dramatic details the disintegration of a human personality under the influence of the evil one, and the reintegration of the same man's personhood when healed by Christ. Here was a man that was losing his identity to a process that was undermining the integrity of his humanity and leading to physical harm and psychic fragmentation. I am not in the process of offering a psychological analysis of the Gadarene demoniac because, 1) I am ill-equipped to do so; and 2) I do not believe that we can "reduce" his horrible condition to psychological analysis. We are dealing with the mysterious presence of personified evil and the horrific effects of that demonic presence which we accept as an essential element of the authentic Gospel Tradition. 

The final detail that indicates this possessed man's loss of personhood is revealed in the dialogue between himself and Jesus:

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. (8:30)

To be named in the Bible is to receive a definite and irreducible identity as a person. It is to be "someone" created in the "image and likeness of God." It is the role of the evil one to be a force of disintegration. The "legion" inhabiting the man reveals the loss of his uniqueness, and the fragmentation of his personality. Such a distorted personality can no longer have a "home," which is indicative of our relational capacity as human beings, as it is indicative of stability and a "groundedness" in everyday reality. The poor man is driven into the desert, biblically the abode of demons. 

Once again, we may stress the dramatic quality of this presentation of a person driven to such a state, but would we argue against this very presentation as false when we think of the level of distortion that accompanies any form of an "alliance" with evil -whether "voluntary or involuntary?" Does anyone remain whole and well-balanced under the influence of evil? Or do we rather not experience or witness a drift toward the "abyss"?

Then we hear a splendid description of the man when he is healed by Christ! For we hear the following once the demons left him and entered into the herd of swine and self-destructed (the ultimate end of all personal manifestations of evil?):

Then the people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. (8:35)

"Sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind." This is clearly one of the most beautiful descriptions of a Christian who remains as a true disciple of the Master. This is the baptized person who is clothed in a "garment of salvation" and who is reoriented toward Christ, the "Sun of Righteousness." 

The image here is of total reintegration, of the establishment of a relationship with Christ that restores integrity and wholeness to human life. Also an image of peacefulness and contentment. Our goal in life is to "get our mind right" which describes repentance or that "change of mind" that heals all internal divisions of the mind and heart as it restores our relationship with others. 

Jesus commands the man "to return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you" (8:39). We, too, have been freed from the evil one "and all his angels and all his pride" in baptism. In our own way, perhaps we too can also proclaim just how much Jesus has done for us (cf. 8:39).

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Just Who is the Real Rich Man?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."  (LK. 16:31)

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is the only parable that has a named character, and the only parable in which Jesus describes the "afterlife."  In these two instances it remains unique among the Lord's parables.  It is a parable extremely rich in content, with a rather complex structure based upon a "reversal of fortune,"and filled with multiple themes.  

Yet, certainly one of those many themes is quite apparent and revealed with a stark directness:  the consequence of ignoring the poor and needy, embodied in Lazarus, the poor man at the gate. (Is he given a name to emphasize this point in a personal and less-forgettable manner, so that his character takes us beyond an anonymous example of the poor?). The rich man in hades (the biblical realm of the dead) bears the consequence of his indifference to Lazarus and his unwillingness to share.  

St. John Chrysostom explored this theme of wealth and poverty with unrivaled insight and depth in his famous series of homilies on this parable (a collection of homilies that now exists in English - On Wealth and Poverty - and which every member of the Church should read). St. John would always challenge the conventional wisdom of his own age, by interpreting the Scriptures in such a way that would turn our accepted values upside down so that we would be able to look at things in a new and startling light.  In a famous passage from his homilies, he challenges our conventional notions of what true wealth and true poverty actually are.  He does this by asking just who is the real rich  man and who is the real poor man:

Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth.  So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone's money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.

I rather doubt that this will change the minds of very many of us about the true nature of wealth and poverty.  Conventional wisdom - combined with observation and life experience - does tell us that wealth has to do with money, possessions, status and power; and that poverty has to do with lacking any and all of these things.  Many of us "deep down" crave to be wealthy, and we certainly fear the specter of poverty.  

Yet, St. John was neither a simpleton nor a na├»ve dreamer.  He knows of the corrosive effect on the wealthy of a life primarily dedicated to more and more acquisition and how this becomes obsessive and compulsive; and he knew many Christians personally that sought a life of simplicity and through that pursuit discovered a different type of wealth that had the presence of God as its source.  St. John was also aware of the judgment of God which differs radically from our own limited understanding of the "bigger picture."

Many people are forced to struggle to makes ends meet - and perhaps dream of hitting the lottery - and can only watch with envy the lifestyles of "the rich and famous" that entice such dreams. Perhaps, then, St. John makes some sense about the obsessive "collection of many possessions," the fulfillment of "many desires" and the effect of being "greedy for many things," and how a "successful" pursuit of this captivating dream can be more impoverishing than enriching.  And then St. John got the point of the parable: in some cases it can be too late to change.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Radical Critique of Selfishness

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”  (LK. 8:14)

There is an interior connection between the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31), heard yesterday at the Divine Liturgy.  For the “rich man” of the parable is the embodiment of a person who has been “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” as described in the Parable of the Sower. 

Brushing aside the teaching of the Torah, and the Jewish emphasis on charity as one of the great acts of true piety, the rich man remained coldly indifferent to poor Lazarus who was clearly visible at his very gate.  Preoccupied with fine linen and sumptuous feasting (v. 19), the rich man was scarcely prepared in his heart to alleviate the sufferings of Lazarus, sufferings that were exemplified by the dogs that licked his sores (v. 20). 

Such indifference is frightening when seen in the light of the many scriptural admonitions that either chastise the neglect of the poor: “He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard;” or encourage his care: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (PROV. 21:13; 19:17)  And the severity of the consequences of such neglect of the poor is vividly described in the parable’s “reversal of fortune,” with the rich man languishing in hades, unable to be relieved of his torment there. The contrast of his fate and that of Lazarus being carried into the “bosom of Abraham” by a heavenly escort is striking. (v. 22-23)

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was delivered with the Pharisees in mind, for right before Jesus proclaimed the parable, we hear this unflattering description of the Pharisees:  “The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him.  But he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’.” (LK. 16:14-15)  

Whatever or whoever may have prompted the words of the Lord during his ministry, our concern now is with our own attitude and treatment of the poor.  To think or believe otherwise is to fail to “hear” the parable as it is proclaimed today for our chastisement or encouragement. 

The words of the Lord – the “Gospel truth” – cannot be properly assessed within the narrow limits of any political allegiances – Democrat or Republican; nor even of a wider-scoped ideology – liberal or conservative.  The Gospel transcends these categories as something far greater and infinitely more demanding of our allegiance.  At a time when neither political parties nor even political ideologies existed or had any real impact on the prevailing cultural or social assumptions of the time, St. John Chrysostom (+407) delivered a series of brilliant homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  (These seven homilies now exist in English translation under the title on Wealth and Poverty).  With his impressive knowledge of the Scriptures; his unmatched rhetorical skills; but most importantly his profound zeal for the moral and ethical teaching of the Gospel; St. John offered a radical critique of selfishness and a radical exhortation to overcome such selfishness for the sake of the poor.  Challenging conventional notions of what theft is, he famously expanded its definition by meditating deeply on the parable at hand:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation.  What is this testimony?  Accusing the  Jews by the prophet, God says, "The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses" (MAL. 3:8-10).  Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor.  He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. 
And elsewhere the Scripture says, "Deprive not the poor of his living" (SIR. 4:1).  To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. 
If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.  This is why God has allowed you to have more; not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need … If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you … For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.  (On Wealth and Poverty, homily two)

This is a radical teaching, though again not based on any particular social or political philosophy.  For St. John the “true philosophy” was adherence to the Gospel.  St. John is primarily concerned with uncovering the meaning and implications of what we discover in the Scriptures.  If that is challenging to the point of seeming “impossible’” or of least taking us way out of our “comfort zones,” then rather than “soft-pedaling” the Gospel message, St. John would continue in the hope of inspiring us to strengthen our efforts and to put on “the mind of Christ.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Marriage and Essential Equality

Dear Parish Faithful,

I wrote this meditation eight years ago. This year I have had four weddings scheduled within about a two-and-a-half month period (one will be celebrated out-of-town in a couple of weeks), so the controversial passage of Ephesians 5 will be heard with more frequency than ever before. For those interested I am re-issuing this meditation. Perhaps those most troubled by the Apostle Paul's teaching should read this carefully. There is no real attempt to convince, but to offer a broader perspective than mere rejection.

Marriage and Essential Equality


We have a few marriages coming up in our parish life so I wanted to make a few comments, forward some sound interpretive texts, and try to make some sense, in a contemporary setting, of our use of scripture in the wedding service. At all Orthodox Christian marriage services, one of the prescribed readings is from the Epistle to the Ephesians (5:22-31). In today's social and cultural context, that reading is more than a little controversial. So, in a loud and clear voice we hear the Apostle Paul's admonition:

Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (EPH. 5:21-33)

At that point in the service, eyes roll in disbelief, heads shake in disagreement, and glances are exchanged in dismay. If you look and listen very carefully, you may even detect a knowing smile or even an unintentional snort among the many gathered people. Of course, many Orthodox simply accept the reading as part of an unchanging tradition; regard such quaintness as part of Orthodox conservatism; and "move on" with the flow of the service. The bride and groom are convinced that the passage does not reflect contemporary attitudes toward marriage; or that it certainly does not apply to their upcoming life together. They convey this to each other in mutually reassuring and loving glances; or a warm squeeze of the hands. They, too, then settle in for the remainder of the service. The non-Orthodox present may feel as if they have been transported back in time by a few centuries. "Colorful," perhaps, but ultimately irrelevant. It is like an unexpected bad note at a wonderful symphony that creates a modestly perceptible wave of uneasiness, only to be absorbed into the greater beauty of the whole service which leaves everyone deeply impressed. 

Yet, is the passage in point that unendurable? Or, more pointedly, is the Apostle Paul actually a glorified misogynist?

My intention is not to defend the Apostle Paul, nor is it to compel assent to his teaching by an attempt to convince everyone of how "right" he actually is. My concern here is very modest: to at least try and understand what the Apostle Paul is saying before we dismiss him as "patriarchal" or "chauvinist." 

The passage from Ephesians is indeed jarring and it does indeed seem to be at the very least outdated. But who takes the time and makes the effort to try and come to terms with the Apostle's goal and the context out of which this passage emerges? Is he (ab)using his authority to subordinate women to the dominance of men? I, for one, do not find such charges very convincing. 

Many scholars have gone a long way in demonstrating that the Apostle Paul can hardly be labeled a misogynist. In fact, considering contemporary attitudes to women in the Apostle's Paul's social, cultural, and religious context, he had a liberating attitude toward women - as indeed Christ Himself had. It is the Apostle Paul who also wrote: "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (I COR. 7:4). It is impossible to conceive of a Jewish or pagan contemporary of St. Paul's to say anything like that. And, of course, it is the Apostle Paul who "elevated" the status of women to be equal to that of men with his famous: " ... there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (GAL. 3:28).

An excellent contemporary Orthodox commentary on St. Paul's Ephesian text comes, in my opinion, from Fr. John Breck, found in his remarkable book THE SACRED GIFT OF LIFE. In this book he has a wonderful and insightful chapter entitled "Sexuality, Marriage and Covenant Responsibility." This chapter is seventy-two pages long, and is itself like a small book on marriage from an Orthodox Christian perspective. I cannot recommend this chapter highly enough for any Orthodox Christian who would like to have a better grasp of these essential topics. Under a section entitled "Equality of the Sexes," Fr. John does not hide the "facts of history:"

Within ancient Israel and throughout most of the life of the Church there has been a striking and, to most people's minds, an unjust balance with regard to the requirements for sexual fidelity and responsibility. The burden has weighed far more heavily on women than on men. This is due in part to a legacy of disproportion that we can call in today's jargon "sexist patriarchalism." (p. 83-84)

In his usual balanced style, Fr. John responds to this with a paragraph where he directly deals with some of the teachings and implications of St. Paul's Ephesian text used in our Marriage Service. Agree with him or not, I believe that Fr. John has something worth thinking about as he reflects holistically and deeply on the Apostle's teaching :

In theory, if not in practice, this condition has been done away with by the "great reversal" brought about by Jesus Christ. St. Paul's declaration, "in Christ there is neither male nor female," means that the socially and culturally conditioned inequality between the sexes is abolished: it does not exist in the mind of God and has no place within the church communities. It also means that in Christ men bear equal responsibility with women for upholding a moral ethos which is conducive to preserving the integrity of family life.
Consequently, the husband is no less responsible than his wife for preserving familial structure, stability and nurture necessary for the proper raising of their children. The husband is also as responsible as the wife for fulfilling the prescriptions of Ephesians 5. If the wife "submits" herself to her husband as to the Lord, her submission mirrors that of the Church in relation to Christ. Conversely, if the husband exercises headship, he does so by reflecting the actions and attitudes of Christ toward his Body, the Church. (The verb hypotasso is correctly rendered "submit" in this context, not "subject," as in so many English translations. It denotes a voluntary act of love rather than subjection to constraints imposed by the husband or social convention.)
The husband is to love his wife "as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" in a sacrificial self-offering of disinterested love. The key to this mutual relationship is provided in Eph. 5:21, a verse that introduces the entire passage: "Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ." The submission, in other words, is reciprocal. It involves both parties equally yet in different ways: the wife through acceptance of the husband's responsibility for "headship," and the husband through loving service offered to his spouse. (p. 84)

Fr. John, in a very revealing footnote, honestly expresses our own difficulties with such a term as "headship:"

The concept of "headship" is one that needs a great deal more explanation than it has received to date. To what degree is it inherent in the conjugal relationship, and to what degree is it culturally conditioned? And in modern society, where both spouses are often the breadwinners, or where the husband assumes domestic chores while the wife pursues a career, how is the husband's "headship" to be exercised? (p. 84)

Nevertheless, even with such an honest reservation, Fr. John goes on to say this of the life between husband and wife:

The responsibilities and obligations of the conjugal relationship are mutual and fully equal. Husband and wife exercise different "functions" within the family, just as the priest and laity do in the "family" of the parish community. Those functions, however, are complementary. They are effective only to the extent they are based on the full and unconditional equality of each party with regard to ontological status and spiritual value.
Authentic hierarchy, in the Holy Trinity or in the Church, presupposes just such equality ... (p. 84-85)

These few passages may not do real justice to the richness of Fr. John's thoughts on "sexuality, marriage, and covenant responsibility," but they may at least indicate some of the direction of his thought. As quoted above, Fr. John is courageous enough to even explore the terribly unpopular concept of "hierarchy" raised by the Pauline teaching on "headship." 

But in a truly holistic Orthodox fashion, he makes it clear that if that concept is not to be rejected as anachronistic, or abused in a conservative manner, then it must be understood in its most exalted trinitarian application before applying it to human life. His conclusion is very important and must always be kept in mind:

Hierarchy presupposes and in fact requires the essential equality of its constituent members, an equality that derives from the fact that each member is created in the image of God and each one is called in equal measure to attain to the divine likeness. (p. 85)

I repeat: the Apostle Paul does not need any defense, but I am hoping that we can make the effort to understand what he is saying in the light of his teaching that "there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (GAL. 3:28). That makes more sense to me than an unenlightened dismissal of the scriptural text when we hear these words in church, as we will in the very near future.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Perfect Ending to the Perfect Day

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Although the day has passed, and is therefore now in the irretrievable past, I would like to explain why I believe that it was the "perfect time" to have come to Saturday evening's Great Vespers a couple of days ago.

It struck me as the "perfect time" because it came at the end of what can only be described as a (near) "perfect day." Saturday was a truly beautiful day or, as some would say, a gorgeous day. Well into the Fall at this point in time, it was not only warm, but the drenching sunshine, the pellucid clarity of the blue sky, and the changing colors of gold, yellow, orange and red still clinging to the trees combined to make each of us instinctively - or perhaps consciously - grateful for the simple joy of being alive. "Glory to You for the Feast Day of life!" we hear in the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things." What a day to wake up to and have your spirit lifted up in the process! As Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, it was the kind of day on which life made a great deal of sense. And such a day offered many opportunities for a variety of activities: working around the house (many of those leaves are now on the ground and need to be raked up); children playing in the yard; a trip to the park; a long walk, etc. The list can easily go on.

It is my humble opinion that the "perfect" culmination to such a day would have been to come to Great Vespers and truly thank God through the prayers and hymns of the service for the gift of such a day. (It is possible that someone may have said or thought that it was too nice of a day to "interrupt" by going to church. But, as the saying goes, better to not even go there ...) 

During the day, we may have paused for a moment and thanked God for its beauty, but the entire structure of Great Vespers is such that we offer our thanksgiving to God from within the Church as "ecclesial beings." It is not the impersonal forces of "Mother Nature" that we worship, but our heavenly Father, "the Maker of heaven and earth and of all things both visible and invisible." Again, that worship is most perfectly expressed from within the Church in our liturgical prayer. The very atmosphere of the church and our prayerful attention greatly magnifies our awareness of this truth. 

As mentioned above, from within the Church, our instinctive awareness of "goodness, truth and beauty," becomes a conscious awareness culminating in worship and thanksgiving. The service at the end of the day helps us to remember this. And perhaps this is something we forget without the liturgical service of Great Vespers.

Every Vespers service begins with Psalm 104, which is a form of "poetic theology," a hymn to the divinely-ordained diversity, order and purpose of all of creation: "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom has Thou made them all!" Therefore, on the one hand, as the day wanes, and the sun begins to set, Great Vespers comes at the day's end so that we thank God for the enjoyment and experiences of that day - good or bad. 

On the other hand, according to the Scriptures "there was evening and morning, one day" (GEN. 1:5), so the evening service of Vespers begins the next day liturgically - and on Saturday evening that means the Lord's Day. As the sun sets, we sing an ancient hymn to Christ, the "Gladsome Light" Who illuminates the darkness of the world with a light that cannot be "overcome" (cf. Jn. 1:5). In our liturgical theology we proclaim the "sanctification of time," indicating by this term the divine source of time and its (re)direction toward the Kingdom of Heaven made possible through the Death and Resurrection of Christ - the major theme of Sunday, the Lord's Day. And like the Elder Symeon, we can "depart in peace" - today and at the end of our earthly lives - for our eyes, too, have seen the salvation that God has "prepared before the face of all people."

I repeat: it struck me that being at Great Vespers was the perfect ending to the perfect day that last Saturday was. We had eight hours or more to enjoy it. Plenty of time for a great deal of activity. Then, we offer back an hour of our time to the God who makes all things possible. This is not an "interruption" in our day, but a "culmination" of the day. 

For the sake of emphasis, I used the term "perfect time" somewhat rhetorically when I began this meditation on being present at last Saturday's Great Vespers service. It is always the "perfect time" - rain or shine - when we include our presence in church as we make our plans and plot out our days as they come to us as gifts from God. Many such days have passed, and hopefully there are many more yet to come.

Friday, October 6, 2017

'See God in People'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On another of my neighborhood walks, I came across some more "sidewalk graffiti" in front of the Williams Street Elementary school here in Norwood. Of the many new slogans scrawled in chalk beneath your feet as you walk along reading the words on the pavement, I encountered: "See Good in People." (It hasn't rained for awhile, so it has lasted for some time now).

This thought could probably be a bit grammatically-enhanced, but then again it has a real directness to it as it is. So what can we make of this "sidewalk semi-evangelism?" It is a positive message that is encouraging the students to look for the "good" in others, which would also lead them to respecting each other. It therefore presupposes that there is "good" to be found in everyone, a basically "upbeat" appraisal of human nature. We like to protect our children from early symptoms of cynicism.

The "good" is a pretty comprehensive word, that would include kindness, friendliness, honesty, sincerity, patience, tolerance, compassion, and a willingness to help, to mention some of the more meaningful descriptions of the "good." Basically, the "good" is about the pursuit of virtue. It further encourages the students to look past the outer and more superficial levels - looks, clothing, etc.

Yet, to "see" the good means that is there will be times when one must look beyond the "bad" that also appears from time-to-time in student relations. Young children can also be mean-spirited toward one another. Inappropriate words can be exchanged, even fights can break out. That is why rules of conduct exist in our schools. We need to be realistic about human nature also.

And that is why we, as Orthodox Christians, encourage our children to come to Confession by the age of seven. At that age they can distinguish within themselves what is "good" and what is "bad." And they need to recognize and admit what is "bad," or what we call sin. This is all very Orthodox! Which is why I referred to this slogan as "semi-evangelism."

To further "orthodoxize" this sidewalk slogan, one would simply have to eliminate one vowel from the word "good" - the second "o" - and then it would read "See God in People."

In our current cultural/social setting which is fiercely secular in any public forum, that would prove to be, of course, "too much." Which is fine. I am simply expanding upon my own train of thought when I first read "See Good in People" during an evening walk. My mind had something to focus on for the rest of the way home.

We can see God in other people because that is the express will of God: to see the "other" as created in God's "image and likeness" with an eternal destiny and the promise and potential of being a deified creature that will "shine like the sun" in the Kingdom of God. That is a very positive assessment of human nature! 

Every person we encounter has that potential destiny according to our understanding of God's revelation. We respect that and thank God for it. We need to "see" that and keep it firmly in mind, since we are frequently deeply disappointed with our actual daily encounters and in the world around us. (We should be even more disappointed in our own inability to manifest the light of God's image within us and confess that when it happens).

We thus maintain an over-all positive assessment of human nature together with a very realistic understanding of the distortions our human nature can undergo through life's journey and challenges. And those distortions can reach hideous proportions: Someone just shot over five hundred people in one of our American cities. That can only be understood - if we can possibly "understand" this at all - as a total capitulation to the "dark side." This is why Dostoevsky spoke of God and the devil battling for mastery of the human heart. (He actually derived that thought from St. Macarius the Great, an early desert father).

To "see God in people" can only help us overcome the manifold prejudices that inflict such a blight on our human relationships. Can we teach our children to "see good in people" if we do not, based on some prejudice we stubbornly cling to?

It is almost impossible to be totally prejudice-free or, on a somewhat different level, to be free of all cynicism. But that is what Christ expects of those of us who bear His name. As we continue to journey through life, I continue to believe that without succumbing to "romanticism," superficial idealism," or "sentimentality," we need to and can "See Go(o)d in People!"

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Let Us Attend! - The Divine Liturgy and the Scripture Readings

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Take heed then to how you hear."  (LK. 18:18)  
Make sure that you never refuse to listen when He speaks."  (HEB. 12:25)
We are blessed with hearing the Scriptures at every Divine Liturgy, be it the Lord's Day or any other day on which the Liturgy is celebrated. Therefore, we will hear at least one reading from an Epistle and one from a Gospel.  When the calendar so designates it, there may be two readings.  When there exists a complicated convergence of feast days and commemorations, there are even Liturgies at which there may be as many as three prescribed readings!

The readings from the Scriptures are the culminating moments of the first part of the Liturgy, referred to as the "Liturgy of the Word," or "The Liturgy of the Catechumens."  Before we commune with Christ in the Eucharist, we commune with Him through the inspired words of the Holy Scriptures - the words of the Word.  This is the public proclamation of the Word of God, meant to complement each believer's personal or "domestic" reading of the Scriptures.

Just as we pray both liturgically and personally; so we hear/read the Scriptures both liturgically and personally.  Each is essential to support and make the other meaningful.  To ignore one or the other is to impoverish our relationship with Christ.

By the presence of the Spirit, our minds are open to the full meaning of the sacred texts that we hear. This was revealed to all Christians of all generations on the Road to Emmaus, when the Risen Lord encountered Cleopas and an unknown disciple:  "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (LK. 24:27).

Following this encounter and the "breaking of the bread," during which these disciples recognized the Risen Lord, "They said to each other, 'Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures'?"  (LK. 24:32).

Christ speaks to us today through the reading of the Scriptures, thus making it possible for us today to experience the identical "burning of heart" when we, too, make the time to read the Scriptures. As Fr. John Behr succinctly said: "In the Church, we are still on the road to Emmaus."

Due to the great importance of the liturgical proclamation of the Scriptures, these readings are prefaced by a dialogue between the celebrant, the designated reader and the gathered faithful.  I will concentrate here on the liturgical reading from the Gospel, aware that the preparation for the Epistle also has its own solemn and very similar introduction.  Before the reading from the Gospel, we thus always hear:

Priest or Deacon:  Wisdom! Let us stand aright.  Let us listen to the Holy Gospel.

Bishop or Priest:  Peace be unto all.

Choir:  And to your spirit.

Priest or Deacon:  The reading from the Holy Gospel according to Saint _____.

Choir:  Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee.

Priest:  Let us attend!

This solemn dialogue both reveals to us that we are about to do something of great importance:  proclaim the living Word of God amidst the assembled believers - clergy and laity alike. And this prefatory dialogue is therefore meant to get our attention. In fact, the final words before the actual reading are:  "Let us attend!"  In some translations, it may be:  "Let us be attentive!"  In simple English it could be:  "Pay attention!"

Right before this we are first directed to "stand aright."  This is lost in some translations, which twice read "Let us attend," as a translation of two different Gk. words in this dialogue. When we hear "Let us attend" for the first time, this is actually "Let us stand aright," based on the Gk. command "Orthi" which means more-or-less literally "stand aright."  The second "Let us attend!" is based on the Gk. word proskhomen.

The point is that standing at attention is a potentially better bodily posture than sitting for the gathering of our (scattered?) thoughts, as well as simply a bodily posture that expresses greater respect for listening to the Lord teaching us through the words of the Gospel. Strange as it may sound to us, there is something of the soldier standing at solemn attention as he is about to hear his "orders" that must be faithfully fulfilled.  This is an image that is found often in Christian antiquity.

In our Liturgy today, it is a time when there should be no movement in the church, and nothing to distract us from hearing the Gospel with an attentiveness that expresses our love of the Gospel as the "precious pearl" worth more than anything else. An outer silence in the church will hopefully facilitate an inner stillness within our minds and hearts that honors the Gospel reading as the sharing of the "words of eternal life" on our behalf.

As a possible "test" to measure our actual attentiveness at a given Liturgy, we can ask ourselves later in the day - or perhaps even during the week! - what was the Gospel reading that I heard earlier in the Liturgy? An attentive listening of the Gospel would mean that we can identify the evangelist and, even more importantly, the prescribed text for the day.  And the same should hold true for the Epistle reading.  "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

If our ultimate goal is to live out the teachings of the Gospel beyond the initial hearing of the Gospel, then our awareness of the text, accompanied by a "burning of heart" will allow us to meditate upon a given passage with the goal in mind of actualizing the teaching heard in our daily lives.  How would any of this be possible if we forget the Gospel reading once we leave the church? (The homily is meant to support that process - but that may or may not happen!). If we forget the Gospel reading, that means that we may have "attended" church, but that we were not "attentive" in church. To "be" there cannot be reduced to our bodily presence.

To further emphasize the great significance of the Gospel reading at the Liturgy, there is a wonderful prayer said by the celebrant before we actually get to the dialogue outlined and commented on above.  This prayer is placed immediately after the final alleluia verse following the Epistle reading.  And it prepares us for the ensuing dialogue. For this reason alone it is my humble opinion that this "prayer before the Gospel" must be chanted/read aloud by the celebrant of the Liturgy - the bishop or priest. That is the practice in our parish. Why should a prayer that embraces everyone present be read "silently" by the clergy alone?  Though we have heard this prayer countless times, perhaps bringing it to mind here will be helpful.  For the attentive reader of the Scriptures, there are various scriptural passages that are gathered together, alluded to, or paraphrased in this prayer, a few of which will be pointed out:

Illumine our hearts (II COR. 4:6), O Master who lovest mankind, with the pure light (REV. 21:23-25) of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind (EPH. 1:18; LK. 24:45) to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down carnal desires (II PET. 2:10), we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living (I COR. 2:12), both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee (PHIL. 2:13). For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Obviously, a good deal is made of the Gospel Reading at each and every Liturgy. This is because the Gospel is "Good News" to be attentively listened to and obeyed. Familiarity may dull our appreciation of this, but we must always struggle against familiarity leading to spiritual laziness or inattentiveness.  When (over-) familiarity turns to boredom then we are facing a spiritual crisis of sorts.

Putting aside any such temptation, let us acknowledge how privileged and blessed we are to "stand aright" in church at the Liturgy and to hear the Holy Gospel.  "Let us attend!"

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Divine Liturgy - 'The Liturgy of the Word'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"We need to take refuge with the Church, to drink milk at her breast, to be fed with the Scriptures of the Lord. For the Church  has been planted in the world as a paradise."

- St. Irenaeus of Lyons

"We are said to drink the blood of Christ not only when we receive it according to the rite of the mysteries, but also when we receive his words, in which life dwells, as he said himself: 'The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life'."

- Origen
At yesterday's Liturgy I delivered a second homily about the meaning and practice of the Liturgy. Here is the briefest of outlines:

+ I began by sharing a passage from Fr. John Meyendorff, a great Orthodox historian and theologian, on the paschal nature of the Liturgy. This passage from darkness to light; and from death to life is the basic and most fundamental truth of the Liturgy. It is the crucified, risen and glorified Lord who is in our midst.

+ When we come to the reading of the Scriptures and the ensuing homily, we have reached the culminating point of the first half of the Liturgy - the Liturgy of the Word or of the Catechumens, as it is usually called. The two texts cited above already reveal to us the great power of the Scriptures. We are proclaiming the "words of the Word" (of God) at every Liturgy. That is why we first hear: "Let us Attend" before the actual reading. It is one thing to hear the Gospel; and another to listen with attention. In a very real sense, we commune with Christ in and through his living word, before we commune with him in the Eucharist. There is this "double Communion" at every Liturgy which we need to be mindful and respectful of. Therefore, arriving at the Liturgy after the Gospel means that one is not properly prepared to receive the Eucharist and should refrain from doing so.

+ The first part of the Liturgy is filled with litanies, antiphons and prayers. The first two antiphons are based on psalmody. The hymn attached to the second homily, "Only begotten Son of God," is thoroughly paschal in nature and is one example of how the paschal mystery permeates the Liturgy.

+ There is the immovable structure of the Liturgy - what remains unchanging; but every Sunday we sing and chant the various troparia and kontakia which change from Sunday to Sunday. The resurrectional troparia and kontakia rotate in an eight-week cycle according to the appointed tone of the week. The number eight is chosen for its symbolic value: the Liturgy is celebrated on the "eighth day" of the week - the day of the Kingdom which takes us beyond the time of this world signified by our seven-day week. We also sing troparia and kontakia commemorating the particular saints or events which fall on a given Sunday. Yesterday, we commemorated St. Romanos the Melode, the very creator of the kontakion, whose icon is on one of our deacon's doors.

+ In the Gospel yesterday, we heard from Jesus to "love our enemies." This does not mean to be emotionally attached to them. It means to treat them in a certain way. If our enemy "hates" us and treats us accordingly, and if we then "hate the hater" -  and treat them accordingly - then we are no different and the cycle of hostility and perhaps violence simply perpetuates itself. And there is a lot of hate going around these days. To follow Christ and the Gospel means we need to rise above it as well as possible. Very difficult and very challenging. But it is an effort we need to make if we come to the Liturgy and hear the Gospel.