Monday, January 29, 2018

The Gospel Has Turned Things Upside Down

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We have entered the season of the Triodion, that vast compilation of lenten hymnography gathered together in one book over the centuries that will guide us through the pre-lenten period; and then on through Great Lent and Holy Week; taking us to the very brink of the paschal celebration of the Death and Resurrection of Christ. 

The inspired hymnography of the Triodion interprets the Scriptures in a direct and accessible manner, in the process making it challengingly clear that each person and event from the Scriptures – Old or New Testament; positive or negative – is meant to be applied to our own lives as someone or something to emulate or avoid. The Church always treats the Scriptures as a living Word, not as a chronicle of the past or as an abstract system of belief. This form of concrete realism is indeed more challenging than a presentation of untested ideas. 

Be that as it may, the Triodion opens with the Sunday of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (LK. 18:10-14). In the Orthodox Church, this reading is part of the pre-lenten cycle always prescribed for the fourth Sunday before Great Lent begins. The intentions of the Lord in delivering this parable are clearly expressed in the solemn pronouncement following the parable itself:

For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (LK. 18:14)

The pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisee – he who “exalts himself” – is rather starkly contrasted with the humility and repentance of the Publican – he who “humbles himself.” From these two examples of a revealed interior disposition, it is only the publican who is “justified” according to Christ. With a kind of “folk-wisdom” that would have resonated for his rural flock in early 20th century Serbia, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich recasts the parable in an earthy story form that seeks to reinforce Christ’s teaching:

A man went into the forest to choose a tree from which to make roof beams. And he saw two trees, one beside the other. One was smooth and tall, but had rotted away inside, and the other was rough on the outside and ugly, but its core was healthy. The man sighed, and said to himself: “What use is this smooth, tall tree to me if it is rotten inside and useless for beams? The other one, even if it is rough and ugly, is at least healthy on the inside and so, if I put a bit more effort into it, I can use it for roof-beams for my house.” And, without thinking any more about it, he chose that tree.

And just to be certain, Bishop Nikolai drives home the moral point in the following conclusion:

So will God choose between two men for His house, and will choose, not the one who appears outwardly righteous, but the one whose heart is filled with God’s healthy righteousness.

The Pharisee acted according to the Law, keeping himself free externally from sin, fasting twice a week and paying a tithe on all that he had. How many parish priests secretly wish that that was precisely how their parishioners would live and act!? (For the moment we will not investigate just how parishioners would wish their priests to act). In fact, conventional wisdom would lead up to expect that in such a parable, the Pharisee would be praised precisely for his exact piety; and the publican would serve as a stark reminder of how not to live. 

However, Christ turns all of this conventional wisdom "upside down," for it is the interior orientation of the heart that Christ is most concerned with; and it is here that the Pharisee twisted righteousness into self-righteousness which is basically a form of idolatry – that of the “self.” Do any of us escape that self-destructive trap? If not, then better to admit it, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us:

It is evil to sin, though here help can be given; but to sin, and not to admit it – there is no help here.

The humility of the publican is perhaps best expressed in a series of short descriptions – unwillingness to look up towards heaven, the beating of the breast, the plaintive cry: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” – rather than an intellectually-constructed set of abstract notions. 

Why is it so hard to be humble? Perhaps because it frightens us. But what would the source of this fear possibly be? We fear being taken advantage of, of being used by others, of losing ground in our struggle to not only get ahead, but to survive in a harsh world. We may pay lip-serviced to humility as Christians, but we act as if deep down we “know better.” Humility is hardly a recommended survival tactic! I would rather doubt that humility is the “stuff” of self-help literature. 

This silent and implicit rejection of the virtue of humility makes a certain amount of sense if we equate humility – wrongfully, I am certain – with weakness, timidity, passivity, fear of conflict, etc. So we usually practice a safe form of humility when that will keep us in our “comfort zone.” But do we know better? Can we actually doubt the strength of a universally-acclaimed Christian virtue without having experienced it ourselves? Certainly we recognize the truth that we literally depend upon the humility of Christ for the gift of salvation! We praise and glorify Christ precisely because of His surpassing humility. Perhaps, then, if we ever made a sustained effort to be humble, we would appraise this essential virtue differently. As the saints teach us:

Until a human person achieves humility, he will receive no reward for his works. The reward is given not for the works but for the humility. (St. Isaac the Syrian)

A humble person never falls. Being already lower than any, where can he fall? Vanity is a great humiliation, but humility is a great exalting, honor and dignity. (St. Makarios the Great)

The Gospel – based on the scandal of the Cross – has turned many things upside down. In God’s judgment, according to Christ, the proud are humbled and the humbled are exalted. The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee sets this choice before us.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Lenten Reading List

Dear Parish Faithful,

I thought to compile a list of more-or-less Orthodox "lenten classics" that you may want to draw from as this year's Great Lent approaches. I have read and re-read these books through the years and they have all had an impact on my spiritual formation.  

Each book here is quite accessible. No dry theology, but a lively approach to God and the spiritual struggles that we all face; as well as deeply-pondered wisdom to guide us in our journey toward not only our annual Pascha celebration, but in our life-long journey to the Kingdom of God. 

As we pray, fast and practice charity during this season, a good book that deepens our understanding of God so that we can build our relationship with God is one more important component to a holistic lenten effort.  

I have kept my personal list to an Orthodox Top Ten.  Some of the suggested titles are specifically lent-oriented; while some are more general in appeal, but would be excellent choices during Great Lent, I believe.

Of course, any such list of good books presupposes that our primary reading source is always the Holy Scriptures.  We begin with the Word of God - the prescribed Old Testament books perhaps, together with the Psalter. During Great Lent we also read from the remarkable Epistle to the Hebrews and the austere Gospel According to St. Mark.  

However, the books on the attached list are certainly more than mere supplementary reading. They are books written by teachers and guides who love God and who desire to awaken that same love of God in our own minds and hearts. 

* The books with an asterisk can be found in our parish library.

If you have already read all of these books and are looking for something new, feel free to contact me for further suggestions.

Fr. Steven

Lenten Reading List

Great Lent by Fr. Alexander Schmemann * — Recommended by Arch. Kallistos Ware as the best single volume about Lent in English, this book has become a “classic” that should be read by one and all.  After reading this book, you will never approach the Lenten services in exactly the same way.  In fact, you just may want to come to church more often during Great Lent. This book includes the great appendix chapter, “Taking Lent Seriously” which you will do after reading this book!

+ The Lenten Spring by Fr. Thomas Hopko * — Also already something of a “classic.”  This is a series of forty three-four page meditations on a variety of lenten themes. A wonderful use of the Scriptures and the Church’s Lenten hymnography, together with Fr. Hopko’s endless stream of great insights.

+ The Way of the Ascetics * by Tito Colliander, a Finnish Orthodox lay theologian, and another “classic”(!).  — Short insightful chapters that are very challenging in today’s world  about an “applied Orthodoxy” in our daily living. Also available as an eBook.

+ Prayer: An Encounter With the Living God by Metropolitan Ilarion Alfeyev.  — A relatively new book by one of today’s most prolific and gifted theologians/spiritual directors.  Short straightforward chapters that yield many insights into the practice of serious and effective prayer.  Very practical and quite helpful for that very reason.

+ The Passion of Christ by Veselin Kesich.  — This was my New Testament professor at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  A compact and clearly-written account of the Lord’s death on the Cross. Prof. Kesich walks you through the Lord’s earthly ministry and all of the factors that led to the Lord’s Passion. In only about a hundred pages, this book will illuminate a great deal for you as we move toward Holy Week during Great Lent.

+ The Power of the Name:  The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality by Archbishop Kallistos Ware.  — Certainly the best short introduction to the Jesus Prayer by a lifelong student and practitioner of the great “prayer of the heart.” Arch. Ware distills years of study and practice into an unforgettable forty-page treatise.  Yes – another classic!

+ The Place of the Heart* by Elizabeth Behr-Sigel.  — The author has been described as the “grandmother” of 20th c. Orthodox writers.  A European lay theologian, Behr-Sigel’s book is subtitled “An Introduction to Orthodox Spirituality.”  This is a far-ranging description of how our immensely rich spiritual tradition developed from the Scriptures to the present day.  A very rich presentation. Actually, Arch. Ware’s essay on The Power of the Name is included here as an Appendix.

+ Becoming Human by Fr. John Behr  — A marvelous and profound meditation – accompanied by iconographic images – on the Person of Christ and how Christ is the link toward our own true humanity.  Many great new insights here that Fr. John has put into a short meditative form based on his other scholarly studies of the early Christian tradition.  A profound link is made between Christ – the one true human being – and our own emerging humanity after His image.

God’s Many-Splendored Image by Nonna Verna Harrison * — Verna Harrison is an Orthodox nun, known as Sister Nonna. She is also a highly-respected patristic scholar and theologian.  This book explores “theological anthropology for Christian formation.”  That sounds rather intimidating, but prominent readers have said that “clarity, simplicity, beauty, and depth” characterize the content and style of this book.  A truly wonderful exploration of what it means to be, as a human being, “God’s many-splendored image.”  Insightful observations are made in this book about figures ranging from desert fathers to Albert Einstein. Sister Nonna dedicated the book “to all people whom other people have thrown away. It shows that God does not throw away people.” Who would not want to read a book with a dedication like that?

+ The Sayings of the Desert Fathers – The Alphabetical Collection, Benedicta Ward (editor and translator).  — Here are the multitude of aphorisms, anecdotes and wisdom sayings of the great desert fathers arranged alphabetically (the Gk. alphabet, that is) from the letters Alpha to Omega, and everything in between.  These are the words of life from the great pioneers of Christian asceticism and the spiritual life.  We read the words of Sts. Anthony the Great, Arsenius, and Macarius the Great and a host of other spiritual guides.  An endless source of wisdom that can be read through the years.

A 'Mosaic of Wisdom' from St John Chrysostom

Dear Parish Faithful,

As I mentioned briefly in the homily on Sunday, our Church School students spent their class time on that same day studying the life of the ever-fascinating and much beloved St. John Chrysostom (+407), the "Golden-mouthed" teacher and preacher whose wisdom is both profound and timeless. In "The Prayers of Thanksgiving After Communion" we address St. John with the following words:

Grace shining forth from your lips like a beacon has enlightened the universe. It has shown the world the riches of poverty. It has revealed to us the heights of humility. Teaching us by your words, O Father John Chrysostom, intercede before the Word, Christ our God, to save our souls.

And again:

You were revealed as the sure foundation of the Church, granting all men a lordship which cannot be taken away, sealing it with your precepts, O venerable and heavenly father.

Liturgical language is always a bit rhetorical, but then St. John was the master of well-chosen and meaningful rhetorical language!

Our youngest class put together a kind of "mosaic" of various icons of St. John, each of which was accompanied by a wise saying of his. I would like to share those today with everyone, as the merest taste of St. John's "golden-mouthed" teaching:

"A rich man is not one who has much, but one who gives much. For what he gives away remains his forever."

"The Church is a hospital, and not a courtroom, for souls. She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins."

"The Holy Scriptures were not given to us that we should enclose them in books, but that we should engrave them upon our hearts."

"If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will you find him in the Chalice."

"Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again for forgiveness has risen from the grave."

"The only person who is free is the one who lives for Christ."

Each of these saying are as meaningful - and challenging - today as they were when first uttered in either Antioch or Constantinople.

If I were to recommend a work of St. John's that offers a combination of his great gift of interpreting the Scriptures combined with his great use of language and preaching, I would begin with his series of homilies on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: On Wealth and Poverty.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Zacchaeus and the Temptation of Comparison

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I noticed and then read the two fine short homilies posted on our parish websiteconcerning the story of the publican Zacchaeus and his conversion to following Christ. One was written by Fr. Thomas Hopko; and the other by Fr. Ambrose Young (in which he extensively quotes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom). These two homilies offer a great deal of insight into the character of Zacchaeus and the nature of his repentance, and I would highly recommend that you take the time to read them. I see no reason to write a further meditation that would cover the same ground.

However, there is a point that I would like to add as a general comment on reading and reflecting on the Scriptures, and their “application” to our own lives. Or, rather, I would like to add a word of caution in the face of what I would call “the temptation of comparison.”

By this I mean that when we read the Scriptures and encounter a character such as Zacchaeus – or other unnamed publicans – as well as the prodigal son, and other “great sinners;” we may well console ourselves with this consciously or unconsciously formulated train of thought: 

“Well, I am not quite so bad as these sinners. I am basically a good person who has not fallen to the depths of sin that these figures found in the Gospels have. They are there precisely to show us that even great sinners can be forgiven by God in His mercy. And I appreciate the dramatic effect of such a lesson. I certainly need to improve myself; and I certainly need to work on my relationship with God. But I have not defrauded others as Zacchaeus did, and I have not wasted my life in loose living as did the prodigal son. Most people like and respect me. Of course I, too, am sinful, but in comparison to the sinners mentioned in the Gospels, it would be false humility on my part to admit to an equally sinful life. In other words, I may be a sinner, but I am not such a great sinner.” 

Even if “objectively” true – and we can never claim absolute certainty about that - such a line of reasoning would basically waste the entire meaning of the passage on us, and perhaps further mean that we would have been better off not even listening to or reading the given passage! Such self-righteousness is considered to be a great sin in the Gospels. If, in comparison to Zacchaeus and the prodigal son, we are not as bad of sinners, does that mean that we are not as equally in need of the mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and love of God?

We seem to be drawn to such comparisons because we always come out looking good, or at least better than the other, when making these comparisons. One further and fascinating attribute of “human nature.” This, in turn, appeals to our vanity and self-regard. We are very much preoccupied with how others perceive us; our self-image as projected outwardly is of great concern to us. We would be mortified – and then either angered or depressed - if we thought that others thought poorly of us. We have a deeply-felt need to be able “to hold our head high” when compared to our neighbor. If only we were as concerned about how God may see us!

There may be another revealing side to the “temptation of comparison:” How does our repentance “compare” with that of Zacchaeus or the prodigal son, or other great sinners encountered in the Gospels? When the Lord came to his home, Zacchaeus was moved to give one-half of his possessions to the poor, and he agreed to restore fourfold what we had stolen from others. Do our fruits of repentance even begin to match that of Zacchaeus? And who compares well with the prodigal son throwing himself on the mercy of his father with no expectations in return? Have any of us been so overwhelmed by the saving presence of Christ and the sheer graciousness of the Gospel to react in such a manner? Perhaps it is this comparison that can teach us some humility.

Before approaching the Chalice in order to receive the Eucharist, each one of us makes the same confession as we collectively share the same preparatory prayer: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” 

The very point of this public confession is that we are not comparing ourselves with others, but confessing to our own sinfulness before God. If analyzed comparatively, such a prayer would be reduced to a kind of empty rhetoric. Compared to the great villains of history and the great sinners that fill our news stories, we again come off as good, decent human beings. But that does not mean that we are in less need of the saving grace of the Gospel. Do I need “less grace” than the great sinners of history and contemporary life because I am comparatively not as bad? Hopefully, the absurdity of such a question is more than immediate. 

The only way that we can effectively prepare for the approaching Lenten season is to open our minds and hearts to the Gospel lessons of humility, repentance, conversion, the fruits of repentance and a renewed love of God and neighbor. We do this by listening to each Gospel passage as a direct call from Christ: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Father of Monasticism

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to our ecclesiastical calendar, every year on January 17 we commemorate one of the truly extraordinary saints of the Church; and one whose impact on the Church’s historical and spiritual development can hardly be over-estimated. And that would be St. Anthony the Great (+356) who is universally proclaimed as the “Father of monasticism.”

St. Anthony withdrew from the world to seek the Kingdom of God with an intensity and focus that was humanly speaking, practically “impossible,” but as the Lord said, “with God all things are possible”(MATT. 19:26). He was inspired toward this act of radical withdrawal when he heard the words of the Lord in church one Sunday: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (MATT. 19:21). After many years of prayer, fasting and vigil in the desert — during which he had to battle countless demons — St. Anthony learned that whatever he “accomplished” in the ascetic life was made possible by the grace of God. His Life became one of the most widely-read and influential books of the Church in late antiquity, the reading of which was instrumental in the spiritual development of Blessed Augustine of Hippo (+430); and has maintained its powerful attraction to this day. Perhaps the fact that it was written by St. Athanasius the Great (+373) has a great deal to do with that.

Some of St. Anthony’s most memorable “sayings” have been recorded and thus preserved throughout the centuries, so that his ancient wisdom can guide us to this day, whether we are married, celibate or a monastic. In the Alphabetical Collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we hear his voice reaching to us from the 4th c. desert of Egypt with a timeless wisdom:

“This is the great work of a human being: always to take blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.” (4)

If that produces a sense of discouragement or anxiety, St. Anthony further taught the “positive” side of this insight:

“Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He even added: “Without temptation no-one can be saved.” (5)

He also said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” (9)

If you would like to read more about this extraordinary figure who has so profoundly shaped our spiritual tradition, here is a link to the OCA's detailed summary of his Life based upon what we have learned from St. Athanasius the Great in the 4th c.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Rebuking the Tempter, and Following Jesus

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Sunday is the Leavetaking of Theophany, the great feast commemorating the Baptism of the Lord and the revelation of the Holy Trinity at the Jordan River. It was His baptism at the hands of the Forerunner that inaugurated the public ministry of Christ – a public ministry that will begin with the words recorded in the Gospels and which continue to reverberate through the centuries to this day with a call and a challenge that is meant to shake all of humanity out of a false sense of complacency and comfort: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (MATT. 4:17). 

According to Christ there is something more than the joys and sorrows that inevitably accompany the natural cycle of life and death. Acknowledging this with thanksgiving, the very pinnacle of our communal worship of God in the Liturgy begins by “blessing” the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the opening doxology. Yet, before these powerful words are uttered in the Gospels; and before the Lord will begin His ministry of demonstrating the Kingdom of Heaven’s presence through His words and deeds culminating in the Cross and Resurrection; there is an event of tremendous significance that further prepares Christ for His messianic ministry: The Temptation/Testing in the Wilderness (MATT. 4:1-11; MK. 1:12-13; LK. 4:1-13). 

The nuances of the Greek word behind this event allows us to think in terms of “temptation” or “testing.” Perhaps we could say that Christ was tested when God allowed Him to be tempted by the devil. Either way – or with a combination of both terms – the forty days spent by Jesus in the wilderness will shape Him and His ministry to Israel and to the world by defining an image of the Messiah that He will reject and one that He will embrace.

It is highly significant that it is the Spirit who “led” Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (MATT. 4:1). Nothing in the life of Christ is accidental. In all things He is led by His heavenly Father acting through the Holy Spirit, including this “face-to-face” encounter with the evil one. 

The austere and unsettling figure of the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s famous Legend embedded in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, refers to the devil as “the dread and intelligent spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being.” It is this dread spirit who will tempt Christ through the three questions that will test the fidelity of Christ to His unique messianic vocation as willed by His heavenly Father. 

Dostoevsky, through the tragic figure of the Grand Inquisitor, further reveals the power and non-human source of these powerful temptations, when the Inquisitor says in his monologue: 

“By the questions alone, simply by the miracle of their appearance, one can see that one is dealing with a mind not human and transient but eternal and absolute. For in these three questions all of subsequent human history is as if brought together into a single whole and foretold; three images are revealed that will take in all the insoluble historical contradictions of human nature over all the earth.” 

In other words, these three temptations were not “invented” or “made up” by the evangelists for dramatic effect. The very “perfection” of the temptations posed by the devil reveal their veracity.

And what are these three temptations? According to St. Matthew’s account, they begin with the following as Jesus is fasting and experiencing hunger in the wilderness: “And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’.” 

This was followed by the second temptation to test God’s fidelity to Him after the devil “took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, less you strike your foot against a stone’.”  

The final temptation was grandiose and sweeping in its scope: 

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’.” 

In Dostoevsky’s particular and profound interpretation of Christ’s encounter with the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus refuses to receive obedience through miracle, mystery and authority as represented in these three tantalizing temptations. By compelling human beings to believe in Him by overwhelming them with the miraculous; by exploiting a sense of mystery to attract human beings to follow him; and by appealing to the human need for security through external authority; Christ would have accepted and approved of a distorted understanding of human nature. 

In Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christ, as attainable as these “powers” may be for the Son of God, each one in its own way violates the gift of human freedom given to us by God and appealed to by Christ. It is for this very reason that Christ did not come down from the Cross as He was “tempted” to do by those who mocked Him. Even if freedom is a burden as well as a gift, it is the true vision of humanity created “in the image and likeness of God.” We, in turn, freely choose to follow Christ, the crucified “Lord of glory.”

Dostoevsky had his particular concerns when he resorted to the temptation in the wilderness to dramatize the dialectics of human freedom and coercion in an unforgettable manner in The Brothers Karamazov. Within the context of the Gospels, we can say that Christ had to overcome the temptation to be a particular kind of Messiah that was not in accord with the will of God. He was not declared to be His Father’s “beloved Son” at the Jordan River so as to be a militant Messiah who ruled through power. The words of God the Father at the Jordan were clear echoes from the Suffering Servant songs from the prophet Isaiah. And the Suffering Servant would heal us by His “stripes.” His very suffering would be redemptive. And therefore that suffering (on the Cross) was essential to the divine economy. 

To overcome such temptations as man, the Lord resorted to prayer and fasting in the wilderness – the spiritual weapons given to us all in the Church for precisely the same purpose in the “wilderness” of a fallen world: to strengthen the “inner man” against false and pretentious promises. We can accomplish this by relying on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (DEUT. 8:3). We further heed the words, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (DEUT. 6:16). And we also follow Christ who reminded us: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (DEUT. 6:13). 

Christ refuted the evil one’s false counsel by the power of the scriptural word. 

Another clear lesson for us in our relationship with the Holy Scriptures. As the “root” of a new humanity, Jesus re-enacts the history of Israel, but He “passes” the type of test that Israel “failed” to pass in its earlier forty-year wanderings in the wilderness. In fact, as the New and Last Adam He reverses the effects of Adam’s disobedience through His faithful obedience to the Father. 

It may sound startling to us today, but Jesus was “perfected” precisely through obedience!

Our human will was healed by the human will that the Son of God assumed and united to His divine will in the Incarnation. Before the Garden of Gethsemane, the perfect expression of that healing through obedience may just be the temptation/testing in the wilderness. 

As the final temptation was beaten back by Christ, He was able to say to the tempter: “Begone, Satan!” Our goal is to be able to rebuke the tempter with the same words when we are also tempted/tested – perhaps on a daily basis!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

'One Baptism for the remission of sins...'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

'I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.'
(Nicene Creed)

The Feast of Theophany is more ancient that that of Christ's Nativity on December 25. In fact, it was precisely on 6 January that the Church first celebrated Christ's birth (and the adoration of the Magi) together with His baptism in the Jordan. These events - of the greatest significance not only in the life of Christ but in the economy" of our salvation - were united in one celebration known as Theophany, which means "manifestation of God." (The Feast is also referred to as Epiphany, which simply means "manifestation").

In His Nativity and in His Baptism, Christ is "manifested," or "revealed," to the world as the Light of the world in order to dispel the darkness of ignorance and spiritual blindness which are the direct result of sin. This Feast of Theophany is also referred to as the "Feast of Lights." It was in the 4th c. that we began to celebrate our Lord's Nativity (and the adoration of the Magi) as a separate and unique event on 25 December, while 6 January remained as the Feast of Theophany on which Christ's Baptism was commemorated. 

Why did the Feast of 6 January retain the title of Theophany/Epiphany instead of 25 December, when the manifestation of the eternal Light was first revealed in His Nativity in the flesh? St. John Chrysostom writes: "...because it was not when He was born that He became manifest to all, but when He was baptized; for up to this day He was unknown to the majority."

But not only was the Lord Jesus revealed to the world as He began His public ministry with His Baptism in the Jordan at the hands of St. John the Baptist. The Holy Trinity was manifested, for the "voice of the Father" bore witness to His beloved Son, and the Spirit, "in the form of a dove," descended and rested upon the Son. The trinitarian nature of God was manifested when Christ came to the Jordan to be baptized.

Yet, if baptism is for the "remission of sins," then why is Christ baptized, for He is without sin (I PET. 2:22; HEB. 4:15)? The liturgical texts repeatedly ask and answer this question for us in the following manner: "Though as God He needs no cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan;" "As a man He is cleansed that I may be made clean." Christ is representative of all humanity. He is baptized for our sake. It is we who are cleansed and regenerated when He descends into the waters of the Jordan.

For with Christ, and in Christ, our human nature - the human nature He assumed in all of its fullness in the Incarnation - descends into the cleansing and purifying waters of the Jordan (anticipating sacramental Baptism), so that the very same human nature may ascend out of the waters renewed, restored and recreated. As the New and Last Adam He "sums up" all of us in Himself - for this reason He became man. The Spirit descends and rests upon Christ, so that our humanity may be anointed in Him. St. Athanasios the Great writes: " ... when He is anointed ... we it is who in Him are anointed ... when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized." Every baptism is an "extension," a participation, in the one, unique Baptism of Christ; just as every Eucharist is an "extension," a participation in the one, unique Mystical Supper. St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains this sacramental participation in Christ's Baptism as follows:

O what a strange and inconceivable thing it is! We did not really die, we were not really buried; we were not crucified and raised again; our imitation of Christ was but in a figure, while our salvation is truth.
Christ actually was crucified and buried, and truly rose again; and all these things have been transmitted to us, that we might by imitation participate in his sufferings, and so gain salvation in truth.

Actually, all of creation participates and is sanctified by the manifestation of God's Son in the flesh: "At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heavens enlightened."

We die to sin in Baptism and are raised to new life - for this reason the baptismal font is both tomb and womb as St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells us. Our pre- and post-baptismal lives must manifest some real change, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. In fact, I would like to append a few paragraphs from some of St. Gregory's writings about Baptism in order to allow him to describe the meaning of that need for change. St Gregory wrote at a time (4th c.) when he could presuppose adult baptism as the norm, but we can apply his teaching to our own consciousness of being Christians as we grow up in the Faith following "infant baptism":

When discussing baptism and spiritual birth, we have to consider what happens to our life following baptism. This is a point which many of those who approach the grace of baptism neglect; they delude themselves by being born in appearance only and not in reality. For through birth from above, our life is supposed to undergo a change. But if we continue in our present sinful state then there is really no change in us. Indeed, I do not see how a man who continues to be the same can be considered to have become different when there is no noticeable change in him.
Now the physically born child certainly shares his parents' nature. If you have been born of God and have become His child, then let your way of life testify to the presence of God within you. Make it clear who your Father is! For the very attributes by which we recognize God are the very marks by which a child of His must reveal His relationship with God. "God is goodness and there is no unrighteousness in Him." "The Lord is gracious to all ... He loves His enemies." "He is merciful and forgives transgressions." These and many other characteristics revealed by the Scripture are what make a Godly life.

If you are like this and you embody the Spirit of God, then you have genuinely become a child of God, but if you persist in displaying evil, then it is useless to prattle to yourself and to others about your birth from above. You are still merely a son of man, not a son of that Most High God! You love lies and vanity, and you are still immersed in the corruptible things of this world. Don't you know in what way a man becomes a child of God? Why in no other way than by becoming holy!

St. Gregory challenges us to remain ever-vigilant to our own baptism when we "put on Christ" and when we committed ourselves to a "mode of existence" that reveals Christ to the world.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Resolutions or Repentance?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to the civil calendar, we begin the year of our Lord (Anno Domini) 2018, on January 1. The year of 2018 is based upon the calculations of a medieval monk who, in attempting to ascertain the exact date of the birth of Christ, missed the year 0 by only a few years. According to contemporary scholars, Jesus was actually born between what we consider to be 6 – 4 B. C. These were the last years of Herod the Great, for according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus was born toward the very end of Herod’s long reign (37 – 4 B.C.). Christians therefore divide the linear stretch of historical time between the era before the Incarnation; and the era after the Incarnation and the advent of the Son of God into our space-time world. 

In other words, the years before the Incarnation are treated as something of a “countdown” to the time-altering event of the Incarnation; and the years since are counted forward as we move toward the end of history and the coming Kingdom of God. By entering the world, Christ has transformed the meaning and goal of historical time.

Recently, there has been a scholarly shift away from this openly Christian approach to history, as the more traditional designations of B.C. and A.D. have been replaced by the more neutral and “ecumenically sensitive” designations of B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), and C.E. (Common Era). Understanding and interpreting history from a decidedly Christian perspective, I would still argue in favor of the more traditional B.C. and A.D.

Although an issue of more than passing interest, that discussion may appear somewhat academic in comparison to the pressing issues of our daily lives as they continue to unfold now in 2018. We will  exchange our conventional greetings of “Happy New Year” probably more than once in the next few days. 

Under closer inspection, there remains something vague about that expression, and perhaps that is for the better. Do we wish for the other person – as well as for ourselves – that nothing will go (terribly) wrong in the unknown future of the new year? More positively, do we wish that all of our desires and wishes for our lives will be fulfilled in this new year? Or, are we wishing a successful year of the perpetual pursuit of “happiness” (whatever that means) for ourselves and for our friends? At that point we just may be reaching beyond the restrictive boundaries of reality. As Tevye the Dairyman once said: “The more man plans, the harder God laughs.” 

Perhaps the more realistic approach would be to give and receive our “Happy New Year” greetings as neighborly acknowledgement that we are “all in this together,” and that we need to mutually encourage and support one another.

We also approach the New Year as a time to commit ourselves to those annual “resolutions” that we realize will make our lives more wholesome, safe, sound, or even sane - if only we can sustain them. A resolution is to dig deep inside and find the resolve necessary to break through those (bad) habits or patterns of living that undermine either our effectiveness in daily life; jeopardize our relationships with our loved ones, our friends and our neighbors; or seriously threaten to make us less human than we can and should be. 

We know that we should eat less, swear less, lust less, get angry less, surf the computer less, play on our iPhones less, watch TV less and so on. We further know that we need more patience, more self-discipline, more graceful language, more attention to the needs of others, more “quality time” with our families and friends, more forgiving, more loving and so on. We know, therefore, that we need to change, and we intuitively realize how difficult this is. Bad habits are hard to break. Therefore, we need this annual opportunity of a new beginning and our New Year resolutions to give us a “fighting chance” to actually change. 

We may joke about how quickly we break our resolutions, but beneath the surface of that joking (which covers up our disappointments and rationalizations) we are acknowledging, once again, the struggle of moving beyond and replacing our vices with virtues. May God grant everyone the resolve to maintain these resolutions with care and consistency.

And yet I believe that we can profoundly deepen our experience of the above. For, as a “holiday” is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of a “holy day;” so a resolution is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of personal repentance. To repent (Gk. metanoia) is to have a “change of mind,” together with a corresponding change in the manner of our living and a re-direction of our lives toward God. The New Year’s resolution of our secularized culture may be a persistent reminder — or the remainder of — a lost Christian worldview that realized the importance of repentance. “There is something rotten in Denmark,” and an entire industry of self-help and self-reliance therapies — totally divorced from a theistic context — is an open acknowledgement of that reality regardless of how distant it may now be from its religious expression. As members of the Body of Christ living within the grace-filled atmosphere of the Church, we can, in turn, incorporate our resolutions within the ongoing process of repentance, which is nothing less than our vocation as human beings: “God requires us to go on repenting until our last breath” (St. Isaias of Sketis). Or, as St. Isaac of Syria teaches: “This life has been given you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things.”

Summarizing and synthesizing the Church’s traditional teaching about repentance, Archbishop Kallistos Ware has formulated a wonderfully open-ended expression of repentance that is both helpful and hopeful:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upward at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. In this sense, repentance is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life.  (The Orthodox Way, p. 113-114)

Hard not to be inspired by such an expressive passage! In the Service of Prayer for the (Civil) New Year, we incorporate into the litanies of the service some of the following special petitions . Thus, in the language of the Church, these petitions served as an ecclesial form of the resolutions we make to break through some of our dehumanizing behavior; as well as a plea to God to strengthen our better inclinations:

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will plant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will renew a right spirit within us, and strengthen us in the Orthodox Faith, and cause us to make haste in the performance of good deeds and the Fulfillment of all His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will bless the beginning and continuance of this year with the grace of His of His love for mankind, and will grant unto us peaceful times, favorable weather and a sinless life in health and abundance, let us pray to the Lord.

If you resolve to seek and to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind … and your neighbor as yourself” (MATT. 22:37-38), then I believe that this new year may not be perpetually “happy,” but that it will truly blessed.