Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Ninth Day: On Sin and Destiny

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Ninth Day

"The sin that reigns in man through the power of the devil and of death arouses fear, anguish and in general the instinct of self-preservation. Thus through fear and self-interest Satan produces sin in man... and brings about his failure to fulfill his destiny."
- John Romanides

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Eighth Day - 'Nothing is truly bad...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Eighth Day

"Except for sin nothing in this life - not even death itself - is truly bad, even though it brings affliction to us."

- St. Gregory Palamas

Friday, February 23, 2018

St Basil's Liturgy: Deserving our Deepest Attention and Overwhelming Awe

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

During the five Sundays of Great Lent we turn to the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great for our Eucharistic celebration on the Lord's Day.  This Liturgy is used another five times during the year, two more of which are during Holy Week - Thursday and Saturday.  (The other three times are the Feasts of Nativity and Theophany, and then on St. Basil's day of commemoration, January 1).   
This Liturgy is known for its long(er) prayers, some of which may challenge our capacity to stand still in concentration and prayerful attention.  But what prayers!  They strike me personally as being unrivaled in our entire Tradition for their beauty of expression and the depth of their theological/spiritual content.  Even though we are hearing them in translation, that beauty and depth remain intact and shine through quite well.

Now St. Basil did not sit down and "compose" the entire Liturgy "from scratch," to use that expression.  The basic structure of the Liturgy was already an essential element of the Church's living liturgical Tradition.  However, there is every reason to believe that he is responsible for the magnificent Anaphora prayers.  These prayers reflect St. Basil's intense preoccupation with the Church's Trinitarian faith - that we worship the One God as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the Son and the Holy Spirit being consubstantial with the Father as to their divine nature, and thus co-enthroned and co-glorified  with the Father from all eternity. (St. Basil wrote a separate magnificent treatise On the Holy Spirit, demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit through his knowledge of the Scriptures and the Church's liturgical Tradition). 

That belief in the Holy Trinity, though present "in the beginning" of the Church's proclamation of the Gospel, was under attack during the turbulent fourth century, with the Arian heresy and its various offshoots stirring up seemingly interminable debate and dissension. 
St. Basil was one of the premier exponents of the Church's faith that the one God is the Holy Trinity; and he helped establish the classical terminology of the Church in expressing that Faith:  God is one in "essence" (Gk. ousia), yet three distinct "Persons" (Gk. hypostaseis).  That terminology remains intact to this day.  The opening Anaphora Prayer, "O Existing One, Master, Lord  God, Father almighty and adorable!..." is steeped in praise and glorification of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and thus deserves our deepest attention and sense of overwhelming awe as we stand in the presence of the Holy Trinity and as we join the angelic powers in "singing, shouting, and proclaiming: Holy!  Holy!  Holy!  Lord of Sabaoth!..." 

In profound relationship to the prayers of the Liturgy revealing the Church's belief in the Holy Trinity, we find St. Basil's unrivaled expression of the divine "economy" (Gk. oikonomia) throughout. This refers to God's providential dispensation/design toward His creation - culminating in the salvation of the world - in and through the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ.  
If I were asked to present to an interested inquirer the most compelling and succinct expression  of the divine economy as taught and proclaimed by the Orthodox Church, I would definitely refer this person to the long Anaphora Prayer of St. Basil's Liturgy beginning where the Thrice-holy left off:

"With these blessed powers, O Master who lovest mankind ..."  
After praising God "for the magnificence of Thy holiness,"  we begin to prayerfully recall - and thus make present - the full extent of His providential dispensation toward the world:

"When Thou didst create man by taking dust from the earth, and didst honor him with Thine own image, O God ..."  
This long remembrance takes us through what we refer to as the "Fall," through the promises of the prophets — "foretelling to us the salvation which was to come ..."  — all the way through to the Lord's Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and even Second Coming:

"Ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of Thy majesty on high, and He will come to render to every man according to his works ..." 
Further recalling, and thus actualizing "the night in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world," this entire process will culminate with the Epiklesis, or Invocation of the Holy Spirit "to bless, to hallow and to show" that the bread and wine of our offering will "become" the Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We will then receive the Holy Gifts "for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting."

Today, the Orthodox faithful are blessed in that the prayers of St. Basil's Liturgy are read aloud so that the entire gathered assembly of believers may actually "hear" the prayers that reveal the Lord God's Trinitarian nature and the divine economy together with the consecration of the Holy Gifts.  In the past that may have not been so, and even today it is not so in all Orthodox churches.  So we thank God for our own liturgical revival which has so enlivened our contemporary worship experience with full parish participation in the Church at prayer and praise.

However, and admittedly, there is one prayer that is usually read while the choir is singing (at least that is what we do here in our parish); and that is a final prayer near the very end of the Liturgy that the priest will say while facing the Table of Preparation and the remaining Holy Communion that will eventually be consumed by the priest, and while the choir is singing "Blessed be the name of the Lord, henceforth and forevermore" three times:

The mystery of Thy dispensation, O Christ our God, has been accomplished and perfected as far as it was  in our power; for we have had the memorial of Thy death; we have seen the type of Thy Resurrection; we have been filled with Thine unending life; we have enjoyed Thine inexhaustible food; which in the world to come be well-pleased to vouchsafe to us all, through the grace of Thine eternal Father, and Thine holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.
This summation of the meaning, purpose and experience of the Liturgy is an "awesome" claim that perhaps may strike us in its awesomeness  even more effectively if we break the prayer down into its component parts:

  • We have had the memorial of the Lord's death;
  • We have seen the type of the Lord's Resurrection;
  • We have been filled with the Lord's unending life;
  • We have enjoyed the Lord's inexhaustible food;
  • We ask to continue in this partaking in the world to come;
  • All this through the grace of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!

That is quite a Sunday morning experience which we so blandly describe as "going to church!"  Clearly the remainder of the day is all downhill - no matter what we do!  
When we begin the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great we know that we have a long road ahead of us.  That will require some patience, concentration, and a willingness to "stay with it" through to its dismissal.  If we are able to do that, then the "rewards" are inestimable.  It will also test our deepest desires about what is "the one thing needful" in our lives and what is the treasure of our hearts.  Yet, the Sundays of Great Lent are a unique opportunity to further our movement towards the Lord as we move through Great Lent and our lives toward the gladsome light of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Great Canon - Leading us towards Repentance, Nourishing us through the Scriptures

Dear Parish Faithful,

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote the following about the role of the Holy Scriptures in the life of an Orthodox Christian:

We are to see Scripture as a personal letter addressed specifically to each one of us by God.We are each of us to see Scripture reading as a direct, individual dialogue between Christ and ourselves.

In writing this, he may perhaps have had in mind an image used by St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (an eighteenth c. Russian Orthodox bishop), who wrote the following:

If an earthly king, our emperor, wrote you a letter, would you not read it with joy? Certainly, with great rejoicing and careful attention. You have been sent a letter, not by any earthly emperor, but by the King of Heaven. And yet you almost despise such a gift, so priceless a treasure.

During Great Lent we seek to intensify our prayer life, almsgiving and fasting. Usually, in order to recover or rediscover the purpose and meaning of these essential Christian practices, since we may have neglected them in the course of the year. And we also intensify our reading of the Holy Scriptures.

During the weekdays of Great Lent - non-Eucharistic days - the Books of Genesis (historical writing), Proverbs (Wisdom literature), and Isaiah (prophetic writing) are prescribed. These will change to Exodus, Job and Ezekiel during Holy Week. On Saturdays and Sundays - Eucharistic days - we turn to the New Testament and read the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Gospel According to St. Mark. And during Great Lent The Psalter is prescribed to be read through twice each week. We therefore return to the Scriptural roots of the Church so as to hear and read the living Word of God with attentiveness and the awareness of how this Word "judges" us: "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4:12).

In addition to the prescribed readings which are appointed in all liturgical services, it is fascinating to hear how the various texts and hymns of the liturgical services are thoroughly imbued with passages - directly quoted or paraphrased - from the Scriptures. If I recall correctly, it was Met. Kallistos who once wrote that a careful study of the Divine Liturgy will reveal that there are one hundred such direct passages and paraphrases each from both the Old and New Testaments. The Liturgy is thus a mosaic of Scriptural truths that come alive, so to speak, through prayer and glorification directed to God. The long anaphora prayers of St. Basil's Liturgy that we will begin on Sunday, bear this out with great depth and beauty. 

In other words, the more we know and understand the Holy Scriptures, the more alive the Liturgy is for us.

Another astonishing example of how the Holy Scriptures will be masterfully woven into the texts of our liturgical services is found in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. In the First Week of Great Lent, the Canon is divided into four parts and chanted on the first four evenings of the week. It is then chanted in its entirety on Thursday of the Fifth Week of Great Lent. 

We have so far gone through the first three parts of the Canon during this First Week of Great Lent, and the fourth and final part is scheduled for this evening. In this heartfelt plea of repentance to the merciful Lord, St. Andrew constantly alludes to the Scriptures, even explicitly telling us that he has presented images of both the righteous and unrighteous before our gaze in some of the troparia - examples either to emulate or avoid. But any attentive concentration to the Canon amazes us with the uninterrupted flow of both the Old and New Testament images that inform so many of these inspiring troparia.

To make this point statistically, I will point out those biblical books that appear the most throughout the Canon. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but one that will hopefully reveal the "scriptural mind" of one of the Fathers of the Church. In fact, it has been said - very perceptively, in my opinion - that in all the great writings of the Church Fathers, what we have before us as a feast for the mind and heart, are profound commentaries on the Holy Scriptures.

Following are the Books I have chosen to highlight, with the number of direct or indirect quotations taken from that respective Book:

Old Testament

Genesis - 44(!)
Numbers - 5
Deuteronomy - 3
The Psalms - 12
Exodus - 14
I Samuel - 2
II Samuel - 7
I Kings - 6
II Kings - 8
Isaiah - 4

New Testament (the Gospels)

Matthew - 31
Mark - 2
Luke - 28
John - 8

That is 174 scriptural passages and, again, that list is not exhaustive. The purpose of the Great Canon of St. Andrew is to lead us toward the desire and intention to truly repent of our sins and thus receive the saving grace of God. Yet, we are simultaneously nourished by the Holy Scriptures that reveal the "mind of the Church."

This evening, we will chant the fourth and final part of the Canon beginning at 7:00 p.m.

'The synergy of divine grace and human freedom...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Fourth Day

"Grace is a presence of God within us which demands constant effort on our part; these efforts, however, in no way determine grace, nor does grace act upon our liberty as if it were external or foreign to it... 
"Eastern tradition has always asserted simultaneity in the synergy of divine grace and human freedom."

Vladimir Lossky (+1958)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

'The Righteousness of Works and the Grace of the Spirit...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Third Day

"As the grace of God cannot descend upon souls which flee from their salvation, so the power of human virtue is not of itself sufficient to raise to perfection souls which have no share in grace... the righteousness of works and the grace of the Spirit, coming together to the same place, fill the soul in which they are united with the life of the blessed."

- St. Gregory of Nyssa
Please share any responses or comments with me that you may have upon reading these short Lenten reflections. With your permission, I could pass then share any such comments with the parish - either with your name or anonymously, whatever you prefer.
In addition, I am attaching a couple of older items that I have prepared for Great Lent. The first is a detailed description of the fasting discipline during Great Lent, prepared by Fr. John Hopko. The second is an excellent summary by Mother Paula of Archbishop Kallistos Ware's classic article on the Meaning of the Great Fast.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

'Transcending of the affliction of the Fall...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent - The Second Day
"Essentially the practice of asceticism signifies the living-out and the transcending of the affliction of the Fall in the light and hope of the resurrection." 

George Mantzaridis

Monday, February 19, 2018

'While there is time to be healed...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent - The First Day

Genuine repentance according to God annihilates disobedience and abolishes darkness, illumines the eyes and presents knowledge to the soul; leads a person to salvation; and that which he has not learned from men, he comes to know through repentance.

While we are on this earth, let us repent. For we are but clay in the hands of the artist. Just as the sculptor makes a vessel: while the clay is in his hands, even if it falls, he is able to remold it; but once it is placed in the furnace of  fire, he can do nothing more to it. Similarly, while we are in this world, let us repent with all our heart for the evils we have committed in flesh, so that we may be saved by the Lord while there is yet time for repentance. For after we have left this world, we are no longer able to confess or repent.

While there is time to be healed, let us offer ourselves to the healer God, giving Him as recompense our sincere-hearted repentance.

~ St. Clement of Rome

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Great Lent and Fasting in the Age of The Screen

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Here is an older meditation - in fact almost eight years old to the day!  Nevertheless, I find it to remain quite "relevant" today, perhaps more so, as our screen technology may demand even more of our time.  The point is not to deny the advantages in communication that we have with "modern technology," but to also point out the accompanying temptations of not only over-reliance, but downright addiction to the very tools meant to enhance our daily living. In my humble opinion, smartphone/I-phone use is not simply an "issue" to be dealt with, but a genuine "problem" that needs to be seriously addressed. I just heard of an impressive study that determined that teen-age depression is directly tied to something of a psychological dependency on these very phones. There are always two sides to technology ...

Great Lent and Fasting in the Age of The Screen


"Enlighten me through prayers and fasting." (Forgiveness Vespers)

I would like to reformulate some thoughts in writing that I presented last Sunday in both the homily and the post-Liturgy discussion. Perhaps I can aim for a bit more precision and over-all coverage in the process.

Within the context of the beginning of Great Lent and our ascetical effort during this season, commonly called fasting, I raised the issue of not only fasting from certain foods and drink - the most basic aspect of asceticism because of our sheer dependence on food and drink - but also of "fasting" from the amount of time we spend daily before a variety of screens - television, computer, tablets, movies, smart phones, etc.

This raises the issue of "Orthodoxy and technology," a fascinating issue and one that should generate a good deal of theological/spiritual reflection when we think for a moment of our overwhelming dependency in the contemporary world on technology. We may be able to live without technology, but we would hardly be able to function without it. However, my goal is much more modest, as I will explain momentarily.

Without entering into a philosophical/theological discussion about technology, we can at least state that Orthodoxy is in no way anti-technological. Although some Orthodox bishops, priests, and monastics may awaken visions of the Amish, there is no real similarity in worldview when it comes to technology. You may just contact any one of those Orthodox persons through their computers and smart  phones - but not the Amish! Or you would be impressed by the websites and over-all computer sophistication of both Orthodox seminaries and monasteries. This is to state the obvious.

The Church has never moved to suppress technology or, for that matter, any progress in all of the sciences. This is a crucial aspect of our human capacity to think and create, setting us apart from the rest of the animal world. Yet, one more issue unavoidably related to this is that of the abuse of technology, when it is severed from any clear moral and ethical restraint. Our thinkers and theologians are struggling to keep up with the exponential and seemingly daily moral/ethical challenges that arise out of the obsessive desire to keep pushing forward the frontier of technological progress.

Avoiding these "heavier" issues in this reflection, I would just like to address the more modest issue of our fasting during Great Lent. Or, of expanding our understanding of fasting to now include the time spent before our various screens as already mentioned above. It is, after all, Great Lent. Some modest changes in lifestyle, or the environments that we create in our homes is an important factor in the over-all lenten effort.

With the ubiquitous screen, the questions arise: Outside of our professional obligations and responsibilities, just how attracted, attached, obsessed or, as extreme as this may sound, "addicted" are we to them? How much of that precious commodity of time do we spend in front of screens that could at best be described as distraction, amusement, entertainment, "killing time," etc.? Can we break through the cycles of surfing, shopping, game-playing, Facebooking and blogging that devour huge amounts of our time? And can we show some restraint for the sake of relationships and more serious pursuits which I hope would attract us during Great Lent especially?

To formulate the challenge before us, I would like to turn to an essay written by one of our parishioners, Emily Farison. Emily recently wrote an essay entitled "Less is More." The opening paragraph shows that we are of the same mind in formulating the issues before us:

In the modern world, nearly every direction one turns, surrounding people appear preoccupied by their own little worlds of music, video games, social networking, or the internet. They appear oblivious to anyone or anything, save the technologies that hold their undivided attention. Nearly gone are the days where families would gather together to read, create, play, or converse with each other. The turn of the century bears witness to a rapid-paced world which observes a degeneration in communication and relationships among individuals. Though many remain unaware, this shift brings with it startling changes, affecting present and future generations alike. (p. 1)

Well-stated and to the point! And something to think about in a season of restraint and re-prioritizing. Emily mentions reading, playing, creating and conversing. Are our families and friendships suffering deficiencies in those time-honored activities that are based on mental agility, socializing skills and the deepening or loving relationships? Is it dinner and then off to the screen? Have we mastered the "art of distraction?"

If so, can we possibly be surprised if we find it difficult to pray effectively - that is with some concentration and focus? There is a possible alternative approach: Superfluous time spent before the screen, can now be redirected and spent renewing those activities that are either intellectually stimulating (a good book or creative project), or conducive to personal interaction (game playing); or, on a deeper level, "face-to-face" communion (conversing)? Emily writes further:

Because people do not communicate in person, words and meanings can get misconstrued all too easily. One cannot observe facial expressions or hear tones of voice through the internet, both of which allow the listener to garner a well-rounded impression of what the speaker intends to express ... Nothing compares to quality time given to a person, where one really listens and focuses on getting to know his friends. Human beings are so complex that one cannot get to know anyone very deeply in a diminutive span of time. (p. 9)

Can you imagine a Facebook entry that states: "In observing Great Lent, this site will be inactive until April 8, the day I celebrate the Resurrection of Christ?!" Such an entry may cause you to be "de-friended," or whatever the proper term is.

What about the screen of the smart phone? This is a wonderful tool for communication, that has even been "life-saving" as we all know of some such stories. You may have to be a modern-day Luddite to argue against the positive use of the cell/smart phone. Yet, the important call, the encouraging call, the "where-in-the-world is my child?" call, even the "emergency" call, are not what needs to occupy us at the moment.

But here also other questions arise: Beyond all of that, has the smart phone become an extension of our very being? Does it seem to be permanently glued to our ears and/or attached to our hands? Are we lost without it? Do we call and chat in order to ... call and chat? (What happened to the spiritual gift of silence?) After all, just a few years ago, we did live without cell or smart phones.

There are styles, colors, sizes, and an endless array of features that turn the smart phone into either a status symbol or a toy - primarily for adults, of course, but now more-and-more for teens. (Though, we can further ask: At what age now are children equipped with their own phones?). Texting and twittering are producing a certain type of "illiteracy" that is making a wince-creating wreck of the English language, as in: "I luv u." Grammar, spelling, and compound sentences are treated as intrusive. The menus are astonishing for their complexity. The internet is now on your smart phone! And it is also a ready-made camera: Quick, take a photo: There's little Johnny going to the bathroom ... How adorable!

Is it possible or even meaningful to show any restraint when living in an age of the screen? If not, then we may be facing the following downward trajectory that can quickly spiral out of control: Attractions become attachments; attachments become obsessions; and obsessions become addictions. Or, as the holy Fathers teach, we become the playthings of our "passions." We are no longer in control, but under control of our impulses.

As asceticism is not puritanism, so restraint is not repression. All of our ascetical lenten efforts are ultimately directed to our freedom and liberation - to some degree at least - from the myriad dependencies that occupy our bodies and souls. To fast from meat but then to sit in front of the computer for hours surfing, shopping, game-playing, Facebooking and blogging somehow points to a disconnect with the over-all goal of Great Lent as a "school of repentance," or "journey toward Pascha."

Professionally and vocationally, we may be living in the age of the screen. I know that I am. I enjoy and try and make something positive of a "cyberspace ministry," in fact. The irony of writing this meditation on the computer and then launching it out into cyberspace so you will have one more thing to read, is not lost on me.

But the challenge remains to retain a degree of freedom from the technological web that can bind us so tightly. Redirecting a lot of our energy - and time! - to prayer, almsgiving and fasting; the reading of the Scriptures and the lenten liturgical services of the Church, can create in us the joy of liberation from those very bonds.

Challenges and choices abound!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lives Worth Judging

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As we draw closer to the beginning of Great Lent – at least for Orthodox Christians – we are able to set our Lenten efforts against the background of the Last Judgment, thus giving us the “big picture” within which we live our lives and determine our personal destinies.

The Gospel read at the Eucharistic Liturgy just this last Sunday was that of the Parable of the Last Judgment. (MATT. 25:31-46) Therefore, the second Sunday before Great Lent is also called the Sunday of the Last Judgment. In highly symbolic form and with awesome imagery, the Lord speaks of His own Parousia as the glorified Son of man at the end of time and reveals to us that this will be a time of judgment. And this judgment will lead to separation. The “sheep” (the saved) will be placed on the right hand, and the “goats” (the lost) on the left hand of the eternal Throne of God. This, in turn, will reveal the “quality” of our lives, though not in the way in which we today use the term “quality of life.” We will be confronted with the question as to how well we served the Lord by how well we served the “least” of His brethren: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these brethren, you did it to me” (MATT. 25:40). These least are the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. How many of us have to admit that these are precisely the people that we neglect? The fact that society removes such people from our sight does not offer a very reassuring excuse for our neglect. It simply make it more convenient and less troubling for our consciences. Sadly, this may point to one of the most glaring of “disconnects” between the Gospel and our Christian lives, expressed in the following hymn:

Why do you not think of the fearful hour of death? Why do you not tremble at the dread judgment seat of the Savior? What defense then will you make, or what will you answer? Your works will be there to accuse you; your actions will reproach you and condemn you. O my soul, the time is near at hand; make haste before it is too late, and cry aloud in faith: 'I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned against you; but I know your love for humanity and Your compassion. O good Shepherd deprive me not of a place at Your right hand in Your great glory'. (Vespers, Sunday of the Last Judgment)

I, for one, am not ready to dismiss this hymn as excessively rhetorical, overly pessimistic, or unfairly harsh in its outlook. It is rather a sober and honest plea calling us to repentance and the re-direction of our lives. It further reminds us that it is never too late. And that the Good Shepherd will place us upon His shoulders to the accompaniment of rejoicing angels in heaven over our repentance.

“God is love” (I JN. 4:8). And yet God is demanding. If God “so loved the world that He gave His only Son” to die on the Cross for our redemption, then God expects us to approach and treat others with the same love. This is a love expressed in action and in giving, and is not to be confused with emotions or feelings. We are all outcasts and alienated from God based upon the primordial sin of Adam, and yet God did not forget us or abandon us. “You were bought with a price” (I COR. 6:20). If we are indeed to “imitate the divine nature” as St. Gregory of Nyssa taught, then we could convincingly say that God expects us to “perform” according to the full capacity of our human nature made in the “image and likeness of God.” All the more plausible and possible because our fallen human nature has been renewed in and through the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Our rescue from a condition of “ontological poverty” is meant to arouse in us a desire to rescue “the least of these” from the impoverishing conditions of a fallen world.

Simultaneously with the external history of our lives there is occurring the internal history of our hearts. The outer life is more readily open to being accurately recorded, from the date of our birth to the date of our death and the significant events in between that make up our personal histories. What is happening within our hearts is far more difficult to record, because the human heart is deep and mysterious. Yet the prophecy of the Last Judgment, testing the direction of our hearts, raises some very real questions: On what we call the “spiritual level,” is our heart expanding or contracting? Is it growing larger or smaller? Is it becoming more generous or more grasping? Is it letting the neighbor in, or keeping the neighbor out? Is it, as the years move inexorably forward, embracing God and neighbor, or is it shrinking in self-protection? These are questions to explore as we move into the Lenten season.

If our lives are worth living, then they are worthy of being judged. Our deeds, words and thoughts are significant because we must answer for them before a God who is love. Since God loves us and save us, God will also judge us, though our judgments is actually self-inflicted and not imposed on us as a punishment. In a wonderful article entitled “On Preaching Judgment,” Fr. John Breck put it this way:

Judgment is indeed self-inflicted. God offers us life, and we choose death. He opens us the way into the Kingdom of Heaven, and we continue down our own pathway, which leads to destruction. Yet like the father of the prodigal son, God pursues us along that pathway, desiring only that we repent and return home. It is our decision to do so or not. (God With Us, p. 230)

In a bleak and cold universe absent of the presence of God and governed by immutable “laws of nature,” there is no judgment. But what does that say about the significance of our lives?

Enter not into judgment with me, bringing before me the things I should have done, examining my words and correcting my impulses. But in your mercy overlook my sins and save me, O Lord almighty. (Matins Canon of the Sunday of the Last Judgment, Canticle One)

Friday, February 9, 2018

'Can't Find My Way Home'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"And He said, 'There was a man who had two sons'..."

This is how Christ begins what is perhaps the greatest of his parables, the one we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but which could easily be titled the "Parable of the Two Sons" or the "Parable of the Compassionate Father." With this parable, which we heard at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, February 4, we are invited to prepare to enter the "school of repentance" -- Great Lent -- and sit at the feet of the Master, so that we can hear the words of eternal life and "keep them."

After receiving his portion of the inheritance, even before his father had died, the younger of the two sons "gathered all that he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living" [Luke 15:13].  This one sober understatement does not demand a great deal of imagination to yield its meaning.  We know that loose living refers to a web of wrong choices, bad company, unrestrained satisfaction of "the passions," and forgetfulness of God.  This spiritually suicidal combination leads to bankruptcy on a further series of interrelated levels: the material, moral/ethical and spiritual.  In no time, the prodigal son is forced to feed "on the pods that the swine ate" [Luke 15:16].

Before succumbing to the temptation of trying my hand at an updated melodramatic script that would luridly describe the sins of the wayward young man of the parable -- replete with money, sex and drugs -- together with all of the didactic apparatus meant to strengthen our resolve to protect our children (since we are now too old for all of that), I would rather more modestly pause at the words about a journey "into a far country."   

The far country of the parable is geographical, for the young man of the parable ventured far from his home.  Yet, a "far country" can also refer to a hidden place in our interior landscape; a "place" in which we can distance ourselves from God and right living to a frightening degree, even if slowly and unintentionally.  At first, that interior far country can prove to be appealing.  It can appease our vanity, protect our pride and/or feed "the passions" that we can nurture with pleasure, even if hidden from the view and censure of others.  This is initially stimulating and seems to promise endless delight -- perhaps like the endless freedom that an unsupervised dorm may offer to an innocent college student away from the sheltering, but seemingly restrictive, atmosphere of home.

When the emptiness of such a landscape becomes evident, we too can desperately desire to "feed on the pods that the swine ate."  The self-serving (or "self-help!") philosophies on which we squandered our "inheritance" from God will no longer satisfy us, but in a restless and hungry search for something else to replace these, we can even fall to the level of "swinish delights" -- anything to relieve our boredom or frustrations.  Without moving anywhere, and without changing the patterns of our lifestyle, we can still withdraw to a "far country" in that interior landscape that can prove to be as treacherous as any unknown environment of the exterior world.  

It is said of the prodigal son of the parable, that when at "rock bottom," he "came to himself" [Luke 15:17].  This is certainly one of the key expressions found in this endlessly rich parable.  The young man found his right mind, his sanity was restored, and basically he "got a grip on reality" an undramatic, but meaningful, way to describe "conversion," or the process of turning back toward God and the warm embrace of our heavenly Father.

In effect, the prodigal son repented.  This major character of the parable did exactly what Christ taught as the beginning of His public ministry:  "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." [Mk. 1:15]  This call to repentance will allow me to again quote what I consider to be one of the best descriptions of repentance, at least among contemporary Orthodox writers, and that is from Archbishop Kallistos Ware's book The Orthodox Way:

"Repentance marks the starting-point of our journey.  The Greek term metanoia, as we have noted, signifies primarily a "change of mind." 
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 Holy 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.
To repent 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." (p.113-114)

A certain clarity of thought is needed to find our way home when we drift off toward a far country. The short-lived rock band of the late 1960s, Blind Faith, had an intriguing song entitled "Can't Find My Way Home." Perhaps that was an honest and clear-sighted assessment of the band's state of mind at that time (money, sex and drugs?) and a poignant recognition of being in a "far country." Two other songs on the album, however -- "In the Presence of the Lord" and "Sea of Joy" -- may have pointed to more promising discoveries.

Every year, through the lectionary of the Church, especially in this pre-lenten season of preparation, we are powerfully reminded of just how far away from "home" we may actually be in mind and heart. If we have been equally prodigal with the gifts bestowed upon us by God, then we can equally "come to ourselves" and return home to the embrace of our compassionate Father.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

If Chrysostom had watched the Super Bowl!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This pales beside the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, and the real 'Super Sunday', Pascha!

The Super Bowl and the secular Super Sunday is now over. The colossal social phenomenon -- the Super Bowl -- was viewed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide this past Sunday.  Not to be disparaging or dismissive, it might be wise to approach this phenomenon from the perspective of our shared Orthodox Christian faith.  No sense carrying on about the hype and the madness. When all is said and done, it is what it is.

But I could not avoid speculating on how someone like Saint John Chrysostom, who fell asleep in the Lord in AD 407, would have approached the Super Bowl phenomenon in his own unique and pastoral manner.  Of course, there is a huge chronological gap between Saint John's time and our own, but we also know that there 'is nothing new under the sun," and we can discover some very close parallels just under the surface when comparing different eras and their cultures.  Saint John very well knew and understood the lure of the "games" and other forms of public entertainment in his own time, as he lived in large, cosmopolitan and urban settings such as Constantinople and Antioch. Such urban settings invariably had a hippodrome -- the equivalent of our stadiums -- at the center of a teeming social milieu that was also open to public entertainment.

What is quite interesting in Saint John's pastoral approach is that even if there is an implicit criticism of these public forms of entertainment (as he was very critical of the "theatre" as it existed in his day), that was never his main concern.  Saint John would employ what we would call today "sports" and other diverse forms of entertainment in order to exhort his flock to be vigilant and committed in its adherence to and practice of the Gospel.  Being a "fan" of a sport is far from being a "member" of the Church.  As a pastor, Saint John would challenge his flock to ensure that the great gap in that distinction is not somehow closed by lack of vigilance.

The great saint was fully aware of a kind of nominal membership in the Church, and he was quick to point out how erosive of genuine faith that lack of commitment could be for the entire flock under his pastoral care.  Saint John was basically asking whether Christians are as committed to the Gospel and the life of the Church as they are adherents, participants and performers in the "entertainment industry" of the fourth and fifth centuries?  Primarily, this would include athletes and actors. Do Christians show the same level of passion for the Gospel as do the fans of the games and theatre? Here is one example from among many of how Saint John used his rhetorical skills in challenging Christians on this front:

"We run eagerly to dances and amusements.  We listen with pleasure to the foolishness of singers. We enjoy the foul words of actors for hours without getting bored.  And yet when God speaks we yawn, we scratch ourselves and feel dizzy.  Most peoples would run rabidly to the horse track, although there is no roof there to protect the audience from rain, even when it rains heavily or when the wind is lifting everything.  They don't mind bad weather or the cold or the distance. Nothing keeps them in their homes. When they are about to go to church, however, then the soft rain becomes an obstacle to them.  And if you ask them who Amos or Obadiah is, or how many prophets or apostles there are, they can't even open their mouths.  Yet they can tell you every detail about the horses, the singers and the actors.  What kind of state is this?"

Yet, this rhetorical deflation of the theatre and games serves as a backdrop that only intensifies the strength of his descriptions of the manifold riches of the Church, especially the Eucharist. From the same homily, here is Saint John's impassioned and rhetorically brilliant description of the glory of the Church:

"The Church is the foundation of virtue and the school of spiritual life.  Just cross its threshold at any time, and immediately you forget daily cares. Pass inside, and a spiritual ray will surround your soul. This stillness causes awe and teaches the Christian life.  It raises up your train of thought and doesn't allow you to remember present things.  It transports you from earth to Heaven.  And if the gain is so great when a worship service is not even taking place, just think, when the Liturgy is performed -- and the prophets teach, the Apostles preach the Gospel, Christ is among believers, God the Father accepts the performed sacrifice, and the Holy Spirit grants His own rejoicing -- what great benefit floods those who have attended church as they leave the church.

"The joy of anyone who rejoices is preserved in the Church.  The gladness of the embittered, the rejoicing of the saddened, the refreshment of the tortured, the comfort of the tired, all are found in the Church.  Because Christ says, 'Come to me, all who are tired and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest' [Matthew 11:28].  What is more longed for than [to hear] this Voice?  What sweeter than this invitation?  The Lord is calling you to a Banquet when He invites you to church. He urges you to be comforted from toils and He transports you to a place of comfort from pain, because He lightens you from the burden of sins. He heals distress with spiritual enjoyment, and sadness with joy."

Saint John was not called Chrysostom -- the "Golden-mouthed" -- for nothing!  He does not admonish his flock in this homily to give up on the games and other forms of entertainment; but he surely makes it clear that there is no comparison between the two.  And that, therefore, our desire and commitment cannot be so misplaced to somehow put the two on the same level of attraction.  The perfectly legitimate desire to "fit in" with one's neighbors and participate in socially popular events must be balanced by an awareness of not being fully of the world once one is baptized into the Church.

Bearing all of that in mind, if I were to write in the spirit of Saint John and try to apply his approach to parish life in the contemporary world, I would make the following pastoral "suggestions" based on the recent Super Bowl -- or for that matter, any existing commitment we might have to the world of professional sports/entertainment.

If you watched the Super Bowl from its opening kick-off to the end of the game, but if you chronically arrive late for the opening doxology of "Blessed is the Kingdom" at the Liturgy, then it may be time to show the same commitment to the Liturgy and arrive at the beginning.  That opening doxology opens us up to a reality hardly matched by an opening kick-off.

If you spent time watching all of the pre-game hype and analysis, all meant to prepare you for the game, but if you have never given much thought to arriving before the Liturgy for the reading of the Hours; then I would suggest arriving in church before the actual Liturgy begins in time for the pre-Eucharist chanting of those very Hours -- a mere 20 minutes.  This way you are able to settle in and calm down a bit in preparation for the Liturgy that will shortly unfold in all of its majesty.

If you have been engaged in some of the (endless) post-game analysis since last Sunday; or watched "highlights" of the game, or recall some of the more significant and game-changing plays of the game, but if you struggle by mid-week to remember what the Gospel was at last Sunday's Liturgy, then I would suggest engaging in some post-Liturgy analysis of the Gospel that you heard on any given Sunday with  family and/or friends (or within your own mind and heart).  Such "analysis" can eventually become genuine meditation of even contemplation.

To leave the Divine Liturgy as a "changed human being..."
This is all more than possible, according to Saint John, because of the inexhaustible riches of the Liturgy. Once again, Saint John exhorts us to leave the Liturgy as changed human beings, having communed of the Risen Lord:

"Let us depart from the Divine Liturgy like lions who are producing fire, having become fearsome even to the devil, because the holy Blood of the Lord that we commune waters our souls and gives us great strength.  When we commune of it worthily, it chases the demons far away and brings the angels and the Lord of the angels near us.  This Blood is the salvation of our souls; with this the soul is washed, with this it is adorned.  This Blood makes our minds brighter than fire; this makes our souls brighter than gold."

We are slowly drawing near to the Church's own "Super Sunday" which is, of course, Pascha.  Let our preparation and desire for that day far surpass any of our other passions or commitments, for the Lord taught us, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" [Matthew 6:21].


For those who would like to read the full homily of St. John Chrysostom, entitled in the English translation as "Attending Church," please use the link provided for your convenience below. Some of the teaching may be "dated" or not as meaningful today with other social and cultural norms, but it is a truly magnificent homily, and can serve to revive our own appreciation of the Divine Liturgy.