Monday, August 2, 2021

Embracing the Tradition


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The meditation below was written with the current Dormition Fast (August 1-14) in mind in addition to the incredible account of the Seven Maccabean martyrs. It is that wonderfully-placed mid-summer reminder that we are called to be practicing Orthodox Christians. The practicing Orthodox Christian combines orthodoxy ("right belief") with orthopraxis("right practice/action"). Or, as St. John Chrysostom said, "This is true piety: to combine right belief and right action."  Orthopraxis combines prayer and almsgiving and fasting (MATT. 6). All of this is to prepare us to honor the most holy Theotokos.

The Maccabean Martyrs

On August 1, we commemorate the Seven Holy Maccabee Children, Solomone their mother, and Eleazar their teacher, all of whom were put to death in the year 168 BC. As such, they were protomartyrs before the time of Christ and the later martyrs of the Christian era. They died because they refused to reject the precepts of the Law when ordered to do so by the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV. 

After conquering the Holy Land, Antiochus wanted to subvert the uniqueness of the Jews and force them to assimilate to the standards and practices of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. By attacking the precepts of the Law, Antiochus was aiming to destroy the very heart of Judaism. The Jews would then become like the “other nations,” and perhaps their smoldering resentment against their conquerors would be extinguished. This, of course, did not happen, because the Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabaeus, not only resisted but expelled the Hellenized Syrian invaders and restored the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory days one last time (142 - 63 BC) before the Romans under Pompey reduced the Kingdom of Israel to a conquered province.

To return to the story of the Maccabees, we find them, under the guidance of their teacher Eleazar, resisting the decree that they eat pork, which was prohibited by the Law. Understanding that this was a threat against their entire traditional way of life, Eleazor refused and was subsequently tortured until he died. He was simply asked to “pretend” to eat the meat, so as to encourage others to do so. In reply, his dying words as recorded in the first book of Maccabees eloquently attest to his fidelity to the Law of God: 

"Send me quickly to my grave. If I went through with this pretense at my time of life, many of young might believe that at the age of ninety Eleazar had turned apostate. If I practiced deceit for the sake of a brief moment of life, I should lead them astray and bring stain and pollution on my old age. I might for the present avoid man’s punishment, but, alive or dead, I shall never escape from the hands of the Almighty. So if I now die bravely, I shall show that I have deserved my long life and leave the young a fine example to teach them how to die a good death, gladly and nobly, for our revered and holy laws."

Following the death of Eleazar, the seven Maccebee brothers and their mother Salomone were arrested. They were also tortured for refusing to eat pork, and one of them said:  “We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers” (2 Maccabees 7:2).

Enraged by such pious resistance, the tyrant ordered that all seven brothers be tortured by various inhuman means. All of this was witnessed by their mother, who watched all seven of her sons perish in a single day. Acting “against nature,” she encouraged her children “in her native tongue” to bravely withstand the assaults on their tender flesh: 

"You appeared in my womb, I know not how; it was not I who gave you life and breath and set in order your bodily frames. It is the Creator of the universe who molds man at his birth and plans the origin of all things. Therefore he, in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put his laws above all thought of self” (2 Maccabees 7:22-23).

We find in her last sentence, a clear allusion to belief in the resurrection from the dead.

Especially poignant is the death of her last and youngest son. He was promised riches and a high position if he only agreed to “abandon his ancestral customs.” Salomone his mother was urged to “persuade her son,” which she did in the following manner: 

“My son, take pity on me. I carried you nine months in the womb, suckled you three years, reared you and brought you up to the present age. I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way. Do not be afraid of this butcher; accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers, so that by God’s mercy I may receive you back again along with them” (2 Maccabees 7:27-29).

In verse 28, we hear the clearest declaration of the belief that God creates “ex nihilo”—from nothing—in the entire Old Testament.

The youngest of the brothers then died after both witnessing to the meaning of their martyrdom and warning the tyrant of his own inevitable fate:  

“My brothers have now fallen in loyalty to God’s covenant, after brief pain leading to eternal life; but you will pay the just penalty of your insolence by the verdict of God. I, like my brothers, surrender my body and my life for the laws of our fathers” (2 Maccabees 7:36-37).

We then simply read, in verse 39, that “after her sons, the mother died.”

It is difficult to say to what extent we can actually relate to all of this today. We may deeply respect the devotion to the Law that is exhibited in this moving story of multiple matyrdoms—and perhaps be especially moved by the beautiful words of the mother that express our own belief in the creative power of God, His providential care for us and the ultimate gift of resurrection and eternal life with God—but this is far-removed from our contemporary Christian sensibilities. In fact, such devotion today could very well strike us as being overly zealous, if not fanatical. The prospects of such martyrdoms are not exactly on our radar screens. Be that as it may, I believe that we have something greater than mere passing importance that we can learn from this ancient story.


Yesterday, August 1, we are began the Dormition Fast. We are encouraged by the Church—our “Mother” we could say—to embrace the fast with the certainty that we are being guided into a practice that is designed to strengthen our spiritual well-being. This is part of an Orthodox “way of life” that has been witnessed to for centuries by the faithful of the Church. We also could say that such practices belong to the “laws of our fathers.” By embracing such practices we continue in the Tradition that has been handed down to us, the Tradition that we have “received.” To ignore such practices is to break with that Tradition. That can lead to an erosion of our self-identity as Orthodox Christians, especially considering our “minority status” in the landscape of American religion. 

The spirit of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes is alive and well in the constant temptation we face to assimilate to the surrounding society and its mores, which are often reduced to finding the meaning of life in “eating, drinking and making merry.” There are no official decrees that demand that we abandon our Faith, but there is always a price to pay for comfortable conformity. We are hardly being asked to be martyrs but we are being asked to manifest some restraint and discipline in order to strengthen our inner lives as we fast bodily to some extent. If we convince ourselves that this is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or undesirable, then we place ourselves outside of the very received Tradition we claim to follow and respect. 

Older members of the community can bear in mind the words of Eleazar and realize that we are setting an example for our younger members. We are responsible for preparing the next generation. Mothers—and fathers!—can exhort their children in a way that is encouraging and not just demanding. This has nothing to do with mere “legalism,” but with a “way of life” that has been practiced for centuries by Orthodox Christians, and which is just as meaningful today as in the past. 

And, as with the Seven Maccabee Children, it is ultimately a matter of choice.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Guest Meditation on Beauty in Orthodox Worship


Dear Parish Faithful,

Today, I am offering a "guest meditation" from our catechumen, Jennifer Harkins. Jenny read the essay by Archbishop Kallistos Ware, "The Theology of Worship," that I shared a small passage from a couple of days ago. There are some very fine observations and insights into Orthodox worship in what you will read below. Hope you will enjoy reading this as much as I did:


Reading this essay felt like sitting with a great physician who could describe my own condition better to me than I could express on my own! Archbishop Ware articulated so clearly and comprehensively what I have felt and known on an instinctive level, but hardly been able to communicate. As he opens with the posture in which we stand before God with our “double attitude... of hope and fear, of confidence and awe,” it’s as if he opens my fists before me to reveal that these paradoxical feelings I’ve been holding are each true and right. There has been this unspoken attraction but also tension in my spirit upon entering more fully into Orthodox worship, where my “nous” tries to apprehend at once the God who “dwells in light unapproachable,” with the “God of personal love, uniquely close, around us and within us.” The latter perspective is more familiar but I have been hungry and strongly pulled towards the transcendent, holy, “the Wholly Other” aspect of our God. 

When we fell prostrate, head to the floor as a whole congregation so many times during Lent and Holy Week, I realized in that movement how starved I was to see and reverence the immense holiness of our Lord. My spirit has felt like a dry sponge soaking up the apophatic mindset in attempting to describe and worship such a One. I am thankful for coming to know Jesus as my friend in Protestantism, but the friendship takes on even deeper meaning when the glorious fullness and transcendence of the Holy Trinity is acknowledged appropriately with awe and trembling. Though foreign in a sense, nothing feels more natural than to lie prostrate and cry “Lord have mercy!” 

The next section of the essay so insightfully worded what feels almost indescribable in nature, the “total act of worship.” “We are to stand before God with the entire person: with the conscious mind, certainly, but also with the aspects of our inner self that reach out into the unconscious; with our instinctive feelings, with our aesthetic sense, and likewise with that faculty of intuitive understanding and of direct spiritual awareness which, as we have noted, far surpasses the discursive reason.” His description of the facets of Orthodox worship which usher in these many layers of total worship makes so much sense and is heartily affirmed in my personal experience of them. From making “use of the primary realities of human existence, such as bread and water, light and fire,” to the beautiful and poetic texts, music, splendor of the priestly vestments, color and lines of the holy icons, design of the sacred space, and symbolic gestures such as the sign of the cross and offering of incense... These all resonate with and reflect upon the many-faceted diamond of a human’s worship- this human at least!

I adore Fr. Schmemann’s description of the Divine Liturgy, it is “before everything else, the joyous gathering of those who are to meet the risen Lord and to enter with Him into the bridal chamber. And it is this joy of expectation and this expectation of joy that are expressed in singing in and ritual, in vestments and in ceasing, in that whole ‘beauty’ of the liturgy...” 

Archbishop Ware’s third point of praying without ceasing was a beautiful challenge to me. This concept seems to be my Mt. Everest, how to move beyond specific times and places and let prayer “be an all-inclusive attitude, embracing every object and every moment; that my whole being would be a “continuing act of worship, an uninterrupted doxology.” In my prayer for St. Mary of Bethany’s intercession, I ask her to let the living torch burn strong and steady long into the night, because it kindles so brightly in prayer times, various solo activities, and at church and then I struggle to “maintain the flame” of love and worship in mundane life around the house and work with the family. I’m praying towards a deeper internalization of communion with the Lord so that prayer isn’t just “something we do or say or think, but something that we are!” So that as Paul Evdokimov said, I can be the priest of my whole life and “take all that is human, and turn it into an offering and a hymn of glory!”

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Dormition Fast: Commitment vs. Convenience

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Sunday, August 1, is the beginning of the relatively short Dormition Fast that culminates with the celebration of the Great Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15.

As we contemplate our own destiny in that of the Theotokos, it is theologically and spiritually appropriate that this is the culminating major Feast Day of the liturgical year. The preparatory fast is very well-placed, falling as it does at the midpoint of summer.

Coming after the relatively slow and "silent" month of July, liturgically speaking, the ascetical effort that we are called to embrace can potentially lift us up out of any spiritual torpor that may be afflicting us. This is especially true if the summer heat has taken its toll on us both physically and spiritually. )And, of course, continuing to deal with COVID-19). Spiritual vigilance can replace the apathy and indifference that may be clinging to us at this time of year. As we honor the "translation" of the Mother of God into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God, we simultaneously experience the much-needed spiritual renewal of our being through the time-honored and life-affirming practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting (Matt 6:1-18).

Yet, every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice. In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.”  
We can choose convenience because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly in-convenient. It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self denial, and an overall concerted effort. It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summer) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance. To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance.

And perhaps we need to admit that as middle-class Americans we are impatient with inconvenience, since just about every aspect of our lives today is meant to amplify convenience as a "mode of existence" that we ironically desire to embrace "religiously." We may think and feel that we are entitled to live by the "philosophy" of convenience!

So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church. I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of furthering our growth in the life “in Christ.” It may rather mean a missed opportunity.
Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.” To be committed means to care - the spiritual antidote to the passion of acedia which literally means "not caring."

Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful. It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ.” And this we have as a gift within the life of the Church.

That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes. I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes. (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes). It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.

My observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree. We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals and admittedly there are times when that may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present way of life. Yet, the Church as "second choice" can easily harden into an automatic and unchallenged principle. It is hard to prevail in the never-ending “battle of the calendars!” The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church. In fact, it is usually quite indifferent and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment. Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us.

But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired. That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our lives. In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding – to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today!
I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience. 

We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy. With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls. We can lift up our “drooping hands” and strengthen our "weak knees" (Heb 12:12) in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving.  
The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death—or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Dormition Fast is our spiritually vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration.  “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Fr. StevenD 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Beauty in Orthodox Worship


Dear Parish Faithful,

"Beauty will save the world."
- Fyodor Dostoevsky

Last Sunday, the homily focused on the Liturgy, something of a "reminder" of what we are hopefully experiencing as we move from one Lord's Day to the next on our lifelong journey. The Liturgy allows us to experience, here and now, what we hope to experience in a manner beyond understanding and description, in the Kingdom of God. 

I have simultaneously been re-reading a brilliant essay by Archbishop Kallistos Ware entitled, "The Theology of Worship." This is from his collected essays in the book The Inner Kingdom. After speaking of prayer and worship more-or-less on the personal level, he speaks of our prayer and worship in the collective context of the Divine Liturgy. Beauty is essential to Orthodox worship as God is the ultimate Source of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Often, there is a good deal of misunderstanding about the "symbolic" nature of the ritual actions of the Liturgy. Are they really necessary? Would it not be better and "purer" to simplify the Liturgy and dispense with ritual all together. Our whole Tradition responds with a resounding "NO!" Here is a short passage from Archbishop Kallistos as to why the symbolic gestures and ritual of the Liturgy are absolutely essential to its celebration - and to our thirsty souls:

"To an Orthodox Christian it is of the utmost importance that the act of worship should express the joy and beauty eof the Kingdom of heaven. Without the dimension of the beautiful our worship will never succeed in being prayer in the fullest sense, prayer of the heart as well of the reasoning brain. This joy and beauty of the Kingdom cannot be properly expounded in abstract arguments and logical explanations; it has to be experienced not discussed. And it is above all through symbolic and ritual actions - through the burning of incense, through the lighting of a lamp or candle before an icon - that the living experience is rendered possible. These simply gestures express, far better than any words, our whole attitude towards God, all of love and adoration, and without such actions our worship would be grievously impoverished."

The Inner Kingdom, p. 65

Friday, July 23, 2021

The Pattern of our Lives


Dear Parish Faithful,

"We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29)

In our most recent Bible Study, we read and discussed Ch. 5 of the Acts of the Apostles. There we read that for the second time (the first time is recorded in ch. 4) the apostles were detained or arrested for publicly proclaiming the Gospel that Jesus is the Christ and that He is risen from the dead. The apostles were ordered by the Sanhedrin not to preach openly about Jesus. But the Apostle Peter famously and boldly responded: "We must obey God rather than men" (5:29). 

We went on and heard a passage of commentary from St. John Chrysostom about how this event can be understood in the light of the apostles' and disciples' experience up to that point in time in their newly-established faith in Christ. With his usual insight, St. John reminds us that they have experienced both "dejection" and "joy" in an almost ongoing dialectic between these two very opposite - but very human - experiences. What struck me is to what extent this can describe our own lives and the same movement from dejection to joy that is embedded in the very fabric of our lives. This seems to be an inescapable component of the human experience. Of course, we hope that the joy of knowing, trusting and loving Christ will prevail even when - or especially when - we are overcome by dejection. Here is what St. John wrote:

"First there was dejection because Christ was taken from them; then came joy through the descent of the Spirit; then dejection again because of the scoffers; then joy because of the believers and the sign; then dejection again because of the imprisonment; followed by joy in the result of their defense. And here again both dejection and joy: joy because they were well-known and God made revelations to them; dejection because they made away with some of them. Again, joy from their success and dejection because of the high priest. And the same pattern could be seen throughout.”


Again, sounds just like the pattern of our lives!