Monday, October 25, 2021

"Perhaps something will catch your eye..." - Meditations on Lazarus and the Rich Man


Dear Parish Faithful,


 

The parable that we heard on Sunday - Lazarus and the Rich Man - is endlessly fascinating, evocative and challenging. The themes are manifold and related with great narrative power. Just what we would expect from Christ! I have compiled a list of meditations that I have written over the years on this parable for your convenience. Perhaps there is something here that will catch your eye and interest. For example, the second link below - "A Radical Critique of Selfishness" - will take you to a meditation in which I compare the previous Sunday's Parable of the Sower with that of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

To be honest, there is a good deal of thematic overlap in these meditations and, in fact, I quote the same passages from St. John Chrysostom's famous series of homilies on this parable in every meditation. And that should make them worthwhile! But perhaps, one title may attract one person and another title someone else. 

Encountering Lazarus (October 2008)

Alleviating the Plight of the Poor (October 2015)

- Fr. Steven

 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Grace, Love, Communion

 

Dear Parish Faithful,

 

Anyone remotely familiar with the Divine Liturgy will immediately recognize this wonderful blessing during the Anaphora: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you."

The basis for this blessing is not the result of later "theological development" that became very consciously trinitarian following the Arian crisis and the First and Second Ecumenical Councils. Rather, we find here a scriptural passage that became part of the Liturgy presumably at a very early date. This blessing is actually the final verse of Saint Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians 13:11-14 and is the culmination of his warm benediction — after a rather stormy letter! — to the local church in Corinth:


Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

 

The Lord Jesus Christ, God (the Father), and the Holy Spirit are named together as equal yet distinct Persons. This may be the Trinity in embryonic form, but it is still expressed emphatically. But not only are the Persons of the Trinity named. Saint Paul succinctly brings together the three most essential and enduring divine gifts that pour forth from the Persons of the Trinity and that sum up the Gospel and the entire New Testament -- "grace," "love" and "communion." In his Commentary on Paul's Letters, the unknown writer, referred to as Ambrosiaster, comments on the essential unity of these mighty gifts:


Here is the intertwining of the Trinity and the unity of power which brings all salvation to fulfillment. The love of God has sent us Jesus the Savior, by whose grace we have been saved. The communion of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to possess the grace of salvation, for He guards those who are loved by God and saved by the grace of Christ, so that the completeness of the Three may be the saving fulfillment of mankind.

 

These "uncreated energies" create, sustain, inspire and transform our lives within the Church. A community characterized by the presence of these divine gifts would certainly reflect the words of Christ: "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden" [Matthew 5:14]. A community devoid of such gifts would be reduced to a club.

In fact, if put into practice, this entire final blessing could be seen as the Apostle's description of an ideal local church, or parish. Before all of the planning committees and their proposed programs are put into place; before the necessary stewardship drives are organized; before, even, the "evangelization committee" begins the work of "growing the Church" — before all of this, on the most foundational level, the local church must be the "place" where grace, love and communion are present and active, together with "peace," mutual love, and unity of mind. 

This is the type of church in which people would desire to be active, to which they would give generously, and about which they would witness to others. The Divine Liturgy exhorts us to this when preparing us for our shared recitation of the Nicene Creed: "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided."

Clear remnants of the "holy kiss" referred to in this passage still exist to this day, though often limited to the concelebrating clergy, the exchange of a kiss during the paschal season, and simply the affectionate greeting of members of a parish. Saint John Chrysostom, in his Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 30.2, reminds us why a certain type of kiss can indeed by "holy":


What is a holy kiss? It is one that is not hypocritical, like the kiss of Judas. The kiss is given in order to stimulate love and instill the right attitude in us toward each other. When we return after an absence, we kiss each other, for our souls hasten to bond together. But there is something else which might be said about this. We are the temple of Christ, and when we kiss each other we are kissing the porch and entrance of the temple.

 

Being pastoral, the Apostle Paul realized that the Corinthians needed a strong and affirmative blessing to end his correspondence with them, a correspondence that was often filled with chastisement and correction. At times, he was clearly angry and employed more than a little bit of calculated irony — and even sarcasm. Yet, he never lost sight of his burning desire that the Christians of Corinth manifest the new life to which they were called and into which they were baptized when they received the Gospel. For this reason, he labored and struggled to properly articulate a sound understanding of such seemingly disparate themes as the resurrection of the dead and a Christ-centered sexual morality. We can only believe him when he assured the Corinthians that he wrote to them in tears, fearing for their salvation as he begged them to repent of their sins.

The apostle, who himself was the astonished recipient of the unmerited forgiveness of God, was convinced that the "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit" were able to transform a wayward community so that it would truly be the "Church of God" residing in Corinth or Cincinnati, or wherever God is pleased to raise up a people to the glory of His Name.



 

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Thundering Message



Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,



We just heard yesterday at the Liturgy the powerful account of Jesus raising from the dead the widow's son at Nain (LK. 7:11-16). This particular event is unique to St. Luke's Gospel. In his Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, the biblical scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, summarized the over-all impression left by this extraordinary event in the following manner:


This incident, only in Luke, shows the Evangelist's special delight in portraying Jesus not only overwhelmed with pity at the sight of tragedy but also turning with kindly regard toward women (cf. 7:36-50; 10:38-42) ... This narrative possesses the charm, color, and pathos of an excellent story: two large crowds meet, approaching from different directions; the silence with which Jesus touches the bier and stops the funeral procession; the thundering message, calmly spoken, bringing the dead back to life. (The Jerome Biblical Commentary)

 

Truly, it is nothing less than a "thundering message" when Jesus said: "Young man, I say to you arise!" (LK. 7:14). And when the young man "sat up and began to speak" we should be able to understand, however dimly, the reaction of the crowd: "Fear seized them all; and they glorified God" (7:16). 

The pathos of this story is further increased by the fact that the young man was "the only son of his mother, and she was a widow" (7:12). There was no existing social safety net within first century Israel that would provide support for this woman. Without a son who could help provide for her, this widow would have been totally dependent upon the good will and the charity of her neighbors in the small village that Nain was known to have been. Hence, the power of the simple statement that accompanies the young man's restoration to life:  "And he gave him to his mother" (7:15). What a reunion that must have been! 

Now St. Luke makes it clear just who it was who encountered this funeral procession and dramatically brought it to a halt:  "And when the Lord saw her he had compassion on her" (7:13). It was "the Lord." This was the first of many times throughout his Gospel that the Evangelist Luke will use this exalted title for Jesus. The Greek ho Kyrios — the Lord — is the translation found in the Septuagint of the divine name Yahweh. Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, this title reveals that as the Lord, Jesus has power over both life and death. Anticipating his own resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ brings this young man back to life, revealing that even death is not beyond His authority and capacity to give life.

We are not told how this young man died. In our contemporary world, death can be more-or-less defined in a clinical manner. The shift in this clinical definition has moved toward a final determination of "brain death." Be it the cessation of breath, permanent "cardiac arrest," or the brain death just mentioned, we can identify death and its effect on our biological organism. And so could anyone in the ancient world, where death was such a more immediate and "up close" reality compared to the rather antiseptic experience of death that we promote today in a attempt to distance the living from the dying as well as that is possible. But as Christians, we certainly understand death in a way that moves far beyond its current clinical definition and determination. That is because we understand life in such a way that the clinical is transcended by the mysterious:  "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (PS. 8:4). Conversant with a biblical anthropology that refuses to limit a human person to his or her biological functions, we perceive ourselves in a more complex and meaningful manner.

There are many ways over the centuries that within our theological tradition we have elaborated on that inexhaustible biblical affirmation that we are created "according to the image and likeness of God." The Church Fathers will speak of the human person as a psychosomatic union of soul and body. Or, following the Apostle Paul of a union of spirit, soul and body. (I THESS. 5:23) Because of some of the Greek philosophical connotations - primarily dualism - of using the terminology of soul and body, there has been a concerted movement within theological circles today to use the more biblically-based terms of "spirit and flesh" to describe the mystery of human personhood. Whatever the exact terminology employed to describe the fullness of human existence, the essential point being made is that the human person is more - much more - than "what meets the eye." We are even greater than the angels according to some of the Fathers, because we unite in our person the "spiritual" and the "material" as the pinnacle of God's creative acts. We have our biological limitations, but we can still know the living God! Even though we are so frail in our humanity, the psalmist can still exclaim in wonder:  "Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor" (PS. 8:5).

In describing the mystery of death as it pertains to all creatures, including human beings, the psalmist says (and we hear this at every Vespers service):  "When you take away their spirit, they die and return to their dust" (Ps. 104:29). This is what happened to the young man from Nain regardless of whatever may have been the immediate cause of his death. Something had happened that could not be fully described as merely brain death. His "spirit" had been taken away and his flesh was destined to return to the dust. Another expression that became almost classical as a theological description of death - and which essentially means the same thing - is that of the "separation of soul and body." Either way, the wholeness and integrity of the human person is lost in death. This is what renders death a tragedy and why the Apostle Paul can refer to death as "the last enemy."

When the Lord brought this only son of his mother to life again, the spirit of the young man returned to his flesh - or the soul to his body - and he began to live again in the full meaning of that word. Yet, this is not resurrection in the fullness of that word's meaning as we apply it to Christ:  "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9). The young man was resuscitated to life. He lived — and died — again, to then await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, a resurrection prefigured and promised by the Lord's resurrection and victory over death. The same can be said of the synagogue elder Jairus' daughter and, of course Lazarus, the friend of Christ who had been dead for four days.

We are told today that we are essentially a walking bag of chemicals with an evolved consciousness. This further implies that at death this biological organism collapses, all consciousness is irreversibly lost, and that final oblivion is our common fate. The Scripture revelation that we accept as coming from God tells us something radically different. To hear the Gospel is to fill us with the faith, hope and love that can only come from the living God. It is to hear of a different destiny and one that makes life infinitely more meaningful and hopeful. We too can cry out together with the crowd at Nain: "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and"God has visited his people!"(LK. 7:16). And living within the Church we know that this is the Lord who "shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end."

 

Friday, October 8, 2021

Guest Essay: 'Flowers for the Life of the World'

 
Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a wonderful ministry carried out by Erin Lockridge. Please read what Erin writes about this in the reflection below. The flower bouquets will be available at the For the Life of the World Cafe (formerly Moriah Pie) here in Norwood as long as they remain in season. The principle of purchase is "pay-as-you-can."
 
_______


Flowers for the Life of the World

by Erin Lockridge


I once had a part-time job at a florist shop, prepping the flower stalks for the designers to use in their arrangements.  I would unload refrigerated trucks of boxes from all over the world - the Netherlands, China, Ecuador, Columbia, Kenya, California - slit open the cardboard and unpack the blooms, uniform and flawless. It was my job to strip leaves from the stems of the snapdragons, cut the thorns from the roses, pinch the pollen from the lilies (that would otherwise leave an orange stain on customers’ noses), and get it all in water before the designers needed them. At the end of my first day, I looked at the mountain of discarded plant material beside my workstation and thought, “jackpot!” planning to scoop it all into a garbage bag and take it home for my compost pile. When my supervisor saw what I was doing, she said, “No way. You don’t want that stuff anywhere near your garden.”


Surprised, I did some reading and discovered that, while the global floral industry generates billions of dollars and provides livelihoods to many, the hidden costs are high. The vast and dynamic orchestration of farmers, hothouses, warehouses, airplanes, cargo ships, and vendors, demands fuel, land, irrigation, and massive amounts of refrigeration. The short-cycle production process utilized to supply the demand for perpetual blooms, requires extensive use of agro-chemicals, some of which are banned in the U.S. because of their toxicity. Because flowers are not an edible crop, the regulations surrounding their pesticide content are loose and, while I had the ability to eventually do less-toxic work, others at different points in the supply chain don’t have that privilege.


The flowers we now grow here in Norwood may only be a small industry that requires little more than a pair of snips and a couple of buckets, but our hope is that it brings life beyond the ephemeral joy of the blooms. Maybe these bouquets inspire gifts of beauty and care between neighbors and friends. Maybe the flowers bring a brightness to the park down the street where they grow.  It gives me great satisfaction to hear the hum and buzz around the gardens and to know that the plants offer food to countless pollinating insects and songbirds, shelter to spiders, snakes, and crickets, and health to the soil below. Even the leaves, lacey with insect holes, point to the hope that these bouquets -in the humblest of ways- are for the life of the world beyond ourselves. And, yes! the pile of discarded plant material that accumulates next to my workstation will most definitely go into our compost pile.



 

Friday, October 1, 2021

St. Romanos (October 1) the Melode and the Kontakion

 

Dear Parish Faithful,



According to the patristic scholar, Fr. Andrew Louth:  

St. Romanos (6th. c) is perhaps the most famous liturgical poet of the Orthodox Church, but his genius is such as to command a place among the highest ranks of poets, religious or secular, so that he has been called by Professor Trepanis "the greatest poet of the Greek middle ages."


I begin with this as a brief introduction to a small portion of one of his famous kontakia (singular,  kontakion) that I would like to share this morning. This is a more famous one as it addressed the Feast of the Lord's Nativity. 

What we hear today in the Church under this title of kontakion is a mere echo of the original structure of a kontakion. Again, citing Fr. Louth:

 

The verse form that Romanos raised to the highest perfection was the kontakion, a kind of chanted verse sermon, consisting of brief stanzas (each called an ikos), all of which end with the same refrain.

 

In other words the kontakion was something of a long and elaborate theological poem that was most likely chanted after the Gospel "with the choir (and doubtless the congregation) joining in the refrain."

The most famous of the many kontakia composed by St. Romanos, was the one now known as the Nativity Kontakion that we will hear when the feast is celebrated.

 

The Theotokos gives St Romanos the scroll...

 

A pious tradition relates that the Mother of God appeared to him in a dream and gave him a scroll to swallow (see Ezekiel 2:8-3:3; Revelation 9:10-11). This was on Christmas Eve, and when he awoke he went to the church and chanted his famous kontakion in honor of the Feast. What we sing in church to this day for the Feast of the Nativity is merely the Prelude that introduces a poetically structured hymn of 24 stanzas! Yet, brief as it may be, this is truly one of the greatest "Christmas hymns" ever to be composed for its theological depth:


Today the Virgin gives birth the Transcendent One,
and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One!
Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him!
The wise men journey with the star!
Since for our sake the eternal God was born 
as a little Child!

It is also most likely that St. Romanos composed the incomparable Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos, perhaps his greatest masterpiece, and a hymn chanted to this day in the church and in personal devotion. 

One of the chief characteristics of his kontakia is the endlessly creative use of typology as a way of reading the Scriptures.

Typology allows us to uncover, through persons, places, and even sacred objects, their role as prefigurations for their fulfillment in Christ. (In Rom. 5:14 St. Paul tells us that Adam was a "type" [Gk. typos] of Christ). Through typological exegesis (biblical interpretation) the Burning Bush of Exodus 3, is a "type" of the Theotokos, who will hold within her womb the fiery Word of God, but not be consumed in the process. This is one of St. Romanos' favorite types from the Old Testament.

 


 

Therefore, just to pass on a "taste" of the rich poetic theology expressed by St. Romanos in his kontakia, I am offering the Prelude and stanzas 1 & 13 of his kontakion on the Mother of God. We do not associate poetry and rich imagery with theology, but this is how some of the early Church Fathers expressed their deepest intuitions into the mystery of Christ. This is especially true of the Syriac tradition. (St. Romanos was from Syria and journeyed eventually to make his home in Constantinople).

Notice the refrain after each stanza. That must have made a strong impression on all of the worshipers present, when the choir or the entire congregation sang/chanted that repeatedly throughout the course of the hymn


Prelude 

At your conceiving without seed, O Mother of God, 
Joseph was struck with wonder as he contemplated what was 
beyond nature. 
and he brought to mind the rain on the fleece (Judges 6:3), 
the bush unburned by fire (Ex. 3:2-4), 
Aaron's rod which blossomed (Num. 17:23), 
And your betrothed and guardian bore witness and cried to the priests, 

"A Virgin gives birth, and after childbirth remains 
still a virgin."


Stanza 1 

"What I see I cannot understand, for it surpasses the human mind, 
how it it that the grass carries fire and it not burned? 
A lamb carries a lion, a swallow an eagle and the servant her 
Master. (Isaiah 11:6-8) 
In a mortal womb, in a manner uncircumscribed, 
Mary carries my Savior as he wills, 
so that everyone will say, 

"A virgin gives birth, and after childbirth remains 
still a virgin."


Stanza 13 

"So, Mary, sing the praise of Christ, who is carried below in your bosom 
and on high is seated with the Father. 
He sucks at your breast and gives mortals divine food from above, 
and below he is laid in a cave. 
Through love of mortals, 

A Virgin gives birth, and after childbirth remains 
still a virgin."


For anyone interested in pursuing these hymns further for their rich theology and use of the Scriptures, perhaps the best collection is in the book, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, compiled and edited by the late Archimandrite Ephraim, considered an excellent translator during his lifetime. I believe that there are eighteen kontakia in this collection.