Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Become What You Are!

 


 

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Come, O believers,
Let us celebrate in song today,
Glorifying the memory of all the saints:
Hail, O glorious apostles, prophets, martyrs, and bishops!
Hail, O company of all the just!
Hail, O ranks of holy women!
Pray that Christ will grant our souls great mercy!
 

(Sunday of All Saints, Aposticha, Vespers)

 

The Sunday of All Saints fittingly follows the Sunday of Pentecost, for the saints of the Church are the “fruit” and manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us. They are the living icons that are transparent to the glory of God that shines in and through each of them as a gift of the Holy Spirit. The saints (literally, the “holy ones”) have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of passion and become partakers of the divine nature” (II PET 1:4). Created in the image of God, they “are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (II COR 3:18). In the Book of Revelation, St. John has recorded his incomparable vision of the saints in heaven:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”  (REV. 7:9-10)


Since, in the one Church of Christ, the heavenly and earthly realms are united, the saints are “the great cloud of witnesses” that surround us and exhort us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”(HEB. 12:1-2). At the most basic level, the saints are the true friends of God:  “But to me, exceedingly honorable are Thy friends, O Lord”(PS. 138:16, LXX). The saints put Christ above all else in the fulfillment of their Master’s words:

"He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." (MATT. 10:37-39)

 

The words of the Scriptures are the seeds that nourish the life of sanctity which results in the slow transformation of a human being, made in God’s image, into the very likeness of God, so that this particular person becomes by grace what Christ is by nature. The saint is thus a scriptural man or a scriptural woman, inasmuch as he/she hears the Word of God and keeps it – meaning acting upon and living out what is heard. The saint has responded positively to the paradoxical admonition: “Become what you are!”

Now, as we like to say today: “No pain – no gain!” If we were “bought with a price” (I COR. 6:20), then we could say that the saints “bought” their sanctity at “a price,” abandoning security, comfort and safety which, we acknowledge, are so central to our own understanding of life. (It is rather easy, though it may go unnoticed, for Christians to be transformed in Epicureans over time: avoid pain and seek pleasure). Being “destitute, afflicted, and ill-treated” they “wandered over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” As such, God has revealed that “the world was not worthy” of them. (HEB. 11:37-38)

The “diversity” of the saints is remarkable: fathers (and mothers), patriarchs (and matriarchs), prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith,” culminating in “our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

On the Sunday of All Saints, we do not commemorate only the saints whose names have been included on our ecclesiastical calendars; those, in other words, who have been officially “glorified/canonized” by the Church and whom we remember and venerate by name. We remember all of the saints, that vast multitude, both known and unknown, (symbolically numbered at 144,000 in the Book of Revelation; a multiple of 12 that signifies an incalculable figure as well as wholeness and totality – much to the dismay, I would imagine, of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) “who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (REV. 21:27). Perhaps this will include our own ancestors who lived modest and humble Christian lives.

All of the saints, therefore, intercede before the throne of God on our behalf. They are with us and not cut off from us by death. Rather, they are now more alive than ever and being “in Christ” are present wherever Christ is present. The earthly lives of the saints become sources of inspiration and models of emulation for us, teaching by examples of faith, hope and love; of long-suffering, perseverance and patience; of lives steeped in prayer, almsgiving and fasting. They do not discourage us because they attained what may seem unattainable to us; but rather they encourage us to struggle to overcome our weaknesses as men and women who did precisely that in their own lives. They were not born saints or privileged from birth. They became saints by co-operating with the grace of God. We, in turn, simply need to become what we already are: saints of God through Baptism and Chrismation and membership in the Church!

Many of us are deeply impressed by the total dedication, perseverance, training, commitment and love of the sport exhibited by today’s athletes. (Possible envy of their great wealth and fame is a different subject). Many may shake their heads in disbelief or nod in admiration. Hardly anyone will call these athletes “fanatics.” But if someone is that single-minded and intent upon the life in God, that is a word that will inevitably ring out. But the saints are not fanatics – they simply have a passion for God and put the Gospel and the Kingdom of God above all else.

To be inducted into any particular Hall of Fame – from baseball to Rock ‘n Roll – is considered to be a great human achievement and a goal only an elite few could even aspire to. However, these Halls of Fame are the secular and rather pale – if not pitiful – reflections of an earlier age’s striving for the heavenly realm of the Kingdom of God. The saints looked beyond the fleeting and temporal “glory of men” to the unchanging and eternal “glory of God.” That seems to be the vocation of all Christians and the Lord’s desire for us.


Friday, June 17, 2022

The 'Immovable Bookends' of the Paschal Season

 


Dear Parish Faithful,

It strikes me that two of our significant Sunday Liturgies during the year are both immediately followed by a Vespers Service that most of the parish stays for. I am referring to the service of Forgiveness Vespers and the Vespers of Pentecost

The first of these two is on the eve of Great Lent and actually inaugurates the lenten season. In addition to the "lenten" tone of Forgiveness Vespers - with the all-important Rite of Forgiveness attached at the end - we also hear the chanting of the joyous paschal canon so that we are reminded of this long journey's destination. And the Vespers of Pentecost - though praising and glorifying the Holy Spirit through some truly inspired hymnography - highlights the Kneeling Prayers in which we beg God to forgive our many sins:

Thou art our God, but since our days have passed in vanity, we have been deprived of every defense. But emboldened by Thy compassions, we call out: Remember not the sins of our youth and our ignorance and cleanse Thou us of our secret sins, cast us not away in time of old age; when our strength fails, forsake us not.

There are seven weeks - or a "week of weeks" - from Forgiveness Vespers to Pascha; and then another seven weeks - or "week of weeks" - from Pascha to Pentecost. All together, a substantial portion of the liturgical year. Thus, these two unique Vespers services are like immovable "bookends" that hold our lives together in a kind of "holy stability" as we journey from Great Lent, through Holy Week and Pascha, to the "last day of the Feast" - Pentecost.

In the first stikhera for Pentecost, at Great Vespers, we sing "How noble and awesome is this great mystery!" Do we encounter anything in today's world that is "noble and awesome?" There is either misery and cynicism; or entertainment and escapism. We seem to be surrounded by a sea of lies emanating from politicians or con artists, and we seek refuge from this wherever we can find it. And that refuge may be found only in the bosom of our homes and families; or with the closest of friends. (There is a great deal that is "noble and awesome" in the natural world that surrounds us, but we may have to look up and around outside of our pressing interior thoughts to discover that God-created majesty). The overall effort, however, can be to reduce what is "noble and awesome" to a naive, even archaic phrase that no longer conforms to reality.

But not so in the Church. Pentecost is precisely a "noble and awesome and great mystery." It is the coming of the Holy Spirit, "the Comforter and Spirit of Truth." It may take a conscious effort "to lay aside all earthly cares" to discover it, but as an old saying has it: it is hidden within plain sight. We only need an open mind and heart and interior eyes that we can "see" with.

We have seen the true Light! We have received the Holy Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Sundays of Pentecost

 

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Sundays following the Feast of Pentecost are numbered as “after Pentecost.” This is a liturgical reminder of the Holy Spirit’s ever-abiding presence within the Church; and that everything we do within the Church – especially the celebration of the Sacraments – is sealed by the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, there are no “ordinary” Sundays – including those in the summer months! 

Our entire lives as Orthodox Christians – from cradle to grave – are an unceasing rhythm of progressing from one Lord’s Day celebration to the next. Our hope is that our earthly Liturgies will prepare us for our “passage” into eternal Liturgy of the Kingdom of God. There is no “summer vacation.” And that includes families with small children who are on “vacation” from Church School. 

It is a good thing if your children truly miss the Church School; but that is no reason to miss church and the Liturgy during the summer months. That may be the best “lesson” that you teach your children. I just received a very encouraging letter from a mother who shared with me that over time, and with patience and perseverance, her children are now much more focused on the Liturgy; and that they now always say the “Amen” when we consecrate our gifts of bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ, including the final triple “Amen” when we call down the Holy Spirit to seal, complete and perfect the consecration. That is the result of “sticking with it” Sunday after Sunday. 

Once again, if you are traveling, there is no reason why provisions to attend a local Orthodox parish cannot be made. Try and work your schedule around the Lord’s Day. If we want God to be with us on our vacations, then perhaps we should make the effort to be with God whenever possible. 

- Fr. Steven

 

Friday, June 3, 2022

The Ascension: Our Destiny in Christ

 

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 



You were born, as was your will, O our God.
You revealed Yourself, in Your good pleasure.
You suffered in the flesh, and rose from the dead,
trampling down death by death!
Fulfilling all things, you ascended in glory ...
(Vespers of Ascension) 

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven,
and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered, and was buried.
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.
(Nicene Creed)

 

The two texts above - one from the Feast of the Ascension and the other a portion of the Nicene Creed - are wonderful expressions of the great mystery of the "descent" and "ascent" of the Son of God. The eternal Son of God becomes the Son of Man, descending into our world to live among us and to teach us about, and prepare us for, the Kingdom of God. This is what we call the Incarnation.

This movement of descent is only completed when Christ is crucified and enters the very realm of death on our behalf. There is "nowhere" further to descend (in)to. Thus, there are no limits to the love of God for His creatures, for the descent of Christ into death itself is "for our salvation." The Son of God will search for Adam and Eve in the very realm of Sheol/Hades. He will rescue them and liberate them as representative of all humankind, languishing in "the valley of death." Since death cannot hold the sinless - and therefore deathless - Son of God, He begins His ascent to the heavenly realm with His resurrection from the dead. And He fulfills this paschal mystery with His glorious ascension.

As St. Paul writes: "He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things." (EPH. 4:10) The One who ascended, however, is now both God and man, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified Jesus Christ who is now seated at "the right hand of the Father," far above the heavens. It is the glorified flesh of the Incarnate Word of God which has entered into the very bosom of the Trinity in the Person of Christ. As St. Leo the Great, the pope of Rome (+461) taught:

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of Heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest Heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father.


This is simultaneously our ascension and our glorification, since we are united to Christ through holy Baptism as members of His Body. Therefore, St. Paul can further write: "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (COL. 3:3) Out of our physical sight, we now "see" the glorified Christ through the eyes of faith. St. Leo further explains how important this spiritual insight is:

For such is the power of great minds, such the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eyes; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what is visible.

 

The Feast of the Ascension is not a decline from the glory of Pascha. It is, rather, the fulfillment of Pascha, and a movement upward toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the joyful revelation of our destiny in Christ. To return to the opening theme of the marvelous acts of God moving from the Incarnation to the Ascension, I would like to turn to St. Leo one more time for his understanding of that entire movement:

It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men's sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.


The Feast of the Ascension has a full octave, which means that we commemorate this great event until June 10 this year. According to St. Luke, once the disciples beheld Christ ascend into heaven, "they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God." (LK. 24:52) The "temple" is our common place of worship. Hopefully, we too will continue to come to the temple, blessing God. Yet, before that happens each one of us needs to bless God wherever we may find ourselves, because for each of us, our bodies are the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (I COR. 6:19).

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Life In The Church - In Season and Out of Season

 

 

Dear Parish Faithful,

St. John Chrysostom writes: "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 the 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."

With his wonderful gift of rhetoric, St. John conveys his passion for life in the Church and the actual attendance of church as an ongoing experience of spiritual renewal and refreshment. As we approach the summer months, these are words to bear in mind with the hopeful result that they will continue to inspire us to be present in church with regularity for the Lord's Day Liturgy, whether we are home or away. (A little bit of careful planning should be able to get most everyone to another church on a given Sunday when away from our parish). To continue using an old expression, there is no such thing as "summer vacation" away from church - at least not for Orthodox Christians! The Lord's Day begins with the Liturgy - rain or shine - and then departing with the peace of Christ in our minds and hearts, we can disperse to whatever activities we may have planned for the day - realizing, of course, that it is all "downhill" from that point on!

Everyone may also want to think about - and plan appropriately - about making it to church "on time." We always begin with a small group for the beginning of the Liturgy at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. All things considered, much too small. There may be in some instances good reasons for this, but there is always the ever-present temptation of carelessness and negligence. Habits are habits, and they are always difficult to change. Once a routine has been in place for a long time, it is hard to break even when domestic circumstances themselves change. Please bear in mind a long-standing pastoral directive: If you arrive in church after the Gospel (and that is late!), you are not prepared to approach the Chalice for Holy Communion.

One advantage of the summer months is that things may actually "slow down" a bit. Here is a good time to spend further time learning the Faith. We would not want said of us, what St. John said of his own urban-centered parishioners:

"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?"

At Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit we will continue to preach the Gospel "in season and out or season." Our goal is then to live it as well as possible.

I am attaching a short list below of items to bear in mind as the summer months approach. Hopefully you will find some things that will prove helpful in maintaining your spiritual vigilance in the approaching months.


Fr. Steven

========

Things to Remember for the Summer

There is hardly a good reason to be less “Church-centered” in the summer than during the other seasons of the year. There is nothing “seasonal” about God: If God withdrew His presence but for a moment, we would simply cease to exist! Here are some suggestions meant to maintain our vigilance with the approach of the summer months:


+ Inform Fr. Steven if you are traveling, so that we can pray for your safety and well-being in the Liturgy.

+ Make a point of trying to be near an Orthodox parish on a Sunday for the Liturgy when you are out of town. (Use Orthodoxy in America to locate parishes when traveling.)

+ Think of making a pilgrimage to an Orthodox monastery. If you are “on the road” there is the possibility that a monastery may be in “striking distance” at least for a brief visit. 
(Use Orthodoxy in America to locate monasteries when traveling.)

+ Remain vigilant in preparing for Holy Communion: respect and keep the weekly fast days of Wednesday and Friday; keep a total fast (no food or drink) from at least midnight on the eve of the next day’s Liturgy; periodically confess your sins, etc. Make your evening before next day’s Liturgy be peaceful. Come to Vespers!

+ Be aware of, and keep the Dormition Fast in August (1-14). There is also the beautiful Feast of the Transfiguration and the blessing of fruit on August 6. This year we will continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the glorification/canonization of St. Herman of Alaska.

+ Participate in the Summer Bible Study, preceded by Vespers. An excellent opportunity to meet and get to know either longstanding or relatively new parishioners on a much closer basis. It is about fellowship as much as it is about learning the Scriptures.

+ Choose another quality book related to the Faith for summer reading. We now have a very good parish library with Orthodox literature at many levels.

+ Do not let your daily rule of prayer lapse during the summer months. Perseverance, according to the saints, is one of the keys to an effective prayer life. 

“The joy of anyone who rejoices is preserved in the Church.” St. John Chrysostom