Monday, September 14, 2020

The Cross Planted In Our Hearts

  

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 


In mid-September, the Church has brought the Cross into our consciousness and into our midst tangibly for veneration. On the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross, we heard the ringing words from the Gospel According to St. John: "For God so loved the world that he gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (JN. 3:16). This placed the Cross within the widest possible context - in fact within the immeasurable context of the love of God for the world/cosmos. As the Church Fathers always teach us, God loved the world into existence, and now He will act decisively in order to save the world. And the "giving" of His only-begotten Son will be as the Son of Man lifted up on the Cross "that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (JN. 3:15). The God who created the world, is the God who redeemed the world in Christ.

On the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross itself (Sept. 14), we again hear from the Gospel According to St. John, and this time it is the actual narrative account of the Crucifixion. The pathos of the Cross is illuminated by a series of theological revelations that express the meaning of the Cross. One particularly profound instance of this comes immediately upon the death of the Savior: "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water" (JN. 19:34). Many of the Church Fathers were insightful and eloquent in uncovering the meaning of this seemingly mundane act of further violence:
 

For "blood and water came out." Not simply without a purpose, or by chance, did those founts come forth, but because by means of these two together the Church consists. And the initiated in the Mysteries know it, being by water indeed regenerated, and nourished by the blood and the flesh. Hence the Mysteries take their beginning; that when you approach that awesome Cup, you may so approach, as drinking from the very side. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 85 on the Gospel of St. John).

He caused the fountain of remission to well forth for us out of His holy and immaculate side, water for our regeneration, and the washing away of sin and corruption; and blood to drink as the hostage of life eternal. (St. John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. IV, Ch. IX).

As His earthly course began with water, so it ended with it. His side is pierced by the spear, and blood and water flow forth, twin emblems of baptism and martyrdom. (St. Jerome, Letter LXIX, to Oceanus).


Although the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion are narrated with sobriety and very little emphasis on the pain, anguish, and blood of the cross, they nevertheless firmly witness to the true sufferings of the Lord, so that the Cross does not disappear into a kind of docetic symbolism. This was a real event and the Lord really suffered and died on the Cross. We can never lose sight of this fact in an abstract "theology of the Cross." Truly, "one of the Holy Trinity" tasted of death on our behalf because He "became flesh."

On the Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross - that is, next Sunday - we will hear the words of Christ that relate His Cross to our lives and the need for self-denial:
 

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. (MK. 8:34-35)


The emphasis is now on our self-denial. Or rather, self-denial is the taking up of one's cross in fulfillment of the Lord's words. The challenge is found in the obvious fact that most people - including Christians - are not particularly keen about self-denial. It does not come to us "naturally." The cost seems far too high. But although that sounds like a very "natural" reaction, perhaps there are better questions to ask ourselves: what is the cost of not practicing self-denial? What does the conscious or unconscious refusal to deny ourselves mean in terms of our relationship with God and neighbor? Is true discipleship even possible without self-denial? Can a marriage, a family, or a friendship prosper without self-denial? What, ultimately, is this "self" that cannot be denied anything?

The successfully marketed slogans of self-realization and self-fulfilment are more-or-less thinly veiled pseudo-philosophies or pop psychologies that actually promote self-absorption and self-interest. If indulged in for a seriously dangerous amount of time and with a good deal of energy, such efforts eventually collapse into the worst excesses of self-worship. The self is set up as an interior golden calf to be worshiped at all costs, and seeking constant propitiation. On the altar of this very well-known god, we burn up our relationships with God and neighbor and are left with little more than dust and ashes. (Perhaps this strong inclination toward self-idolatry is behind the Buddhist rejection of the very concept of the self. If the self is an illusion, then it can be ignored as irrelevant to the process of enlightenment). In our Orthodox theology and anthropology, the person (the "true self" we could say) is not absorbed or annihilated in the process of deification. Rather, the person as a unique mode of existence is brought to perfection and "stabilized" in not only well-being, but even eternal being, through union with God - the ultimate gift of the Holy Spirit working in us.

Jesus knew the liberating effect of fighting against self-love and self-will. Only in this struggle can we begin to see God and the neighbor as other centers of life and love. Only then can the passions - nurtured and fed by self-indulgence - be conquered in a battle described by Archbishop Kallistos Ware as one waged against the "fallen self ... for the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and it is the men of violence who take it by force" (MATT. 11:12). With a bit of courage and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, we can "deny ourselves" for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and be liberated from the prison of the self in the process.

In his article "The Tree of the Cross," Fr. Thomas Hopko offers a fine summation of the Church's emphasis on the Cross in either festal commemoration or personal devotion:

Genuine Orthodox spirituality is always a spirituality of the cross. When the tree of the cross is removed from the center of our lives we find ourselves cast out of paradise and deprived of the joy of communion with God. But when the cross remains planted in our hearts and exalted in our lives, we partake of the tree of life and delight in the fruits of the Spirit, by which we live forever with the Lord. Rejoice, O Lifegiving Cross!

 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

A Six Month Anniversary

 

Note: Fr Steven sent this as an email to the parish on September 8. We are posting it here, and on our parish page on the Coronavirus.

 
Dear Parish Faithful,



 
March 8 - September 8
 
Today is the Feast Day of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Yesterday evening we celebrated the Vesperal Liturgy, and attendance was rather thin (because of Labor Day?). Be that as it may, it is truly a joyous feast as we annually greet the birth of Miriam of Nazareth - arguably the most well-known woman  in history - with a festal celebration. Her nativity announces her ultimate destiny as the Theotokos or "God-bearer." For those who would like to study this in greater depth during the time of the feast (September 8-12), here is a link to our wonderful resource page on our parish website: 

September 8 is also exactly six calendar months from our last full Liturgy in the church on March 8, the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Later that day, we gathered for the Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers at St. George Serbian Orthodox Church; but from that day forward we entered the "pandemic era" of national, social, and ecclesiastical life. Hard to believe that for this last Holy Week and Pascha there were only three of us in the church. Yet, to sound upbeat, we now have ten times that number in church -  a sign of some progress - but we continue to be restricted as we hopefully await further expansion of our worshipers as time unfolds. (A further hope is that we do not experience a Labor Day induced "spike" of the coronavirus). 
 
My pastoral hope is that the exhortation of the Apostle Paul, heard at last Sunday's Liturgy, continues to resonate in our minds and hearts: "Be watchful, be firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love." (I Cor. 16:13-14) As I said at the Liturgy, herein is the whole moral, ethical and spiritual teaching of the Gospel distilled into this short exhortation of the great Apostle. It is meant for all Christians at all times, but these words should resonate all the more as we remain "watchful" during our current health crisis. The deepest truth is that if we live, or if we die, we remain with Christ: "For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus or Lord."  (Rom. 8:38-39) The upcoming Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross will further reinforce this profoundly consoling passage of the Apostle Paul.

Within the ongoing life of the parish, we now have a new sign-up system for you to employ so as to be as regular as possible in being present at the Liturgy on Sunday mornings and feast days. This is now easily accessed from the home page of our parish website. In the process, let's try not to forget the service of Great Vespers on Saturday evenings and on the eve of most feasts. I was hoping that since we are facing the current restrictions, that many of you would be eager to be in church and worshiping, and Great Vespers offers us that opportunity. That has not materialized so far, and that is rather disappointing. Getting back to the Liturgy, please keep Confession in mind. We are back to in-church confession, done in such a way that we practice the required social distancing.

  • We will continue to make all the services available at least for "viewer participation" through both zoom and facebook. I believe that the reception and consistency on both are much improved.

  • We will further continue with periodic ongoing "Orthodox Zoom Classes." We recently had a lengthy Bible Study and we will soon have a three-part session on I Cor. 15 and the resurrection from the dead. In the Fall, I am looking forward to choosing a book for our Fall Adult Education Class.

  • We are currently gathering data for a desired resumption of our Church School life. The goal would be to meet on Saturdays twice a month in the church hall and Education Center, again keeping social distancing in mind. Parents will very soon be contacted about this. The success of restoring the Church School to some measure will depend on the commitment of the parents and children.

  • I realize that we continue to have a fair number of parishioners who are not ready to return to liturgical worship. If that is the case, then I encourage you to avail yourselves of the items just listed above. That will help keep you connected. I also offered another method of receiving the Eucharist recently. Please get back with me if that will work for you. 

  • And all of us need to continue our prayer life and scripture reading at home.

March 8 - September 8 is not exactly the "six month anniversary" that will warm one's heart, but it is reality as we know it today. COVID-19 has disrupted our lives, and has caused fear, frustration and boredom, to mention just a few reactions that trouble us. But, as Orthodox Christians, let us "stand firm in the faith" as we await better times for our nation, our family and friends, and for our parish community. 


Thursday, September 3, 2020

A New Book Waiting To Be Read

 

To All Serious Readers of Orthodox Literature,

"Believers confess that their interpretation of the life of Jesus (making the Cross and Resurrection literally the crux of world history) is the correct interpretation (the Greek word for which is Orthodoxy, meaning "right opinion") and thus the essential truth of that moment in history."  -  Fr. John McGuckin


There is a new book now available that in my humble opinion stands out for its over-all quality - which I will get to momentarily - and which I therefore highly recommend for your personal library and more than worthy of the time and effort that goes into reading a high-quality publication. The book is making an impression of sorts as it has already been reviewed in the 
New York Review of Books. The book in mind is: The Eastern Orthodox Church - A New History written by Fr. John Anthony McGuckin. The title is bland enough, but that may obscure the riches of the book; for this is no ordinary rehearsal of the Church's history, but a fascinating and illuminating survey of the Church's historical pilgrimage, endlessly packed with great insights. Fr. John is trained as an historian, though he is an outstanding theologian who is a very prolific writer with many wonderful titles already to his credit. Of this new book of his, Fr. John Behr, also one of today's leading Orthodox theologians, has this to say:

"An engaging, sophisticated yet accessible, account of the Orthodox Church - its self-understanding, theology, sacramental life, and history - from the time of the New Testament through its long pilgrimage in the East and more recently into the West. One of the best introductions available." 

And from another very prominent scholar from Durham University, Clara L. E. Ramelli:

"This is a rich, fascinating history, from the beginning of Christianity to Patristics and contemporary Orthodoxy, by an outstanding scholar. It includes inspiring intellectual and mystical figures, importantly not only men, but also women, like Elizabeth Behr-Sigel."

One of the main strengths of the book, among many, is this basic thesis brilliantly conceived and presented: There is an unbroken continuity of all officially accepted Orthodox thought throughout the centuries with the apostolic deposit of faith "from the beginning" and "once and for all delivered to the saints." This is what offers validity to the claim that the Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Fr. John draws that thread throughout the book as he takes us on a journey through the centuries. The Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils may elaborate and develop the apostolic deposit of Faith, creatively employing new terminology along the way, but it remains the same Faith regardless of the historical vicissitudes challenging the Church. Following that thread of continuity along with Fr. John is fascinating, and it is both coherent and convincing. The book is not an "entry level" Church history, but it is not burdened with jargon or academic theories that can weary the mind. It is all quite exciting, and in typical Orthodox fashion, it organically interweaves theology, history, liturgy and spiritual life. I would like to present just a few examples of Fr. John's presentation:

Fr. John begins with an insightful discussion of the content and purpose of the Gospels and other canonical books of the New Testament. In that discussion, he has this to say:

"The overall sense among the earliest canonical writers about the death and exaltation of Jesus is that there is an antithesis of response from God the Father to the sacrificial witness of Jesus's life. Just as Jesus poured himself out in self-sacrificing obedience to the Father's will in a bitter kenosis (a word that means "emptying out"), so too God gave him in return the fulness (pleroma) of glory after his sufferings, raised him up to the right-hand side of the heavenly throne, and acclaimed him with the inexpressible (divine) name of "Lord." ... The Resurrected and Glorified Jesus is now shown to the whole cosmos as Lord, who was once recognized as a slave." (p. 13)

Since this is primarily a book about the history of the Church, how does Fr. John describe the reality of the Church? What is the Church:

"We are meant to deduce that the Apostolic preaching that flows from the Pentecostal Spirit, and that first initiates the church's mission of reconciliation on earth, is itself  presented in the New Testament as a fundamental part of Jesus's resurrectional glory. ... The New Testament teaches, then, two significant things in relation to the  church. The first is that it is a mysterious and transcendent part of Jesus's Lordly glory:  an eschatological reality, not entirely reducible to a historical or sociological phenomenon (the number of people at any given time who claim to be Christians). The second is that it is per se the fundamental sign, or witness, of the dawning advent of the Kingdom of God on earth: the Kingdom of God's perfected will that would one day accomplish history and terminate it, when God's intent for his creation would be all in all.... It is often called, especially as based on the formative writings of the apostle Paul, the "Mystical Body of Christ;" and just as Christ was himself a sign, or sacrament, of the Kingdom in the world throughout his ministry, the church too has the destiny to be a sacrament of reconciliation and hope in its own historical journey through the ages." (p.14-15)

Fr. John has a wonderful chapter on the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, those events that have shaped our theology once and for all in a decisive manner.There is an excellent description of the Christological debates of the 5th century, when the Church had to make a pronouncement on the union of the divine and human natures in Christ. Offering a brilliant summary of St. Cyril of Alexandria's writings on the Person of Christ, Fr. John summarizes like this:

"Without leaving behind his divine glory he had willingly accepted the humility of the Incarnation. Just as he lifted up the Manhood into his own divine life, so too he lifted up along with it all the sufferings and limitations appropriate to that Manhood. Cyril went further. This, he argued, was exactly why the Incarnation happened in the first place. TheWord did not choose to come to earth, and live as a true human being, because he felt the need for a change of scenery. He came so as to embrace humanity into his own life as divine creator and refashioner, and, having embrace it so profoundly, thus to heal it. As he healed his own mortal nature, making what was evidently mortal and passible (as proved by the Passion and death) into what was immortal and impassible, rendering the lowliness of death into the glorified body, so too did he elevate all human nature in that once and for all act." (p. 113-114)

And in summarizing the everlasting contribution of the great Church Fathers of the era of the first Six Ecumenical Councils (325 - 681 A.D.), Fr. John reminds us of why we venerate and preserve their teaching:

"Each one of these fathers of the church is steeped in knowledge and love of the scriptures and the church sacraments, which is why each demonstrates that profound linkage in Orthodoxy between scripture, synodal government, Ecumenical Council, liturgy, and patristic theology: a synthesis of streams of spirituality that constitutes the Christian apostolic tradition and keeps the Orthodox Church ever ancient, yet alive to respond to the spiritual needs and hopes of  contemporary men and women." (p. 120-121)

Treating the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) somewhat separately, in his discussion, Fr. John reveals the place of material reality within the life of the Church. In another summary, he offers a wonderful description of the over-arching purpose of Orthodox worship:

"To this day Orthodox worship is an earthy experience that rises to a transcendental spiritual experience. The two things are never separated. In Orthodox services this is seen quite clearly and immediately. All the senses are engaged: chanting, incense, lights, icons, relics of saints, full-bodied sacramental rituals - all being conducted with gusto. Whenever one enters an Orthodox church at service time, it  always seems in full swing, and if the clergy are ever still for a moment, inevitably the people are on the move, bowing down, crossing themselves, kissing icons, lighting candles. There is a profound sense that God himself is in the midst but that he is the Incarnate Lord of grace who has sanctified all material things when they are lifted up in prayer. In modern times several Orthodox thinkers have extended this ancient theory of worship from the seventh council and applied it to support a wider ecological theology. As the icon symbolizes the manner in which material things can serve as powerful doorways to the divine presence, so too all creation is graced with the marks of the Creator's energy. Thus, in Orthodoxy's spiritual sense there can never be a purely "secular thing:" all created things, especially human beings, are created as iconic mysteries of grace with a hidden power and potential to shine in the transfiguration of Christ's holiness and light." (p. 154-155).

Further chapters bring the history of the Church up to the present day, including such chapters as "Orthodox Life Under and after Islamic Dominion;" "Orthodoxy Under the Communists;" and "The Twentieth-Century Orthodox Diaspora." A closing chapter on "Day to Day Life in an Orthodox Parish" is quite fascinating.  Since this modest overview of Fr. John's new book is already getting lengthy, I can perhaps offer a Part II that share some of the insights of these further chapters. For the moment, I would again highly recommend The Eastern Orthodox Church - A New History by John Anthony McGuckin. I would suggest: 1) purchase a copy; 2) read it carefully; and 3) include it in your personal library of Orthodox literature for endless referencing!

 

Friday, August 28, 2020

A Review of the Documentary 'True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality'


This powerful documentary shows how "Stevenson and his colleagues have been able to free and overturn the wrongful convictions of about one hundred and fifty death row and other socially-marginalized inmates..." 

"One has a lively sense of the Gospel at work in his endeavors on behalf of the outcast neighbor..."

 


 

At the beginning of 2020 - in the pre-pandemic era! - I wrote and posted a film review based on the strong impression that the film 'Just Mercy' made on both Presvytera Deborah and me. The film was a  cinematic dramatization of an actual case that occurred in Alabama in 1987. In this case, which took years to bring to a just conclusion ("just mercy"), the Harvard-trained African American lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, was able to help free Walter McMillan, an African American man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a young white woman, and who spent many years on death row before his exoneration and release in 1993. The deep sense of satisfaction the film created for the viewer when the reversal of a wrongful conviction and thus the victory of justice was achieved, left an indelible impression. Here is a link to that review if anyone would be interested in reading it.

 

I bring this up eight months later because Presvytera Deborah and I recently watched the powerful documentary, 'True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight For Equality'. Narrated by the celebrated attorney, and covering his long career fighting against a broken system in order to provide legal counsel to death-row inmates in order that they too may be granted the justice that they failed to receive earlier in their lives, this documentary also left an indelible impression. It was stated that Stevenson and his colleagues have been able to free and overturn the wrongful convictions of about one hundred and fifty such death row and other socially-marginalized inmates over the years. So, this current reflection and commentary is something of a "follow up" on the film, as the documentary is an even more direct presentation of what Bryan Stevenson has been able to achieve; while his narrative is in many ways a piercing indictment of the racism that has plagued the United States now for centuries. This legacy cannot be ignored if you want to understand the present-day tensions that continue to trouble our society. If you take the time to watch this documentary, you will come to what may be the uncomfortable conclusion that his argument is essentially unassailable. Of this I am certain – especially for a Christian conscience, I would add.   


This indictment travels all the way to the Supreme Court, because for many years this highest judicial branch of  the United States supplied legal justification and credence to a two-tiered society that maintained the morally-bankrupt ideologies of white supremacy and black inferiority. This is one of the reasons that leads Stevenson to say: "The North won the (Civil) war, but the South won the narrative." As the documentary unfolds, it continually comes back to a shot of the Supreme Court building and the motto etched in stone high above the entrance: "Equal Justice Under the Law." The striking and ironic juxtaposition of the facts presented in the documentary with the hollow ring of these words in the light of those facts has its effect upon the viewer. Equal justice under the law did not exist for millions of black Americans who were treated as undeserving of that very justice even though a bloody Civil War was fought to win for them both freedom and justice. This gloomy picture finds relief and light as Stevenson also narrates the more recent cases (beginning with Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954) that begins to tilt the scales of justice in a more equitable direction. Brian Stevenson is directly responsible — as he argued the cases — for five pivotal Supreme Court decisions that redress the legal and moral failings of the Supreme Court in the past. The verdict is in: the Supreme Court failed to uphold the proposition of the Constitution that "all men are created equal" in many decisions from the era of Jim Crow segregation.

 

There is about a ten-fifteen minute segment in "True Justice" in which Bryan Stevenson offers a deeply-troubling historical overview of the legacy of lynching that plagued the black community of the South for decades. There are endless photographs of distorted bodies hanging from trees (some victims were burnt alive) surrounded by huge crowds of onlookers who are thus morally culpable for these atrocities. There were probably around five thousand such lynching from 1890-1950 in the South. And the black community had no recourse to justice, because it was the legal authorities who were often direct participants in these crimes. (There was a fluidity of movement between the KKK and the legal authorities wherein it is difficult to distinguish between the two). This was nothing short of home-grown terrorism. This led to the great migration of black people to the major urban centers of the North in the twentieth century - a desperate desire to escape from this intimidation and domestic terrorism. This segment is narrated with a certain sobriety and lack of sensationalism, and perhaps that makes it all the more chilling. The devastation that this lynching brought to the black community was horrific and can bring tears to your eyes. But the open brutality, callousness, and moral degradation so evident in the white participants, combined with the racism that was rampant within a seemingly large segment of the white community, can either leave the viewer enraged or chilled to the core of one's being. There were not only white men present at these barbarous crimes, but also women and smiling children standing underneath a hanging corpse. Think for the moment of the moral corruption of such children. And this is then perpetuated for generations. Watching this I thought that this is not only about ignorance and prejudice, but something altogether "demonic" at work. Can human beings really be this evil? And these very people may have went to church on Sunday morning with an untroubled conscience!


In another segment, Stevenson makes a good case for his claim that at a certain point in time, when an uninvited notoriety was finally surrounding the widespread lynching, that the "outdoor lynching" became the "indoor lynching" of the courtroom. White judges, white prosecuting attorneys, white court-appointed attorneys, white law enforcement officers and all-white juries created an atmosphere for the black defendant that did not leave much room at all for justice to be served. Harper Lee's wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, gave us a fictional, yet devastatingly realistic recreation, of this harsh environment. Today is the anniversary (1955) of the brutal murder of Emmett Till, the young teenager who was tortured and mutilated beyond recognition for the "crime" of disrespecting a white woman. The film of his trial shows the defendants in the front row smirking and laughing throughout the charade being enacted in the courtroom. When the segregated black community returned to the courtroom after lunch, the local sheriff greeted them with these words: "Hello, n-----s!" To this day, no one was ever found guilty of this horrific crime. Justice was not served. 


Yet, Bryan Stevenson seems to be a hopeful person, and this is conveyed in his over-arching theme that embraces this shameful history into a higher and promising narrative. He is a modest man for all of his really extraordinary accomplishments. His outward demeanor is calm and collected, a character trait that is probably essential when arguing cases often enough to an either indifferent, skeptical or hostile (all-white) audience. Yet, the "fire within" is clearly right below the surface and just as evident. It is clear that his Christian formation is an integral part of his professional career. He was brought up in an AMA church [African Methodist Episcopal Church] in Delaware and he returns to this church setting a couple of times during the documentary. His grandmother was a woman of strong moral fiber, and he includes her in his narrative. His language also reveals his Christian upbringing - he spoke of mercy and grace before a senate committee, a scene included in the film as a kind of summation of his legal work on behalf of others. And at the end of the documentary, when speaking to a gathering of folks at a newly-constructed memorial center that keeps alive the memory of the victims of racial injustice, he offers a prayer before the gathered assembly. Although so difficult for anyone to perceive it, it is Christ who stands with these victims as the lover of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized and the outcasts.

 

This memorial  center is deeply impressive. Established in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama, it was initially called The National Lynching Memorial, but has been renamed as The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. To my embarrassment, I have only recently become aware of this new structure and its purpose. Through careful and painstaking research the names of thousands of the victims of lynching have been recovered, and soil from the actual sites of these crimes has been gathered in large glass bottles and stored in row after row on wooden shelves that seem to reach to the ceiling. There are also stone slabs that have the name of the counties where this lynching occurred. Every county is able to retrieve the stone slab with its name as a memorial to the victims if it so chooses. It is an impressive sight and the message seems to be: We will not forget. For to forget the past is a betrayal to the memory of these innocent people whose "crime" was to be born with dark skin. 

 



 

He also follows the camera as it sweeps through the South, focusing on one romanticized and mythologized  monument after another of Civil War generals, Confederate statesmen, and other figures of that bygone era. Let’s just say that this glorification of the past leaves an uneasy feeling after the ravages of slavery, a failed Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow laws of segregation and the lynchings discussed above are reviewed in the cool light of historical recovery and analysis. 

 

I would like to share an anecdote with which Bryan Stevenson begins his documentary. As a young boy, he and his sister were given the present of going to the then newly-constructed Disney World. This must have been in the mid-60s. Either there or on the road they stopped at a hotel that had a large swimming pool. In their excitement they changed their clothes and raced to the pool and jumped in. Immediately, all of the other (white) children were frantically taken out of the pool as if an emergency situation had occurred. Finally, there was one last boy jerked out of the pool by an adult man. In his confusion, the young Bryan Stevenson asked the man just what was the problem. The man looked at him and said: You, n-----, you are the problem."  It was as if the black skin of those innocent children had somehow made the water in that pool toxic by mere contact. When he told his mother what had happened, she told him to not be afraid and to go back into the pool. He did so obediently, but found himself in a corner of the pool crying. Obviously, this memory has stayed with him throughout his life. But Stevenson then wonders aloud with the question: "Do any of those white children possibly remember that day in the swimming pool?" And memory remains a key theme that runs through the entire documentary. 

 

Memory, reconciliation and grace are the key themes that Bryan Stevenson leaves us with in the end, again attesting to the Christian inspiration that impels him forward in his pursuit of “true justice.” Another sub-theme of the documentary is the case of Anthony Roy Hinton, another wrongfully-convicted African American who served time together with Walter McMillian on Alabama’s death row. (He is also portrayed in the film version, 'Just Mercy'.) Bryan Stevenson eventually took up his case and appealed his wrongful conviction. After nearly thirty years in prison, Anthony Roy Hinton was released in 2015. The footage of him walking out of prison and into the light of day to be embraced by family members is deeply moving, to say the least. Mr. Hinton is determined to forgive everything that was done to him. He will not allow bitterness and rage to “enslave” him yet again. But the point is made that not one representative of the State of Alabama – not a judge, prosecuting attorney, law enforcement official, no one – ever said as much as “we are sorry.” Stevenson’s commentary on this was to state that those in power think it a sign of weakness to ever apologize. He further comments that a lengthy marriage can only be a fruitful one if mutual forgiveness is practiced among the spouses. To simply say "I am sorry" is a sign of a strong, not a weak character. After spending thirty years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Hinton deserved that apology.

 

This leads Stevenson to argue that true reconciliation between white and black people  can only be meaningful when full recognition of the darker aspects of this past are acknowledged as criminal and immoral. He points to the painful act of reconciliation that occurred in South Africa after the dismantling of apartheid. Also to Germany’s public recognition of the horrors and crimes of the Holocaust. Such humility is a strength that heals – not a sign of weakness. And again, the Christian dimension of reconciliation, grace and truth becomes all too apparent within such a narrative. He raises the issue of the Supreme Court. Would it be too much to hear an apology from the highest court of the land one day so as to acknowledge what terrible consequences their rulings from of old had on the black community for decades? What an effect on the healing process such an apology would have!

 

Bryan Stevenson embodies heroism and courage, combined with humility and modesty. He has accomplished great things in the name of “peace and justice.” One has a lively sense of the Gospel at work in his endeavors on behalf of the outcast neighbor. He is leading a life worth living. His legacy will remain as surely as the tarnished legacies of the unjust perpetrators of these heinous crimes will continue to fade into oblivion. Perhaps he has afforded us a glimpse of a contemporary saint?

 

The documentary 'True Justice' can be found on HBO through amazon prime. It has also been made available to view for free on YouTube by the producers (HBO Documentary Films and Kunhardt Film Foundation). As with the film, 'Just Mercy', it is available for rental and purchase through AppleTV and other online outlets, and is out on DVD. It is about two hours in length. Highly recommended!

 

Monday, August 17, 2020

'Beyond Death and Judgment' - The Dormition of the Theotokos

 

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,





Even with our current pandemic restrictions, we enjoyed a truly wonderful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos this year. Attendance was very strong, our four-member choir sang very well, and the Vesperal Liturgy was both lively and prayerful. The decorated tomb which contains an icon of the Virgin Mary in blessed repose, was surrounded by flowers brought to church for that purpose and then blessed at the end of the service to be taken back home. As always, it was good to see some of our parish teens and children and young adults present and worshiping. This "summer pascha" has steadily become an integral event of our parish life, and that continued this year even under our current "duress."  This is all "meet and right."

American Christianity has been shaped by the Protestant ethos, and that basically means that there is no real place for the veneration of the Mother of God. This was primarily based upon a reaction against the perceived excesses of the medieval West's Marian piety by the early Protestant reformers. In a short time, this reaction became a thorough rejection - at times quite vehement - in many Protestant circles. So the Virgin Mary pretty much disappeared from Protestant worship and piety. Perhaps the classic example within Church history of "throwing out the baby with the bath water."

Orthodox Christians cannot succumb to any such truncated form of the Church's living Tradition. (However, there have been clear signs recently of a "recovery" of the role of the Virgin Mary in some Evangelical circles). One of my beloved professors from seminary always used to say that a sign of a spiritually strong parish is that parish's devotion to the Mother of God. For she is the personal image of the Church - warm, embracing, nurturing, protecting.

Since the Dormition has no biblical source, this feast slowly developed over the course of the first five centuries of the Church's history on the basis of a wide variety of sources - primarily narratives, rhetorical homilies and theological poetry/hymnography. (Much of this material now exists in English translation). There is no one authoritative text or document.

However, though details may differ, a tradition emerged that tells of how the apostles were miraculously brought back to Jerusalem in order to surround the bedside of the Virgin Mary as she lay dying. Upon commending her holy soul to her Son and Savior, she peacefully "fell asleep" in death (the meaning of the word dormition) in the presence of the apostles who stood weeping and grief-stricken by her bedside. With great solemnity they buried her pure body which had itself been the "tabernacle" of the King. The traditional place of her burial is a tomb close to Gethsemane. When the tomb was opened on the third day so that the Apostle Thomas, who arrived late, could venerate the body of the Theotokos, it was found to be empty. The "Mother of Life" was thus "translated to life!"

Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarizes the Church's understanding of this tradition in the following manner:

Without insisting on the literal truth of every element in this account, Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body - like His - was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives wholly in the Age to Come. 

The Resurrection of the Body, which all Christians await, has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact. That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category: for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now. (The Festal Menaion, p. 64)

Fr. Thomas Hopko further elaborates on the meaning of this beautiful Feast and how it "relates" to every generation of Christians:

Thus, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the celebration of the fact that all men are "highly exalted" in the blessedness of the victorious Christ, and that this high exaltation has already been accomplished in Mary the Theotokos.

The feast of the Dormition is the sign, the guarantee, and the celebration that Mary's fate is the destiny of all those of "low estate" whose souls magnify the Lord, whose spirits rejoice in God the Savior, whose lives are totally dedicated to hearing and keeping the Word of God which is given to men in Mary's child, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

Dormition, of course, means "falling asleep," the Christian term par excellence for how we approach the mystery of death. And here we further approach the paradox, from a Christian perspective, of death itself - the "last enemy" that causes great anguish and grief; but yet which now serves as a passage to life everlasting, and thus a cause for festal celebration in the death of the Mother of God. For the Virgin Mary truly died, as is the fate of all human beings; and yet "neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos" who has been "translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!" Without for a moment losing sight of the reality of death (notice the weeping apostles around the body of the Theotokos on the Dormition icon), from within the Church we can actually celebrate death during this "summer pascha" because of the Resurrection of Christ.

Thus, the Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.” For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:

I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people die and “Platonists” afterwards. By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives. — From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.

To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:

For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break. For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil. Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it. As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person. — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.

St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:

By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil. – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.


This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!” The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.” Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast. The Leave-taking of the Feast is on August 23. That means that we continue to sing and chant the troparion and kontakion of the Feast in our liturgical services until then, in addition to other hymnography of the Feast. I would strongly urge everyone to incorporate these hymns into your daily rule of prayer, including their use when you bless your meals as a family, replacing the Lord's Prayer up until the Leave-taking. If you can't sing these hymns, you can certainly recite them! The troparia and kontakia or the major Feasts are included in many Orthodox Prayer Books, but if you do not have the texts available at home, I am including them here:

Troparion of the Dormition

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not
forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!


Kontakion of the Dormition

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life
by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!


The decorated tomb of the Theotokos, containing an icon of her sacred body in blessed repose, will be back in its usual place and open for our veneration whenever we enter the church. The great Feasts extend in time, giving us the opportunity of integrating them into our lives in a meaningful way.