Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Way to Begin

Dear Parish Faithful,


A reminder that we will serve Great Vespers this evening at 7:00 p.m. for the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord and for the commemoration of St. Basil the Great (January 1). Of course, this is also the beginning of the Civil New Year, and we will include the appropriate petitions and prayers seeking the Lord's blessing as we embark upon the uncharted waters of 2011. If you celebrate the New Year by "going out" or socializing, or whatever it may be; the best way is to begin by coming to church and praying to God as the Creator of time and the Author of both life and death. Without God, the New Year will only be "empty," not "happy." I just spent some time with many people who have drifted away from the Church - they seemed scattered and "homeless." We have the great gift of the Church, "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (I TIM. 3:15), and we must never take this gift for granted. As we celebrate the New Year, we can also soberly assess the fact that we are one year closer to the end of our earthly existence. That end is known only to God, and can come upon us unaware. We would certainly want to be close to God when that end does eventually come. The paschal character of a Christian death transforms that "end" into a "beginning." Therefore, the "mystery of death" is imbued with meaning and hope for a Christian, rather than the meaninglessness and hopelessness endured by a godless world. I have had cause to further reflect upon this over the course of the last few days.

In Christ,
Fr. Steven

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas and Martyrdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Gospel reading for Christmas Day was MATT. 2:1-12. This passage proclaimed the Good News that the Savior was born in Bethlehem according to the biblical prophecies. The star guides the Magi and they, in turn, bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Child in acknowledgment that He is unique and a true King, testified to by cosmic signs that even the Gentile Magi can properly interpret. Joyous as this is, there is already a hint of the ultimate destiny of Christ in that myrrh is used in the burial customs of the Jews. On the Second Day of the Nativity, we then completed Ch. 2 of St. Matthew's Gospel (2:13-23). We were then immediately introduced to the tragic reality of the massacre of the innocent boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. The previous joy of the Savior's Nativity is replaced by the wailing and lamentation of the mothers of these innocent children, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (2:18)

The shadow of the Cross lay across the infancy narratives in this Gospel, for in the immediate post-Nativity period, these male children become the first of many martyrs who must die because Christ has entered the world, as many of the powerful of this world - following the dark example of King Herod - will not receive Him; they will actually despise Him and turn against His followers. Thus, the suffering of innocent children is somehow taken up by God as an offering in a sinful world that fluctuates between light and darkness. We now understand that the cave of the Nativity anticipated the tomb of Christ's burial; and that the swaddling clothes anticipated the grave clothes with which Christ would eventually be bound following His death on the Cross.

On the Third Day of the Nativity, we commemorated the Protomartyr Stephen, the first to die for his faith in Christ in the post-Resurrection community of the newborn Church. Martyrdom has always been a distinct and powerful witness to Christ "from the beginning." The kontakion for St. Stephen captures the movement between the joy of Christ's birth and the sobering reality of what Christ's coming meant for some:

Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh and
became our guest;
Today His servant is stoned to death
and departs in the flesh:
The glorious first martyr Stephen!

There is no greater witness to Christ than that of the martyrs - flesh and blood men, women and children who gave their lives for the Lord in the sure hope and assurance that eternal life awaited them in the Kingdom of God. If we exchange a "Merry Christmas" with others, we always need to be mindful of the commitment we are making to the newborn Christ. As we temporarily indulge in the days of the Feast, we realize that the Christian life is ultimately a commitment to discipline and restraint, even the "crucifixion" of the flesh with all of its desires, in order to "witness" to Christ as disciples who believe that His advent in the flesh, culminating in His death and resurrection, has prepared a place for us in His eternal Kingdom where there is "life everlasting."

Fr. Steven

The Paradox of the Nativity - 'He shares with us'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Born!
Glorify Him!

In his famous Oration 38, "On the Nativity of Christ," St. Gregory goes a long way in succeeding to capture the paradox of God becoming flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. His rhetorical skills are in full play, but more important is his knowledge of Scripture and his charism as a great theologian in conveying to us the mystery, grandeur and humility of the Incarnation:

He was conceived by the Virgin, who was purified beforehand in both soul and flesh by the Spirit, for it was necessary that procreation be honored and that virginity be honored more. He comes forth, God with what he has assumed, one from two opposites, flesh and spirit, the one deifying and the other deified. O the new mixture! O the paradoxical blending! He who is comes into being, and the uncreated is created, and the uncontained is contained, through the intervention of the rational soul, which mediates between the divinity and the coarseness of the flesh. The one who enriches becomes poor; he is made poor in my flesh, that I might be enriched through his divinity. The full one empties Himself; for he empties himself of his own glory for a short time, that I may participate in his fullness. What is the wealth of his goodness? What is this mystery concerning me? I participated in the divine image, and I did not keep it; he participates in my flesh both to save the image and to make the flesh immortal. He shares with us a second communion, much more paradoxical than the first; then he gave us a share in what is superior, now he shares in what is inferior. This is more godlike than the first; this, to those who can understand, is more exalted.

Notice how God "shares" with us. He assumes our human nature so that we can, by grace, share in His divine nature. The whole movement of "self-emptying" (kenosis) on the part of God is for our sake, so that we can be enriched in the process. St. Gregory expresses all of this with his characteristic combination of oratorical skills and deep insight into the mystery of God made flesh.

Fr. Steven

Monday, December 27, 2010

Both Nativity and Theophany

Dear Parish Faithful,


This festal greeting and response, clearly modeled on that of Pascha's, is inspired by the magnificent Oration 38, "On the Nativity of Christ," by St. Gregory the Theologian (+395). That oration begins with the following memorable opening:

Christ is born, glorify Him; Christ is from heaven, go to meet him; Christ is on earth, be lifted up. "Sing to the Lord, all the earth," and, to say both together, "Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice," for the heavenly one is now earthly. Christ is in the flesh, exult with trembling and joy; trembling because of sin, joy because of hope.... Who would not worship the one "from the beginning"? Who would not glorify "the Last?'

If you know the Scriptures, you will immediately recognize how this brief but rhetorically-rich passage combines so many scriptural texts: PS. 96:1; PS. 96:11; I COR. 15:47; PS. 2:11; I JN. 1:1; REV. 1:17,2:8.

St. Gregory also captures the 4th c. Church's interplay of referring to the coming of Christ into the world, "born of a Virgin," as both Nativity and Theophany. In this same OR. 38, 3, he brilliantly explains this as follows:

Now is the feast of the Theophany, and so also of the Nativity: for it is called both, since two names are ascribed to one reality. For God appeared to human beings through birth. On the one hand he is and is eternally from the eternal Being, above cause and principle, for there was no principle higher than the Principle. On the other hand for us he later comes into being, that the one who has given us being might also grant us well-being; or rather that, as we fell from well-being through evil, he might bring us back again to himself through incarnation. The name is Theophany since he appeared, and Nativity, since he has been born.

This is an opening "taste" of this "banquet of theology." I will try and share more of this nourishing fare during this next week of feasting.

Fr. Steven

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Tough Season for Believers

Dear Parish Faithful,

I enjoy reading the Op-Ed articles of Roth Douthat of the New York Times. He is a believing Christian who has good insights into the cultural and political world that we live in as Christians. Here is a good summary of the somewhat precarious state of contemporary Christianity. The challenges are enormous; we hope that we can see the opportunities that occasionally arise.

Fr. Steven

A Tough Season for Believers
Published: December 19, 2010

Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.

Happily, for those who need a last-minute gift for the anxious Christian in their life, the year just past featured two thick, impressive books that wrestle with exactly these complexities.

The first is “American Grace,” co-written by Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame) and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, which examines the role that religion plays in binding up the nation’s social fabric. Over all, they argue, our society reaps enormous benefits from religious engagement, while suffering from few of the potential downsides. Widespread churchgoing seems to make Americans more altruistic and more engaged with their communities, more likely to volunteer and more inclined to give to secular and religious charities. Yet at the same time, thanks to Americans’ ever-increasing tolerance, we’ve been spared the kind of sectarian conflict that often accompanies religious zeal.

But for Christians, this sunny story has a dark side. Religious faith looks more socially beneficial to America than ever, but the institutional Christianity that’s historically generated most of those benefits seems to be gradually losing its appeal.

Continue Reading . . .

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Nativity 'Holy Week'

Dear Parish Faithful,

By far and away, our attendance and prayerful presence at the pre-festal Vespers leading up to the Feast of our Lord's Nativity in the flesh is at the highest it has ever been. This is especially true of yesterday evening. This, in turn, is giving us more of a sense of a "holy week" guiding us toward the "Winter Pascha." This is always very encouraging; and we thank God for these services that bring our focus back to Christ - "the Reason for the Season." Hopefully, this will continue tonight with the last of such Vesper services. So, if you have yet to come, this evening offers one more opportunity. As I shared on Tuesday evening, there is no place better to be than the warm and prayerful atmosphere of the church, especially after a long hard day of work and activity. This experience is enhanced even further with the hymnography that is already proclaiming the Incarnation of the Son of God from the Virgin Mary. In addition, we celebrate the saint(s) of the day, and these have all been martyrs from Dec. 20 - 24. The cross is already present at the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, and the Lord's martyrs witness to the fact that there is an eternal and unchangeable Truth that one would be willing to die for.

On Friday morning, we will serve the Royal Hours at 9:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. and Noon. These are about the most scripturally full services in the Nativity cycle, with especially-chosen psalms, an OT reading, and then an Epistle and Gospel reading all centering on the birth of Christ.

The beautiful festal Matins will be served on "Christmas Eve" at 7:00 p.m. The entire service proclaims that "God is with us!" Our celebration culminates with the celebration of the Nativity on Christmas morning when we serve the Divine Liturgy beginning at 9:30 a.m.

Here are two other passages from St. Irenaeus of Lyons that contrasts Eve and the Virgin Mary, so that the Virgin Mary is understood to be the "new Eve:"

Eve was seduced by the word of the [fallen] angel and transgressed God's word, so that she fled from him. In the same way, [Mary} was evangelized by the word of an angel and obeyed God's word, so that she carried him [within her]. And while the former was seduced into disobeying God, the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary became the advocate (advocata) of the virgin Eve.
And just as the human race was bound to death because of a virgin, so it was set free from death by a Virgin, since the disobedience of one virgin was counterbalanced by a Virgin's obedience.
If, then, the first-made man's sin was mended by the right conduct of the firstborn Son [of God], and if the serpent's cunning was bested by the simplicity of the dove [Mary], and if the chains that held us bound to death have been broken, then the heretics are fools; they are ignorant of God's economy ("saving dispensation"), and they are unaware of his economy for [the salvation of] man. (Against Heresies, 5, 19)

Adam had to be recapitulated ("renewed," literally, "reheaded") in Christ, so that death might be swallowed up in immortality, and Eve [had to be recapitulated] in Mary, so that the Virgin, having become another virgin's advocate, might destroy and abolish one virgin's disobedience by the obedience of another virgin. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 33)

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Arduous Community Redux

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I would like to offer a brief commentary on this Op-Ed article by David Brooks. He is clearly intrigued by Erica Brown, a Jewish scholar who apparently promotes a traditional reading of the Jewish religious tradition as embedded in the Torah, and beyond that the Talmud. (I know nothing about her, but will assume that she must be a conservative Jew in her thinking and practice). She apparently does this in and through well-organized and highly-disciplined classroom settings. According to David Brooks she is a dynamic teacher/educator. What fascinated me about his article, is how impressed he is that here is an engaged and engaging women who is promoting adult education. She seems determined to assist her fellow-Jews in promoting an "arduous counterculture community." She believes in God and is not afraid to take on relativism by promoting moral principles based on the Torah. She is appealing to "mature and hungry minds" in her uncompromising courses. She is clearly energizing her fellow-Jews. And, very importantly, she is convinced that "you can't be Jewish alone." All of this really impressed David Brooks, who devoted this particular Op-Ed piece to her current work.

Erica Brown and I have a lot in common! We obviously have sharp differences in our religious beliefs, but our goals for our respective communities - and perhaps even some of our methods - are very similar. I am a strong proponent of adult education in our parish for basically the same reasons that Brooks claims energize Erica Brown. In fact, if you substitute "Orthodox Christian" for the word "Jewish" in this article, you would find an excellent description of what we have to try and accomplish as Orthodox Christians living in a highly-secularized, relativistic and, frankly, godless society. In our parish, my goal is to form an "arduous counterculture community" in which "mature and hungry minds" can find the spiritual and intellectual nourishment - if not "ammunition" - to see through the various idols that entice us away from God - beginning with the seductive idol of comfortable Christianity. We can only hope to begin to form Christ within ourselves when we look beyond such idols.

We just finished our latest Adult Education Class on Monday evening. We had a basic dozen from the parish that committed to this six-session class. That was wonderful; but surely we must have more than a dozen or so "mature and hungry minds" in our parish. We read a marvelous book that taught us a great deal about our Orthodox Christian Faith. Everyone in the class not only "enjoyed" the book, but were inspired by what they read. At our last session, we closed by sharing just how meaningful and enriching of an experience it was to come together as a group and openly discuss, share, and learn from the wisdom of Sister Nonna's book and from each other. Essentially, we had a great time together. Yet that experience can only come through commitment. In other words, we realized that you cannot be an Orthodox Christian alone. Of course, it is our communal worship that reveals how true of a statement that is. But there needs to be more beyond worshiping together on Sunday morning in order to strengthen that conviction. We further supplement and support our worship experience through such classes.

Adult religious education is meant to help us learn about Christ and the Gospel. That knowledge is then meant to be "translated" to daily living, in what I like to call the actualization of the Gospel in our lives. On a broader level, adult religious education is meant to help us form an Orthodox worldview, so that Christ is at the very center of our thinking and doing. It brings us into contact with the depths and mystery of life, and of our vocation as human beings to reflect something of God's presence in the world. It allows us to shut off our cell-phones, iPods, and all of that superficial baggage that renders us incapable of concentrating on anything longer that five minutes. It introduces us into a world other than one populated by "dancing stars," "American idols," "survivors," "bachelors and bachelorettes," bombastic radio talk-show hosts, "sport stars," and other sundry "entertainers" that relieve us of our boredom. In short, adult religious education provides the opportunity to drink deeply of the mystery of God revealed to the Church and the world in Christ.

David Brooks ended his article by claiming that we need to go beyond the K-12 educational programs that are well in place in our country. He appealed to our religious communities. He stated that, unfortunately, adult education is "an orphan, an amorphous space in-between;" meaning, I suppose, that it is not that extensively cultivated within our religious communities. Not true about our parish! We have a solid adult education program in place here, in addition to our Church School which covers K-12. I do not claim to have the credentials or talents of an Erica Brown, but I will match her in desire and commitment to adult education. I will "guarantee" you that you will not be bored in our classes, and that you will learn something of substance about Orthodox Christianity. I am confident that if you come once, you will return. Just ask those who do come. Erica Brown is fully aware of some of the fears of her students: the fear of looking stupid or the fear of being exposed for not knowing that much about one's religion. She also spoke of the teacher's fear of being "unmasked" before the class. Those are essentially non-issues for us. We are way beyond that.

Post-modernism stresses community formation. That is one of its positive contributions. The Church has known this all along, of course. According to David Brooks, he is impressed by Erica Brown because she is on to something that religious communities desperately need - sound adult education that is engaging and challenging, as well as educative. We have that foundation here at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit. If you ever decide to get on board, you will definitely agree.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mary, The New Eve

Dear Parish Faithful,

During such a hectic week, with the Nativity only a few days away, I believe that we need to turn whatever extra attention we have to something of substance. That would have to be Christ Himself and His mother, the Theotokos, who is so bound to her Son in the mystery of the Incarnation - God becoming flesh. By the second century, the early Church Fathers, such as St. Justin the Martyr, began to refer to the Virgin Mary as the "new Eve," based on the fact that Christ was the "new Adam," according the the Apostle Paul. The teaching that the Virgin Mary is the new Eve was further developed and deepened by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 202 A.D.). This allowed St. Irenaeus, perhaps the Church's first true biblical theologian, to teach how the Virgin Mary was an integral part of the process known as "recapitulation" - the reversal and "re-heading" of humanity through the incarnation of the Son of God. There is a "new creation" in Christ who is Himself a "new beginning" that returns us to the Father. St. Irenaeus understands the role of the Virgin Mary as reversing the role of the first virgin Eve, in the following manner:

Even though Eve had Adam for a husband, she was still a virgin... By disobeying, she became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race. In the same way, Mary, though she also had a husband, was still a virgin, and by obeying, she became the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race... The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience. What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith. (Against Heresies 3, 22).

This is that type of passage from the Church Fathers that provides us with some truly meaningful thought for further mediation. As you are perhaps losing your mind in these final days before Christmas, turn your inward attentiveness to Mary as the "new Eve." We will follow St. Irenaeus as he develops the fascinating parallelism and contrast between Eve-Mary with another passage tomorrow.

Fr. Steven

Friday, December 17, 2010

Can the Grinch Save Christmas?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

My granddaughter Nadia has read and/or seen the famous "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," because she began talking about it with me the other day. That brought back memories of having read the book by Dr. Seuss and watched the TV version when I was a young boy. This further led to some fantasizing on my part ... Perhaps it would have been a good thing if the Grinch actually did steal "Christmas!" (Apparently, I too have my "dark side" occasionally). The "Christmas" I am referring to, however, is the commercial pageant of excessive consumerism and endless activity that leaves one on the brink of total exhaustion by December 25. If the Grinch had stolen that Christmas, then perhaps the Nativity of Christ could become more central - even to Christians! In my fantasizing, I created an ideal world with an ideal celebration of the Nativity of Christ. Here is what I envisioned, at least for Orthodox Christians:

  • The faithful would actually be able to come to more of the liturgical services - other than Sunday - during the forty-day Nativity Fast, instead of playing bumper cars in shopping mall parking lots, and then spending hours inside of the malls listening to drearily piped in "holiday season" music as they endlessly shopped and spent money (or jacked-up the credit cards). Or, perhaps not spend endless hours shopping online. Then, we could take something home of the peace and prayerfulness of the church. The music that would fill our minds would be the singing and chanting of the sacred hymnography of the Church that invites us to the mystery of the Incarnation. In short, the church and not the mall would be the focus of our seasonal endeavors.
  • The faithful would be free of the consumerism that "obliges" everyone to shop and spend an extraordinary amount of money on a pile of gifts. This would free our minds and hearts to think of the poor and needy who could become more of our focus of attention and the recipients of our generosity, in the spirit of the real St. Nicholas; and ultimately, in the spirit of the Gospel. We would then only have to worry about "offending" God about forgetting to provide gifts for His neediest children and not only our family members, friends and co-workers.
  • The faithful would make a point of coming to Confession before the Feast in a timely fashion rather than desperately trying to "squeeze" an extra fifteen minutes into those over-extended planner books that are filled with a myriad of "winter activities/vacations," social commitments and the like. This would also allow for greater time for self-examination in order to confess those sins with true repentance and compunction.
  • The faithful would be able to concentrate more time on the Holy Scriptures - and less on shopping catalogs - or a good book that leads us deeper into the mystery of the "Orthodox Way" that is centered on the Incarnate Christ. Parishioners would be able to come to the church for any educational/catechetical programs that are scheduled during this same time, so as to communally penetrate that same mystery in a spirit of intense interest in Christ and fellowship as a group.
  • The faithful, basically, would be free of the temptation to marginalize the Nativity of Christ because of the demands of the secularized "Christmas" that devours our time and energy and resources. This would allow for the practice of the "stewardship of time, talents and treasure" in a Christ-directed manner that is consistent with the Gospel.

Perhaps Dr. Seuss was onto something in realizing that the Grinch just may represent the "dark side" of our personality. But again - and I may be pushing it - perhaps the Grinch could represent our conscience that tells us that our focus and attention during Christmas is not quite "on target." That we need to eliminate some of the "distractions" of life that are superficially attractive, but which somehow prevent us from discovering that "something" that would really bring us an everlasting contentment. Of course, we want our children to enjoy themselves at Christmas, as we did as children. We would not want it to be "always winter, but never Christmas," as C. S. Lewis described Narnia when still under the control of the bad witch. So, in the end, the Grinch - like Ebeneezer Scrooge before him - was "converted" and discovered his "good side." Our conversion could entail a turning back to Christ so as to satisfy the deepest longings our minds and hearts. Perhaps this could happen if we were less concerned with conforming ourselves to the world, but more concerned with conforming ourselves to Christ.

Another note: It will be quite a challenge, especially for families with small children, to come to church on Sunday morning, December 26 - The Second Day of the Nativity Feast. However, that Sunday, like all Sundays, is the "Lord's Day," and that is how the liturgical cycle works itself out this year around the date of December 25. I am hopeful that we will have a full gathering as we continue to celebrate the Nativity of Christ.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Blessed Event ~ The Tonsure of Mother Paula

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Our beloved former parishioner and friend in Christ, Sister Vicki Bellas, is now Mother Paula. This was the new name, signifying a "second baptism," conferred on her, and revealed for the first time to the assembled body of the faithful, in the rite of monastic tonsure. (Only Mother Christophora and Sister Vicki knew of this name before the tonsuring). This blessed event occurred this last Monday on the Feast Day of St. Herman of Alaska, December 13, at the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA. Despite the very real threat of severe winter weather, there were still ten persons - or pilgrims - from our parish who were there to participate. Besides Presvytera Deborah and myself, we were joined by Dan and Cristiana Georgescu; Mickey, Alexis and Analisa Calender; Roberta Robedeau; Jeannie Markvan; and Elena Drach. With the exception of some turbulence on the return trip along the more northerly route, the weather remained stable and the roads were clear. As Presvytera Deborah said: The Lord opened up the road for us! Perhaps through the prayers of Blessed Herman of Alaska ...

 This was a truly remarkable event in which the grace of God was palpably present. The depth of commitment on the part of a monastic - a monk or nun - is not only deeply impressive; it is almost "frightening" in its implications. For a worldly-minded person, it can only seem to be insane. The monastic is an ascetic and a cross-bearer in the spirit of the Gospel. She or he must fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul, that "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." And the monastic will further say with the Apostle: "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (GAL. 5:24; 6:14) This is no escape from the pressures and disappointments of "real life" in the world; but rather a conscious decision to move as deeply as humanly possible into the mystery of Christ crucified and risen within the "real life" of the Church. The monastic recognizes his or her sinfulness and the depth of separation from God caused by sin. Therefore, the heart of the monastic life is continual repentance and return to God in the spirit of humility. All self-justification, rationalization and denial must be abandoned and replaced by the simple and heartfelt words from the parable of the prodigal son: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." (LK. 15:21) However, this is not the gloom and doom of the perpetual penitent, but the "joy-creating sorrow" (St. John Klimakos) of a child of God whose infirmities have been healed by the grace of God, and who has received that grace "unto the remission of sins." This is the gift of the "laughter of the soul" that St. John also refers to. Ultimately, it is the conscious acceptance of the gift of salvation in Christ.

We witnessed and in a sense participated in this movement of repentance and return to the compassionate Father in the rite of monastic tonsure. Sister Vicki actualized the return of the prodigal son to his father when she first entered the monastery chapel following the Little Entrance during the Liturgy. This is the point at which the monastic tonsure takes place. (The consecration of a bishop, and the ordination of a priest or deacon also takes place during the eucharistic Liturgy). Clothed in a simple white garment and with her long hair uncovered and flowing, she was led into the church by the other mothers and sisters of the monastic community. More specifically, she entered the church on her knees and "walked" the full distance toward the sanctuary on her knees, weeping for her sins - and accompanied by the weeping of many who were in the church at this highly emotional moment - while being covered by the protective monastic mantia (robe) of her spiritual mother, the abbess Mother Christophora. Mother Christophora explained this to be the "womb" from which Sister Vicki would emerge unto her new and "second birth" into the monastic life, again signified by her new name of Mother Paula. This movement toward the altar culminated in Sister Vicki fully prostrate on the ground in a cruciform position. When she arose before Hieromonk Alexander, the celebrant of the monastic tonsure, a dialogue took place between Fr. Alexander and Sister Vicki, initiated by a very pointedly formulated question: "Why have you come here, Sister, falling down before the Holy Altar and before this holy assembly?" And Sister Vicki responded: "I desire the life of asceticism, Reverend Father." The dialogue continued in this manner, and here I will record some key parts of it:

Father: Do you desire to be deserving of the Angelic Habit, and to be ranked in the choir of monastics?

Novice: Yes, with God's help, Reverend Father.

Father: Truly you have chosen a good and blessed work, but only if you live it to the very end, for good works are wrought in labor, and achieved in pain. ... Do you of your own free will and mind, come to the Lord?

Novice: Yes, with God's help, Reverend Father.

Father: Not by any necessity or constraint?

Novice: No, Reverend Father.

Father: Do you renounce the world, and all that is of the world, according to the command of God?

Novice: Yes, Reverend Father.

Father: Do you thus confess all these things with hope in the power of God, and do you agree to hold fast these promises to the end of your life, by the grace of Christ?

Novice: Yes, with God's help, Reverend Father.

Father: Will you endure all the difficulties and sorrows that the Monastic life will bring with it, for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Novice: Yes, with God's help, Reverend Father.

After the appointed prayers, the monastic tonsure took place. Taking the special scissors that were placed upon the Gospel Book, Sister Vicki's hair was cut cross-wise by Father Alexander, with the words: "Our Sister, Paula, is shorn in the hair of her head as a sign of her renunciation of the world and all that is of the world, renouncing her self-will and all the desires of the flesh ..." (Her long hair will eventually be further cut, as I was informed).

This is followed by the "Giving of the Habit," which is the clothing of Mother Paula with her new monastic garments, lovingly sewed and prepared by the monastic community for this day. (We provided Mother Paula with her new monastic belt). Now clothed as a fully-tonsured monastic - the Angelic Habit - Mother Paula took her place in the front of the nave, participating in the remainder of the Divine Liturgy while holding a hand cross in one hand and a beautifully bound Gospel book in her other hand; for she must take up her cross and follow the precepts of the Lord as recorded in the Holy Gospel. I was graciously asked to be the head celebrant of the Liturgy on this memorable day - con-celebrating with Fr. Thomas Hopko - and I had the joyous blessing of being the first to administer Holy Communion to "the handmaiden of God, the nun Mother Paula ..."

All of us from our parish were profoundly moved during the entire service in which time, indeed, seemed to be suspended as we experienced the liturgical time - or perhaps timelessness - of the holy Liturgy. Knowing and loving Mother Paula as we do; rejoicing in her commitment to the monastic vocation; and sharing in this unforgettable experience with her; it could not possibly have been otherwise. I began my short homily following the Gospel by referring to the words of the Apostle Peter on Mt. Tabor in the presence of the transfigured Christ: "Lord, it is good to be here!" This moving experience was further deepened by a wonderful rite following the dismissal of the Liturgy. After venerating the Cross, each person present approached Mother Paula and asked her the question: "What is your name?" She responded by saying: "My name is Paula, a sinner." Each person then added: "Save yourself, and pray for me!" (This should also serve to help Mother Paula remember her new name!). We have some photographs from the Liturgy and tonsuring itself that we hope to eventually share with everyone in the parish

A wonderful meal followed the Liturgy in the trapeza, a meal "sponsored' by Mother Paula's deceased parents, Constantine and Akrevia, whose gift of inheritance to Mother Paula has been distributed as she now lives under the vow of personal poverty. We all had the opportunity to speak with Mother Paula a bit more in the relaxed and joyful atmosphere of this communal meal. The spirit of Blessed Fr. Herman of Alaska was present with us, as this was, again, the feast of his blessed repose in the Lord (Dec. 13). Following this festive meal, Mother Paula was to return and remain in the chapel for four full days, even sleeping there. That will surely test one's gift for stillness, self-examination and prayer! .

For us at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit, it is more than meaningful that Mother Paula came from our parish. It is a true blessing, something more qualitative than quantitative. Mother Paula came to our parish in about 1991 and stayed with us for more than ten years. For those who were here during those years, we know of her faithfulness, commitment and love of Christ. We admired her sobriety and steadfastness. We appreciated her constant work for the well-being of the parish. We also remember that it was Vicki Bellas/Sister Vicki/Mother Paula who introduced us to the Hogar in Guatemala City. We were part of the process of her monastic vocation slowly working itself out in her mind and heart over those years. We encouraged her when the time came for her to fulfill that vocation. We always looked forward to her periodic visits to Cincinnati. We anticipate her visits to us in the future. We anticipate, also, our visits to the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration in the future. As Mother Paula will assuredly continue to pray for us we, in turn, must keep her in our prayers. May the Lord God bless and preserve her during her trials to come; and fill her with the joy and peace of the Kingdom of Heaven!

We praise and thank God for meeting good, wholesome Christian people in our lives; simple human beings who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, make Christ present in a convincing manner. We believe this to be the case with Mother Paula, as we also strive to embody that same presence for others.

Fr. Steven

Friday, December 10, 2010

On Christian Stewardship VI

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is the sixth meditation from Fr. Stanley Harakas on Christian Stewardship:

Give, trusting that God will multiply (II COR. 9:10). Among the practices which some of the excellent, contemporary, charitable organizations, such as the International Orthodox Christian Charities, follow is giving to build greater self-sufficiency, "getting the destitute on their feet." The Apostle speaks of Godly giving as having its source in God Who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food. There are some needs, however, brought about by overwhelming events such as drought, famine, and war, which require us to supply basic seed and food, knowing and trusting that God will "increase the fruits of [our] righteousness."

The first part of this commentary connects stewardship as giving with trust that God brings the giving to fruition. We do a small part, and God through his grace multiplies the small measure of our giving. As the Parable of the Sower puts it, "And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold" (MK. 4:8). An ethical implication of this affirmation is that the Christian steward cannot assess his or her giving in a prideful manner. God gave the resources to begin with; our giving is only proportionate to what we have been given and it bears fruit not because of us but because of what others do with it, most of all, God. So givings should be a humbling experience, not a prideful one. Thus, the source of any righteousness that comes from giving is the grace of God; our righteousness is always contingent and always short of purity an fullness. Part of the increase is its association with the giving of others. The parish as an agent for the use of stewardship contributions, as well as church and other philanthropic organizations, do, indeed, multiply the effects of individual stewardship. Thus, stewardship is a corporate act, not individualistic.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, December 9, 2010

On Christian Stewardship V

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is the fifth meditation on Christian stewardship from Fr. Stanley Harakas. Once again, remember that he is building off of St. Paul in II COR. 9:6-11. Struggling with hesitancy or anxiety is difficult, but the meditation below offers some real insight into the "bigger picture" which can inform that struggle and our ultimate decisions to be stewards of God's abundant giving to us.

Give from the abundance received from God (II COR. 9:8). The Apostle promises to hearts that are united to God: "you always [will have] all sufficiency" (v. 8). Hesitation to give freely, which is driven by the desire to "guarantee" one's own needs, is tempered by knowing God's abounding grace. Even those of very simple means, but who truly know the Lord, understand that they have a real measure of "abundance for every good work." (v. 8)

The ethical aspect of this confidence in the abundance of God's giving is evident, pointing to the core Christian sense of dependency of the Christian on God for all of his or her needs. The words of the Lord's Prayer are a constant reminder of this reality: "Give us this day our daily bread" (MT. 6:11). Ethically, the confidence that God will provide for each of us is liberating. As Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist put it, praying "that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life." (LK. 1:74-75). Confidence in the "abundance of the Lord" in store for us in this life and in the next does not lead to a disregard for material needs, but to an inner peace that the Provident God cares for us. And in that confidence stewardship giving carries with it no anxiety or hesitancy. It is part of the genuine freedom, or eleutheria, of the Christian's life.

Fr. Steven

On Christian Stewardship IV

Dear Parish Faithful,

This is the fourth of Fr. Stanley Harakas' meditations on Christian stewardship. I found this one particularly effective as he speaks eloquently about "cheerful giving." Of note is how Fr. Harakas equates giving in return to God as a way of discovering our humanity.

Give from joy (II COR. 9:7), or "Give merrily." The key word is "merry" or "joyous," in the original "hilarion." One invariably gives happily from a consciousness awash in the glad tidings that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (II COR. 5:19). To know the Lord removes all reluctance and constraint for he is the great treasure and ample food. Note how St. Paul changed Proverbs 22:9, from "God 'blesses' ... to "God" 'loves' a cheerful giver."

"Note, also, the imperative, or normative "ought" language. What is normally not thought of as something that can be willed and made to occur - joy - is nevertheless commanded. How can this be? Ethically, the opposite of giving joyfully is to give with reluctant sadness. Giving becomes an unpleasant duty, fulfilled because somehow the stewardship giver is psychologically, morally, or spiritually coerced into giving. Clearly for the Christian such giving "ought not" to be associated with stewardship. Giving to the church "ought" rather to be perceived as a privilege and an opportunity to express one's faith in the loving and blessing God, and therefore an ethical act. Cheerful giving implies that the giver is happy and eager and fully willing to be a part of the effort to do the work of the Lord in the church. Genuine stewardship giving is fulfilling and satisfying and so produces a sense of well-being and emotional and spiritual fitness. Authentic stewardship giving is rewarding in its wholesomeness. To give as God gives is to become more human, more of what God has created human beings to be. To be an unconstrained and authentic steward is to incorporate giving into wholeness of the Christian life growing toward God-likeness."

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Christian Stewardship III

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is the third of seven meditations on Christian stewardship - the sharing of time, talent and treasure - from Fr. Stanley Harakas (based on II COR. 9:6-11):

Give from the heart. Of course the Apostle is speaking of the heart that is submitted to the Lord. A heart which belongs to the Lord neither grudges nor feels compulsion to give, but shares in the manner in which the Lord gives, "pressed down ... and running over." (Lk. 6:38)

"The ethical dimension is also evident in this passage that expands and gives content to the affirmation that inner dispositions form the important ethical aspect of stewardship. In Orthodox spiritual thought, the heart is central to the Christian life.* The heart that is in union with God "neither grudges nor feels compulsion to give," precisely because it has reached the level of true freedom to be itself. Orthodox ethics distinguishes between "free choice" or "self-determination (Gk. autoexousion) on the one hand and the condition of eleutheria, or true freedom, which is when there are no conflicting inner impulses toward action. The goal is for Christians to act in God-like ways, not conflicted by temptations, insecurities, and mental reservations. Such stewardship behavior is free and outpouring and "shares in the manner in which the Lord gives." In all likelihood, such a high standard in the practice of stewardship is rarely achieved, but the ethical "ought" pointing to such unconstrained and unreserved motives remains valid and a sought after goal."

* Kallistos Ware defines the heart, in part, as follows: "HEART (kardia): not simply the physical organ but the spiritual centre of man's being, man as made in the image of God, his deepest and truest self, or the inner shrine, to be entered only through sacrifice and death, in which the mystery of the union between the divine and the human is consummated."

Fr. Steven

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Christian Stewardship II

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is the second of Fr. Stanley Harakas' seven meditations on the stewardship of our time, talent and treasure:

Give with blessings (vs. 6). Most English translations contrast "sparingly" with "bountifully" or "generously" in the opening verse. In the original St. Paul used the plural of the word "blessing" in contrast to "stingy." Hence, "one who sows stingily" differs utterly from "one who sows with blessings." For one like the Apostle, formed in the Hebraic mind, to speak of blessings always implies God, for, as the Psalmist says, "Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel, Who alone doeth wonders" (Ps. 71:19). Only God is blessed, and all "blessings" flow from Him. The Apostle's point is that our giving always is in the context of the giving of the Giver of life.

"This dimension is made particular and more specific with the discussion about giving with blessings. In the first instance, the very form of the passage is ethical, in the sense that it is normative. It instructs how the Christian ought to give: "Give with blessings." The author, on the basis of the Hebraic understanding of things, accents what was affirmed several times earlier in this chapter, that the goods we enjoy - and from which we give - are ours only be derivation: "Only God is blessed, and all 'blessings' flow from Him." It is an affirmation of the fundamental Orthodox Christian ethical insight, that the source of all good is God. Since God is the "giver of Life," all other values and goods that are in the sphere of human choice and decision making arre derivative."

Fr. Steven

A Royal Dignity

Dear Parish Faithful,

In ch. 5 of her remarkable book, God's Many-Splendored Image, Sister Nonna examines the "royal dignity" of being created as a human being "in the image and likeness of God." She begins by asking some direct questions, the answers to which have enormous consequences as to how we view ourselves and our neighbors: "Do I have real dignity as a human person?" And "Does my neighbor have real dignity as a human person?"

Basing herself on the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, Sister Nonna of course answers those questions in the affirmative. In fact, she writes the following:

Because everyone is made in the image of God, and because this image defines what it means to be human, people are fundamentally equal, regardless of the differences in wealth, education, and social status. The Church preached this countercultural message in the ancient world and still preaches it now. For example, here is what Martin Luther King Jr. said in a sermon on July 4, 1965:

The whole concept of the imago Dei , as it is expressed as it is expressed in Latin, the "image of God," is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this is a nation; there are no gradations in the image of God ... We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.

Sister Nonna offers this commentary on this fine passage from Dr. King's speech:

In 1965 when King preached this sermon, people in our culture were not yet attentive to the problem of sexist language. If he were speaking today, surely he would say, "God made us to live together as brothers and sisters and to respect the dignity and worth of every human being. And yet today, although our culture speaks loudly about the equality of all people, in many places the message that all people are made in God's image and should be treated accordingly is still countercultural.

In this chapter, we will discuss how early Christians affirmed that women, slaves and lepers (read "social outcasts") are made in God's image.

Christian societies have not honored the image of God in those three "categories" of life nearly as well as the vision given to us in the scriptural revelation expects of us. Though at times a dreary topic, it can be inspiring when you read the Scriptures carefully and the commentary of the great Church Fathers on these themes.

It is certainly a group of topics more than worthy of our time and attention on Monday evening, December 6.

Vespers at 7:00 p.m.
Session V - "Royal Dignity" - at 7:45 p.m.

Click this link for notes and questions for our next session on Monday evening. Please scroll down to p. 9.
For more on our Fall Adult Education Class, visit our website.

Fr. Steven

On Christian Stewardship I

Dear Parish Faithful,

Recently, I have been reading some excellent articles about the meaning, purpose and practice of Christian stewardship. This is about the offering of our "time, talent and treasure," ultimately to God, within the context of our life in the Church. One such article was written by Fr. Stanley Harakas, a noted Greek Orthodox theologian who writes prolifically about the ethical content of our Orthodox Christian Faith; what we "ought" and "ought not" to do as Christians. The article is entitled "Ethics and Stewardship." Toward the end of the article, Fr. Harakas offers a series of seven short meditations, based on a passage from St. Paul: II COR. 9:16. In doing so, Fr. Harakas is further expanding on an internet presentation from October, 2000, called Dynamis for Orthodox Christians. The author of that internet biblical meditation is David Patton. I would like to share these seven meditations - hopefully on a daily basis - with all of you as you consider your role as Christian stewards, and as you prayerfully make decisions on your own sharing of "time, talent and treasure" within the context of parish membership. The italicized portion comes from the original meditation and Fr. Harakas' expanded commentary follows:

Godly Giving: II Corinthians 9:6-11, especially vs. 10, "Now may he who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness." Today's passage from the Apostle Paul encourages us to look deeply into our motives for giving. His words are greatly illuminated when read in terms of seven prescriptions for godly giving, each of them derived directly from the Apostle's words and intent.

"As seen from the title, the theme of this meditation is "Godly Giving," placing it in the framework of the stewardship practices of individual persons or family units in regard to their financial contributions to the church and to charities and to those in need. The meditation is on a classic passage for church stewardship and reflection, II Corinthians 9:6-11. The focus is on motives and intents, essential dimensions of Orthodox Christian ethics. Critical aspects of ethical evaluation of behaviors are the nature and quality of the inner dispositions that guide actions. For Christianity, especially, according to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, inner dispositions are paramount. The author rightfully emphasizes this ethical dimension as the starting point for discussing how the Orthodox Christian "ought" to give in the practice of stewardship. Precisely because the meditation is about "godly giving," the discussion is placed within the framework of the Orthodox Christian understanding of growing in the image and likeness of God. Giving by Orthodox Christians ought to be reflective of the way God gives to us. Stewardship is an aspect of our growth toward God-likeness, or theosis."

Fr. Steven

Read the entire series: Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI