Wednesday, August 31, 2011

To Begin That Interior Renewal

Dear Parish Faithful,

A reminder, that in preparation and recognition of the Church New Year that begins on Thursday, September 1; we will serve the beautiful akathist hymn “Glory to God for All Things” at 7:00 p.m. The title of this hymn is taken from the last known words of St. John Chrysostom before he died in exile in a remote part of Asia Minor. This brings to mind the words of the Apostle Paul from his Epistle to the Romans:

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 our Lord. (ROM. 8:38-39)

Although uncertainty remains, many attribute this hymn to the Archpriest Grigory Petrov (+1942), while he was a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp. There are allusions to life in the camp within the hymn. The possibility of such a magnificent glorification of God emerging from terrible suffering once again attests to the power of St. Paul’s words above; the resilience and perseverance of a person who entrusts his life to Christ; and the power of Christian hope recognizing that God is the ultimate reality and Lord of the living and the dead. This akathist hymn, with its particular structure of thirteen kontakia and twelve ikoi, is amazing in its comprehensive praise of God for “all things” both temporal and eternal: the cosmic and natural realms in all of their vastness to the smallest of fragrant flowers that bring delight to our senses. God is glorified for the range of human experience that embraces everything between life and death: our capacity to love, to create, to feel awe and beauty in the presence of the created world, and even to endure suffering in the hope we have through Christ when we must. And God is glorified for the presence of His “two hands” – the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. We hear praise for the gifts of the human mind and spirit, including poetry and scientific discovery.

This akathist hymn in which God is glorified for “all things” can serve to offer some much-needed context to, and even comfort for, the “trials and tribulations” of our own lives which can overwhelm us at times, leaving us physically exhausted and spiritually drained. There is always that nagging question -“What’s it all about?” - that can intrude upon our many efforts to avoid such questions with the busyness of everyday life, or the restless efforts to distract ourselves and entertain ourselves into a stupor of insensitivity to life’s deeper questions. This hymn is a wonderful antidote to such myopic efforts toward self-gratification, as well as a genuine inspiration to look at our lives with the renewed vision of faith that detects the presence of God in the world around us and within us.

If life allows you to be present so as to glorify the living God that we claim to collectively believe in as a parish of Orthodox Christians, then here is a wonderful opportunity to begin that interior process of renewal as we begin the Church New Year. In the final analysis, it is all “about God” when we ask the essential questions about life and death. And we need to thank and glorify God whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Celebrating the Afterfeast of the Dormition

Dear Parish Faithful,

“Mary can only be properly understood, her mystery can only be faithfully celebrated, insofar as she is revealed by the person and saving work of her Son. But the converse is true as well. The mystery of Christ’s redemptive suffering, the secret of his saving work hidden from the Prince of this age, is only fully revealed to eyes of faith through the person of his Holy Mother.” (Mary in the New Testament, Fr. John Breck).

We have been blessed with a wonderful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The service of Great Vespers yesterday evening and the Divine Liturgy this morning were very well-attended, with just about forty parishioners at each service, I believe. Considering the one service was on Sunday evening and the other on a workday morning, that was excellent participation. Such an open veneration of the Theotokos within our parish community is deeply encouraging. I regret the fact that others were not able to attend the services, but I wish one and all a joyous feast as we commemorate the mysterious “translation” of the Mother of God into the Kingdom of God following her holy Dormition. Breaking the fast is no little contribution to the over-all joyousness of the day either!

The Feast of the Dormition has the full octave of afterfeast observance, meaning that we continue to honor the Mother of God’s falling asleep and passage into the realm of divine glory for eight days. The Leavetaking is thus on August 23. Practically, that means we should continue to add the troparion and kontakion of the Feast to our daily prayers; as well as using them as a means of blessing before our meals. The respective texts are readily available on our parish website or perhaps in your Orthodox Prayer Book. I would also suggest taking advantage of all of the excellent material on our website under the Dormition. There are some remarkable sermons and summaries of the meaning of the Feast also available there.

Next Sunday’s Liturgy falls within the Afterfeast, meaning we continue to sing and chant the appointed festal material. As yesterday’s homily was devoted to our over-all veneration and its meaning – both theological/spiritual and practical - of the Virgin Mary; then next Sunday’s homily will concentrate more specifically on the Feast of the Dormition itself.

The decorated tomb with the icon of the Theotokos in blessed repose will also remain an open place for our veneration until the Leavetaking.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Friday, August 12, 2011

Come, O Gathering of Those who Love the Feasts

Dear Parish Faithful,

This year, August 14 & 15 - the eve of the Dormition and the actual Feast day itself – fall on a Sunday evening and Monday. This means that many parishioners will face a challenge (of sorts) to participate in this “summer Pascha.” The Great Vespers on the eve of the Feast has been developed in our parish over the years, and parish participation has grown accordingly. In fact, over the last five years or so, this festal service has become one of the most well-attended in our Feast Day cycle. We now decorate the “tomb” (epitaphios) of the Theotokos as well as place the icon of her blessed repose within it and place the tomb in the center of the church to allow for our veneration of the Dormition/Falling Asleep of the Mother of God . This is clearly an echo of Great and Holy Friday. (Even though we do not use them, a series of “lamentations” have been composed, again after the pattern of the Lamentations before the tomb of Christ during the Holy Saturday Matins). Yet, returning to church on Sunday evening is not a very promising prospect according to the history of our parish. I am quite realistic about this, having eliminated certain services over the years (Sunday evening Lenten services) for that very reason. However, the Church calendar is what it is, and this year the Feast falls on these particular days. The Church calendar always poses a challenge in our contemporary setting!

However, it certainly is not “impossible” to return to church on a Sunday evening. Here is one possible way of approaching that near “impossible” endeavor: Every Feast is the actualization of the event being commemorated; its “re-presenting.” This is the mystery and glory of “liturgical time” within the Church. We become participants and not mere observers. That is what is behind the use of the word “today” when we commemorate an event in the life of Christ or the Mother of God:

Come, O gathering of those who love to keep the feasts, come and let us for a choir … For today is heaven opened wide as it receives the Mother of Him who cannot be contained. (Litiya of the Feast of Dormition)

Now, as Christ is the New Adam, the Theotokos is the New Eve. As the first Eve became the “mother of all living,” the Theotokos is now the Mother of all of those “alive” in Christ and in the Church and essentially of all humankind as the intercessor of those both aware or unaware of her universal motherhood. This motherhood to all believers was clearly manifested at the Cross, when the Lord, from the Cross, declared to the beloved disciple: “Behold, your mother!” This came right after Jesus told His Mother concerning the beloved disciple: “Woman, behold, your son!” (JN. 19:26-27) The beloved disciple (John) represents all true disciples and believers in Christ. Thus, all disciples have been placed within the maternal embrace of the New Eve, The Ever-Virgin Mary and the Mother of the living. Again, she is our common mother. So, in addition, to our actual (biological) mothers whom we love, we love the Mother of God and seek her maternal embrace. We highly venerate her as the Mother of God and the Mother of the living. How sad for those Christians who do not openly venerate the Theotokos!

If the Feast of the Dormition commemorates – and thus actualizes – the falling asleep in death of the Theotokos, then we “re-present” her funeral in our liturgical services dedicated to this event. Being present at this Feast is like being present at the funeral service of our own mother! Of course, we declare that “neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos” and that “she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb.” (Kontakion of the Feast) Because of her Son – our Lord Jesus Christ – she died a “deathless death.” The Theotokos has actualized our common hope and destiny in Christ, Who has “trampled down death by death.” In commemorating her blessed repose, we commemorate/celebrate her “translation” into the presence of God in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is why the Dormition is in reality a Feast. We should be able to draw out the implications of these glorious and marvelous truths in how we then approach this Feast.

The full liturgical cycle that we serve for the Dormition is a wonderful opportunity to express our love and respect for the Theotokos. I encourage those who are able to be present for the full cycle to do so. But often enough, our responsibilities – like going to work! – make that unrealistic. Yet, if work precludes the possibility of our presence for the Liturgy on Monday morning, then we are blessed with the Great Vespers on Sunday evening. I believe that it is always very important to be serious about our claims. If we claim that the Virgin Mary is the Mother of God and the Mother of the living, our response to that claim takes on an added depth and urgency. Presence and participation is always a good way to begin.

The Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary:

Great Vespers with Litiya and Blessing of Loaves – Sunday at 6:00 p.m.
Divine Liturgy – Monday at 9:30 a.m.

The Awesome God and the Transfigured Life

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Look down from heaven, O Master, upon those who have bowed their heads unto Thee, the awesome God.” (From the Divine Liturgy)

The Afterfeast of the Transfiguration of Christ will continue until the Leavetaking of the Feast on August 13. Having ascended Mt. Tabor with the disciples of the Lord, we will then descend back into the world in order to hopefully witness to the glorious vision that has been vouchsafed to us of Christ shining resplendently in His divine glory (MK. 9:1-8; MATT. 17:1-13; LK. 9:28-36). Biblically, the “glory of God,” refers to a palpable “shining forth” of the presence of God that overwhelms the recipient of such a vision. With their spiritual senses purified by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were able to “see” the glory of God revealed in Christ on Mt. Tabor, and they, too, were overwhelmed. Truly, therefore, the Transfiguration is an “awesome” Feast!

Yet, today, everything is described as “awesome:” the loud, the superficial, the mundane. Are we witnessing a kind of experiential egalitarianism, where nothing is allowed to stand apart from or above anything else? Is even the awesomeness of God succumbing to this leveling effect? How discouraging that would be, for we refer to God liturgically as “the awesome Judge,” the “awesome God;” and the Eucharist as the “Awesome Mysteries of Christ.” This is as it should be, for the word awesome is based on the noun “awe” which remains defined today as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” It is God Who is truly awesome! Anything else that can be genuinely described as awesome derives that quality from God.

More specifically, is the awesomeness of the Transfiguration somehow reduced to just one more passing “church event” that comes and goes with an alarmingly insignificant amount of impact on our Christian minds and hearts? Can the awesome Feast of the Transfiguration even “compete” any longer with a new blockbuster film for our attention and capacity as human beings to be “awed” by the sacred and sublime? I am convinced that when everything is “awesome,” then nothing is really awesome. Inevitably, we will find ourselves calling the most boring of occurrences “awesome,” but with no real enthusiasm or conviction. (Perhaps we can excuse our younger children who are now using the term “awesome,” for the “little things” in life can still fill them with a sense of wonder that we adults have lost).

Be that as it may, the disciples were awed by Christ on Mt. Tabor when “He was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light” (MATT. 17:2). This metamorphosis – the Greek word behind our transfiguration - was a direct revelation of Christ’s divine nature or, more precisely, of the uncreated energies of His divinity which now shone through the flesh He assumed in the Incarnation. Jesus did not become something He previously was not, but revealed His true identity as both God and man. To the glory of God, Jesus Christ is a human being fully alive. Such a revelation is unique to the Gospels and clearly prefigures the Lord’s resurrection and the glory of the Age to Come. Moses and Elijah appeared flanking the Lord, “talking with Him” (v. 3). Peter wanted to build three booths: one for Christ, one for Moses and one for Elijah. In other words Peter wanted to prolong the vision and the experience. But this was not to be. Interestingly enough, in an apocryphal account of the transfiguration, Peter is openly rebuked for his mistaken desire. Peter and other disciples – James and John – must come down from the mount and witness to Christ through the remainder of their lives and through their deaths ultimately.

The same is true of us. If we have not lost our capacity to be awed in the presence of God, perhaps primarily in the Liturgy, but also when reading the Scriptures, praying alone, looking into the face of another and seeing the “image and likeness of God;” then we must take that awesome experience with us into the everyday flow of events and encounters that mark our lives. We must come down from those metaphorical mountains that we climb, seeing only Jesus after the vision vouchsafed to us by God; and bear witness to that presence and experience by the quality of our Christian lives:

O Christ our God, who was transfigured in glory on Mount Tabor showing to Thy disciples the splendor of Thy Godhead, do Thou enlighten us also with the light of Thy knowledge and guide us in the path of Thy commandments, for Thou alone art good and lovest mankind. (Litiya verse of the Feast)

The fact that it is in the Orthodox Church that the Transfiguration is considered a great Feast is meaningless if the experience of the Feast does not have an impact on us. The goodness, truth and beauty that shine forth from Christ are the uncreated energies that free us from apathy and cynicism; and free us further to pursue the virtue of Christ that “has covered the heavens.” (Liturgy of Preparation)

Fr Steven

Friday, August 5, 2011

Life Transfigured through the Festal Experience

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a timely passage from the small journal published quarterly by the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA. The journal is appropriately called “LIFE TRANSFIGURED.” (That already says a great deal about an Orthodox worldview!) In one of the journal’s anonymously written articles by one of the nuns, entitled “The Festal Experience,” we read of the central place of the major Feast Days in the life of the Church – and hopefully within our own lives:
Why is it that on a feast day the whole of nature mysteriously smiles? Why is it that then a heavenly gladness fills our hearts: a gladness far beyond that of earth and the very air in church and in the altar becomes luminous? It is the breath of Thy gracious love (from the Akathist, “Glory to God for all Things”). Feast days are an important part of our life as Orthodox Christians. Many of us have experienced the heavenly gladness that fills our hearts on Pascha, the anticipation, the excitement, and the joy. Pascha is a celebration that just needs to be experienced – reading a book is no substitute for participating in the services. In addition to Pascha, the Church gives us many other feasts throughout the year, each with its own unique grace.

The feast days of the Church are important because they set the cycle for the entire year and help us grow from one year to the next. Many of us learned about these feasts in Sunday school or catechism classes or through personal reading. But as we know from Pascha, our Orthodox understanding of the feasts as well as our life in Christ is built on liturgical experience. It is not enough for us to simply learn about these events and their theological significance. We must celebrate them within the liturgical cycle of the church. It is through these special days that the Church brings us the very voice of God. We respond to this voice of His grace and love by letting ourselves be led into the fullness of each service, allowing the words spoken through the Church by that Voice to form us more clearly into His image.

Two of those great feast days fall within the month of August – Transfiguration and Dormition. These two feasts reveal to us our destiny as human persons created “in the image and likeness of God” – to be transfigured by the uncreated energy of God – the gift of the Holy Spirit; and to fall asleep in the Lord awaiting our “translation” to heaven, already anticipated in the falling asleep of the Mother of God. As the unknown monastic author of our article reminds us, this is a gift to be experienced in the liturgical assembly of the Church and not simply something to be read about in a book. Thank God we do not have “worship by committee” in the Orthodox Church, where services and celebrations are more-or-less made up as we go along, artificially striving for “creativity” and the illusion of “relevance” (with irrelevance victimizing every new “gimmick” almost before it is enacted). We are blessed with an authentic and ageless liturgical Tradition that initiates us into the “mystery of Christ” that organically combines holiness, majesty, spiritual sobriety and aesthetic beauty in the experience of worshipping the one living God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Fr Steven

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Choosing the Kingdom

Dear Parish Faithful,

“A lack of veneration of the Mother of God does not necessarily imply a denial of faith in the Kingdom of God. But to venerate her and to glorify her as the true Theotokos, as the Church does, this is to confess the coming of the Kingdom of God in power.” (Archpriest Alexis Kniazeff)

As we embark upon the two-week fast that leads us to the “summer pascha” of the Dormition of the Theotkos on August 15, I would like to outline the various services and feasts that we will encounter, plan to participate in as fully as possible, and hopefully experience as “the coming of the Kingdom of God in power.” This is a wonderful opportunity to once more make the Church the main focus of our lives, as we make a conscious choice to “not be conformed to this world.” (ROM. 12:2) With children or without, through a “renewal of our minds,” we strengthen our relationship with God in and through the Church and establish our commitment to Christ and the Church as the major priority of our lives. The schedule through which we accomplish this is the following:

Friday, August 5: Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration at 6:00 p.m.
This major Feast Day will include the blessing of the fruit baskets that we bring with us to church that evening.

Monday, August 8: Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast of the Glorification of St. Herman of Alaska at 6:00 p.m.
One of most beloved “patron saints” of North America, we commemorate the date on which he was liturgically and canonically ranked among the known saints of the Church – August 9, 1970.

Sunday, August 14: Great Vespers for the Feast of Dormition at 6:00 p.m.
The beautiful service in which the decorated tomb is in the center of the church on which is the icon of the Theotokos in blessed repose for our heartfelt veneration.

Monday, August 15: Divine Liturgy for Dormition at 9:30 a.m.
The culmination of the two-week Fast in which we commemorate the falling asleep and “translation to Heaven” of the Theotokos.

The Vesperal Liturgy has become, over the years, a pastoral response to the “working communities” which our parishes now are. In other words, the vast majority of parishioners of any given parish today cannot attend the morning Liturgy, so the Vesperal Liturgy allows more of the faithful to receive the Eucharist for the Feast. In a sense, this is patterned after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts that we serve during Great Lent. That service is actually an extended Vespers with the reception of Holy Communion attached to it. It is not a full Liturgy because we do not use the Eucharistic canon and consecrate the Gifts; but it allows for the reception of the Eucharist on a weekday of Lent through the Gifts that were “presanctified” the Sunday before. The Vesperal Liturgy combines a part of the festal Vespers with the Liturgy (which we enter at a certain point) and the full Eucharistic canon and consecration of the Gifts that we then receive as on a given Sunday Liturgy. This allows for a full participation in the Feast, as the Eucharist is the culmination of the Feast in all of its fullness. But again, here we are stressing its pastoral purpose for allowing as much participation as possible. With Dormition on a Monday this year, however, we cannot celebrate the Feast with the Vesperal Liturgy, and so follow the traditional pattern of Great Vespers on the eve and the Liturgy in the morning.

“Real life” has its endless daily challenges that can often enough interrupt the most well-intentioned of plans; a common occurrence with young children, of course. “Daily turbulence” or “daily fatigue” is not something that is easily anticipated. Planning ahead – together with a sense of commitment - can help. Yet, often we speak of prior “commitments” that do not allow us to attend the many services on our liturgical calendars. Yet, how do those “commitments” compare to our commitment to faith in Christ? Are these “commitments” that can be postponed to a day other than one which calls us to the worship of God in the Church? Can we move things around on our calendars? Whose “invitation” should hold a priority for us – one from our social calendars, or the one from Christ? Can any serious Orthodox Christian actually choose entertainment, a social event, or a shopping excursion at the local mall when the Feast is being celebrated in the Church??? I believe that such a choice should be brought to Confession and repented of. At least let your conscience be clear for an absence for a cause “worthy of a blessing” if that is how things work out. This is not about a “guilt trip,” but about our choices. You are probably better off not coming to church if you think you are being “guilted” into doing so.

If a local non-denominational “mega-church” can fill up on a weekday for a power-point presentation on a giant screen or some “Jesus entertainment” (they may mean well, but probably don’t know any better); than certainly the parishes of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church can fill up as well (at least proportionately) for the Feast Days that signify the “coming of the Kingdom of God in power.” The choice is ours.

Fr. Steven