Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Zacchaeus, and the Temptation of Comparison

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I noticed and then read the two fine short homilies posted on our parish website concerning the story of the publican Zacchaeus and his conversion to following Christ. One was written by Fr. Thomas Hopko; and the other by Fr. Ambrose Young (in which he extensively quotes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom). These two homilies offer a great deal of insight into the character of Zacchaeus and the nature of his repentance, and I would highly recommend that you take the time to read them. I see no reason to write a further meditation that would cover the same ground. However, there is a point that I would like to add as a general comment on reading and reflecting on the Scriptures, and their “application” to our own lives. Or, rather, I would like to add a word of caution in the face of what I would call “the temptation of comparison.”

By this I mean that when we read the Scriptures and encounter a character such as Zacchaeus – or other unnamed publicans – as well as the prodigal son, and other “great sinners;” we may well console ourselves with this consciously or unconsciously formulated train of thought: “Well, I am not quite so bad as these sinners. I am basically a good person who has not fallen to the depths of sin that these figures found in the Gospels have. They are there precisely to show us that even great sinners can be forgiven by God in His mercy. And I appreciate the dramatic effect of such a lesson. I certainly need to improve myself; and I certainly need to work on my relationship with God. But I have not defrauded others as Zacchaeus did, and I have not wasted my life in loose living as did the prodigal son. Most people like and respect me. Of course I, too, am sinful, but in comparison to the sinners mentioned in the Gospels, it would be false humility on my part to admit to an equally sinful life. In other words, I may be a sinner, but I am not such a great sinner.” Even if “objectively” true – and we can never claim absolute certainty about that - such a line of reasoning would basically waste the entire meaning of the passage on us, and perhaps further mean that we would have been better off not even listening to or reading the given passage! Such self-righteousness is considered to be a great sin in the Gospels. If, in comparison to Zacchaeus and the prodigal son, we are not as bad of sinners, does that mean that we are not as equally in need of the mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and love of God?

We seem to be drawn to such comparisons because we always come out looking good, or at least better than the other, when making these comparisons. One further and fascinating attribute of “human nature.” This, in turn, appeals to our vanity and self-regard. We are very much preoccupied with how others perceive us; our self-image as projected outwardly is of great concern to us. We would be mortified – and then either angered or depressed - if we thought that others thought poorly of us. We have a deeply-felt need to be able “to hold our head high” when compared to our neighbor. If only we were as concerned about how God may see us!

There may be another revealing side to the “temptation of comparison:” How does our repentance “compare” with that of Zacchaeus or the prodigal son, or other great sinners encountered in the Gospels? When the Lord came to his home, Zacchaeus was moved to give one-half of his possessions to the poor, and he agreed to restore fourfold what we had stolen from others. Do our fruits of repentance even begin to match that of Zacchaeus? And who compares well with the prodigal son throwing himself on the mercy of his father with no expectations in return? Have any of us been so overwhelmed by the saving presence of Christ and the sheer graciousness of the Gospel to react in such a manner? Perhaps it is this comparison that can teach us some humility.

Before approaching the Chalice in order to receive the Eucharist, each one of us makes the same confession as we collectively share the same preparatory prayer: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” The very point of this public confession is that we are not comparing ourselves with others, but confessing to our own sinfulness before God. If analyzed comparatively, such a prayer would be reduced to a kind of empty rhetoric. Compared to the great villains of history and the great sinners that fill our news stories, we again come off as good, decent human beings. But that does not mean that we are in less need of the saving grace of the Gospel. Do I need “less grace” than the great sinners of history and contemporary life because I am comparatively not as bad? Hopefully, the absurdity of such a question is more than immediate. The only way that we can effectively prepare for the approaching Lenten season is to open our minds and hearts to the Gospel lessons of humility, repentance, conversion, the fruits of repentance and a renewed love of God and neighbor. We do this by listening to each Gospel passage as a direct call from Christ: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”

Friday, January 20, 2012

Memorial Customs and Prayers

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This past Monday, when I went to the gravesite of my brother together with presvytera Deborah and other members of my extended family; in addition to the traditional text of our memorial service, I took along with me a prayer that Mother Paula shared with me in the past. This prayer, I further discovered from Mother Paula, was written by St. Nikolai (Velimirovich) of Zicha, a twentieth c. saint known for his prolific writings, many of which are in the form of meditations, reflections, and actual prayers. I thought to incorporate this prayer into the service, for it teaches and reveals, as well as it speaks directly to God, a great deal about the meaning of death, and of our ultimate hope in God’s mercy, care and love. This could be of great benefit to those participating in the service through their presence. At funeral and memorial services, the prayers that we offer to God speak on behalf of the departed; but they also speak to the living so that at moments of crisis and grief we can hear about the consolation of Christ, and be reminded about our faith in the saving presence of Christ; a faith that not even death itself – the “last enemy” - can frustrate. This, then, is the prayer written by St. Nikolai:

O Lord, we pray for our departed __________. We believe, Lord, that whoever believes in you shall never die. Our loved ones are now with You in a special place You have prepared for them. We thank You for the years they were with us. Now, they cannot come to us, but we will go to them. The separation is only temporary. We look forward to the day when we shall be reunited in your Kingdom. We loved them, but you love them infinitely more. We relinquish them to your greater love and care. May they rest safe in your gentle bosom, safe in Your gentle arms. Grant us, the survivors, the strength each day to endure and overcome the pain of grief. It is a pain we cannot escape but with your help we shall pass through it and come away with greater empathy, understanding and sympathy. Amen.

I find this prayer to be reassuring, but not sentimental; consoling but not cloying; filled with a certain pathos, but not bathos. It acknowledges our grief, but also our faith that God is stronger that death: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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).

In addition, to the prayer above, Mother Paula also sent me this concise explanation of one particular practice surrounding our memorial services for the departed, under the title A Meaningful Custom:

It is customary among Orthodox Christians to bring a tray of boiled wheat kernels to church for the memorial service. The wheat kernels express belief in everlasting life. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (JN. 12:24). Just as new life rises from the buried kernel of wheat, so we believe the one buried will rise one day to a new life with God. The wheat kernels are covered with sugar and raisins to express the bliss of eternal life with God in heaven. St. Paul writes: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I COR. 15:42-44).

Memorial prayer services which affirm the reality of physical death and also the reality of resurrection into life eternal play a vital role in the healing of grief for the Orthodox Christian.

Actually, various “customs” exist among Orthodox Christians when it comes to death, burial and memorial services. Dostoevsky records the Russian custom of serving pancakes following a funeral, in his last great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The novel ends with the death and funeral service of a twelve-year old boy named Ilyusha (sometimes the more endearing Ilyushechka). The youngest of the Karamazov brothers, Alyosha, has gathered together the friends of the young boy and is trying to console them in their grief, and plant the seeds of faith in their young and impressionable hearts. The final dialogue of the novel between Alyosha Karamazov and a precocious boy, Kolya, closes the novel on an ecstatic note concerning resurrection and eternal life. This is profoundly meaningful, for The Brothers Karamazov is filled with tormented characters who have lost their faith in God and thus who exist in a kind of restless agony. Here is the closing dialogue –with even a mention of the pancakes of the memorial meal!

“Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?”

“Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.

“Ah, how good that will be,” burst from Kolya.

“Well, and now let’s end our speeches and go to his memorial dinner. Don’t be disturbed that we’ll be eating pancakes. It’s an ancient, eternal thing, and there’s good in that, too,” laughed Alyosha. “Well, let’s go! And we go like this now, hand in hand.”

“And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more ecstatically, and once more all the boys joined in his exclamation.

“Memory eternal” to all of our departed loved ones!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Where Your Treaure Is

Dear Parish Faithful,

The last few meditations or reflections that I have shared with the parish have been concerned with Baptism, as we are celebrating the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan. We need to be mindful that in and through Baptism we become members of the Church – the Body of Christ. This is a gift, and an unmerited privilege; and that means that it also entails a great responsibility for each of us. That responsibility can be summarized by the biblical term stewardship. The Lord has given us the responsibility to take care of and nurture His Church. The Church is protected and preserved by God until the end of time. The “gates of hell” will not prevail against the Church. We believe this “promise” from Christ Himself. And yet there is a human – even institutional dimension – to the Church that we must care for. There exists a concrete, practical side to the Church that cannot be ignored. Beyond that, we bring the Gospel to the world in and through our stewardship of that gift. And we do this on a local, parish level. Here is where our stewardship “kicks in” and in the process we reveal just how much we do care about the well-being of the local parish that we attend, worship in, are educated in, and raise our children and grandchildren in; by the extent to which we are willing to assume our share in supporting the parish financially.

As we continue to explore the many dimensions of Christian stewardship this year, I came across two very challenging paragraphs written by Fr. Anthony Scott, found in a book entitled Good and Faithful Servant – Stewardship in the Orthodox Church. Fr. Anthony has spent years trying to develop an Orthodox approach to stewardship, so that the faithful of the Church will begin to practice stewardship with an enlightened mind and a generous heart. These two paragraphs are taken from his essay “Orthodox America: Philanthropy and Stewardship.” As I said, these paragraphs are challenging – even blunt – in how they impel us to think of our priorites and the “important things” in our lives:

Stewardship is not about raising money. Stewardship is a powerful tool to engender personal spiritual development. Similarly, capital campaigns are not about constructing a hall or new church or establishing an endowment; capital campaigns are really about community spiritual development. People care about what they give to. When people give meaningfully, they care meaningfully. Conversely, when people do not give at all or when they give minimally, they do not care at all or care minimally.

The Lord understood human nature so very well when he taught: “Where your treasure is; there is your heart” (MT. 6:21). Jesus did not reverse this and say, “Where your heart is, there is your treasure.” Who, having purchased stock in a company, bought a home, or acquired a car, does not monitor the stock regularly, attend to repairs in the home, or take the car in for regular maintenance? After a person had made a meaningful charitable investment in the life and mission of the parish, that church suddenly becomes my church. Those who have made personally significant gifts to the church tend to read the bulletin more assiduously, visit their investment more frequently, and listen more attentively when people talk about the church. Interestingly, most will tolerate no unjustified criticism of the church, because, after all, it has now become their church.

Good and Faithful Servant – Stewardship in the Orthodox Church, p. 203.

Again, something to think about.

Friday, January 13, 2012

St Gregory of Nyssa On Baptism: 'Make It Clear Who Your Father Is!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We are drawing near to the Leavetaking of Theophany on Saturday. While we remain in this festal season, perhaps we can “meditate” on the meaning and purpose of our own baptism – regardless of when that occurred – through the challenging insights of one of the great Church Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa (+395). St. Gregory wrote the most comprehensive theological work of the fourth century, entitled The Great Catechism. Within this work, St. Gregory discusses baptism and how baptism is meant to be a an act of true regeneration in which our lives are changed to reflect and manifest this “new birth” from above. Yet, St. Gregory makes it perfectly clear that the sacramental life of the Church is not a kind of sanctified magic. The baptized person needs to co-operate with God by consciously struggling to lead a God-pleasing life that is only possible through the grace received in the baptismal font. When that conscious struggle is abandoned, the spiritual consequences are costly indeed.

In the words of St. Gregory, extracted from The Great Catechism:

Baptism is a spiritual birth, but he who is born by spiritual birth must recognize by whom he is born and what kind of creature he must become. In physical birth, those who are born owe their life and existence to the impulse of their parents, but the spiritual birth is in control of the one who is being born. It is the only birth where we can choose and determine what kind of beings we are to become.

Now it is evident to everyone that we must receive the saving birth of baptism for the purpose of growth and renewal and changing in our nature …

If the essential faculties of our nature are not changed, what then is the change that the grace of baptism must bring about? It is clear that the sinful characteristics of our nature must be changed, and the evil in our life done away with. Undergoing the washing of baptism, we must become purified in our wills and wash away the iniquities of our souls. We must be changed for the better and become different.

If, however, the baptism has only washed the body, and the life after initiation is identical with that life before, then despite the boldness of my assertion, I will say without shrinking that the baptismal water is merely water, and the gift of the Spirit in nowhere in action. This is true not only when anger and hatred deforms and dishonors the image of God in us, but also when covetousness, passion, greed, evil thoughts, pride, envy, jealousy, injustice, lusts of the flesh and adultery continue to operate in us.

If this sort of sinful life characterizes a man’s life as much after baptism as before, then I cannot see that he has undergone any change in accordance with God’s nature, and he is really of the same corrupt nature as before. Such a man then, who does not change and yet prattles about birth and resurrection … is deceiving himself. He is not what he has not become!

Now the physically born child shares his parents’ nature. If you have been born of God and have become his child, then let your way of life testify to the presence of God within you. Make it clear who your Father is! For the very attributes by which we recognize God are the very marks by which a child of His must reveal his relationship with God. ‘God is goodness and there is no unrighteousness in Him.’ ‘The Lord is gracious to all … He loves His enemies.’ ‘He is merciful and forgives transgressions.’ These and many other characteristics revealed by the Scripture are what make a Godly life.

If you are like this and you embody the Spirit of God, then you have genuinely become a child of God, but if you persist in displaying evil, then it is useless to prattle to yourself and to others about your birth from above. You are still merely a son of man, not a son of the Most High God! You love lies and vanity, and you are still immersed in the corruptible things of this world. Don’t you know in what way a man becomes a child of God? Why in no other way than by becoming holy!

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Baptism of Christ: 'He was cleansed for all men's sins'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is the Feast of the Holy Theophany of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ – or simply, Theophany. We celebrated the feast yesterday evening with a Vesperal Liturgy that was pretty well-attended. Those present were able to take some of the blessed water home following the service of the Great Blessing of Water. We will repeat that service on Sunday following the Liturgy, for the Afterfeast continues until January 14.

Theophany – or Epiphany as it is sometimes called – has many profound themes that reveal a great deal about the ministry of Christ, as well as many theological insights into cosmology (the cosmos and world around us), anthropology (the meaning of the human person), soteriology (the meaning of salvation), etc. Here, through the words of Archbishop Kallistos Ware, we can examine a far-from-simple question: Just why was Christ – the sinless Son of God – baptized, if baptism is for “the forgiveness of sin?” Allowing the text for the service of Theophany to answer the question, Archbishop Ware summarizes as follows:

Why was Christ baptized? We are baptized because we are sinful: we go down dirty into the water, and we emerge cleansed. But what need had Christ, who is sinless, to undergo baptism in the Jordan? To this, the liturgical texts answer: "Though as God He needs not cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan" (Matins of the feast, First Canon, Canticle Five); "As man He is cleansed that I may be made clean" (Compline on January 5, Canon, Canticle One). "For the sake of sinful man": in reality it is not He who is cleansed in the Jordan but we ourselves. In taking manhood upon Him at His Incarnation; Our Lord assumed a representative role: He became a New Adam, summing up the whole human race in Himself, just as the first Adam summed up and contained all mankind in himself at the Fall. On the Cross, although sinless, Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all humanity; and in the same way at His baptism, although sinless, He was cleansed for all men’s sins. When He went down into the Jordan, as the New Adam He carried us sinful men down with Him: and there in the waters He cleansed us, bearing each of us up once more out of the river as a new creature, regenerate and reconciled.
(Festal Menaion, Background and Meaning of the Feasts, p. 57-58)

Once again, this Feast is endlessly rich in themes essential to our lives as Orthodox Christians, and we will try and explore more of them in the days to come.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Resolutions or Repentance?

Dear Parish Faithful,

Resolutions or Repentance?

According to the civil calendar, we began the year of our Lord (Anno Domini) 2012, on January 1. This date is based upon the calculations of a medieval monk who, in attempting to ascertain the exact date of the birth of Christ, missed the year 0 by only a few years. According to contemporary scholars, Jesus was actually born between what we consider to be 6 – 4 B. C. These were the last years of Herod the Great, for according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus was born toward the very end of Herod’s long reign (37 – 4 B.C.). Christians therefore divide the linear stretch of historical time between the era before the Incarnation; and the era after the Incarnation and the advent of the Son of God into our space-time world. In other words, the years before the Incarnation are treated as something of a “countdown” to the time-altering event of the Incarnation; and the years since are counted forward as we move toward the end of history and the coming Kingdom of God. By entering the world, Christ has transformed the meaning and goal of historical time.

Recently, there has been a scholarly shift away from this openly Christian approach to history, as the more traditional designations of B.C. and A.D. have been replaced by the more neutral and “ecumenically sensitive” designations of B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), and C.E. (Common Era). Understanding and interpreting history from a decidedly Christian perspective, I would still argue in favor of the more traditional B.C. and A.D.

Although an issue of more than passing interest, that discussion may appear somewhat academic in comparison to the pressing issues of our daily lives as they continue to unfold now in 2012. We have exchanged our conventional greetings of “Happy New Year” probably more than once in the last few days. Under closer inspection, there remains something vague about that expression, and perhaps that is for the better. Do we wish for the other person – as well as for ourselves – that nothing will go (terribly) wrong in the unknown future of the new year? More positively, do we wish that all of our desires and wishes for our lives will be fulfilled in this new year? Or, are we wishing a successful year of the perpetual pursuit of “happiness” (whatever that means) for ourselves and for our friends? At that point we just may be reaching beyond the restrictive boundaries of reality. As Tevye the Dairyman once said: “The more man plans, the harder God laughs.” Perhaps the more realistic approach would be to give and receive our “Happy New Year” greetings as neighborly acknowledgement that we are “all in this together,” and that we need to mutually encourage and support one another.

We also approach the New Year as a time to commit ourselves to those annual “resolutions” that we realize will make our lives more wholesome, safe, sound, or even sane - if only we can sustain them. A resolution is to dig deep inside and find the resolve necessary to break through those (bad) habits or patterns of living that undermine either our effectiveness in daily life; jeopardize our relationships with our loved ones, our friends and our neighbors; or seriously threaten to make us less human than we can and should be. We know that we should eat less, swear less, lust less, get angry less, surf the computer less, play on our iPhones less, watch TV less and so on. We further know that we need more patience, more self-discipline, more graceful language, more attention to the needs of others, more “quality time” with our families and friends, more forgiving, more loving and so on. We know, therefore, that we need to change, and we intuitively realize how difficult this is. Bad habits are hard to break. Therefore, we need this annual opportunity of a new beginning and our New Year resolutions to give us a “fighting chance” to actually change. We may joke about how quickly we break our resolutions, but beneath the surface of that joking (which covers up our disappointments and rationalizations) we are acknowledging, once again, the struggle of moving beyond and replacing our vices with virtues.

I believe that we can profoundly deepen our experience of the above. For, as a“holiday” is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of a “holy day;” so a resolution is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of personal repentance. To repent (Gk. metanoia) is to have a “change of mind,” together with a corresponding change in the manner of our living and a re-direction of our lives toward God. The New Year’s resolution of our secularized culture may be a persistent reminder – or the remainder of - a lost Christian worldview that realized the importance of repentance. “There is something rotten in Denmark,” and an entire industry of self-help and self-reliance therapies – totally divorced from a theistic context - is an open acknowledgement of that reality regardless of how distant it may now be from its religious expression. As members of the Body of Christ living within the grace-filled atmosphere of the Church, we can, in turn, incorporate our resolutions within the ongoing process of repentance, which is nothing less than our vocation as human beings: “God requires us to go on repenting until our last breath” (St. Isaias of Sketis). Or, as St. Isaac of Syria teaches: “This life has been given you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things.”

Summarizing and synthesizing the Church’s traditional teaching about repentance, Archbishop Kallistos Ware has formulated a wonderfully open-ended expression of repentance that is both helpful and hopeful:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upward at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. In this sense, repentance is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life.
(The Orthodox Way, p. 113-114)

Hard not be inspired and encouraged by such an expressive passage!

At Great Vespers this last Saturday evening (December 31), we incorporated into the litanies of the service some of the petitions used from a Service for the New Year. Thus, in the language of the Church, these petitions served as an ecclesial form of the resolutions we make to break through some of our dehumanizing behavior; as well as a plea to God to strengthen our better inclinations:

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will plant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will renew a right spirit within us, and strengthen us in the Orthodox Faith, and cause us to make haste in the performance of good deeds and the Fulfillment of all His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will bless the beginning and continuance of this year with the grace of His of His love for mankind, and will grant unto us peaceful times, favorable weather and a sinless life in health and abundance, let us pray to the Lord.

If you resolve to seek and to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind … and your neighbor as yourself” (MATT. 22:37-38), then I believe that this new year may not be perpetually “happy,” but that it will truly blessed.