Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Second Day of Saving Abstinence

Dear Parish Faithful,

Second Day of Great Lent, or, Only Thirty-nine Days to Go!

As we begin the second day of saving abstinence, we cry to Thee, O Lord: Pierce the hearts of us Thy servants with compunction and accept the prayers we offer Thee in fear. Grant us without stumbling to complete the course of the Fast, and bestow upon us cleansing and great mercy.
(Matins, Tuesday in the First Week, sessional hymn)

We chanted the first part of St. Andrew’s Canon of Repentance yesterday evening, and there was a good-sized group of penitents present in the church for the service. Hopefully, that will continue as the week develops.

The Book of Exodus

During Great Lent, we return to the Old Testament roots of the Gospel and appoint three books to be read from during the forty days: Genesis (historical), Isaiah (prophetic), and Proverbs (wisdom). We hear the appointed passages from Genesis and Proverbs during Vespers; while Isaiah is read at the Sixth Hour. These three are replaced during Holy Week by: Exodus (historical), Ezekiel (prophetic), and Job (wisdom).

Anticipating Holy Week and the typology of the Exodus event and the universal redemption that comes through Christ’s “exodus” through the Cross and Resurrection, the homilies during the five Sundays of Great Lent will be based on the Book of Exodus. Here is my tentative plan:

First Sunday – The call of Moses and the theophany in the Burning Bush (Ex. 1-3)

Second Sunday – The Ten Plagues in Egypt (Ex. 7-12)

Third Sunday – The Exodus from Egypt and the Crossing of the Sea (Ex. 12-15)

Fourth Sunday – Arrival at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law, especially the Ten Commandments; the Blood of the Covenant (Ex. 19 – 24)

Fifth Sunday – Building of the Tabernacle (Ex. 25-31)

Other key events will be included in the homilies: the manna from heaven; the golden calf,etc.

You may have already chosen a scriptural book for this Great Lent. If not, or in addition, you may want to read the given chapters outlined above as a preparation and background for the homilies.

Monday, February 27, 2012

As We Embark on the Course of the Fast

Dear Parish Faithful,

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life. (Matins of Monday in the First Week of the Fast).

I would like to wish one and all a blessed Lenten journey as we embark on the course of the fast on this “Clean Monday,” the first day of Great Lent. We are well aware of the challenges ahead of us, but these challenges and our resolve to meet them with humility, but also with firmness of faith, only reinforces how essential it is to live according to the Orthodox Way as the surest preparation for the paschal mystery. We have two basic choices to make: to respond with perseverance as we “gird our loins” to cross over the desert of the fast en route to the “Land of the Living” where we encounter the Risen Lord; or … we can wimp out! I trust that only the former choice is uppermost in your minds and hearts.

I hope to see many of you this evening as we chant the first part of the compunctionate Canon of Repentance by St. Andrew of Crete.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Taking Lent Seriously

Dear Parish Faithful,

The gateway to divine repentance has been opened: let us enter eagerly, purified in our bodies and observing abstinence from food and passions, as obedient servants of Christ who has called the world into the heavenly Kingdom. Let us offer to the King of all a tenth part of the whole year, that we may look with love upon His Resurrection.

(Sessional Hymn, Matins of Cheese Week)

Meatfare Sunday is behind us and we are now in The Week Before Lent known as Cheese Week approaching Cheesfare Sunday. If that sounds a bit esoteric, it simply means that – prepared or not - we are approaching the beginning of Great Lent on Monday, February 27. (But we did have four weeks of pre-lenten preparation). Holy Week follows Great Lent and that leads to Pascha on April 15. (The Western Easter in on April 8 this year, so today is Ash Wednesday for Roman Catholics and the beginning of Lent for them and for those Protestants who observe Lent). Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha are at the very heart of the liturgical year and of our lives as Orthodox Christians.

Great Lent is the “school of repentance.” It is roughly equivalent to an “annual tithe” in which we offer ourselves back to God so as to be received with love as was the prodigal son. As such, Great Lent is a gift from God, guiding us toward a way of life we may be reluctant to assume on our own, suffering as we often are from spiritual apathy or a simple lack of focus. Great Lent is also goal-oriented, for it leads us on a spiritual pilgrimage of preparation toward the “night brighter than the day” of Pascha and the Risen Lord. Great Lent is “sacred” and “soul-profiting.” It is a key component in the Orthodox Way of living out the Christian life we have been committed to in holy Baptism.

During Great Lent we will recover the essential practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting. These practices are the tools that can assist us in returning and remaining close to God. Liturgical services unique to Great Lent immerse us in a way of communal pray that is solemn and penitent; but which also lighten and unburden the soul through the mercy and grace of God so abundantly poured out upon us through these inspired services. You leave the church tired in body perhaps, but brighter inside – in the mind and heart. Great Lent invites us to see our neighbors as children of God and of equal value in the eyes of God, and thus deserving of our attention, patience and care. Charity can be distributed through material means or through an encouraging and warmly-spoken word. Great Lent liberates us from the excessive appetites of our bodies through the discipline of fasting. Our diet essentially becomes vegan as we seek to be less weighed down by a body overly-satiated with food and drink. This is healthy for both soul and body. The human person does not live by bread alone as the Lord taught us as He Himself fasted in the desert for forty days. We also fast from entertainment, bad habits, obsessions, useless distractions, vulgar language and the like. We try and simplify life and redeem our newfound time through more focused and virtue-creating tasks. If approached seriously, perhaps we will be able to carry some of this over into the paschal season – and beyond.

What can we do? How do we not squander this time set aside for God?

  • Prayer - Make provision to be in church for some of the Lenten services. Start with the first week of Great Lent and the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete. Assume or resume a regular Rule of Prayer in your home. Read the psalms and other Scripture carefully and prayerfully. Pray for others.
  • Charity – Open your heart to your neighbor. If you believe that Christ dwells within you, then try and see Christ in your neighbor. Make your presence for the “other” encouraging and supportive. Restrain your “ego” for the sake of your neighbor. Help someone in a concrete manner this Great Lent.
  • Fasting – Set domestic goals about the manner in which you will observe the fast. Test yourselves. Resist minimalism. If you “break” the fast, do not get discouraged or “give up,” but start over. Assume that your Orthodox neighbor is observing the fast. Seek silence. Allow for a different atmosphere in the home.

Jesus set the example of fasting for forty days. We imitate Him for the same period of forty days. If it was hard for Him, it will be hard for us; but not as hard as it was for Him. Jesus went to the Cross following His “holy week” in Jerusalem. We follow Him in our holy week observance and practices. Jesus was raised from the dead following His crucifixion, death and burial. We seek the resurrection of our spiritual lives here and now as we await our own death at the appointed time and the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

“Taking Lent seriously” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s phrase) is a concrete sign of taking God seriously. Our surrounding culture is not serious about taking anything too seriously. When serious issues arise, however, people have a difficult time dealing with them. Yet Jesus was very serious. Especially when it came to issues of life and death – and God and salvation, and so forth. Great Lent helps us to focus on these very themes, therefore making it meaningful and important for our lives.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The River of Fire

Dear Parish Faithful,

This a meditation from last year that I am re-posting. (Since the parish distribution list has changed a good deal since this meditation was initially sent out, and the number of readers of this blog has grown substantially, I believe it will be a first for many readers here). I find the passage from Dr. Kalomiros very compelling, so I think it also deserves another look for all of those who may have forgotten its penetrating insight into the realm of “judgment.”

The evils in hell do not have God as their cause, but ourselves.” (St. Basil the Great)

In this week during which we contemplate the “Last Judgment,” perhaps we need to carefully explore the meaning of what it means that God will “judge” us in the end. Does judgment include punishment? Will God wreak vengeance on His enemies? Will our good and bad works be weighed in a balance, as we tremble before God in the hope that our good works will indeed tilt the balance in our favor? Will the last Judgment resemble an Hieronymous Bosch painting, unrivalled in the luridness of its depiction of the torments of the condemned? (At the opposite pole is the question: Do we even take seriously the biblical claim that we will be judged?). Unfortunately, the excesses of the imagination, a dubious understanding of the biblical expression “the fear of God,” and perhaps a guilty conscience, have led many to believe in God’s judgment as punitive and vindictive. Yet, this often leads to a caricature of judgment, a minimization of our role in determining our judgment, and even a false, if not blasphemous, image of God.

Below, is a powerful passage from an article entitled “The River of Fire – A Reply to the Questions: Is God Really Good? Did God create Hell?”, by the late Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros. As this passage dispels the notion of an angry God with great eloquence, it further reveals our responsibility before the God Who is love for our decisions, and the type of life we freely choose to live.

One could insist, however, that the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers always speak of God as the Great Judge who will reward those who were obedient to Him and will punish those who were disobedient, in the day of the Great Judgment (II TIM. 4:6-8). How are we to understand this judgment if we are to understand the divine words not in a human but in a divine manner? What is God’s judgment?

God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books?” They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is the love of God, those hearts will rejoice in seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.

So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation – and there really is – it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell.

The Light of Truth, God’s energy, God’s grace which will fall on men unhindered by corrupt conditions in the Day of Judgment, will be the same to all men. There will be no distinction whatever. All the differences lies in those who receive, not in Him Who gives. The sun shines on healthy and diseased eyes alike, without any distinction. Healthy eyes enjoy light and because of it see clearly the beauty which surrounds them. Diseased eyes feel pain, they hurt, suffer, and want to hide from this same light which brings such great happiness to those who have healthy eyes.

But alas, there is no longer any possibility of escaping God’s light. During this life there was. In the New Creation of the Resurrection, God will be everywhere and in everything. His light and love will embrace all. There will be no place hidden from God, as was the case during our corrupt life in the kingdom of the prince of this world. The devil’s kingdom will be despoiled by the Common Resurrection and God will take possession again of His creation. Love will enrobe everything with its sacred Fire which will flow like a river from the throne of God and will irrigate paradise. But this same river of Love – for those who have hate in their hearts – will suffocate and burn.

“For our God is a consuming fire” (HEB. 12:9). The very fire which purifies gold, also consumes wood. Precious metals shine in it like the sun, rubbish burns with black smoke. All are in the same fire of Love. Some shine and others become black and dark. In the same furnace steel shines like the sun, whereas clay turns dark and is hardened like stone.

The difference is in man, not in God. The difference is conditioned by the free choice of man, which God respects absolutely. God’s judgment is the revelation of the reality which is in man.

From “The “River of Fire,” by Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros, sec. 14.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thoughts On Death and Afterlife

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I am currently reading a fascinating book that is based on good scholarship and sound pastoral judgment, entitled Death and Afterlife. The author is Terence Nichols (PhD, Marquette University, and professor and chair of the department of theology at the University of St. Thomas). It is definitely one of the best theology books that I have read in the last couple of years. That does not mean that I agree with the entire contents of the book. For example, as a Roman Catholic, Nichols defends an understanding of purgatory that we, as Orthodox, find problematic at best. However, he did write this on the subject:

In the Roman Catholic Church, the accent was on purgatory as a place of expiation for the penalty due to sins for which no penance had been done in life. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, by contrast, the emphasis was on purgation as a state of holiness or growth. (p. 172)

One of the key strengths of the book, is how Nichols responds to the many challenges of the modern world, primarily those coming from the various sciences and a philosophical commitment to “metaphysical materialism.” This is defined by Nichols as follows:

This position holds that there are no souls, gods, spirits, or angels; only physical beings exist, and everything in the human person will eventually be explainable by purely physical processes. Even our highest states – reason, moral commitments, religious experiences, free choice (if it exists), and so on – will turn out in the end to be nothing but brain processes and the interaction of molecules in neural networks. (p. 118)

These challenges can be especially acute when discussing the existence of the soul or of bodily resurrection. Yet, Nichols writes elsewhere:

I will argue that while scientific and philosophical challenges force us to rethink our conceptions of the soul, resurrection, and heaven and hell, we can still make a credible case for life after death with God, for a soul that survives bodily death, for bodily resurrection, and for heaven and hell. One of my principle concerns will be to respond to scientific and naturalistic challenges to the soul, the resurrection, and to heaven and hell. (p. 13)

His responses are carefully articulated and obviously well-thought out, perhaps bearing witness to years of study and reflection. He presents his defense of basically traditional Christian positions on the existence of the soul and bodily resurrection in a manner that is coherent and convincing. This makes the book especially compelling. He even has a chapter on “Near Death Experiences” that made me rethink some of my own assumptions on this controversial topic. Two other themes in the book are the need to prepare for death; and the sense of an “ultimate hope” in an “afterlife with God” based on the redemptive Death and Resurrection of Christ. The contents of the book covers the following themes as broken down by chapter:

1. Underworld, Soul, and Resurrection in Ancient Judaism
2. Death and Afterlife in the New Testament
3. Death and Afterlife in the Christian Tradition
4. Scientific Challenges to Afterlife
5. Near Death Experiences
6. On the Soul
7. Resurrection
8. Justification and Judgment
9. Heaven, Purgatory and Hell
10. Dying Well

Since we are approaching the Sunday of the Last Judgment, as the third of our pre-lenten Sundays, I would like to share a passage that Nichols wrote on the theme of judgment. I believe his approach is very consistent with that of our own Orthodox theologians writing on the subject today. His over-all approach instills a sense of sobriety, ultimate responsibility for how we lead our lives, and a great sense of hope in the mercy of God:

The whole point of justification is to be found righteous or justified when we have to face God and Christ and render an account of our lives after our deaths. But these days we do not hear much about God’s coming judgment. The emphasis now is on self-esteem and feeling good about ourselves. But this is a cultural illusion, and a dangerous one. In the end, all of us will be held accountable by God for our lives, as the biblical texts cited above state. Belief in the judgment of God, however, has been severely distorted by the image of a God of wrath who hurls sinners into hell. Because of this misunderstanding, many people reject the notion of divine judgment. But judgment is not simply appearing before a wrathful God. It is seeing ourselves and our whole lives as we really are; it is coming into the truth and leaving behind our selfish denials and illusions. Put another way, it is seeing ourselves in the context of God’s love, which is also truth. For most of us, this will be both joyful and painful, liberating and surprising, because encountering God’s love, as expressed in Jesus, will reveal all those occasions in our lives when we fall short of love, as well as those occasions when we responded with love. (p. 161)

If we liberate ourselves from some of the cultural illusions mentioned in the passage above, then we can prepare ourselves for a “Christian ending to our lives,” so that we may, as we pray in all of our liturgical services, have “a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Publican and the Pharisee, and the Struggle for Humility

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee confronts us with a stark contrast between religious pride and self-righteousness, on the one hand; and heartfelt humility and repentance on the other hand. The Pharisee, of course, is the one who manifests the pride, and it is the publican who manifests the humility. The Lord closes this short parable by declaring the Pharisee “condemned” and the publican “justified.” This is a genuine “reversal of fortune” upending our preconceived notions of piety and righteousness, as forcefully as this must have struck those who initially heard the parable as delivered by the Lord. Yet, that reversal of fortune should not obscure other notable factors that are also working within this parable.

For Christ is not condemning the actions of the Pharisee. The Lord is not telling us through this parable that the Pharisee – or anyone else, and that includes us – is wasting both time and energy by going up to the temple to pray, by fasting and by tithing. These are not being condemned as empty practices consigning all such practitioners to the barren realm of hypocrisy and religious formalism. We, as contemporary Christians, are encouraged to enter the church with regularity and offer our prayer to God; to practice the self-restraint and discipline of fasting; and to share our financial resources with the generosity implied by the biblical tithe. We could add other practices to that. In fact, we would do well to imitate the outward actions of the Pharisee in practicing our Faith!

Yet, on a deeper and far more significant level, the Pharisee got it all wrong. He was consumed by a self-satisfied and self-righteous interior attitude that left no room for God to transform him by divine grace. The Pharisee’s prayer was seemingly directed to God, but in reality it was an exercise in self-congratulations (for not being like other sinful men). Here was a man who did not suffer over low self-esteem! The Pharisee was self-centered, but not God-centered. Something went wrong, and the self replaced God as the center of his energy and passion. The exterior forms of piety that he practiced were disconnected from the interior realm of the heart, where God is meant to dwell and, again, transform the human person from within, so that each person becomes less self-centered and more God-centered with time and patience.

Based on our knowledge of the role of the publican in first century Israel, we can be assured that Christ was not “justifying” the particular “life-style” that made the publicans such notorious and despised figures of that world. In fact, they were always included with “harlots” when reference was being made to the marginalized, if not ostracized, members of first-century Judaism. Rather, the publican was declared “justified” for the very fact that he recognized and was profoundly struck by just how sinful he had become in cheating and defrauding his neighbor as a hated tax-collector working for the occupying Roman authority. He had the experience of true contrition of heart; he realized that he stood self-condemned before the Lord; yet he did not despair but cried out plaintively: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Human persons are not saved as sinners, but as sinners who in humility repent before God and then offer the fruits of repentance.

The hymnography for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee exhorts us to flee from pride and to embrace humility. We live in a culture obsessed with the self and thus not only susceptible, but openly promoting, both pride and vainglory. “In your face” is widely seen as a “heroic” gesture of self-defiance and legitimate self-promotion. Humility is treated as weakness and ineffectual for “getting ahead” or for fulfilling one’s desires. We hear the voice of the Lord and we hear the voice of the world. It is our choice as to which voice we will listen to. And that choice will be determined to a great extent by just what the desires that move us to action are actually for. “For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Super Sunday?

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Super Bowl is over and is now history. May they rejoice in New York. May the lamentation in New England be short-lived. The game itself is very long, lasting over three hours usually, I believe. That is about as long, if not a bit longer, than our Paschal celebration, which I, in response to our secular society’s “Super Sunday,” like to call the real Super Sunday. However, what I find quite incredible is the “pre-game” programming. If I have this right, it started at 12:30 p.m., but the game began at 6:30 p.m. That means there were six hours of game preparation! What could possibly be discussed, analyzed, and commented on for six hours that was not already addressed in the two-week “pre-festal” preparatory period?! Did we learn what each player ate for breakfast on game day and then analyze the digestive pattern of each player from a scientific commentator?


The thought that came to me was this: If you are one of those who “tune in” early for the pre-game, I would ask: how early? Once that time period has been determined, I would suggest offering as much time to the “pre-service” reading of the Acts of the Apostles” before the actual paschal services begin this year. This reading goes on, at least theoretically (depending on how many readers sign up), for hours also. Different atmosphere, though. Reading the Holy Scriptures in a dark and quiet church is also something of a “warm up,” though not nearly as analytical as what you may hear on the television. As the Acts are Holy Scriptures, there are no superfluous words. No commercials either. The reading creates an atmosphere that prepares us for the explosive services to follow.

Or, you may want to consider the “warm up” on each and every Sunday – the Lord’s Day – since each and every Sunday is actually rather “super” for us as Christians. This warm-up is in the form of the third and sixth canonical Hours that are read before the Liturgy. This only lasts for twenty minutes. But the Hours also prepare us for the Liturgy to follow. The Hours and the Liturgy combined are not nearly as long as the Super Bowl game itself.

Just a thought generated on Super Bowl Sunday.