Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thoughts on Pentecost, the Fulfillment of Pascha

Dear Parish Faithful,

“For Paul … was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.”  (ACTS 20:16)

“The Last Day of the Feast,
the Great Day”

The liturgical cycle of Great Vespers, the Hours and Divine Liturgy for the great Feast of Pentecost is scheduled for this coming weekend.  It is imperative for serious Orthodox Christians to make every effort to be in church for Pentecost.  That Pentecost always falls on a Sunday makes this seem natural, for Sunday is the Lord’s Day on which everyone comes to church as it is.  Yet, it may still be of some pastoral value to reinforce the point and emphasize the importance of Pentecost in our collective and personal lives.

When it can be avoided, Pentecost is not that rare Sunday on which anyone should make some “alternative plans” and thus miss the celebration.  That would only reveal a lack of awareness as to the nature and significance of the Feast.  For, in my humble estimation, Pentecost is not so much neglected – it is on a Sunday after all – as it is misunderstood.  Many of the faithful have less than a full realization as to how profoundly connected Pentecost is to Pascha.  It is not simply “one more Sunday” like all the rest.

Although it is an over-used word, Pentecost is the fulfillment of Pascha.  As Prof. Veselin Kesich wrote:  “With Christ’s ascension, “our nature ascended” to heaven, and on Pentecost the Holy Spirit “descended on to our nature.”  The ascension points to Pentecost, to the fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit.”   Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead and glorified at the right hand of the Father in His ascension, so that He could send the Holy Spirit into the world.  The Holy Spirit is the life of the Church, for the Spirit is the “Giver of life.”  The descent of the Holy Spirit “on all flesh” is the completion of the paschal mystery.  We will again begin to pray (for the first time in fifty days) to the Holy Spirit as the “Heavenly King” to “come and abide in us.”  And the Sundays from Pentecost until next year’s Great Lent are numbered as “after Pentecost.”  The Orthodox Church is the authentic “Pentecostal” Church, for the New Testament Church began its existence in the world on the Day of Pentecost as the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”  Our enthusiastic presence in church for Pentecost is how we respect and honor that fact.  (Part of our parish name, by way of reminder, is dedicated to the Holy Spirit).

So I encourage everyone to make the effort and keep the Feast as fully as possible.  That would mean beginning with Great Vespers on Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m.  And that means that most of you will have a choice to make as to where to spend that particular time on that particular day.  It is good to be conscious of that choice. As a festal Vespers, we will bless the loaves for the Feast and have the anointing with the oil of gladness in honor of the Feast.  For those who never come to Great Vespers, here is a good opportunity to change that pattern.  The Liturgy, of course, begins on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. following the Hours at 9:10 a.m.  The one peculiarity of Pentecost is that we serve the Vespers of Pentecost with kneeling prayers (the first time that we kneel following Pascha) immediately after the Liturgy.

There will be a very special festal meal prepared for the entire parish following the Vespers of Pentecost in honor of this “last Day of the Feast, the Great Day.”  The fellowship of sharing that meal will be a continuation of sharing together the mystery of the coming of the Holy Spirit to create a community as well as to enlighten individual persons.

If you will not be in Cincinnati this weekend, you may certainly be somewhere with a local Orthodox Church that you can attend for Pentecost.  No matter where anyone may be - it still remains Pentecost!  If I could be of any assistance, please contact me.

The Sundays of Pentecost

As mentioned above, the Sundays following the Feast are numbered as “after Pentecost.”  This is a liturgical reminder of the Holy Spirit’s ever-abiding presence within the Church; and that everything we do within the Church – especially the celebration of the Sacraments – is sealed by the Gift of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, there are no “ordinary” Sundays – including those in the summer months!  Our entire lives as Orthodox Christians – from cradle to grave – are an unceasing rhythm of progressing from one Lord’s Day celebration to the next.  Our hope is that our earthly Liturgies will prepare us for our “passage” into eternal Liturgy of the Kingdom of God.  There is no “summer vacation.”  And that includes families with small children who are on “vacation” from Church School.  It is a good thing if your children truly miss Church School; but that is no reason to miss church and the Liturgy during the summer months.  That may be the best “lesson” that you teach your children.  I just received a very encouraging letter from a mother who shared with me that over time, and with patience and perseverance, her children are now much more focused on the Liturgy; and that they now always say the “Amen” when we consecrate our gifts of bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ, including the final triple “Amen” when we call down the Holy Spirit to seal, complete and perfect the consecration.  That is the result of “sticking with it” Sunday after Sunday.

Once again, if you are traveling, there is no reason why provisions to attend a local Orthodox parish cannot be made.  Try and work your schedule around the Lord’s Day.   If we want God to be with us on our vacations, then perhaps we should make the effort to be with God whenever possible.

The “Book of Signs”

Following Pentecost, our Summer Bible Study will begin on Wednesday evening, June 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Education Center in the church basement.  We will read, study and discuss the first eleven chapters of St. John’s Gospel, known as the “Book of Signs.”  We read and heard a few of these “signs” during the paschal Sundays that we just recently completed.  Now we can go back and take a look at these signs in greater detail, for the homilies this year concentrated on the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES.  Each “sign” (and we will discuss that peculiar Johannine term in detail)  is a profound and multi-leveled presentation of the Gospel in miniature, revealing who Jesus is and what He has appeared to accomplish.  Join us for the Bible Study. Bring a friend.  As I like to say, the Bible Study is a parish event – as the study of the living Word of God how could it not be? – and not simply a “summer filler.”

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Ascension: A Good Response

Dear Parish Faithful,

We bow in worship before Thy Passion;
we honor Thy Resurrection! 
We glorify Thy glorious Ascension!
O Lord, have mercy on us! 
(stichera - Vespers of Ascension)

A Good Response

The Vesperal Liturgy yesterday evening for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord was effective, in that there were about forty members of the parish faithful present.  And just about everyone present received Holy Communion.  This resulted in a “festal” service that was only appropriate for such an awesome feast commemorating the Lord ascending in glory.  The Afterfeast will continue through this Sunday and all the way until the Leavetaking on Friday, June 1.  As we are celebrating the Ascension we are also preparing for the Pentecost – the last and great day of the paschal-pentecostal season.

The scriptural readings for Ascension are:  The Acts of the Apostles (1:1-12); and The Gospel According to St. Luke (24:36-53).  These two passages bear a close reading if you have not read them yet.  Our focus at Sunday’s Liturgy will be the account found in the Acts of the Apostles.

I would also highly recommend an article that has become a “classic” of Orthodox theology since it was written about sixty years ago, simply entitled “The Ascension of our Lord.”  This was written by the great 20th c. theologian, Fr. George Florovsky (+1979).  It first appeared in the St. Vladimir’ Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1954.  It is now posted on our parish website here.  Or, from the parish homepage you simply click on the icon of the Ascension, and scroll down to the second article posted there. This is an article that you may even want to print and study carefully.

A scriptural passage that profoundly captures the meaning for us of the Lord’s Ascension in found in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians.  Here the Apostle incorporates the resurrection, the ascension, the Parousia (the Second Coming of Christ), together with the effect of our baptism into Christ and ultimate glorification:

If you then have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (COL. 3:1-4)

I hope that everyone has a blessed Feast Day of the Ascension!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Liturgical Fullness, the Vesperal Liturgy, and Parish Participation

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!     

Indeed He is Risen!

As I related to the parish, our new diocesan hierarch, Bishop Matthias, issued some “directives” at our recent Clergy Convocation in Chicago, concerning some of the liturgical practices that he observed throughout the Diocese of the Midwest during the first year of his episcopacy. One of those directives was aimed at the current practice of serving a Vesperal Liturgy in the evening in celebration of a given Feast – usually one of the major Feasts of the Lord or of the Theotokos. In his assessment these Vesperal Liturgies are not a good practice, and he would like to see them eliminated – eventually. As of now, the clergy of the diocese are allowed to continue this practice until the end of the civil year (December 31), and at that point His Grace will either direct us to no longer serve the Vesperal Liturgy, or perhaps – and here I remain uncertain as to what he exactly said or meant – “re-assess” their future viability.

The Vesperal Liturgy is at times – and for certain Feasts – served in the evening of the eve of the Feast.  As an example, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord is celebrated on August 6.  Therefore, if we served the Vesperal Liturgy, it would be scheduled for August 5; for once we conclude the Vesperal portion of the service, we have entered into August 6 liturgically, and hence the Eucharistic part of the service.  As the name indicates, this service combines the services of Vespers and the Divine Liturgy.  The services are combined in such a way, that a part of both Vespers and the Liturgy are somewhat truncated.  That, of course, is regrettable in that we do then miss some of the beautiful hymnography that poetically, theologically and prayerfully reveal the meaning of the given Feast being celebrated.  I have always been aware of this and have tried to address this issue as effectively as possible, as I will explain presently.

It is actually in Great Vespers and Matins of a given Feast that we hear the overwhelming majority of the beautiful hymnography mentioned above.  This hymnography can be found in the liturgical books known as The Festal Menaion  and The Pentecostarion.  Due to pastoral considerations of parish life, we limit ourselves to the Great Vespers of the Feast and do not serve the Matins of the Feast.  In Great Vespers this hymnography is presented to our minds and hearts primarily through the hymns known as stichera  and aposticha.  These are Greek terms basically transliterated into English – thus enriching our ecclesial vocabulary! (Every Saturday evening at Great Vespers we hear the stichera and aposticha in the given tone of the week glorifying the Savior’s resurrection from the dead in the liturgical cycle of the Lord’s Day, culminating in the Eucharistic Liturgy on Sunday morning).  In his translation of The Festal Menaion (an invaluable book that has allowed us to celebrate the Feasts in all of their hymnographic splendor since its publication in 1969), Archbishop Ware has included a glossary of terms that assist us in understanding our rich liturgical tradition in a fuller manner. Thus, he defines stichera (sing. sticheron) and aposticha in this way:

STICHERON (Gk. sticheron).  Stichera are stanzas inserted between verses (Gk. stixoi) taken from the Psalms.  They occur in particular:

(i) at Vespers, between the closing verses of Lord, I call upon Thee;
(ii) at Matins, between the concluding verses of Lauds (the Praises).

Stichera also occur at the Litia, but without verses from the Psalter.

APOSTICHA (Gk. apostixa; Slavonic, stikhiry na stikhovne).  Stichera accompanied by  verses taken from the Psalms.  Apostikha occur:

(i)  at the end of Vespers, both on feasts and on ordinary days.
(ii) at the end of Matins, on ordinary days only (i.e. on days when there is no Great Doxology).

(The Festal Menaion, p. 545-546; 558)

I would highly recommend adding The Festal Menaion to your personal libraries.  It is now published in a reasonably-priced paperback edition. Then, you could study the texts of the great Feasts in preparation of their liturgical celebration; and for the simple joy of reading and meditating on these theologically rich texts for one’s personal edification.  In addition, The Festal Menaion is introduced by two brilliant essays by Archbishop Ware and the great Orthodox theologian George Florovsky on the meaning of the Great Feasts and on liturgical prayer.  These two essays are “must” readings for the serious Orthodox Christian. 

Or, you can now go the OCA’s official website at and click on the link to Liturgical Texts and Music.  A further click of the appropriate date will pull up at least all of the stichera and aposticha for Great Vespers of the given Feast, together with the troparion and kontakion of the Feast and the specially-appointed antiphons for the Liturgy. In addition, the scriptural readings for the given Feast are also included. This will allow for access to the fullness of a given Feast’s liturgical hymnography on those occasions that the Vesperal Liturgy is celebrated. The splendid and powerful Feast of the Ascension of the Lord (May 24) is approaching.  All of the above-mentioned liturgical material can now be found at the OCA’s website.  What we do on the parish level is sing some of the aposticha that were missed in the truncated version of Vespers during the time of preparation for Communion.  This way, those hymns are also included for our edification.

Though certainly not a “perfect” solution for reasons briefly outlined above, I believe that the Vesperal Liturgy has proven to be on the whole an effective solution, to what I referred to earlier as pastoral considerations within the setting of our contemporary, urban Orthodox parishes.  The whole point is to allow for wider parish participation – including especially the reception of the Eucharist on the day of Feast – when that participation is precluded because of the working schedules of the vast majority of our parishioners.  We thus “sacrifice” some of the appointed liturgical material so that we are not faced with a thinly-attended Liturgy on the following morning.  That is one pastoral approach to the simple facts of our daily lives in and where we live.  Yet, this is only effective when there is clearly a far larger number of participants at the service manifesting an eagerness and willingness to enjoy the Feasts on the part of the faithful.  Otherwise, it can be argued that without that greater participation the usual cycle of Great Vespers on the eve of the Feast, and the Divine Liturgy the following morning would remain the best schedule to maintain, because of an even greater liturgical fullness.  The “pastoral” approach must be in response to the desire of the faithful in this instance, for otherwise it loses its purpose.

We can “test” that desire next week with the approaching Feast of the Ascension of the Lord.  As we have suffered through an even greater post-paschal malaise this year than in previous years, perhaps this truly glorious Feast – in which we commemorate, celebrate and actualize the glorification of the Risen Lord and His ascension into Heaven – can initiate a much-needed parish renewal.  In order to maximize the potential for greater participation in the Eucharist when the Feast actually falls, we will schedule a Vesperal Liturgy for next Wednesday evening at 6:00 p.m.  The Ascension is an event that further fulfills the paschal victory over death revealed by Christ in His Resurrection.  The Ascension into Heaven of the Lord is absolutely essential in the over-all divine economy.  It celebrates the deification of our human nature at the right hand of the Father in the risen and glorified Christ.  Anyone who celebrates Pascha with the faith that Christ is indeed risen from the dead, will have a strong desire to celebrate His glorious Ascension.  And that may involve working on our domestic schedules, establishing our deepest priorities, and manifesting some effort to be present in the church and worshipping at the service.

The future fate of the pastorally-initiated Vesperal Liturgy is uncertain.  Taking “advantage” of its current usage is something everyone should strongly consider.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Mysterious Tapestry of Motherhood

Annunciation Tapestry

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Christ is Risen!

In anticipation of Mother’s Day on Sunday, I would like to share some insights from a fine article I just read in a journal entitled The Bible Today, a bi-monthly periodical wherein biblical scholars offer excellent short articles based on a wide variety of scriptural themes based on both the Old and New Testaments. The newest issue which I just received in the mail is subtitled “Mothers of the Bible.” The opening article is simply titled “Mothers in Scripture.” It is written by Mary Ann Nicholls who, in addition to having a MDiv, is currently “the Spiritual Care Coordinator for Asera Hospice Care in Dubois, PA.” She has been married for thirty-eight years and has three daughters and two granddaughters. After an opening reminiscence of time shared with her own mother viewing a marvelous tapestry at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, she writes the following:

This  memory leads me to understand how motherhood is also a tapestry of life.  Motherhood rarely takes a charted course, seldom follows a predictable schedule, and never escapes the knots of heartache, the broken threads of disappointment, or the mismatched colors of fear and resolve.  The richest of talent and expertise can result in discarded remains; the most inexperienced can achieve through inspiration and dedication the most beautiful of finished pieces.

… Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures provide us with mothers of all types – those who thought they had it right but were a bit out of kilter, those who needed to just begin anew because their threads were so twisted, and those women who put their efforts in the hands of God and listened to the rhythm of the weave as they grew into the grace of motherhood.

What really prepares a woman for motherhood?  All mothers begin virginally, recognizing their own poverty against the power and the mystery of life as holy, but rarely do we fully understand the potential for salvation this vocation holds for us or the child we bear.  As a result we all reach moments when we think we are acting for the right reason but learn through hindsight that our decisions and actions regarding our children needed better guidance.  Whether it be at cribside, the soccer field, a school play, the kitchen table, or over a load of dirty dishes, every mother wishes there was a chance for a “do-over” at one time or another. Repentance and reconciliation are part of every mother/child relationship.  
(p. 146-147)

The author then examines a host of scriptural examples of good and bad motherhood, as well as those somewhere in between.  She actually begins with this latter group, offering two examples of “well-intentioned mothers” who somehow managed to end up with warped results.  This section is entitled “The Warped Loom.”  If you would like to pursuit these biblical examples you will be able to read about Rebecca, the mother of Esau and Jacob at Gen. 27:5-45.  From the New Testament, she writes of the unnamed mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, found in Matt. 20:20-25.

Under the heading of “Get the Ripper; Begin Again,” we read of mothers who “really have their threads twisted.”  This includes the mother who was willing to allow Solomon to cut the child in two that she falsely claimed was her own (I Kings 3:16-27).  And there is also Herodias, the mother of Salome, who told her daughter to ask for the head of St. John the Baptist on a platter after she enticed the weak King Herod with her dancing (Matt. 14:1-12)  Of these mothers, Nicholls further writes:

There were gaps in their maternal fabric.  Their children suffered from their inadequacies; the tapestries that began as life-giving became the threads of funeral shrouds. (p. 148)

Finally, in a section entitled “The Weaver in the Hands of God,” we hear of those grace-filled women who “rose beyond the limitations of their humanity and took on the miracle of life to change the world through the gift of life.”  And yet this was “not without suffering and sorrow, disappointment and fear.” (p. 149)

The wonderful examples given here for your study and meditation are:

  • The mother of Moses, especially as described in Exod. 2:1-10, and her decision to give away Moses in order to spare his life.
  • Hannah, the barren woman who promised to dedicate her son to God if she could have a son, found in I Sam. 1:9-2:10.
  • Lois and Eunice, the mother and grandmother of Timothy, St. Paul’s great assistant in the apostolic life, who nurtured Timothy in the study of the Scriptures, found in II Tim. 1:5.
  • And, of course, the two mothers – and cousins – Mary and Elizabeth, found throughout Lk. 1-2.

Again, you may want to read these passages through on your own, as the Scriptures are rich in depicting motherhood from a variety of perspectives. In fact, it is precisely in the Bible that you will not find sentimental and basically unrealistic depictions of mothers.  In the Bible, you will find women struggling to discern the word of God and having to overcome unbelievably difficult obstacles within a patriarchal culture in order to arrive at their sacred vocations with their humanity profoundly enhanced by the grace of God.  Yet, from the examples provided by this article, some women fail in that vocation.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Life is filled with choices, as well as with circumstances that are beyond our control, and which make the right decisions so difficult to make.   It is through prayer that we seek the wisdom that comes from God; thank God for the fruitfulness of life that flows from choices that reflect that wisdom; and repent and seek forgiveness from our careless choices, so that we can begin anew.

Mary Ann Nicholls concludes her fine article with these final reflections:

Thus Scripture shows the reader that motherhood takes many forms and brings forth life in a variety of ways.  Foster mothers, adoptive mothers, those who biologically bear a child through the birth canal, even those who serve as mentors and teachers – all share in the tapestry of motherhood they weave as a commitment to the life that is given them without knowing much about where it will lead or what it will entail; the thread begins with the mystery of God breaking into one person’s life to bring forth another’s.  Flawed and perfected, the design of God’s tapestry of motherhood weaves the way of relationship of an individual to her child, to her vocation, and to the covenant with her God, a lasting narrative of life. (p. 150)

May all of our mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, and any other forms of motherhood be blessed!

Friday, May 4, 2012

With Trembling and Astonishment

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen! 
Indeed He is Risen!

O Myrrhbearing Women, why have you come to the tomb? Why do you seek the Living among the dead? The Lord is risen, take courage, cried the Angel.
(Matins, Friday of the Week of the Myrrhbearing Women)

We commemorate, praise and venerate the Myrrhbearing Women during this third week of Pascha.  Because these noble women are so often referred to collectively, perhaps we should remind ourselves of their individual names and identities as well as that can be recovered from the Scriptures and Tradition. According to the Great Horologion, we read the following: 

Of those whose names are known are the following:  first of all, the most holy Virgin Mary, who in Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40 is called “the mother of James and Joses” (these are the sons of Joseph by a previous marriage, and she was therefore their stepmother); Mary Magdalene (celebrated July 22); Mary, the wife of Clopas; Joanna, wife of Chouza, a steward of Herod Antipas; Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus; and Susanna.  As for the names of the rest of them, the evangelists have kept silence.  (Matt. 27:55-56; 28:1-10.  Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3; 23:55-24:11, 22-24; John 19:25; 20:11-18;  Acts 1:14)

Privileged by the Lord to be the first human persons to receive the revelation of His resurrection; and also to behold the Risen Christ on “the first day of the week;” we can only surmise with great humility and awe, what those experiences could have been like.  We know from the Scriptures that they left the empty tomb following the angelic announcement of the resurrection in “trembling and astonishment” (MK. 16:8).  According to Fr. John Breck, the Greek behind those terms (tromos kai ekstasis)  can be  rendered “ecstatic wonder.”  This  encounter with the numinous initially left them speechless. 

Yet, though we may concede the utter uniqueness of their experience, this does not mean that we cannot experience that same “trembling and astonishment” when we somehow stop the flow of our rushing thoughts and contemplate the resurrection of our Lord from the dead.  It is this confidence that such an experience is open to all believers in Christ’s resurrection that informs a wonderful passage from Fr. John Breck’s article “Ecstatic Wonder.”  Fr. John contemporizes the experience of the Myrrhbearing Women in such a way that they do not remain remote and iconic women of the past; but actually leave us - from “generation to generation” – a living image of faith that can transform our lives today:

As the memory of the paschal celebration fades in the days and weeks following the feast, we are offered in the Myrrhbearing Women an image – a living icon – of paschal wonder, ecstatic wonder.  If we listen attentively to the magnificent hymns of the Pentecostarion, we can hear the angelic announcement they heard and share the wonder that was theirs.  In the midst of our ordinariness – shopping, taking the kids to school, fussing with the computer, sitting through office meetings, fighting traffic, or battling anxieties in the middle of the night – in the midst of all of it, that image of the Myrrhbearing Women extends an invitation.  It calls us to step out of ourselves for a while, and with them to enter the tomb where Jesus was laid out in death.  It calls us to contemplate the ineffable mystery of the empty shroud, together with the angelic proclamation, “He is not here, He is risen!”

Out of that silent contemplation can come once again the profound sense of awe, of ecstatic wonder, that seized the women and all of those who beheld the risen Lord.  As it did for the apostle Paul, that awe and that wonder can lift us out of our ordinariness, if only for a moment, and give us a glimpse, a blessed foretaste, of Paradise. (From Longing for God, p. 160)

To a great extent, it is our choice that determines what will actually fill us with “trembling and astonishment.”  And that will in turn be determined by what most deeply impresses itself upon our hearts.  Gazing into the empty tomb, and knowing that it is empty because Christ is Risen, will always bring us back to that “ecstatic wonder” that we can share with the Myrrhbearing Women.

Christ is Risen!     Indeed He is Risen!