Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Journey of Holy Week Services

Dear Parish Faithful,

With the Bridegroom Matins service of Holy Monday yesterday evening, we have entered into Holy Week. This unique week will, of course, culminate in the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord.

Concerning the experience of Holy Week, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov once wrote: “The beauty, the richness and the power of these services take possession of the soul and sweep it along as upon a mystic torrent” (The Orthodox Church, p. 131).

His words have always stayed with me, but realistically we may not always experience that “mystic torrent” through the long services that characterize Holy Week. Deep emotional impact may also be preceded and followed by a dryness of soul and a wandering mind. Our capacity to fully concentrate is often enough limited. There is so much to absorb as the service flows on. Be that as it may, we need not be discouraged, but rather attend the services with an openness to God’s grace and a faith that we are participating in the mystery of our redemption as we accompany Christ to Golgotha and then discover the reason why the tomb is empty: Christ is Risen! 

Monday, April 15, 2013

'This Holy Season', and 'The Joy That Grows Not Old'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Vespers on the Sunday evenings of Great Lent provide our attentive ears with something like a running commentary on the course of the Fast that is both encouraging and challenging.  Yesterday evening, the following hymn from the Triodion was prescribed to be chanted:

Having passed beyond the middle point in this holy season of the Fast, with joy let us go forward to the part that still remains, anointing our souls with the oil of almsgiving. So may we be counted worthy to venerate the divine Passion of Christ our God, and to attain His dread and holy Resurrection.  (Sticheron, by Theodore)

If we carefully study or “unpack” this hymn, I believe that we will find the following  material worthy of meditation:

+  A reminder that we are in the “holy season of the Fast” – and not a particular period imposed upon us by the Church for merely penitential or disciplinary purposes.  Great Lent remains a gift from God so that we may come to our senses and return to the loving embrace of our heavenly Father.  Repentance/Penance is the means by which that return is accomplished in a manner that moves far beyond any legalistic reduction of the Lenten fast. The discipline of the Fast is meant to liberate us from bondage to the “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life”  (1 JN. 2:16).  In our anxiety over our mortality – and perhaps ultimate destiny – we cling to this world, and seemingly to just about everything in it, with desperate tenacity.  We seek for security in our many attachments, psychological or material.  Yet, as St. John declares:  “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 JN. 2:15).  A certain detachment will yield a fruitful understanding of St. John’s austere command.  If approached and practiced seriously, this “holy season of the Fast” will guide us in that direction.

+  There is the exhortation "with joy let us go forward to the part that still remains…"  At this point in the Fast, we may be much more inclined – if not reduced – to a kind of gritty determination to remain obedient to the end.  Initial zeal and admiral goals now appear as na├»ve formulations.  A certain fatigue sets in.  For serious participants, Great Lent is the Orthodox version of “Survivor!”  Is this call to joy another stock phrase from the Church’s hymnographic arsenal of pious rhetoric?  That is possible.  Yet  the hymn further reminds us that we are moving closer to the “Divine Passion” and the “holy and dread Resurrection.”  With such an awesome destination to our Lenten journey, it is possible to willingly respond to the well-known admonition from The Epistle to the Hebrews:   “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (HEB. 12:12).  The entire essence of our Christian Faith is manifested in the reality of the Passion and Resurrection of “Christ our God.”  And reality saves us from mere rhetoric.

+  We are to “anoint ourselves with the oil of almsgiving.”  Great Lent is about God and the neighbor, not just the “self.” To serve the neighbor for the sake of Christ is to serve God. Again, from St. John:  “If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (I JN. 3:17).  In a marvelous homily by St. Peter Chrysologos, found in The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, we hear the following (this particular translation uses the word “mercy” for what I am assuming is “almsgiving” or “charity”):

There are three things, my brethren, by which Faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy.  Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives.  Prayer, mercy and fasting:  these three are one, and they give life to each other.

If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry.  If you want hope for mercy, show mercy.  If you look for kindness, show kindness.  If you want to receive, give.  If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

… Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy.  Fasting dries up when mercy dries up.  Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth.  However much you may cultivate the heart, clear the soil of your nature, root our vices, sow virtues; if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.  (p. 86-87)

There still remain two weeks in the forty-day Lenten season, to be followed by Holy Week and its culmination in the “Divine Passion” and the “holy and dread Resurrection.”  As unchanging as our lives may be, a great deal can happen on the interior level in two weeks time.  If we can somehow, by the grace of God, fight off fatigue, distractions, and self-absorption, then perhaps this “holy season of the Fast” can bring us to the desired end as expressed at the Vespers of Sunday evening of the Fourth Week:

Now that we have passed beyond the middle point in the time of the Fast, let us manifest in ourselves a beginning of divine glory, and let us hasten eagerly toward our journey’s end, the life of holiness, that we may receive the joy that grows not old.  (Sticheron, by Joseph)

Friday, April 12, 2013

'The Light of Christ Illumines All!'

Dear Parish Faithful,

“The Light of Christ illuminates all!”

At one particularly solemn point in the service of the Presanctified Liturgy, the priest turns from the altar table holding a single lit candle and the censer.  He blesses everyone present with the words: “The Light of Christ illuminates all!”  Everyone makes a prostration in order to receive this powerful blessings in an attitude of great humility and reverence.  I just came across some commentary on this blessing from Fr. Thomas Hopko in the latest issue of Life Transfigured, the journal of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, PA.  I would like to share his insightful words with all of you:

“The way to see reality in truth is in  the light of God that is revealed to the world in Christ Who illumines all things, Who enlightens everything, and Who is Himself the light of the world. And it is only in that light that we see light and it is only in that light that we see everything the way it is – beginning with our own self.”

Now here is where it gets challenging:

“When you have light, everything is seen clearly – you cannot hide anymore.  You cannot lie anymore – you cannot flee anymore. There is no way you can get away from it.  In fact, the Light of God is the torture to those who hate light.   If you do not want to see, then to see and to be forced to see is a torment.  And so Jesus says this is the judgment – that light has shone  in the darkness and there are those who love darkness more than light because their deeds are evil.  They just do not want light.

“Now when that light shines, it is painful. A lot of times we do not want to see things as they really are.  We prefer our own version of reality.  And we go around trying to get everybody to agree with us so that they can do things the way that we think they ought to be done.  Too see my own self as I really am is very painful.  But it is a miracle greater than raising the dead.  To see things clearly, to see our neighbor clearly – not to make up our own reality – that is what we want to do.

“So it is always a certain painful process to repent.  But it is also glorious – what makes life to be life:  a constant changing of our mind as it becomes more and more, deeply and fully, illumined  by the light of God who is Christ Himself.”

Wise and illuminating words!

Monday, April 8, 2013

'To Refresh Our Souls and Encourage Us'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection, we glorify.”

The hymn above – together with the accompanying rite of venerating the Cross – replaces the usual Trisagion hymn during the Divine Liturgy on the Third Sunday of Great Lent.  According to The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion the full title of this mid-lent commemoration is:  “The Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.”  In a wonderful commentary, The Synaxarion sets before our spiritual sight the meaning of this particular commemoration and its timing:

…The precious and Life-giving Cross is now placed before us to refresh our souls and encourage us who may be filled with a sense of bitterness, resentment, and depression.  The Cross reminds us of the Passion of our Lord, and by presenting to us His example, it encourages us to follow Him in struggle and sacrifice, being refreshed, assured and comforted. (p. 78)

Hopefully, the first three weeks of the Fast – even if we have truly “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (GAL. 5:24) – have not led us to experience “bitterness, resentment and depression!”  However, we could be suffering from precisely those spiritual wounds for other reasons and diverse circumstances in our lives, both external and internal.  My own pastoral experience tells me that that is probably – if not assuredly – the case.  And there is no better time than Great Lent to acknowledge this.  Such acknowledgment could lead to genuine healing if pursued in a patient and humble manner.

How, then, can we be healed?  Perhaps the Sunday of the Cross reveals our basic starting point.  The Cross of our Lord, placed before our vision, can release us from our bondage to these passions when we realize that Christ transformed this instrument of pain, suffering and death into an “emblem of victory.”  Christ has absorbed and taken our sins upon Himself, nailing them to the Cross. In the process “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Him” (or, in some variations, “in it,” meaning the Cross; COL. 2:15).  These “principalities and powers” continue to harass us to this day, but if we are “in Christ” then we c an actualize His victory over them and reveal their actual powerlessness.  Our lenten journey is leading us to the foot of the Cross and to the empty and life-giving tomb, and the Third Sunday of Great Lent anticipates our final goal so as to encourage us.  Again, from The Synaxarion:

As they who walk on a long and hard way are bowed down by fatigue find great relief and strengthening under the cool shade of a leafy tree, so do we find comfort, refreshment, and rejuvenation under the Life-giving Cross, which our holy Fathers “planted” on this Sunday.  Thus, we are fortified and enabled to continue our Lenten journey with a light way, rested and encouraged.  (p. 79)

Certainly none of the above is meant to deflect our attention away from the “scandal of the Cross” by poeticizing this scandal away in pious rhetoric.  We must never lose sight of the sufferings of our Lord on the Cross, and the “price” He paid to release us from bondage to sin and death.  The world in its indifference will never come to understand the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice.  So as not to lose sight of the utter horror of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment, I would like to include a passage from Martin Hengel’s book Crucifixion:

…Crucifixion satisfied the primitive lust for revenge and the sadistic cruelty of individual rulers and of the masses.  It was usually associated with other forms of torture, including at least flogging.  At relatively small expense and to great public effect the criminal could be tortured to death for days in an unspeakable way.  Crucifixion is thus a specific expression of the inhumanity dormant within men which these days is expressed, for example, in the call for the death penalty, for popular justice and for harsher treatment of criminals, as an expression of retribution.  It is a manifestation of trans-subjective evil, a form of execution which manifests the demonic character of human cruelty and bestiality. (p. 87)

So much for the “noble simplicity and greatness” of the ancient world!  But there is “nothing new under the sun” and fallen human nature is just as cruel and evil today.  Again, Christ absorbed all of that human cruelty and bestiality on the Cross.  This was a scandal, for the Son of God died the death of a slave on the Cross (PHIL. 2:8).  Now, as a “new creation” in Christ, we must of course manifest our freedom from precisely that dark and demonic abyss into which human beings can plunge; but also manifest the transfiguration of our human “energy” into the virtues that are so wonderfully revealed in the lives of the saints.  This was the prayer of the Apostle Paul when the light of the crucified and risen Lord began to shine in a world of darkness:

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us (or you) to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (COL. 1:14).

The Church understands and will put before our gaze the sufferings of the Lord during Holy Week.  But it is also from within the Church that we come to know the victory of Christ achieved through His death on the Cross and fully revealed in His Resurrection.  Thus the marvelous paradox of venerating a “Life-giving Cross!”  The rhetoric of the Church’s language is thereby not empty but revelatory of a mystery that has been accomplished in our midst.  The Synaxarion concludes its section on “The Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross” with the following prayer, a fitting way, I hope, to conclude this meditation:

“O Christ our God, through the power of the Holy Cross, deliver us from the influence of our crafty enemy and count us worthy to pass with courage through the course of the forty days and to venerate Your divine Passion and Your Life-giving Resurrection.  Be merciful to us, for You alone are good and full of love for mankind.  Amen.”

Thursday, April 4, 2013

An Orthodox Perspective on the Cross of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

The meditation below was recently posted on the OCA’s website.  I thought to forward it to the parish in case you would like to read it.  It is actually something that I wrote in the past, and edited a bit for the website.  The theme is in preparation for the upcoming Sunday of the Cross and, of course, it anticipates Holy Week and Pascha.

The attachment is of a very well-executed icon of the Crucifixion.

Fr. Steven


An Orthodox Christian Perspective on
the Cross of Christ

by Father Steven C. Kostoff

Having come to the middle point of the path of the Fast that leads to Thy precious Cross, grant that we may see Thy day that Abraham saw and rejoiced, when on the mountain he received Isaac back alive as from the tomb. Delivered from the enemy by faith, may we share Thy mystical supper, calling upon Thee in peace: Our light and our Savior, glory to Thee!  — Matins of Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Great Lent

The misunderstanding may still persist that the Orthodox Church downplays the significance of the Cross because it so intensely concentrates on the Resurrection, or on other such themes as transfiguration, deification, mystical encounter with God, and so forth. This is an implicit criticism that there is some deficiency in the Orthodox Christian presentation of the place of the Cross in the divine dispensation “for us and for our salvation.” Such criticism may not hold up under further reflection and inspection, for the Orthodox would say that based upon the divine economy of our salvation, resurrection – and any “mystical encounter” with God – is only possible through the Cross. As this was “the purpose of his will” and “the mystery of his will” (Eph 1:5,9), our salvation could not have been accomplished in any other way. The “Lord of Glory” was crucified (1 Cor 2:8) and then raised from the dead. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul writes that “Jesus our Lord” was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes of “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).   A text such as this could be behind the hymn we sing at every Divine Liturgy after receiving the Eucharist: “For through the Cross, joy has come into the world.” Jesus himself said “that the Son of Man must suffer many things…and be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8: 31).  Of the Greek word translated as “must” from these words of Christ, Archbishop Demitrios Trakatellis wrote:

This expresses the necessity (dei) of the Messiah’s terrible affliction. Judging from the meaning of the verb (dei) in Mark, this necessity touches upon God’s great plan for the salvation of the world. (Authority and Passion, p.51-52)

Many such texts can be multiplied, but the point is clear: The Cross and the empty tomb – redemption and resurrection – are inseparably united in the one paschal mystery that is nothing less than “Good News.” Like Mary Magdalene before us, one must first stand by the Cross in sober vigilance before gazing with wonder into the empty tomb and then encountering the Risen Lord (John 20:11-18).

As something of an aside, part of this misunderstanding of the Orthodox Church’s supposed neglect of the Cross in the drama of human redemption could stem from a one-sided emphasis on the Cross in other churches at the expense of the Resurrection. The redemptive significance of the Cross somehow overwhelms the Resurrection so that it is strangely reduced to something of a glorified appendix to the salvific meaning of the Cross. As Vladimir Lossky wrote: “This redemptionist theology, placing all the emphasis on the passion, seems to take no interest in the triumph of Christ over death.”  Since the “triumph of Christ over death” is so integral to the very existence of the Church -- and since it is the ultimate paschal proclamation, as in “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!” -- then the Orthodox Church will never concentrate on a “theology of the Cross” at the expense of the Resurrection.  Rather, the one paschal mystery will always embrace both Cross and Resurrection in a balanced manner.  Within the Church during the week of the Cross (beginning on the third Sunday of Great Lent), we sing and prostrate ourselves before the Cross while chanting:

"Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify!"

In addition, and perhaps more tellingly, the growth, development and continuing existence of certain theories of atonement that have proven to be problematic today, but not shared by the Orthodox Church, have had an impact on evaluating the Orthodox Church’s understanding of the Cross on the whole. These theories of atonement will portray God as being primarily characterized by a wrath that demands appeasement, or “propitiation,” something only the death of His Son on the Cross could “satisfy.” These theories would stress the “juridical” and “penal” side of redemption in a one-sided manner. They may also bind God to act within certain “laws” of eternal necessity that would impose such categories as (vindictive?) justice on God in a way that may obscure God’s overwhelming mercy and love.

Not sharing such theories of atonement as developed in the “West,” the Orthodox Church may face criticism for lacking a fully-developed “theology of the Cross.” However, such “satisfaction” theories of atonement are proving to be quite unsatisfactory in much of contemporary theological assessments of the meaning and significance of the Cross in relation to our salvation “in Christ."

The Orthodox can make a huge contribution toward a more holistic and integrated understanding of the role of both Cross and Resurrection, so that the full integrity of the paschal mystery is joyfully proclaimed to the world. From the patristic tradition of the Church, the voice of Saint Athanasius the Great can speak to us today of this holistic approach (using some “juridical” language!):

Here, then is the…reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruit of the resurrection. (On the Incarnation, 20)

In soberly assessing too great of a dependency on juridical language when speaking of redemption, and anticipating some later theories that would narrowly focus on the language of “payment” and “ransom” in relation to the sacrifice of Christ; Saint Gregory the Theologian argued that a “price” or “ransom” was not “paid” to the Father or to Satan, as if either would demand, need or expect such a price as the “precious and glorious blood of God.” Saint Gregory says, rather, the following: 

Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice not because He demanded it or had any need for it but by His dispensation? It was necessary that man should be sanctified by the humanity of God; it was necessary that He Himself should free us, triumphing over the tyrant by His own strength, and that He should recall us to Himself by His Son who is the Mediator, who does all for the honor of the Father, to whom he is obedient in all things …. Let the rest of the mystery be venerated silently. (Oration 45,22)

However, getting it right in terms of a sound doctrine of atonement is one thing – essential as it is – but assimilating the necessity of the Cross in and to our personal understanding and the conditions of our life is another. In fact, it is quite a struggle and our resistance can be fierce! If this is difficult to understand, assimilate and then live by, the initial disciples of the Lord suffered through the same profound lack of comprehension. Their (mis)understanding of Jesus as the Messiah was one-sidedly fixated on images of glory, both for Israel and for themselves. A crucified Messiah was simply too much for the disciples to grasp, ever though Jesus spoke of this in words that were not that enigmatic. When Peter refused to accept his Master’s words of His impending passion and death in Jerusalem after just confessing His messianic stature and being blessed for it; he is forced to receive what is perhaps the most stinging rebuke in the Gospels when Jesus turns to him and says: “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mark 8:33).  It was Satan who did not want Jesus to fulfill His vocation by voluntarily dying on the Cross, so Peter’s refusal to accept Christ’s words was his way of aligning himself with Satan.

The disciples were not enlightened until after the resurrection of their Lord and Master. We are raised in the Church so that we already know of Christ’s triumph over death through the Cross. Our resistance is not based on a lack of knowledge, but of a real human dread of pain and suffering. It may be difficult to us to “see” the joy that comes through the Cross until we find ourselves “on the other side," for "now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).  It is our hope and the “certainty” of our faith that Christ has indeed triumphed over death, “even death on a Cross” (Phil 2:8).  God has blessed us with yet another Great Lent and upcoming Holy Week and Pascha in order to share in that experience of His glorious triumph that begins with the life-giving wood of the Tree of the Cross.