Friday, September 26, 2014

'So Real' - Moving Beyond Mere Belief

Dear Parish Faithful,

I recently came across this very intriguing text that I wanted to share with everyone:

"I knew you that you existed but did not believe it was so real."

To my mind, this anonymous text has a certain "modern" feel to it; as if somehow similar in meaning and intent to the title of C.S. Lewis's autobiographical work, in which he describes his slow conversion to Christianity with the title Surprised by Joy. It also brings to mind the 17th c. French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who wrote in his Pensees  - in which he records his "conversion experience" - that he has encountered "not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob."

Yet, the actual source of this text is described as follows:  "Graffiti on the side wall of a church near the catacombs of St. Callistus and St. Sebastian on the outskirts of Rome." That would place it somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd century of the Christian era.  Be that as it may, I would only add: quite a piece of graffiti!  One brief sentence that has more content than some long and laborious theology books.  Whoever scratched these words on that catacomb wall had an experience of the overwhelming and "awesome" presence of God, wherein God is no longer simply a concept or even an object of belief; but an actual living presence that almost takes one's breath away. 

I believe that this is the image of God that Jesus presented in His teachings - a God that was "so real" that He could be called "Our Father."  With an experience like that of our anonymous wall scribbler, we can then understand the teaching of Christ about leaving everything aside to continue that relationship, to which nothing can really compare. A God that is "so real" is not the kind "you have to wind up on Sunday" - to quote an old progress rock band's lyrics.

If we can actually ever "lay aside all earthly care" just at the Liturgy, then perhaps such an experience of God is not beyond our grasp.  I believe that our common hope as Christians is to move beyond a belief that God exists into a living relationship with the living God "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."  (I TIM. 2:4)

Image: Procession in the Catacombs of St Callistus, Rome. (Wikipedia)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

'O Lord Save Thy People' — for Us Today

Dear Parish Faithful,

If there is a troparion (other than the Paschal troparion) that the Orthodox faithful are familiar with, it is the one appointed for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross:

O Lord, save Thy people,
and bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victories to Orthodox Christians
over their adversaries;
and by virtue of Thy Cross,
preserve Thy habitation.

I am not sure that even scholars can tell us with precision when this troparion first emerged and then entered into our liturgical life.  But it certainly is "ancient" and clearly reveals its Byzantine origins by its very content.  "Byzantine" refers to that long historical epoch when the Orthodox Christian Faith was the "official" religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and when the Orthodox Church was the dominant religious and cultural force of the Christian oikoumene (the "civilized world" of the Eastern Roman Empire).  That long-lasting epoch can be dated from 330 - 1453.  These are the years of the "Byzantine legacy" of the Church (Fr. John Meyendorff's term). These are more specifically the years that Constantinople was consecrated as the capital of the Empire as established by the emperor Constantine the Great; and the year that the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, then to be re-named Istanbul.

The "Christian Empire" (a rather ambiguous concept) of the Byzantine world was surrounded by enemies that coveted the great city of Constantinople and the cultural and material wealth of the Empire.  These "enemies" posed a constant political and military threat to the well-being of the Empire.  Looking back over this long, and at times tumultuous history, we know of the Persians, the Avars, the Slavs and Bulgars (both eventually evangelized and converted to the Gospel), the Arabs, Pechenegs, and Turks, to mention the main protagonists of this ongoing historical drama.  The Eastern Romans - or Byzantines as they are now called by historians - were in an almost constant state of warfare or at least of vigilant preparation for war, as these various peoples and hostile empires impinged upon the borders of the Empire from many directions.  When the Byzantines went into battle their banners and shields bore the signs of their Christian faith - primarily the sign of the Cross.  This practice was established during the reign of the emperor Constantine the Great when he won a decisive battle after beholding a vision of the Cross and heard the command "In this, conquer." (We are not here analyzing the integrity or veracity of that vision). Following his victory, he established the Christian Faith as the Faith of the Empire (313 A.D.).

Returning to our troparion of "O, Lord, save Thy people .. " we now realize that this was something of the "national anthem" of the Empire.  Christians were praying for "victory" over precisely those "enemies" that threatened the Empire and its population - the "habitation" of the troparion.  When a city or village was under attack, the Christian inhabitants must have sung that troparion with real feeling and faith! In defense of the Byzantine Empire, most of those wars were defensive in nature, and not the result of expansionist polices. 

Thus, to use terms familiar to us, this troparion combined religion and politics.  In fact, we take a certain liberty in how we even translate this hymn today, for a more literal translation would yield the text:  "grant victories to the Orthodox emperors over the barbarians!"  That would hardly work in today's world. Yet, this translation is already a sign of re-interpreting the troparion, at least to some degree.  Since the political reality of the time of the troparion's origin is long past (and the Christian Empire of Byzantium collapsed), a certain process of allegorizing (finding a symbolic meaning for) this hymn has begun.  Our real "enemies" are sin and death.  These are the twin realities that haunt and trouble our minds and hearts unceasingly.  Yet these are the twin realities that Christ proved to be victorious over in His death and resurrection.  Christ has won that victory and we now pray to appropriate that paschal victory through a living faith in Christ, the Vanquisher of Death.  I believe that this is how we must now interpret this troparion in the context of our contemporary world and in then context of our ultimate concerns.

We have to be careful about what we sing and chant in the Church and why we do so.  The troparion "O, Lord, save Thy people ... " is so much part of Orthodox tradition that it is highly unlikely that it will be changed any further -and certainly not eliminated.  Therefore, I am convinced that we should not try and find a contemporary application that is political for this particular hymn. Let us concentrate on our real enemies - sin and death. 

But we also need to be aware of the contemporary reception of this troparion in a wider setting than our liturgical assemblies.  How does that text sound today to a guest  or "outsider" visiting our parishes on any given Sunday?  Will it perhaps sound a bit narrow-minded?  In Byzantium, everyone at the Liturgy was an Orthodox Christian.  That is not the reality today for us in North America.  We need to be able to communicate a deeper meaning to this popular troparion beyond its original and now outdated meaning.  Actually, this can prove to be an evangelical moment, for if called upon to offer an explanation, we can present the words of  this troparion as a prayerful plea to the Lord that we appropriate His victory over sin and death.  We will then find ourselves witnessing to the Gospel in all of its depth and power - and to the depth and power of the Orthodox Christian Faith.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Crosses We Bear: 'Breaking Through Our Self-Sufficiency'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We continue to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Lifegiving Cross of the Lord.  At the Liturgy we venerated the "life-giving wood" of the Cross and hopefully we continue to do so at home in our domestic prayers, alone or with our family members. 

The Leavetaking of the Elevation will occur on the Sunday ahead of us - September 21. The Apostle Paul confesses:  "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel:  it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (ROM. 1:16).  At the very heart of the Gospel is the Cross of the Lord, and this is what St. Paul is not ashamed of.  Thus, whenever we commemorate the Cross, we are reminded of this and of the profound words we hear at every Liturgy after we commune with the Lord:  "for through the Cross, joy has come into the world."

To understand just how this bears upon our own lives, there is a powerful passage about the Cross in St. Innocent's book Indication of the Way Into the Kingdom of Heaven (available online, in PDF, and a new edition - in both print and ebook - by Holy Trinity Press) that I would like to share with everyone this morning. It is an excellent example of how the saints speak and write with a total honesty about our human weaknesses and propensity toward sin; while yet simultaneously expressing the incomparable consolation of God's mercy and grace.  They never discourage but encourage - though we may have to squirm a bit at first when we read their assessment of our present condition:

When the Lord is pleased to reveal to us the state of our souls, then we feel sharply that our hearts are corrupt and perverted, our souls are defiled and we are merely slaves of sin and passions which have mastered us and do not allow us to draw near to God.  We see that even our supposed good deeds are all mixed up with sin and are not the fruit of true love, but are the products of various passions and circumstance ... and then we most certainly suffer ... in proportion as the Lord reveals to us the condition of our souls, our interior sufferings increase ....
But in whatever situation you may be, and in whatever suffering of the soul ... do not despair and do not think that the Lord has abandoned you.  No!  God will always be with you and will invisibly strengthen you even when it seems to you that you are on the very brink of perdition.  God will never allow you to be tried and tempted more than He sees fit.  Do not despair and do not be afraid.  With full submission surrender totally to Him.  Have patience and pray.  God is our loving father.  Even if He permits a person to fall into sin it is only in order to make him realize his own impotence, weakness and nothingness ... to teach him never to trust in himself and to show that he can do nothing good without God.  It is to heal his soul that the Lord lays crosses on a person .... to make him like Jesus Christ ... to perfectly purify his heart in which He Himself wishes to dwell with His Son and His Holy Spirit.

The words of St. Innocent are timely in an age of "self-sufficiency," when we are convinced that we can handle all the situations of life with a bit of ingenuity, cleverness, and "expertise." God is sometimes forced to break through our self-sufficiency with the crosses that St. Innocent refers to above.  There are situations in life that we then realize that only by God's saving grace can we be strong enough to pass through a furnace of suffering or hardship strengthened and grateful for His enduring love for us.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Universal Exaltation of the Cross, and its Scandal for the World

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As we behold the Wood of the Cross exalted on high, let us magnify God who in His goodness was crucified upon it in the flesh.  (Small Vespers of the Feast)

We are approaching the Feast Day of The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross - to give the Feast its full title – this coming Sunday, September 14. This is the day that we liturgically commemorate and venerate the Cross that will be placed in the middle of the church toward the end of Great Vespers on Saturday evening.   The Feast will then have a full "octave" for its celebration – thus making it an eight-day Feast which serves to stress the importance of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal  lives.  To further turn our attention toward the Cross, we recall the Third Sunday of Great Lent - the Adoration of the Cross; and the less well-observed Feast of the Procession of the Cross on August 1.  And, importantly, every Wednesday and Friday is a day of commemorating the Cross, one of the reasons that we fast on those two days on a weekly basis.

Prominent though that the Cross may be for Christians, it is the Apostle Paul who very succinctly and profoundly captured the unbelieving world's attitude toward the Cross in his well-known text:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  (I COR. 1:23-24)

This leads the Apostle to one of his most astonishing and paradoxical insights:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  (I COR. 1:26)

The "scandal" for the unbelieving Jew would be the claim that the Messiah was crucified.  The "folly" for the Greek/Gentile would be the claim that the divine would even enter the realm of flesh and blood and "become" human, let alone suffer death on a cross.  Yet God, in and through Christ, transformed what is shameful, weak, lowly and despised - a crucified man - into "our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (I COR. 1:30)  The entire passage of I COR. 1:18-31 deserves careful, close and constant study. 

It remains fascinating, and highly instructive, that even non-Christians who profess to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, struggle terribly with the scandal of the Cross.   This is clearly the case with Islam.  Jesus is treated with great respect in many passages in the Qur'an:  even to the point of acknowledging His virginal conception in a passage that clearly resembles the Annunciation form the Gospel According to St. Luke! (Qur'an, 3:45-47)  However, the Crucifixion is treated in a way that bears no resemblance to the Gospel accounts:

"yet they did not slay him, neither crucify him, only a likeness of that was shown to them." (Qur'an 4:156-159)

The Muslims believe that someone else - a figure unidentified by the Qur'an - was crucified in the place of Christ, but not Jesus Himself.  The Muslim scholar Dr. Maneh Al-Johani wrote:  "The Qur'an does not elaborate on this point, nor does it give any answer to this question." 

Clearly, the "scandal" of the Cross is too much for Muslim sensibilities, since Jesus is for them a great prophet sent by God.  Muslims further believe that Jesus was raised to Heaven, yet before He died, clearly an odd teaching that again is meant to completely distance Jesus from His crucifixion.  If there is anything that is agreed upon today among New Testament scholars - believers and skeptics alike - it is that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion by orders of Pontius Pilate in the early 30's of the Christian era.  This lends a certain fantastic quality to these claims of the Qur'an.

There is a close resemblance here with an early Christian heresy known as docetism from the Gk. word meaning "to appear."  In other words, it only "appeared" that Christ was actually crucified and died on the Cross.  St. Ignatius of Antioch (+c. 110) vehemently rejected this heresy in its initial inception, early in the 2nd c.

Be deaf, then, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died ... He was also truly raised from the dead, when His Father raised Him up ...  (Epistle to the Trallians, 9)

St. Ignatius very poignantly asks: what is the purpose of suffering martyrdom for the Lord (as he did in the Roman arena) if the sufferings of Christ were an illusion?   Should a Christian suffer in the flesh if his Lord did not?

But if, as some godless men - that is, unbelievers - say, his suffering was only apparent (they are the apparent ones), why am I in bonds, why do I pray to fight wild beasts?  Then I die in vain.  Then I lie about the Lord.  (To the Trallians, 10)

We do not "worship" the Cross.  We worship the One Who was crucified upon the Cross for our salvation.  Indeed, with the Apostle Paul we call Him the "Lord of glory." (I COR. 2:8)   Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet in a chain of prophets sent by God.  He is the fulfillment of the prophetic testimony to His coming, as He is the fulfillment of the Law.  (MATT. 5:17) There are no prophets to follow Him with any further additions to the Christian revelation.  We believe, as we chant in the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy, that He is the "Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God ... Who without change didst become man and was crucified."  The Cross remains "an unconquerable token of victory," and  "an invincible shield."  In fact, it is for this reason that in our practice, we,

kiss with joy the Wood of salvation, on which was stretched Christ the Redeemer.  (Small Vespers)

Christianity does not exist because of what it holds in common with other great world religions, but because of what is unique and distinctive about it, primarily the Incarnation, redemptive Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is because of our love for Christ that beginning on the personal level, we must promote and practice mutual respect, tolerance and peaceful co-existence with sincerely believing people of other religions.  I see no other way for those who claim to follow the crucified Lord of glory.  However, this should in no way undermine our sense of Christian distinctiveness - "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (ACTS 4:12) - but actually demonstrate our loyalty to Christ Who never compels but invites - with outstretched arms upon the Cross.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

'The God of Unstinting Giving'

Dear Parish Faithful,

As a second Gospel reading yesterday in preparation for next Sunday's Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we heard the passage JN. 3:13-17.  Embedded in that passage is "JN. 3:16," a verse that we (hopefully) all know as offering a perfect summary of the Gospel.  Below is a nice commentary on that marvelous verse that I recently came across and would like to share.

The key affirmation of God's love for the world is linked with a remarkable statement of excess: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (v. 16b). God's love is that of the Father giving his only Son.  What is most intimate and vital to God's character as Father - his Son - is given for the life of all.  
By this measure, divine love for the world is a self-giving of a most unconditional kind.  There is no reserve on the Father's part in making such a gift.  Nor is there any restriction in the number eligible to receive it - "the world," and "everyone who believes in him."  Nor is there any limitation in the goal of the giving: "eternal life."  Nor is such limited by the self-destructive capacities of human freedom:  it reaches out to evildoer that they "may not perish ... "  
The Father is made known to the world as the God of unstinting giving."

From Experiencing God in the Gospel of John, by Anthony Keller & Francis Moloney

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Maxims for the Christian Way

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christianity is a way of life and not simply one more religion among many others.  It is a way of ordering one's life toward God and His Kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ and by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  In doing so, we follow the teachings of Christ, and the teaching of those thinkers, theologians. pastors and teachers that convey that teaching with integrity and depth. At last Sunday's Liturgy, everyone had the opportunity to pick up a copy of Fr. Thomas Hopko's "Maxims for Christian Living," all nicely listed in an attractive form that makes for easy access and careful consideration.  (If you were not here last Sunday, there are more copies still available). 

In these maxims, Fr. Hopko is condensing a life-long commitment to studying, understanding and conveying the truths of our Orthodox Christian Faith with directness and simplicity. The primary definition of a "maxim" is:  "an expression of a general truth or principle, esp. an aphoristic or sententious one."  (Random House College Dictionary) With 55 such "maxims" expressing "truth principles" from Fr. Hopko, it can be a bit overwhelming!  There is such a wide range of these principles listed here, from the most essential:  "Be always with Christ;" to some that are very practical and seemingly not that "religious:"  "Have a healthy, wholesome hobby."  

My pastoral advice was that we should all seek out a few chosen maxims that we know are needful in our lives, but perhaps absent right now, and focus on them through the upcoming months (and years!) so as to integrate these truth principles into our daily Christian lives.  If we were to accomplish this with only a few of these maxims, the results could be overwhelmingly positive in our lives.  Just imagine putting the following five - or actually just one - of these maxims into effect:

13.  Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
24.  Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself.
28.  Face reality.
40.  Don't compare yourself with anyone.
54.  When we fall, get up immediately and start over.

How challenging - and yet how potentially life-changing!

Actually, Fr. Hopko was reviving an age-old practice within the Christian Tradition of conveying the truths of Christian living in an accessible and effective manner.  Often, the Church Fathers wrote works of "sentences" or "centuries" with the same goal in mind.  These were also very short and understandable teachings that condensed a great deal of theological and spiritual wisdom in such a way that anyone would greatly benefit from these teachings.  St. Maximus the Confessor was a master of this form.  

However, I would like to include an example taken from the writings of St. Benedict of Nursia (+547). Here St. Benedict perfectly combines and integrates a confession in the Lordship of Jesus Christ with the "keeping of the commandments" in such a way that we find the "faith working through love" taught by the Apostle Paul.  You will immediately recognize how skillfully he weaves together the Old and New Testaments in this "working description" of what it means to bear the name of Christ, and thus truly be a Christian:

What are the rules for living a good life?
In the first place to love the Lord with all one's heart, with all one's  soul and with all one's strength.
Then to love one's neighbour as oneself.
Then not to kill.
Not to commit adultery.
Not to steal.
Not to covet.
Not to bear false witness.
To respect all people.
And not to do to others what one would not wish to have done to oneself.
To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.
To be master of one's own body ...
To help the poor.
To clothe the naked.
To visit the sick.
To bury the dead.
To assist those in distress.
To console the afflicted ...
Not to let anything come before the love of Christ.
Not to give rein to one's wrath.
Not to meditate revenge.
Not to harbour deceit in one's heart.
Not to offer a pretended peace.
Not to forsake charity.
Not to swear, for fear of perjury.
To speak the truth from heart and mouth.
Not to render evil for evil.
Not to commit injustice but to bear patiently what is done to oneself.
To love one's enemies.
Not to render cursing for cursing, but rather blessing.
To endure persecution for righteousness' sake ...
To place one's hope in God.
If one sees any good in oneself, to ascribe it to God, not to oneself.
To fear the day of judgment.
To dread hell.
To desire eternal life with all one's heart and soul.
Every day to keep death present before one's eyes ...
Not to hate anyone.
Not to entertain jealousy.
Not to give oneself up to envy ...
To respect the aged.
To love the young.
In the love of Christ to pray for one's enemies.
After a disagreement, to make peace before the sun goes down.
And never to despair of God's mercy.
Such are the tools of the spiritual art.
(Benedict of Nursia, Rule, IV - Taken from The Roots of Christian Mysticism, by Olivier Clement)

Rather comprehensive on the whole!   In commenting on this remarkable passage, Olivier Clement wrote the following:

The monk (St. Benedict was writing primarily for fellow monks, but we can simply substitute "Christian" for monk) becomes little by little a center of blessing.  His trust in God's infinite mercy enables him to hope. Knowing himself to be fundamentally loved, he feels himself not only able but obliged to serve his neighbor and love his enemy. ...

Being a Christian in these terms - and are there really any other terms? - is thus seen as a life-long vocation, a task that is only possible if we truly love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

'In the Fear of God and with Faith, Draw Near!'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"In the fear of God and with faith draw near!"

As we embark upon another liturgical year in the Church, I find it helpful to "review" some of our practices with the goal of perhaps reviving or restoring a sense of vigilance and care with what we do in the Church and how we do it.  With that in mind, I am appending below an outline of "Preparing to Receive Holy Communion in a Worthy Manner."  Please read this over carefully. 

This "list" is not meant to be understood legalistically or mechanically.  It is a series of guidelines meant, once again, to help us maintain a healthy, spiritual vigilance.  We want to be careful and not careless in how we approach the Chalice on any given Sunday.  An awareness of preparation will help us resist turning the reception of the Eucharist into one more weekly routine, even if that is a "religious routine."  Nothing more deadly than routine in our ecclesial lives!

"It is time to begin the service to the Lord"

While on the subject of the Liturgy, I would like to raise the topic of arriving at the Liturgy on time for the opening doxology "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit ..."  That opening blessing is the announcement of our destination in the Liturgy - the Kingdom of God, anticipated in our reception of the Eucharist which we receive from the heavenly banquet table in communion with the Holy Trinity and our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

One of the most set patterns in your lives can be your arrival time at the Liturgy on a weekly basis.  This may have initially been determined by the age (and behavior) of your children. (There are reasons besides having children that can also lead to just such a pattern). But that pattern sets in, perhaps never to be changed, though your children continue to grow up and mature! 

So, arriving at church at 9:45 for a Liturgy that begins at 9:30, takes on the quality of being "written in stone" week and after week - and year after year - as the saying has it.  After awhile, "late" becomes "normal," though the reasons are no longer justifiable. 

It is difficult, but not impossible, to change those patterns.  It will take some conscious planning and determination on your part, and cooperation from all family members.  Perhaps, then, as a family you may need to reconsider these seemingly unchanging patterns.  Your presence is essential to forming the Body of Christ in our liturgical assemblies.  When you do arrive at the Liturgy, it is wonderful to see you there, but please be vigilant about being careful and respectful in your approach to the Lord's Day.

The following is my breakdown of late arrival for the Liturgy:

+ After the opening blessing - late
+ After the Little Entrance - rather late
+ After the Gospel - real late
+ After the Great Entrance - no comment

Please remember the pastoral directive that if you arrive after the Gospel on any given Sunday, you should not receive Holy Communion.  That is simply too late for approaching the Chalice.

Confession of Sins

When did you last come to Confession?  If it was last Great Lent, that is already many months and a couple of fasting seasons ago. Have you been to Confession in 2014?!  If not, should you still be approaching the Chalice?  Be aware of this too.  Seek God's forgiveness within the sacramental grace of Confession as an integral and essential component of your ecclesial life.

I would be glad to answer any questions or concerns that you may have. Please contact me at your convenience.

Fr. Steven


Preparing to Receive Holy Communion In a Worthy Manner *

     We need to periodically re-examine that most important of acts that we, as Orthodox Christians, “do” on a regular basis:  receive Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ.  I heard Bp. Kallistos Ware once say when he was in the Cincinnati area, that he “was a strong proponent of frequent Communion; but an equally strong opponent of casual Communion.”  I am in full agreement with his balanced approach. Based upon his words and my own pastoral approach after many years in the priesthood, I would offer the following guidelines:

Being Prepared:

  • We are reconciled with those who have something against us  (see MATT. 5:23-24).
  • Based upon “self-examination” (I COR. 11:28), we must periodically confess our sins with a certain regularity (see JAS. 5:16; I JN. 1:9-10). The fasting seasons of the liturgical year are perfect for this.
  • Participate in the full cycle of Great Vespers - Divine Liturgy.
  • Keep the fasting discipline of the Church:  Wednesdays and Fridays and the four lenten seasons.
  • Eating or drinking nothing on the morning of the Liturgy.
  • Praying as part of our preparation (the pre-Communion prayers, etc.).
  • Be present for the whole Divine Liturgy; but certainly no later than the Epistle and Gospel reading.
  • Realizing with our mind and heart that we are receiving a gift from God, not something that we have “earned.”

Being Unprepared:

  • Not having reconciled ourselves with someone who may have something against us (see MATT. 5:23-24).
  • Neglecting to “examine” ourselves (I COR. 11:28) and confess our sins with any regularity or pattern.
  • Being absent from the Liturgy for a period of time (Canon Law states three consecutive Sundays).
  • Neglecting to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
  • Neglecting to keep the total fast on the morning of the Liturgy.
  • Neglecting to pray as part of our preparation.
  • Arriving for the Liturgy later than the Gospel.
  • Believing that we have “earned” Holy Communion by keeping all the “rules” of the Church.

The observant reader will immediately notice that being unprepared is simply the opposite of the liturgical discipline outlined above as a means of approaching the Chalice in a worthy manner. Therefore let us prepare so as to be regular communicants and not casual communicants.

* Read Fr. Steven's original, full-length, article, with many further insights and references from the Scriptures and the lives and writings of the saints: 'Preparing to Receive Holy Communion in a Worthy Manner'.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Finding Our Way through the 'Acceptable Year of the Lord'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“The Spirt of the Lord is upon me … to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
(IS. 61:1-2; LK. 4:18-19)

     Today is Labor Day, one of our civic holidays. Yet, September 1, is also the beginning of the Church Year.  This is an over-looked commemoration, but I do believe that with more attention, it can be an important day/date in our ecclesial lives.  For the simple reason that it is a "beginning," and beginnings present us with the possibility of starting fresh - if not actually starting over.  It can be the occasion for a genuine "reorientation" - an interesting word, that literally means being directed back towards the east  (the "orient"),  the direction that the early Christians faced in prayer, symbolic of the light of Christ - which is closely linked to repentance.  If the Summer was a time of being scattered here and there, both literally and figuratively; then the Church New Year is a time of being gathered together, soul and body, to redirect our lives toward Christ.  Curiously, it is the time of year for some of the faithful to "get used to" coming to church with regularity again!   As in:  the "vacation" from God and the Church is now over and it is time to get back to Church on a regular pattern.  Obviously, there is more than out-of-town  vacation trips at work here.  Thus, even though the song says, "there ain't no cure for the summertime blues," we can say with confidence that there is in the Church.

     Be that as it may, September 1 prepares us for the annual liturgical cycle of Feast days; or, rather, the rhythm of fasting and feasting that immerses us into the "counter-cultural"  life of the Church that challenges the patterns, attitudes and emptiness of our surrounding secular culture.  Instead of a hectic life based on competition and consumerism, we have before us the grace-filled life of the Church based on co-operation and communion.  The "world" offers us the Kingdom of Mammon; the Church offers us the Kingdom of God.  Our inability to make a firm choice between the two is rather amazing when you contemplate the two choices.  For, as another song says, you "can't get no satisfaction" from mammon. The fate of mammon is to be consumed by "moth and rust" (MATT. 6:19).  The gifts of the Kingdom are imperishable.  So as to make sure that I am not sounding naive or simplistic, I openly acknowledge the evident tension we feel between the Church and "world" (here using the word in its more negative sense of a life directed toward the self and consumed with the passions), for the obvious reason that we are seeking the Kingdom while immersed in the (fallen) world.  That often feels like being caught is a maze or labyrinth.  We lose our way at times.  We struggle with choices.  It is a veritable "bungle in the jungle" as yet another song says.  However, to sincerely embrace the vision of the Church directed toward Christ and His Kingdom, gives us the opportunity of living out, to some degree hopefully, the familiar but meaningful phrase of "being in the world but not of the world." 

     Immersion in the life of the Church, to the extent that that is possible for us, is a sure way of clarifying our vision once and for all, and making an honest attempt to be  Kingdom-oriented Christians.  As Fr. Lev Gillet has written:

In the liturgical year we are called to relive the whole life of Christ:  from Christmas to Pascha, from Pascha to Pentecost, we are exhorted to unite ourselves to Christ in his birth and in his growth, to Christ suffering, to Christ dying, to Christ in triumph and to Christ inspiring His Church.  The liturgical year forms Christ in us, from His birth to full stature of the perfect man.

   With a bit of planning and prioritizing, we can make that immersion a greater reality in our lives.  Instead of hanging up our church calendars as pious adornments or reminders of an archaic way of life, we can utilize them as a means of  directing us toward the life in Christ.  From Feast Days and daily commemorations, to scriptural readings, our liturgical calendars are like maps revealing the location of true treasure worth "digging for."  Without exhausting ourselves in the process, we do not have to lose the "battle of the calendars."   Life is made up of daily choices, and some of those choices can direct us toward the Church.  It is certainly a path worth making some sacrifice for.

I am not advocating an artificial split between our “religious life” and our “secular life.” The point is not to choose one and ignore the other. That would only be a form of compartmentalization that is quite foreign to the Gospel. Our whole life has been saved and redeemed. For the believing Christian there is only one life - the life "in Christ" - and that is the life we lead in obedience to the Lord and Master of our lives, Jesus Christ. Christianity is not a religion among religions; but a way of life that embraces Liturgy to work and everything else that sets us aside as human. Choosing the Gospel as “the one thing needful” will establish a hierarchy of values, however, in which all reality has its place. But I do believe that if we start with our ecclesial life in the Church that will all make more sense in the process.

“Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation.” (II COR. 6:2)

     A reminder:  to commemorate the beginning of the Church New Year, we will sing and chant an Akathist Hymn “Glory to God for All Things” on Wednesday evening at 7:00 p.m.