Friday, June 26, 2015

Finding the time to pray

Dear Parish Faithful,

 I wrote recently of how we can deceive ourselves concerning the "normal" time of the Church Year which we have now entered.  Perhaps as good a time as any to remind  and "push" ourselves  if necessary toward the practice or regular prayer. The summer months do not excuse us from this essential need. The following meditation is written with that in mind.


Finding the time to pray

“And after He had dismissed the crowds, He went up into the hills by Himself to pray” [Matthew 14:23].

According to the Gospel of Saint Matthew 14:22-23, Jesus walked upon the sea and subdued the wind that was threatening to capsize the boat of the disciples, after He had fed the multitude of five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread.  Therefore, these “mighty acts” of the Lord are linked together both chronologically and geographically according to the evangelist.  But what may link these events together on a much deeper level is the evangelist’s “note” that in between the feeding of the multitude and the walking upon the sea, Jesus first withdrew in order to pray “by Himself.”  In fact, it appears that Jesus spent a great deal of time in this instance alone and in prayer, for “when evening came, He was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves” [14:23-24].  Jesus is sustained and strengthened by prayer.  The Lord prayed (and fasted) in the desert before He began His earthly ministry.  He prayed during His ministry, as recorded here.  And He prayed with particular intensity in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prepared to complete and fulfill His earthly ministry by voluntarily ascending the Cross.  Prayer was essential to Christ.

Perhaps we need to understand this as a “great mystery,” for the Lord Who prayed we believe to be the eternal Son of God incarnate!  In His Person are united the divine and human natures “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.”  His sinless human nature is “deified” in the Incarnation.  And that same human nature was transformed “from glory to glory” during the unfolding of His life and totally “perfected” and eternally glorified—through suffering!—in the resurrection and ascension following the crucifixion.  Often, we understand the practice of prayer as our “communication” with God in order to discern God’s will for our lives.  (We also thank God in our prayer, intercede for others, or express our distress as lamentation before God in the form of prayer.)

However, communication must be seen as an inadequate term for describing Christ’s experience when praying to His heavenly Father. There are no indications that Christ did not know the will of God at all times.  On the contrary, His every word and deed were in direct fulfillment of the will of God:  “I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me” [John 6:38].  This is so because the Lord’s “natural” human will was in full union with the will of His heavenly Father.  Jesus did not waver, vacillate, or “guess” when fulfilling the will of God (as we do so painfully often).  In the theological language of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the human will of Christ always followed and never resisted or opposed His divine will; both wills—the human and divine—being united in His one Person of the Son of God incarnate.  Of course, Christ also thanked His heavenly Father in His prayer, interceded for others, and expressed His distress or lamention, as in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross.  Ultimately, though, we must speak of His prayer as communion with God.

In a letter I once received from Father John Breck, the following was written in relation to this subject of Jesus praying:  ” What occurred in Jesus’ times of intense, more focused prayer (we can imagine that He was constantly at prayer to some degree) can’t be discerned or described.  His prayer was unique.  Yet because our prayer in the Spirit is really ‘God praying to God,’ the same can be said with regard to Jesus’ prayer: the Second Person, if you will, prays to the First Person of the Holy Trinity, a mystery we can only share in and experience insofar as we invite and allow the Spirit to pray within us.  Prayer, accordingly, is essentially Trinitarian.”

Whatever is human, apart from sin, is assumed by the Word of God Who became man.  The Lord was not a “ghost,” as the frightened and amazed disciples first thought when they beheld Jesus coming to them across the water.  To be human is to be in union with God—that is our “natural” state.  And if prayer creates and sustains our relationship with God, then to be fully human is to pray.  Since Christ was fully human, He prayed.  “In the beginning,” it was perfectly natural for human beings made “in the image and likeness of God” to nourish their bodies with food and drink.  And it was natural for those human beings to nourish their souls through prayer.  As the Last Adam, Christ perfectly exemplifies this natural state of humanity.  The mysterious relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ is somehow revealed precisely here in the Lord’s practice of prayer as communion with God.

We must find the time to pray, regardless of the “cost,” because the only thing we cannot afford not to do is to pray.  Each person must “be alone” in prayer with some kind of regularity, as the Lord was alone in prayer.  We must make the time.  Jesus would withdraw from the affairs of the world, at least temporarily, in order to strengthen—perhaps even “energize”—His human nature through the communion of prayer.  Regardless of our ability or inability to fully explain Christ’s prayer life as it presents itself before us in the Gospels, we know one thing for certain: we need to pray in order to be fully human.

Friday, June 19, 2015

There is No Such Thing as a 'Normal' Sunday

Dear Parish Faithful,

"We thank Thee for this Liturgy which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands ..."

At the Liturgy this past Sunday, we did not use book called The Pentecostarion for the first Sunday since Pascha.  And before that we used another special liturgical book, The Triodion, going back to the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee in the pre-Lenten season.  So, as we have completed Great Lent and then the Pascha/Pentecostal cycle, and even the Sunday of All Saints for this year of the Lord 2015, we return to the "normal" time of the Church year. 

In other words, are we facing a string of "normal" Sundays until next year's Great Lent, though punctuated now and then by a major Feast such as Nativity? 

I am unconvinced that this is the case.  And that is because I am convinced that no such thing as a "normal" Sunday exists within the Church. 

Just what does a normal Sunday mean when every Sunday is the Lord's Day when we proclaim, actualize and experience the Resurrection of Christ!  We are no longer singing the paschal troparion, "Christ is Risen!" but the fact is that Christ is Risen.  And that is primarily what we sing about at every Great Vespers service on Saturday evening as we enter into the weekly cycle of the Lord's Day with that service.  The same holds true for Sunday Matins, to reach its fullest expression and experience in the Liturgy and the reception of the Eucharist - the deified Body and Blood of the Risen Lord.  The midnight Paschal Liturgy and the Liturgy on a hazy, lazy summer morning in July offers the same identical experience:  to encounter the Risen Lord and to receive a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. That is quite a gift from God for a "normal" Sunday!

Therefore, if we are committed to Christ and the Gospel, then we are equally committed to the Liturgy and our presence there on the Lord's Day. 

The temptation to "take it easy" during the summer months may be especially prevalent among families with Church School age children.  A "summer vacation" mind-set may unconsciously inform our decisions about a regular and faithful presence in church during the summer months.  Certainly the wrong "lesson" to teach our children!

As essential as our Church School program is for our children and young adults, the fact remains that the Liturgy is the most essential "activity" of our life as a parish community.  I believe that this same over-all principle holds true even when we are travelling on vacation.  With a bit of planning and the commitment mentioned above, it is not so terribly difficult to be near another Orthodox parish on any given Sunday. Our presence there will indicate that we have not forgotten God while on "vacation." (I will assume, of course, that we hope that God does not forget us).  There is then the added "bonus" of meeting and worshiping with other Orthodox Christians. Every parish has it own unique style and visiting another parish while on vacation allows us to experience some of that diversity.  It is also a good reminder that we are not an isolated community, but an integral part of a network of "right-believing" Christians with whom we share "the unity of Faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit."

Since the Day of Pentecost there has not been a Sunday in the history of the world on which the Eucharist has not been celebrated by believing Christians.  It began in Jerusalem and spread from there.  And for Christians, this is the "Lord's Day" regardless of how others may treat Sundays. 

The erosion of the "specialness" of Sunday within our society will most likely prove to be an irreversible process. As our contemporary culture begins to impinge itself upon our loyalties and attention - Sunday has rapidly become like any other day of the week in terms of possible activities - then we need to practice some real vigilance in maintaining its inherent integrity as the Lord's Day.  We do that primarily by our actions which indicate our commitments and priorities.  What a joyous responsibility to have as Orthodox Christians!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Prophetic AND Pastoral: The Challenge and Consolation of the Book of Revelation

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

St John beholding the vision of the Son of God in glory, holding the Seven Stars, with the Seven Lampstands, surrounded by  Seven Angels holding small churches. (REV Chapter 1)

I am not quite sure what anyone - Christian or not - may expect if making a decision to pick up and read The Book of Revelation.  Even considering my uncertainties, though, I feel somewhat certain that for many readers what they may be expecting is a book filled with images of "end of the world" disasters of unprecedented magnitude and inescapable finality since they are the punishing actions of an all-powerful God.

Apocalyptic would here mean the final act in a divine-human drama in which the sovereignty of God is finally revealed to an unrepentant and sinful humanity.  Many will be "saved," but many will be "lost."  These revelatory events are presented within the context of coded and cryptic symbols that are supposedly typical of the Bible.  Perhaps the most prominent of those symbols just may be the highly-symbolic number 666, itself conjuring up further frightful images of the "Antichrist" or slavery to some malignant power that will control those deemed sinners once that number is indelibly stamped across their forehead.  If you are unfortunate enough to be so-stamped and therefore aligned with the Beast of the Apocalypse, it means one thing for certain:  your fate is sealed and you are doomed. The recent popularity of the Left Behind series would only affirm such an assessment of the last book of the Bible.

It is undeniably true that The Book of Revelation is clearly filled with an endless display of images and symbols that have baffled commentators over the centuries and which have led to an endless string of misplaced predictions of the end of the world.  To put that more bluntly:  every prediction of the "end of the world" based on The Book of Revelation up to this point in history, has proven to be wrong.  That much is clear.  But that is certainly not the whole story of this challenging book.

All of the images that haunt the popular imagination - as do the four horsemen of the Apocalypse - with the prospect of doomsday destruction are presented within a work that is profoundly and powerfully pastoral.  St. John, the recipient of these visions - both visionary and auditory - writes as a prophet and pastor who is more concerned with the growing, but beleaguered and besieged, Christian Church of the late first century, than in telling the world of its own inevitable demise at the hands of a wrathful God.  St. John's intention is to encourage, strengthen, and console the Church amidst and through any adverse conditions in which she may find herself.  And that is what it means to be pastoral.

In fact, after the initial description of a magnificent vision of the Son of Man (REV. 1:12-16), St. John is commanded to write letters to the angels of the seven churches of Asia Minor.  These seven letters that fill up chs. 2 & 3 are profoundly pastoral.  That means, first of all, that these letters are honest; thoroughly realistic in their assessment of human strengths and weaknesses; filled with encouragement and admonition; and able to penetrate below the surface to the underlying reality of the Christian community being addressed. 

And these seven churches - symbolic of the entire Church because the number seven means fullness - have things to be praised and things to be admonished for within their respective lives as Christian communities.  These seven churches, by way of reminder, belong to the western coast of ancient Asia Minor (present day Turkey) and are named after the respective cities in which they reside:  Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.  If any of these names sound unfamiliar to you, then you have some reading and studying to do.  Each of these early churches are addressed by the Risen Christ, through his servant John who is in exile on the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9).

All seven letters have an identical structure:  1)  The title or description of the speaker (the Risen Christ); 2) The present diagnosis of the church, with both the strengths and weaknesses of the given church honestly assessed; 3) encouragements or admonitions; 4) a promise of blessedness to those who persevere in their fidelity to Christ and the Gospel.  Three of the churches - Ephesus, Pergamum and Thyatira  have both good and bad traits; two of the churches have no bad traits mentioned - Smyrna and Philadelphia; and two churches hear nothing good from the Lord - Sardis and Laodicea.  So much for idealizing the early Christian centuries as a "golden age" of fidelity and firmness of spirit!

From this we learn immediately that local churches are not all alike. Each has a unique life with a specific set of circumstances that sets it apart from its neighboring churches.  The three main themes that dominate these letters are:  1)  the problem of assimilation to the surrounding culture; 2) the problem of persecution (at the hands of the Roman Empire; 3) spiritual complacency. 

Thus, the Lord challenges these churches - and us today, even more importantly - to consider just how far we can assimilate ourselves to the surrounding non-Christian culture and still maintain our identity as Christians.

This assimilation can come in the form of a temptation to listen to false teachers and their false teachings.  Or, it could include a more general uncritical acceptance of the given cultural norms of a particular society/culture that allows us to be so like our non-believing neighbor, that we are hardly like Christ at all.

The issue in the first century was that of eating meat sacrificed to idols.  The question for us is: just what current idols occupy our minds and hearts?   In North America we are not being openly persecuted by being thrown into prison or having our very life threatened.  Though other Christians in the world are suffering persecution today.  They are encouraged by Christ to persevere even unto death and thus earn a crown in the never-ending Kingdom to come.  A hard message indeed.

Perhaps the temptation of complacency is our greatest threat to be dealt with.  Losing our "first love" (REV. 2:4); being preoccupied with wealth and status to the point that we are then spiritually poor (REV. 3:17); unconcerned about doing the works of the Lord (REV. 3:2), etc.  Perhaps the most frightening admonition - basically a warning and a threat - is that if we are "lukewarm" than Christ will "spew" us out of his mouth (REV. 3:16).   Such a fallen church can still repent, for the Lord spoke these words to the Laodiceans:  "Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent" (REV. 3:19).

We are taught to fear the Lord, for such fear is the beginning of wisdom.  Yet, we need not "fear" reading The Book of Revelation if done so with care and vigilance -and perhaps with some sober guidance..

We do need to fear would-be prophets and self-proclaimed spiritual leaders who manipulate na├»ve and innocent souls by pouring fear into their minds and hearts with a one-sided and self-serving reading of Revelation which offers a caricature of God as a harsh and implacable divine Judge.  (And North America has produced a gallery of such characters through the years).

This book is filled with passages of unparalleled beauty about the grandeur and glory of the Kingdom of God.  The stunning beauty of chs. 4 & 5 alone make that point. The whole purpose of the book is to reveal to us that God will prevail "in the end" against all  forms of evil and other distortions of his creation and purpose for us and the world.  If the Bible begins with Genesis, then it ends with Revelation.  At the center of this all-embracing "story" is Christ and the Cross and Resurrection.  The "story" is directed by the One who says:  "I am the Alpha and the Omega... who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty"  (REV. 1:8).

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Clear and Decisive Affirmation of Faith

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all."  (II COR. 13:14)

The Sunday of the Feast of Pentecost is named on the calendar as The Feast of the Holy Trinity or simply Trinity Sunday.  This emphasis on the Holy Trinity is based on the element of divine revelation that Pentecost discloses.  For the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world through the mediation of the Church as gathered in the upper room is the full revelation of God's Trinitarian nature. 

The Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of prophecy, has been poured out on "all flesh" (ACTS 2; JOEL 2:28-32).  We now know - because it has been revealed to us "from on high" - that the one living God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the "holy, consubstantial, undivided and life-creating Trinity."  We rejoice in this revelation for we are convinced that we now have access to the true nature of God.  We can approach the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit!

As Fr. John Breck, in his article "Pentecost:  The "Person" of the Holy Spirit," writes:

By dedicating Pentecost Sunday to the celebration of the Holy Trinity, the Church affirms that the Spirit, as fully as the Father and the Son, is God. The Nicene Creed states unambiguously:  the Holy Spirit is "Lord and Giver of Life."  He "proceeds from the Father" from all eternity (JN. 15:26), and together with the Father and the Son He is "worshipped and glorified."  These are the qualities that can only pertain to a personal being.  Therefore we proclaim, as Orthodox Christians, that the Spirit, as fully as the Father and the Son, is indeed a divine Person.  Such is the faith, the bedrock conviction, of the Church.

Our worship of the Holy Trinity is so thorough and complete that it would be virtually impossible not to be aware of this. Every prayer in our liturgical services concludes with a doxology (glorification) that is clearly Trinitarian:  "Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit ... "  Yet even here we can take it for granted and fail to hear this if we fail to be vigilant and listen not only with our ears, but with our mind and heart.    This is beautifully summed up near the close of the Liturgy after we have received Holy Communion:

We have seen the True Light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit!  We have found the True Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

There is nothing tentative or apologetic in that hymn.  Or nothing speculative or vague.  Rather, it is a clear and decisive affirmation of a lived and communally-shared experience that we can at least potentially partake of whenever we are present at the Liturgy and receive the Eucharist.   However, that is based upon the extent to which we have each personally appropriated the Lord's Trinitarian mystery as revealed within the life of the Church. Basically, we know the content of the Faith through the personal gift of faith.  That is why we claim to "have seen" and to "have received."

Although the figures continue to decline whenever a new "poll" is taken, the vast majority of Americans to this day continue to claim to believe in God.  That is always good news. But what if the question was posed differently, as in:  Do you believe in the Holy Trinity?  I believe that there would be a fairly significant drop in the percentage when compared to those who believe in "God," which, in today's religious landscape and climate of excessive subjectivism, could mean so many different things.

To expand on that a bit, we could further say with accuracy, that a vast amount of people throughout the world today claim to be monotheists - including, of course, Jews and Muslims.  But as Orthodox Christians we make the paradoxical claim to be Trinitarian monotheists.  That entails quite a significant  difference.  We continue to hope that all good people of good will throughout the world who claim to be Christian remain consciously aware of the specific Christian belief in the Holy Trinity.  Be that as it may, our immediate concern is to humbly but unapologetically affirm that the one living God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the One "who has saved us."