Friday, October 30, 2015

What earthly sweetness . . .

Dear Parish Faithful,

"But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are fallen asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."  (I THESS. 4:13)

We served the funeral service yesterday for one of our oldest parishioners, Vasilka Bitsoff.  A stroke last January left her quite debilitated for many months, and she died last Sunday, never having recovered. Because of her declining health, she was unable to attend the Liturgy for about the last five years.  If you have joined our community in these last five years or so, you would therefore, I assume, not have known Vasilka .  For those who knew her well, she was a faithful member of our parish who became part of our community in the earliest years of its formation.  She was a member of the Holy Spirit Bulgarian Orthodox church, and that parish united with the early Christ the Savior mission, which resulted in our parish of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit.  Vasilka was a refined person with a lively intelligence and over-all wisdom gained through the many years of her life (she was almost ninety-six at the time of her death). She will be missed. May God forgive her of her sins "both voluntary and involuntary" and receive her into His eternal Kingdom.  Memory Eternal!

It is my belief that it is virtually impossible to attend an Orthodox funeral and not leave pondering both the universal reality of death, and one's own personal and inevitable death.  To do otherwise is to have been totally unaware of the surrounding environment of the church and the service; or to be lost somewhere in "la-la land."  Certainly, we put up strong barriers of denial of our own impending demise, but the prayers and hymns of the service, together with the appointed Scriptural readings, should be able to penetrate those barriers if we are attentive and if we have not lost touch with reality.  Our death-denying culture ( a "comfortable" casket, an embalmed body with make-up. etc.) tries to shield us from that reality, but all such efforts are rather shallow and meaningless. Thus, as we bid farewell to a loved one or a friend, we are allowed the opportunity to come away with a reminder of our mortality so that we can continue to live our lives with depth and meaningfulness.  All, of course, enlightened by our faith in Christ the "Vanquisher of Death."

In sharp contrast to our death-denying culture, the funeral service of the Church places the tragic reality of death rather graphically before our minds in one of the service's hymns, known as an Idiomela:

I weep and I wail when I think upon death, and behold our beauty, created in the likeness of God, lying in the tomb, disfigured, bereft of glory and form.
O Marvel!  What is this mystery concerning us?  Why have we been given over unto corruption? And why have we been wedded unto death? Truly as it is written by the command of God, who gives the departed rest.

Another Idiomela  makes the same point with a certain rhetorical somberness, but ends with a clear reference to Christ as the source of our rest:

What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands immutable on earth?  All things are but feeble shadows, all things are most deluding dreams: yet only one moment only, and Death shall supplant them all.  
But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of thy beauty, give rest unto him/her/them who Thou hast chosen:  forasmuch as Thou lovest mankind.

Other hymns offer a superb combination of the recognition of death with a prayerful plea to Christ to receive us into Paradise, and in so doing reminding us of our desired goal - our restored beauty in the Kingdom of God:

Blessed art Thou, O Lord:  teach me Thy statutes.

The Choir of the Saints have found the Fountain of Life and the Door of Paradise. May I find also find the way through repentance. I am a lost sheep:  call me,
O Savior, and save me.

You who have trod the narrow way of grief; all you who in life have taken upon you the Cross as a yoke, and followed me by faith; Draw near, enjoy the honors and celestial crowns I have prepared for you.

I am the image of thine ineffable glory, though I bear the brands of transgression:  Pity Thy creature, O Master, and purify me by Thy loving-kindness; grant unto me my desired fatherland, making me again a citizen of Paradise.

O Thou who of old formed me from nothingness, and honored me with Thine image divine, but by the transgression of Thy commandment has returned me again unto the earth from which I was taken: Restore Thou me to that image, and to my former beauty.

This honest combination of recognizing our own sinfulness while in this world, together with our hope that we have placed in Christ as our Savior and as the One who will forgive us of our sins, is captured by this beautiful prayer with its Christ-centered and hopeful exclamation/doxology that is repeated throughout the service and then offered one last time at the graveside (and for forty days):

O God of spirits, and of all flesh, Who hast trampled down Death, and overthrown the Devil, and given life unto Thy world:  Do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant(s) ____________, in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away.  Pardon every transgression which he/she has (they have) committed, whether by word, or deed, or thought.

For Thou art a good God, and lovest mankind; because there is no man who lives and sins not; for Thou only art without sin, and Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy word is true.

For Thou art the Resurrection, and the Life, and the Repose of Thy servant(s) ____________, who is (are) fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy and good, and life-creating Spirit:  now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

This prayerful recognition of Christ as "the Resurrection, and the Life, and the Repose," allowed Fr. Alexander Schmemann to write the following about the Orthodox funeral service:

 "The Orthodox funeral service is a wonderful expression of this faith.  Both its words and music convey to us the certitude that death is not the absurd end, which deprives life of its meaning and permeates everything with its poison of despair, but the passage into the "desired fatherland," the return to Him in whom is all joy, all peace, all fulfillment.  Indeed it makes life meaningful - it gives it a sense of direction, it makes it a movement toward Paradise."

If what I said at the beginning of this meditation is true - that you cannot attend an Orthodox funeral service without being aware of the universal and personal dimension of death - then I can equally claim that it would be just as impossible not to come away with a lively sense of Christ as the Victor over death, and that we depart this life with a "sure hope" that by His great mercy and grace, we can make that paschal passage into the life of the world to come.  In such a way the reality of death need not have such a corrosive effect upon us and our lives.  As someone wrote:

Lord, let not the corrosive
fear of dying someday,
eat away the wonder of
living this day. Amen.

This does not mean, however, that we are "licensed" to "eat, drink and be merry" - or to have as much "fun" as possible before the inevitable end - somehow justified by a religious faith in "life after death."  It rather means traversing the road of repentance and constant renewal of our "inner person" as the "outer person" is wasting away.  It is about believing and taking to heart the wonderful words of the Apostle Paul:

"neither death, nor life ... shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (ROM. 8:38)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Next “Battle of the Calendars”

Dear Parish Faithful,

At 6:00 p.m. next Saturday evening, October 31, 2015, I will intone the opening doxology of Great Vespers—“Blessed is our God, always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”  During this service, we inaugurate the liturgical cycle of the Lord’s Day—the Day of Resurrection. 

In Great Vespers we sing and chant many hymns through which we glorify the Risen Lord and praise His “holy resurrection” from the dead.  This will culminate on Sunday morning when, at the Divine Liturgy, we will receive the Body and Blood of Christ “unto life everlasting.”  This is a cycle of anticipation, preparation and fulfillment.  Regrettably, it is a liturgical cycle that many faithful do not experience, but it continues to be observed on a weekly basis in Orthodox parishes throughout North America.  It remains a challenge to the planning and priorities of our families to this day.  It is a service often ignored by choice.

As we continue to celebrate the Lord’s Day cycle beginning with Saturday evening’s Great Vespers, I have the feeling that the intonation of the doxology this coming Saturday evening is going to be drowned out by the simultaneous intonation of “trick or treat,” for October 31 is the annual “celebration” of Halloween.  Then, in response to this squeaky-voiced warning, many participating home-dwellers will recoil with feigned horror or stare with exaggerated astonishment at their doors as an assortment of costumed characters will crowd their porches in expectation of some tasty treats. A host of Darth Vaders and fairy princesses and zombies will jostle for position in anticipation.  Their bags or plastic jack-o-lanterns will then be duly filled.  Parental voices from the sidewalk will arise out of the shadowy darkness to remind these disguised creatures to offer up a “thank you” in response.  The “rubrics” for Halloween are about as established as the liturgical rubrics for Great Vespers and other services of the Church.

Consciously or unconsciously, Orthodox Christian parents will be making a choice for their children or, if children are no longer a factor, about their Saturday evening activities on Saturday, October 31.

The vigil for the Lord’s resurrection at Great Vespers — or Halloween?

Being fully realistic, I realize that this is not much of a choice! Next to Christmas itself, Halloween has to be the most anticipated day of the year for younger children—and, alas, for many adults also (but my sympathy does not extend that far).  This is coupled with the fact that Great Vespers is already “foreign terrain” or off the “radar screen” for many/most as it is.  Nothing seems more unnatural than Halloween on Saturday evening and the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning.  In the event-to-event pacing of our lives, such a jarring juxtaposition goes unnoticed.  Nevertheless, a choice remains, and Great Vespers will not be canceled next Saturday because it’s Halloween!

My comments concerning this next “battle of the calendars” in our lives are not prompted by my belief that Halloween is a threat to our Christian faith—and certainly not because I believe it to be “demonic” or something along that order. 

Whatever the origins of this celebration that religious anti-Halloween groups like to point to as “proof” of Halloween’s insidious and evil intent, it is clear today that Halloween is far too domesticated, trivialized and commercialized to pose an immediate threat to anyone or anything.  Parents simply want their children to “fit in” and collectively enjoy themselves with their peers.  True, there are some cruel pranksters out there that parents have to be vigilant about, but essentially “All Hallows Even” has been reduced to “fun,” and what can be more innocuous than that?! 

Still, I would imagine that Halloween’s annual staying power is primarily driven by its commercialization.  I have been informed that Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of commercial viability.  As long as “trick or treat” can be translated into big bucks, Halloween will be with us “unto ages of ages.”  Hence, the proliferation of Halloween paraphernalia.  Costumes, Halloween greeting cards, outdoor decorations, candy, etc. can turn Halloween into a veritable family budget item.

If Halloween were not so “big” I would not address its place in our culture.  It is a “feast day” of huge significance on our secular calendars.  The Feast Days of the Church—with the exception of Nativity and Pascha—cannot “compete” with Halloween for our attention, focus and commitment.  I find this to be a genuine pastoral concern, now and for the future. 

However, pastoral commentaries, even if delivered with a certain sense of balance and “objectivity,” will not likely transform those patterns in a more ecclesial direction.  But I do believe that raising our level of awareness prompted by these “cultural issues” is necessary.  We need, as Christians, to think and evaluate all things critically. 

This brings me to my point: we often fail to do that, or we “pick and choose” with a certain arbitrariness that suits our “comfort level.”  For, precisely as Christians, we often indulge in criticism of the prevailing culture.  And we can get pretty judgmental or negative in our assessment of current trends.  We can shake our heads or cluck our tongues at a great deal that is “out there.”  We can carry on eloquently about “cultural wars.”  And we will justifiably protect our children to the extent possible. 

But we are very much a part of the prevailing culture inasmuch as we may be unaware of, and partake of, its “delights,” perhaps more than we would like to admit.  To what extent can the cultural patterns of Christians be distinguished from non-Christians—or better yet, non-believers?  As long as that is the case, we need to be careful about our (hypocritical?) judgments of others and their practices.  Perhaps this is a rather trivial example, but our “choice” for Halloween may just reinforce my reflections.

My purpose is not to talk anyone into or out of anything but, rather, to raise issues as they come up.  And October 31 of this year brought some issues to mind.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

'God or Nothing'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yesterday evening, I was browsing through some journals at the bookstore, and I picked up the current issue of one of my favorite religious journals, First Things.  I came across a promotion of a new book by an African Roman Catholic bishop (his name escapes me).  The title of the book was God or Nothing.  

I was immediately attracted by that title. Not much more was said about the book's contents besides some strong endorsements by other well-known thinkers and authors, so my own short reflections are based upon what I may think that title is alluding to; or as to what direction I would pursue based on such a title.

For I have come to the conclusion that if God exists than we are "something;" but if God does not exist, then we are "nothing."  Hence, my attraction to the starkness of this book's arresting title of God or Nothing. In no way, however, am I denigrating or devaluating our genuine human experiences by my own personal reaction to this stark contrast of God or nothing.

On the contrary. As human beings we think, we feel, we create and we love, just to bring to mind some of our deepest experiences which are causes of both joys and sorrows. Such human qualities endlessly enrich our lives. These are the basic human experiences that we all share - theist or atheist.  Without such experiences, we would say that life is not worth living.  

But what is above, below or behind such meaningful experiences?  If God does not exist, then the inescapable and - in my humble opinion - troubling answer is "nothing."  Literally nothing. There only exists the void from which we emerged and to which we will return.  There is life and yet there is decay and death.  And this process of descent back into that void can only be postponed, but not eluded. The "business" of living life only covers up this stark truth.  And that is good, otherwise there would be too much despair in the world. It is this wider-ranging truth about our existence that I am trying to capture when I claim that if God does not exist than we are "nothing."  And, of course, there is Dostoevsky's famous aphorism that "if God does not exist, then everything is permissible."

Yet, if God does exist as we believe, proclaim and hopefully live by, then we are genuinely "something."  We do not hover over a void, but rather have our lives grounded in an ultimate Reality.  There is permanence above, below and behind the world's transience.  Our lives count.  And they endure beyond the ravages of time and its attendant decay and death. That is because our lives are all contained within the "memory" of God.  (This is why we sing "Memory Eternal" for the departed).  

This "something" that we are if God exists is contained in that inexhaustible scriptural revelation that we are created "in the image and likeness of God."  Our human capacity to think, to feel, to create, and to love are the result of that wonderful truth that our lives are God-sourced as we emerge from non-existence into being. And we receive all of this as a gift for which we are thankful. 

For this reason we do not have to justify our moral, ethical and spiritual orientation as human beings.  It is "natural" to be that way because this conforms to the creative will of God.  The "business" of life may distract us - and at times even overwhelm us - but this "living life" (to again turn to a phrase from Dostoevsky) all adds up to something and not nothing. Even further, if God "is" then our lives actually add up to something much greater than the sum total of all of our human experiences in this life.  The Gospel would call this "abundant" or "eternal" life.

God or Nothing.  All in all an intriguing title for a book! Not sure if I will ever read the book, yet for one last time I will claim that this stark "either/or" approach is a real one, meaning that it reflects a deep look at reality. Could we even speak of a "middle" choice?  The agnostic "maybe" or "perhaps" does not sound all that attractive or reassuring. If we have chosen God over nothing, then our vocation is to embody this choice in lives of meaningful pursuits.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Only Wonder Grasps Anything

Dear Parish Faithful,

Recently, I read an article that dealt with the issue of the possible convergence between theology and science.  The specific theme of the article was an analysis of the current Pope's remarks on the compatibility of belief in God and evolution.  Not addressing that specific issue here, I did want to share an interesting metaphor attributed to Albert Einstein on the wonder of the created universe with which the article closed.

"We are like a little child entering a huge library..." — Albert Einstein

"The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe," said Einstein.  " We are like a little child entering a huge library.  The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues.  The child knows that someone must have written these books.  It does not know who or how.  It does not understand the languages in which they were written.  But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books -- a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects."

I could never discern exactly where Einstein stood on the "God question."  Perhaps he was deliberately elusive about this ultimate question.  Yet, a metaphor as the one above, certainly has a theistic ring about it, even though I have read elsewhere that he did not accept the notion of a "personal God."  However, this passage seems to point toward a conscious "Designer."  I certainly read the metaphor in that light, as the author of the article also read it, for which reason he closed his remarks with it.

Be that as it may, Einstein's passage reminds me of something Saint Gregory of Nyssa said back in the 4th century -- Saint Gregory was clearly one of the greatest minds of that era, and well beyond: 

"Concepts create idols,
only wonder grasps anything."

Some of the things said by the Church Fathers are better left to stand without further commentary -- as I believe is true of these words of Saint Gregory -- but rather meditated, reflected and thought over for their deepest meaning.  As denizens of the information age, the question for us may be the following: Is there anything that truly fills us with wonder?  And what good is a mind packed with information but unable to experience a sense of wonder when reflecting upon the seemingly infinite order of created things, both animate and inanimate? 

I am convinced that the Church is the "place" in which we can maintain our sense of wonder to a remarkable degree.  How can it be otherwise when we believe that the very creative Word of God became incarnate as a "little Child," and that after suffering the Cross He was raised from the dead?
Fascinating as it is, the question of the "how" of the existence of the universe -- and of our place in it -- is insignificant when compared to the "why" of the existence of the universe.  We believe and we affirm that everything that exists does so because God exists, and the God Who exists is the "Maker of heaven and earth of all things both visible and invisible."

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Alleviating the plight of the poor

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Let us examine not the outer garments,
but the conscience of each person."
 —Saint John Chrysostom

Lazarus and the Rich Man
It is true that Jesus told His disciples that "you always will have the poor with you."  But He went on to say that "whenever you will, you can do good to them" (Mark 14:7).  Though Jesus allowed and defended the "costly" pre-burial anointing He received from an anonymous woman as a recognition of the love behind it, and for its highly symbolic significance, He clearly taught repeatedly of our need to recognize the poor and needy in our midst.  In this teaching, He was clearly upholding the teaching of the prophets that went before Him and prepared the way for Him. 

The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) bear this out with great power and authority.  Being "realists," we understand that the world will always be the home of countless impoverished human beings, and that injustice, indifference and greed will remain as some of the reasons behind this sorry state of affairs, in addition to the other complex social and environmental factors that are appealed to. 

Though the early Church Fathers did not challenge the social structures of their own times (the world of late antiquity) in a systematic manner; they eloquently and passionately appealed to the moral conscience of their flocks and fellow Christians to alleviate the distress of the poor whenever possible.

This is certainly true of Saint John Chrysostom, who consistently interpreted the Gospel so as to inspire the moral and ethical sensibilities of his flock toward a Christ-like response to those in need.  In a stirring series of six homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Saint John goes beneath the surface in order to disclose the true meaning of "theft" from the perspective of the Gospel.

"I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others' goods but also the failure to share one's own goods with others is theft and swindle and fraud," He writes.

"What is this testimony...?  God says, 'The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses' (cf. Malachi 3:8-10).  Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor.  He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth.  And elsewhere the Scripture says, 'Deprive not the poor of his living' (Sirach 4:1).  To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  
By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.  This is why God has allowed you to have more... to distribute to those in need....  If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you....  For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well" (Homily II).

Listening to the voice of Saint John, I may now have to confess to being a "thief" together with my many other sins!  As often happens when listening to Saint John as a thundering voice reaching forward from the recesses of the distant past into the present, and speaking on behalf of the Gospel, our "comfort zones" are assaulted as he drives home our responsibilities without allowing much room for self-righteous contentment.  Yet, all this takes is a simple appeal to the Scriptures.  Undermining conventional wisdom about the twin realities of "wealth" and "poverty," Saint John reverses these categories also in the light of the Gospel ideal of freedom from acquisitiveness.

"Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate," writes Saint John. 

"Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions, and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires....  We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth.  So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone's money.  If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing" (Homily II).

Of course, this definition of the rich man as one "who needs few possessions" is much more meaningful if such an approach to "wealth" is freely assumed as a consciously-chosen lifestyle, and not one imposed by circumstances of birth and environment; yet Saint John's rhetorical reversal of roles still stands as a challenge to us living in a materially saturated and consumer-driven society. 

Saint John's homilies are directed toward Christian believers, and not the unbelieving world outside of the Church.  In fact, in today's world, it is difficult to distinguish between a "secular consumerism" and a "Christian consumerism."  Everyone is more-or-less caught up in the frenzy to "get ahead," or to attain the "American dream," a good part of which is the accumulation of wealth and status.  Yet, the labels of "wealth" and "poverty" do not reveal the real person underneath these roles.  It may not be until death -- that "great equalizer" -- arrives, that our true nature is revealed.

Saint John offers a vivid description of this process based upon his knowledge of the theatre in his times:

"Just as in the theater, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are; so also now when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world ... When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account" (Homily II).

As noted above, Saint John Chrysostom does not offer a political or social program, as this would have been unrealistic in the world of late antiquity.  What he does is appeal to the conscience of his fellow Christians.  He exhorts to deeds of philanthropy -- a real love of fellow human beings based on the desire to alleviate the suffering of poverty on a personal level when one encounters the neighbor who is in need.  The rich man is not condemned because he is wealthy, but because he is indifferent to others -- even those at his very gate and in clear view.  He would not share.  That is his primary sin. 

If we are blessed by God with material prosperity, then we need to thank God for this.  If Jesus taught us that we can do good to the poor according to our will, this would mean that we thank God through the deeds of sharing our own wealth with those in need.  That is expected of those who accept the Gospel.