Monday, June 27, 2016

An Infant’s Burial

Dear Parish Faithful,

This was a meditation that I wrote many years ago when I had to bury a newborn child here in our parish.  A deeply moving and unforgettable experience. The family has long since moved away, and since there are no names included, I do not find it inappropriate to share it once again with the parish.  I send this out because of the recent death of a grandchild of one of the priests in our deanery, Fr. Zacharias Trent.  I believe that the child of God, Anna, is being buried today. We all hope that the Burial Service and their own Christian faith will somehow console them in their great grief. 

- Fr. Steven

An Infant’s Burial

Yesterday, we served The Order for the Burial of an Infant over and on behalf of a two-day old boy, who died at Children’s Hospital on Saturday.

Humanly speaking, there is nothing more heartbreaking than this: a tiny infant dressed in white baptismal clothes, lying in the middle of the church in a coffin that looks more like a small box, surrounded by his grieving family and friends. 

With an open casket, I was deeply struck by the innocence, purity and beauty of this “undefiled infant,” as he was called in the funeral service. It was difficult not to keep returning to his coffin and looking at him. Here was an indelible image that will always remain with me. 

In addition, we witnessed his poor mother, still recovering from giving birth on Friday, together with a father who was momentarily elated with the birth of his firstborn son, joined together in mutual grief at their little son’s burial service. The initial impact of death is that of irrevocable lost. This is why we sing so realistically, “I weep and wail when I think upon death ...”

We use a completely different funeral service for infants, basically meaning children under the age of seven. This was the first time I had ever served this particular funeral office in my years as a priest. 

I was struck by the beauty of the service, the certainty of an infant’s entrance into the Kingdom of God, and the complete absence of prayers for the “forgiveness of sins” of the departed infant. There is no sin for which he needs to be forgiven — including so-called “original sin.” The service explicitly states that “he has not transgressed Thy divine command” (Ode 6 of the Canon); and that “infants have done no evil” (Ode 9 of the Canon). 

Since transgressing the divine commandment is inevitable in a fallen world, we pray over a departed adult that God will forgive his/her sins. But for an infant, the service repeatedly refers to the departed infant as “undefiled,” “uncorrupted,” “most-pure,” “truly blessed,” and even “holy.” This is not sentimentalism meant to make us feel better. It rather reveals a profound theological truth.

A child, according to Orthodox Christian teaching, is not born a “guilty sinner.” A child is not baptized in order to wash away the stain of “original sin” with its attendant guilt. 

We believe that a child is born bearing the consequences of “original sin,” often referred to as “ancestral sin” by Orthodox theologians precisely in order to distinguish it from “original sin.” The consequences of ancestral sin are corruption and death. A child is born into a fallen, broken, and corrupted world, grievously wounded by sin and death. 

There is nothing sentimental in that assessment of our human condition! Disease and physical deformities are a part of this world, caused by humankind’s initial alienation from God—and providentially allowed by God. Thus a child is never too young to die. And hence the tragic nature of life, nowhere more clearly revealed than in the death of an innocent infant. 

An infant is baptized in order to be saved from the consequences of the ancestral sin that lead each and every person inevitably to sin and be subject to corruption and death. The child needs to be “born again of water and the Spirit”—the Mystery of Baptism—in order to “put on Christ” and the gift of immortality that is received only through sacramentally partaking of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The entire funeral service was permeated by the sure hope and conviction that this little child has been “translated unto Thee,” and that he is now “a partaker of Thy Heavenly good things.” (Ode 6 of the Canon). His death is treated realistically, and the pathos of an uncompleted earthly life is clearly acknowledged. Yet his death is his entrance to life with God in His eternal Kingdom:

By Thy righteous judgment, Thou hast cut down like a green herb before it has completely sprouted, the infant that Thou hast taken, O Lord. But, as Thou hast led him unto the divine mountain of eternal good things, do Thou plant him there, O Word.
The sword of death has come and cut thee off like a young branch, O blessed one that has not been tempted by worldly sweetness. But, lo, Christ openeth the heavenly gates unto Thee, joining Thee unto the elect, since He is deeply compassionate. (Ode 5 of the Canon)
O Most-perfect Word, Who didst reveal Thyself as perfect Infant: Thou hast taken unto Thyself an infant imperfect in growth. Give him rest with all the Righteous who have been well-pleasing unto Thee, O only Lover of mankind. (Ode 3 of the Canon)

The suffering hearts of the mother and father are not forgotten in the prayers of the service, expressed with a certain rhetorical style that may no longer be fashionable, but which retains a genuinely poignant realism:

No one is more pitiful than a mother, and no one is more wretched than a father, for their inward beings are troubled when they send forth their infants before them. Great is the pain of their hearts because of their children ... (Ikos following Ode 6 of the Canon)

This is further intensified in a hymn that seeks to articulate the words of the infant as if he could communicate with those left behind. Here we find a realistic acknowledgment of intense grief, suffused with a certain hope that God can bring relief to that very grief:

“O God, God, Who hast summoned me: Be Thou the consolation of my household now, for a great lamentation has befallen them. For all have fixed their gaze on me, having me as their only-begotten one. But do Thou, Who wast born of a Virgin Mother, refresh the inward parts of my mother, and bedew the heart of my father with this: Alleluia.” (Ikos following Ode 6 of the Canon)

These hymns and prayers are profoundly comforting, not primarily for psychological and emotional reasons, but because they reveal what is actually true: that Christ has overcome death, trampling it down on our behalf by His glorious Resurrection. Death itself has been transformed from within. Horror and darkness give way to hope and life. 

The healing grace of God does not come through pious, psychological or emotional sentiment, but through the awareness of this Truth as it penetrates our minds and hearts through the gift of faith. What other kind of “comfort” can there be when parents, relatives and friends must bear the cross of the death of a beloved infant? 

Grief and sorrow over such a loss never leave us, but they can be transmuted and transformed in time by the joy of knowing God’s love, poured out to us through His beloved Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Acquiring the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of  the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism." (St. Kallistos and St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos)

Icon of St Seraphim of Sarov's Conversation with N. Motovilov, during which he is transfigured by the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit.

Although the Feast of Pentecost reveals the trinitarian nature of God, it is on this "last and great day of Pentecost" that we concentrate on the Holy Spirit. This is clear from the prescribed readings for the Sunday of Pentecost: ACTS 2:1-11 describing the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; and JN. 7:37-52. 8:12, the Gospel passage which speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit by the glorified Christ. 

As Orthodox Christians we do not reduce the Holy Spirit to a kind of indefinite divine power or energy.  Rather, we clearly proclaim that the Holy Spirit is God, the "Third Person" of the "holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity." 

We further believe that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (JN. 15:26) and "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified" (Nicene Creed).  As one of the many beautiful hymns of the Vespers of Pentecost expresses this truth:

The Holy Spirit was, is, and ever shall be
Without beginning, without end,
Forever united and numbered with the Father  and the Son ...

The Holy Spirit, present within the dispensation of the Old Testament and more openly within the earthly ministry of Christ, descends into the world in a unique, but decisive and final way on the Great Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Savior's resurrection. 

The coming of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the New Testament Church and the Holy Spirit abides in the Church as the life-giving Power of renewal, rebirth and regeneration.  The Church would grow old and die (as do empires, nations, cultures and secular institutions) because of our many human and historical sins, if not for this presence of the Holy Spirit, making the Church ever-young and cleansing us all "from every impurity" as the personal Source of sanctification. 

We come to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it a bit more fully: 

"One does not think of the Father without the Son and one does not conceive of the Son without the Holy Spirit. For it is impossible to attain to the Father except by being raised by the Son, and it is impossible to call Jesus Lord save in the Holy Spirit."

All authentic life in the Church is life lived in the Holy Trinity, and on the Day of Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit is the final revelation of precisely this greatest of mysteries - that the one God is "tri-hypostastic" (meaning "tri-personal"), being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Here is a typical example from the Church Fathers of expressing the great paradox of the One God in Three Persons:

"The single divinity of the Trinity is undivided and the three Persons of the one divinity are unconfused.  We confess Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, divided yet without division and united yet with distinctions."  (St. Thalassios the Libyan)

The Sunday of Pentecost is, then, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Pentecost Monday being the day of the Holy Spirit.  Of the divine attributes of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great enumerates the following: 

"From this Source comes foreknowledge of the future, the understanding of mysteries, the apprehension of things hidden, the partaking of spiritual gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the choir of angels, unending joy, the power to abide in God, to become like God, and, highest of all ends to which we can aspire, to become divine."

This can strike us as abstract.  But theology reveals to us the foundation and the vision on which and in which we order our spiritual lives.  The dogma of the Trinity must impact our lives.

The beginning of this process of discerning the presence of God in our lives and in trying to live out that presence is to be found in the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation.  Each and every human person, baptized and chrismated into the life of the Orthodox Church so as to receive the gift of salvation from sin and death unto life eternal, has participated in his/her own personal Pascha and Pentecost. To be baptized is to die and rise in Christ; to be chrismated is to receive "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." Alive in Christ, sealed and filled with the Holy Spirit!  New life and the power with which and in which we are enabled to continue in that life!

Without Christ we "can do nothing" (JN. 15:5), and without the Holy Spirit - poured out upon us by the risen, ascended and glorified Christ at Pentecost - we cannot say that "Jesus is Lord." (I COR. 12:3) 

As St. Seraphim of Sarov put it:

"The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Spirit of God."

Yet, I cannot but wonder if - or to what extent - we are troubled if we squander the "great grace of Baptism" that we received when we were buried with Christ in the baptismal font - both a tomb (dying to sin) and a womb (rebirth).  It seems as if we can be insensitive to the withdrawal of the Spirit's presence from our minds and hearts through sheer inattention and lack of vigilance.

The saints would weep for their sins - in fact, this is called "gifts of tears" as the means of restoring that very baptismal grace forfeited by sin - while we shrug off our own sins as "normal" and practically inevitable considering the conditions and circumstances of life.  If we are more-or-less "like other people" in conformity with a basic set of moral principles, and thus maintaining a good image in the eyes of others, then we are usually perfectly content with our own sinfulness.  In this way, we domesticate and normalize sin by rendering it innocuous and easy to live with. 

So understood, sin is no longer that tragic "missing of the mark" that renders sin so baneful a reality, a reality from which we needed to be saved by the death of our Savior. Thus, we re-define sin so that our notion of sin hardly resembles what we find in the Scriptures!

But how we may weep and gnash our teeth if and when we lose money, property, status, or simply "things;" how we mourn the loss of even a "trinket" if we have invested it with sentimental value.  It is these types of losses that are meaningful and which demand our attention and concern, while the muting of the "voice" of the Spirit deep within our conscience will only draw a lukewarm sigh. 

This is a most unfortunate reversal of values; for losing the "seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit" is tantamount to losing our "heavenly treasure;" while losing our earthly treasures is only to lose what "moth and rust consume" despite our heroic efforts to escape that process. 

This is a paradox:  When, by the grace of God, our spiritual lives have matured in such a way that we truly mourn (and even weep!) over our sins which strip us of the presence of the "Comforter and Spirit of Truth," then through genuine repentance, the Holy Spirit will "come and abide in us" to "warm our hearts with perfect love," according to the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and the person in whom the Holy Spirit lives feels that he has paradise within.  (St. Silouan of Mt. Athos)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Pentecost and the Tri-Personal Godhead

Dear Parish Faithful,

Mystical Icon of the 'Old Testament' Trinity, by Fr. Andrew Tregubov

"And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets..." — from the Symbol of Faith

The Great Day of Pentecost is also designated as Trinity Sunday. On this day, we celebrate the final and full revelation of the Holy Trinity with the descent into the world of the Holy Spirit. 

From all eternity the Holy Spirit "proceeds" from the Father; but He "proceeds" from the Son "in time" for it is the Risen Lord who sends the Paraclete (another name for the Holy Spirit) into the world on the Day of Pentecost. 

Some of the Church's most profound and beautiful hymnography is found in the Feast of Pentecost - especially in the Vespers of Pentecost - when it comes to poetically revealing our understanding of God's trinitarian nature.  As Orthodox Christians, we are monotheists, but we are trinitarian monotheists. 

This following hymn - one of the apostikha of Vespers - stands on its own, with no need for commentary, though I will simply point out that this hymn "spells out" the trinitarian nature of the daily Trisagion Prayers that we offer up to God:

Come, let us worship the Tri-Personal
The Son in the Father with the Holy
The Father timelessly begets the co-
   reigning and co-eternal Son.
The Holy Spirit was in the Father,
   glorified equally with the Son,
One Power, One Substance, One God-
In worshipping Him, let us all say:
Holy God: who made all things
  through the Son,
With the cooperation of the Spirit.
Holy Mighty:  through whom we know
   the Father,
Through whom the Holy Spirit came
   into the world!
Holy Immortal:  the comforting Spirit,
Proceeding from the Father and resting
   in the Son.
O Holy Trinity: glory to Thee!

Friday, June 17, 2016

49 plus 1: Pentecost and the Life Beyond Time

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the Vespers of Pentecost that will be celebrated in all of our parishes on Pentecost Sunday—which falls on June 19 this year—we will implore the Risen Lord, Who sat down at the “right hand” of God the Father, to send the Holy Spirit upon us, as He did upon the apostles who “were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). 

It is quite significant that Pentecost occurred exactly 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ.  In the ancient world, there was a deep symbolic—or even sacred—character to the use of numbers, and this is fully shared and reflected in the Scriptures.  Father Alexander Schmemann explains this “sacred numerology” as it relates to the Feast of Pentecost.  He writes:

“Pentecost in Greek means 50, and in the sacred biblical symbolism of numbers, the number 50 symbolizes both the fullness of time and that which is beyond time: the Kingdom of God itself.  
It symbolizes the fullness of time by its first component—49—which is the fullness of seven (7 x 7): the number of time.  And, it symbolizes that which is beyond time by its second component — 49 + 1 — this "1" being the new day, the “day without evening” of God’s eternal Kingdom.  
With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples, the time of salvation, the Divine work of redemption has been completed, the fullness revealed, all gifts bestowed; it belongs to us now to “appropriate” these gifts, to be that which we have become in Christ:  participants and citizens of His Kingdom.”

This reality that takes us beyond the fullness of time as experienced in this world we call eschatological—the fullness of the Kingdom of God which is “not of this world” but yet experienced here and now within the grace-filled life of the Church, herself the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  The “appropriation” of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, referred to above by Father Alexander, implies the rejection of a way of life that is described as “fleshly.” 

In an extraordinary passage of the Apostle Paul found in his Epistle to the Galatians, we encounter the contrast between the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-24).  Saint Paul emphasizes this contrast at the beginning of this passage: 

“But I say to you, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.  But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:16-17).

It is essential to realize that the Apostle Paul does not mean by “flesh” what we would call our “bodies” or physical existence.  He is not attacking our bodily, physical existence as such.  That would introduce us to the realm of dualism, an artificial and non-Scriptural conflict between the spiritual and the material.  By “flesh,” the Apostle Paul means the human person in rebellion against God, that results in a self-centered way of life that further results in perversions of both the body and soul. 

As this passage continues, you can clearly discern the comprehensive nature of the “flesh” as encompassing both the mind and body and directing them to sinful activities or attitudes:

“Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21).

My intention is not to be discouraging, but if anything here sounds self-descriptive or reminiscent of one’s most recent confession, then one is still contending with the “works of the flesh.”  According to the Apostle, the long-term prospects for such a way of life are not very promising, if not altogether bleak:  “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).

However, the “good news” is that there exists another way of life, one that is “spiritual” but expressed through our bodily existence in the rhythms of our daily life:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Galatians   5:22-23).  

There is no mention in these “fruits of the Spirit” of miracle-working, visions, ecstatic and/or mystical experiences.  Saint Paul calls upon very human virtues, but with the implication that they are heightened—or deepened—by the Holy Spirit in such a way that a new manner of living is being manifested, one he calls elsewhere a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  This newness of life in the Holy Spirit distinguished the early Christians from their environment, and is meant to distinguish Christians to this day.

Failure to live by the “fruit of the Spirit” is essentially a failure of our Christian vocation.  Saint Paul implies as much when he writes with confidence: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). 

And a final exhortation with behavioral consequences concludes this remarkable passage on the newness of life made possible by the Holy Spirit: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another” (Galatians 5:25).

As members of the original Pentecostal Church, Orthodox Christians have every opportunity to both “live by the Spirit” and “walk by the Spirit.”

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Ascension: Our Destiny in Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,


In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed we profess,

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.... And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.

What a wonderful expression of the great mystery of the "descent" and "ascent" of the Son of God! The eternal Son of God becomes the Son of Man, descending into our world to live among us and to teach us about, and prepare us for, the Kingdom of God. This is what we call the Incarnation.

This movement of descent is only completed when Christ is crucified and enters the very realm of death on our behalf. There is "nowhere" further to descend (in)to. Thus, there are no limits to the love of God for His creatures, for the descent of Christ into death itself is "for our salvation."

The Son of God will search for Adam and Eve in the very realm of Sheol/Hades. He will rescue them and liberate them as representative of all humankind, languishing in "the valley of death." Since death cannot hold the sinless -- and therefore deathless -- Son of God, He begins His ascent to the heavenly realm with His resurrection from the dead. And He fulfills this Paschal mystery with His glorious ascension.

As Saint Paul writes, "He Who descended is He Who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things"  (Ephesians 4:10). The One Who ascended, however, is now both God and man, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified Jesus Christ Who is now seated at "the right hand of the Father," far above the heavens. It is the glorified flesh of the Incarnate Word of God which has entered into the very bosom of the Trinity in the Person of Christ.

As Saint Leo the Great, the pope of Rome (+461) taught,

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of Heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest Heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father.

This is simultaneously our ascension and our glorification, since we are united to Christ through holy Baptism as members of His Body. Therefore, Saint Paul can further write, "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God"  (Colossians 3:3). Out of our physical sight, we now "see" the glorified Christ through the eyes of faith.

Saint Leo further explains how important this spiritual insight is:

For such is the power of great minds, such the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eyes; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what is visible.

The Great Feast of the Ascension, which this year we celebrate on Thursday, June 9, is not a decline from the glory of Pascha. It is, rather, the fulfillment of Pascha, and a movement upward toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the joyful revelation of our destiny in Christ.

To return to the opening theme of the marvelous acts of God moving from the incarnation to the ascension, I would like to turn to Saint Leo one more time for his understanding of that entire movement:

It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men's sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.

I recently wrote a short meditation entitled "The Great Feasts and Christian Martyria." I have no intention of repeating what I wrote there, but I would like to offer a reminder here that we, as Orthodox Christians, need to think hard about putting "the things of God" above "the things of the world" when given the opportunity.  We will have the opportunity to celebrate the Great Feast of Ascension Wednesday evening with the Vesperal Liturgy that begins at 6:00 p.m.  I look forward to seeing a large body of the parish faithful gathered to celebrate the Ascension of the Risen Lord!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Saturday Evening Vespers and Christian Martyria

Dear Parish Faithful,


"O Gladsome Light of the holy glory..."

Continuing a series of short meditations based upon Bp. Paul's talk on the content and shape of a contemporary Christian martyria (meaning witness), I would like to apply it to the Saturday evening service of Great Vespers.

Actually, the first topic that Bp. Paul addressed to those of us present last Saturday evening following the service, was the missionary content of the Great Vespers service, a real point of contact and a potential source of  appeal to an inquirer or non-Orthodox visitor to the church. 

In fact, His Grace shared his opinion that Great Vespers is the best introductory service to such an inquirer/visitor.  Its compactness has something to do with this, but he stressed primarily the content of the service.  This service proclaims the Gospel - it is "evangelical" - because it proclaims the Crucified and Risen Lord. This could be an element of strong appeal to a visitor hungering for the truth of the Gospel.

However, first and foremost, the service of Great Vespers on Saturday evening is for the members of the Church!  

Saturday evening Great Vespers is a splendid proclamation of the Death and Resurrection of Christ at the heart of the service.  Meaning that in addition to the basic structure of the service which remains the same, the hymnography (called stichera and aposticha) is devoted to glorifying the Crucified and Risen Lord.

Great Vespers not only prepares us for the Lord's Day on Sunday - the Day of Resurrection in our weekly liturgical cycle - but we actually enter into the Lord's Day at the service on Saturday evening. As it is written in the Scriptures:  "And there was evening and there was morning, a second day" (GEN. 1:8).  Liturgically, therefore, Sunday begins during the service on Saturday evening, following the biblical reckoning of time. Returning to the theme of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, a random selection from the eight tones will eloquently make the point:

We stand before Thy life-bearing tomb unworthily, O Christ God,
Offering glory to Thine unspeakable tenderness of heart.
Thou hast accepted the cross and death, O sinless One,
To grant resurrection to the world, as the Lover of man.   
—Saturday Vespers, Stichera, Tone 1

Descending from heaven to ascend  the cross,
The eternal Life has come for death -
To raise those who have fallen;
To enlighten those in darkness!
O Jesus, our Savior and Illuminator, glory to Thee!
—Saturday Vespers, Aposticha, Tone 8

As one of the expressions of an Orthodox Christian martyria in the contemporary world mentioned by Bp. Paul, we can leave the cares and attractions surrounding us, enter into the prayerful atmosphere of the church, and praise the Crucified and Risen Lord on Saturday evening as we prepare for the Lord's Day. At least, with some kind of pattern or regularity. This is our witness that the life of the Church comes first in our lives.

Certainly this is a "little cross!"  And it should be a "joyous cross" that we assume lightly and gladly.  We are, after all, according to St. John the Evangelist, "children of God!" 

I am not trying to twist anyone's arm, and I do not work through "guilting" anyone into anything.  I am simply trying to raise parish awareness of an integral part of our parish life and the liturgical cycle at the heart of our communal worship. And I have been doing this for years. In this way, we can grow beyond the usual (and to this day relatively small) "Vespers crowd" as our personal and communal martyria to the secular world's indifference toward Christ.  My appeal is to make the martyria concrete and practical in its effect. I believe this was Bp. Paul's point.

The Great Feast of Pentecost is approaching. Plan to be present at the Great Vespers of that Feast and celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit - the "Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who is everywhere and fillest all things."  This is "the last day of the feast, the great day" (JN. 7:37), meaning the fulfillment of the paschal mystery.

Let that be a beginning, a starting point for expanding your participation in the liturgical life of the Church by integrating the Lord's Day cycle into your life as an event to be anticipated and embraced with regularity.  Allow the Bible Study, the great Feasts and Saturday evening Great Vespers to assume a place in your lives that manifests the modest Christian martyria that nevertheless reveals a great deal about our life in the Church.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Feast Days and Christian Martyria

Dear Parish Faithful,


We are fast approaching two of the great(est) Feasts of the liturgical year. These two feasts actualize the divine dispensation (the divine oikonomia, as we call it) in our midst and, following Pascha, arrive as Pascha's fulfillment. These two Feasts are, of course, Ascension and Pentecost. This year, Ascension is on June 9; and Pentecost is on June 18. 

Be that as it may, both Ascension and Pentecost remain somehow neglected in our ecclesial lives, even though, as on Pentecost, many of the faithful may be in church.  (Thank God Pentecost falls on a Sunday!). Their relative neglect in terms of how they are anticipated and received in our minds and hearts; how they may enter our ecclesial consciousness as wonderful manifestations of the glory of God; and of how we may, on a practical level, plan our lives around them so that we will be present to celebrate them, is my concern in this meditation.

And I place my thoughts within the context of modern-day Christian martyria, that witness that is about the "little crosses" that Bp. Paul spoke about last Saturday evening when he was with us. (See my previous meditation from Tuesday, "The Bible Study and Christian Martyria"). Those "little crosses" were about witnessing to Christ and the life of the Church in our lives in the face of countless secular temptations that keep the Church marginalized in our consciousness. Can that modest martyria we are discussing prevail against the secular currents that sadly minimize these two great Feasts?

Bearing that martyria in mind, perhaps we can speculate that, on the one hand, it is the explosive power of Pascha, the Feast of Feasts that arrives after the long and even grueling Lenten season, that cannot but overshadow any other of the Church's great Feasts.  Pascha, is, after all, the victory of life over death, as we joyously proclaim the bodily Resurrection of Christ.

Yet, on the other hand, perhaps Ascension and Pentecost are - regardless of their own depth -  "victims" of the "post-paschal blues" that settle into parish life with a relentless inevitability. Once that midnight Liturgy is celebrated on Pascha, it is a real struggle to transcend a more-or-less routine church-going pattern even with "Christ is Risen" reverberating throughout the services for forty days.  But this is a challenge worthy of our attention and engagement!

Whatever the reason or reasons may be, every year, forty days after Pascha - always therefore on a Thursday - the Feast of the Ascension is our entry into the mystery of the divine glorification of Christ; His enthronement as the Kyrios/Lord at "the right hand of the Father."  Human nature is lifted up into the very life of the Holy Trinity in and through the human nature of Christ that has "returned" with Him to the invisible and eternal Kingdom of God.   In Christ, we are now seated "in high places." We refer to this as the deification of human nature in Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote:  "Your life is hid with Christ in God" (COL. 3:3).

Then with the same annual regularity, on the fiftieth day after Pentecost, the ascended and glorified Lord sends down the Holy Spirit Who "proceeds from the Father" upon His disciples and "all flesh"  (ACTS 2). With the personal anointing of the disciples now transformed into apostles by the grace of the Holy Spirit, this proves to be the illumination of the New Testament Church and its expansion, and the beginning of the public preaching of the Gospel "to the end of the earth."  For the first time in fifty days, we will "bend our knees" on Pentecost and pray fervently for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on us. The Paschal mystery is incomplete until the further mysteries of Ascension and Pentecost.

It is not our "duty" to celebrate these Feasts, but our privilege and our joy.  We actualize the reality of our salvation on the "today" on which we celebrate the Feasts liturgically. It should not sound extreme in the least to claim that we should make every effort to celebrate these great Feasts even if, in the process, we must "lay aside all earthly cares." That may just be what Bp. Paul meant by our witness as a "little cross."  

A first step is knowing the Church calendar so that we can plan ahead carefully.  If the Feast of Ascension Thursday is on June 9 this year, then we will celebrate a Vesperal Liturgy on Wednesday evening, June 8, so that many more of the parish faithful can participate and receive the Eucharist.  (The Bible Study will not meet on that Wednesday evening).  

If the moveable Feast of Pentecost is on Sunday, June 19 this year, then this is a  "special" Sunday Liturgy that we make an even more careful point of attending.  And perhaps we will consider the festal Great Vespers on the eve of the Feast, so as to take in the Feast with a greater fulness.

Our Christian martyria is to witness to Christ and the life of the Church as fully as possible within the context of a highly secularized world that is indifferent or oblivious of the Gospel, "the power of salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."  (ROM. 1:16)