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)