Thursday, September 22, 2016

Delighting in God’s creation!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ.

I understand that today at 10:21 A.M.  EDT the Fall season will begin. From my personal—and, admittedly, “subjective”—perspective, there is nothing quite like the fall among the four seasons.  For me, one of this season’s greatest attraction is found in the flaming red, orange, yellow and golden leaves that transform familiar trees into a series of neighborhood “burning bushes,” each one seemingly brighter than the other.  When combined with a piercing blue sky on a sunlit day and a certain crispness in the air, I find myself more vividly aware of the surrounding world and thankful for God’s creation. 

On a somewhat more “philosophical note”—more apt to emerge, perhaps, on an overcast, windswept day—we may realize that this “colorful death” signals the fleeting nature of everything beautiful in this world, “for the form of this world is passing away” [1 Corinthians 7:31].  And yet this very beauty, and the sense of yearning that accompanies it, is a sign of the beauty ineffable of the coming Kingdom of God.

Growing up on a typical city block in Detroit, I distinctly recall a neighborhood “ritual” that marked this particular season:  the raking and burning of leaves that went on up and down the entire block once most of the leaves had spiraled and floated to the ground.  Everyone on the block raked the leaves down toward the street and into neatly formed mounds of color that rested alongside the curb.  Then they were lit and the task of raking now became that of tending and overseeing the piles of burning leaves.  This usually occurred after dinner for most families, but one could still see the shimmering waves of heat that protected one from the early evening chill and the ascending ashes rushing upward.  

Please momentarily forgive my politically incorrect indifference to the environment, but I thoroughly enjoyed those small bonfires near the curb as the pungent smell of burning leaves filled the air.  This unmistakable smell would, as I recall, linger in the air for a couple of weeks or more as different neighbors got to the task at different times. (“Playing with matches” and the simple fascination with fire was, of course, an added attraction for a young and curious boy.)

The entire scene embodied the wholesomeness of a 50’s first-grade reading primer, as “Mom” and “Dad,” together with “Dick” and “Jane” (and perhaps “Spot,” the frisky family dog) smilingly cooperated in this joint, familial enterprise.  The reading primer would reformulate this “celebration” of healthy work and a neatly ordered environment into a staccato of minimally complex sentences:  “See Dad rake;” “Dick and Jane are raking too;” “Here comes mom!”  (“Mom,” of course, would invariably be wearing a pretty dress, and “Jane” a skirt, during this outdoor activity).  This all served to increase the budding student’s vocabulary while reinforcing a picture of an idealized—if not idyllic—American way of life.  

Since my parents were peasants from a Macedonian village, we never quite fit into that particular mode—especially when my mother would speak to me in Macedonian in front of my friends!  And yet I distinctly remember teaching my illiterate mother to read from those very “Dick and Jane” primers so that she could obtain her American citizenship papers, which she proudly accomplished in due time.

Before getting too nostalgic, however, I will remind you that all of this, for me at least, was taking place at the height of Cold War anxiety and another clear memory from my youth:  the air-raid drills in our schools that were meant to prepare us and protect us from a Soviet nuclear strike.  (Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding exhibition at the United Nations, together with his ominous “We will bury you!” captured the whole mood of this period.) These carefully-executed air-raid drills were carried out with due solemnity and seriousness—lines straight and no talking allowed!  We would wind our way down into a fairly elaborate—if not labyrinthine—series of basement levels that were seemingly constructed, and thus burdened, with the hopeless task of saving us from nuclear bombs!  We would then sit in neatly formed rows monitored by our teachers, and apparently oblivious to the real dangers of the Cold War world, until the “all clear” signal was given, allowing us to file back to our classrooms.  Thus did the specter of the mushroom cloud darken the sunny skies of “Dick” and “Jane’s” age of innocence.

I must acknowledge that my short nostalgic digression does not offer a great deal for reflection.  So as not to entirely frustrate that purpose—and because I began with some brief reflections on the created world—I would like to offer some of the wonderful praises of the beauty of the world around us from the remarkable Akathistos Hymn, “Glory to God for All Things.”  

This hymn, which has become quite popular in many Orthodox parishes, was said to have been composed by an Orthodox priest when he was slowly perishing in a Soviet prison camp in 1940.  In unscientific, yet theological-poetic imagery, he reminds us of what we are often blind to:  God’s glorious creation.  Would he have “missed” all of this if his life was as free as ours are to be preoccupied with daily concerns and cares that leave no time or room to look around in wonder?

“O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest.  Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds.  All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness.  Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love.  Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever.  In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry:  Alleluia!” [Kontakion 2].

“You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise.  We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing.  We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams.  We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey.  We can live very well on Your earth.  It is a pleasure to be Your guest” [Ikos 2].

“I see Your heavens resplendent with stars.  How glorious You are, radiant with light!  Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars.  I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side.  Your right arm guides me wherever I go” [Ikos 5].

Brings to mind Dostoevsky’s enigmatic phrase:  “Beauty will save the world.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

'People of the Cross'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

For, behold, through the Cross, joy has come into the world.

Whenever we openly commemorate and actually venerate the Cross of the Lord, we have the opportunity to dispel a certain characterization of the Orthodox Church that if allowed to linger unanswered can become something of a caricature.  And that is simply the claim that the Orthodox Church stresses the Resurrection of Christ at the expense of the Cross.  This implies that the Orthodox Church – or we could say the Christian East – has no real “theology of the Cross.”  

For the sake of brevity and  simplicity, I would simply like to point out just how pervasive the presence of the Cross of Christ is in the liturgical life of the Church, thus making that presence so real in our ecclesial and personal lives, that if only unconsciously, the Cross is embedded in our minds and hearts.

Speaking of convenient clich├ęs, there are many who like to characterize each Lord’s Day – Sunday – as a “little Pascha.”  For on each and every Sunday, we proclaim the Resurrection of Christ as we do on Pascha itself.  Sunday, therefore, is a weekly extension of the paschal joy of the Resurrection.  The hymns of the Liturgy are imbued with the power of the Resurrection:

“Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless One…”

Yet, based on this same pattern, we could say that every Friday is a “little Great and Holy Friday,” another extension of that most solemn of days – the Day of the Cross - as we commemorate the Cross on Friday as we commemorate the Resurrection on Sunday.  It is for this reason that Friday is a day of fasting in the Church, as a way of keeping the Cross in mind as we practice some self-denial.  And not only Friday on a weekly basis.  On Wednesday, we also commemorate the Cross of the Lord and His Mother at the foot of the Cross:

O long-suffering Lord, when Your Mother saw You nailed to the Cross, she poured forth streams of tears because of You.  Completely overcome by Your surpassing goodness and by Your compassion for the human race, she began to sing the praise of Your infinite power!  (Aposticha, Vespers for Wednesday, Tone 8)

For this reason each Wednesday is also a day of fasting.

In addition to the present Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we liturgically venerate the Cross precisely at the midpoint of Great Lent, on the Third Sunday, in order to set our minds forward to the Passion of the Lord. There is also the Procession of the Lifegiving Cross on August 1, as a way of inaugurating the two-week Dormition Fast. Often, a cross is carried in various liturgical processions – usually at the head of such a procession – and many churches will have a large Cross present for contemplation and veneration.

At the very end of the Liturgy, the faithful come forward to kiss the Cross held by either the bishop or priest.  That is basically our last liturgical gesture before we “depart in peace.”  And, of course, all (Orthodox) Christians wear a cross.  This, however, can be problematic if we fail to heed the words of Christ Himself.

For the Lord taught us that “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Mark 8:34].  These words challenge us to never be content with being passive observers of the Cross, but instead to become active participants in the life of self-denial and co-suffering love that are implied in taking up the Cross.  This further means that by our very vocation as Christians, we are “cross-bearers” and not simply “cross-wearers.”  It is one thing to wear a cross, and another thing to bear a cross.

Of course it is a good thing that Christians do wear crosses.  This is something of an identity badge that reveals that we are indeed Christians, but this worn cross is certainly not another piece of jewelry—Byzantine, three-barred, Celtic or Ethiopian! 

By wearing a cross we are saying in effect,

“I am a Christian, and therefore I belong to the Crucified One, Who is none other than the ‘Lord and Master of my life.’ My ultimate allegiance is to Him, and to no other person or party. With the Apostle Paul, I also confess, ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith'...” [Romans 1:16].

Such a confession already takes us far beyond passively being a “cross-wearer” to actively becoming a “cross-bearer.”

Dying to sin in Baptism makes the impossible possible.  And with a faith in Christ that is hopefully ever-deepening in maturity, we can further exclaim with the great Apostle, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” [Galatians 5:24].

I am hoping that these few points make it quite clear that to claim that the Orthodox Church under-values the Cross simply does not hold up to even superficial observation.  As for the deeper levels of the meaning of the Cross – a “theology of the Cross” – we can only here once again refer to some of our theologically-expressive and beautiful liturgical hymns:

"Who without change didst become man and was crucified, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit:  O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!" ('Only Begotten Son' – Second Antiphon)

"For enduring the Cross for us, He has destroyed death by death..." (Hymn of the Resurrection, following Holy Communion)

Orthodox Christians are people of the Cross “for, behold, through the Cross joy has come into the world."

 + + +

 "Before Thy Cross . . ."

Magnify, O my soul, the most precious Cross of the Lord.
You are the mystical Paradise, O Theotokos, in which Christ blossomed; through Him the life-bearing Wood of the Cross was planted on earth.
Now at its Elevation, as we bow in worship before it, we magnify you.

—Hymn to the Theotokos for the Elevation of the Cross.

The link provided here is to a fairly detailed article on Wikipedia (there are, of course, different assessments of this source) that provides a history of the "true Cross" of the Lord from its discovery in the 4th c. to some of the scattered allusions to its ultimate fate in sources both Western and Eastern. What is of interest, is that the various Churches that have established a feast day of the Cross have agreed upon September 14 as the prime date, again both East and West.

The Leavetaking of the Feast is on September 21.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

'Wood is healed by Wood!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross raises a myriad of themes—Biblical, historical, theological, etc.—upon which to meditate.  One such theme is what we call a typological reading of the Scriptures.  This is a profound way of discovering the inner connection between persons, events, and places of the Old Testament—what we would call “types”—with their fulfillment as “antitypes” in the New Testament.  Thus, Adam is a type of which Christ—the last Adam—is the antitype:  “Adam… was the type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14).

Through typology, we learn that the Old Testament can now be read as anticipating the Person of Christ and the saving events recorded in the New Testament, without undermining the integrity of the historical path of ancient Israel as the People of God, entrusted by God with a messianic destiny.  

One such typological application is expressed in an intriguing and paradoxical manner through one of the hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.  As we sing in one of the verses from the festal Great Vespers, 

"For it is fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the suffering of him who was condemned because of wood.”

What a truly wonderful phrase:  “wood should be healed by wood!”  Yet, what is this “wood” to which the hymn refers?  How does wood “heal” wood?  

In both instances, the wood is clearly the wood of two trees—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as found in Genesis 2, and the wood of the Tree of the Cross.  In disobedience to the command of God, the man and woman of Genesis 2—Adam and Eve—ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  This was the one tree, the fruit of which it was not safe for them to eat: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).

The freedom and self-determination of the first man and woman were tested by this divine commandment.  In a celebrated interpretation of this passage, Saint Gregory the Theologian (+395) draws out the meaning of this command and its consequences.  

“[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on,” he writes. 
“This law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of and which one he might not touch.  This latter was the tree of knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us—let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction or imitate the serpent.  But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time. 
"The tree was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy, just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk”  (Second Oration on Easter, 8).

Saint Athanasius the Great (+373) express this in similar terms.  

“Knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation God secured the grace given to them by a command and by the place where He put them.  For He brought them into His own garden and gave them a law so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven. 
"But if they transgressed and turned back and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death that was theirs by nature,  no longer to live in paradise but cast out of it from that time forth to die and abide in death and corruption”  (On The Incarnation, 3.4).

The theme of the initial innocence of Adam and Eve—their lack of maturity and their need for spiritual growth and maturation—was quite characteristic of the Church Fathers, being found as early as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (+c. 200).  “Therefore, the ‘wood’ of this tree proved to be death-dealing, not because God made it such ‘in the beginning,’ but because it was partaken of in a forbidden manner and not ‘at the proper time,’” he wrote.  Nothing created by God is evil by nature; rather, all is “very good.”  But misdirected free will can pervert the good into something that is evil.  The gift of the promise of deification is a God-sourced gift, not a self-sourced gift.

On the other hand, the Tree of the Cross is precisely the wood through which the first disobedience was undone by the One Who died on it in obedience to the will of the Father.  The Tree of Life that was in the Garden was the actual “type” of the Tree of the Cross on Golgotha.  The last Adam—Christ—healed us of the sin of the first Adam.  (As early as Saint Justin the Martyr, it was taught that the Virgin Mary was the “new Eve” also because of her obedience to the Word of God).  

The Cross is therefore “the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass.  For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam is by the Cross himself deceived, and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity is overthrown in headlong fall” (Sticheron, Great Vespers).

According to a pious tradition, the place of the skull—Golgotha—is the place where Adam was buried when he died.  The blood that flowed from Christ “baptized” that skull as symbolic of the sons of Adam (and Eve) being given renewed and eternal life by the blood shed by Christ on the Cross—the Tree of Life.  As we sing in one of the Litiya hymns for the feast, “The Tree of true life was planted in the place of the skull, and upon it hast Thou, the eternal King, worked salvation in the midst of the earth.  Exalted today, it sanctifies the ends of the world.”  (We might note here that it is in this light that in icons of the crucifixion, we generally see the Cross of Christ “planted” on the skull of Adam, with an inscription that reads “the Grave of Adam.”)

“Wood is healed by Wood!”  This is the good news revealed in the typological interpretation found in the liturgical hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, together with the biblical exegesis of the Church Fathers.  This is why we honor and venerate the Cross by literally bowing down before it in adoration.  

The Cross was at the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel, a instrument of shame in the ancient world.  But this did not deter the Apostle Paul from proclaiming that Gospel is the power of God:

“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).  

And we also cannot be “ashamed” of the Tree of the Cross through which “joy has come into the world.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

'For Through the Cross Joy Has Come Into the World'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is the Feast Day of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. We just celebrated the Divine Liturgy for the Feast, and there was a representative body of parishioners here for the service, considering that this is a week/work day. Yesterday evening, we had many of the parish faithful for the Great Vespers and procession with the Cross. 

This particular focus on the Cross is rooted in an historical event of the 4th c.  Please read the OCA website's account of the feast, to become aware of this Feast's origins.

This coming Sunday is the Leave-taking of the Feast.  In one's home you can use the powerful hymn, "Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master; and Thy holy resurrection we glorify," as well as use the troparion for the feast until the leave-taking.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Preparing for Holy Communion: 'Do this in remembrance of Me'

'Take, eat... This is My Body...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Do this in remembrance of me."  (LK. 22:19)

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." (I COR. 11:26)

We are well into the ecclesiastical New Year, and it is at this time that I like to "review" some of our more basic, but important, practices; so that by way of remembrance we do not lose sight of who we are as Orthodox Christians and of what we are doing.  This "review list" will always begin with our reception of Holy Communion and with our preparation so as to receive "in a worthy manner."  

It is first essential to realize the primary place of the Eucharist in our ecclesial lives.  

The Liturgy is meant to lead us to the Chalice and so fulfill the words of the Lord, who commanded to "do this in remembrance of me" - that is to participate in the reception of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. To reinforce this point, we find in the words of St. John Chrysostom the affirmation that receiving the Holy Mysteries - and here St. John means the consecrated bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ -  is a practice that is equally enjoined upon both clergy and laity:

"There are cases when a priest does not differ from a layman, notably when one approaches the Holy Mysteries.  We are all equally given them, not as in the Old Testament, when one food was for the priests and another for the people and when it was not permitted to the people to partake of that which was for the priest.  Now it is not so:  but to all is offered the same Body and the same Chalice ... "

We are quite aware of this as a parish, and we have the good practice of the vast majority of those present in church on a given Sunday, "drawing near in the fear and love of God" to receive the Eucharist.  That then leads us to the balancing point of "frequent Communion," and that is our preparation so that we never take the reception of the Eucharist in a careless or carefree manner.  Both frequent Communion and a sense of preparation are equally essential components of our shared ecclesial life.  We are thus "Eucharistic beings" in a manner that reveals vigilance and a care for the "things of God."

I have thus attached an older document that outlines the various elements of Preparing for Communion for everyone's "annual review," so that we maintain the vigilance and care mentioned above. These guidelines not meant to be a "check list" nor is it meant to be a straightjacket.  But I hope that it may jar our minds if necessary into remembrance of the responsibility with which we need to approach the chalice to receive the gift above all gifts - Christ Himself. 

Fr. Steven

Preparation for Holy Communion (short version) PDF