Thursday, December 28, 2017

Christmas and Martyrdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Gospel reading for the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is Matthew 2:1-12.  This passage proclaims the Good News that the Savior was born in Bethlehem according to the biblical prophecies.

The star guides the Magi and they, in turn, bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Child in acknowledgment that He is unique and a true King, testified to by cosmic signs that even the Gentile Magi can properly interpret.  Joyous as this is, there is already a hint of the ultimate destiny of Christ in that myrrh is used in the burial customs of the Jews.

On the Second Day of the Nativity, we complete the reading of the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel—2:13-23, which immediately introduces us to the tragic reality of the massacre of the innocent boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.  The previous joy of the Savior’s Nativity is replaced by the wailing and lamentation of the mothers of these innocent children, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” [Jeremiah 2:18].

The shadow of the Cross lay across the infancy narratives in this Gospel, for in the immediate post-Nativity period, these male children become the first of many martyrs who must die because Christ has entered the world, as many of the powerful of this world—following the dark example of King Herod—will not receive Him; they will actually despise Him and turn against His followers.  Thus, the suffering of innocent children is somehow taken up by God as an offering in a sinful world that fluctuates between light and darkness. 

And we must acknowledge that the suffering of innocent children continues to the present time - a suffering directly caused by human wickedness. We now understand that the cave of the Nativity anticipated the tomb of Christ’s burial, and that the swaddling clothes anticipated the grave clothes with which Christ would eventually be bound following His death on the Cross.

On the Third Day of the Nativity, we commemorate the Protomartyr Stephen, the first to die for his faith in Christ in the post-Resurrection community of the newborn Church.  St. Stephen's lengthy speech to his fellow Jews, in which he upbraided them for their lack of faith; and in which he proclaimed Jesus as the Risen and Ascended Christ is recorded in ACTS 7.  His brutal martyrdom by stoning followed as his testimony resulted in a furious and deadly rejection of his convicting words. In fact, "they gnashed their teeth against him" (ACTS 7:54).

Martyrdom has always been a distinct and powerful witness to Christ.  Actually, “from the beginning” the Incarnation and Martyrdom are inextricably joined together in a world torn by the tension between darkness and light.  To our great joy, we know "that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (JN. 1:5). 

The kontakion for the Feast of Saint Stephen captures the movement between the joy of Christ’s birth and the sobering reality of what Christ’s coming meant for some:

Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh and became our guest;
Today His servant is stoned to death and departs in the flesh:
The glorious first martyr Stephen!

There is no greater witness to Christ than that of the martyrs—flesh and blood men, women and children who gave their lives for the Lord in the sure hope and assurance that eternal life awaited them in the Kingdom of God.

If we exchange a “Merry Christmas” with others, we always need to be mindful of the commitment we are making to the newborn Christ.  As we temporarily indulge in the days of the Feast, we realize that the Christian life is ultimately a commitment to discipline and restraint, even the “crucifixion” of the flesh with all of its desires, in order to “witness” to Christ as disciples who believe that His advent in the flesh, culminating in His death and resurrection, has prepared a place for us in His eternal Kingdom where there is “life everlasting.”

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Incarnation: A word about the Word!

Toward Recovering a Genuine Christian Vocabulary

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.” ~ Saint Athanasius the Great

Within the Church we have a biblical/theological vocabulary that is very expressive of what we believe as Christians.  These words are drawn primarily from the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, and the theological writings of the great Church Fathers, such as Saint Athanasius the Great, quoted above.  As responsible, believing and practicing Christians, we need to know this vocabulary at least in its most basic forms.  As we continually learn a new technology-driven vocabulary derived from computers to smart phones, so too we need to be alert to the traditional vocabulary of the Church as it has been sanctified over centuries of use.  And this vocabulary should be natural to us – not something foreign, exotic and “only for theologians.”  It does not take a great deal of effort to be theologically literate, and there is no excuse not to be.

As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, a key term that must be part of the vocabulary of all Orthodox Christians is Incarnation.  The Nativity of Christ is the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth.  Or, we simply speak of The Incarnation, immediately knowing what that word is referring to.

If we turn to the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, we find the term defined somewhat blandly, in that kind of clipped, compact and objective style found in most dictionaries:

  • in•car•na•tion \in-kär-`nā-shǝn\ n (14c)  1 a (1):  the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form (2) cap:  the union of the divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ.

In the Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, the Orthodox theologian, Father John McGuckin, begins his definition under a fairly long entry of this term as follows:

  • Incarnation — Incarnation is the concept of the eternal Word of God (the Logos) “becoming flesh” within history for the salvation of the human race.  Incarnation does not simply refer to the act itself (such as the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin, or the event of Christmas); it stands more generally for the whole nexus of events in the life, teachings, sufferings, and glorification of the Lord, considered as the earthly, embodied activity of the Word [p. 180].

Speaking of expanding our theological vocabulary, we need to further know that we translate the key Greek term Logos as Word, referring of course to the Word of God Who was “with God” and Who “was God,” according to Saint John’s Gospel “in the beginning.”  We also refer to the Word of God as the “Son,” “Wisdom,” and “Power” of God.  It is this Logos/Word of God Who becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth.  The key verse that is the classical expression of the Incarnation in the New Testament is found in the Gospel according to Saint John 1:14:  “And the Word (Logos) became flesh.”

This profound paradox of the Word-become-flesh is found in the well-known kontakion of the Nativity, written by St. Romanos the Melode.  He begins his wonderful hymn with that paradox captured in the following manner:  

"Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One; and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One ..."

Incarnation is derived from the Latin word “in the flesh.”  The Greek word for Incarnation would be sarkothenta, meaning “made flesh.” So the Incarnation of the Word of God is the “enfleshment”of the Word, and here “flesh” means the totality of our human nature.  The Word has assumed our human nature and united it to Himself in an indissoluble union that restores the fellowship of God and humankind.  The sacramental life of the Church is based on the Incarnation, and the potential for created reality to become a vehicle for spiritual reality.  The ultimate manifestation of this is the Eucharist, and the bread and wine “becoming” the Body and Blood of Christ.

Christmas is the time of the year to recall all of this profound reality and recover a genuine Christian vocabulary that expresses our Faith about as well as what is humanly possible. This further means that theological words are not dry and abstract concepts when approached with not only respect, but with awe and wonder.  This makes our reading and studying of our theological Tradition exciting – as well as humbling. The words reveal life-transforming truths that if received with prayer and thanksgiving enhance and expand our minds and hearts, so that we might have the “mind of Christ.”

*I have attached a marvelous Prayer to Jesus Christ Emmanuel that I just received from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City.  I may try to incorporate it into our liturgical celebration, but thought you may want to use it in your personal prayer as we prepare for the advent of the One who is Emmanuel - God With Us.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

'Mankind was my business!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The over-all theme of the Parable of the Great Supper, heard last Sunday at the Liturgy, had to do with how being "busy" can easily lead to excuse-making of a dubious kind because we then justify postponing our relationship with God based upon those very excuses. But as Christ said in the parable, the Master of the Supper was not impressed.

'Mankind was my business!' (still from 'Scrooge', 1951)

This somehow connects in my mind with a certain literary classic. Over the years I have read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (and seen more than one film version!). For me, one of the most effective passages in the book, is toward the beginning, when the Ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve. By this time, the miserly and miserable character of Scrooge has been masterfully etched in by Dickens. And to this day, the name of Scrooge is synonymous with avarice, greed, and a joyless and meaningless accumulation of profit. Earlier, Scrooge had articulated some of the utilitarian philosophy of the 19th c. when he coldly said in reference to the poor and prisoners, "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

The Ghost of Marley returns to haunt Scrooge, but Marley himself is in great torment and anguish. Imprisoned in chains that he cannot free himself of, Marley is doomed to roam the earth as a restless spirit witnessing human suffering that he cannot alleviate because he ignored that suffering selfishly during his time on earth. Of the chains, Marley says:

"I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

With a deep, bitter regret, Marley then confesses:

"My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house - mark me! - in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!... Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one's life opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

At this point in this somewhat macabre dialogue between the two, Scrooge begins to grope for some signs of hope and relief as he intuitively realizes that Marley is speaking words of warning to him for his cold-hearted scorn for the rest of humanity. When Scrooge protests the working of an unseen providence, by saying "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," we then hear what may be the most significant - and well-known - passage in this scene:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

It held up its chains at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Anticipating the regret of a life not well-lived is a frightening thought. Especially if it comes down to having been too busy!

Good literature is capable of leaving strong indelible images that are much more effective than a well-argued treatise. Dickens' characters were always exaggerated or "larger than life," as we may say. But they then "typify" a great deal about life in the process.

Besides the necessary business that makes up our lives, and which must be done carefully and responsibly, just what else are we so "busy" with? Does that business also lead us away from charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence? Are we presently scurrying around, making sure that we will have a "Merry Christmas," while also turning our eyes downward so that we too cannot "see" the blessed Star that guides us to the Incarnate Christ? Are we going to somehow be able to "fit" the Church into our "Business?" Both the parable from Sunday and Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol raise the issue of our stewardship of time and the Christian truth that "mankind is our business."

Monday, December 18, 2017

Inexcusable Excuse-Making

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Parable of the Great Supper (LK. 14:16-24), heard yesterday as the prescribed Gospel pericope for the Second Sunday Before Nativity, we were offered a revealing glimpse into humankind's inexhaustible propensity for making excuses. This unending flow of excuses is often cloaked as tightly-argued rationalizations, served up with an unassailable logic, and promoted with sincere conviction. Psychologically, excuse-making is not to be confused with lying - at least on the conscious level (though this distinction can get a bit murky, in that we can actually believe our own lies as we believe in our excuses). These excuses serve to free us from responsibility, disentangle us from awkward situations, or even undermine our own well-being due to blindness or some hidden perversity of character.

It seems as if we "inherited" this propensity for making excuses from Adam and Eve as the story of the Fall unfolds in the Book of Genesis. After disobeying the divine commandment by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve offer excuses as to why they both succumbed to the serpent's insinuations (GEN. 3). These excuses were blatant evasions of moral responsibility. They covered up a refusal to repent. They assigned blame elsewhere, but accepted none for themselves. And these excuses were made directly to God! How strong, therefore, is the human need to fabricate excuses to rationalize away our sins! We see the same pattern depressingly repeated by children, corporate executives, clergy of the Church, and by husbands and wives in our homes. The domestic "paradise" established potentially within the Mystery of Marriage is undermined by the same processes that destroyed the original Eden of the first man and woman: temptation, assent, sin, refusal to repent, feeble excuses to justify and avoid responsibility, and negative consequences to follow. The "image and likeness of God" is obscured by this "dark side" of the human condition.

Returning to the parable found in St. Luke's Gospel, we hear that Christ relates a story about "A certain man who gave a great supper and invited many" (14:16). This is clearly an image of our heavenly Father's gracious invitation to experience the joy of fellowship with God in the eschatological Kingdom. A supper/banquet implies fellowship, sharing, and the joy of communal celebration. It has thus been a constant image of sharing our life with God in the Age to come, culminating in the glorious "marriage supper of the Lamb" in the Book of Revelation (19:9). Even on an "earthly level" it is an invitation that is often readily accepted. Who wants to pass us a sumptuous meal? Nevertheless, with a realism that we can all relate to, the servant of the man who has prepared the supper is forced to hear a series of excuses that are meant to free the recipients of the invitation from the obligation to attend. But so as not to cause offense, they offer excuses that sound reasonable enough. As Christ says explicitly in the parable: "But they all with one accord began to make excuses" (14:18). What, then, does the servant of the parable hear? More or less, the usual:

The first said to him, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' (14:18-20)

Taken from the daily routine of obligations and responsibilities, again we acknowledge the reasonableness of these excuses. (Interpreted allegorically by the Fathers, the excuses, according to a note in the Orthodox Study Bible, refer to "people devoted to earthly matters, to things pertaining to the five senses, and to all the pleasures of the flesh"). However, the "master of the house" was not impressed, for we hear that he became "angry" upon the return of his servant with the news that the supper would only be thinly attended. The master of the house further responds by ordering his servant to bring in other guests, including "the poor, and the maimed and the lame and the blind" (14:21). Discovering that "still there is room" (14:22), the servant is told to "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled" (14:23). The master's hospitality is so abundant, that he will invite and even compel "guests" that according to social etiquette would usually remain uninvited. In other words, those for whom the banquet should have been a natural culmination of an ongoing relationship - the elect of Israel in their chosenness by God - will find themselves on the outside; while wholly unexpected guests - the lawless Gentiles - will be given free and gracious access to the Kingdom prepared before the foundation of the world.

The excuses offered in the parable are easily translated into the one cliche that is ever-present in our daily vocabulary and repeated like a mantra when searching for a formula readily understood by one and all: "I am so busy!" In fact, everyone is not only "so busy," but actually "too busy." Just like the figures in the parable. Therefore, we believe that our level of responsibility is lightened, and expectations for our time and energy must be minimal to be fair. Our relationships may suffer, but that is unavoidable. That is how the world and our lives are structured. So we have the "perfect" excuse as to why we cannot prayer with any regularity; fast with any concentration; and practice charity with any concern. Committed Orthodox Christians are too busy to come to confession, read the Holy Scriptures, or come to non-Sunday liturgical services. Being too busy, we struggle to "fit" God into our busy schedules. If that fails, it cannot be helped - God will understand. Yet, other troubling questions seem to intrude themselves upon the safe haven of pleading the excuse of being busy. Although no claim is being made that the following are a "top ten" of such questions, I do believe that they are an "honest ten:"

1. Were the excuses of the parable enough to justify a broken relationship with God? 
2. What convinces me that the excuse of being busy should satisfy God's "demands" upon me? 
3. Can it be spiritually dangerous to be so busy? 
4. Am I free of any moral responsibility to change the ordering of my life so as to respond to God and neighbor without any excuses to relieve me from doing so?   
5. What are the implications of being "too busy" within the context of my relationship with God? 
6. Is it possible that I have become overly-dependent upon the excuse of always being busy? 
7. What does it mean when we come to the "supper" - the Liturgy - but fail in partaking of the "food" freely-offered - the Eucharist? 
8. What excuses do I offer for refusing the Master's hospitality? 
9. If the excuse is being unprepared, what am I doing to change that pattern? 
10. How do I understand the last words of the parable spoken by Christ: "For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper" (14:24)?

The Parable of the Great Supper becomes quite challenging when given some attention and thought. Although meant to reveal the foolishness of inexcusable excuse-making, it nevertheless reveals what God intends for those who respond to His gracious invitation: the unending joy of the Kingdom of God best characterized as a great and joyous supper where "all is now ready" (14:17). This hospitality is so great that no one is excluded, except through self-exclusion posed in the form of unconvincing excuses not to attend. There is always room. Having been invited, and having accepted this invitation, our task is to overcome the universal propensity of making excuses in order to preserve our self-autonomy and self-regard. We may then join the elect "where the voice of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the goodness of Thy countenance is unending. For Thou art the true desire and the ineffable joy of those who love Thee, O Christ our God, and all creation sings Thy praise forever. Amen." (First Prayer of Thanksgiving After Communion)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Who is to Blame?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

To deride "the commercialization of Christmas" today is to embark on a useless campaign that sounds both quaint and "dated." It is to evoke a platitudinous cliche that evaporates more-or-less simultaneously with its very utterance. It may provoke a sympathetic sigh or knowing nod of the head from your neighbor, but the conversation will have to move forward for it to be of any significance.

As a priest, it is a theme that I may raise in passing - almost as a pastoral obligation - but not one to any longer spend much time or energy on. The utter obviousness of claiming that Christmas has become commercialized is what renders its articulation almost meaningless. At best, we may only shrug our shoulders when reminded of  the contrast between the manger and the mall, and perhaps sheepishly mutter: "What can one do?" 

If there ever was a genuine battle within American culture over this issue, it has long been determined that consumerism has triumphed over any and all forms of resistance - religious or otherwise. Who would have imagined any other outcome when the virtues of capitalism are proclaimed with an almost evangelical intensity in our society? When the almighty dollar is at stake, the Almighty God may well be forgotten. 

The almost gleeful and naked consumerism that characterizes this time of the year has clearly swept aside any forms of dissent or discontent. The lunacy of "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" are mere exclamation points that "seal the deal" and both events are here to stay, and most likely to expand further into our minds and pockets in the near future. It seems as if only deaf ears are being addressed by some still courageous voices crying out from the wilderness in honor and remembrance of the One born in poverty. In a thoroughly secularized society that is proud of its diversity, Christ has long been effectively removed from Christmas.

But we already know all of this...

To me, the far more significant question is how do the countless members of our society who claim to be Christians deal with the rampant and unapologetic "commercialization of Christmas?" Apparently by participating in it at a pace and with a level of eagerness equal to those for whom the birth of Christ means absolutely nothing. Can anyone detect any discernibly different consumer patterns during Christmas displayed by Christians and non-Christians? Do Christians buy or spend less? Are self-designated Christians also found in those lines (pushing and shoving) with non-Christians on "Black Friday?" Are Christians in any less numbers strapped to their seats in front of their computers on "Cyber Monday" spending hours scrolling through a mind-numbing number of sites in search of a deal? I admit to having no data or statistics, but intuitively I can only imagine that Christians are, to say it again, eager participants in the consumer-driven madness of the Season.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? If we live in what is historically a Christian society, how can we answer other than by saying: Christians! To perhaps soften that a bit, at least in terms of a slow cultural acquiescence over time. Legal battles over public Nativity scenes are beside the point. And I say this while I simultaneously wonder: living in 21st century America, could it be otherwise? The level of resistance required to be liberated from any of this would aspire to the level of the heroic. It could be interpreted as being downright sectarian. It could even cause great distress for our children. 

Actually, I am not writing in order to offer an alternative approach as a kind of Christian antidote to curb the consumer within. I must acknowledge that I am a co-consumer with all the rest. Consequently, this is not a condescending Christian denunciation of "worldly people." I am simply trying to take an honest look at "what is" as we approach the Feast of the Nativity. I am sure that there are Christians who have devised well thought-out strategies that are meant to instill different "values" in their children at this time of the year. I must respect that. And, as anything else "under the sun," those strategies are probably accessible on the internet for those who want to do the necessary research.

My more immediate concern is that for us, as Orthodox Christians, there may exist a certain "bipolarity" in the uncritical assumption of the practices and patterns of a secular Christmas and our own ecclesial commitment to piously "attend" Church for the Liturgy on December 25. We can effortlessly move from one to the other without the least sense of an inherent tension between the mystery of the Incarnation occurring within the simple setting of the cave outside of Bethlehem; and the (excessive?) gift-giving to follow which may be obscurely - if not unconsciously -  patterned after the gift-giving of the Magi. Will the Gift get lost amidst all of the other gifts? If such is the case we, as Christians, must realize that we have forfeited any moral high ground. And, while we are at it, we probably need to admit that we, as Orthodox Christians, with a festal calendar that celebrates "the twelve days of Christmas," now basically treat the feast as "one and done." The frenetic pace of the pre-Nativity season renders us exhausted on the first day of the Feast.

Therefore, I do believe that any Christian attempt to deride the "commercialization of Christmas" by Christians who participate in that very commercialization borders dangerously close to hypocrisy. We are better off at turning our criticism inward as we continue to shop and spend with the best of them. Self-reflective criticism will be much more fruitful in the long run and helpful for the well-being of our souls. Perhaps that could lead to some conscious attempts to alter entrenched attitudes and patterns and bring a greater sense of balance back to the Season.

The counter-commercial response is not, of course, to watch one more Nativity film. Nor to make sure we drive by the local church with its "live" Nativity scene replete with little lambs and a stoic donkey. Those are fine family activities, but we must go much deeper than this. We must take seriously the words of Christ: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt 6:21). 

Our modest goal - though fruitful indeed in its consequences - is to "save some space" in our minds and hearts for "the Coming One" whom we hope will be born in those very same minds and hearts, thus taking flesh and becoming incarnate in and to the world through our lives in all of their diversity and fullness. Perhaps we could offer our minds and hearts to the newborn Christ as our gifts in response to Him coming among us as a light shining in darkness. For without Christ all is darkness. Or, as C.S. Lewis described Narnia when under the spell of the bad witch, it was always winter but never Christmas. 

So, even if the phrase the "commercialization of Christmas" has been reduced to a platitudinous cliche, our own annual immersion into that commercialization may render a periodic reminder of some spiritual benefit. With just a minimum of serious thought, Orthodox Christians should not find it difficult to order their priorities in favor of Christ. After all, the miracle is in the manger, not at the mall.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Remembering Father Alexander Schmemann: 'The Mission of Orthodoxy'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a bit more on St. Herman but now combined with the commemoration of Fr. Alexander Schmemann who died on the same date as Fr. Herman - December 13. Some very nice comments below by Matushka Deborah Belonick, writing on behalf of St. Vladimir's Seminary. The contrast she draws between the "saint" and the "man of God" is fascinating, revealing a deep sense of "diversity" in the best sense of that word. 

I have also included a link to a fine documentary based on Fr. Alexander's life following his death in 1983. The documentary has some excellent commentary on Orthodoxy with the voice of the late Fr. Thomas Hopko supplying most of it. You will also see and hear Fr. Schmemann in the documentary.

Remembering Father Alexander Schmemann: 'The Mission of Orthodoxy'

by Deborah Belonick, Director of Institutional and Advancement Communications, St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary

Christ is among us!

This evening in our seminary Chapel—according to “liturgical time,” beginning with Great Vespers—we will commemorate the repose of St. Herman of Alaska, Wonderworker of All America, which occurred December 13, 1837. This evening also, our chapel clergy will serve a panikhida in remembrance of the repose of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s from 1962–1983, which occurred on December 13, 1983.

These two men were so far apart in their life’s circumstances—one monastic, the other married with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; one whose simple life on Spruce Island in Alaska was known mostly only to local inhabitants, the other a cosmopolitan, cultured man whose incisive books and words touched not only seminarians but also thousands of Orthodox Christians and people of many faiths globally; one a severe ascetic, the other a person who enjoyed walking the streets of New York City, taking in its sights, sounds, and energy—and yet, they shared deeply two things: love for Jesus Christ and love for the New World in which they both found themselves after resettling in North America.

I remember, as a seminarian, Father Alexander saying one day in class, “You know, sin is so boring, because ‘sins’ are always the same. But, saints—saints—are endlessly interesting because there is always such variety among them.”

This evening, when I think of St. Herman and Father Alexander—this saint and this man of God—I reflect upon how the varied ways in which they presented the gospel in their adopted land affected thousands and thousands of people, in endlessly interesting ways. Natives of Alaska witnessed astounding miracles and felt the warmth of “Apa” (Father) Herman caring for them; while first, second, and third-generation Orthodox Christians and those of other faiths seeking Truth soaked in Father Alexander’s words as he opened their eyes to the liturgical tradition of the Church and the power of a sacramental life.

On this day, when we are blessed to remember these two distinct servants of Christ, I’d like to share with you one of Father Alexander’s speeches, originally adapted from a lecture given at the 1968 National Conference of Orthodox College Students and printed in Volume III, No.4 of CONCERN, a youth-oriented magazine no longer in publication. Titled, “The Mission of Orthodoxy,” this ever timely presentation summarizes Father Alexander’s thoughts on the still-burning issue of the intersection between faith and culture, as it addresses the question of how to be “truly Orthodox yet fully American.” (Read the entire presentation on our Seminary’s Synaxis Blog.)

Holy Father Herman, pray to God for us! And, may Father Alexander’s memory be eternal!

SVS Press books authored by Father Alexander Schmemann may be found here. And, SVS Press’s beautifully illustrated and charming children’s book titled, North Star: St. Herman of Alaska may be found here.

The Repose of St Herman of Alaska

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today, we celebrate the repose of Blessed Fr. Herman of Alaska, one of our heavenly intercessors of North American Orthodoxy. Here is a narrative of his death that I hope one and all will carefully read. There is a wealth of further material about St. Herman, including his full Life on our parish website that you may also want to explore:

The Repose of Father Herman

The time of the passing had come. One day he ordered his disciple Gerasim to light a candle before the Icons, and to read the Acts of the Holy Apostles. After some time his face glowed brightly and he said in a loud voice, “Glory to Thee, O Lord!” He then ordered the reading to be halted, and he announced that the Lord had willed that his life would now be spared for another week. A week later, again by his orders, candles were lit, and the Acts of the Holy Apostles were read. Quietly, the Elder bowed his head on Gerasim’s chest; the cell was filled with a sweet-smelling odor; and his face glowed, and Father Herman was no more! Thus he died in blessedness, he passed away in the sleep of a righteous man in the eighty-first year of his life of great labor the 25th day of December 1837. (It was the 13th of December according to the Julian Calendar, although there are some records which state that he died on November 28th and was buried on December 26th).

Those sent with the sad news to the harbor returned to announce that the administrator of the colony Kashevarov had forbidden the burial of the Elder until his own arrival. He also ordered that a finer coffin be made for Father Herman, and that he would come as soon as possible and would bring a priest with him. But then a great wind came up, a rain fell, and a terrible storm broke. The distance from the harbor to Spruce Island is not great—about a two hour journey—but no one would agree to go to sea in such weather. Thus it continued for a full month, and although the body lay in state for a full month in the warm house of his students, his face did not undergo any change at all, and not the slightest odor emanated from his body. Finally, through the efforts of Kuzma Uchilischev, a coffin was obtained. No one arrived from the harbor, and the inhabitants of Spruce Island alone buried the remains of the Elder in the ground. Thus the words which Father Herman uttered before his death were fulfilled. After this the wind quieted down, and the surface of the sea became as smooth as a mirror.

One evening, above the village Katani (on Afognak) an unusual pillar of light which reached up to heaven was seen above Spruce Island. Astonished by the miraculous appearance, experienced elders and the Creole Gerasim Vologdin and his wife Anna said, “It seems that Father Herman has left us,” and they began to pray. After a time, they were informed that the Elder had indeed passed away that very night. This same pillar was seen in various places by others. On the night of his death a vision was seen in another of the settlements on Afognak; it seemed as though a man was rising from Spruce Island into the clouds. The disciples buried their father, and placed a wooden memorial marker above his grave. Father Peter Kashevarov, the priest on Kodiak, says, “I saw it myself, and I can say that today it seems as though it had never been touched by time; as though it had been cut this day.”

Having witnessed the life of Father Herman glorified by his zealous labors, having seen his miracles, and the fulfillment of his predictions, finally having observed his blessed falling asleep, “in general, all the local inhabitants,” Bishop Peter witnesses, “have the highest esteem for him, as though he was a holy ascetic, and they are fully convinced that he has found favor in the presence of God.” In 1842, five years after the passing away of the Elder, Archbishop Innocent of Kamchatka and the Aleutians, was near Kodiak on a sailing vessel which was in great distress. He looked to Spruce Island, and said to himself, “If you have found favor in God’s presence, Father Herman then may the wind change.” It seems as though not more than fifteen minutes had passed, said the bishop, when the wind became favorable, and he successfully reached the shore. In thanksgiving for being saved, Archbishop Innocent himself conducted a Memorial Service (Panikhida) over the grave of the blessed Father Herman.

O Holy Father Herman of Alaska, pray unto God for us!

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Heart Untouched?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?” (LK. 17:17)

In St. Basil the Great’s First Prayer in Preparation for Holy Communion, he acknowledges – and we acknowledge along with him when we offer this prayer up to God – that we are so often “thankless and graceless.”  St. Basil makes this claim after enumerating what “Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ our God” has done for us:  taken on our human nature, suffered crucifixion for our sake, and renewed our human nature by His own blood.  Yet still, says the saint, we remain “thankless and graceless.”  So much for building up our self-esteem!  Is that in reality a pious and rhetorical exaggeration embedded in a prayer meant to inspire genuine feeling within us; or has St. Basil simply articulated a “hard truth” about our human nature “corrupted by sin” - to borrow yet another phrase from his magnificent prayer?

Based on experience, it is hard not to believe that St. Basil is correct in his over-all assessment, and that he has done us a great service in reminding of this unfortunate characteristic of our human nature, a characteristic brought to life vividly in the Gospel narrative of Christ healing ten lepers, but only being thanked by one of them – and that one was a Samaritan!  (LK. 17:11-19)  

The failure of nine lepers to return to Christ and offer thanksgiving is singled out for an unflattering comment; while the return of the Samaritan leper is singled out for open praise.  Christ most certainly does not need or demand our thanksgiving!  What he pointed out was for the sake of those healed and for those who witnessed the healing.  Healing is meant to touch the body and the “heart,”  so that the healed one’s life is totally redirected toward God.  Sometimes, however, the body can be healed, but the heart left untouched. That Gospel passage – heard just last Sunday – is a reminder that we can fall prey to just such a temptation:  to have been healed by Christ and yet to either “forget” to return to Him in thanksgiving; find other distractions more compelling; or simply to do so in outward form only.  

I just coincidentally read in a book about another ecclesiastical figure that the famous Western medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his Summa Theologiae:  “It is evident that every ingratitude is a sin.”  That was based on the logic that since gratitude and thankfulness were virtues, their opposite must be a sin.  However one may assess that “scholastic” logic, it seems to ring true.

In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s classic work, For the Life of the World, we heard his unique voice recalling our initial vocation to be “eucharistic beings,” human beings who offer gratitude and thanksgiving to God in the full awareness that all things come from God and have the potential to lead us further toward God.  This includes the very food that we eat on a daily basis.  We can eat and drink unto ourselves, and thus we eat and drink ultimately unto death.  Or we eat and drink to the glory of God, and then food becomes sacramental as a means of uniting us with God.  Our heavenly Father restored the eucharistic meaning of food precisely in the Eucharist, when He gave to us the flesh and blood of the Son of Man for our lives and “for the life of the world.”  The bread and wine represent all food and all life as offered up to God in a spirit of profound thanksgiving to the very Source of life.  We, in turn, receive this food back now as Holy Communion, through which we are united to Christ and have Christ dwelling within us.  Fr. Schmemann captures this approach to life in his chapter entitled, simply, “The Eucharist:”

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.  Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.  But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ.  In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being.  He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be. (p. 38)

I hope that you will agree with me that to say we have a great deal to be thankful for is a massive understatement.  This does not refer to what we have but to who we are:  sinners now healed by Christ and made worthy to enter the Kingdom of God.  The “leprosy” of our sin has been cleansed away.  Now we need to turn back to the source of our healing, praise God with a loud voice, and fall down at the feet of Jesus and give Him thanks.   Just like the Samaritan.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

St Nicholas, A Living Rule of Faith

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“God is wonderful in His saints, the God of Israel!”

I would like to wish everyone a blessed St. Nicholas feast day, and more specifically I would like to wish all of our parish members with the name of Nicholas a blessed name day.  Yesterday evening we were able to serve and celebrate a  wonderful Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast, and it is clear that St. Nicholas remains a beloved saint among our parish faithful, for the service was quite well-attended, including a fair share of our Church School children and young adults.  We hope that same spirit carries over into the weekend as we prepare for our St. Nicholas Day pageant and charity dinner on Sunday.

As we well know, St. Nicholas was a bishop who served in Asia Minor in the opening decades of the fourth century.  As a hierarch of the Church, he was a man who had authority, meaning, further, that he was someone to be respected and obeyed.  This has been a characteristic of the Church’s hierarchy “from the beginning,” as we heard in the Epistle reading appointed for St. Nicholas and other great hierarchs of the Church:  “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (HEB. 13:17).  This sacramental, pastoral and administrative authority of the episcopos (bishop) was further strengthened by the Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early second century:

Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop.  Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated.  Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church.  (To the Smyrnaens, 8)

These well-known exhortations, many of which became the basis for later Church canons pertaining to the authority of the hierarchy, could certainly be multiplied from a variety of impressive sources. Yet, it is therefore quite significant that the troparion for St. Nicholas mentions nothing of the bishop’s authority, but rather stresses his pastoral image and care for his flock:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

As Fr. Thomas Hopko has written, this troparion “has become in Orthodox liturgical services the ‘general troparion’ for most canonized bishops of the Church, thus revealing the ‘mind of the Church’ about what a Christian pastor should be.”  (The Winter Pascha, p. 40)

Granting the role of authority that a bishop “inherits” in his consecration to the episcopacy, the Church concentrates on the qualities of a true pastor, of one who will “shepherd” the flock entrusted to him by the Lord that the bishop sacramentally represents to and for his flock.  

The troparion has nothing to say about “power” or “authority.” Quite the opposite! We hear of humility, abstinence and even poverty.  These are Christ-like characteristics that we learn of from the Gospels.  Only by manifesting such qualities is the bishop a man who will receive the support, love and obedience of his flock in a spirit of trust and confidence in his leadership. 

Perhaps we should add that this is also true of the parish priest in his ministry to the flock entrusted to his care. This happens when a bishop leads by example.  He then becomes a living “rule of faith” as the troparion opens with, meaning essentially that the bishop is a living, flesh-and-blood realization of the Gospel. Whenever we experience a “crisis of leadership” in the Church, it is precisely such Christ-like characteristics that are so painfully lacking in the Church’s hierarchy. The faithful realize this, and the whole Church then suffers from a lack of trust and confidence in that leadership.

In relation to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, there is a fine passage from the great iconographer, Leonid Ouspensky, who summarizes the Church’s love of this great saint throughout the centuries:

The quite exceptional veneration of St. Nicholas is well known.  He is revered not only by Christians but often also by Muslims.  In the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, among the days of the week dedicated to the Savior and to different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only three persons are singled out by name:  the Mother of God, John the Forerunner and St. Nicholas. 
The reason for the special veneration of this bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings, is evidently that the Church sees in him the personification of a shepherd – of one who protects and intercedes. According to his Life, when St. Nicholas was raised to the dignity of bishop he said: "The office demands a different type of conduct, so that one may live no longer for oneself but for others."  This "life for others" is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men:  his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. 
This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death.  Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit.  (Quoted in Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

Following Christ faithfully, St. Nicholas endures as the purest manifestation of authority and leadership in the Church:  a living rule of faith, practicing humility, abstinence and voluntary poverty as an example to his flock.

O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well,
And now wearing your unfading crown,
you intercede for our souls.
(Vespers of the Feast of St. Nicholas)