Friday, March 30, 2018

'Let us hasten, O believers...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Fortieth Day

"O Almighty Master ... grant unto us to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the fast ..."

We offered that prayer to God for the last six weeks at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. And now we have come to the end of the fast - or at least by the time we serve Vespers this evening, the "sacred forty days" of Great Lent will be over. Hopefully, during these forty days we fought "the good fight" as Orthodox Christians.

With Vespers this evening, we enter into the weekend of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday - two splendid feasts in which we proclaim Christ "the Vanquisher of Death." and as "He Who comes in the Name of the Lord" as the triumphant Son of God receiving his acclamation as "King of Israel." When Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, He anticipates His own resurrection only a week later; and he anticipates the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. This is succinctly stated by Archbishop Kallistos Ware:

"The resurrection of Lazarus is a prophecy in the form of an action. It foreshadows Christ's own Resurrection eight days later, and at the same time it anticipates the resurrection of all the righteous on the Last Day: Lazarus is the 'saving first-fruits of the regeneration of the world' ... Disclosing the fulness of His divine power, Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, even though his corpse had already begun to decompose and stink." Lenten Triodion

As the following passage from St. Nikolai Velimirovich makes clear, Lazarus represents all of humanity awaiting the life-giving voice of the Lord:

"When the Lord cried: 'Lazarus!', the man awoke and lived. The Lord knows the name of each of us. If Adam knew the name of each one of God's creatures, how would God not know each of us by name? Oh, sweet and life-giving voice of the only Lover of mankind! That voice can make sons of God out of stones. How can it not wake us from the sleep of sin?" Prologue.

Fulfilling certain biblical prophecies (GEN. 49:1-12; ZEPH. 3:14-19; ZECH. 9:9-15) - such as we will read at the Palm Sunday vigil - Jesus will enter the Holy City acclaimed as the Messiah. Sadly, however, this acclamation is short-lived. We know that the entry into Jerusalem will inaugurate Holy Week and the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross. This "passion" is voluntary indeed, but the Cross was hard even for Christ to take up and then ascend so that we may be saved. The transition from the festal weekend to the somber character of Holy Week is nicely captured by a hymn from the Vespers service on Palm Sunday evening:

Let us hasten, O believers, moving from one divine festival to another; from palms and branches to the fulfillment of the august and saving suffering of Christ. Let us watch Him, bearing His sufferings voluntarily for our sake; and let us sing unto Him with worthy praise. crying, O Fountain of  mercy, O Haven of salvation, O Lord, glory to Thee. 

Every Orthodox Christian needs to make the necessary effort to accompany the Lord toward the Cross so as to fully appreciate the triumph of His Resurrection.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

How is the fulness of God's glory achieved in us?

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Thirty Ninth Day

"He prays unceasingly who combines prayer  with necessary duties and duties with prayer. Only in this way can we find it practicable to fulfill the commandment to pray always. It consists in regarding the whole of Christian existence as a single great prayer. What we are accustomed to call prayer is only a part of it."

"How is the fulness of God's glory achieved in each one of us? If what I do and say is for the glory of God, my words and deeds are full of God's glory. If my plans and undertakings are for the glory of God, if my food and drink and all my actions are for the glory of God, then it is to me also that the words are addressed: 'The earth is full of his glory'."

"Every Christian, even if he lacks any education, knows that every place is a part of the universe and that the universe is the temple of God. He prays in every place with the eyes of his senses closed and those of his soul awake, and in this way he transcends the whole world. He does not stop at the vault of heaven bur reaches the heights above it, and, as though out of this world altogether, he offers his prayer to God, led by God's Spirit."

- Origen (†254)

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Announcement of the Incarnation

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday, March 25, we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Theotokos. This great feast always falls during Great Lent, and when it falls on a weekday, is the only instance of having the full eucharistic Liturgy served for its commemoration. Clearly a sign of the feast’s significance. Thus, the Annunciation is something of a festal interlude that punctuates the eucharistic austerity of the lenten season. As it is, however, this year the Feast fell on a Sunday. 

Yet, because it does occur during Great Lent, this magnificent feast appears and disappears rather abruptly. It seems as if we have just changed the lenten colors in church to the blue characteristic of feasts dedicated to the Theotokos, when they are immediately changed back again! This is so because the Leavetaking of the Annunciation is on March 26. If we are not alert, it can pass swiftly by undetected by our “spiritual radar” which needs to be operative on a daily basis.

This Feast has its roots in the biblical passage in St. Luke’s Gospel, wherein the evangelist narrates that incredibly refined dialogue between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary (LK. 1:26-38). The angel Gabriel will “announce” the joyful news of the impending birth of the Messiah, and hence our English name of “Annunciation” for the Feast. However, the Greek title of Evangelismos is even richer in that it captures the truth that the Gospel – evangelion – is being “announced” in the encounter between God’s messenger and the young maiden destined to be the Mother of God. Her “overshadowing” by the Holy Spirit is “Good News” for her and for the entire world! 

Even though the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity in the flesh dominates our ecclesial and cultural consciousness, it is this Feast of the Annunciation that reveals the Incarnation, or the “becoming flesh” of the eternal Word of God. It is the Word’s conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary that is the “moment” of the Word’s enfleshment. Hence, the Church’s insistence that a new human being begins to exist at the moment of conception. The Word made flesh – our Lord Jesus Christ – will be born nine months later on December 25 according to our liturgical calendar; but again, His very conception is the beginning of His human life as God-made-man. The troparion of the Feast captures this well:

Today is the beginning of our salvation; the revelation of the eternal Mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.

Was the Virgin Mary randomly chosen for this awesome role? Was she compelled to fulfill the will of God regardless of her spiritual relationship with God? Was she a mere instrument overwhelmed or even “used” by God for the sake of God’s eternal purpose? That the Virgin Mary was “hailed” as one “highly favored” or “full of grace” (Gk. kecharitōmenē) when the angel Gabriel first descended to her, points us well beyond any such utilitarian role for her. 

On the contrary, the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary is understood and presented by the Church as the supreme example of synergy in the Holy Scriptures. The word synergy denotes the harmonious combination and balance between divine grace and human freedom that can occur between God and human beings. God does not compel, but seeks our free cooperation to be a “co-worker” with God in the process of salvation and deification. In this way, God respects our human self-determination, or what we refer to as our freedom or “free will.” 

 It is the Virgin Mary’s free assent to accept the unique vocation that was chosen for her from all eternity that allows her to become the Theotokos, or God-bearer. This is, of course, found in her response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement, and following her own perplexity: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” 

This teaching on synergy finds its classical expression in a justifiably famous passage from St. Nicholas Cabasilas’ Homily on the Annunciation. The passage itself is often cited as an excellent and eloquent expression of the Orthodox understanding of synergy:

The incarnation of the Word was not only the work of the Father, Son and Spirit – the first consenting, the second descending, and third overshadowing – but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.

We praise the Virgin Mary as representing our longing for God and for fulfilling her destiny so that we may receive the gift of salvation from our Lord who “came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man” (Nicene Creed):

Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee.
Hail, O pure Virgin; Hail, O Bride unwedded.
Hail, Mother of life: blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

(Dogmatikon, Vespers of the Annunciation)

Friday, March 23, 2018

'Someone truly in love...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Thirty-third Day

"I have watched impure souls mad for physical love (eros) but turning what they know of such love into a reason for penance and transferring that same capacity for love (eros) to the Lord."

"A chaste person is someone who has driven out bodily love (eros) by means of divine love (eros), who has used heavenly fire to quench the fires of the flesh."

"Physical love can be a paradigm of the longing for God ... "

"Lucky the man who loves and longs for God as a smitten lover does for his beloved."

"Someone truly in love keeps before his mind's eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly. Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased, and he murmurs to his beloved. That is how it is for the body. And that is how it is for the spirit."

- St. John Klimakos

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Sea of Humility

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Thirty Second Day

"Pride begins where vainglory leaves off. Its midpoint comes with the humiliation of our neighbor, the shameless parading of our achievements, complacency, and unwillingness to be found out. It ends with the spurning of God's help, the exalting of one's own efforts and a devilish disposition."

"The proud person wants to be in charge of things. He would feel lost otherwise."

"To reject criticism is to show pride, while to accept it is to show oneself free of this fetter."

"An old man, very experienced in these matters, once spiritually admonished a proud brother who said in his blindness: 'Forgive me, father, but I am not proud.' 'My son,' said the wise old man, 'what better proof of your pride could you have given than to claim that you were not proud?'"

"The proud man is a pomegranate, gone bad within, radiant outside."

"Darkness is alien to light. Pride is alien to every virtue."

"A thief hates the sun. A proud man despises the meek."

" ... For you see, Vainglory is pride's saddle-horse on which it is mounted. But holy Humility and Self-deprecation will laugh at the horse and its rider and will joyfully sing the song of triumph: 'Let us sing to the Lord, for He has been truly glorified. Horse and rider He has thrown into the sea' (Exod. 15:1), into the sea of humility."

"Such is the twenty-third step. Whoever climbs it, if indeed anyone can, will certainly be strong."

- St. John Klimakos

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

'Prayer is future gladness...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Thirty-first Day

"Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears. It is an expiation of sin, a bridge across temptation, a bulwark against affliction. It wipes out conflict, is the work of angels, and is the nourishment of all bodiless beings.

"Prayer is future gladness, action without end, wellspring of virtues, source of grace, hidden progress, food of the soul, enlightenment of the mind, an axe against despair, hope demonstrated, sorrow done away with. It is the wealth of monks, treasure of hermits, anger diminished. It is a mirror of progress, a demonstration of success, evidence of one's condition, the future revealed, a sign of glory.

"For the person who really prays it is the court, the judgment hall, the tribunal of the Lord - and this prior to the judgment to come."

- St. John Klimakos

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Real 'Stairway to Heaven'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A pop-culture awareness that has staying power over about a forty-five year period is an immediate recognition of the song titled "Stairway to Heaven."

Even those born well after the date of the song's initial appearance (1972) know that it was written by the now-legendary rock group Led Zeppelin.  I, for one, will openly "confess" to seeing and hearing this song performed live more than once!  I even recall reading an article that somehow managed to calculate that - up to a certain date, at least - it was the most-played song in rock radio history. Yet, I further recall hearing once that the members of Led Zeppelin were "sick and tired" of their famous song!

If not quite arresting, the title is at least attractive. Perhaps it awakens a vague longing deep within our soul: Is there a "stairway to heaven?"  Some sort of path to another reality that lifts us above the mundane and everyday cares of life?  Was there some formula hidden within the song's lyrics that pointed to that alluring path?

Admittedly, I always found the lyrics rather opaque and esoteric. (Certain members of Led Zeppelin were clearly taken by the esoteric and fantastic, obvious from some of their other songs).  Perhaps that simply added to the song's charm as devotees spent inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to decipher or unpack the tantalizing meaning of the song just beyond our grasp. A lot of pseudo-serious literature was actually generated - and passionately argued about - back then offering various interpretations of "Stairway to Heaven's" meaning. And the song did have a compelling energy behind it as its slow beginning moved toward a crescendo of a driving and now classic rock guitar solo. 

Yet, the famous "Stairway to Heaven" is so contextualized in a moment of long ago pop culture history, that "it makes me wonder" what the heady commotion was really all about. After forty-five years, it is now just another very recognizable "rock classic;" or, to say that in a slightly more deflating manner, just another "oldie."  For some, it may serve to awaken a certain nostalgia for the past. Or, for others, to a past that they would like to forget!

Certainly no one is drawn to analyzing  those opaque lyrics which really had nothing much behind them in the first place. Obscurity is often mistaken for depth. However, this is not the place to come down on Led Zeppelin and their famous song from the past.  Everyone, including the members of the group, have certainly "moved on."

These brief comments on the song "Stairway to Heaven" were prompted by the fact that on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate St. John Climacus, austere author of the famous treatise The Ladder of Divine Ascent. 

I refer to St. John's spiritual classic as the real "stairway to heaven," because after many centuries it is read to this day with great seriousness and pious devotion by Christians as precisely a sure guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, St. John offers a fine definition as to what it means to be a Christian:

A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity. (STEP 1)

St. John was writing for monks, but to the married Christian he had this to say:

Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourselves from the church assemblies. 
Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own spouse can provide you.
If you do all of this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven. (STEP 1)

More specifically, the abiding popularity of his famous treatise is all the more apparent for Orthodox Christians, for as Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes:

With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more often than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus. 
Every Lent in Orthodox monasteries it is appointed to be read aloud in church or in the refectory, so that the monks will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty tines in the course of their life.  
Outside the monasteries it has also been the favorite reading of countless lay people in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and throughout the Orthodox world.  The popularity of The Ladder in the East equals that of The Imitation of Christ in the West, although the two books are altogether different in character.  
(Introduction to The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 1)

The great abbot of Mt. Sinai (+c. 650) writes with clarity and depth about the interior "withdrawal" from worldliness; the struggle with the passions; the acquisition of the virtues; and the final ascent of the soul into the realm where faith, hope and love are the final stages of that ascent that prepares the believer for the incomprehensible glory yet to be experienced when God will be "all in all:" 

Love, by its nature, is a resemblance of God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility ...    Love grants prophecy, miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity. (STEP 30)

St. John's work clearly betrays the monastic milieu from which it emerged, but since those very passions that plague us remain unchanging; and since the very virtues we struggle to acquire also remain unchanging; and since our goal is the Kingdom of Heaven, then his writings more importantly have a timeless and eternal quality to them. Such a text is never really "dated." It does not belong to a particular movement or fad. The Ladder is an enduring monument of spiritual depth that flows from the Gospel. Thus, its singular characteristic and popularity as an enduring classic.

Now, St. John himself was inspired by the vision of the Patriarch Jacob of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven "and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!" (GEN. 28) Christ refers to this same vision in JN. 1.  St. John will develop this image with greater detail and this is a very effective teaching tool, for again to refer to the words of Archbishop Kallistos:

His ladder has thirty rungs or steps, one for each year in the hidden life of Christ before His baptism. John's ingenious use of the ladder-image soon became part of the spiritual imagination of the Christian East, and is frequently represented in panel icons, refrectory frescoes and illuminated manuscripts.  (Introduction, p. 11)

I cannot in the brief space of a meditation offer a detailed outline of The Ladder. I believe the best version available in English translation to be that which belongs to The Classics of Western Spirituality series:  John Climacus - The Ladder of Divine Ascent, translated by Colm Luibheld and Norman Russell, Introduction by Kallistos Ware, Paulist Press, 1982.  

I further believe that this would be an invaluable acquisition for one's library, and it could be read slowly and prayerfully over an extended period of time. Some of the book's content may appear foreign, but there will be so much that will resonate deeply and stay with the serious reader that what is foreign will seem unimportant.  

However, there is an extraordinary passage in Step One that so beautifully captures the meaning of the Gospel, and of God's love of his creation and creatures, that I would like to share at least this much.  This passage takes on an even greater meaning when we recall that St. John was fiercely ascetical and at times impatient with false teaching. But here he is truly expansive and he embraces all of humankind:

God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of believers and unbelievers, of the just or the unjust ... of monks or those living in the world, of the educated or the illiterate, of the healthy or the sick, of the young or the very old.  He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception. "For God is no respecter of persons." (Rom. 2:11)

Although employing what is essentially identical images, I believe that we can say with real assurance that The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on much, much firmer ground and has greater staying power than whatever is quite the endpoint of "Stairway to Heaven."  In fact, I may be reproached for even making the comparison! Yet, the association of images, and further reflection on the surrounding "culture" that produced each work - and which is embodied within each work - came to mind as we move into the Fourth Week of Great Lent.  

In an age of post-modernism and shifting narratives that compete for our attention, there is nothing quite like the "rock" on which the Gospel is firmly planted and not to be moved; while other enticements built on the shifting sands of impermanence are swept away by time (MATT. 7:24-27). 

St. John built his house on the Gospel and thus continues to nourish us to this day with his wise counsel:

Baptized in the thirtieth year of His earthly age, Christ attained the thirtieth step on the spiritual ladder, for God indeed is love, and to Him be praise, dominion, power.  In Him is the cause, past, present, and future, of all that is good forever and ever. Amen. (Concluding "Brief Summary and Exhortation")

Friday, March 16, 2018

Tending Time in Lent

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a "guest meditation" from our former parishioner, Dr. Nicole M. Roccas. It is a very thoughtful, insightful and well-articulated article on how Lent challenges the very way we use - or misuse - the gift of time. I hope you will take the time to read through it carefully.

Nicole recently had her new book Time and Despondency published by Ancient Faith Press. I would highly recommend it.

- Fr. Steven

Tending Time in Lent


By Nicole Roccas, Another City, March 13, 2018:

As I prepared for my first confession some years ago, I was given a rubric that I still follow. It asks me to reflect on how I’ve sinned against myself, others, and God. If nothing comes to mind, I’m directed to consider the ways I’ve fallen short of the ten commandments, the beatitudes, the virtues enumerated in the Prayer of St. Ephrem, etc.

As helpful as these guides are, however, they risk overlooking a quintessential dimension of life: the experience of time. Like the beatitudes or ten commandments, thinking about the ways we use and misuse time provides an additional lens to perceive our struggle against the passions.

In my experience, this lens is extremely helpful. We can immediately identify with the grief of a wasted hour, day, or lifetime, even when we are too out of touch to grieve other aspects of our sinful condition.

Personally, I have found it beneficial to consider my interaction with time parallel to the rubric I’ve mentioned above: How have I wasted or misused time in relation to myself, to others, and to God?

The Cross: 'A Triumphant and Cosmic Symbol'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Twenty-fourth Day

For Great Lent I am currently reading a book entitled The Cross - History, Art and ControversyThis fine book is written by Robin M. Jensen, professor of theology at Notre Dame University. The author interprets the various ways that the Cross of Christ has been artistically conceived through the centuries, from the very beginnings of Christianity, from an insightful theological perspective. This would include a vast array of artistic expressions: crucifixes, mosaics, frescoes, icons, gems, ampullae, reliquaries, sarcophagi, pectoral crosses, miniatures; and then poetry, legends and liturgical hymnography.  To be honest, I am still working on the book, but so far it has proven to be quite illuminating as to how the "symbol" of the Cross has developed over the years, and thus manifest the Church's belief that "through the Cross, joy has come into the world." In a nice summation toward the end of Ch. 2, Prof. Jensen writes the following about how the early Christians surmounted the "scandal of the Cross" and understood its deeper "mystical significance:"

"Rather than allow the cross to be a figure of scandal or shame, Christians regarded it as a triumphant and potent cosmic symbol. It summed up the story of their salvation insofar as it overrode the sin of the first humans in the Garden of Eden and heralded the return of the savior, the last judgment, the resurrection of the righteous, and the New Creation. Its very shape, pointing in all four cardinal directions, had a mystical significance. As an emblem of hope, Christians received it on their foreheads at baptism and made it daily on their bodies. Invisible to ordinary eyes,  the sign of the cross was vividly apparent to those with supernatural vision. It offered protection from demons and identified the members of the flock to their Good Shepherd,, at once their holy talisman and a reminder of their own potential for glory. Martyrs accepted death, believing their imitation of Christ's crucifixion  assured them of a triumphant (and immediate) admission to heaven." (P. 48)

Throughout the book, the author provides many wonderful texts from the Church Fathers on the meaning of the Cross. These passages help to orient the reader toward the deeper meaning of the Cross and its ongoing artistic development. This would include a straightforward recognition of the "scandal" caused by Christ dying on the Cross. St. Justin Martyr (+165) is an early example of this:

"They proclaim our madness in the fact that we give to a crucified man a place, second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein, to which as we make it plain to you, we pray you to give heed." (Apology, 13)

St. John Chrysostom (+407) interprets the meaning of "the sign of the Son of Man" to refer to the Cross of Christ:

"Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in Heaven, that is, the cross being brighter than the sun, since this latter will be darkened, and hide himself, and the former will appear where it would not appear, unless it were brighter than the beams of the sun. (Hom. Matt. 76.3)

In a fascinating chapter covering the discovery of the "True Cross" in Jerusalem in the fourth century, we hear from St. Paulinus of Nola (+5th c.):

"Indeed, this cross of inanimate wood has living power, and even since its discovery it has lent its wood to the countless almost daily prayers of men. Yet it suffers no diminution; though daily divided, it seems to remain whole to those who lift it, and always entire to those who consecrate it. Assuredly it draws this power of incorruptibility, this undiminished integrity, from the Blood of that Flesh which endured death yet did not see corruption." (Ep. 31. 6)

In a celebrated passage from his work On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius the Great (+373) writes that there is something nevertheless "reasonable" about the Cross, because the salvation of all could only be displayed in such a public manner. Christ thus became conspicuous to all the nations by being raised up on the Cross in such a manner. With this two outstretched arms He embraces both the Jews and the Gentiles. St. Athanasius also draws the inseparable link between the death of Christ and His resurrection. 

"The death on the Cross, then, for us has proved seemly and fitting, and its cause has been shown to be reasonable in every respect and it may justly be argued that in no other way than by the Cross was it right for the salvation of all to the place. For even thus - not even on the Cross - did He leave Himself concealed; but far otherwise, while He made creation witness to the presence of its Maker, he suffered not the temple of His body to remain long, but having merely shown it to be dead, by the contact of death with it, He straightway raised it up on the third day, bearing away, as the mark of victory and the triumph over death, the incorruptibility and impassibility which resulted to His body." (Incur. 26)

And there is a wonderful theological reflection cast in a poetic manner assigned to an unknown writer described as "Ps.Theophilus" (the real Theophilus being a second c. writer). You can see how such passages helped shape our later liturgical hymnography:

The Cross purifies the man that
pursues the energies cast forth from it.
The Cross is the holy mystery,
The Cross is the consolation of those who are
in distress because of their sins.
The Cross is the straight way, not leading astray
those who walk on it when they are estranged.
The Cross is the high tower which
receives those who are running to it.
The Cross is the ladder which raises
the human being to the sky.
The Cross is the garment which the
Christians are wearing.
The Cross is the helper
of the poor and the help for those who are distressed.
(Sermon the Cross and the Good Thief)

I should also point out that it was probably the North African thinker, Tertullian, who first explicitly mentioned how Christians "signed" themselves with the Cross - at all times as you will read below. It is difficult to determine just how early Christians began to actually do this, but Tertullian does speak of it as an established tradition at a very early date (late 2nd- early 3rd c.):

" ... at every forward step and rising, at every entrance and exit, when we dress, when we put on our shoes, when we bathe, when we dine, when we light our lamps, on our couches, on our seats, in everything that we do, we trace this sign upon or foreheads." (Cor. 3)

As Orthodox Christians, we do this to this day with the same faith in the One who died on the Cross to deliver us from sin and death. The resurrection of Christ "proves" the truthfulness of that claim. We thus belong to the Crucified One and accept the "scandal of the Cross" as the power of God unto salvation.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Great Lent: 'What is this Struggle?'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Twenty-Fifth Day

Here is a remarkable passage on Great Lent that may well serve as an Orthodox "pep talk" as we are well pass the midpoint of the Fast, and perhaps well past the enthusiasm of the opening days.

What is this struggle? Not to walk according to one's own will. This is better than the other works of zeal and is a crown of martyrdom; except that for you there is also change of diet, multiplication of prostrations and increase of psalmody as in accordance with the established tradition from of old.
And so I ask, let us welcome gladly the gift of the fast, not making ourselves miserable, but let us advance with cheerfulness of heart, innocent, not slandering, not angry, not evil, not envying; rather peaceable towards each other, and loving, fair, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits; breathing in seasonable stillness, since hubbub is damaging in a community; speaking suitable words, since too unreasonable stillness is profitless; yet above all vigilantly keeping watch over our thoughts, not opening the door to the passions, not giving place to the devil.
We are lords of ourselves; let us not open our door to the devil; rather let us keep guard over our soul as a bride of Christ, unwounded by the arrows of the thoughts; for thus we are able to become a dwelling of God in Spirit. Thus we may be made worthy to hear, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
Quite simply, whatever is true, whatever noble, whatever just whatever pure, whatever lovely whatever of good report, if there is anything virtuous, if there is anything praiseworthy, to speak like the Apostle, do it; and the God of peace will be with you all.
- St. Theodore the Studite (9th c.)

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Mid-Point, The Turning Point... The One Thing Needful

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Twenty Second Day

"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (I COR. 2:2)

There is a definite shift in focus once we reach the Third Sunday of Great Lent and the veneration of the Cross. For the first three weeks of the Fast, the hymnography of the Triodion concentrates our attention on the over-all lenten effort of repentance, and all that repentance entails: overcoming temptation and sin, struggling against the passions, intensifying our prayer, almsgiving and fasting, reconciliation with our neighbor, etc. 
This is not a pious form of spiritual solipsism. It is a way to force us to look at our own lives and relationship with God and to "expose" our own weaknesses and failings, so we can humbly acknowledge our sinfulness and "do something about it." That is one of the main purposes behind Great Lent: "Save yourself, and thousands around you will be saved," according to St. Seraphim of Sarov. If we could possibly cleanse our own minds and hearts, then each one of us can become a genuine Christian who worthily proclaims the Gospel by a particular way of life that embodies the precepts of the Gospel. That includes the self-denial of taking up one's cross in imitation of the Lord.

However, with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, the Scriptures and the Triodion will concentrate on the Cross of Christ - the goal of our lenten journey. Our lenten effort must be understood and experienced within the context of the Lord's Cross, without which all of our ascetical and charitable efforts do not transcend their immediate application and do indeed devolve into a series of questionable "spiritual exercises" performed more or less for their own sake. The Cross is the source, ground, and goal of Great Lent and of our personal journey through it. We now begin to anticipate its salvific power in our midst. 
At the same time, we never lose sight of the fact that we are moving toward Pascha and the glorious Resurrection of Christ. The profound "connection" between the Cross and Resurrection is always affirmed. This is perfectly expressed in the well-known that we sing and chant as we venerate the Cross:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify.

And, there is the remarkable prayer said after Communion: 

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One ... For, behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world.

Yet, if we anticipate once again the joyous ecstasy of beholding the empty tomb, we must first stand at the foot of the Cross on Golgotha: "looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before hi, endured the cross." (Heb 12:2) 

At the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday evening, we began with a series of transitional hymns, that in addition to reminding us that we have reached the midpoint of the Fast, combine our own ascetical effort - and the need for its continuation for the remainder of the Fast - with clear reference to the Lord and Cross that is the culmination of His earthly ministry:

The fast, the source of blessings,
now has brought us midway through its course.
Having pleased God with the days that have passed
we look forward to making good use of the days to come,
for growth in blessings bring forth even greater achievements.
While pleasing Christ, the giver of blessings, we cry:
O Lord, who fasted and endured the cross for our sake,
make us worthy to share blamelessly in Your paschal victory,
by living in peace and rightly giving glory to You
with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

O Cross, boast of the apostles,
surrounded by archangels, powers and principalities;
Save us from all harm who bow down before you.
Enable us to fulfill the divine course of abstinence
and to reach the day of salvation, by which we are saved.

And there are hymns that are something of an ecstatic expression of the inexpressible boundlessness of the Cross' meaning on a cosmic and personal level:

Today, as we bow before the cross of the Lord, we cry:
Rejoice, O tree of life, the destroyer of hell!
Rejoice, O joy of the world, the slayer of corruption!
Rejoice, O power that scatters demons!
O invincible weapon, confirmation of the faithful:
Protect and sanctify those who kiss you!

The Cross is the culmination of our journey through Holy Week. Practically speaking, that must in turn be the culmination of our lenten effort, or else the sacred forty days and Holy Week will be reduced to empty forms devoid of spiritual power. 
"Lay aside all earthly care" during Holy Week. Try and plan your schedules so as to maximize your time in church for the services that will bring us to the Cross and Resurrection. Even when unable to be in church, let it be a time of greater silence and concentration, so that empty distractions are kept to a minimum. 
If possible, use a "vacation day" from work and make Holy Friday a time to immerse yourselves into the Mystery of the Cross. If your children are home on Holy Friday, direct them toward the Church and the "solemnity" of that unique day. 
In a world that offers us an abundance of the superficially attractive, resist such temptation by focusing on the essential - "the one thing needful" - Jesus Christ.

Friday, March 9, 2018

'You will love Him alone...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Nineteenth Day

"You will love Him alone, and to him alone you will offer worship with all your mind, heart, and strength, and His words and commandments will be in your heart, so that you practice and study them, and speak about them with others."

- St. Gregory Palamas

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

St Gregory Palamas: On God's providence

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Seventeenth Day
"We can free ourselves more easily from passions that are a matter of our own volition than from those rooted in nature. It is disbelief in God's providence that makes it difficult for us to eradicate the passions that arise from our love of possessions, for such disbelief leads us to put our trust in material riches. ...
"Yet when wealth comes, it proves itself to be nothing, since its possessors, unless they are brought to their senses by experience, still thirst after it as though they lacked it. This love that is no love does not come from need; rather the need arises from the love. The love itself arises from folly, the same folly that led Christ, the Master of all, justly to describe as foolish the man who pulled down his barns and built greater ones (Lk. 12:18-20). ...
"The truth is that people are frightened of being poor because they have no faith in Him who promised to provide all things needful to those who seek the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33)."
- St. Gregory Palamas (+1359)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

'The most excellent of God's acts...'

Dear Parish Faithful,
GREAT LENT - The Sixteenth Day
"When the Lord became man, the most excellent of God's acts was completed indeed. For although every prior act that God providentially accomplished on our behalf was fine and good, and straining towards this end, the most excellent act of all, or rather the only one that is excellent beyond compare, is the act of our Lord Jesus Christ becoming man, an act whose end was the saving Passion and Resurrection."
- St. Gregory Palamas (+1359)