Thursday, September 27, 2018

Grace, Love, Communion

Dear Parish Faithful,

Anyone remotely familiar with the Divine Liturgy will immediately recognize this wonderful blessing during the Anaphora: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you."

The basis for this blessing is not the result of later "theological development" that became very consciously trinitarian following the Arian crisis and the First and Second Ecumenical Councils. Rather, we find here a scriptural passage that became part of the Liturgy presumably at a very early date. This blessing is actually the final verse of Saint Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians 13:11-14 and is the culmination of his warm benediction — after a rather stormy letter! — to the local church in Corinth:

Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

The Lord Jesus Christ, God (the Father), and the Holy Spirit are named together as equal yet distinct Persons. This may be the Trinity in embryonic form, but it is still expressed emphatically. But not only are the Persons of the Trinity named. Saint Paul succinctly brings together the three most essential and enduring divine gifts that pour forth from the Persons of the Trinity and that sum up the Gospel and the entire New Testament -- "grace," "love" and "communion." In his Commentary on Paul's Letters, the unknown writer, referred to as Ambrosiaster, comments on the essential unity of these mighty gifts:

Here is the intertwining of the Trinity and the unity of power which brings all salvation to fulfillment. The love of God has sent us Jesus the Savior, by whose grace we have been saved. The communion of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to possess the grace of salvation, for He guards those who are loved by God and saved by the grace of Christ, so that the completeness of the Three may be the saving fulfillment of mankind.

These "uncreated energies" create, sustain, inspire and transform our lives within the Church. A community characterized by the presence of these divine gifts would certainly reflect the words of Christ: "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden" [Matthew 5:14]. A community devoid of such gifts would be reduced to a club.

"The local church must be the 'place' where grace, love and communion are present and active..."

In fact, if put into practice, this entire final blessing could be seen as the Apostle's description of an ideal local church, or parish. Before all of the planning committees and their proposed programs are put into place; before the necessary stewardship drives are organized; before, even, the "evangelization committee" begins the work of "growing the Church" — before all of this, on the most foundational level, the local church must be the "place" where grace, love and communion are present and active, together with "peace," mutual love, and unity of mind. 

This is the type of church in which people would desire to be active, to which they would give generously, and about which they would witness to others. The Divine Liturgy exhorts us to this when preparing us for our shared recitation of the Nicene Creed: "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided."

Clear remnants of the "holy kiss" referred to in this passage still exist to this day, though often limited to the concelebrating clergy, the exchange of a kiss during the paschal season, and simply the affectionate greeting of members of a parish. Saint John Chrysostom, in his Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 30.2, reminds us why a certain type of kiss can indeed by "holy":

What is a holy kiss? It is one that is not hypocritical, like the kiss of Judas. The kiss is given in order to stimulate love and instill the right attitude in us toward each other. When we return after an absence, we kiss each other, for our souls hasten to bond together. But there is something else which might be said about this. We are the temple of Christ, and when we kiss each other we are kissing the porch and entrance of the temple.

Being pastoral, the Apostle Paul realized that the Corinthians needed a strong and affirmative blessing to end his correspondence with them, a correspondence that was often filled with chastisement and correction. At times, he was clearly angry and employed more than a little bit of calculated irony — and even sarcasm. Yet, he never lost sight of his burning desire that the Christians of Corinth manifest the new life to which they were called and into which they were baptized when they received the Gospel. For this reason, he labored and struggled to properly articulate a sound understanding of such seemingly disparate themes as the resurrection of the dead and a Christ-centered sexual morality. We can only believe him when he assured the Corinthians that he wrote to them in tears, fearing for their salvation as he begged them to repent of their sins.

The apostle, who himself was the astonished recipient of the unmerited forgiveness of God, was convinced that the "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit" were able to transform a wayward community so that it would truly be the "Church of God" residing in Corinth or Cincinnati, or wherever God is pleased to raise up a people to the glory of His Name.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Multiplying Our Talents, "for our own salvation and the neighbors' benefit"

Dear Parish Faithful,

This past Sunday, we heard the Parable of the Talents during the Liturgy (MATT. 25:14-30). The parable has a wide possibility of interpretation, but on the whole the Church Fathers understand the parable as a profound reminder that we will answer to God for how we use the various gifts - "talents" - that have been bestowed on us. (The talent is a monetary denomination in Hebrew, but for us it has a more extended meaning, because of the richness of our English "talent").

Multiplying our talents is an image of using our gifts to the benefit of others as members of the Body of Christ. An indifference to this task, or even a self-centered refusal to share what God has given us is severely condemned in the parable. 

Here is an area that we must examine carefully though, because the image of the Master in the parable is a far cry from what we understand from Jesus about the "character" of our heavenly Father. The master of the parable is harsh and quick to judge the third servant. And, the parable itself could be seen to approve of a very capitalistic interpretation wherein the multiplying of our money is seen as a virtue in itself. For this reason, the words of a contemporary New Testament scholar, Brendan Byrne, are essential to bear in mind when studying the parables of Christ:

Once again we have to keep in mind that Jesus took parables from life as he saw it lived, without necessarily commending or reproving the behavior described. He used the way people acted in situations of crisis in everyday life to illustrate - not model - appropriate behavior in view of the kingdom. (Lifting the Burden, p. 189)

In fact, a close reading of the parable could reveal that the third servant misread the character of the master. Be that as it may, I would simply like to share some of the comments of St. John Chrysostom on this parable from one of his numerous homilies on the Gospel According to St. Matthew. St. John is ever the moralist, encouraging his flock to a mode of life that is consistent with the Gospel, regardless of how challenging that may be. St. John also makes an allusion or two based on other parables of Jesus that you will hopefully detect:

Let us, then, listen to these words. As opportunity offers, let us make efforts for our salvation, let us get oil for the lamps, let us make the talent pay: if we hang back and spend our time in idleness here, no one then will pity us there, no matter how many our laments.
The person with soiled garments also condemned himself, and gained nothing; the person with the one talent restored the deposit with which he was entrusted, and he was thus condemned;  the virgins made their appeal, came forward and knocked, all to no avail.
Aware of this, therefore, let us contribute money, effort, support and everything for the neighbors' welfare: talents in this case are each person's resources, be it in support, in money, in teaching, in anything at all of this kind. Let no one claim, I have one talent, and I can do nothing: even with one you are capable of measuring up. I mean you are not poorer than that widow, you are not more unlettered than Peter and John, who were simple and unschooled, yet by giving evidence of zeal and doing everything for the common good, they attained to heaven. Nothing, in fact, is so pleasing to God as living for the benefit of all.
For this reason God gave us speech, hands and feet, bodily strength, a mind and understanding, so that we might use them all for our own salvation and the neighbors' benefit.

From Spiritual Gems from the Gospel of Matthew, p. 147-148.

St. John was the master at what we would today call the "application" of the Gospel to our lives.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Place of the Cross - in the Church, and in our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful,

The current Feast of the Elevation/Exaltation of the Cross allows us to go a long way in dispelling a stereotype that has developed concerning the Orthodox Church. This stereotype claims that the Orthodox Church is the Church of the Resurrection and/or Transfiguration of Christ at the expense of the Cross. 
Upon a closer and more balanced examination, this claim loses credibility. The Cross has a central and abiding place within the Orthodox Tradition - theological, spiritual, liturgical, iconographic, and more. For the sake of brevity, the terse expression of St. Gregory Palamas (+1359), synthesizes more than a millennium of the patristic tradition of the Christian East, when he declared in one of his homilies: “The Lord’s Cross discloses the entire dispensation of His coming in the flesh, and contains within it the whole mystery of this dispensation.”

Liturgically, the focus on the Cross can hardly be described as minimal. Great and Holy Friday is at the very heart of the Church’s liturgical tradition, when concentration on the Savior’s death on the Cross is treated with the greatest of solemnity and pathos. The crucified, dead and buried Master is surrounded by the faithful in a series of services that are emotionally intense and theologically rich in expression. This day serves as the prototype of every Friday (and actually every Wednesday) within the Church’s liturgical tradition when the Cross is the “theme” of those days, reflected in the hymnography of the day. That connection is strengthened accordingly by designating Wednesdays and Fridays as “fasting days.” The Cross and fasting have been linked together from the very earliest days of the Church’s history. To this day, practicing Orthodox Christians are expected to fast on those days as an expression of honoring and calling to remembrance the Cross of the Lord.

The current Feast of the Cross – one of the Twelve major fixed Feasts of the liturgical year - is one among others that again will focus our attention on the Cross throughout the year. The mid-point of Great Lent, the third Sunday, is called the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. As on this current Feast, the Cross is decorated with flowers, brought into the center of the church by means of a solemn procession, and then venerated with the same hymn – “Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship, O Master; and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify” - accompanied by prostrations. At the end of the service the faithful approach and kiss the ‘life-giving wood” of the Tree of the Cross. Another feast on August 1, though not as observed, is called the “Procession of the Cross.” Neglected or not, the same rite of procession and veneration is prescribed for this feast as for the other two we are describing here.

Another practice, which comes to the Orthodox so naturally, but may strike the outside observer as strange, is that at the end of the Divine Liturgy all of the faithful approach the bishop or priest, and reverently kiss the hand-held Cross that is presented to them. (I am unaware of this practice outside of the Orthodox Tradition, but I could simply be ignorant about this). Each person then receives a piece of “blessed bread” – the antidoron in the Gk. – before leaving the church. Again, for someone raised from childhood in the Orthodox Church this is so natural that it remains indelible in the minds of those who grew up Orthodox even if they leave the Church at some point in time. The point here is that it is one more clear expression of the over-all role of the Cross within the life of the Church. Our last gesture before departing from the Church back to our daily lives is venerating the Cross and committing ourselves in the process of remaining loyal to Christ crucified.

Of course, “making” the sign of the Cross over oneself is another perfectly natural practice for Orthodox Christians – and shared by other Christian traditions, as this is one more practice that can traced back into Christian antiquity. In fact, it is about as natural as breathing! The reason behind this practice is clear yet profound. As I have written elsewhere: The Church and our personal lives are placed under the sign of the Cross, both as an emblem of victory and of our willingness to bear our personal crosses in our daily struggles against sin, temptation, the devil, and all manner of evil. Throughout the entire Liturgy, whenever we glorify God, we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves, revealing our faith in Christ, the “Lord of Glory” (I COR. 2:8) crucified for our sakes according to the will of the Father and “through the eternal Spirit.” (HEB. 9:14)

Non-Orthodox Christians who visit an Orthodox Church, and who may be aware of this practice, will still comment on the frequency with which Orthodox believers will make the sign of the Cross over themselves during the services. Of course, the naturalness of this act should never take away from the concentration and care that needs to accompany this outward sign if it is to have any meaning.

Perhaps we should finally mention the fact that most Orthodox Christians wear a cross. This is not meant to be one more piece of “matching jewelry” or displayed in an ostentatious fashion. Rather it is a humble practice of again recognizing the place of the Cross in the divine dispensation and in our personal salvation. It also implies the “self-denial” that we need to practice as true disciples of Christ. (The next meditation will explore this theme in more detail).

Reflecting upon this summary of the place of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives, one may not only come to the conclusion that the Orthodox do not neglect the Cross, but that their devotion to the Cross may be a bit excessive! But that is hardly the case. What needs to be remembered is that a holistic approach to the Christian Faith combines the “outward” and the “inward.” Feast Days, processions, prostrations, veneration, signings, etc. are the outward manifestations of the Church’s inner vision of the literally cosmic and then deeply personal dimensions of the Cross. This vision based on faith, is then proclaimed to the world in a variety of ways, each of which tries to capture something of the greatness of God’s love revealed in the Cross. For the Cross is the “mystery” of God’s will for the world and its salvation. (cf. EPH. 1:3-10) For the Cross is believed to be “breadth and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (EPH. 3:18-19).

Friday, September 7, 2018

To Deepen our Experience, and Expand our Hearts

Dear Parish Faithful,

"And they held steadfastly to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (ACTS 2:42)

I would like to share some pastoral considerations that I have compiled over time, to perhaps lead to further reflection on how we can "expand" our lives in the Church as circumstances allow. The question we are facing is the following:

What can we do on a practical level that would deepen our experience of God and bring us deeper into the life of the Church?

We exist as Christians on the personal and parish levels. In both areas there is room to expand our hearts as we expand the amount of time necessary to fulfill the words of Christ to make God and neighbor our first priority. At home, we can:

+ Be regular in daily prayer by devising and adhering to a “Rule of Prayer.” This means that everyone needs a good Orthodox Prayer Book. This Rule needs to be practiced with consistency and attention – in both the morning and the evening. The Prayer of the Hours could punctuate your days with the remembrance of God while at work or home. (I can provide you with that prayer if you do not have it). The Jesus Prayer can be on your lips at any time during the day.

+ Read the Scriptures with some consistency. Becoming “scripturally literate” is essential for a Christian.

+ Make a point of even a short prayer or blessing before sitting down to a meal – alone or with the family. All that you have is ultimately from God. We need to recognize this in a concrete manner.

+ Honor and observe the fasting days of the liturgical year.

+ Offer the Prayers of Preparation for Communion before the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. These are found in any good Orthodox Prayer Book.

+ Respond to those in need of your help and assistance when the opportunity arises.

On the parish level, here are some items to consider:

+ Become more than a “Sunday morning only” participant in worship. Incorporate the Saturday evening Great Vespers into your life with some kind of pattern: once-a-month, for example. Honor the Feast Days by making room on your personal calendars so as to be present.

+ Become more aware of being a steward of your time, talent and treasure. Is there a parish ministry that you feel drawn toward? Please speak with me if that is the case. Be responsible in the ministry that you are already committed to. Be a “cheerful giver” of your treasure for the upbuilding of the church. Trusting in God’s love, overcome any reluctance to share of your material and financial blessings by pledging generously to the church.

+ Become more aware of the diversity of persons that you worship together with. Everyone who walks through the door is your neighbor. We are members of the Body of Christ, not mere “individuals” who accidentally worship in the same church. Meet those that you do not know. Avoid judging others by appearance. No one is “better” than the next person, regardless of social status or other worldly considerations. We are all sinners seeking salvation from the “Physician of our souls and bodies.”

Rejoice in being an Orthodox Christian! Rejoice in being able to come to church and worship the living God! Rejoice in the people that you have providentially met in the Church! Rejoice in Christ our Savior!

Glory to You, for every sigh of my sadness,
Glory to You, for every step of my life, for every moment of joy,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.
Akathist of Thanksgiving - "Glory to God For All Things"

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Conviction and Commitment in the Church New Year

Icon of the 'Indiction', the Church Year.

Dear Parish Faithful,

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (MATT. 16:16)

We are now into the Church New Year (September 1) as we will soon celebrate the first major Feast Day of the liturgical cycle – the Nativity of the Theotokos - on September 8. And yesterday evening (September 4) we celebrated the remarkable Akathist Hymn "Glory to God For All Things." 
A new year, of course, means a “new beginning” or the renewal of our lives in Christ;  and the opportunity to examine both our deepest convictions and commitments.  In fact, I believe that there is a profound connection between our convictions and our commitments.  What we are convinced of, we will commit to.  
As baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians who confess our sins and receive the Eucharist, I will assume that our deepest and dearest conviction is equal to that of the Apostle Peter:  that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God.  This is what distinguishes us as a parish community – a shared conviction that unites us as the local Body of Christ. Here conviction is synonymous  with the content of our faith.  This is what we believe, a conviction about Christ expanded in the Nicene Creed that we confess at every Liturgy we attend, and beginning with the words, “I believe.”  
As our faith hopefully deepens through the years, we become further convinced that the convictions we hold are true.  Since these convictions are about God, then we are touching upon “ultimate reality.”  What this demands is seriousness and sobriety of both our minds and hearts:  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”  (HEB. 10:31)

Personally, I find it impossible to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and not to have that conviction as the most  important and significant aspect of one’s very existence.  I believe that this conviction transcends all others, and that it is the guiding force of our commitments.  Since, ultimately, this conviction chooses life over death, it is thus a matter of life and death.  This conviction transcends the difference between male or female; rich or poor; even Conservative or Liberal!  
The words of Christ make this clear.  How else can we interpret this “hard saying” of the Lord:   
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (MATT. 10:37)  
Otherwise, we may just be fooling ourselves about our deepest convictions.  With the best of intentions, such a delusion can result in a certain hypocrisy.  
However, if we look at this more positively, we can understand that  this is where conviction leads to commitment, or perhaps a renewal of our commitment if it has weakened.  Even if we continue to struggle with the battle between faith and doubt when assessing our conviction about Christ; or if we share the anguished cry of the anonymous father in the Gospel:  “I believe, help my unbelief!” (MK. 9:24); even then we realize that our convictions can remain abstract or sterile without a genuine commitment to embody them in our daily lives.  
If we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we must witness to this truth with all of our strength.  In other words, we commit to living as Christians tangibly, concretely, and as unhypocritically as possible.  Broadly understood, the words of Christ to the rich young man who was seeking the way to “eternal life” can serve as a sure guide to embodying our convictions about the Lord in a conscious commitment to following Him:

“If you would enter life, keep the commandments … You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (MATT. 16:17-19)

Even further, we can continually study and do our best to embody the moral and ethical teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the beatitudes.  Now there is an ennobling and worthy lifelong project that will probably never reach completion!

Be that as it may, I would like to focus more in the remainder of this meditation on our ecclesial lives which we live out on the parish level and which we take home with us during the week.  
If the Church new year is a wonderful opportunity to (re)commit ourselves to our lives in Christ, then we can always begin with the ABCs of the spiritual life:  prayer, almsgiving and fasting (MATT. 6:1-18).  At home, on a daily basis we must commit to praying with regularity.  We need to have our eyes and then our hearts open to those who need our assistance.  And we need to practice the discipline of fasting according to the Church calendar as part of our ascetical efforts of freeing ourselves from over-dependence/obsession with food and drink.  Reading the Scriptures with regularity as part of our daily lives can certainly be added to this.  This is all basic, but if we have forgotten it, then it can be restored through repentance and effort.

As a parish community, our most foundational commitment is to the Lord’s Day Liturgy.  The Eucharist on the Lord’s Day is the “alpha and omega” of our parish existence.  All parish life flows outward from the Eucharistic Liturgy and returns there for both sustenance and greater vision.  The sharing of our time, talent and treasure will, to a great extent, be determined by our joyful experience of God in and through the Liturgy.  
A “reluctant giver” will view the Liturgy as a religious obligation that needs to be fulfilled; but a “cheerful giver” is one who approaches the Liturgy as an inexhaustible gift from the Lord.  For it is there, at the Liturgy, that we are truly a koinonia – a communion – of brothers and sisters in Christ; for we commune together of the Body and Blood of Christ, uniting ourselves with Christ and with one another.  When we speak of commitment in communal terms, it is our continuing presence at the Liturgy – and as  Eucharistic beings – that should define us.  I believe that this is one of the many strengths of our parish.  A very high percentage of our “parish census” is at the Lord’s Day Liturgy on any given Sunday.  (Arriving on time may just be another matter that needs to be worked on!). I also encourage you to expand your liturgical commitment, and "make room" to be present for our other services throughout the year - from Feast Days to Vespers.

Yet, as our society becomes ever more “secular,” there are increasing temptations to view Sunday as any other day with various attractions and things to do.  Sunday has lost its privileged status in our contemporary world. “Rest” is a rather quaint concept today, suitable for the unengaged, the elderly, or for those who cannot quite keep up with the fast-paced rhythms of today’ world.  Thus, a wide range of events have now spilled over into Sunday, posing an ever-widening challenge for our loyalties.  
Among the clergy, at least, a major concern and topic of open discussion is the proliferation of children’s sporting events that are regularly scheduled now for Sunday morning.  Loyalty to the team is promoted in almost “evangelical” terms. This is one instance of the many pressures put upon the contemporary Christian family, and which demand careful thinking and hard decisions.  Yet, all decisions must return to the twin realities of conviction and commitment.

The Church New Year is a blessing that allows us the time for renewal, for reflection on our priorities, and for repentance if we have somehow lost sight of our “first love” – the conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; and if our commitment to Christ has somehow melted away into directions that do not necessarily lead to life.  Yet, “now is the acceptable time!”