Monday, February 25, 2019

The Other Son and Comfortable Christianity

Dear Parish Faithful,

We have entered the Week of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Thus, a time to reflect on repentance as we prepare to enter the annual "School of Repentance," and that, of course, is Great Lent beginning March 11 this year. Another mediation of mine has been featured on the OCA website this week. It concentrates on the prodigal son and his return to his father's house. If anyone would be interested, here is the link:

Yet, as I shared yesterday in the post-Liturgy discussion, I am beginning to believe that perhaps the main character in the parable is the "other son" of the father, who can also be identified as the "unforgiving brother." This in no way diminishes the prodigal son's dramatic "change of mind" and his return to the loving embrace of his father; but it simply further enhances the depth of this seemingly inexhaustibly rich parable. (And, of course, a book-length discourse could be written about the father of the parable). I came across this very insightful paragraph from a contemporary biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, on precisely that theme that I would like to further share with everyone:

In the original setting the parable serves ... to ward off the criticism the scribes and Pharisees mount against Jesus' celebration of God's acceptance. Doubtless, the early Church found in it, too, an analysis of Israel's problems with accepting the gospel of the crucified Messiah and the inclusion of Gentiles in the People of God. The applications are endless. 
One perhaps that we should not omit considering is that of finding in ourselves and our communities the rather different patterns of sinfulness shown by the two brothers: the overt sinning of the younger, the resentment and resistance of the older - and to ask which of the two patterns of the parable suggests to be the more difficult for God to deal with. 
But sinfulness is not in the end the main point. Fundamentally, like all the parables, the three stories in this chapter ask: "Do you really know God?" Or rather, "Are you comfortable with the God who acts with the foolishness of love displayed by the characters in these parables?"
From The Hospitality of God by Brendan Byrne (p. 132)
Perhaps the unforgiving brother poses the greatest challenge to us, in that it is this figure in the parable that we most resemble! The parables will never cease to challenge any form of "comfortable Christianity" that we embrace.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Self-Awareness and the Goal of Great Lent

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.” (LK. 15:13)

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (alternative titles could be “The Compassionate Father” or “The Unforgiving Brother”) we find the classic expression of a young person making the wrong decision and suffering the consequences of that decision.  Seeking that much-vaunted — but certainly over-rated — desire for “autonomy,” “self-fulfillment,” “independence” or similar assertions of the “self;” the so-called prodigal son only succeeds in squandering his portion of the inheritance and impoverishing himself in the dreary process. Alone, friendless and desperate, this young man is reduced to feeding the pigs in a “far country” and narrowing his former grandiose plans down to a unenviable desire for self-survival.  
Not every such journey into self-assertion necessarily ends in such a spectacular demise, but the parable as unforgettably delivered by Christ rings quite true to life.  Jesus is not moralizing, shaking his head, or clucking his tongue at the expense of this pathetic figure in his parable.  
Rather, the prodigal son is elevated to tragic dimensions because he is representative of any human being – of any age – who, through self-will, lack of vigilance or sheer carelessness can waste his/her God-given gifts along a path with “no exit.”  This aberrant  life-decision will then demand a further hard decision:  to make one’s way back to authentic life – and for Christ that means returning to our heavenly Father in repentance, humility and self-emptying – or falling into a further despair that ends in hopelessness.  The Gospel always presents the gift of hope, and that is why it is “Good News.”

In the parable, the prodigal son “came to himself” and made the decision to return to his father and throw himself upon his father’s mercy.  He did not know how his abandoned father would react.  Therefore, he took the risk of a possible further rejection that would have been devastating.  
However, he was “surprised by joy” and the loving embrace of his compassionate father who, in turn, rejoiced at the return of his lost son.  The other brother, of course, remained displeased, envious and angry with his father’s forgiving attitude.  The parable takes on a universal dimension when we realize that it describes our own relationship with God and the openness to a new life through genuine repentance.  
Others may not be convinced, but it is God who can discern out inner heart and the authenticity of our repentance when it wells up within us as we languish in a “far country” with a mind and heart that are far from God.  
There is no better description of the meaning of repentance that the one given by Archbishop Kallistos Ware in his now-classic The Orthodox Way:

“Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive.  It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity.  It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. “  (p. 113-114)

If we have no self-awareness of being lost in a “far country.”  If we are not hungry for “something” other than the “good life” as conceived by a world totally devoid of God.  If we fail to see the need to repent and offer our lives back to God in humility and repentance.  If we have no real passion for a life committed to Christ. If that is our current spiritual condition, then we certainly have no need for Great Lent.  
Great Lent has been called the “School of Repentance.”  As disciples of Christ (disciple means “student”), we look to our Teacher – Jesus Christ – to guide us and direct us toward the realm of light and life – the Kingdom of God.  We may have to break through a formidable accumulation of “bad habits” that we have managed to entangle ourselves in over the years, and this will demand courage and perseverance.  But our goal is a worthy one:  to hear our heavenly Father exclaim with joy what the father of the parable said when his wayward child returned:  “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found”  (LK. 15:32).

Nothing Like a Good Book, Part 1 - The Idol of Our Age

Dear Parish Faithful,

I would like to share with everyone some brief reviews of the last three books that I have recently read. These books are:

  • The Idol of Our Age - How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity  by Daniel J. Mahoney
  • Political Orthodoxies - The Unorthodoxies  of the Church Coerced by Fr. Cyril Hovorun; 
  • and, Fossils and Faith - The Bible, Creation & Evolution by Lester L. Grabbe. 

All three are quite different, yet each in its own way deals with very contemporary issues that are the source of some fierce debates, to understate the issue. The first book is concerned generally with political philosophy; the second with contemporary challenges that our own Orthodox Church is facing; and the third with the relationship between religion and science. Inevitably, all three address the issue of how theology can either impact or interact with contemporary issues, with the implied claim that without a theological perspective, the subjects raised in these books are missing the "big picture."

From within the Church we realize that a theological perspective on any issue - including social, political and cultural issues - provides depth and a wider scope. We are thus able to grasp these themes sub specie aeternitatis  (under the aspect of eternity).
I am not really providing a detailed critical book review, but more of a summary/synopsis that hopefully encapsulates the primary intention and content of the book under consideration. All books have flaws, but my intention is to simply share some of those themes that provided me with new and insightful perspectives, or which made we think in new ways about the given subject, thus making the effort of reading these books more than a little worthwhile.

The first book I would like to cover is The Idol of Our Age - How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity by Daniel J. Mahoney. According to the book jacket blurb, the author "holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. He is a specialist in French political philosophy, anti-totalitarian thought, and the intersection of religion and politics."

The author offers a trenchant critique of what he calls "the religion of humanity," a term he claims was initially coined by the 19th century positivist philosopher Auguste Comte. This humanitarian can mimic genuine Christianity and even seem to improve upon it, but Mahoney is determined to prove that to be misleading and misguided. The author's approach is quite interesting, because he engages with, and summarizes the thought of other Christian thinkers and how they almost prophetically addressed the issue of the perils of a humanism devoid of God, and thus of a transcendent basis.

The first thinker is someone I have never heard of, and he is Orestes Browning (1803-1876), a 19th century American who converted to Catholicism and who then tried to provide a meaningful political philosophy for America that was deeply informed by his newly-found faith. Mahoney then surveys the deep insights into these issues offered by two Orthodox thinkers: the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900) and the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 - 2008). Here I am on more familiar ground, and these two respective chapters did justice to the thought of these seminal Russian thinkers.

The chapter on Vladimir Solovyov really caught my attention, for Mahoney summarized and analyzed Solovyov's fascinating work A Short Story of the Antichrista work both prophetic and even phantasmagoric and one that I would highly recommend. A further chapter offers a respectful, but critical reading of some of Pope Francis' recent political statements. And there is also an appended chapter that reprints a very prescient essay written in 1944 by another thinker that I never heard of before, a Hungarian political philosopher by the name of Aurel Kolnai. 

Each thinker in his own way discerned that humanism without God is susceptible to degenerating into an inhuman form of totalitarianism, both from the "left" and from the "right." The twentieth century proved them all correct in their prognoses. Communism and Nazism are the two dreadful devolutions of "the religion of humanity" into a barbaric caricature of a political philosophy theoretically claiming to elevate and liberate humanity. (Although I do not recall any high-minded claims being made by the Nazis, whose thirst for naked power, based on blood and soil, was there from its inception). Such is totalitarianism. As Solzhenitsyn reminded us: Humanity has forgotten God - and the consequences can be horrific. Basically, then, though a secular humanism may appear benign on the surface - just one more choice other than a theistic humanism - the problem proves to be within humanity itself when unleashed from a divine source. As Mahoney writes:

"'Humanity', understood as the very best in human beings, becomes the Grand-Etre to be worshipped by limited and fallible men. Comte has forgotten that what is highest in man finds its ultimate source in what is higher than man. Without deference to the Beings, Forms, and Limits that inform and elevate the human will, man risks becoming a monster to himself, enslaved by his own self-deification." (p. 9)

In his concluding chapter, Mahoney writes the following:

"The totalitarian lie radicalized the subjectivism and relativism at the heart of liberal modernity. It did not so much re-enchant the world as empty it of all the resources of faith and reason. Comprehensive relativism, the denial of God and a natural order of things, and not some alleged moral absolutism is at the source of the worst tragedies of the twentieth century." (p. 124)

So, just to offer the slightest "taste" about - or by - some of the insights from these thinkers, I will include a typical passage from some of them or from the author himself.

In the very Introduction to the book, Mahoney addresses one of the central tenets of the religious of humanity's "creed" - free choice - and finds it wanting in moral and ethical seriousness. He writes: 

"The taking of an unborn life is merely a "choice," which is, one assumes, completely beyond good and evil. ... Free choice, autonomous choice, trumps any respect for the directness of human freedom toward natural ends and purposes. A kind of juvenile existentialism, marked more by farce than angst, has become the default position of our age."  (p. 2)
Orestes Browning, in claiming that the Church can only offer "moral authority" to an existing government - for he resisted any form of "clerocracy" or clerical government - stated a very positive form of that idea in the following manner:

"The only influence on the political or governmental actions of the people which we seek from Catholicity, is that which it exerts on the minds, hearts, and the conscience - an influence it exerts by enlightening the mind to see the true end of man, the relative value of all worldly pursuits, by moderating passions, by weaning the affections from the world, inflaming the heart with true charity, and by making each act in all things seriously, honestly, conscientiously." (p. 30)

Summarizing the thought of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, Mahoney writes:

"True Christianity affirms the truth of pagan nature, the Jewish Covenant, and political reason and political civilization. All are allies in the common struggle against ideology or the demonic falsification of the good." (p. 64)
"Humanitarianism subverts human dignity when it identifies our highest aspirations with a peace and prosperity, a godless philanthropy, shorn of any concern for that which transcends humanity and which ultimately grounds our dignity as spiritual beings." (p. 65)

An underlying thesis in Mahoney's critique of the "religion of humanity" is its blindness toward the power of evil. He explores this theme throughout the book, and very much so in his chapter on Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He informs us that Solzhenitsyn, in resisting what he regarded as Tolstoy's na├»ve pacifism, argued that evil may at times have to be resisted by war. Thus, one of the characters in his sprawling novel, August 1914, the priest Fr. Severyan, argued that there are five evils even worst than war:

"An unjust trial, for instance, that scalds the outraged heart, is viler. Or murder for gain, when the solitary murderer fully understands the implications of what he means to do and all that the victim will suffer at the moment of the crime. Or the ordeal at the hands of a torturer. When you can neither cry out nor fight back nor attempt to defend yourself. Or treachery on the part of someone you trusted. Or mistreatment of widows or orphans. All these things are spiritually dirtier and more terrible than war."

Whatever one's attitude to war - sometimes or never justified - this is a moving passage indeed on the power of evil and the horrible consequences that occur when unleashed and perhaps, we can add, when not resisted.

This is a very rich book, but perhaps that might be sufficient to at least outline some of the main directions of The Idol of Our Age. Daniel Mahoney has thought this through with a refreshing thoroughness in an age in which we encounter "ideas" in various social media forums or on internet sites in such truncated forms as to render them meaningless; or with a desire no greater than to echo the surrounding popular culture which seems impatient with careful and responsible thinking.

As I said above, all books have their flaws, as this book surely has, and one can find areas of disagreement, with some lingering questions or concerns unanswered, but I found this to be an impressive approach to a very timely and essential issue: Will theism in its Christian expression retain its capacity to shape our moral, ethical and spiritual landscape; or will it be subverted by a "religion of humanity" and the moral, ethical and spiritual uncertainties of where that would lead us?

Daniel Mahoney is an unapologetic Christian thinker and he presents a cogent case - supported by other deep Christian thinkers and writers - for our need to remain vigilant about maintaining a Christian identity and corresponding worldview that places us firmly and humbly under the sovereignty and providence of God.

Next Review: Political Orthodoxies by Fr. Cyril Hovorun

Monday, February 18, 2019

More Reflections on the Publican and the Pharisee

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ.

Reproaching the Pharisee ~ St Cyril of Alexandria

Here is some more on the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, from “our Father among the saints,” St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444). St. Cyril, with great rhetorical skill, reproaches the Pharisee for praising himself while pointing out the infirmities of the conscience-stricken publican:

What profit is there in fasting twice in the week if it serves only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity and makes one proud, haughty and selfish? You tithe your possessions and boast about it.

In another way, you provoke God’s anger by condemning and accusing other people of this. You are puffed up, although not crowned by the divine decree for righteousness. On the contrary, you heap praise on yourself. He says, “I am not as the rest of humankind.” Moderate yourself, O Pharisee. Put a door and lock on your tongue. (PS. 141:3)

You speak to God who knows all things. Wait for the decree of the judge. No one who is skilled in wrestling ever crowns himself. No one also receives the crown from himself but waits for the summons of the referee….

Lower your pride because arrogance is accursed and hated by God. It is foreign to the mind that fears God. Christ even said, “Do not judge and you shall not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” (LK. 6:37)

One of his disciples also said, “There is one lawgiver and judge. Why then do you judge your neighbor?” (JM. 4:12) No one who is in good health ridicules one who is sick or being laid up and bedridden. He is rather afraid, for perhaps he may become the victim of similar sufferings. A person in battle, because another has fallen, does not praise himself for having escaped from misfortune. The weakness of others is not a suitable subject for praise for those who are in health.

Commentary on Luke, Homily 120.

"Who Do I Resemble"

In addition, here is a link to an older meditation I wrote on the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, with the title "Who Do I Resemble?" — meaning the publican or the pharisee. In answering this question, perhaps some deeply honest self-examination may have us squirming in our seats a bit!

A Reversal of Fortune

From a contemporary biblical scholars, we read the following on how the parable turns upside down some of our own perceptions of relationships with God and neighbor:

The parable perfectly illustrates Luke's theme of reversal (v. 14b). God will one day move to align the human situation with the nature of God as God truly is - not as persons like the Pharisee perceives God to be. That reversal will take place in the full realization of the kingdom (6:20-26 [the Beatitudes and Woes]). The task of Jesus is to summon human beings too align themselves with that new perspective so that when the reversal comes they will be in the right position to benefit from it. The parable, then, offers more than a simple instruction of prayer. It belongs to the preaching of the kingdom.

It could also offer comfort to many people today who find themselves or their loved ones (for example, their children) caught in situations judged objectively sinful on more traditional thinking - whether in the area of sexuality, or marital involvement or professional occupation. In a complex world, loyalties often run in several directions, excluding simple application of rules and norms to the patterns of individual lives. The parable suggests that God may be able to cope with "disorder" in terms of objective morality or church discipline far better than those who guard the tradition sometimes imagine.

Prayer, as the Pharisee failed to see, consists not in our telling God how things are but in allowing God to communicate to us the divine vision of life and reality. Two people came up to God's house to pray. Only one really found the hospitality that was there. As so often in Luke's Gospel we are left with the challenge: which one are you going to be?

From The Hospitality of God - A Reading of Luke's Gospel by Brendan Byrne, p. 144-145

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Publican and the Pharisee, and the Struggle for Humility

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee confronts us with a stark contrast between religious pride and self-righteousness, on the one hand; and heartfelt humility and repentance on the other hand.
The Pharisee, of course, is the one who manifests the pride, and it is the publican who manifests the humility. The Lord closes this short parable by declaring the Pharisee “condemned” and the publican “justified.” This is a genuine “reversal of fortune” upending our preconceived notions of piety and righteousness, as forcefully as this must have struck those who initially heard the parable as delivered by the Lord. Yet, that reversal of fortune should not obscure other notable factors that are also working within this parable.

For Christ is not condemning the actions of the Pharisee. The Lord is not telling us through this parable that the Pharisee – or anyone else, and that includes us – is wasting both time and energy by going up to the temple to pray, by fasting and by tithing. These are not being condemned as empty practices consigning all such practitioners to the barren realm of hypocrisy and religious formalism. 
We, as contemporary Christians, are encouraged to enter the church with regularity and offer our prayer to God; to practice the self-restraint and discipline of fasting; and to share our financial resources with the generosity implied by the biblical tithe. We could add other practices to that. In fact, we would do well to imitate the outward actions of the Pharisee in practicing our Faith! 

Yet, on a deeper and far more significant level, the Pharisee got it all wrong. He was consumed by a self-satisfied and self-righteous interior attitude that left no room for God to transform him by divine grace. The Pharisee’s prayer was seemingly directed to God, but in reality it was an exercise in self-congratulations (for not being like other sinful men). Here was a man who did not suffer over low self-esteem! The Pharisee was self-centered, but not God-centered. Something went wrong, and the self replaced God as the center of his energy and passion. The exterior forms of piety that he practiced were disconnected from the interior realm of the heart, where God is meant to dwell and, again, transform the human person from within, so that each person becomes less self-centered and more God-centered with time and patience.

Based on our knowledge of the role of the publican in first century Israel, we can be assured that Christ was not “justifying” the particular “life-style” that made the publicans such notorious and despised figures of that world. In fact, they were always included with “harlots” when reference was being made to the marginalized, if not ostracized, members of first-century Judaism. Rather, the publican was declared “justified” for the very fact that he recognized and was profoundly struck by just how sinful he had become in cheating and defrauding his neighbor as a hated tax-collector working for the occupying Roman authority. He had the experience of true contrition of heart; he realized that he stood self-condemned before the Lord; yet he did not despair but cried out plaintively: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Human persons are not saved as sinners, but as sinners who in humility repent before God and then offer the fruits of repentance.

The hymnography for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee exhorts us to flee from pride and to embrace humility. We live in a culture obsessed with the self and thus not only susceptible, but openly promoting, both pride and vainglory. “In your face” is widely seen as a “heroic” gesture of self-defiance and legitimate self-promotion. Humility is treated as weakness and ineffectual for “getting ahead” or for fulfilling one’s desires. We hear the voice of the Lord and we hear the voice of the world. It is our choice as to which voice we will listen to. And that choice will be determined to a great extent by just what the desires that move us to action are actually for. “For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”

Friday, February 8, 2019

A Zacchaeus Moment

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (LK. 19:10)

At Sunday's eucharistic Liturgy, we will hear the story of the towering figure of Zacchaeus the publican (LK. 19:1-10). 

This is one of the many wonderful paradoxes of the spiritual life that characterize the Holy Scriptures. The paradox is found in the fact that the "towering" figure of Zacchaeus was actually "small of stature." (v. 3) And if indeed he had defrauded his neighbors as he alluded to (v. 8), then he was "small" in even more essential matters. 

Through repentance, conversion, and right action Zacchaeus grew in stature right before the eyes of those who with faith could "see" this transformation. Zacchaeus personifies the type of change that is possible through hearing the Good News and embracing it in thought, word and deed. 

This passage, unique to the Gospel According to St. Luke, is thus perfectly placed as the first announcement of the approach of Great Lent. For in the Orthodox Church, this is always the prescribed Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday before the start of Great Lent. The four pre-lenten Gospel readings to follow will then guide us to Monday, March 11, the first day of the lenten journey that will lead us to Holy Week and then Pascha on April 28. (The Western Easter this year will fall on March 21).

Returning to the Gospel passage, we find the story of Zacchaeus evenly divided into two parts - an outdoor scene (v. 1-5) and an indoor scene (v. 6-10). Outdoors, and in full view of the gathered inhabitants of ancient Jericho, the despised "chief tax collector," the rich Zacchaeus, risks the humiliation of being laughed at because he makes the socially unconventional choice of climbing up into a "sycamore tree" in order "see who Jesus was." 

What may have been acceptable behavior among children, would only have drawn the surprised and scornful stares of Zacchaeus' over-taxed neighbors. I always remember that in a meditation on Zacchaeus, the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote that the equivalent act today would be that of a renowned corporate executive scrambling up a light pole in a downtown area in order to see someone passing by. (For those with a "boss" that you may not be too fond of, perhaps there may be minor consolation in fantasizing such a scenario and its reaction in your own mind). 

There then occurs that life-changing encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus. For Jesus looks up at the strange figure of this man "small of stature" eagerly looking down upon Him, and says to him in response: "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." (v. 5)

The transition to the indoor setting is now made when Zacchaeus "made haste and came down, and received him joyfully." (v. 6) Yet one can sense the oriental custom of a crowd hovering at the entrance or even coming and going with a certain freedom. The raised eyebrows and clucking tongues of an undescribed "they" who look on and articulate their stern disapproval - "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner" (v. 7) - is a reaction encountered elsewhere in the Gospels when Jesus freely chose to sit at table with sinners and tax collectors (cf. MK. 3:15-17). 

This disapprobation on the part of the scribes and Pharisees then evoked his memorable (and ironic?) saying: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (MK. 3:17) 

The Messiah is not bound by religiously sanctioned social convention that divides people into the convenient categories of the "righteous" and "sinners," "saved" and "lost," the "pure" and "impure." Or rather, by making clear that He has come to bring salvation to everyone, beginning with the marginalized and distressed members of His own society, Jesus reveals the inclusive love of God that tears down all such former barriers. Zacchaeus is a striking and personalized example of this inclusive love of God for "the lost."

Never a distributor of "cheap grace" though, Jesus demands repentance and conversion. And this comes dramatically from Zacchaeus when he publicly declares: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." (v. 8) In this, Zacchaeus goes beyond what the Law required for such an act of restitution. (EX. 21:37; NM. 5:5-7) 

The Lord then signifies or "seals" the truth of this conversion when He solemnly pronounces the joyful declaration: "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (v. 9-10) 

It is interesting to note that the blessing of Jesus is given to the entire household. The household of Zacchaeus, in turn, becomes a microcosm of the entire design of salvation: The Son of Man came to seek and save the entire cosmos groaning inwardly and subject to futility as it awaits redemption (cf. ROM. 8:19-23) In this, we and our households resemble that of Zacchaeus, regardless of how "righteous" we may consider ourselves (to be dealt with next Sunday in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee!).

We can never afford to allow our supposed familiarity with a Gospel passage to blunt its sharp edge. It is that sharp edge that cuts through our many defensive layers of evasions and self-deception. Otherwise, the passage "softens" into a didactic story about a bad man changing his life and becoming "nice." 

However, I believe that no matter how well we know the story about Zacchaeus, the only familiarity that we could claim with him is the familiarity of having an equally profound "Zacchaeus moment" in our own lives. 

Such a "moment" would initially be characterized by an equal desire to "see Jesus" - above all else. Than we would need to be willing to overcome our own "smallness of stature" by perhaps first overcoming the tyranny of social convention and respectability before we get to our actual sinfulness. This may mean going beyond our own conventional patterns of church going and the "safety" of keeping the demanding call of Christ at a safe distance so that it cannot overly impinge upon our lives. 

There may yet be a sycamore tree that we need to climb.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Bored By Sin

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord. And we just completed a wonderful Liturgy with many worshipers present.

However, February 2 is also Groundhog Day. Not a "feast day" on my calendar, I can assure you. Yet, Groundhog Day brings to my mind a film by the very same title, i.e. "Groundhog Day."

I know that many people have seen this film, but I wonder how many realize just how "theological" of a film it actually is, though under the cover of being a romantic comedy. That theological dimension is what struck me probably after more than one viewing.

Some time ago, I wrote a film review of "Groundhog Day" and titled the review "Bored By Sin," which I thought was one of the major themes of the film. Many of you have probably read this review in the past; and it is one of the meditations included in my new book. Yet, for those who have not read it before; or for those who may want to revisit it, I have included it here below. If you have actually seen "Groundhog Day" and would like to share your own comments or understanding of the film, please feel free to do so in the comments panel below. I can assure you that I would be glad to hear back from you.

Fr. Steven
+ + +

'Bored By Sin'

Archpriest Steven C. Kostoff

Perhaps some of you recall the film "Groundhog Day" that goes back to 1991. If not quite a "cult classic" (it was too mainstream for that), it was immensely popular and was subject to multiple viewings and an endless flow of commentary and interpretation. The lead role seemed to be a perfect fit for precisely Bill Murray's type of deadpan and highly ironic sense of humor.

Having enjoyed the film myself, and having seen it a few times, I suggested "Groundhog Day" for our latest Feature Film Festival for the parish, based on some of the themes that I will expand on below. When we watched the film together I believe that it was thoroughly enjoyed by one and all. There was certainly a great deal of laughter!

Yet, the purpose of our watching films together, beyond the social significance of "getting together" as a group, is to find those films that are morally and ethically probing, in addition to their "entertainment value." Movies and movie-going dominates our popular culture, so trying to deepen that experience a bit strikes me as a sound idea. In other words, we try and choose films that will make everyone think. That is the purpose of our post-film discussions.

So why choose a film such as "Groundhog Day," a film described as "zany" and "wacky?" 

Now, there is no doubt that "Groundhog Day" plays as a very effective and highly entertaining romantic comedy. However, this is deceptive for there are layers of meaning underneath that rather well-worn and rather predictable genre. 

How many people are aware of the fact that at least for a few years after its release, "Groundhog Day" was subject to a great deal of philosophical and even theological commentary and interpretation? I recall reading many insightful reviews of this film in some very "high brow" journals. What makes all of that even more intriguing is that the director, Harold Ramis, claims that all of that went beyond his intention in making the film. The creative process can be mysterious.

"Groundhog Day" is essentially a romantic comedy with a real twist. It charts the life of a rather cynical and ambitious Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Connors, played perfectly by Bill Murray. His self-absorption and unapologetic egoism are of gargantuan proportions. His charm is manipulative and self-serving. As the center of the universe, apparently everyone and everything around him is meant to satisfy his needs and desires. As he admits later in the film, he is a "real jerk." Phil the weatherman is sent to Punxsutawney, PA, in order to cover the groundhog day festivities there. In his mind, it promises to be a boring excursion into small town existence. At one point, he contemptuously calls the local population "hicks." He is accompanied by his TV station's producer, Rita, and cameraman Larry. Obviously, Phil does not want to be there, and can't leave soon enough once his responsibilities are fulfilled. However, a blizzard that he failed to predict, sends him back to the small town for at least one more night. When confronted with the blizzard, he angrily shouts back to the highway patrolman: "I make the weather!" But even he is forced to succumb to the power of nature and back to town he goes.

Yet, Phil wakes up the "next day" only to discover that it is February 2 and groundhog day all over again - exactly, down to every detail. He is now trapped in an inexplicable "time warp" that forces him to relive the same day over and over again, apparently without end - into eternity itself. It is the myth of the "eternal return" but on a daily basis in small town Punxsutawney! It is a living nightmare. The film wisely makes not even the slightest attempt at explaining this new reality. How could it? It simply is, and Phil is helplessly caught in it alone, for the same people that he meets are unaware of his predicament. They remain as static and unchanging as the surrounding environment. 

At first bewildered and frightened, Phil begins to make "adjustments" to his new situation. His "selfish gene" kicks into action. He soon realizes that his newly-achieved "immortality" means that his actions on one day have no consequences for there no longer exists a "tomorrow." There is no one or nothing to answer to. As it plays out in the film, it is something of a lighthearted version of Dostoevsky's aphorism, "if there is no God, then everything is permissible." Phil can now break any conceivable law - civic, social, moral, divine - with total impunity. He can now unleash his hidden passions with no restraint or "anticipatory anxiety." He can "eat, drink, and be merry" without the slightest cost to his well-being - or so it seems to him. The film exploits all of this to wonderful comic effect, and it is hard to dislike Phil in the process, "jerk" that he is. But perhaps our sympathy with Phil is grounded in the "fact" that he is living out some of our own uninspired fantasies. As in: what would you do if you won a billion dollar lottery? Or, what would you do or be like if there were no consequences to your actions?

One of the great insights of our spiritual tradition is that sin - beyond its moral, ethical and spiritually corrupting effect - is ultimately boring. Besides immediate satisfaction it remains a distortion of true life, and instead of yielding an enhanced sense of life - or "living life" as Dostoevsky would call it - sin devolves into an empty caricature of life. It is the negation of life. That is why spiritual death precedes biological death. Repetition is not a relief, but an increase of this intolerable boredom. The passions are insatiable. Sin is thus an existential vacuum that is suffocating in its long-term effects. Unconsciously, or perhaps intuitively, Phil begins to realize this after endless bouts of "wine, women and song." Daily dissipation has worn him out. He embodies the biblical "vanity of vanities." His moral universe is unaware of a "higher reality," so he looks elsewhere for relief.

Although consistently maintaining its comic touch, the film now steers us in a darker direction. Attaining a sort of pseudo-omniscience by being able to predict the daily events around him, and realizing that he cannot die, Phil begins to fancy himself a "god." Not "the God" as he admits, but a "god" nevertheless. There is nothing new left to experience so he turns to suicide. Life is boring, so he will now try death! Phil now explores the many "creative" ways in which a person can commit suicide - from driving trucks over steep cliffs, swan-diving off of tall buildings, or electrocuting himself in the bathtub. This can be interpreted as a grisly form of finding relief to the nightmare quality of having to live out the same day in isolation from a non-comprehending humanity; or the thoroughly desperate attempt to discover some more "kicks" in his morally meandering and meaningless existence.

But what actually "kicks in" at this point of the film is the slow transformation of Phil after he has bottomed-out in the manner described above. The film has a "moral," and I believe that it is effectively realized in a natural and unforced manner that is not merely sentimental or banal keeping in mind the genre and intent of this film. And again, with a lighthearted touch that probably increases its effectiveness. Remembering that this is a romantic comedy, the question becomes: will the guy - or how will the guy - get the girl in the end? Phil has resorted to endless subterfuge in order to seduce Rita the producer. Try as he might, this is the one thing he could not succeed at, regardless of his great advantage of knowing her "inside out" after living out an endless amount of days with her over and over, each one ending with a well-deserved slap to the face as Phil's real intentions become obvious. Rita is quite attractive, but more importantly she is a genuinely "good person" with a pure heart and honest intentions. Within his juvenile universe of a warped moral sensitivity Phil does not understand this.

Yet, something happens within Phil and he begins to radically change by no longer living for himself alone. He somehow breaks through his narcissistic and solipsistic one-person universe. (There is a key scene involving a death in which he realizes that he is not actually a "god"). He discovers the "other," and this discovery is transformative. He beings to live altruistically. In fact, the film can be seen on one level as the transformation of Phil Connors from a "jerk' into a genuine human being. And this will prove to be the way into the heart of Rita. Genuine virtue, as the great saints both taught and realized in their lives, is never boring as long as it does not lapse into formalism and/or moralism. It bears fruit a hundredfold when practiced with patience and the love of the "other" primarily in mind. It is the means of ascending up the ladder of divine ascent, as St. Klimakos demonstrated. Virtue is endlessly creative, since it extends and expands our humanity beyond the limits of the self. As Phil will discover, it is also the means of breaking through the meaningless "eternal return" that has taken him down into the inferno and back. But perhaps that is something that you may want to see for yourself.

"Groundhog Day" remains consistent from start to finish. The ending is satisfying and not simply anti-climatic. The screenplay is clever, sharp and humorous, and regardless of its intentions, or lack thereof, raises many genuinely "profound" issues that can be explored and expanded upon. I may have given away too much in my commentary, but I would still recommend it if you haven't seen it before. It is highly entertaining. When we think of such topics as sin, repentance and virtue, the film lends itself to a "Christian interpretation" that is not unduly forced, but rather flows naturally and instinctively from the predicament as conceived and presented. Such discoveries can be rewarding. All in all, a worthwhile film from a variety of perspectives.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Super Sundays and the Battle of the Calendars

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

What I call our nation's "Secular Pascha" is scheduled for this Sunday, February 3.  And that would be Super Bowl LIII.

I find it amusing - and rather pretentious -  that Roman numerals are used to number the Super Bowl games from year-to-year. All that is missing after LIII is A.D. There is the allusion to classical antiquity, as if an historical event of lasting significance, worthy of being etched in stone, is about to unfold before our rapturous eyes.  It is, after all, only a game(!) in what has been famously called the "toy department of life," i.e. the world of North American professional sports. 
Not only is it the "Super Bowl," but it is played on "Super Sunday." Hence, my claim that this serves as something of a "secular pascha" that energizes a large part of our nation. The interminable and ubiquitous pre-game "hype," the prowess of the military on display at the game, the advertising industry at its most nakedly commercial, and a half-time show that always holds out the possibility of forbidden pleasures, or at least of some level of acceptable public titillation, all contribute to transform this Sunday into the prime secular event of the year.

"There is nothing new under the sun," but some (moral) progress has been made over the centuries, however.  Even though we still find our major cities as the homes of large stadiums/coliseums that dominate the landscape as a source of civic pride, packed to the brim with enthusiastic crowds intensely loyal to their respective teams; these "games" are no longer gladiatorial combats that culminate in blood and gore (as in the  days of the Roman Empire, let us say).  
Though engaged in what remains a relatively violent game (the concussion and permanent brain damage issues will plague the NFL for years to come), our contemporary "gladiators" are committed to at least a formal display of sportsmanship. And a fairly intricate set of rules that are meant to contain the mayhem on the field thus place concentration on the skill levels needed to dazzle and entertain the cheering crowds (who pay a "pretty penny" for its tickets).  So, indeed, progress has been made - at least in North America - because to this day, I still would not want to be a referee in a soccer game in certain other countries of the world!

NFL Degenerative Brain Disorder: This slide from UCLA shows the build-up of tau protein (in red) in two former NFL players' brains.

Not at all trying to spoil anyone's "party" on Sunday, but simply placing Super Bowl Sunday within a wider context while trying to offer a bit of well-meaning critical commentary that may result in a needed deflation of the game's pretensions to historical significance.  A little perspective may prove to be useful.

While doing so, I would also like to point out the fact that this Sunday, February 3, is the Afterfeast of one of the great Feast Days of the Church's liturgical year: The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple.  On Saturday, the Feast will be celebrated with the Divine Liturgy, preceded by Great Vespers on Friday evening. 
This "event" will pass unnoticed within our secular society and, I would imagine, only generate faint ripples of enthusiasm within the Church.  My pastoral concern is not with our secular society's obsessions, but with our own "priorities."  I would like to hope that there exists some familiarity with the liturgical calendar that has hopefully made many of you aware of this coming Feast.  
This is really a fine example of the "battle of the calendars." I always wonder at what point in the day people sit down in front of their TV sets before the actual Super Bowl game begins.  One hour?  Two hours?  That, I believe, is called "pre-game."  I suppose that it is meant to promote excitement and anticipation as well as provide "analysis" leading up to "kick-off."  
Speaking of "kick-off," I would assume that most fans make every effort to not miss it.  Do we, as Orthodox Christians, make the same effort to be present for the beginning of the Divine Liturgy? How do we account for such a disparity of enthusiasm? Are we facing a crisis of misplaced passion, let alone priorities? As I like to say: Once we celebrate the Liturgy on Sunday morning, all else that day is "downhill."

We gather in church on the "eve" of the Feast or of any Lord's Day - this is called Great Vespers  - as a kind of "initial entry" into the feast itself.  We begin to contemplate the extraordinary events that the Feast actualizes for us in an atmosphere of prayer and praise.  We will then "depart in peace" with the "oil of gladness" glistening on  our foreheads, and bread crumbs in our hands, as we will have been anointed in honor of the Feast as well as having received a piece of blessed bread. The Hours on Sunday morning that precede the Liturgy provide a modest entry point also.  Despite an empty church, we continue to chant these Hours with regularity.

Our own Orthodox "Super Sunday" - the Feast Day of Pascha - will be celebrated on April 28  this year.  Our great Feast Days cluster around the "Feast of Feasts" like  stars will seemingly cluster around the sun.  One of those will be celebrated on both Saturday and Sunday of this weekend: The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple.  May it gladden our hearts, for as Christ said:  "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."