Thursday, June 27, 2019

Pentecostal Renewal or the Summertime Blues?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Last Sunday was the First Sunday After Pentecost.  All of the subsequent Sundays of the liturgical year until the pre-lenten Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee sometime next year will be so numbered.  Thus, this coming Sunday will be the Second Sunday After Pentecost. This is not intended to help us count better. 

The purpose is to keep before our spiritual sight the overwhelming significance of Pentecost in the divine economy. 

The New Testament era of the Church began its existence on the Day of Pentecost with the Spirit’s descent as a mighty rushing wind that took on the form of fiery tongues alighting upon the heads of the future apostles (ACTS 2:1-13).  The Church has always existed, but the Church as a remnant of Israel that would flourish and grow with the addition of the Gentiles began its final phase of existence with the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, Who, seated at the right hand of the Father, would send the Holy Spirit into the world and upon “all flesh” on the Day of Pentecost.  As St. Epiphanius of Cyprus wrote in the fourth century:  
“The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ.” 

The simple calendar rubric of numbering the Sundays after Pentecost is one way of reminding us of this essential truth of the Christian Faith.  The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and in and through the sacramental life of the Church we experience something like a permanent pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  It is this outpouring of the Spirit "on all flesh" that offers the possibility and the promise of human holiness.  The fact that so many men, women and children throughout the centuries of the Church's existence received this gift with joy and gladness is revealed to us in the lives of the saints.  It is these "holy persons" that we commemorated last Sunday on the Sunday of All Saints.

However, as we embark upon the Sundays of Pentecost we immediately encounter a prevailing tension between the "rhythm" of the Church and the "rhythm" of our personal lives.  We begin these Pentecostal Sundays just when summer is also beginning - and our summer schedules often minimize our participation in the Church. 

So, as we receive the Spirit of renewal and re-commitment to the Church as the source of authentic life; as we pray to the Heavenly King and Spirit of Truth to "come and abide in us;" we more-or-less settle into our church summer schedules that have something of a lazy-hazy approach to the Church.  There seems to exist an Orthodox version of "the summertime blues!" 

This can especially afflict Orthodox parents who equate "summer vacation" from school and summer vacation from church school.  The notion of  "we're off until the Fall!" can translate into sporadic attendance at the Lord's Day Liturgy, let alone any other services or events in the church.  Fortunately for us, God's providential care for us is not seasonal.

Thus, the tension between Pentecostal renewal and the beginning of summer.  If anyone gets the urge to just stay home on Sunday for leisure purposes or for no particular reason at all, my pastoral response is:  that is a temptation that must be resisted.

Also, this weekend we will commemorate the two great apostles, Peter and Paul, with Great Vespers on Friday evening and the Divine Liturgy on Saturday morning. And this after a week of observing the Apostles Fast. There are all kinds of activities that attract us on a Friday evening - from festivals to "chilling out." This leaves us with a choice, of course. 
I am a realist about what to expect for liturgical services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. But I am also open to surprises. The Apostles Peter & Paul labored so that we could hear and receive the gift of salvation. We honor their labors and their martyric deaths when we celebrate their memories. And we also commit ourselves to their vision of life in the Church when we do so.

The Lord's Day cycle for the Second Sunday of Pentecost - when we commemorate the Saints of North America - begins with Great Vespers on Saturday at 6:00 p.m. and culminates with the Hours and Liturgy on Sunday morning at 9:10 and 9:30 a.m. respectively. 

Pentecostal renewal or the summertime blues?

Monday, June 24, 2019

All Saints - Common Qualities

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The liturgical book that we began with the Matins of Pascha is called The Pentecostarion. This theologically-rich book contains the hymnography for all the days of Pascha, and the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. 
But it does not end with the Leavetaking of Pentecost. 
We draw from The Pentecostarion one last time on the Sunday of All Saints, our celebration yesterday. This commemoration is all-inclusive, embracing all of the men, women and children - known and unknown - throughout the ages that have been well-pleasing to God in honestly trying to fulfill the will of God in all things. 
If a "saint" is a holy person, then that holiness is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not a humanly-generated holiness; as it is not a matter of the "indomitable human spirit" struggling to overcome any and all adversities. A saint is the one that makes a conscious effort to cooperate with God (synergy), and is fully aware of his/her dependence on the grace and deifying energies of the "Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth." 
Thus, the Feast of All Saints is the perfectly-placed commemoration to follow the entire paschal-pentecostal season.

If there is a "road to perdition" then there is certainly a "road to holiness." And there is a seemingly endless number of vocations that a particular person will be able to follow on that road - straight and narrow as it may be. 
In the Liturgy we commemorate "those who have fallen asleep in faith: ancestors, fathers, mothers, patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith." What are some of the consistent characteristics of the multitude of saints who bless the Church with their intercessory presence? Perhaps we can bring to mind a few of those qualities that draw forth our admiration as well as our desire for emulation:

+ Following the words of the Lord, the saints love no one more than they love Christ - father, mother, son, daughter, etc. They place nothing or no one above the "one thing needful" - Christ and the fulfillment of the Gospel precepts. The primary goal of the saints is to enter the Kingdom of God.

+ The saints acknowledge that they are sinners and spend their lives in an ever-deepening experience of repentance. They will thus never justify or rationalize their sins or shortcomings. But they will never despair of the boundless forgiveness and love of God. The saints realize that they are "nothing" without God.

+ The saints are not concerned with worldly popularity, praise and recognition. They feel no need for "ego gratification." They have no need to favorably compare themselves with their neighbors. They do not feel envy or jealousy when their neighbors prosper. They flee from pride as from the plague.

+ The saints suffer in spirit over the suffering of others in the world. They mourn in spirit when they contemplate the sinfulness of the world. They are deeply compassionate toward all creatures. The heart of the saint expands in order to embrace the entire creation with love.

+ The saints leave all judgment in the hands of God.

+ The saints are ever-prepared to forgive others when they are offended or even persecuted. And they will suffer if they even inadvertently offend another. They do not hold grudges or long-standing anger towards others. Reconciliation is always their goal. They can actually "turn the other cheek." The saints will even love their "enemies."

+ The saints struggle to overcome their fleshly and spiritual temptations. They do this through the consistent practice of prayer, almsgiving and fasting. They also do this by guarding over their "thoughts," driving away the ones that strengthen temptation and thus the proclivity to sin. Their goal is to overcome the "passions."

+ The saints know the Scriptures "forwards and backwards." They regularly immerse themselves in the living Word of God so as to put its teachings into practice.

+ The saints will confess their sins with regularity. They will receive the Eucharist "in the fear of God, and with faith."

+ The saints will defend the Faith when it is under attack, but never harm another person in the process.

No one, beginning with the Lord, ever said it would be easy! In fact, the Lord taught us yesterday in the Gospel: "And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (MATT. 10:38).

Monday, June 17, 2019

Acquiring the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism." (St. Kallistos and St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos)

Icon of St Seraphim of Sarov's Conversation with N. Motovilov, during which he is transfigured by the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit.

Although the Feast of Pentecost reveals the trinitarian nature of God, it is on this "last and great day of Pentecost" that we concentrate on the Holy Spirit. This is clear from the prescribed readings for the Sunday of Pentecost: ACTS 2:1-11 describing the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; and JN. 7:37-52. 8:12, the Gospel passage which speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit by the glorified Christ. 

As Orthodox Christians we do not reduce the Holy Spirit to a kind of indefinite divine power or energy. Rather, we clearly proclaim that the Holy Spirit is God, the "Third Person" of the "holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity."
We further believe that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (JN. 15:26) and "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified" (Nicene Creed). As one of the many beautiful hymns of the Vespers of Pentecost expresses this truth:

The Holy Spirit was, is, and ever shall be
Without beginning, without end,
Forever united and numbered with the Father and the Son ...

The Holy Spirit, present within the dispensation of the Old Testament and more openly within the earthly ministry of Christ, descends into the world in a unique, but decisive and final way on the Great Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Savior's resurrection. The coming of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the New Testament Church and the Holy Spirit abides in the Church as the life-giving Power of renewal, rebirth and regeneration. The Church would grow old and die (as do empires, nations, cultures and secular institutions) because of our many human and historical sins, if not for this presence of the Holy Spirit, making the Church ever-young and cleansing us all "from every impurity" as the personal Source of sanctification. We come to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it a bit more fully: 

"One does not think of the Father without the Son and one does not conceive of the Son without the Holy Spirit. For it is impossible to attain to the Father except by being raised by the Son, and it is impossible to call Jesus Lord save in the Holy Spirit."
All authentic life in the Church is life lived in the Holy Trinity, and on the Day of Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit is the final revelation of precisely this greatest of mysteries - that the one God is "tri-hypostastic" (meaning "tri-personal"), being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Here is a typical example from the Church Fathers of expressing the great paradox of the One God in Three Persons:

"The single divinity of the Trinity is undivided and the three Persons of the one divinity are unconfused. We confess Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, divided yet without division and united yet with distinctions." (St. Thalassios the Libyan)
The Sunday of Pentecost is, then, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Pentecost Monday being the day of the Holy Spirit. Of the divine attributes of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great enumerates the following: 

"From this Source comes foreknowledge of the future, the understanding of mysteries, the apprehension of things hidden, the partaking of spiritual gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the choir of angels, unending joy, the power to abide in God, to become like God, and, highest of all ends to which we can aspire, to become divine."
This can strike us as abstract. But theology reveals to us the foundation and the vision on which and in which we order our spiritual lives. The dogma of the Trinity must impact our lives.

The beginning of this process of discerning the presence of God in our lives and in trying to live out that presence is to be found in the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation. Each and every human person, baptized and chrismated into the life of the Orthodox Church so as to receive the gift of salvation from sin and death unto life eternal, has participated in his/her own personal Pascha and Pentecost. To be baptized is to die and rise in Christ; to be chrismated is to receive "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." Alive in Christ, sealed and filled with the Holy Spirit! New life and the power with which and in which we are enabled to continue in that life!

Without Christ we "can do nothing" (JN. 15:5), and without the Holy Spirit - poured out upon us by the risen, ascended and glorified Christ at Pentecost - we cannot say that "Jesus is Lord." (I COR. 12:3) 

As St. Seraphim of Sarov put it: "The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Spirit of God."

Yet, I cannot but wonder if - or to what extent - we are troubled if we squander the "great grace of Baptism" that we received when we were buried with Christ in the baptismal font, both a tomb (dying to sin) and a womb (rebirth). It seems as if we can be insensitive to the withdrawal of the Spirit's presence from our minds and hearts through sheer inattention and lack of vigilance.

The saints would weep for their sins - in fact, this is called "gifts of tears" as the means of restoring that very baptismal grace forfeited by sin - while we shrug off our own sins as "normal" and practically inevitable considering the conditions and circumstances of life. If we are more-or-less "like other people" in conformity with a basic set of moral principles, and thus maintaining a good image in the eyes of others, then we are usually perfectly content with our own sinfulness. In this way, we domesticate and normalize sin by rendering it innocuous and easy to live with. 

So understood, sin is no longer that tragic "missing of the mark" that renders sin so baneful a reality, a reality from which we needed to be saved by the death of our Savior. Thus, we re-define sin so that our notion of sin hardly resembles what we find in the Scriptures!

But how we may weep and gnash our teeth if and when we lose money, property, status, or simply "things;" how we mourn the loss of even a "trinket" if we have invested it with sentimental value. It is these types of losses that are meaningful and which demand our attention and concern, while the muting of the "voice" of the Spirit deep within our conscience will only draw a lukewarm sigh. This is a most unfortunate reversal of values; for losing the "seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit" is tantamount to losing our "heavenly treasure;" while losing our earthly treasures is only to lose what "moth and rust consume" despite our heroic efforts to escape that process. 

This is a paradox: When, by the grace of God, our spiritual lives have matured in such a way that we truly mourn (and even weep!) over our sins which strip us of the presence of the "Comforter and Spirit of Truth," then through genuine repentance, the Holy Spirit will "come and abide in us" to "warm our hearts with perfect love," according to the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

"The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and the person in whom the Holy Spirit lives feels that he has paradise within." (St. Silouan of Mt. Athos)

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Ascension - The Meaning and the Fullness of Christ's Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"I ascend unto My Father, and your Father, and to my God, and Your God.” (JN. 20:17)

Today is the fortieth day after the glorious Resurrection of Christ, and that is, of course, Ascension Thursday. We celebrated the Feast with the Vesperal Liturgy yesterday evening, and we had a great representative body of parishioners present for the Feast, including some of our parish teenagers. I hope that one and all have a joyous and blessed feast day. 
The Risen Lord is also the Ascended Lord and, therefore, in the words of Fr. Georges Florovsky: In the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection.”  
I would refer everyone to the complete article by Fr. Florovsky, a brilliant reflection on the theological and spiritual meaning of the Lord’s Ascension. This article is accessed from our parish website together with a series of other articles that explore the richness of the Ascension. In addition to Fr. Florovsky’s article, I would especially recommend The Ascension as Prophecy. With so many fine articles on the Ascension within everyone’s reach, I will not offer up yet another one, but I would like to make a few brief comments:

Though the visible presence of the Risen Lord ended forty days after His Resurrection, that did not mean that His actual presence was withdrawn. For Christ solemnly taught His disciples – and us through them – “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (MATT. 28:20) The risen, ascended and glorified Lord is the Head of His body, the Church. The Lord remains present in the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church. This reinforces our need to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, through which we receive the deified flesh and blood of the Son of God, “unto life everlasting.”

Christ ascended to be seated at “the right hand of the Father” in glory, thus lifting up the humanity He assumed in the Incarnation into the very inner life of God. For all eternity, Christ is God and man. The deified humanity of the Lord is the sign of our future destiny “in Christ.” For this reason, the Apostle Paul could write: “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (COL. 3:3) In his homily on the Ascension, St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) draws out some of the implications of this further:

In the same way as He came down, without changing place but condescending to us, so He returns once more, without moving as God, but enthroning  on high our human nature which He had assumed. It was truly right that the first begotten human nature from the dead (Rev. 1:5) should be presented to God, as first fruits from the first crop offered for the whole race of men.  

On account of our sins He was led to death, and for us He rose and ascended, preparing our own resurrection and ascension for unending eternity. For all the heirs of everlasting life follow as far as possible the pattern of His saving work on earth.

Those who live according to Christ imitate what He did in the flesh. Just as He died physically, so in time everyone dies, but we shall also rise again in the flesh as He did, glorified and immortal, not now but in due course, when we shall also ascend, as Paul says, for "we shall be caught up," he says, "in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (I Thess. 4:17). 
(The Saving Work of Christ - Sermons by St. Gregory Palamas, p. 113-114)

The words of the “two men … in white robes,” (clearly angels) who stood by the disciples as they gazed at Christ being “lifted up,” and recorded by St. Luke (ACTS. 1:11), point toward something very clear and essential for us to grasp as members of the Church that exists within the historical time of the world: 
 “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 
The disciples will remain in the world, and must fulfill their vocation as the chosen apostles who will proclaim the Word of God to the world of the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. They cannot spend their time gazing into heaven awaiting the return of the Lord. That hour has not been revealed: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority” (1:7). The “work” of the Church is the task set before them, and they must do this until their very last breath. They will carry out this work once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit – the “promise of my Father” - as Christ said to them (LK. 24:49). Whatever our vocation may be, we too witness to Christ and the work of the Church as we await the fullness of God’s Kingdom according to the times or seasons of the Father.

In our daily Prayer Rule we continue to refrain from using “O Heavenly King” until the Day of Pentecost. We no longer use the paschal troparion, “Christ is Risen from the dead …” but replace it from Ascension to Pentecost with the troparion of the Ascension:

Thou hast ascended in glory,
O Christ our God,
granting joy to Thy disciples
by the promise of the Holy Spirit;
Through the Blessing they were assured
that Thou art the Son of God,
the Redeemer of the world.