Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Dormition Fast: A Challenge and a Choice

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On Thursday, August 1, we will begin the relatively short Dormition Fast that always covers the first two weeks of August (1-14), culminating in the Feast of the Dormition on August 15. In recognition of the beginning of the Fast, we will serve Vespers this evening at 7:00 p.m.

We will celebrate the Feast with a Vesperal Liturgy on Wednesday evening, August 14. As has become our tradition, we will place the tomb in the center of the church, decorate it with flowers, venerate the icon of the blessed repose of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God – Miriam of Nazareth - and sing hymns of praise to her “translation” into the Kingdom of Heaven. Not a celebration to be missed! Please mark your calendars and prepare to be present for this beautiful Feast. 

Every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice. In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.” We can choose convenience, because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly inconvenient. It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial, and an over-all concerted effort. It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summertime) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance. To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance. So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church. I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of further growth in our life “in Christ.” It may rather mean a missed opportunity. 

Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.” Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful. It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ” which we have as a gift within the life of the Church. 

That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes. I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes. (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes). It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.

My opinion and observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree. We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals. And those plans and goals may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present way of life. It is hard to prevail in the never-ending “battle of the calendars.” The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church. In fact, it is usually quite indifferent and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment. 

Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us. But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired. That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our lives. In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding - to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today! 

I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience. We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy. With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls. We can lift up our “drooping hands” in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving. 

The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death; or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Dormition Fast is our spiritually-vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration.“Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!” (II COR. 6:2)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Reading the Holy Fathers - A Pastoral Challenge

Dear Parish Faithful,

Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils

Today let us praise the mystical trumpets of the Spirit,
the God-bearing Fathers,
who stand in the midst of the Church, singing true theology,
praising the changeless Trinity!

(Vespers of the Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils)

On the Sunday between July 13-19, we annually commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils. So, for us this year, that was yesterday, July 14. I incorporated that commemoration into my homily, if only briefly yesterday. I have thus provided two links that will both provide excellent background material about the "Holy Fathers" and some of the history and theology behind the first six Ecumenical Councils. The first is the posting on the OCA's official webpage; and the second is from Fr. Thomas Hopko's four volume The Orthodox Faith. I would highly recommend spending some time with these sources, especially if your knowledge of either is not that strong. These Councils and the great Fathers of the Church are at the heart of Orthodoxy. If you are acquainted with the Founding Fathers of America, you need to be equally - if not more - acquainted with the Founding Fathers of the Church. They wrote, not of politics, but of the Gospel and eternal life.

Fr. Hopko:

I closed my homily yesterday with a practical/pastoral proposal, perhaps even something of a challenge: To make a commitment that before the year is over - more than a five month period! - to read at least one work of one of the Holy Fathers of the Church.  
I am confident that this will be a great discovery for you. The writings of the Fathers are actually quite accessible. Often enough, they write with clarity and a deep faith that enlightens and inspires. The Fathers are not dry, academic scholars writing for their academic peers. They are pastors writing for the strengthening of the faith of the members of the Body of Christ. They employ the language of the Scriptures and some other theological language, but it is never the heavy jargon that you may encounter elsewhere today in theological circles. Be that as it may, that is for you to discover when you choose and begin your work. 

A tremendous resource for these writings  is the Popular Patristic Series which has been an ongoing publishing enterprise of SVS Press for decades now. (The term "Patristics" means the "Fathers"). These are translation into English from the original Greek, Latin and Syriac. There are probably over fifty volumes now available, including most of the great classics of patristic literature. I am providing the link to the SVS Press page that will allow you browse these titles:
A particular title may immediately grab your attention. If you would like some assistance in choosing a title that may be the most suitable for you, please contact me, and I will try and offer some helpful advice. 
For the moment, I am going to include in this mailing a kind of "Top Ten" from this series of Patristic literature. These ten will be of the most popular, widely-read, and influential works from the Holy Fathers that have shaped our theology, liturgy and spirituality for centuries down to the present.

  • The Seven Letters  by St. Ignatius of Antioch (+ c. 110) One of the first major writings after the New Testament period. The three major themes in these Letters are: 1) the hierarchy of the Church; 2) the Eucharist; 3) Martyrdom.
  • On the Apostolic Preaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (+ c. 200 ) A wonderful summary of the divine economy from Creation to Christ.
  • On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great (+ 373) One of the classics about the Word becoming flesh.
  • On the Holy Spirit by St. Basil the Great (+379) Another remarkable treatise demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit based on the Scriptures.
  • On God and Christ, Five Theological Orations by St. Gregory the Theologian (+390) A bit advanced, but probably the most influential treatises on the Trinity ever written.
  • Festal Orations by St. Gregory the Theologian. Tremendous collection of homilies by St. Gregory from Nativity to Pascha.
  • Lectures on the Christian Sacraments by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+ c. 370) How did the Christians of the 4th c. celebrate Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist? These treatises explain this very well.
  • On Wealth and Poverty by St. John Chrysostom (+ 407) St. John's famous homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
  • On Marriage and Family Life by St. John Chrysostom. Very practical advise for husbands and wives, their mutual relationship and the raising of children based on certain scriptural texts. Surprisingly contemporary considering when St. John lived.
  • Three Treatises on the Divine Images by St. John of Damascus (+749) Great scriptural defense of the icons within the Iconoclastic Controversy. 

An endless stream of deep Christian wisdom!