Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Ascension: Our Destiny in Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,

In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed we profess,

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.... And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.

What a wonderful expression of the great mystery of the "descent" and "ascent" of the Son of God! The eternal Son of God becomes the Son of Man, descending into our world to live among us and to teach us about, and prepare us for, the Kingdom of God. This is what we call the Incarnation.

This movement of descent is only completed when Christ is crucified and enters the very realm of death on our behalf. There is "nowhere" further to descend (in)to. Thus, there are no limits to the love of God for His creatures, for the descent of Christ into death itself is "for our salvation."

The Son of God will search for Adam and Eve in the very realm of Sheol/Hades. He will rescue them and liberate them as representative of all humankind, languishing in "the valley of death." Since death cannot hold the sinless -- and therefore deathless -- Son of God, He begins His ascent to the heavenly realm with His resurrection from the dead. And He fulfills this Paschal mystery with His glorious ascension.

As Saint Paul writes, "He Who descended is He Who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things" (Ephesians 4:10). The One Who ascended, however, is now both God and man, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified Jesus Christ Who is now seated at "the right hand of the Father," far above the heavens. It is the glorified flesh of the Incarnate Word of God which has entered into the very bosom of the Trinity in the Person of Christ.

As Saint Leo the Great, the pope of Rome (+461) taught,

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of Heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest Heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father.

This is simultaneously our ascension and our glorification, since we are united to Christ through holy Baptism as members of His Body. Therefore, Saint Paul can further write, "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). Out of our physical sight, we now "see" the glorified Christ through the eyes of faith.

Saint Leo further explains how important this spiritual insight is:

For such is the power of great minds, such the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eyes; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what is visible.
It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men's sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.

The Great Feast of the Ascension is not a decline from the glory of Pascha. It is, rather, the fulfillment of Pascha, and a movement upward toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the joyful revelation of our destiny in Christ. 

By the time we reach the end of the special forty days of Pascha, a certain fatigue has set in, and the initial explosion of joy that characterized Pascha seems already like a dim memory (though experienced only forty days ago!). But is it possible for the Feast of the Lord's glorious Ascension to awaken us yet again to the great joy of our salvation and destiny in Christ?

We believe that we are not orphans in a universe devoid of meaning, but actually children of God, "who were born, not of blood nor the will of man, but of God" (JN. 1:13).  In his First Epistle, St. John further elaborates on this: "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (I JN. 3:2).

We do not know "when" that will be, only that God will fulfill His promises already revealed in the risen and glorified Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

'The decisive moment in the history of the world...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Thirty-Ninth Day

"The instant of the Resurrection was the decisive moment in the history of the world. It was the event of deepest importance for every human being who ever lived. It was the supreme kairos, the definitive 'day of the Lord'. The Law and the Prophets were fulfilled in that moment, and the existence of the human race took on a radically new meaning."

- From The Jesus We Missed by Patrick Henry Reardon

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Two Icons of the Resurrection, and the Destruction of Death

Dear Parish Faithful,

As the paschal season draws to a close, here is a meditation that summarizes our over-all theological and iconographic understanding of the great paschal mystery:

The Two Icons of the Resurrection, and the Destruction of Death


The souls bound in the chains of hades, O Christ, seeing Thy compassion without measure, pressed onward to the light with joyful steps, praising the eternal pascha.
(Matins, Paschal Canon of St. John of Damascus)

The awesome mystery of the Lord’s bodily resurrection from the dead was providentially kept hidden from human eyes. Although there were many eyewitnesses to the Resurrected One, there were none of the actual “moment” of the resurrection. There was no access to the tomb until the stone had been rolled away and its emptiness was revealed to the myrrhbearing women. The emptiness of the tomb was a “sign” of the resurrection of Christ; while the angelic voice – “He has risen, he is not here” – was the first announcement of the Gospel of the Risen Lord, thus interpreting the sign. The Lord then appeared to both the myrrhbearing women and the disciples, fully affirming the meaning of the empty tomb and the angelic proclamation. Yet, to repeat, the “moment” of the resurrection remains inaccessible to human perception.

For this reason, artistic depictions of Christ emerging from the tomb, banner in hand, rising in a blinding light over the hapless and sprawling bodies of the guard, are “later” and inauthentic images of the resurrection, though they contain the truth that the “Lord has risen indeed!” In the Western artistic tradition, the most famous of such depictions is probably that of Matthias Grunewald. Such images have also become popular in Orthodox iconography over the centuries, as seen on processional banners, portable icons and walls. Once such images enter the Church, they stubbornly refuse to leave!

There do exist two authentic icons of the Resurrection, one being of a more historical nature and the other theological. The historical icon of the Resurrection is that of the myrrhbearing women gazing in wonder at the empty grave cloths of Christ lying in the tomb while an angel (or two) is further depicted sitting inside the tomb as recorded in the Gospels. This icon captures the startling moment when the myrrhbearers are overcome with “fear and trembling” together with wonder and concern at not seeing the body of the Lord in the tomb.

The theological icon simply entitled the “Anastasis” or “Resurrection,” is also referred to as the “Descent Into Hades.” Here the victorious Christ, resplendent in white garments, Cross in hand, is depicted shattering the gates of the biblical realm of the dead (sheol in Hebrew; hades in Greek; often, though imprecisely, translated as “Hell”) decisively and forcefully grabbing Adam and Eve – representative of humanity and the righteous awaiting deliverance (cf. HEB. 11:39-40) – by the hand and pulling them out of this darkened realm restored to fellowship with God. As iconography and hymnography complement one another, a paschal hymn from the Vespers of Holy Saturday illuminates the meaning of this powerful icon:

Today Hell cries our groaning:
My power has been trampled upon.
The Shepherd is crucified and Adam is raised.
I have been deprived of those whom I ruled.
Those whom I swallowed in my strength I have given up.
He who was crucified has emptied the tombs.
The power of death has been vanquished.
Glory to Thy Cross and Resurrection, O Lord.

The Fathers found a clear allusion of this descent into hades in a passage from I Peter:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formally did not obey … For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God. (I PETER 3:18-4:6)

Surprisingly, however, the main source for this icon appears to be the 2nd c. apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Here we find a dramatic and rather humanly touching description of this profound theological truth:

And behold, suddenly Hades trembled, and the gates of death and the bolts were shattered, and the iron bars were broken and fell to the ground, and everything was laid open … Then the Lord Jesus, the Savior of all, affectionate and most mild saluting Adam kindly, said to him: “Peace be to you, Adam, with your children, through immeasurable ages to ages!” Amen.
Then father Adam, falling forward at the feet of the Lord, and being raised erect, kissed his hands, and shed many tears, saying, testifying to all: “Behold, the hands which fashioned me!” And he said to the Lord: “You have come, O King of glory, delivering men, and bringing them into Your everlasting Kingdom.”
Then also our mother Eve in like manner fell forward at the feet of the Lord, and was raised erect, and kissed His hands, and poured forth tears in abundance, and said, testifying to all: “Behold the hands which made me!”

In other words, “Death’s dominion has been shattered.” Can Christianity survive without this being the ultimate “Good News:”

That through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (HEB. 2:14-15)

What of the non-resurrected Christ emerging from certain biblical scholars and other circles now demanding equal time in the popular press and visual media? Is this even remotely consistent with the full content of the New Testament? Does such a “Christ” truly inspire and offer hope to the hopeless? I would answer my own questions with decisive “NO!” 

However, the apostle Paul reminds us that: “all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (II COR. 1:20) This 'Yes' seems fully convincing when we acknowledge Christ as:

… the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings of the earth.


Friday, May 11, 2018

'This victory began on the night of the Resurrection'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen! 
Indeed He is Risen!

“If we ask ourselves once again what the essence of Christianity is, we must give the following answer: it is God manhood; that is, the union of the human spirit, which is finite and limited in time, with the divine, which is infinite. It is the sanctification of the flesh from the moment the Son of Man adopted our joys and sufferings: that which we construct, our love, our work, nature, the world in which He found Himself and in which He was born as man and as God-Man.

"None of that is rejected; nothing is humiliated. It is rather raised to a new level. In Christianity the world is sanctified: evil, darkness, and sin are vanquished. This is God’s victory. This victory began on the night of the Resurrection, and it will continue as long as the world exists.”

The quote above was Fr. Alexander’s last public words before he was brutally murdered while on his way to church (1990's).

Excerpt is taken from the book - Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia.

'A genuinely blameless Christian death...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Attached, you will find a short but remarkable account of the last days of Fr. Roman Braga, a genuine (Romanian) "elder" who lived, served and taught at the Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, MI. Dr. Dan Henshaw has left a moving reflection of how he ministered to Fr. Roman over what was essentially the "dying process" that Fr. Roman passed through at the end of his life. (It is now the third anniversary of Fr. Roman's death). 

We encounter not only a "good death," but a genuinely blameless Christian death that Fr. Roman embraced with faith, humility and powerful prayer. 

Again, I highly recommend that everyone read this short account, for there is more in these few short pages than in many theological treatises, spiritual reflections, etc.

Fr. Steven

Monday, May 7, 2018

Rivers of Living Water

Dear Parish Faithful,


So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city…” [John 4:28].

A Samaritan woman came to Jacob’s Well in Sychar, a Samaritan city, at the same time that Jesus sat down by the well, being wearied by His journey [John 4:5]. The evangelist John provides us with a time reference: “It was about the sixth hour” [John 4:6] - i.e. noon. The Samaritan woman had come to draw water from the well, a trip and activity that must have been an unquestioned daily routine that was part of life for her and her fellow city-dwellers.

The ancients had a much more active sense of equating water with life than we do today with the accessibility of water from the kitchen tap, the shower, or the local store. On the basic level of biological survival, Jacob’s Well must have been something like a “fountain of life” for the inhabitants of Sychar.

Therefore, it is rather incredible that she returned home without her water jar, a “detail” that the evangelist realized was so rich in symbolic meaning that he included it in the narrative recorded in his Gospel [John 4:5-42]. And this narrative, together with the incredible dialogue embedded in it, is so profound that every year we appoint this passage to be proclaimed in the Church on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the Fifth Sunday after Pascha. Why, then, would the Samaritan woman fail to take her water jar home with her?

Her “failure” was based on a discovery that she made when she encountered and spoke with Jesus by Jacob’s Well. For even though the disciples “marveled” that Jesus was speaking with a woman [v. 27], Jesus Himself began the dialogue with the woman perfectly free of any such social, cultural or even religious restraints.

As this unlikely dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman unfolded by the well, it was revealed to the woman that Jesus was offering her a “living water” that was qualitatively distinct from the well-water that she habitually drank [v. 11]. This “living water” had an absolutely unique quality to it that the Lord further revealed to the woman:

Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [v. 13-14].

A perceptive and sensitive woman who was open to the words of Jesus, she responded with the clear indication that she had entered upon a process of discovery that would lead her to realize that she was speaking with someone who was a prophet—and more than a prophet: “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” [v. 15].

Her thirst is now apparent on more than one level, as her mind and heart are now opening up to a spiritual thirst that was hidden but now stimulated by the presence and words of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus will now disclose to her one of the great revelations of the entire New Testament, a revelation that will bring together Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles:

“But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” [v. 23-24].

A careful reading of Saint John’s Gospel indicates that under the image of water, Jesus was speaking of His teaching that has come from God, or more specifically, to the gift of the Holy Spirit. For at the Feast of Tabernacles, as recorded in John 7, Jesus says this openly to the crowds that had come to celebrate the feast:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water." Now this He said about the Spirit, Whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified [John 7:37-39].

Overwhelmed and excited, inspired and filled with the stirrings of a life-changing encounter, the Samaritan woman “left her water jar, and went away into the city and said to the people, ‘Come and see a man Who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” [v. 28-29].

It is not that the contents of her water jar was now unimportant or meaningless. That would be a false dichotomy between the material and the spiritual that is foreign to the Gospel. The Samaritan woman will eventually retrieve her forgotten water jar and fill it with simple water in fulfillment of her basic human needs. For the moment, however, she must go to her fellow city-dwellers and witness to Christ! They, in turn, will eventually believe that Jesus is “indeed the Savior of the world” [v. 42]. Thus, the Samaritan woman became something of a proto-evangelist. Subsequent tradition tells us that she is the Martyr Photini.

There are indeed innumerable “wells” that we can go to in order to drink some “water” that promises to quench our thirst. These “wells” can represent every conceivable ideology, theory, philosophy of life, or worldview—in addition to all of the superficial distractions, pleasures, and mind-numbing attractions that offer some relief from the challenges and oppressive demands of life.

For a Christian, to be tempted to drink the water from such wells would amount to nothing less than a betrayal of both the baptismal waters that were both a tomb and womb for us; and a betrayal of the living water that we receive from the teaching of Christ and that leads to eternal life. It is best to leave our “water jars” behind at such wells, and drink only that “living water” that is nothing less than the “gift of God” [John 4:10].

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fellow Students of 'Christian Mysticism'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Twenty-Sixth Day

One of my students at XU in my "Christian Mysticism" class chose to write his final paper on St. Augustine of Hippo. While quoting St. Augustine, he chose three particularly insightful texts that I would like to share. The first is very "paschal" in its emphasis on the contrast between mortality and immortality; while the other two are simply wonderful and justifiably famous words from the saint:

"We made bad use of immortality, and so ended up dying; Christ made good use of mortality, so that we might end up living." 
"Christ is not valued at all, unless he is valued above all."

"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

For his final exam essay, another student chose to answer the broad question, "What is Christian mysticism?" The point was to get my students to synthesize what they learned through the course of the semester and put that in coherent terms as an essay.

Since most of my students could not adequately answer this question at the beginning of the semester, I thought that it would prove both challenging and interesting to read what they wrote after sixteen weeks with the subject. Be that as it may, one of the requirements for this question was that the student had to support his/her answer with at least there direct quotations from the course's primary text, The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Olivier Clement. This is the book that we read and studied together in last Fall's Adult Education Class.

So, here are the three quotations from the book that this particular student chose to include. All three are from the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement (+2008). No commentary on my part, just three deep thoughts that are worthy of meditation, or deep and hard thinking:

"God remains a beggar who waits at each person's gate with infinite patience, begging for his love. His silence, with which we sometimes reproach Him, only shows His consideration."

"God offers Himself, wishes to disclose Himself, but He does not force us. His power is the power of love, and love wants freedom from the beloved. God speaks and at the same time keeps silence; He knocks at the door and waits."

"The inaccessible God reveals Himself as the Crucified. He is by that very fact a hidden and incomprehensible God, who upsets our definitions and expectations."