Friday, January 12, 2018

Rebuking the Tempter, and Following Jesus

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Sunday is the Leavetaking of Theophany, the great feast commemorating the Baptism of the Lord and the revelation of the Holy Trinity at the Jordan River. It was His baptism at the hands of the Forerunner that inaugurated the public ministry of Christ – a public ministry that will begin with the words recorded in the Gospels and which continue to reverberate through the centuries to this day with a call and a challenge that is meant to shake all of humanity out of a false sense of complacency and comfort: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (MATT. 4:17). 

According to Christ there is something more than the joys and sorrows that inevitably accompany the natural cycle of life and death. Acknowledging this with thanksgiving, the very pinnacle of our communal worship of God in the Liturgy begins by “blessing” the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the opening doxology. Yet, before these powerful words are uttered in the Gospels; and before the Lord will begin His ministry of demonstrating the Kingdom of Heaven’s presence through His words and deeds culminating in the Cross and Resurrection; there is an event of tremendous significance that further prepares Christ for His messianic ministry: The Temptation/Testing in the Wilderness (MATT. 4:1-11; MK. 1:12-13; LK. 4:1-13). 

The nuances of the Greek word behind this event allows us to think in terms of “temptation” or “testing.” Perhaps we could say that Christ was tested when God allowed Him to be tempted by the devil. Either way – or with a combination of both terms – the forty days spent by Jesus in the wilderness will shape Him and His ministry to Israel and to the world by defining an image of the Messiah that He will reject and one that He will embrace.

It is highly significant that it is the Spirit who “led” Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (MATT. 4:1). Nothing in the life of Christ is accidental. In all things He is led by His heavenly Father acting through the Holy Spirit, including this “face-to-face” encounter with the evil one. 

The austere and unsettling figure of the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s famous Legend embedded in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, refers to the devil as “the dread and intelligent spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being.” It is this dread spirit who will tempt Christ through the three questions that will test the fidelity of Christ to His unique messianic vocation as willed by His heavenly Father. 

Dostoevsky, through the tragic figure of the Grand Inquisitor, further reveals the power and non-human source of these powerful temptations, when the Inquisitor says in his monologue: 

“By the questions alone, simply by the miracle of their appearance, one can see that one is dealing with a mind not human and transient but eternal and absolute. For in these three questions all of subsequent human history is as if brought together into a single whole and foretold; three images are revealed that will take in all the insoluble historical contradictions of human nature over all the earth.” 

In other words, these three temptations were not “invented” or “made up” by the evangelists for dramatic effect. The very “perfection” of the temptations posed by the devil reveal their veracity.

And what are these three temptations? According to St. Matthew’s account, they begin with the following as Jesus is fasting and experiencing hunger in the wilderness: “And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’.” 

This was followed by the second temptation to test God’s fidelity to Him after the devil “took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, less you strike your foot against a stone’.”  

The final temptation was grandiose and sweeping in its scope: 

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’.” 

In Dostoevsky’s particular and profound interpretation of Christ’s encounter with the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus refuses to receive obedience through miracle, mystery and authority as represented in these three tantalizing temptations. By compelling human beings to believe in Him by overwhelming them with the miraculous; by exploiting a sense of mystery to attract human beings to follow him; and by appealing to the human need for security through external authority; Christ would have accepted and approved of a distorted understanding of human nature. 

In Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christ, as attainable as these “powers” may be for the Son of God, each one in its own way violates the gift of human freedom given to us by God and appealed to by Christ. It is for this very reason that Christ did not come down from the Cross as He was “tempted” to do by those who mocked Him. Even if freedom is a burden as well as a gift, it is the true vision of humanity created “in the image and likeness of God.” We, in turn, freely choose to follow Christ, the crucified “Lord of glory.”

Dostoevsky had his particular concerns when he resorted to the temptation in the wilderness to dramatize the dialectics of human freedom and coercion in an unforgettable manner in The Brothers Karamazov. Within the context of the Gospels, we can say that Christ had to overcome the temptation to be a particular kind of Messiah that was not in accord with the will of God. He was not declared to be His Father’s “beloved Son” at the Jordan River so as to be a militant Messiah who ruled through power. The words of God the Father at the Jordan were clear echoes from the Suffering Servant songs from the prophet Isaiah. And the Suffering Servant would heal us by His “stripes.” His very suffering would be redemptive. And therefore that suffering (on the Cross) was essential to the divine economy. 

To overcome such temptations as man, the Lord resorted to prayer and fasting in the wilderness – the spiritual weapons given to us all in the Church for precisely the same purpose in the “wilderness” of a fallen world: to strengthen the “inner man” against false and pretentious promises. We can accomplish this by relying on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (DEUT. 8:3). We further heed the words, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (DEUT. 6:16). And we also follow Christ who reminded us: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (DEUT. 6:13). 

Christ refuted the evil one’s false counsel by the power of the scriptural word. 

Another clear lesson for us in our relationship with the Holy Scriptures. As the “root” of a new humanity, Jesus re-enacts the history of Israel, but He “passes” the type of test that Israel “failed” to pass in its earlier forty-year wanderings in the wilderness. In fact, as the New and Last Adam He reverses the effects of Adam’s disobedience through His faithful obedience to the Father. 

It may sound startling to us today, but Jesus was “perfected” precisely through obedience!

Our human will was healed by the human will that the Son of God assumed and united to His divine will in the Incarnation. Before the Garden of Gethsemane, the perfect expression of that healing through obedience may just be the temptation/testing in the wilderness. 

As the final temptation was beaten back by Christ, He was able to say to the tempter: “Begone, Satan!” Our goal is to be able to rebuke the tempter with the same words when we are also tempted/tested – perhaps on a daily basis!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

'One Baptism for the remission of sins...'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

'I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.'
(Nicene Creed)

The Feast of Theophany is more ancient that that of Christ's Nativity on December 25. In fact, it was precisely on 6 January that the Church first celebrated Christ's birth (and the adoration of the Magi) together with His baptism in the Jordan. These events - of the greatest significance not only in the life of Christ but in the economy" of our salvation - were united in one celebration known as Theophany, which means "manifestation of God." (The Feast is also referred to as Epiphany, which simply means "manifestation").

In His Nativity and in His Baptism, Christ is "manifested," or "revealed," to the world as the Light of the world in order to dispel the darkness of ignorance and spiritual blindness which are the direct result of sin. This Feast of Theophany is also referred to as the "Feast of Lights." It was in the 4th c. that we began to celebrate our Lord's Nativity (and the adoration of the Magi) as a separate and unique event on 25 December, while 6 January remained as the Feast of Theophany on which Christ's Baptism was commemorated. 

Why did the Feast of 6 January retain the title of Theophany/Epiphany instead of 25 December, when the manifestation of the eternal Light was first revealed in His Nativity in the flesh? St. John Chrysostom writes: "...because it was not when He was born that He became manifest to all, but when He was baptized; for up to this day He was unknown to the majority."

But not only was the Lord Jesus revealed to the world as He began His public ministry with His Baptism in the Jordan at the hands of St. John the Baptist. The Holy Trinity was manifested, for the "voice of the Father" bore witness to His beloved Son, and the Spirit, "in the form of a dove," descended and rested upon the Son. The trinitarian nature of God was manifested when Christ came to the Jordan to be baptized.

Yet, if baptism is for the "remission of sins," then why is Christ baptized, for He is without sin (I PET. 2:22; HEB. 4:15)? The liturgical texts repeatedly ask and answer this question for us in the following manner: "Though as God He needs no cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan;" "As a man He is cleansed that I may be made clean." Christ is representative of all humanity. He is baptized for our sake. It is we who are cleansed and regenerated when He descends into the waters of the Jordan.

For with Christ, and in Christ, our human nature - the human nature He assumed in all of its fullness in the Incarnation - descends into the cleansing and purifying waters of the Jordan (anticipating sacramental Baptism), so that the very same human nature may ascend out of the waters renewed, restored and recreated. As the New and Last Adam He "sums up" all of us in Himself - for this reason He became man. The Spirit descends and rests upon Christ, so that our humanity may be anointed in Him. St. Athanasios the Great writes: " ... when He is anointed ... we it is who in Him are anointed ... when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized." Every baptism is an "extension," a participation, in the one, unique Baptism of Christ; just as every Eucharist is an "extension," a participation in the one, unique Mystical Supper. St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains this sacramental participation in Christ's Baptism as follows:

O what a strange and inconceivable thing it is! We did not really die, we were not really buried; we were not crucified and raised again; our imitation of Christ was but in a figure, while our salvation is truth.
Christ actually was crucified and buried, and truly rose again; and all these things have been transmitted to us, that we might by imitation participate in his sufferings, and so gain salvation in truth.

Actually, all of creation participates and is sanctified by the manifestation of God's Son in the flesh: "At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heavens enlightened."

We die to sin in Baptism and are raised to new life - for this reason the baptismal font is both tomb and womb as St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells us. Our pre- and post-baptismal lives must manifest some real change, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. In fact, I would like to append a few paragraphs from some of St. Gregory's writings about Baptism in order to allow him to describe the meaning of that need for change. St Gregory wrote at a time (4th c.) when he could presuppose adult baptism as the norm, but we can apply his teaching to our own consciousness of being Christians as we grow up in the Faith following "infant baptism":

When discussing baptism and spiritual birth, we have to consider what happens to our life following baptism. This is a point which many of those who approach the grace of baptism neglect; they delude themselves by being born in appearance only and not in reality. For through birth from above, our life is supposed to undergo a change. But if we continue in our present sinful state then there is really no change in us. Indeed, I do not see how a man who continues to be the same can be considered to have become different when there is no noticeable change in him.
Now the physically born child certainly shares his parents' nature. If you have been born of God and have become His child, then let your way of life testify to the presence of God within you. Make it clear who your Father is! For the very attributes by which we recognize God are the very marks by which a child of His must reveal His relationship with God. "God is goodness and there is no unrighteousness in Him." "The Lord is gracious to all ... He loves His enemies." "He is merciful and forgives transgressions." These and many other characteristics revealed by the Scripture are what make a Godly life.

If you are like this and you embody the Spirit of God, then you have genuinely become a child of God, but if you persist in displaying evil, then it is useless to prattle to yourself and to others about your birth from above. You are still merely a son of man, not a son of that Most High God! You love lies and vanity, and you are still immersed in the corruptible things of this world. Don't you know in what way a man becomes a child of God? Why in no other way than by becoming holy!

St. Gregory challenges us to remain ever-vigilant to our own baptism when we "put on Christ" and when we committed ourselves to a "mode of existence" that reveals Christ to the world.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Resolutions or Repentance?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to the civil calendar, we begin the year of our Lord (Anno Domini) 2018, on January 1. The year of 2018 is based upon the calculations of a medieval monk who, in attempting to ascertain the exact date of the birth of Christ, missed the year 0 by only a few years. According to contemporary scholars, Jesus was actually born between what we consider to be 6 – 4 B. C. These were the last years of Herod the Great, for according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus was born toward the very end of Herod’s long reign (37 – 4 B.C.). Christians therefore divide the linear stretch of historical time between the era before the Incarnation; and the era after the Incarnation and the advent of the Son of God into our space-time world. 

In other words, the years before the Incarnation are treated as something of a “countdown” to the time-altering event of the Incarnation; and the years since are counted forward as we move toward the end of history and the coming Kingdom of God. By entering the world, Christ has transformed the meaning and goal of historical time.

Recently, there has been a scholarly shift away from this openly Christian approach to history, as the more traditional designations of B.C. and A.D. have been replaced by the more neutral and “ecumenically sensitive” designations of B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), and C.E. (Common Era). Understanding and interpreting history from a decidedly Christian perspective, I would still argue in favor of the more traditional B.C. and A.D.

Although an issue of more than passing interest, that discussion may appear somewhat academic in comparison to the pressing issues of our daily lives as they continue to unfold now in 2018. We will  exchange our conventional greetings of “Happy New Year” probably more than once in the next few days. 

Under closer inspection, there remains something vague about that expression, and perhaps that is for the better. Do we wish for the other person – as well as for ourselves – that nothing will go (terribly) wrong in the unknown future of the new year? More positively, do we wish that all of our desires and wishes for our lives will be fulfilled in this new year? Or, are we wishing a successful year of the perpetual pursuit of “happiness” (whatever that means) for ourselves and for our friends? At that point we just may be reaching beyond the restrictive boundaries of reality. As Tevye the Dairyman once said: “The more man plans, the harder God laughs.” 

Perhaps the more realistic approach would be to give and receive our “Happy New Year” greetings as neighborly acknowledgement that we are “all in this together,” and that we need to mutually encourage and support one another.

We also approach the New Year as a time to commit ourselves to those annual “resolutions” that we realize will make our lives more wholesome, safe, sound, or even sane - if only we can sustain them. A resolution is to dig deep inside and find the resolve necessary to break through those (bad) habits or patterns of living that undermine either our effectiveness in daily life; jeopardize our relationships with our loved ones, our friends and our neighbors; or seriously threaten to make us less human than we can and should be. 

We know that we should eat less, swear less, lust less, get angry less, surf the computer less, play on our iPhones less, watch TV less and so on. We further know that we need more patience, more self-discipline, more graceful language, more attention to the needs of others, more “quality time” with our families and friends, more forgiving, more loving and so on. We know, therefore, that we need to change, and we intuitively realize how difficult this is. Bad habits are hard to break. Therefore, we need this annual opportunity of a new beginning and our New Year resolutions to give us a “fighting chance” to actually change. 

We may joke about how quickly we break our resolutions, but beneath the surface of that joking (which covers up our disappointments and rationalizations) we are acknowledging, once again, the struggle of moving beyond and replacing our vices with virtues. May God grant everyone the resolve to maintain these resolutions with care and consistency.

And yet I believe that we can profoundly deepen our experience of the above. For, as a “holiday” is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of a “holy day;” so a resolution is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of personal repentance. To repent (Gk. metanoia) is to have a “change of mind,” together with a corresponding change in the manner of our living and a re-direction of our lives toward God. The New Year’s resolution of our secularized culture may be a persistent reminder — or the remainder of — a lost Christian worldview that realized the importance of repentance. “There is something rotten in Denmark,” and an entire industry of self-help and self-reliance therapies — totally divorced from a theistic context — is an open acknowledgement of that reality regardless of how distant it may now be from its religious expression. As members of the Body of Christ living within the grace-filled atmosphere of the Church, we can, in turn, incorporate our resolutions within the ongoing process of repentance, which is nothing less than our vocation as human beings: “God requires us to go on repenting until our last breath” (St. Isaias of Sketis). Or, as St. Isaac of Syria teaches: “This life has been given you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things.”

Summarizing and synthesizing the Church’s traditional teaching about repentance, Archbishop Kallistos Ware has formulated a wonderfully open-ended expression of repentance that is both helpful and hopeful:

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 upward 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. In this sense, repentance is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life.  (The Orthodox Way, p. 113-114)

Hard not to be inspired by such an expressive passage! In the Service of Prayer for the (Civil) New Year, we incorporate into the litanies of the service some of the following special petitions . Thus, in the language of the Church, these petitions served as an ecclesial form of the resolutions we make to break through some of our dehumanizing behavior; as well as a plea to God to strengthen our better inclinations:

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will plant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will renew a right spirit within us, and strengthen us in the Orthodox Faith, and cause us to make haste in the performance of good deeds and the Fulfillment of all His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will bless the beginning and continuance of this year with the grace of His of His love for mankind, and will grant unto us peaceful times, favorable weather and a sinless life in health and abundance, let us pray to the Lord.

If you resolve to seek and to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind … and your neighbor as yourself” (MATT. 22:37-38), then I believe that this new year may not be perpetually “happy,” but that it will truly blessed.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Christmas and Martyrdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Gospel reading for the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is Matthew 2:1-12.  This passage proclaims the Good News that the Savior was born in Bethlehem according to the biblical prophecies.

The star guides the Magi and they, in turn, bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Child in acknowledgment that He is unique and a true King, testified to by cosmic signs that even the Gentile Magi can properly interpret.  Joyous as this is, there is already a hint of the ultimate destiny of Christ in that myrrh is used in the burial customs of the Jews.

On the Second Day of the Nativity, we complete the reading of the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel—2:13-23, which immediately introduces us to the tragic reality of the massacre of the innocent boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.  The previous joy of the Savior’s Nativity is replaced by the wailing and lamentation of the mothers of these innocent children, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” [Jeremiah 2:18].

The shadow of the Cross lay across the infancy narratives in this Gospel, for in the immediate post-Nativity period, these male children become the first of many martyrs who must die because Christ has entered the world, as many of the powerful of this world—following the dark example of King Herod—will not receive Him; they will actually despise Him and turn against His followers.  Thus, the suffering of innocent children is somehow taken up by God as an offering in a sinful world that fluctuates between light and darkness. 

And we must acknowledge that the suffering of innocent children continues to the present time - a suffering directly caused by human wickedness. We now understand that the cave of the Nativity anticipated the tomb of Christ’s burial, and that the swaddling clothes anticipated the grave clothes with which Christ would eventually be bound following His death on the Cross.

On the Third Day of the Nativity, we commemorate the Protomartyr Stephen, the first to die for his faith in Christ in the post-Resurrection community of the newborn Church.  St. Stephen's lengthy speech to his fellow Jews, in which he upbraided them for their lack of faith; and in which he proclaimed Jesus as the Risen and Ascended Christ is recorded in ACTS 7.  His brutal martyrdom by stoning followed as his testimony resulted in a furious and deadly rejection of his convicting words. In fact, "they gnashed their teeth against him" (ACTS 7:54).

Martyrdom has always been a distinct and powerful witness to Christ.  Actually, “from the beginning” the Incarnation and Martyrdom are inextricably joined together in a world torn by the tension between darkness and light.  To our great joy, we know "that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (JN. 1:5). 

The kontakion for the Feast of Saint Stephen captures the movement between the joy of Christ’s birth and the sobering reality of what Christ’s coming meant for some:

Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh and became our guest;
Today His servant is stoned to death and departs in the flesh:
The glorious first martyr Stephen!

There is no greater witness to Christ than that of the martyrs—flesh and blood men, women and children who gave their lives for the Lord in the sure hope and assurance that eternal life awaited them in the Kingdom of God.

If we exchange a “Merry Christmas” with others, we always need to be mindful of the commitment we are making to the newborn Christ.  As we temporarily indulge in the days of the Feast, we realize that the Christian life is ultimately a commitment to discipline and restraint, even the “crucifixion” of the flesh with all of its desires, in order to “witness” to Christ as disciples who believe that His advent in the flesh, culminating in His death and resurrection, has prepared a place for us in His eternal Kingdom where there is “life everlasting.”

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Incarnation: A word about the Word!

Toward Recovering a Genuine Christian Vocabulary

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.” ~ Saint Athanasius the Great

Within the Church we have a biblical/theological vocabulary that is very expressive of what we believe as Christians.  These words are drawn primarily from the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, and the theological writings of the great Church Fathers, such as Saint Athanasius the Great, quoted above.  As responsible, believing and practicing Christians, we need to know this vocabulary at least in its most basic forms.  As we continually learn a new technology-driven vocabulary derived from computers to smart phones, so too we need to be alert to the traditional vocabulary of the Church as it has been sanctified over centuries of use.  And this vocabulary should be natural to us – not something foreign, exotic and “only for theologians.”  It does not take a great deal of effort to be theologically literate, and there is no excuse not to be.

As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, a key term that must be part of the vocabulary of all Orthodox Christians is Incarnation.  The Nativity of Christ is the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth.  Or, we simply speak of The Incarnation, immediately knowing what that word is referring to.

If we turn to the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, we find the term defined somewhat blandly, in that kind of clipped, compact and objective style found in most dictionaries:

  • in•car•na•tion \in-kär-`nā-shǝn\ n (14c)  1 a (1):  the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form (2) cap:  the union of the divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ.

In the Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, the Orthodox theologian, Father John McGuckin, begins his definition under a fairly long entry of this term as follows:

  • Incarnation — Incarnation is the concept of the eternal Word of God (the Logos) “becoming flesh” within history for the salvation of the human race.  Incarnation does not simply refer to the act itself (such as the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin, or the event of Christmas); it stands more generally for the whole nexus of events in the life, teachings, sufferings, and glorification of the Lord, considered as the earthly, embodied activity of the Word [p. 180].

Speaking of expanding our theological vocabulary, we need to further know that we translate the key Greek term Logos as Word, referring of course to the Word of God Who was “with God” and Who “was God,” according to Saint John’s Gospel “in the beginning.”  We also refer to the Word of God as the “Son,” “Wisdom,” and “Power” of God.  It is this Logos/Word of God Who becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth.  The key verse that is the classical expression of the Incarnation in the New Testament is found in the Gospel according to Saint John 1:14:  “And the Word (Logos) became flesh.”

This profound paradox of the Word-become-flesh is found in the well-known kontakion of the Nativity, written by St. Romanos the Melode.  He begins his wonderful hymn with that paradox captured in the following manner:  

"Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One; and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One ..."

Incarnation is derived from the Latin word “in the flesh.”  The Greek word for Incarnation would be sarkothenta, meaning “made flesh.” So the Incarnation of the Word of God is the “enfleshment”of the Word, and here “flesh” means the totality of our human nature.  The Word has assumed our human nature and united it to Himself in an indissoluble union that restores the fellowship of God and humankind.  The sacramental life of the Church is based on the Incarnation, and the potential for created reality to become a vehicle for spiritual reality.  The ultimate manifestation of this is the Eucharist, and the bread and wine “becoming” the Body and Blood of Christ.

Christmas is the time of the year to recall all of this profound reality and recover a genuine Christian vocabulary that expresses our Faith about as well as what is humanly possible. This further means that theological words are not dry and abstract concepts when approached with not only respect, but with awe and wonder.  This makes our reading and studying of our theological Tradition exciting – as well as humbling. The words reveal life-transforming truths that if received with prayer and thanksgiving enhance and expand our minds and hearts, so that we might have the “mind of Christ.”

*I have attached a marvelous Prayer to Jesus Christ Emmanuel that I just received from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City.  I may try to incorporate it into our liturgical celebration, but thought you may want to use it in your personal prayer as we prepare for the advent of the One who is Emmanuel - God With Us.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

'Mankind was my business!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The over-all theme of the Parable of the Great Supper, heard last Sunday at the Liturgy, had to do with how being "busy" can easily lead to excuse-making of a dubious kind because we then justify postponing our relationship with God based upon those very excuses. But as Christ said in the parable, the Master of the Supper was not impressed.

'Mankind was my business!' (still from 'Scrooge', 1951)

This somehow connects in my mind with a certain literary classic. Over the years I have read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (and seen more than one film version!). For me, one of the most effective passages in the book, is toward the beginning, when the Ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve. By this time, the miserly and miserable character of Scrooge has been masterfully etched in by Dickens. And to this day, the name of Scrooge is synonymous with avarice, greed, and a joyless and meaningless accumulation of profit. Earlier, Scrooge had articulated some of the utilitarian philosophy of the 19th c. when he coldly said in reference to the poor and prisoners, "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

The Ghost of Marley returns to haunt Scrooge, but Marley himself is in great torment and anguish. Imprisoned in chains that he cannot free himself of, Marley is doomed to roam the earth as a restless spirit witnessing human suffering that he cannot alleviate because he ignored that suffering selfishly during his time on earth. Of the chains, Marley says:

"I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

With a deep, bitter regret, Marley then confesses:

"My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house - mark me! - in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!... Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one's life opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

At this point in this somewhat macabre dialogue between the two, Scrooge begins to grope for some signs of hope and relief as he intuitively realizes that Marley is speaking words of warning to him for his cold-hearted scorn for the rest of humanity. When Scrooge protests the working of an unseen providence, by saying "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," we then hear what may be the most significant - and well-known - passage in this scene:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

It held up its chains at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Anticipating the regret of a life not well-lived is a frightening thought. Especially if it comes down to having been too busy!

Good literature is capable of leaving strong indelible images that are much more effective than a well-argued treatise. Dickens' characters were always exaggerated or "larger than life," as we may say. But they then "typify" a great deal about life in the process.

Besides the necessary business that makes up our lives, and which must be done carefully and responsibly, just what else are we so "busy" with? Does that business also lead us away from charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence? Are we presently scurrying around, making sure that we will have a "Merry Christmas," while also turning our eyes downward so that we too cannot "see" the blessed Star that guides us to the Incarnate Christ? Are we going to somehow be able to "fit" the Church into our "Business?" Both the parable from Sunday and Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol raise the issue of our stewardship of time and the Christian truth that "mankind is our business."

Monday, December 18, 2017

Inexcusable Excuse-Making

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Parable of the Great Supper (LK. 14:16-24), heard yesterday as the prescribed Gospel pericope for the Second Sunday Before Nativity, we were offered a revealing glimpse into humankind's inexhaustible propensity for making excuses. This unending flow of excuses is often cloaked as tightly-argued rationalizations, served up with an unassailable logic, and promoted with sincere conviction. Psychologically, excuse-making is not to be confused with lying - at least on the conscious level (though this distinction can get a bit murky, in that we can actually believe our own lies as we believe in our excuses). These excuses serve to free us from responsibility, disentangle us from awkward situations, or even undermine our own well-being due to blindness or some hidden perversity of character.

It seems as if we "inherited" this propensity for making excuses from Adam and Eve as the story of the Fall unfolds in the Book of Genesis. After disobeying the divine commandment by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve offer excuses as to why they both succumbed to the serpent's insinuations (GEN. 3). These excuses were blatant evasions of moral responsibility. They covered up a refusal to repent. They assigned blame elsewhere, but accepted none for themselves. And these excuses were made directly to God! How strong, therefore, is the human need to fabricate excuses to rationalize away our sins! We see the same pattern depressingly repeated by children, corporate executives, clergy of the Church, and by husbands and wives in our homes. The domestic "paradise" established potentially within the Mystery of Marriage is undermined by the same processes that destroyed the original Eden of the first man and woman: temptation, assent, sin, refusal to repent, feeble excuses to justify and avoid responsibility, and negative consequences to follow. The "image and likeness of God" is obscured by this "dark side" of the human condition.

Returning to the parable found in St. Luke's Gospel, we hear that Christ relates a story about "A certain man who gave a great supper and invited many" (14:16). This is clearly an image of our heavenly Father's gracious invitation to experience the joy of fellowship with God in the eschatological Kingdom. A supper/banquet implies fellowship, sharing, and the joy of communal celebration. It has thus been a constant image of sharing our life with God in the Age to come, culminating in the glorious "marriage supper of the Lamb" in the Book of Revelation (19:9). Even on an "earthly level" it is an invitation that is often readily accepted. Who wants to pass us a sumptuous meal? Nevertheless, with a realism that we can all relate to, the servant of the man who has prepared the supper is forced to hear a series of excuses that are meant to free the recipients of the invitation from the obligation to attend. But so as not to cause offense, they offer excuses that sound reasonable enough. As Christ says explicitly in the parable: "But they all with one accord began to make excuses" (14:18). What, then, does the servant of the parable hear? More or less, the usual:

The first said to him, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' (14:18-20)

Taken from the daily routine of obligations and responsibilities, again we acknowledge the reasonableness of these excuses. (Interpreted allegorically by the Fathers, the excuses, according to a note in the Orthodox Study Bible, refer to "people devoted to earthly matters, to things pertaining to the five senses, and to all the pleasures of the flesh"). However, the "master of the house" was not impressed, for we hear that he became "angry" upon the return of his servant with the news that the supper would only be thinly attended. The master of the house further responds by ordering his servant to bring in other guests, including "the poor, and the maimed and the lame and the blind" (14:21). Discovering that "still there is room" (14:22), the servant is told to "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled" (14:23). The master's hospitality is so abundant, that he will invite and even compel "guests" that according to social etiquette would usually remain uninvited. In other words, those for whom the banquet should have been a natural culmination of an ongoing relationship - the elect of Israel in their chosenness by God - will find themselves on the outside; while wholly unexpected guests - the lawless Gentiles - will be given free and gracious access to the Kingdom prepared before the foundation of the world.

The excuses offered in the parable are easily translated into the one cliche that is ever-present in our daily vocabulary and repeated like a mantra when searching for a formula readily understood by one and all: "I am so busy!" In fact, everyone is not only "so busy," but actually "too busy." Just like the figures in the parable. Therefore, we believe that our level of responsibility is lightened, and expectations for our time and energy must be minimal to be fair. Our relationships may suffer, but that is unavoidable. That is how the world and our lives are structured. So we have the "perfect" excuse as to why we cannot prayer with any regularity; fast with any concentration; and practice charity with any concern. Committed Orthodox Christians are too busy to come to confession, read the Holy Scriptures, or come to non-Sunday liturgical services. Being too busy, we struggle to "fit" God into our busy schedules. If that fails, it cannot be helped - God will understand. Yet, other troubling questions seem to intrude themselves upon the safe haven of pleading the excuse of being busy. Although no claim is being made that the following are a "top ten" of such questions, I do believe that they are an "honest ten:"

1. Were the excuses of the parable enough to justify a broken relationship with God? 
2. What convinces me that the excuse of being busy should satisfy God's "demands" upon me? 
3. Can it be spiritually dangerous to be so busy? 
4. Am I free of any moral responsibility to change the ordering of my life so as to respond to God and neighbor without any excuses to relieve me from doing so?   
5. What are the implications of being "too busy" within the context of my relationship with God? 
6. Is it possible that I have become overly-dependent upon the excuse of always being busy? 
7. What does it mean when we come to the "supper" - the Liturgy - but fail in partaking of the "food" freely-offered - the Eucharist? 
8. What excuses do I offer for refusing the Master's hospitality? 
9. If the excuse is being unprepared, what am I doing to change that pattern? 
10. How do I understand the last words of the parable spoken by Christ: "For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper" (14:24)?

The Parable of the Great Supper becomes quite challenging when given some attention and thought. Although meant to reveal the foolishness of inexcusable excuse-making, it nevertheless reveals what God intends for those who respond to His gracious invitation: the unending joy of the Kingdom of God best characterized as a great and joyous supper where "all is now ready" (14:17). This hospitality is so great that no one is excluded, except through self-exclusion posed in the form of unconvincing excuses not to attend. There is always room. Having been invited, and having accepted this invitation, our task is to overcome the universal propensity of making excuses in order to preserve our self-autonomy and self-regard. We may then join the elect "where the voice of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the goodness of Thy countenance is unending. For Thou art the true desire and the ineffable joy of those who love Thee, O Christ our God, and all creation sings Thy praise forever. Amen." (First Prayer of Thanksgiving After Communion)