Monday, December 11, 2017

A Heart Untouched?


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?” (LK. 17:17)




In St. Basil the Great’s First Prayer in Preparation for Holy Communion, he acknowledges – and we acknowledge along with him when we offer this prayer up to God – that we are so often “thankless and graceless.”  St. Basil makes this claim after enumerating what “Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ our God” has done for us:  taken on our human nature, suffered crucifixion for our sake, and renewed our human nature by His own blood.  Yet still, says the saint, we remain “thankless and graceless.”  So much for building up our self-esteem!  Is that in reality a pious and rhetorical exaggeration embedded in a prayer meant to inspire genuine feeling within us; or has St. Basil simply articulated a “hard truth” about our human nature “corrupted by sin” - to borrow yet another phrase from his magnificent prayer?

Based on experience, it is hard not to believe that St. Basil is correct in his over-all assessment, and that he has done us a great service in reminding of this unfortunate characteristic of our human nature, a characteristic brought to life vividly in the Gospel narrative of Christ healing ten lepers, but only being thanked by one of them – and that one was a Samaritan!  (LK. 17:11-19)  

The failure of nine lepers to return to Christ and offer thanksgiving is singled out for an unflattering comment; while the return of the Samaritan leper is singled out for open praise.  Christ most certainly does not need or demand our thanksgiving!  What he pointed out was for the sake of those healed and for those who witnessed the healing.  Healing is meant to touch the body and the “heart,”  so that the healed one’s life is totally redirected toward God.  Sometimes, however, the body can be healed, but the heart left untouched. That Gospel passage – heard just last Sunday – is a reminder that we can fall prey to just such a temptation:  to have been healed by Christ and yet to either “forget” to return to Him in thanksgiving; find other distractions more compelling; or simply to do so in outward form only.  

I just coincidentally read in a book about another ecclesiastical figure that the famous Western medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his Summa Theologiae:  “It is evident that every ingratitude is a sin.”  That was based on the logic that since gratitude and thankfulness were virtues, their opposite must be a sin.  However one may assess that “scholastic” logic, it seems to ring true.

In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s classic work, For the Life of the World, we heard his unique voice recalling our initial vocation to be “eucharistic beings,” human beings who offer gratitude and thanksgiving to God in the full awareness that all things come from God and have the potential to lead us further toward God.  This includes the very food that we eat on a daily basis.  We can eat and drink unto ourselves, and thus we eat and drink ultimately unto death.  Or we eat and drink to the glory of God, and then food becomes sacramental as a means of uniting us with God.  Our heavenly Father restored the eucharistic meaning of food precisely in the Eucharist, when He gave to us the flesh and blood of the Son of Man for our lives and “for the life of the world.”  The bread and wine represent all food and all life as offered up to God in a spirit of profound thanksgiving to the very Source of life.  We, in turn, receive this food back now as Holy Communion, through which we are united to Christ and have Christ dwelling within us.  Fr. Schmemann captures this approach to life in his chapter entitled, simply, “The Eucharist:”

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.  Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.  But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ.  In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being.  He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be. (p. 38)

I hope that you will agree with me that to say we have a great deal to be thankful for is a massive understatement.  This does not refer to what we have but to who we are:  sinners now healed by Christ and made worthy to enter the Kingdom of God.  The “leprosy” of our sin has been cleansed away.  Now we need to turn back to the source of our healing, praise God with a loud voice, and fall down at the feet of Jesus and give Him thanks.   Just like the Samaritan.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

St Nicholas, A Living Rule of Faith


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“God is wonderful in His saints, the God of Israel!”


I would like to wish everyone a blessed St. Nicholas feast day, and more specifically I would like to wish all of our parish members with the name of Nicholas a blessed name day.  Yesterday evening we were able to serve and celebrate a  wonderful Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast, and it is clear that St. Nicholas remains a beloved saint among our parish faithful, for the service was quite well-attended, including a fair share of our Church School children and young adults.  We hope that same spirit carries over into the weekend as we prepare for our St. Nicholas Day pageant and charity dinner on Sunday.

As we well know, St. Nicholas was a bishop who served in Asia Minor in the opening decades of the fourth century.  As a hierarch of the Church, he was a man who had authority, meaning, further, that he was someone to be respected and obeyed.  This has been a characteristic of the Church’s hierarchy “from the beginning,” as we heard in the Epistle reading appointed for St. Nicholas and other great hierarchs of the Church:  “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (HEB. 13:17).  This sacramental, pastoral and administrative authority of the episcopos (bishop) was further strengthened by the Apostolic Father, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early second century:

Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop.  Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated.  Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church.  (To the Smyrnaens, 8)

These well-known exhortations, many of which became the basis for later Church canons pertaining to the authority of the hierarchy, could certainly be multiplied from a variety of impressive sources. Yet, it is therefore quite significant that the troparion for St. Nicholas mentions nothing of the bishop’s authority, but rather stresses his pastoral image and care for his flock:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

As Fr. Thomas Hopko has written, this troparion “has become in Orthodox liturgical services the ‘general troparion’ for most canonized bishops of the Church, thus revealing the ‘mind of the Church’ about what a Christian pastor should be.”  (The Winter Pascha, p. 40)

Granting the role of authority that a bishop “inherits” in his consecration to the episcopacy, the Church concentrates on the qualities of a true pastor, of one who will “shepherd” the flock entrusted to him by the Lord that the bishop sacramentally represents to and for his flock.  

The troparion has nothing to say about “power” or “authority.” Quite the opposite! We hear of humility, abstinence and even poverty.  These are Christ-like characteristics that we learn of from the Gospels.  Only by manifesting such qualities is the bishop a man who will receive the support, love and obedience of his flock in a spirit of trust and confidence in his leadership. 

Perhaps we should add that this is also true of the parish priest in his ministry to the flock entrusted to his care. This happens when a bishop leads by example.  He then becomes a living “rule of faith” as the troparion opens with, meaning essentially that the bishop is a living, flesh-and-blood realization of the Gospel. Whenever we experience a “crisis of leadership” in the Church, it is precisely such Christ-like characteristics that are so painfully lacking in the Church’s hierarchy. The faithful realize this, and the whole Church then suffers from a lack of trust and confidence in that leadership.

In relation to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, there is a fine passage from the great iconographer, Leonid Ouspensky, who summarizes the Church’s love of this great saint throughout the centuries:

The quite exceptional veneration of St. Nicholas is well known.  He is revered not only by Christians but often also by Muslims.  In the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, among the days of the week dedicated to the Savior and to different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only three persons are singled out by name:  the Mother of God, John the Forerunner and St. Nicholas. 
The reason for the special veneration of this bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings, is evidently that the Church sees in him the personification of a shepherd – of one who protects and intercedes. According to his Life, when St. Nicholas was raised to the dignity of bishop he said: "The office demands a different type of conduct, so that one may live no longer for oneself but for others."  This "life for others" is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men:  his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. 
This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death.  Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit.  (Quoted in Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

Following Christ faithfully, St. Nicholas endures as the purest manifestation of authority and leadership in the Church:  a living rule of faith, practicing humility, abstinence and voluntary poverty as an example to his flock.


O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well,
And now wearing your unfading crown,
you intercede for our souls.
(Vespers of the Feast of St. Nicholas)

Friday, November 24, 2017

Redeeming the Time


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In Ephesians 5:15-16 we read, "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil." 

To "walk" -- in the context of this passage -- is a metaphor for how we conduct our lives.  We can live wisely or unwisely.  To "walk" unwisely means that we can easily resemble a "fool." Avoiding such a false step, but on the contrary walking with wisdom, will depend on how much effort we put into "making the most of the time."  

This can also be translated as "redeem the time."  To redeem the time is, first, not to waste time, especially on what is superfluous. More positively, it could mean to spend our time in worthwhile pursuits, seeking to do the good in all of life's various circumstances.  We are children of God at all times, not only when we are in church or before the icons in our domestic prayer corner.  How we live and how we interact with others is basically how we express our Christian faith on a daily basis.

On a deeper level, to "redeem the time" could also mean to sanctify time, both remembering and honoring the fact that the full expanse of our lives — our lifetime — is a gift from God, for as humans our lives unfold within the time of this world as created by God.  Our time is limited because our lives are of finite duration.  An awareness of this can go a long way in how we appreciate -- and therefore redeem -- the time.

We are drawing closer to the celebration of the Lord's Incarnation.  We can redeem this time within the rhythm of ecclesial time, the time of the Church.  We need to pick up where we perhaps left off during this long and enjoyable Thanksgiving Day weekend.  We have just feasted along with our fellow Americans; now let us fast as Orthodox Christians. To squander a season of preparation before a feast by neglecting prayer, almsgiving and fasting is to act unwisely if we claim to be serious Orthodox Christians.  Any struggle against our lower instincts to eat, drink and be merry as the most meaningful pursuits in life is one sound way of redeeming the time.  One more obvious example of the "battle of the calendars."

The Apostle Paul writes that "the days are evil."  In a fallen world, every single day presents us with the possibility -- if not probability -- of encountering evil on a grand or limited scale.  To somehow believe the days we are living in are not all that evil is to be lost in a wishful thinking divorced from any rational perception of reality.  We live in a time wherein people have forgotten God, and through this forgetfulness lose sight of their basic humanity.  To de-sanctify the world (by claiming that the world is an autonomous reality and a result of blind forces) is to debase humanity, for only through faith in God can we have faith in the goodness of human nature.

We can be "in the world," but not "of the world," if we choose to "make the most of the time, because the days are evil."  One of the key words here is "choose."  Do we really have a hard choice to make?  Hardly!  In my humble opinion, within the grace-filled life of the Church, the choices before us are very easy to make!

Here is a simple prayer (but just try to put it into daily practice!) from the diary of Elder Anthony of Optina [†1820] that teaches us how to redeem the time.

O God, be attentive unto helping me.  O Lord, make haste to help me.

Direct, O Lord God, everything that I do, read and write, everything that I say and try to understand to the glory of Your holy Name.  From You have I received a good beginning, and my every deed end in You.

Grant, O God, that I might not anger You, my Creator, in word, deed or thought, but may all my deeds, counsels and thoughts be to the glory of Your most holy Name.  Amen.

From the Diary of the Elder Anthony of Optina, 1820

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Capable of Thanksgiving


Dear Parish Faithful,

"And we thank Thee for this Liturgy which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands..." - Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

I have been able to read a good deal of Orthodox theology over the years - and the years are adding up - but to this day, I have never encountered a writer who has expressed with such eloquence and power the insight that we are created to be eucharistic beings, such as Fr. Alexander Schmemann has done. 

Throughout his long priestly ministry, and through his many wonderful books, this was a theme that he continually returned to: the human person as oriented toward God as a being who is eucharistic at the deepest level of existence.  We are our most human when we consciously and with profound gratitude offer thanksgiving (Gk. eucharistia) to the living God who has created us.

This was Fr. Alexander's compelling reading of the Genesis creation accounts and what it means for human beings to be made "according to the image and likeness of God."  Dying of cancer, Fr. Alexander served his last Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. He was able to deliver a short homily that is now known throughout the OCA as, simply, "The Thanksgiving Homily," in which he uttered a beautiful opening thought that memorably captured the "catholicity" of his vision and understanding of life: 

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

This particular sentence and the whole of this final homily served as a kind of summation of his deeply-conceived and felt intuition of life and the Christian Gospel. For Fr. Alexander, the human person is, of course, "homo sapiens" and "homo faber," but at the most basic level of existence the human person is "homo adorans" - a being instinctively inclined toward worship. We find an expression of this insight in Fr. Alexander's classic book For the Life of the World:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion. (p. 5)

This entire book - an absolute "must read" for contemporary Orthodox Christians - was a new, refreshing and transformative way of understanding and experiencing the Sacraments of the Church, freeing these Sacraments from a stultifying scholastic theology that threatened to reduce them to "religious actions" that would isolate them from the experience of life.  Since I am trying to focus on Fr. Alexander's eucharistic intuition of life, I would like to include a justifiably famous passage from this same book:

When man stands before the throne of God, when, he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.
Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man.  Eucharist is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven.
But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be, (p. 23)

At the time when that was written (around 1960 in the original Russian, I believe - English translation 1963) to the present day, that passage is something like a "breath of fresh air" that brings to life in a very vivid manner what it means to participate in the Divine Liturgy/Eucharist.

How utterly bland, then, is our conventional term "attending church!"  The Eucharist is our recovery - again and again - of who we now are in Christ.  That "recovery" is a life-long process that makes each and every Liturgy a new and fresh experience, or at least so potentially.  We may grow old, but the Liturgy never grows old.  And it can never grow boring no matter how many liturgies one may "attend!"  As Fr. Alexander further wrote:

Eucharist was the end of the journey, the end of time. And now it is again the beginning, and things that were impossible are again revealed to us as possible. (p. 30)

These short reflections were prompted by the Gospel account of the healing of the ten lepers (LK. 17:11-19), read at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy (and we will hear this passage later in December).  This passage is as much about thanksgiving as it is about the actual healing of the lepers. Being present as homo adorans at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy is a witness to our commitment to be "eucharistic beings."


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Entrance of the Theotokos - Sanctifying Time through the Feasts of the Church


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


"Today let Heaven above greatly rejoice ..."



I will assume that today began and will continue as a normal weekday for just about everyone who reads this email communication.  In addition to our responsibilities, tasks, appointments and over-all agendas, that may also imply the tedium associated with daily life. Another day will come and go, never to be repeated again in the unceasing flow of time ... 

However, today (November 21) also happens to be one of the Twelve Great Feast Days of the Church's liturgical year:  The Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple.  For those who came to the service yesterday evening, that may be more apparent; but if we "keep time" with our Church calendar, as well as with our regular calendars, we may not be "caught off guard" by the coming of the Feast.  

The festal cycle of the Church sanctifies time. By this we mean that the tedious flow of time is imbued with sacred content as we celebrate the events of the past now made present through liturgical worship.  Notice how often we hear the word "today" in the hymns of the Feast chanted at Vespers:

Today let us, the faithful dance for joy...

Today the living Temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, she who alone among women is pure and blessed ...
Today the Theotokos, the Temple that is to hold God is led into the temple of the Lord...

Again, we do not merely commemorate the past, but we make the past present.  We actualize the event being celebrated so that we are also participating in it.  We, today, rejoice as we greet the Mother of God as she enters the temple "in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all."  

Can all - or any - of this possibly change the "tone" of how we live this day?  Is it at all possible that an awareness of this joyous Feast can bring some illumination or sense of divine grace into the seemingly unchanging flow of daily life?  Are we able to envision our lives as belonging to a greater whole: the life of the Church that is moving toward the final revelation of God's Kingdom in all of its fullness?  Do such questions even make any sense as we are scrambling to just get through the day intact and in one piece, hopefully avoiding any serious mishaps or calamities?  If not, can be at least acknowledge that "something" essential is missing from our lives?

I believe that there a few things that we could do on a practical level that will bring the life of the Church, and its particular rhythms into our domestic lives.  As we know, each particular Feast has a main hymn called the troparion.  This troparion captures the over-all meaning and theological content of the Feast in a somewhat poetic fashion.  As the years go by, and as we celebrate the Feasts annually, you may notice that you have memorized these troparia, or at least recognize them when they are sung in church.  For the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple, the festal troparion is the following:

Today is the prelude of the good will of God / of the preaching of the salvation of mankind / The Virgin appears in the temple of God / in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all / Let us rejoice and sing to her: / Rejoice, O Fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation!

A great Feast Day of the Church is never a one-day affair.  There is the "afterfeast" and then, finally, the "leavetaking" of the Feast.  So this particular Feast extends from today, November 21, until Saturday, November 25.  A good practice, therefore, would be to include the troparion of the Feast in our daily prayer until the leavetaking.  That can be very effective when parents pray together with their children before bedtime, as an example. 

Perhaps even more importantly within a family meal setting, would be to sing or simply say or chant the troparion together before sitting down to share that meal together.  The troparion would replace the usual prayer that we use, presumably the Lord's Prayer.  All of this can be especially effective with children as it will introduce them to the rhythm of Church life and its commemoration of the great events in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. 

Do you have any Orthodox literature in the home that would narrate and then perhaps explain the events and their meaning of the Great Feast Days? Reading this together as a family can also be very effective.  A short Church School session need not be the only time that our children are introduced to the life of the Church.  The home, as we recall, has been called a "little church" by none other than St. John Chrysostom.  Orthodox Christianity is meant to be a way of life, as expressed here by Fr. Pavel Florensky:

The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved.  That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct experience ... to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once into the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way.  There is no other way.  (The Pillar and Ground of the Truth)

As this Feast Day falls during the Nativity Fast, the Church calendar tells us that "fish, wine and oil" are allowed today.

NOTE: Special articles and resources on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos and all the Great Feasts are available on our parish website.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Today, Wednesday November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25.  (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today. 

This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously.  The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. Because of that tension, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously.  To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical. It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy!

From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.  

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleash the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.

Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.”  An awareness — combined with sharing — of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies.  To speak honestly, this is a difficult  and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies?

I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance.  Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to.

The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?  Do we care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God", then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days.


Friday, November 10, 2017

10 Ways the Funeral of a Priest is Different from a Layperson’s


Dear Parish Faithful,


https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/timeeternal/10-ways-funeral-priest-different-lay-persons/
I have provided a link to a fascinating article on her Ancient Faith Radio blog from our former parishioner, Dr. Nicole Lyon Roccas. Nicole has written a very well-researched and challenging article comparing the funeral service/rites of an Orthodox priest and a layperson. Her ten points bring up many important aspects of what we mean by the phrase "death and dying," as well as our Orthodox approach to these subjects and how these are reflected in the Orthodox funeral service.

I would like to draw some practical conclusions from what she writes and discuss this openly in church - perhaps at one of our post-Liturgy discussions in the near future. There is much to learn here, beginning with the differences in funeral practices between the clergy and laity, but she extends the discussion much further and raises important questions in the process.

This particular article is longer than what she usually writes, so please give yourselves the needed time to read through it carefully.

Fr. Steven

10 Ways the Funeral of a Priest is Different from a Layperson’s




'And deliver us from the evil one...'


Dear Parish Faithful,



 It has been three days now since the latest horrific act of mayhem took away the lives of so many innocent persons gathered for worship in a small Texas community on Sunday. The images of that unthinkable tragedy are deeply troubling especially, perhaps, when you think of the very young children either killed or terribly wounded and scarred for life. Yet another infamous "record" has been set: the most people gun downed while gathered in a church. I am not convinced that this was a "mental health issue."  Acts this heinous are hard to explain without looking deeper into the human heart where evil can reside waiting to spew forth based upon some provocation or other. The irrationality of evil always leaves us groping for answers.

I explored this approach to these tragic incidents a few years back when a young man slaughtered over thirty students one day on the campus of Virginia Tech. Perhaps you recall that event. I saw that as an "act of evil" and I see Sunday's killings the same way. If anyone would be interested in (re)reading what I wrote then, I have attached that meditation here for your convenience.

Fr. Steven

The Virginia Tech Massacre

V. Rev. Steven C. Kostoff


As more of the harrowing details emerge about the twisted mind of Cho Seung-Hui, the “experts” are slowly assembling a classic profile of a mass murderer. As Northeastern University criminal justice professor James Alan said: “In virtually every regard, Cho is prototypical of mass killers that I have studied in the past 25 years.” He then went on to say: “That does not mean, however, that one could have predicted his rampage.”

Unpredictability, perhaps, remains a consistent trait of such spontaneous outbursts of evil. Obviously, there are countless others who fit the same profile, but who do not make that fateful decision to wreck such violent vengeance on society. The troubling images of this young man rationalizing the irrational from beyond the grave will remain indelible for some time to come. Certainly it was painful to hear the name of, and even comparison with Jesus Christ, spewing forth in the gunman’s irrational rant against his fellow-students and the world. Seeking such an infamous form of “immortality” is difficult for us to conceive. It sounds like sheer madness. Of course, it may be far better to try and understand the mind of persons such as Cho Seung-Hui than to vilify them; but whatever one’s choice about that, I find it difficult to ignore the presence of evil in this latest rampage of violence.

I admit to lacking the necessary psychological and psychiatric skills needed to analyze a mass murderer. And there will be no shortage of such analysis in the days to come as the very human desire to find a “motive” in this case will be doggedly pursued. The effects of being “bullied”, the contentious issue of gun-control, the polarizing effects of social acceptance or alienation, and other important issues will be the focus of discussion and debate once again. 

Yet beyond – or could we even say transcending? – the environmental, genetic, psychological and social factors readily available to our gaze, there remains a “choice” that one makes expressive of the capacity and need for self-determination. At least according to the teachings of Orthodox Christian anthropology. And thus one has the “freedom” to choose to do something that is undeniably evil. In the public forum, though, it seems that the very concept of evil is ignored or treated as a four-letter word. Our secular age is very uneasy with concepts that press toward a more religious/metaphysical/moral dimension. Or perhaps evil is resorted to as an explanation only in the face such horrific events that unfolded on the campus of Virginia Tech.

For Christians the source of evil is the “evil one”; yet in a manner that is never quite susceptible to rational analysis. From our limited perspective it is immensely difficult to unravel that connection in a satisfactory manner. In no way does this allow Christians to somehow lessen the moral responsibility of the perpetrator of evil, as in the limp cliché: “the devil made me/him do it”. We always stand morally responsible for aligning ourselves with evil/the evil one. We come back to the reality of a choice that puts one on a “road to perdition,” and that once embarked upon may prove humanly impossible to turn back from. Perhaps at a certain point one is “too far” along that road, thus leading to a sense of being engulfed by the inevitable or irreversible. Or perhaps to a greater sense of calculation and perverse empowerment when contemplating the effects of a considered course of action.

As Christians we must develop a realistic understanding of the pervasive presence of evil in the world. We take seriously the Apostle Paul’s claim that we live in “this present evil age”. (GAL.1:4) And Christ spoke of “the ruler of this world.” (JN. 12:30) That does not make the Lord and His great apostle - or us for the matter - metaphysical dualists obsessed with the reality of evil as if it were an independent substance, as were the early Gnostics. 

Without being either “optimists” or pessimists” we realize that the vast majority of humankind is made up of good, decent people who do not wish evil on anyone. Most people desire to lead morally-healthy lives pursuing positive and constructive goals. If it was otherwise, life would be unendurable. But as Christians we accept an ethical dualism in the world that keeps us vigilant to the fact that on a daily basis people make choices that can only be described as evil – whether on a minor or major scale. And others suffer because of those choices, including these new innocent victims and their families, friends and communities (and elsewhere throughout the world today). This creates anxiety and fear in us. It fills us with mistrust and suspicion. It is why we lock our doors at night. As I wrote earlier, it has us warily awaiting its next deadly outburst. As such, and in a mysterious manner, this supports the “evil one”.

To expand the two biblical texts above, and thus uncover their powerful meaning, we read that the Apostle Paul actually wrote:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (GAL. 1:4)

And that the Lord declared:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. (JN. 12:31)

The source of evil – the evil one – has been overthrown in an ultimate sense. His “power” is not eternal as is the power, glory and authority of God. This supposed power will be bound and cast away in the “Day of the Lord”.  Suffering – as powerful, absorbing and crippling as it may be – is only temporary. Its effects will be undone and overcome. This is the promise of God. And the living Face of this promise is Christ, Who vanquished the power of sin, death and the devil on the Cross, revealing that victory in His life-giving Resurrection. The evil of “this world” converged on Christ and He absorbed it through love and conquered it through an act of sacrificial love. This does not free us from being the potential victims of evil in the time allotted to us for our lives in this world. If death is the “last enemy,” that in itself is an “evil” we must all endure. It is only our hope in Christ that makes any “sense" in the face of such evil deeds as these recent shootings.

Whatever helpful insights we hear throughout all of the “talk” that will fill the various media sources in the days to come; whatever we can learn to create a society better protected from such outbursts; however we equip social institutions and families to “read” the signs of mayhem waiting to explode; I believe that we need to realize that the ‘battleground” exists within the human heart, where God and the devil struggle for mastery, awaiting the free choices that we will eventually make.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Thundering Message


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We recently heard the powerful account of Jesus raising from the dead the widow's son at Nain (LK. 7:11-16). This particular event is unique to St. Luke's Gospel. In his Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, the biblical scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, summarized the over-all impression left by this extraordinary event in the following manner:

This incident, only in Luke, shows the Evangelist's special delight in portraying Jesus not only overwhelmed with pity at the sight of tragedy but also turning with kindly regard toward women (cf. 7:36-50; 10:38-42) ... This narrative possesses the charm, color, and pathos of an excellent story:  two large crowds meet, approaching from different directions; the silence with which Jesus touches the bier and stops the funeral procession; the thundering message, calmly spoken, bringing the dead back to life.  (The Jerome Biblical Commentary)

Truly, it is nothing less than a "thundering message" when Jesus said: "Young man, I say to you arise!"  (LK. 7:14).   And when the young man "sat up and began to speak" we should be able to understand, however dimly, the reaction of the crowd: "Fear seized them all; and they glorified God" (7:16).  The pathos of this story is further increased by the fact that the young man was "the only son of his mother, and she was a widow" (7:12).  There was no existing social safety net within first century Israel that would provide support for this woman.  Without a son who could help provide for her, this widow would have been totally dependent upon the good will and the charity of her neighbors in the small village that Nain was known to have been.  Hence, the power of the simple statement that accompanies the young man's restoration to life:  "And he gave him to his mother" (7:15).  What a reunion that must have been!

Now St. Luke makes it clear just who it was who encountered this funeral procession and dramatically brought it to a halt: "And when the Lord who saw her he had compassion on her" (7:13).  It was "the Lord."  This was the first of many times throughout his Gospel that the Evangelist Luke will use this exalted title for Jesus.  The Greek ho Kyrios — the Lord — is the translation found in the Septuagint of the divine name Yahweh.  Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, this title reveals that as the Lord, Jesus has power over both life and death.  Anticipating his own resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ brings this young man back to life, revealing that even death is not beyond His authority and capacity to give life.

We are not told how this young man died.  In our contemporary world, death can be more-or-less defined in a clinical manner.  The shift in this clinical definition has moved toward a final determination of "brain death."  Be it the cessation of breath, permanent "cardiac arrest," or the brain death just mentioned, we can identify death and its effect on our biological organism.  And so could anyone in the ancient world, where death was such a more immediate and "up close" reality compared to the rather antiseptic experience of death that we promote today in a attempt to distance the living from the dying as well as that is possible. 

But as Christians, we certainly understand death in a way that moves far beyond its current clinical definition and determination.  That is because we understand life in such a way that the clinical is transcended by the mysterious:  "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (PS. 8:4). Conversant with a biblical anthropology that refuses to limit a human person to his or hers biological functions, we perceive ourselves in a more complex and meaningful manner.

There are many ways over the centuries that within our theological tradition we have elaborated on that inexhaustible biblical affirmation that we are created  "according to the image and likeness of God."  The Church Fathers will speak of the human person as a psychosomatic union of soul and body. Or, following the Apostle Paul of a union of spirit, soul and body. (I THESS. 5:23)  Because of some of the Greek philosophical connotations - primarily dualism - of using the terminology of soul and body, there has been a concerted movement within theological circles today to use the more biblically-based terms of "spirit and flesh" to describe the mystery of human personhood.  Whatever the exact terminology employed to describe the fullness of human existence, the essential point being made is that the human person is more - much more - than "what meets the eye."  We are even greater than the angels according to some of the Fathers, because we unite in our person the "spiritual" and  the "material" as the pinnacle of God's creative acts. We have our biological limitations, but we can still know the living God!  Even though we are so frail in our humanity, the psalmist can still exclaim in wonder:  "Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor" (PS. 8:5).

In describing the mystery of death as it pertains to all creatures, including human beings, the psalmist says (and we hear this at every Vespers service):  "When you take away their spirit, they die and return to their dust" (Ps. 104:29).  This is what happened to the young man from Nain regardless of whatever may have been the immediate cause of his death.  Something had happened that could not be fully described as merely brain death. His "spirit" had been taken away and his flesh was destined to return to the dust.  Another expression that became almost classical as a theological description of death - and which essentially means the same thing - is that of the "separation of soul and body."  Either way, the wholeness and integrity of the human person is lost in death.  This is what renders death a tragedy and why the Apostle Paul can refer to death as "the last enemy."

When the Lord brought this only son of his mother to life again, the spirit of the young man returned to his flesh - or the soul to his body - and he began to live again in the full meaning of that word.  Yet, this is not resurrection in the fullness of that word's meaning as we apply it to Christ:  "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9).  The young man was resuscitated to life. He lived — and died — again, to then await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, a resurrection prefigured and promised by the Lord's resurrection and victory over death.  The same can be said of the synagogue elder Jairus' daughter and, of course Lazarus, the friend of Christ who had been dead for four days.

We are told today that we are essentially a walking bag of chemicals with an evolved consciousness.  This further implies that at death this biological organism collapses, all consciousness is irreversibly lost, and that final oblivion is our common fate. The Scripture revelation that we accept as coming from God tells us something radically different.  To hear the Gospel is to fill us with the faith, hope and love that can only come from the living God.  It is to hear of a different destiny and one that makes life infinitely more meaningful and hopeful.  We too can cry out together with the crowd at Nain: "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and "God has visited his people!"  (LK. 7:16).  And living within the Church we know that this is the Lord who "shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end."


Monday, October 30, 2017

Image of a True Disciple: The Gadarene Demoniac


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

One of the most challenging narratives in the Gospels has to be the healing of the Gadarene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20; MATT. 8:28-34; LK. 8:26-39). This dramatic event which reveals the power of Christ over the demons will appear to the 21st c. mind as either archaic or even primitive. We may listen with respect and sing "Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!" upon the completion of the reading, but "wrapping our minds" around such a narrative may leave us baffled if not shaking our heads.

The spectacle of a man possessed by many demons, homeless and naked, living among the tombs, chained so as to contain his self-destructive behavior is, to state the obvious, not exactly a sight that we encounter with any regularity. (Although we should acknowledge that behind the walls of certain institutions, we could witness to this day some horrible scenes of irrational and frightening behavior from profoundly troubled and suffering human beings). Add to this a herd of swine blindly rushing over a steep bank and into a lake to be drowned, and we must further recognize the strangeness of this event. This is all-together not a part of our world!

Yet, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the narrated event, which does appear in three of the Gospels, though with different emphases and details - in fact there are two demoniacs in St. Matthew's telling of the story! It is always instructive to compare the written account of a particular event or body of teaching when found in more than one Gospel. This will cure us of the illusion of a wooden literalism as we will discover how the four evangelists will present their gathered material from the ministry of Jesus in somewhat different forms. 

As to the Gadarene demoniac, here was an event within the ministry of Christ that must have left a very strong impression upon the early Church as it was shaping its oral traditions into written traditions that would eventually come together in the canonical Gospels. This event was a powerful confirmation of the Lord's encounter and conflict with, and victory over, the "evil one." The final and ultimate consequence of that victory will be revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

Whatever our immediate reaction to this passage - proclaimed yesterday during the Liturgy from the Gospel According to St. Luke (8:26-39) - I believe that we can recognize behind the dramatic details the disintegration of a human personality under the influence of the evil one, and the reintegration of the same man's personhood when healed by Christ. Here was a man that was losing his identity to a process that was undermining the integrity of his humanity and leading to physical harm and psychic fragmentation. I am not in the process of offering a psychological analysis of the Gadarene demoniac because, 1) I am ill-equipped to do so; and 2) I do not believe that we can "reduce" his horrible condition to psychological analysis. We are dealing with the mysterious presence of personified evil and the horrific effects of that demonic presence which we accept as an essential element of the authentic Gospel Tradition. 

The final detail that indicates this possessed man's loss of personhood is revealed in the dialogue between himself and Jesus:

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. (8:30)

To be named in the Bible is to receive a definite and irreducible identity as a person. It is to be "someone" created in the "image and likeness of God." It is the role of the evil one to be a force of disintegration. The "legion" inhabiting the man reveals the loss of his uniqueness, and the fragmentation of his personality. Such a distorted personality can no longer have a "home," which is indicative of our relational capacity as human beings, as it is indicative of stability and a "groundedness" in everyday reality. The poor man is driven into the desert, biblically the abode of demons. 

Once again, we may stress the dramatic quality of this presentation of a person driven to such a state, but would we argue against this very presentation as false when we think of the level of distortion that accompanies any form of an "alliance" with evil -whether "voluntary or involuntary?" Does anyone remain whole and well-balanced under the influence of evil? Or do we rather not experience or witness a drift toward the "abyss"?

Then we hear a splendid description of the man when he is healed by Christ! For we hear the following once the demons left him and entered into the herd of swine and self-destructed (the ultimate end of all personal manifestations of evil?):

Then the people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. (8:35)

"Sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind." This is clearly one of the most beautiful descriptions of a Christian who remains as a true disciple of the Master. This is the baptized person who is clothed in a "garment of salvation" and who is reoriented toward Christ, the "Sun of Righteousness." 

The image here is of total reintegration, of the establishment of a relationship with Christ that restores integrity and wholeness to human life. Also an image of peacefulness and contentment. Our goal in life is to "get our mind right" which describes repentance or that "change of mind" that heals all internal divisions of the mind and heart as it restores our relationship with others. 

Jesus commands the man "to return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you" (8:39). We, too, have been freed from the evil one "and all his angels and all his pride" in baptism. In our own way, perhaps we too can also proclaim just how much Jesus has done for us (cf. 8:39).


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Just Who is the Real Rich Man?


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."  (LK. 16:31)

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is the only parable that has a named character, and the only parable in which Jesus describes the "afterlife."  In these two instances it remains unique among the Lord's parables.  It is a parable extremely rich in content, with a rather complex structure based upon a "reversal of fortune,"and filled with multiple themes.  

Yet, certainly one of those many themes is quite apparent and revealed with a stark directness:  the consequence of ignoring the poor and needy, embodied in Lazarus, the poor man at the gate. (Is he given a name to emphasize this point in a personal and less-forgettable manner, so that his character takes us beyond an anonymous example of the poor?). The rich man in hades (the biblical realm of the dead) bears the consequence of his indifference to Lazarus and his unwillingness to share.  

St. John Chrysostom explored this theme of wealth and poverty with unrivaled insight and depth in his famous series of homilies on this parable (a collection of homilies that now exists in English - On Wealth and Poverty - and which every member of the Church should read). St. John would always challenge the conventional wisdom of his own age, by interpreting the Scriptures in such a way that would turn our accepted values upside down so that we would be able to look at things in a new and startling light.  In a famous passage from his homilies, he challenges our conventional notions of what true wealth and true poverty actually are.  He does this by asking just who is the real rich  man and who is the real poor man:

Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth.  So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone's money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.

I rather doubt that this will change the minds of very many of us about the true nature of wealth and poverty.  Conventional wisdom - combined with observation and life experience - does tell us that wealth has to do with money, possessions, status and power; and that poverty has to do with lacking any and all of these things.  Many of us "deep down" crave to be wealthy, and we certainly fear the specter of poverty.  

Yet, St. John was neither a simpleton nor a naïve dreamer.  He knows of the corrosive effect on the wealthy of a life primarily dedicated to more and more acquisition and how this becomes obsessive and compulsive; and he knew many Christians personally that sought a life of simplicity and through that pursuit discovered a different type of wealth that had the presence of God as its source.  St. John was also aware of the judgment of God which differs radically from our own limited understanding of the "bigger picture."

Many people are forced to struggle to makes ends meet - and perhaps dream of hitting the lottery - and can only watch with envy the lifestyles of "the rich and famous" that entice such dreams. Perhaps, then, St. John makes some sense about the obsessive "collection of many possessions," the fulfillment of "many desires" and the effect of being "greedy for many things," and how a "successful" pursuit of this captivating dream can be more impoverishing than enriching.  And then St. John got the point of the parable: in some cases it can be too late to change.


Monday, October 23, 2017

A Radical Critique of Selfishness


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”  (LK. 8:14)

There is an interior connection between the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31), heard yesterday at the Divine Liturgy.  For the “rich man” of the parable is the embodiment of a person who has been “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” as described in the Parable of the Sower. 

Brushing aside the teaching of the Torah, and the Jewish emphasis on charity as one of the great acts of true piety, the rich man remained coldly indifferent to poor Lazarus who was clearly visible at his very gate.  Preoccupied with fine linen and sumptuous feasting (v. 19), the rich man was scarcely prepared in his heart to alleviate the sufferings of Lazarus, sufferings that were exemplified by the dogs that licked his sores (v. 20). 

Such indifference is frightening when seen in the light of the many scriptural admonitions that either chastise the neglect of the poor: “He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard;” or encourage his care: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (PROV. 21:13; 19:17)  And the severity of the consequences of such neglect of the poor is vividly described in the parable’s “reversal of fortune,” with the rich man languishing in hades, unable to be relieved of his torment there. The contrast of his fate and that of Lazarus being carried into the “bosom of Abraham” by a heavenly escort is striking. (v. 22-23)

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was delivered with the Pharisees in mind, for right before Jesus proclaimed the parable, we hear this unflattering description of the Pharisees:  “The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him.  But he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’.” (LK. 16:14-15)  

Whatever or whoever may have prompted the words of the Lord during his ministry, our concern now is with our own attitude and treatment of the poor.  To think or believe otherwise is to fail to “hear” the parable as it is proclaimed today for our chastisement or encouragement. 

The words of the Lord – the “Gospel truth” – cannot be properly assessed within the narrow limits of any political allegiances – Democrat or Republican; nor even of a wider-scoped ideology – liberal or conservative.  The Gospel transcends these categories as something far greater and infinitely more demanding of our allegiance.  At a time when neither political parties nor even political ideologies existed or had any real impact on the prevailing cultural or social assumptions of the time, St. John Chrysostom (+407) delivered a series of brilliant homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  (These seven homilies now exist in English translation under the title on Wealth and Poverty).  With his impressive knowledge of the Scriptures; his unmatched rhetorical skills; but most importantly his profound zeal for the moral and ethical teaching of the Gospel; St. John offered a radical critique of selfishness and a radical exhortation to overcome such selfishness for the sake of the poor.  Challenging conventional notions of what theft is, he famously expanded its definition by meditating deeply on the parable at hand:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation.  What is this testimony?  Accusing the  Jews by the prophet, God says, "The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses" (MAL. 3:8-10).  Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor.  He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. 
And elsewhere the Scripture says, "Deprive not the poor of his living" (SIR. 4:1).  To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. 
If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.  This is why God has allowed you to have more; not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need … If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you … For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.  (On Wealth and Poverty, homily two)

This is a radical teaching, though again not based on any particular social or political philosophy.  For St. John the “true philosophy” was adherence to the Gospel.  St. John is primarily concerned with uncovering the meaning and implications of what we discover in the Scriptures.  If that is challenging to the point of seeming “impossible’” or of least taking us way out of our “comfort zones,” then rather than “soft-pedaling” the Gospel message, St. John would continue in the hope of inspiring us to strengthen our efforts and to put on “the mind of Christ.”


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Marriage and Essential Equality


Dear Parish Faithful,

I wrote this meditation eight years ago. This year I have had four weddings scheduled within about a two-and-a-half month period (one will be celebrated out-of-town in a couple of weeks), so the controversial passage of Ephesians 5 will be heard with more frequency than ever before. For those interested I am re-issuing this meditation. Perhaps those most troubled by the Apostle Paul's teaching should read this carefully. There is no real attempt to convince, but to offer a broader perspective than mere rejection.


Marriage and Essential Equality

 



We have a few marriages coming up in our parish life so I wanted to make a few comments, forward some sound interpretive texts, and try to make some sense, in a contemporary setting, of our use of scripture in the wedding service. At all Orthodox Christian marriage services, one of the prescribed readings is from the Epistle to the Ephesians (5:22-31). In today's social and cultural context, that reading is more than a little controversial. So, in a loud and clear voice we hear the Apostle Paul's admonition:

Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (EPH. 5:21-33)

At that point in the service, eyes roll in disbelief, heads shake in disagreement, and glances are exchanged in dismay. If you look and listen very carefully, you may even detect a knowing smile or even an unintentional snort among the many gathered people. Of course, many Orthodox simply accept the reading as part of an unchanging tradition; regard such quaintness as part of Orthodox conservatism; and "move on" with the flow of the service. The bride and groom are convinced that the passage does not reflect contemporary attitudes toward marriage; or that it certainly does not apply to their upcoming life together. They convey this to each other in mutually reassuring and loving glances; or a warm squeeze of the hands. They, too, then settle in for the remainder of the service. The non-Orthodox present may feel as if they have been transported back in time by a few centuries. "Colorful," perhaps, but ultimately irrelevant. It is like an unexpected bad note at a wonderful symphony that creates a modestly perceptible wave of uneasiness, only to be absorbed into the greater beauty of the whole service which leaves everyone deeply impressed. 

Yet, is the passage in point that unendurable? Or, more pointedly, is the Apostle Paul actually a glorified misogynist?

My intention is not to defend the Apostle Paul, nor is it to compel assent to his teaching by an attempt to convince everyone of how "right" he actually is. My concern here is very modest: to at least try and understand what the Apostle Paul is saying before we dismiss him as "patriarchal" or "chauvinist." 

The passage from Ephesians is indeed jarring and it does indeed seem to be at the very least outdated. But who takes the time and makes the effort to try and come to terms with the Apostle's goal and the context out of which this passage emerges? Is he (ab)using his authority to subordinate women to the dominance of men? I, for one, do not find such charges very convincing. 

Many scholars have gone a long way in demonstrating that the Apostle Paul can hardly be labeled a misogynist. In fact, considering contemporary attitudes to women in the Apostle's Paul's social, cultural, and religious context, he had a liberating attitude toward women - as indeed Christ Himself had. It is the Apostle Paul who also wrote: "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (I COR. 7:4). It is impossible to conceive of a Jewish or pagan contemporary of St. Paul's to say anything like that. And, of course, it is the Apostle Paul who "elevated" the status of women to be equal to that of men with his famous: " ... there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (GAL. 3:28).

An excellent contemporary Orthodox commentary on St. Paul's Ephesian text comes, in my opinion, from Fr. John Breck, found in his remarkable book THE SACRED GIFT OF LIFE. In this book he has a wonderful and insightful chapter entitled "Sexuality, Marriage and Covenant Responsibility." This chapter is seventy-two pages long, and is itself like a small book on marriage from an Orthodox Christian perspective. I cannot recommend this chapter highly enough for any Orthodox Christian who would like to have a better grasp of these essential topics. Under a section entitled "Equality of the Sexes," Fr. John does not hide the "facts of history:"

Within ancient Israel and throughout most of the life of the Church there has been a striking and, to most people's minds, an unjust balance with regard to the requirements for sexual fidelity and responsibility. The burden has weighed far more heavily on women than on men. This is due in part to a legacy of disproportion that we can call in today's jargon "sexist patriarchalism." (p. 83-84)

In his usual balanced style, Fr. John responds to this with a paragraph where he directly deals with some of the teachings and implications of St. Paul's Ephesian text used in our Marriage Service. Agree with him or not, I believe that Fr. John has something worth thinking about as he reflects holistically and deeply on the Apostle's teaching :

In theory, if not in practice, this condition has been done away with by the "great reversal" brought about by Jesus Christ. St. Paul's declaration, "in Christ there is neither male nor female," means that the socially and culturally conditioned inequality between the sexes is abolished: it does not exist in the mind of God and has no place within the church communities. It also means that in Christ men bear equal responsibility with women for upholding a moral ethos which is conducive to preserving the integrity of family life.
Consequently, the husband is no less responsible than his wife for preserving familial structure, stability and nurture necessary for the proper raising of their children. The husband is also as responsible as the wife for fulfilling the prescriptions of Ephesians 5. If the wife "submits" herself to her husband as to the Lord, her submission mirrors that of the Church in relation to Christ. Conversely, if the husband exercises headship, he does so by reflecting the actions and attitudes of Christ toward his Body, the Church. (The verb hypotasso is correctly rendered "submit" in this context, not "subject," as in so many English translations. It denotes a voluntary act of love rather than subjection to constraints imposed by the husband or social convention.)
The husband is to love his wife "as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" in a sacrificial self-offering of disinterested love. The key to this mutual relationship is provided in Eph. 5:21, a verse that introduces the entire passage: "Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ." The submission, in other words, is reciprocal. It involves both parties equally yet in different ways: the wife through acceptance of the husband's responsibility for "headship," and the husband through loving service offered to his spouse. (p. 84)

Fr. John, in a very revealing footnote, honestly expresses our own difficulties with such a term as "headship:"

The concept of "headship" is one that needs a great deal more explanation than it has received to date. To what degree is it inherent in the conjugal relationship, and to what degree is it culturally conditioned? And in modern society, where both spouses are often the breadwinners, or where the husband assumes domestic chores while the wife pursues a career, how is the husband's "headship" to be exercised? (p. 84)

Nevertheless, even with such an honest reservation, Fr. John goes on to say this of the life between husband and wife:

The responsibilities and obligations of the conjugal relationship are mutual and fully equal. Husband and wife exercise different "functions" within the family, just as the priest and laity do in the "family" of the parish community. Those functions, however, are complementary. They are effective only to the extent they are based on the full and unconditional equality of each party with regard to ontological status and spiritual value.
Authentic hierarchy, in the Holy Trinity or in the Church, presupposes just such equality ... (p. 84-85)

These few passages may not do real justice to the richness of Fr. John's thoughts on "sexuality, marriage, and covenant responsibility," but they may at least indicate some of the direction of his thought. As quoted above, Fr. John is courageous enough to even explore the terribly unpopular concept of "hierarchy" raised by the Pauline teaching on "headship." 

But in a truly holistic Orthodox fashion, he makes it clear that if that concept is not to be rejected as anachronistic, or abused in a conservative manner, then it must be understood in its most exalted trinitarian application before applying it to human life. His conclusion is very important and must always be kept in mind:

Hierarchy presupposes and in fact requires the essential equality of its constituent members, an equality that derives from the fact that each member is created in the image of God and each one is called in equal measure to attain to the divine likeness. (p. 85)

I repeat: the Apostle Paul does not need any defense, but I am hoping that we can make the effort to understand what he is saying in the light of his teaching that "there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (GAL. 3:28). That makes more sense to me than an unenlightened dismissal of the scriptural text when we hear these words in church, as we will in the very near future.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Perfect Ending to the Perfect Day


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,



Although the day has passed, and is therefore now in the irretrievable past, I would like to explain why I believe that it was the "perfect time" to have come to Saturday evening's Great Vespers a couple of days ago.

It struck me as the "perfect time" because it came at the end of what can only be described as a (near) "perfect day." Saturday was a truly beautiful day or, as some would say, a gorgeous day. Well into the Fall at this point in time, it was not only warm, but the drenching sunshine, the pellucid clarity of the blue sky, and the changing colors of gold, yellow, orange and red still clinging to the trees combined to make each of us instinctively - or perhaps consciously - grateful for the simple joy of being alive. "Glory to You for the Feast Day of life!" we hear in the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things." What a day to wake up to and have your spirit lifted up in the process! As Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, it was the kind of day on which life made a great deal of sense. And such a day offered many opportunities for a variety of activities: working around the house (many of those leaves are now on the ground and need to be raked up); children playing in the yard; a trip to the park; a long walk, etc. The list can easily go on.

It is my humble opinion that the "perfect" culmination to such a day would have been to come to Great Vespers and truly thank God through the prayers and hymns of the service for the gift of such a day. (It is possible that someone may have said or thought that it was too nice of a day to "interrupt" by going to church. But, as the saying goes, better to not even go there ...) 

During the day, we may have paused for a moment and thanked God for its beauty, but the entire structure of Great Vespers is such that we offer our thanksgiving to God from within the Church as "ecclesial beings." It is not the impersonal forces of "Mother Nature" that we worship, but our heavenly Father, "the Maker of heaven and earth and of all things both visible and invisible." Again, that worship is most perfectly expressed from within the Church in our liturgical prayer. The very atmosphere of the church and our prayerful attention greatly magnifies our awareness of this truth. 

As mentioned above, from within the Church, our instinctive awareness of "goodness, truth and beauty," becomes a conscious awareness culminating in worship and thanksgiving. The service at the end of the day helps us to remember this. And perhaps this is something we forget without the liturgical service of Great Vespers.

Every Vespers service begins with Psalm 104, which is a form of "poetic theology," a hymn to the divinely-ordained diversity, order and purpose of all of creation: "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom has Thou made them all!" Therefore, on the one hand, as the day wanes, and the sun begins to set, Great Vespers comes at the day's end so that we thank God for the enjoyment and experiences of that day - good or bad. 

On the other hand, according to the Scriptures "there was evening and morning, one day" (GEN. 1:5), so the evening service of Vespers begins the next day liturgically - and on Saturday evening that means the Lord's Day. As the sun sets, we sing an ancient hymn to Christ, the "Gladsome Light" Who illuminates the darkness of the world with a light that cannot be "overcome" (cf. Jn. 1:5). In our liturgical theology we proclaim the "sanctification of time," indicating by this term the divine source of time and its (re)direction toward the Kingdom of Heaven made possible through the Death and Resurrection of Christ - the major theme of Sunday, the Lord's Day. And like the Elder Symeon, we can "depart in peace" - today and at the end of our earthly lives - for our eyes, too, have seen the salvation that God has "prepared before the face of all people."

I repeat: it struck me that being at Great Vespers was the perfect ending to the perfect day that last Saturday was. We had eight hours or more to enjoy it. Plenty of time for a great deal of activity. Then, we offer back an hour of our time to the God who makes all things possible. This is not an "interruption" in our day, but a "culmination" of the day. 

For the sake of emphasis, I used the term "perfect time" somewhat rhetorically when I began this meditation on being present at last Saturday's Great Vespers service. It is always the "perfect time" - rain or shine - when we include our presence in church as we make our plans and plot out our days as they come to us as gifts from God. Many such days have passed, and hopefully there are many more yet to come.