Thursday, June 22, 2017

Christ's Farewell Discourse: Reflections on John 14


Dear Bible Study Participants,



"Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid." 
(JN. 14:1)

I believe we had yet another stimulating session yesterday evening as we read and discussed the extraordinary text of JN. 14. With this chapter we have now entered deeply into the unfathomable depths of Christ's Farewell Discourse. At 14:6, we heard one of the great "I AM" statements from Christ:  "I am the Way (odos), the Truth (aleithia), and the Life (zoe)." In a prayerful way, St. Ambrose reveals the quality of this self-disclosure by Christ:

Lord Jesus, we do follow you, but we can come only at your bidding. No on can make the ascent without you, for you are our way, our truth, our life and strength, our confidence, our reward. Be the way that receives us, the truth that strengthens us, the life that invigorates us. (Death as a Good, 12.55)

Following those words, Christ added: "No one comes to the Father, but by me."  Many of the Church Fathers have offered insightful commentary on these strong words of Christ. One example from among many is found in St. Hilary of Poiters:

Except through him there is no approach to the Father. But there is also no approach to him unless the Father draws us. Understanding him to be the Son of God, we recognize in him the true nature of the Father. And so, when we learn to know the Son, God the Father calls us. When we believe the Son, God the Father receives us. For our recognition and knowledge of the Father is in the Son who shows us in himself God the Father. The Father draws us by his fatherly love, if we are devout, into a mutual bond with his Son. (On the Trinity, 11.33)

Later in the Discourse, Jesus offered powerful words of reassurance to his disciples, and to us, through them:  "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you" (JN. 14:27).  I read a passage from the contemporary biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, yesterday evening, that I would like to share again for its fine insight into the huge difference between the "peace" that comes from Christ, and the "peace" that the world gives:

This is a peace that the world is utterly incapable of giving. Worldly authority can from time to time bring about an absence of hostilities between human beings and human societies; it cannot erode the fundamental insecurity and anxiety at the root of human existence. The peace Jesus is leaving with the disciples extends God's grace and love deep into the human heart. That is why, in the face of his departure, he can repeat the injunction with which he began: "Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid". (JN. 14:1)

At our next session, we will read and study Ch. 15, considered to be at the heart of the Farewell Discourse. As I said yesterday evening, I am still not sure if we will meet next week or in two weeks. That depends on how we celebrate the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul next week. I will keep everyone informed.

Either way, looking forward to our next meeting and discussion. This is one of the major highlights of my week!

Fr. Steven

NOTE: Our 2017 Summer Bible Study continues on Wednesday evenings. Learn more here, and please join us if you are in the area!


Monday, June 12, 2017

The Holiness of the Saints, and Our Calling to Join Them


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,




Yesterday was the First Sunday After Pentecost.  All of the subsequent Sundays of the liturgical year until the pre-lenten Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee sometime next year will be so numbered.  This is not intended to help us count better.  The purpose is to keep before our spiritual sight on  the overwhelming significance of Pentecost in the divine economy. 

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

As St. Epiphanius of Cyprus wrote in the fourth century:  “The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ.”  The simple calendar rubric of numbering the Sundays after Pentecost is one way of reminding us of this essential truth of the Christian Faith.  The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and in and through the sacramental life of the Church we experience something like a permanent pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The First Sunday After Pentecost  is entitled, simply, All Saints.  On this Sunday we commemorate all of the saints of the Church — men, women and children — from her beginning to the present day, including "ancestors, fathers, mothers, patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.”  That is, the entire “cloud of witnesses” that surround us and pray for us as well as serve as models for our own faith.  

God has revealed to the Church His innumerable saints and we rejoice in their continuous presence made possible by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  The divine and co-eternal Spirit, holy by nature, makes human beings holy by grace.  That is why this particular Sunday falls so naturally after the Sunday of Pentecost.  

The word we use for saint is the Greek word for “holy” – agios.   In a real sense, we are celebrating the presence of holiness in the world, incarnate in actual flesh and blood human beings. The descent of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for human beings to become and remain holy.  Without the Holy Spirit human beings can be nice, pleasant and even good – but not holy.  And it is the holiness of the saints that is their one common characteristic, expressed in an endless diversity of vocations.  

Every baptized and chrismated member of the Church is already a saint – a person sanctified and set apart as a member of the People of God – and every such member has the vocation to become a saint.  The phrase often used to capture this paradox of the Christian life is:  “become what you already are.”  This phrase expresses an entire lifetime of striving and struggle to attain, by God’s grace, the highest of vocations – the holiness of a genuine child of God, born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God(JN. 1:13).

On the Sunday of All Saints, we read from the Gospel According to St. Matthew:

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. …
"He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”    (MATT. 10:32-33, 37-38)

We probably have a difficult time relating to such a passage, since we expend an enormous amount of energy — time, talent and treasure — in order to guarantee for ourselves a comfortable life and the closest of possible family relationships.  God and Church may be a part of that choice, but perhaps only as one compartment of life among many.  At times, the greatest of our goals may be to create a certain form of “domestic bliss” to the extent that that is humanly attainable. Nothing else can seem greater or more desirable.  

Jesus, however, makes other claims on us.  And the first of those radical claims is that we must love Him above else – including father and mother, son and daughter.  This is a “hard teaching.”  

Perhaps it is here that we discover the greatest “achievement” of the saints, and the reason behind the sanctity that they often so clearly manifest.  They simply loved Christ before all else.  And there is nothing that can deflect them from that love.  

In no way need this diminish our love for our loved ones.  I believe that if we love Christ before all else, then we would have a greater love for those around us, including our very family members.  To love Christ above all else is to expand our very notion and experience of love.  If we live “in Christ,” we can then love “in Christ.”  Elsewhere, Jesus would claim that this would include our enemies!  

This is a love that will not disappoint. With any other deeper love, there is always the lurking temptation of succumbing to one form of idolatry or another.  Jesus even says that if we love anyone else more than Him, we are not “worthy” of Him!  Clearly, there is nothing easy about bearing the name of Christ and calling oneself a Christian.  Is all of this impossible?  Jesus teaches that With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (MATT. 19:26).

We share the most difficult of vocations – to live up to our high calling in Christ Jesus.  This is not something that we achieve on our own, but a process that includes the grace of God and our own self-determination, what we call our freedom of choice or “free will.”  

There are obstacles that begin with the genetic and the environmental.  There are distractions and temptations too numerous to keep track of.  There is the unbelief of the world around us.  Yet, if we approach this “day by day,” we soon realize that we are simply trying to become genuine human beings, for the glory of God is a human being fully alive, to paraphrase St. Irenaeus of Lyons.  As disciples of Christ, we have the “inside track” to allow us to run with perseverance the race that is before us (HEB. 12:1).  

So, we thank God for the multitude of the saints who not only set an example for us, but who also pray for us unceasingly in the Kingdom of God.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Fishermen are Most Wise


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Troparion of Pentecost is as follows:

Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,
who has revealed the fishermen as most wise
  by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit;
through them Thou didst draw the world
  into Thy net.
O Lover of Man, Glory to Thee!



It is rather incredible when you think hard on it, that it was essentially a group of former fishermen who traversed the Greco-Roman world and beyond with the Gospel proclamation of the Crucified and Risen Messiah and Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. That they were successful is nothing short of miraculous. 

Of course, the Apostle Paul is a major exception to this, as he was a highly-educated Jew who knew Greek thought and rhetoric very well, and employed both in proclaiming the Gospel. But the Twelve Apostles, on the whole, had a rudimentary education and they hardly were that aware of the greater world around them.  

They were fishermen.  Their initial concern in life was all that goes into making their fishing trade successful. They had to worry about their nets, that they would not break, and then mend them when they did. They worked hard to put their "daily bread" on the table. They had to worry about feeding their families. A "bad night" out on the lake would cost them dearly. And then they were "called" by Jesus, who told them somewhat enigmatically, that they would now become "fishers of men" (MATT, 4:19).  So they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. As disciples during Christ's earthly ministry, they did not quite "get it." They were often obtuse and slow to understand. And they would even betray their Master.

But following the Day of Pentecost, their "nets" would now be filled with men and women "caught" by the compelling and wonderful message of the Gospel, that salvation from sin and death has come in the human form of the incarnate Son of God who, though a crucified Jew, was raised from the dead and glorified at the right hand of God. 

The apostles did not invent this or think it up. They knew this was true by direct experience. They had seen the Risen Lord and they had witnessed His glorious ascension into heaven. 

The fishermen turned disciples, turned apostles, were not philosophers or trained rhetoricians. They were not wise according to the wisdom of this world. They were filled with the Holy Spirit (ACTS 2:4) and this made them "most wise;" but with a wisdom that may have appeared foolish to the "wise men" and "debaters of this age," but was nevertheless a wisdom directly from God (cf. I COR. 1:18-31).  

Once inspired from on high, they would fulfill the Lord's commission to go into the world and "make disciples of all nations" (MATT. 28:16-20).  The apostles knew that their success in drawing the world into their nets was the result of the mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit working through them as they witnessed to Christ in word and deed. They would never attribute any success in proclaiming the Gospel to their own human efforts.

All of this points to the truly miraculous nature of the emergence and spread of the Christian Faith. Considering the lowly origins of the apostles - and that of their Master -  this is unprecedented in human history. 

In purely human terms it could not have succeeded. Not with a dead Messiah and a group of insignificant fishermen promoting their teacher. Only a divine origin can account for the "word of the Cross" penetrating a world that is so often swayed by power and pride - "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (I JN. 2:16). 

The Christian Faith burst forth from the empty tomb that revealed the victory of Christ over death. This new life could not remain hidden. It was meant for the entire world. Hence, the Lord "revealed the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit." 

If you are reading this as a Christian, then you have been drawn into the net of the Lord. You have committed yourself to following the commandments of Christ and to seek first the Kingdom of God. 

This has nothing to do with your level of formal education or your socio-economic status. These may prove to be irrelevant categories when it comes to being filled with the Holy Spirit. The many saints of the Church coming from humble and lowly origins bear this out. What is essential is faith and a readiness to serve Christ and to put Christ first in your life.  

For those in the Church, whatever our background, "with one voice, we glorify the all-Holy Spirit!" (Kontakion of Pentecost)


The Holy Spirit’s Presence in the Church


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Ісon of the Deѕсent of the Holy Ѕріrіt on the Aрoѕtleѕ — One of the oldest known images of Pentecost, from the Syriac Rabbula Gospel – 6th c., Church of Antioch. (Photo: pravoslavieto.com)

'Yesterday'—June 4, 2017—we celebrated the Great Feast of Pentecost.  And it seems fitting for me to share a fine passage from Father John Breck, who wrote a summary paragraph of the role and work of the Holy Spirit in the divine economy, and in the life of Christian believers.  This passage gives us a sense of the extraordinarily rich and varied aspects of the Spirit’s presence in the Church, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  I am breaking down Father John’s paragraph in a more systematic manner.

The Holy Spirit …

  • prays within us and on our behalf [Romans 8:26].
  • works out our sanctification [Romans 15:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Galatians 5:16-18].
  • pours out God’s love into the hearts of believers, enabling them to address the Father by the familiar and intimate name, “Abba” [Romans 5:5; 8:15-16; Galatians 4:6].
  • confirms our status as “children of God” through His indwelling presence and power [Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6].
  • guides and preserves the faithful in their ascetic struggles against the passions [Galatians 5:16].
  • serves as the source and guarantor of our “freedom” from the constraints of the Law, a freedom which enables us to behold the glory of the Lord [2 Corinthians 3:17-18].

Looking up these passages in the Bible may further prove to be helpful in gaining a sense of the ongoing and endless gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to the Church and to our personal lives.

I also would like to include a passage from Veselin Kesich’s book, The First Day of the New Creation.  In his discussion about Pentecost, Prof. Kesich offers a good summary of the Orthodox Christian position concerning the issue of the filioque.  As Orthodox Christians, we continue to recite the Nicene Creed in its original form, without the interpolation of the filioque—the Latin term that means “and from the Son”—when proclaiming the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father.

Prof. Kessich summarizes the Orthodox position based upon a careful reading of the Scriptures.  The “filioque controversy” remains to this day a divisive point of contention between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism respectively – and those Western churches that also use the term.  The point to be made is not about remaining entrenched in a polemical position, but to try to come to some understanding as to why the Orthodox have never embraced this later addition to the Nicene Creed.

In the words of Prof. Kesich, 

“It is equally true that the Father sends the Spirit [John 14:16,26].  The Son sends the Spirit, but the source of the Spirit is the Father, for the Spirit proceeds from the Father [John 15:26].  The verb “proceed” that is used in John 15:26 is ekporeuomai.  When it is said that the Son “comes forth” from the Father, the verb is exerchomai.  Saint John consistently uses the latter verb whenever he speaks of the Son coming forth from the Father [8:42: 13:3; 16:27f.; 16:30; 17:8].  The Spirit and the Son have the same and only origin.  They are two distinct persons.  Their missions are not identical.  Although the Spirit had not been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified [John 7:39], yet it is nowhere stated in Saint John’s Gospel that the Spirit “proceeds” from the Son as He proceeds from the Father.  Therefore, there is no filioque here.”

Nothing like some good biblical exegesis to make’s one day brighter and more glorious during this week of Pentecost!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Fulfillment of God's Plan, and Our Lives


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Holy Spirit was, is, and ever shall be . . . (Vespers of Pentecost)



It seems to me that we could still go a long way toward increasing our awareness of the greatness of Pentecost as the culminating event of Pascha and the beginning of our lives as Christians in the world.

What, then, can help us to raise our consciousness concerning Pentecost? We can begin by turning to the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

In the Church's annual liturgical cycle, Pentecost is "the last and great day." It is the celebration by the Church of the coming of the Holy Spirit as the end - the achievement and fulfillment - of the entire history of salvation. For the same reason, however, it is also the celebration of the beginning: it is the "birthday" of the Church as the presence among us of the Holy Spirit, of the new life in Christ, of grace, knowledge, adoption to God and holiness.

With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples, the time of salvation, the Divine work of redemption has been completed, the fulness revealed, all gifts bestowed; it belongs to us now to "appropriate" these gifts, to be that which we have become in Christ: participants and citizens of His Kingdom.

The notion of "fulfillment" is central to an understanding of the greatness of Pentecost. Our salvation depends upon the Resurrection of Christ. And our deification depends upon the descent of the Holy Spirit. Glorious as the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ are, these events would lack a sense of completion - or, again, fulfillment - without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit "upon all flesh," thus actualizing the saving power of those events in our lives. As Veselin Kesich wrote: "With Christ's ascension, "our nature ascended" to heaven, and on Pentecost the Holy Spirit "descended on to our nature"." We would not be able to "know" the risen and glorified Christ without the presence of the Holy Spirit among us. In His extraordinary "farewell discourse" found in the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus prepares His disciples for the coming of the Spirit in the following words:

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be with you." (JN. 14:15-17)

"These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." (JN. 14:25-26)
"But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses." (JN. 15:26)

"When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (JN. 16:13)

The "Counselor" spoken of here (Gk. Parakletos, also translated as "Comforter" but it can also mean "Advocate") is clearly the Holy Spirit. We will always be dependent upon the Holy Spirit to properly understand what Christ taught us, and that will be a revelation of "truth." The Holy Spirit keeps everything in the "present," in the now and today of our lives. We do not live off the past events of our salvation, but make those past events a present reality by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the words of Met. Kallistos Ware:

We do not say merely, 'Christ rose,' but 'Christ is risen' - he lives now, for me and in me. This immediacy and personal directness in our relationship with Jesus is precisely the work of the Spirit. (The Orthodox Way, p. 125)

Our salvation, redemption, and eventual deification depend upon the "two hands of God" - the Son and the Holy Spirit. One is never present without the Other, as the Son and Holy Spirit "work" together with the Father in all things, bringing to completion and fruition the eternal design for our life in the Kingdom of God. Again, Prof. Kesich:

Any transformation of human life is testimony to the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. God constantly creates new things and glorifies himself in his saints, in order to make it known that the Word of God became flesh, experienced death on the Cross, and was raised up that we might receive the Holy Spirit.  (The First Day of the New Creation, p. 173)

The Holy Spirit may seem more elusive than the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, but no less indispensible to our life with and in God. It may take some work on our part, but we must struggle if necessary to open up our consciousness, and then our hearts, to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit - the "Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth."


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Fr. Alexander Schmemann: 'Pentecost, the Feast of the Church'


Dear Parish Faithful,

An excellent article by Fr. Schmemann...

Pentecost, the Feast of the Church

by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (+)
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Spring & Summer 1953, Nos. 3, 4, pp 38–42
Synaxis Blog, June 5, 2017:


This past Sunday, we Orthodox Christians heard sermons in our parishes about the meaning of Pentecost, which celebrates the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church throughout the ages.

In this essay, Father Alexander (Dean of St. Vladimir’s 1962–1983) also begins by speaking about major themes that characterize this great feast: the presence and actions of the Spirit in the Church, the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the purification of each person’s soul in the body of Christ.

However, one of the most interesting portions of Father Alexander’s essay, published in 1953, is his explanation of the “Kneeling Prayers,” that mark the Vespers services following the Divine Liturgy for the feast, and that section is reprinted here.

___________________________



The peculiar characteristic of the Liturgy on the day of Pentecost is that it is immediately followed by a Vesper service that is commonly called “kneeling prayers.” This Vesper service signifies the transition from the first major theme—the joy of the coming of the Spirit—to the second—the prayer for the abiding of the Spirit in us, for His help in our earthly life.

Litany supplications are added: “For the people present who are awaiting the Grace of the Holy Spirit…that the Lord may strengthen us into the attainment of a good and acceptable end… For those who are in need of help.”  

And in the sticheras for “Lord I have cried unto Thee” (which repeat the chvalitny of the Matins service) and in the great prokeimenon, “Who is a great God like our God?,” the fullness of joy comes once more.

But immediately after the prokeimenon, the people are asked to kneel down. This first bending of the knees after Easter signifies the conclusion of the Triodion—the fact that the Church now enters the “narrow path” of struggling, and of the difficult daily acquisitions of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, in this first prayer, we bring to God our repentance and augmented prayers for forgiveness of sins—the first condition for entering into the kingdom, into the perfect joy. In the second prayer, we pray to the Holy Spirit for help, that He would teach us to pray and to follow the true path, that He would enlighten us in the dark and difficult night of our life. Finally, in the third prayer, we remember our fathers and brethren who have departed, who have finished their earthly journey, but who are united with us in the eternal love of the Church.

To every one of these prayers the usual evening prayers are added. So again begins the night of the history of the world, in which the Church has to wander.

In this “night,” the enemies’ tricks are awaiting us: temptations, the whole burden of sin and our feebleness. The joy of Easter has been completed, and we again have to wait for the dawn of the eternal day of Christ’s kingdom. Therefore we are praying on our knees for help and protection, so that we may pass this night and attain to the morning.

However, as we know our weakness, we also know the joy of the Spirit who has come: we know that we have not remained orphans. The benediction at the end of the Vespers service bears His testimony to it: 

“He emptied Himself… came down on earth to take upon Himself our human nature wholly and to deify it… He sent down His Spirit upon His Holy Apostles, who were illumined by the Spirit and through whom the whole world was illumined.”

At the Compline service of the same day a special canon to the Holy Spirit is sung, where we experience once more the feast of His coming and His abiding in the Church. It is significant that all the irmois of this canon, except the first, are taken from the canon of the Nativity! The coming of the Spirit fulfills that which began when the Word became flesh:

“Christ was born, now the Holy Spirit descends as if returning Christ to us, who ‘is and shall be’ in the Church with us forever.”

It would be impossible to enumerate all the details of the services commemorating the Feast of Pentecost, which blend into one perfect harmony, making us truly feel the breathing of the Holy Spirit. This harmony reveals itself fully only in the Liturgy, only in the common act of worship. As we have said, the Feast of Pentecost concludes the Triodion, and we enter the “ordinary season” of the year. However, there are no ordinary days for the Church. Every week has its cycle, which is concluded with its own small Easter—“Sunday.”

The Church is always living a divine-human life. Heaven and earth, promise and fulfillment are mysteriously united in Her. On the Feast of Pentecost, we adorn our churches with flowers and green branches, for the Church is truly an evergreen tree. Therefore on the First Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the memory of all the saints, whose holiness is the glory of the Church and a testimony to the Holy Spirit, who is ever present in Her.

The life of the Church is an eternal Pentecost, the eternal coming of the Holy Spirit, and so, “whosoever thirsteth, let him come and drink” (John 7:37).

Monday, June 5, 2017

Immerse Yourself in the Mystery of Pentecost


Dear Parish Faithful,


We have an extensive amount of literature on Pentecost on our Pentecost resource page from the parish website. You will find articles by Frs. Schmemann and Hopko there, together with some classic patristic texts. As we journey through the Week of Pentecost, you may want to avail yourself of some of this excellent material.

Here are two characteristic excerpts from a famous homily by St. Gregory Palamas (+1359). St. Gregory, of course, as one of the great Church Fathers, was  a profound theologian, a brilliant homilist and a wonderful pastor:

"Now, through the Holy Spirit sent by Him to His disciples, we see how far Christ ascended and to what dignity He carried up the nature He assumed from us. Clearly He went up as high as the place from which the Spirit sent by Him descended.... It follows that at His ascension Christ went up to the Father on high, as far as His Fatherly bosom, from which came the Spirit.

"The Holy Spirit is not just sent, but Himself sends the Son, who is sent by the Father. He is therefore shown to be the same as the Father and the Son by nature, power, operation and honor. By the good pleasure of the Father and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, the only-begotten Son of God, on account of the boundless ocean of divine love for mankind, bowed down the heavens and came down (Ps. 18:9). He appeared on earth after our fashion, lived among us, and did and taught great, wonderful and sublime things truly worthy of God, which led those who obeyed Him towards deification and salvation."

The Divinity of the Holy Spirit

In the excerpt above from St. Gregory, it is clear that we teach that the Holy Spirit is co-eternal, co-enthroned and co-glorified with the Father and the Son. We confess this belief every time we recite the Nicene Creed.

But did you know that the full title of the Creed is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed? That is because our current Creed was formulated at the First and Second Ecumenical Councils - Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. But to spare us from saying the full title of Nicene-Constantinopolitan every time we refer to the Creed, it has been shortened to the Nicene Creed. 

After the First Council held in Nicea, the Creed simply stated that "we believe in the Holy Spirit" with nothing further being stated about that belief. When the divinity of the Holy Spirit was challenged by false teachers following the Council, the Second Council in Constantinople was called in the year 381 in order to further formulate the Church's belief in the divinity of the  Holy Spirit. Thus, the additional declaration: 

"And [we believe] in the Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets."

This is the basis of our belief in the Holy Trinity. By the way, it was at this Second Council that additional and essential beliefs of the Church were formulated in creedal form:


"In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life in the world to come. Amen."

The Vespers of Pentecost was a wonderful example of how we are taught and inspired by the hymnography of the Church. Our hymns often appeal to our intellect and to our hearts simultaneously. Thus, in the second sticheron of the Vespers of Pentecost, we hear the "theological poetry" of our sacred hymnography:

The Holy Spirit was, is, and and ever shall be
Without beginning, without an end,
Forever united and numbered with the
   Father and the Son.
He is Life, and life-creating,
The Light, and the Giver of Light,
Good in Himself, the Fountain of
   goodness,
Through whom the Father is known
   and the Son glorified.
All acknowledge one Power, one Order,
One worship of the Holy Trinity.

The Trisagion Prayers

In our liturgical and personal prayers, we almost invariably begin with the so-called Trisagion Prayers, meaning, more-or-less literally: "The Thrice-holy Prayers." (The word hagios in Gk. means "holy"). This is because we repeat three times:  "Holy God,  Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!"

The basis of praising God three times in this manner is found in the Book of Isaiah, in that heavenly vision granted the prophet, when he beheld God enthroned on high being glorified by the angels as:  Holy! Holy! Holy!  And, of course, we glorify God in the Liturgy with that identical Holy! Holy! Holy!  during the Anaphora. In the Latin tradition, this is called the Sanctus. 

Based on our belief in the Holy Trinity, we believe that with this hymn we are praising the The Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Which means that in our personal prayer, whenever we use the Trisagion on a daily basis(!), we are glorifying the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

In the Vespers of Pentecost, this is beautifully "spelled out" for us, in one of the Apostikha hymns. In the half of the hymn that begins: "Let us worship the Tri-Personal Godhead..." we further sing:

In worshipping Him, let us all say:
Holy God, who made all things
   through the Son,
With the cooperation of the Spirit.
Holy Mighty: through whom we know
   the Father,
Through whom the Holy Spirit came
   into the world!
Holy Immortal: the comforting Spirit,
Proceeding from the Father and resting
   in the Son.
O Holy Trinity: glory to Thee!

As we continue in our use of the Trisagion Prayers this is further reinforced when we pray: 

O most Holy Trinity: have mercy on us!
O Lord (the Father): cleanse us from our sins.
O Master (the Son): pardon our transgressions.
O Holy One (the Holy Spirit): visit and heal our infirmities, for Thy name's sake.

To make all of this abundantly clear to us, we then pray:  "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit," before saying the Lord's Prayer. We thus reinforce our commitment to believing in the Holy Trinity in our daily prayer life, both liturgical and personal. 

We are "monotheists" of a particular kind, meaning that we are "trinitarian monotheists." Pentecost is also called the Feast of the Holy Trinity, for in a definitive manner, God has revealed His trinitarian nature to us in the descent of the Holy Spirit, "on the last day of the Feast, the great day ..." (JN. 7:37)

O most Holy Trinity, glory to Thee!


Saturday, June 3, 2017

'Hastening to be at Pentecost!'


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,




Let Us Recover the Greatness of the Feast of Pentecost

At last Sunday's liturgy, we heard from the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES the following passage concerning the Apostle Paul: "For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost" (20:16).

For the Apostle Paul, that would mean a very challenging journey by sea, which always included the threat of storms, shipwreck and/or attack by pirates. But St. Paul was determined to celebrate the great feast of Pentecost with his brothers and sisters "in Christ" in Jerusalem - the home and center of the newly-established Christian Church, now making its impact felt in the Graeco-Roman world of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Pascha and Pentecost were the two major feasts of the apostolic Church. They were powerful communal commemorations and celebrations of the decisive acts that established the Church in the world once and for all: the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, and the descent of the Holy Spirit into the world.

It would be wonderful and deeply encouraging if we could match the zeal of the Apostle Paul for eagerly anticipating this commemoration and making it as certain as possible that we will also gather together with our brothers and sisters "in Christ" for the Feast of Pentecost. Liturgically, that would mean Great Vespers on Saturday evening and the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. 

In our consciousness, we have lost the profound connection between Pascha and Pentecost. 

Pascha, of course, is huge and greatly anticipated; but Pentecost is not. It is treated as a "normal" Sunday, which means most parishioners will be in church (thank God Pentecost is on a Sunday), unless some other "pressing concern(?)" keeps them away without, perhaps, any sense of loss. But the role of Pentecost in the economy of our salvation very much needs to be recovered. Pascha does not simply dissolve into the cares and concerns of our daily lives. It does not just disappear once we no longer sing "Christ is Risen!" Rather, Pascha is completed and fulfilled in the twin Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost.

The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles is the goal of the paschal mystery of the death, resurrection, ascent and glorification of Christ. We actualize the coming of the Holy Spirit through our liturgical commemoration on an annual basis. 

The Holy Spirit is the energy of the Church. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church that makes the Church so unique and unlike any other worldly institution. (The Orthodox Church is the "Pentecostal Church"). This is the Holy Spirit with which we were chrismated after our baptism into the Death and Resurrection of Christ. We seek the renewal of the Holy Spirit in our lives on the Day of Pentecost. Here is also the basis of "parish renewal." We pray to God for that personal and communal renewal each year in the special Kneeling Prayers of the Vespers of Pentecost that we serve immediately following the Liturgy. This is all a great blessing.

I encourage everyone to recover the greatness of the Feast of Pentecost. We have the luxury of making a relatively short trip in the comfort of our cars and therefore do not have to face the "inconveniences" that St. Paul did. Try and include the full celebration by coming to Great Vespers on Saturday evening. 

Since Great Lent is over and parishioners are no longer coming to Confession, Great Vespers is now less-well attended. This is an unfortunate annual pattern (lasting throughout the summer) that has no real justification. This worn-out cycle can be broken but it will take some effort and commitment to the Church's liturgical cycle on the part of everyone. Pentecost is the time and place to begin.

Parents, do not relax your efforts of bringing your children to church because Church School is now over. Pentecost is not the time for an "off Sunday." It is the time to be in church together with the entire "parish family." Speak to your children about Pentecost and prepare them for the Vespers and Kneeling Prayers that will follow the Liturgy.

The liturgical schedule for the Great Feast of Pentecost:

  • Great Vespers with the Blessing of the Loaves and Anointment with Oil - Saturday at 6:00 p.m.
  • Hours of Pentecost - Sunday at 9:10 a.m.
  • Divine Liturgy - Sunday at 9:30 a.m.
  • Vespers with Kneeling Prayers - Sunday, immediately following the Liturgy

Let us prepare for Feast as did the holy Apostle Paul - with zeal and the love of God!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Fathers of the First Council and the 'Robe of Truth'


Dear Parish Faithful,

"Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded."  ~ St. Athanasius the Great (+373)



Last Sunday, we found ourselves in between the two great Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost.  However, on that Seventh Sunday of Pascha, we also commemorated the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 A.D.  It is virtually impossible to over-exaggerate the importance of this Council in the life of the Church.

The Council had not only to reject the Arian heresy that claimed that the Son of God is a "creature" and thus subordinate  in essence to God the Father; but the Council had to find the right terminology to demonstrate that the Faith of the Church from the beginning believed and claimed that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God equal in essence to God the Father (as is the Holy Spirit). Arianism and Orthodox Christianity are essentially two different faiths which is why the Church was at a crossroads in the fourth century: either become just one more "synthetic/syncretistic religion" of the ancient world, or proclaim the uniqueness of Christ as the eternal Son of God and the Savior of the world. 

The dramatic story of the Council of Nicea has been told and retold throughout the centuries.  Not wanting to repeat that story here, I will simply include a link to a good summary found on the OCA website.

Yet, I would like to add a few words about the manner in which we honor the great Fathers of the Church in our liturgical tradition.  To do so, I would like to bring to mind the Kontakion of the Fathers that we sang on Sunday:

The apostles' preaching and the fathers' doctrines
have established the one faith for the Church. Adorned
with the robe of truth, woven from heavenly theology;
great is the mystery of piety which it defines and glorifies.

This kontakion is very close in meaning to what we read from St. Athanasius the Great (+373) - one of the leading lights of Nicene Orthodoxy - as quoted above.  There is a direct continuity between what the Apostles "preached" and what the Fathers later formulated as doctrines.

This continuity is not simply chronological - it is theological. It was the same Gospel - the same "robe of truth" - without illegitimate subtractions or additions. The Fathers did not change the content of the Faith that they were expressing through their doctrine. They were developing and expanding upon the apostolic preaching for their own times. But the content of the "one faith for the Church" remained identical with itself in this ongoing transmission of the Tradition. (Tradition means that which is "handed down" or "handed over").

The Nicene Creed does not add anything new to what the apostles preached. It rather witnesses to what they preached so as to preserve the Truth in the face of its possible distortion. To do so they had to come up with new formulations of that unchanging Truth. Thus, their bold introduction of the term homoousios to describe how the Son is "consubstantial" with the Father was not something innovative or "creative." It was a necessary development to again preserve that which was proclaimed from the beginning: God became incarnate in order to save us for only God can save.

In one of his classic articles "The Authority of the Ancient Councils," Fr. George Florovsky brilliantly described the relationship between the apostles and fathers and their respective roles in transmitting the Tradition:

Apostles and Fathers - these  two terms were generally and commonly coupled together in the argument from Tradition, as it was used in the Third and Fourth centuries. It was this double reference, both to the origin and to the unfailing and continuous preservation, that warranted the authenticity of belief. 
On the other hand, Scripture was formally acknowledged and recognized as the ground and foundation of faith, as the Word of God and the Writ of the Spirit. Yet, there was still the problem of right and adequate interpretation. Scripture and the Fathers were usually quoted together, that is, kerygma (proclamation) and exegesis (interpretation). 

This is a "heavenly theology" because its ultimate Source is Christ Himself, Who reveals the will of the Father for the world and its salvation. And this is that "mystery of piety which it defines and glorifies," precisely as the apostles preached:

Great indeed is the mystery of our religion:
  He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels,
  preached among the nations,
believed on in the world, taken up in glory.  (I TIM. 3:16)

We venerate and honor the Fathers within the ongoing life of the Church.  To again turn to the same article of Fr. George Florovsky, he further writes:

"Fathers" were those who transmitted and propagated the right doctrine, the teaching of the Apostles, who were guides and masters of Christian instruction and catechesis... They were spokesmen for the Church, expositors of her faith, keepers of her Tradition, witnesses of truth and faith.  And in that was their "authority" grounded.

Most glorious art Thou, O Christ our God!
Thou hast established the Holy Fathers as
lights on the earth! Through them Thou hast
guided us to the true faith! O greatly
Compassionate One, glory to Thee!
(Troparion of the Holy Fathers)

Friday, May 26, 2017

"I ascend unto My father, and your Father...."


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,




According to the mind of the Church, the Risen Lord is also the Ascended Lord.  In the words of Father Georges Florovsky, “In the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection.”  Though the visible presence of the Risen Lord ended 40 days after His Resurrection, that did not mean that His actual presence was withdrawn.  Christ solemnly taught His disciples – and us through them – “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” [Matthew 28:20].

The risen, ascended and glorified Lord is the Head of His body, the Church.  The Lord remains present in the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church.  This reinforces our need to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, through which we receive the deified flesh and blood of the Son of God “unto life everlasting.”

Christ ascended to be seated at “the right hand of the Father” in glory, thus lifting up the human nature He assumed in the Incarnation into the very inner life of God.  Once the Son of God became the Son of Man, taking our human nature through suffering and death - "the passover" - and then rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, at no point in this paschal mystery did He discard or leave His human nature behind. For all eternity, Christ is Theanthropos - God and man.  The deified humanity of the Lord is the sign of our future destiny “in Christ.”  For this reason, the Apostle Paul could write, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” [Colossians 3:3].

The words of the “two men … in white robes” (clearly angels) who stood by the disciples as they gazed at Christ being “lifted up” as recorded by Saint Luke in Acts 1:11, point toward something very clear and essential for us to grasp as members of the Church who continue to exist within the historical time of the world:

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”  

The disciples will remain in the world, and must fulfill their vocation as the chosen apostles who will proclaim the Word of God to the world of the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  They cannot spend their time gazing into heaven awaiting the return of the Lord.  That hour has not been revealed: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority” [1:7]. 

The “work” of the Church is the task set before them, and they must do this until their very last breath.  They will carry out this work once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit -- the “promise of my Father” -- as Christ said to them in Luke 24:49.

Whatever our vocation may be, we too witness to Christ and the work of the Church as we await the fullness of God’s Kingdom according to the times or seasons of the Father. If we believe in the resurrected and ascended Lord, then we are "witnesses" of Him and to Him to the world. That witness may express itself in words or deeds - or both.

Of course, we need to follow the teaching of the Apostle Paul who wrote: "Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth" [Colossians 3:2). Yet, keeping our "minds on things above" has nothing to do with escaping into a dream-like fantasy world or the abandonment of earthly responsibilities under the pretext of a vague mystical inclination or "pseudo-piety." It is about an awareness that the Kingdom of God is "in our midst" and that our earthly life is a preparation for the life to come, a life we are yearning for with our whole heart.

It is that awareness that makes all of our earthly struggles and accomplishments meaningful. And when the Apostle Paul teaches us not to set our minds "on things that are on earth," he does not mean that there is nothing of value that is on earth. He is referring to the "worldiness" of questionable - or clearly sinful - pursuits that draw our minds away inexorably from "things above." We are prone to forget about heaven when we concentrate solely on the earth.

For this reason alone it is so important to develop a life of prayer, a time when we can "set our minds on things above," strengthening us for the struggles of our daily life, and keeping the Person of Christ ever before our inward gaze.

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

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

"When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" [Colossians 3:4]


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

'Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ'


Dear Parish Faithful,


CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!


Pascha - The Thirty-Ninth (and final) Day

'Did not our hearts burn within us...' (LK 24:32)

Today we say farewell to the paschal season as we have reached the thirty-ninth day, with tomorrow's fortieth day being the great feast of the Ascension of Christ. This year, in a series of homilies, I have tried to keep us focused on the Risen Christ and His appearances to His female and male disciples as found recorded in the Four Gospels. 

Below, I have shared a few further passages on the Resurrection beginning with the great Byzantine mystic, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and then followed by some of our most prominent contemporary Orthodox voices. Each witnesses to the same Risen Lord, but each with a particular point of view that reveals the inexhaustible mystery of Christ's victory over death. 

It is now time to celebrate the glorification of Christ at the right hand of the Father in the feast of the Ascension.  We will serve Great Vespers this evening (May 24) at 7:00 p.m. and the Divine Liturgy on Thursday morning, May 25 at 9:30 a.m.

++++++++++

"That most sacred formula which is daily on our lips does not say, "Having believed in the Resurrection of Christ," but, "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One." How then does the Holy Spirit urge us to say, "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ," which we have not seen, as though we had seen it, when Christ has risen once for all a thousand years ago, and when even then without anybody's seeing it?  Surely Holy Scripture does not wish us to lie?  

"Far from it! Rather, it urges us to speak the truth, that the resurrection of Christ takes place in each of us who believes, and that not once, but every hour, so to speak, when Christ the Master arises in us, resplendent in array and flashing with the lightnings of incorruption and Deity... 

"Those to whom Christ has given light as He has risen, to them He has appeared spiritually. He has been shown to their spiritual eyes. When this happens to us through the Spirit He raises us up from the dead and gives us life. He grants us to see Him, who is immortal and indestructible. More than that, He grants clearly to know Him who raises us up (EPH. 2:6) and glorifies us (ROM. 8:17) with Himself, as all the divine Scripture testifies."

St. Symeon the New Theologian (+1022) from Discourse Eleven - Of Christ's Resurrection

++++++++++

"Christ's resurrection was such an indisputable fact for early Christians and there was such a deep meaning associated with this event, that the Apostle Paul could, without hesitation, say to the addressees of his epistles: 'If Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain' (I COR. 15:14).

"The whole apostolic preaching was built on the witness of Christ's resurrection - a witness that was so surprising that the apostles said concerning it: 'We have seen with our eyes', that 'which we have looked upon and our hands have handled' (I JN. 1:1).

"And though not one of the apostles saw the very moment of Christ's Resurrection, they all saw the risen Christ, who repeatedly appeared to them, strengthening them in faith. Even those who did not see the risen Christ with their physical eyes, like the Apostle Paul and all the subsequent generations of Christians, for instance, saw his resurrection with the eyes of the soul, and their confidence in Christ's resurrection was as strong as that of the apostles."

Metropolitan Ilarion Alfeyev from Vol. II of Orthodox Christianity - Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church
 
++++++++++

"Christ's resurrection is the greatest event in history. It is a matter of deification and resurrection of the human nature and of a hope for deification and resurrection of our own person.  

"Since the medicine has been found, there is hope of life.  Through Christ's Resurrection both life and death acquire another meaning.  We do not regard as life the whole of the events of history, but communion with God. And we do not regard as death the end of the present life, but the human person's withdrawal from Christ, while separation of the soul and body is not death, but a temporary sleep.  

"The Apostle Paul, precisely because he feels united with the Risen Christ, can confess:  'For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, not things present not things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord'."

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos from The Feast of the Lord

++++++++++

"Dead once for all on the Cross, outside the walls of Jerusalem, and resurrected on the third day after His burial, Christ continues to die and to rise, mystically,  mysteriously, until the end of the age, in each person whose nature He has assumed.  

"Before the scandal and the horror of death - of all the daily deaths such as sickness, hatred, injustice, the destruction of our natural environment, physical and psychic disorders - the Resurrection of Christ traces a path of light. It produces an abundant flow of life in the midst of death, it transforms death into a "passage" (Pascha). 

"The Paschal mystery is an invitation to keep our lamps lit (LK. 12:35). It introduces us to another aeon, which is a new dimension, the anticipation of the world to come, the Kingdom already secretly present among us."

Michael Quenot from The Resurrection and the Icon

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Paschal Reminiscences


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!


While preparing for the priesthood, I was ordained as a deacon of the Church for my last three months at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in New York (1981).  I was thus able to serve together with Frs. Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Thomas Hopko, as well as with others in the "old chapel" during that brief period of time. That alone remains a memorable experience.  

This also meant that I was able to serve as a deacon during Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha of my final year at St. Vladimir's. In the late morning of Pascha Sunday, Presvytera and I arrived early as we were gathering at the chapel for the Paschal Vespers, served an noon. 

As we began to socialize a bit before the service, I found myself standing on the porch of the chapel and looking out and absorbing this wonderful day and the setting of the chapel amidst an array of colorful flowers and teeming bushes.  The day was calm and mild and the sun was shining brightly.  The exhaustion of the previous Holy Week and the long paschal Liturgy earlier that morning seemed to momentarily disappear. Fr. Schmemann then joined me on the porch, dressed in his white paschal cassock, and also clearly enjoying this "perfect day."  

After a bit of silence he said something to me that has always stayed with me. Now, for some reason, there were times when he would not call me by my first name, but would address me in his French-Russian accented way as "Kostoff."  And this was meant in a friendly, not a formal way. So, on this occasion, he leaned over and said, "Kostoff, it is a day like today that makes life meaningful." 

This was a typical example of Fr. Schmemann's use of understatement. He thoroughly disliked pious rhetoric, long-winded theological conversations - "teaching God" he would bitingly say -  and he was equally impatient with sentimentality.

Thus, all he needed to say was that this beautiful Pascha Sunday made life meaningful. These words were about Christ and His victory over death in His Resurrection. That is what makes life meaningful. We had just completed our annual celebration of that life-creating victory, culminating hours earlier in the joyous midnight Paschal Liturgy which we served together. The beauty of the day simply further enhanced the life-changing meaning of the Resurrection of Christ. 

Fr. Schmemann was a  thorough realist. He harbored no illusions about the destructive power of sin and the tragedy of history and life filled with sin. And, of course, there is death itself, overshadowing and undermining our quest for the "meaning of life." Fr. Schmemann was thus implying that without Christ's victory over sin and death, one is hard-pressed to find ultimate meaning in life. Or that all such attempts pale before the tangible reality of the Risen Christ.  That is how I understood his words, that "it is a day like today that makes life meaningful." 

I like to think that it was our shared "worldview" and our joint membership in the Church, that instantly revealed to me what he was conveying to me with this understated remark that came to him naturally.  There was no need to "spell it out." It was a shared understanding. I do not recall how I responded, if I did at all. I am hoping that I simply nodded my head in agreement without trying to respond with something clever. Why spoil the moment!  

We were eventually joined by a host of other priests and deacons (one of whom was Fr. John Meyendorff, the brilliant Church historian and Patristics scholar), and someone then offered to take a group photo of us all in front of the "old chapel." I have this photo to this day and at times look at it fondly and nostalgically.  By the following year, after I had graduated, the new chapel was in place.

To add another reminiscence from that same celebration of Pascha, I would share that during the earlier midnight Liturgy, while we were in the sanctuary, Fr. Schmemann leaned over and said to me, "Kostoff, a logical positivist could never understand all of this." Interesting comment in the middle of the Liturgy! 

For Fr. Schmemann a "logical positivist" would have a truncated understanding of life, for the very reason that he was trying to understand everything through the categories of logical thought. Yet life, in all of its manifestations and beauty - as well as in its imperfections and irrationality - is far greater than logic. (The personal tragedy of placing logic above life was one of the major themes pursued by Dostoevsky with great penetration in his later novels). At least that is how Fr. Schmemann would see things, and I would fully agree with him. It is hard to work God into the structure of thought pursued by the logical positivist. Thus, the Christian revelation remains foreign, if not incoherent, to such a way of thinking. I am sure that that was implied in Fr. Schmemann's quick aside to me in the sanctuary. But I believe that there was more.

The Paschal Liturgy, as the culmination of the long and emotionally-draining experience of Holy Week, is something like an "explosion of joy." There is something "child-like" in all of the movement and singing: the procession, the initial proclamation that "Christ is Risen!" followed by the joyous singing of the paschal canon, of "Let God Arise," and "The Angel Cried." The paschal services have meaningful structure, but formality and stuffy solemnity are abandoned in the light of joyously acknowledging and experiencing the presence of the Risen Lord. 

In all of this we transcend the merely logical; not that what we are doing is "illogical" but the experience of paschal joy carries us to another level of reality. It was this paschal joy that I believe Fr. Schmemann was saying escapes the more narrow confines of the 'logical positivist." And I am glad that he shared another memorable thought with me at that very moment! 

He realized that what we were doing would seem like foolishness to others, but that is besides the point. Without such joy Christianity is reduced to moral prescriptions and proscriptions. In fact, Fr. Schmemann would often quote the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who would reproach Christians for having no joy, in order to make the point that a joyless Christianity was a contradiction in terms and unworthy of the attention of others.

It was quite an experience to be around Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and I hope that you will enjoy these shared paschal reminiscences that have stayed with me through the years of my priestly ministry.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Probing Question of Christ: 'Do You Want to be Healed?'


Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,


CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!


When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (JN 5:6)




In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John we find the account of the healing of the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and the profound discourse that follows. Archeologists have fairly recently discovered this pool, demonstrating the accuracy of Saint John’s description. This passage, of course, is always read on the Fourth Sunday of Pascha.

The paralytic had taken his place among a human throng of chronic misery, described by the evangelist as “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed” [verse 3].  Being there for 38 years and not being able to experience what were believed to be the healing capacities of the waters of the pool, the paralytic seemed resigned to his destiny.

Then Jesus appeared.  He saw the paralytic and He knew of his plight.  And then Jesus asked the paralytic a very pointed and even poignant question: “Do you want to be healed?” [verse 6].

Surprisingly, considering what must have been his own misery, the paralytic’s answer was less than direct and not exactly enthusiastic: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me” [verse 7].

Nevertheless, and even though the paralytic does not commit himself to an act of faith in the healing power of Jesus, he receives the following directive from Jesus: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  And then, in that somewhat laconic style of describing the healing power of Christ that characterizes the Gospel accounts, we read simply, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked” [verse 9].  The “sign” is that Christ can restore wholeness to those in need.

I believe that we need to concentrate on the question Jesus posed to the paralytic, “Do you want to be healed?”  (The King James version of the question is:  “Wilt thou be made whole?”)  For, if the various characters that Jesus encountered in the Gospels are also representatives or “types” of a particular human condition, dilemma, or state of being, then the question of Jesus remains alive in each generation and is thus posed to each of us today.

If sin is a sickness, then we are “paralyzed” by that sin to one degree or another of intensity.  But do we really want to be healed of the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives?

The answer seems obvious, even a “no-brainer,” but is that truly the case?  Or, are we more-or-less content with continuing as we are, satisfied that perhaps this is “as good as it gets” in terms of our relationship with God and our neighbors? 

Do we manage to politely deflect the probing question of Christ elsewhere, counter-posing a reasonable excuse as to what prevents us from exerting the necessary energy from our side?  Our teaching claims that we must also contribute to the synergistic process of divine grace and human freedom that works together harmoniously for our healing.

Perhaps it is easier and more comfortable to stay as we are – after all, it’s really not that bad - a position reflected in the non-committal response of the paralytic.  For to be further healed of sin will mean that we will have to make some changes in our life, in our interior attitudes and in our relationships.  It certainly means that we will have to confess our faith in Christ with a greater intensity, urgency and commitment.  Are we up to that challenge?

Actually, we could more accurately say that we have already been healed.  That happened when we were baptized into Christ.  (There are baptismal allusions in the healing of the paralytic by the pool of water).

Every human person is paralyzed by the consequences of sin, distorting the image of God in which we were initially created.  Baptism was meant to put to death the sin that is within us.  We were healed, in that baptism is the pledge to life everlasting, where death itself is swallowed up in the victory of Christ over death.  For we are baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

So, with a slight variation, the question of Christ could also imply: Do you rejoice in the fact that you have been healed, and does your way of life reflect the faith and joy that that great healing from sin and death has imparted to you?  Are you willing to continue in the struggle that is necessary to keep that healing “alive” within you?

Direct and simple questions can get complicated, often by the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives.  We can then get confused as to how to respond to such essential questions.  Every time we walk into the church we are being asked by Christ, “Do you want to be healed?”  Responding with a resounding “yes!” would be a “sign” of the faith, hope and love that are within us by the grace of God.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Shuddering Awe


Dear Parish Faithful,

CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!

I have attached a "meditation of old" (2009!) entitled "A Shuddering Awe."  This is, of course, a description of the Myrrhbearing Women as they "fled" from the empty tomb after making that discovery and after being "evangelized" by the angel from within the tomb.  What does a "shuddering awe" have to do with us today?  The meditation makes an attempt to deal with that question.


A Shuddering Awe




In the Gospel According to St. Mark, we hear of the discovery of the empty tomb by the myrrhbearing women "very early on the first day of the week" (16:1). This would be the day after the Sabbath, or our Sunday - the "Lord's Day." 

Since that astonishing morning until this day, Sunday is the most prominent day of worship for Christians, for it was on this day that the resurrection of the Lord was made manifest to the world. And that manifestation was first made to the group of women disciples we know collectively as "the myrrhbearers."

St. Mark specifically mentions "Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome" who "bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him" (16:1). These loyal and loving women had come, somewhat counter-intuitively, to anoint the body of the dead Jesus, though they were aware of the large stone that had been rolled "against the door of the tomb" (15:46). 

Or, perhaps it was a deeper intuition that brought them to the tomb in the hope that they could fulfill their ministry to the Lord. St. Mark narrates: "And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen" (16:2). The "risen sun" is certainly a wonderful anticipation of what the women were soon to discover. Yet, having arrived at the tomb where Jesus had been laid, "looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; for it was very large" (16:4).

The myrrhbearing women will now enter an empty tomb. Indeed, why was it empty? The empty tomb needed interpretation, or the women would be lost in distressful and fruitless speculation. 

The interpretation of the empty tomb will simultaneously be the proclamation of the "Good News." The interpreter and proclaimer will be "a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe" (16:5), clearly an angel. And that means that which he proclaims will be a divine revelation. 

In his presence, the women "were amazed" (16:5). The strength of the Gk. word for "amazed" (used only here in the entire NT by St. Mark) has been further translated as "a strong feeling of awe and agitation in the face of the numinous" (D. E. Nineham), or even a "shuddering awe." (A. E. J. Rawlinson). 

It is at this point in the dramatic narrative that we hear the "Good News" referred to above: 

"And he said to them 'Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him'." (16:6) 

The tomb is empty because Jesus had been raised from the dead! It was the will of God, that the women have the privilege of discovering this. In the words of Peter Chrysologus:

He did not roll back the stone to provide a way of escape for the Lord but to show the world that the Lord had already risen. He rolled back the stone to help his fellow servants believe, not to help the Lord rise from the dead. He rolled the stone for the sake of faith, because it had been rolled over the tomb for the sake of unbelief. He rolled back the stone so that he who took death captive might hold the title of Life.  —SERMON 75.4

This is a bodily resurrection, and not in some vague spiritual or "metaphorical" sense. Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified and buried, had been raised. The "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith" are one and the same. The resurrection reveals an awesome transformation, but it is Jesus of Nazareth who is transformed, thus assuring the continuity that is essential to reveal the victory over death that occurs in the resurrection.

The myrrhbearers then hear a further revelation from the angel: "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you" (16:7). This is in fulfillment of Christ's earlier words: "But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee" (14:28). The Gospel According to St. Matthew will record such an appearance of the Risen Lord to His disciples in Galilee (MATT. 28:16-20). 

Then the women, apparently in that same state of amazement "fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid" (16:8). 

I hope and pray that at some point in the paschal season; or at any time during the year — or during our lifetime! — we too can "tremble" and be filled with "astonishment" that Jesus has been raised from the dead. 

Is this an enigmatic ending to the initial discovery of the empty tomb and the proclamation of the resurrection? Did the myrrhbearing women fail in their ministry as "apostles to the apostles" because of their (initial) silence? 

I believe that St. Mark is leaving us with the overwhelming sense of precisely encountering a divine reality that initially did leave the women speechless. As a scholar of this Gospel has written:

The women's profound emotion is described in order to bring out the overwhelming and sheerly supernatural character of that to which it was the response (see also 4:41, 6:30, 9:15), and perhaps to suggest to the reader that if he has even begun to understand the full significance of what had occurred, he too will be bound to respond with amazement and godly fear." (D. E. Nineham, St. Mark, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, p. 447-448).

It is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that the Orthodox Church proclaims to this day with faith, conviction and the certainty that God has acted "in Christ Jesus" within history in a decisive and "eschatological" manner, in order to reclaim, restore and renew His fallen creation. 

Of course, other Christian churches proclaim the very same victory over death in the Resurrection of Christ. However, the Resurrection understood as the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has been challenged, "reinterpreted," or rejected by a fair share of biblical scholars and theologians. 

We need to be fully aware that the bodily resurrection of Christ does not refer to a resuscitated corpse. There is a tremendous element of transformation in the "spiritual body" of the Lord. The mysterious aspect of this transformation is conveyed in many of the scriptural texts that try and describe — perhaps less than adequately, or at least not exhaustively — the risen life of the Lord. 

Also, a resuscitated Jesus would have died again, as did Lazarus, the daughter of the elder Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain. But St. Paul affirms: "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9). 

There has "arisen" a sad division amongst Christians over this essential issue. To follow Jesus or to believe in Him apart from His bodily resurrection and all that that implies for Christology, anthropology, and eschatology, etc., is to follow "another Gospel." (GAL. 1:7) Such a Jesus did not "trample down death by death." It is a different Jesus and a different religion.

The further words of Peter Chrysologus captures the choice before us when contemplating the empty tomb:

Pray that the angel would descend now and roll away all the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen, for just as the heart in which Christ lives and reigns is heaven, so also the heart in which Christ remains dead and buried is a grave. May it be believed that just as he died, so was he transformed. Christ the man suffered, died and was buried; as God he lives, reigns, is and will be forever.  —SERMONS 75.4

CHRIST IS RISEN!  INDEED HE IS RISEN!