Saturday, June 14, 2014

Denied Communion Because You're Gay? How About a Different Angle of Examination

There is no shortage, either in the news media or in blogosphere, of stories of someone (mainly a Roman Catholic) who is denied communion for certain reasons, mainly by holding or supporting politically contrary views to established Roman Catholic dogma with regards to e.g. gay marriage and gay rights, abortion.  Generally, this information comes out in the form of an editorial of some supposedly "devout, super-Catholic who has gone to mass an overwhelming 8 times" [/sarcasm] who openly disagrees with his/her Church's teachings but feels that because he/she is a "good person" the Eucharist should not be denied him. Well, this same phenomenon has now happened to the Orthodox Communion.

In an editorial printed by the Washington Post, Gregory Pappas, writes that he was denied communion because he was gay.  This, of course, naturally set off a whirlwind of comments, both on the WaPo site and also in the Orthodox blogosphere in general.  A rebuttal was posted by famed Orthodox columnist Rod Dreher which also inspired a whirlwind of comments, both in support of Mr. Pappas and in support of Mr. Dreher.

Enough has been said about whether homosexuality per se is sinful and whether that constitutes being barred from the Holy Mysteries or whether only the acting upon homosexual impulses is the criterion for barring someone.  Even more has been said about how the Church is supposedly hypocritical because it has changed on other issues, so why not this one?  (Small digression:  Mr. Pappas says that the Church never allowed divorce.  That is patently false.  Divorce and remarriage have been consistently allowed by the Church, but one can never marry more than three times in the Church and divorce is always, ALWAYS accompanied by a period of exclusion from the mysteries for repentance.  Don't believe me?  Read about the Moechian controversy in the eighth century[that's right, 1100 years ago] when the Eastern Roman Emperor, Constantine VI, demanded a fourth marriage!)

The issue that has not been examined or, rather, the person who has not been asked for his position is the priest of the church where Mr. Pappas was supposedly denied his communion.  Probably, he's not been asked because of his position and that would undermine the relationship between priest and pentient/layman.  Just as likely is that his priest has been asked because he would not want to do anything even hinting of a betrayal of the trust and confidentiality between priest and penitent. (Small digression #2:  Interesting how penitnet/layman side of that agreement is always greeted with praise when he breaks the seal, but if a priest does it, he's hounded [and should be, but really this standard needs to go both ways).

What many fail to understand is that it is the priest's job to faithfully distribute the Eucharist to the faithful.  That is an immense responsibility.  At a priest's ordination, the bishop, who celebrates the Liturgy, gives to the priest-to-be in his hand the entire lamb (i.e. that section of the prosphoron bread which is consecrated specifically for the Body of Christ) and he is told, in no uncertain terms, that he will be held responsible at the Last Judgment before Christ's Dread Throne for the faithful distribution of His Body and Blood.  My godfather, who is now a priest, told me about this.  He was shaking, literally just remembering that.  I'm made of weaker stuff and I know that once the bishop did that same thing for me, I'd give him back the Lamb and say "See ya!"  Whoever Mr. Pappas' priest may be and whatever church he serves is irrelevant.  Any priest of the Orthodox Church is entrusted with this awesome responsibility.  To give to anyone the Eucharist, where there is the slightest bit of doubt that it is given to an unrepentant person, is to blaspheme Christ.  Another thing that people who are unfamiliar with the Sacramental Nature of the Church is that the priest does not serve the Eucharist, but serves, in loco Christi, in the place of Christ.  Even though we may see a fellow human being in front of the altar, mystically, he becomes Christ, as we mystically become like the Cherubim (as we sing in the Cherubimic Hymn at every Divine Liturgy).  It is Christ who feeds us, not a human.

Why is no one talking about this angle?  The priest, and by extension, the whole Orthodox Church is made out to be the bad guy and  the bad guy cannot be allowed to have his say.  We cannot and should not ask the priest about this because that would break the priest and penitent bond of trust.  The problem is that many, both Catholics and Orthodox, view the Holy Mysteries (or Sacraments) as something you're entitled to because you're "in" just like you're "in" a country club or other organization.  We forget that this is Christ's Body and Blood, not yours, not the priests' and not the Church's (though the latter two are both responsible for safeguarding it undefiled).  Is there the possibility that this priest is abusing his responsibility?  Absolutely.  But, if this were the case, I'm sure there would be other reports.  Is there a possibility that the priest is not applying the canons equally?  Maybe.

One other thing that troubles me about this whole episode is that Mr. Pappas and his priest must have been in communication before this particular situation happened. It is rare, from my standpoint, that a priest does not give the Eucharist to someone who approaches, but there have been times where I was told by my priest (usually after a confession) to not receive the Eucharist for a period of time.  So, when the distribution to the faithful came, I did not even come forth.  I must ask whether Mr. Pappas knew about his not being able to receive in advance.  If he did, it was WRONG of him to present himself.  Of course, to the media and to nominal Christians, such an act would be applauded and encouraged, because there's no way Mr. Pappas could be in the wrong.

I will end by going off on one quote from his editorial:
I’m no activist. I don’t want to have a “big, fat, Greek gay wedding” in my church. I’m not going to march outside the Archdiocese headquarters. I love it the way it has always been—a place of love and compassion, a community of good, hard working people and an institution that realizes that we’re all broken in one way or another, and the church’s sacraments should be celebrated to heal us and make us whole. Because, while I may not be a biblical scholar, I believe I’m a good person; my Church taught me how to treat my fellow human, how to be compassionate and, more importantly, the difference between right and wrong.
So, he's not an activist and is not going to protest, but he's going to make sure everyone outside of the Church hears about it via the Washington Post?   Yeah, that's not activism at all.  I also love how he determines himself to be a "good person" and so therefore he should get whatever he thinks he deserves.  There's the crux of the issue.  His protest, his editorial, his anger is all rooted in himself, in what he thinks.  Even in the Orthodox Church, the rampant individualism courtesy of the Protestant Reformation, has crept in.  Everything should be in accordance to what I believe.  I am the final arbiter.  I get to decide.  No, you don't.  Christ through His Church does. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Another Front in the Worship Wars Opens

For those of us who grew up in a "mainstream" Protestant Christian denomination, there was considerable tension between those of us who favored the "traditional" liturgy vs. those who favored more "contemporary" style of worship with a "come-as-you-are" feel.  We call these the worship wars and every Protestant denomination and even the Roman Catholics have fought in many battles.  Both sides have been bloodied and bruised, but the banners of each still go forward. 

Traditionalists have balked at hearing of services dubbed "U2charist" or "Polka liturgy" or a "Beatles Liturgy" or any service using the music of today's or a few yesterday's popular music.  Traditionalists facepalm all the more when they hear of "Clown Masses."  Take your pick.  Rock n' roll, once public enemy #1 of the churches, has now been co-opted by churches for its own repackaging and branding.  What more could happen?

Well, apparently the community of beat boxers, R&B soloists, and thuggish rappers thought they were getting the short end of the stick by the churches so now a North Carolina church is giving in to (wait for it):  Hip-Hop liturgy.  I suppose it was only a matter of time. 

The same arguments which are used to justify any contemporary music in worship from the Beatles to U2 are also used to justify the existence of a Hip-Hop liturgy:  appeal to younger people, appeal to the non-churched, appeal to what people want, etc., etc.  I'm not going to refute these arguments, though I can and easily.  But here is what will inevitably happen:  There will be no growth.  Oh sure, you'll get a little spike at first, but it's going to be short lived and ephemeral.  If you strictly appeal to what people like and then try to give them an emotional attachment, a "musical high" if you will, what will happen when that "high" wears off?  People will leave to find their wants and desires elsewhere. A church which operates this way may get new visitors every week, but how many of them will actually stay and become involved with the community?  Not very many, I reckon. 

Churches which operate on the mechanism on giving people what the people want are essentially functioning as drug dealers.  They give out something which immediately gratifies, but just like the drug user who realizes that more and more of the drug is needed to achieve the same high, the itinerant church-goer whose primary concern is what satisfies him will go to another church that can achieve the same thing with little or no effort on his part. 

This is not a solution for the problems churches face with today's youth who are not as religiously devout as their parents.  It's only a band aid for a leaky dam.  If a church offers the same as the world, why does it expect a mass exodus from the world to inside its doors? Why would someone in love with the world want to do the same thing but in a location which maybe has some pews, some religious art and a pastor?  Why?

The Church is eternal and Christ says that the Gates of Hell will never prevail against Her.  So why do so many churches continue to try and evangelize using only the most ephemeral of methods?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jesus Wept

The Raising of Lazarus
The Holy Orthodox Church commemorates on the Saturday before Palm Sunday Lazarus who was four days dead.  It is an interesting and paradoxical service, not least because it is a miniature Resurrection service (at both Orthros and Liturgy) on a day normally reserved to commemorate the dead.  The Evlogetaria of the Resurrection is sung instead of the Evlogetaria of the reposed; the second antiphon and the eisodikon both refer to Christ rising from the dead, rather than being glorified in the saints, etc. 

The Gospel according to St. John is read at Divine Liturgy (there is no Orthros Gospel on this day) and the words that most poignantly stand out as if they were out of place and shouldn't even be mentioned are "Jesus wept."  The canons for this day used at Great Compline the evening before and at Orthros the day of, refer to Jesus' weeping as a sign that He truly became Man in contrast to His raising Lazrus which is a sign of His divinity.  Nonetheless, the words "Jesus wept" get our attention more than even Christ commanding Lazarus to come out.  Why?  Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes about this:

At the grave of Lazarus Jesus encounters Death — the power of sin and destruction, of hatred and despair. He meets the enemy of God. And we who follow Him are now introduced into the very heart of this hour of Jesus, the hour, which He so often mentioned. The forthcoming darkness of the Cross, its necessity, its universal meaning, all this is given in the shortest verse of the Gospel — "and Jesus wept."
We understand now that it is because He wept, i.e., loved His friend Lazarus and had pity on him, that He had the power of restoring life to him. The power of Resurrection is not a Divine "power in itself’," but the power of love, or rather, love as power. God is Love, and it is love that creates life; it is love that weeps at the grave and it is, therefore, love that restores life... This is the meaning of these Divine tears. They are tears of love and, therefore, in them is the power of life. Love, which is the foundation of life and its source, is at work again recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: "Lazarus, come forth!" And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the real beginning of both: the Cross, as the supreme sacrifice of love, and the Common Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love.--The Christian Way, 1961
Lent is now ever.  Our repentance must continue, but we focus less on our own efforts and concentrate fully on what Christ has done for us in this week of salvation.  Today is but a taste of the glory to come at the Passion and Resurrection next week.   Happy feast!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Memory eternal--Magdalena Ziegler (Rothenbacher)

My Oma and her Urinkel, Simon.
Though it has been nearly two weeks, I am still very grieved at  the passing of my beloved grandmother (we called her Oma)  at the age of 94.  She had suffered a stroke over a month ago. Unlike past strokes which she had bounced back from as if they were just little bumps in the road, such was not the case this time.  In many ways, I am comforted that she has been taken back to her Lord and God.  Ever since my Opa died five years ago, my Oma was not the same and her quality of life was such that she needed to live in an assisted living facility.  She was frequently confused and I'm pretty sure that even in the few times I was able to see her or talk with her, she had no idea who I was.  Thank God for my Uncle Emil and my Aunt Joyce who were able to check up on her. I'm also thankful to the staff of the home where she lived who went beyond their capabilities to care for her.  Also, thanks to Minka, her cat and faithful companion.

What can I write about such a woman with whom I spent so much time growing up?  There's no shortage of stories I can relate as our summer vacations usually revolved around going up to see her and Opa.  I feel that any retelling of those stories would not even begin to scratch the surface of just how much she meant to me and my family.  Even now, I struggle with what to write. I'm grateful that I was not asked or coerced into giving a eulogy at her funeral (my father did a wonderful job of that). I think I would have been standing up there with a blank expression on my faith, struggling and grasping at anything that would have sounded appropriate.  Fortunately, everyone managed to avoid that.

With two weeks having gone by, the visitation and the funeral now done, I think I'm finally in a place to say a few words about what Oma's death means to me.  I admit that I'm being selfish, but what grandson isn't selfish of his Oma?  So here's what I've come up with.  The death of my Oma was the final chapter in the book of my childhood.  Maybe it's odd to speak of one's childhood ending at 37, but I can't see it any other way.  I had spent so many summers with my Oma and Opa as a kid.  I can't remember a summer when I didn't see them.  That doesn't count of course the many times they came to visit me.  Over the years, my chances to visit with them were fewer and fewer.  The last time I saw my Oma was nearly a year ago for a family reunion.  Before then, I believe I saw her in the summer of 2009 after I was in the area after visiting my monastery.  But, nothing since.

I was saddened, but understood that my Oma could not come to my wedding and as she was in Ohio, it was a long way to go.  Then, new wife, new job, new kid; everything piled up.  I'm happy beyond belief I was able to see her a year ago so she could meet her great-grandson (her urinkel) for the first (and only) time.  I am certain that she thoroughly enjoyed his visit.

I don't recall ever being very good to my Oma. I have always been pretty bad about remembering to send cards and/or presents for friends' and family's birthdays.  I think my giving her an urinkel was probably the nicest thing I did for her.  It's unfortunate that it took me 36 years for me to do that.  At last week's visitation, my son and his second cousin, Chrisitan (who is 2 years older than Simon) were playing together.  As I saw them playing and laughing, I knew my Oma would have loved every second of that.

That's the kind of woman my Oma was.  She was totally invested in her kids, her grandkids and, if she had more of  an opportunity, her greatgrandkids.  She was selfless. I remember that whenever Oma visited us, I knew I would never have to make a bed or clean up; she always did that for us. She would cook, she would do laundry, she would do everything as if that house were her very own.  Such selflessness and love one seldom sees and I believe that only with her passing do I see that very clearly for the first time, thus finally ending my childhood. 

She will be a hard woman to emulate.  I suppose the best way for me to honor her is to love my wife and my son as she loved her family, to be selfless and humble and always giving.  It's time for me to do some growing up.

I love you, Oma.  Memory eternal!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

May Metropolitan PHILIP'S Memory Be Eternal

Metropolitan PHILIP, Antiochian Archbishop of North America (1931-2014)
Yesterday evening, the faithful of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America were saddened to hear of the death of their spiritual father, Metropolitan PHILIP, Archbishop of North America and Canada, Metropolitan of New York and Northeast U.S.A.  More than a week earlier, His Eminence experienced a mild heart attack after which he went down to Florida for some tests and rest and recovery.  What seemed to be another hurdle that His Eminence would overcome as he has so many was not to be. He reposed yesterday evening after many parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese here in America were celebrating or concluding the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified.

This is a huge loss, not only for the Antiochian jurisdiction but for Orthodoxy in America.  I never met the man, but I know plenty of people who knew the man from a variety of encounters.  There was never one characterization of him; indeed, he was a man of different temperaments.  He could be gracious and fun loving one moment and then the opposite the next.  This change in his approach to people also made him a controversial figure at times.  Those moments of controversy though should in no way diminish all the good work he did for the Antiochians in America and for all the Orthodox in America.  I've also been told that if you ever got to meet and speak with him, if only for a few moments, you were always made to feel like the most important person in the world to him.

I don't know a lot of specifics, but from what I have read and what I have been told is that the organization of Christians from the Middle East in this country, before his arrival, was a mess.  There were competing hierarchies of bishops; there was a shortage of priests and thus many people drifted away (many becoming Episcopalian); there was a mess.  He straightened all that out.  He healed the rift between competing Arab churches and brought discipline.  He organized the current Antiochian jurisdiction here in North America and made it not only strong for the cradle Arab Orthodox but also a beacon for seekers and inquirers to be received into the one true faith.  No other Orthodox jurisdiction in America has been friendlier to converts than the Antiochian and that is largely because of him.  In fact, the other jurisdictions have had to play catchup.  Though an Arab, he demanded the use of English in parishes, either for the entirety or for the substantial majority of services.  This was at a time when many jurisdictions used very little English, if any.  This, too, helped with the influx of converts.  His reception of several thousand members of the EOC (Evangelical Orthodox Church) still has major implications today.  He expanded the publishing arm of the church to provide service texts for many who simply had no access beforehand. He developed the Antiochian Village to serve as a convention center for retreats.  He has created the first Antiochian monastery, a woman's monastery dedicated to St. Thecla, the Martyr.  So many other accomplishments could be listed which I simply don't know about.

He made jurisdictional unity here in America a priority although he often said some controversial statements that were not well received by bishops of other mother churches like the Ecumenical Patriarchate.    In those statements, he was probably right.  History will probably vindicate him in that regard.

But he also did some things that to many laity, including myself, smacked of power grabs and favoritism:  His demotion of his bishops in the Dioceses in North America to mere auxiliary rank which would not even allow them to be recognized during the Ektenias at Divine Liturgies; his persuading of the Patriarch, IGNATIOS IV (eternal memory!) to cement this change in the form of a Synodal decree; his removal of Bishop MARK from the Diocese of the Midwest;  his unequivocal support for the priests (mainly Arab priests) in Bishop MARK's diocese when they were clearly acting disobediently; His handling of the whole Bishop DMITRI affair; His disciplining of priests who wore the cassock outside of the church.  His Eminence was also no big fan of monasteries and it was only a few years ago that he created a woman's monastery with an abbess that was attached to the Antiochian Village.  We should be honest about the character of the whole man, but I believe that the good he did for the sake of Orthodoxy cannot be impugned even with knowledge of these actions.

The Antiochian jurisdiction is more than any one man.  It will go on, but there is no question that Metropolitan PHILIP, while he lived, was the glue and heart.  A new Archbishop will have to be appointed. It will be interesting to see whom is selected, but now is not  the time for that.  We are in the season of Great Lent and as we (should) cling to God more in this holy season through fasting and prayer, we need to do so even more right now.  Pray that our sins be forgiven and that the faithful of North America be given a chief shepherd to guide them to even better days.

Christ is Risen!  Memory eternal!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

From the Spritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian

If He [i.e. Christ] is not God and man then, indeed, our salvation is false, and false are the pronouncements of the prophets.--A Spiritual Psalter, Third Kathisma, Third stasis # 23

These words conclude Ephraim's long set of rhetorical questions about Christ being both God and Man.  They follow the pattern "If he were not flesh...then who [insert phrase reflecting his divinity]."  At this time of year, Orthodox are, unfairly, criticized for their hymnography which overwhelmingly tackles the theme of Christ's incarnation.  Why all the focus on His incarnation and not on his Crucifixion and Death and Resurrection?  Firstly, that's a stupid question because Orthodoxy hymnography, just like Orthodox theology is never just centered on one thing, but it is all-encompassing and holistic.  The Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ all have their place in the Lenten cycle of Divine Liturgy and the other offices, but without keeping the Incarnation on the forefront of our lips and minds and souls, then Christ's work on those three days becomes merely a legal matter.

On another note, if you have not read the Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian, then I strongly suggest you get one and incorporate it into your Lenten reading/prayer life.  The words of this great Christian poet and psalmist (even when translated into such an unpoetic language as English) will condemn you for what you are, a sinner, and yet remind you fervently about the Hope we have in Christ. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Worship can (and probably should) hurt you (physically)

In today's world of commercial church shopping, would-be church goers and even people who have been at a church for a long time want a place where they will "get the most out of a service" which translates, usually, to "what feels good" or "how much I learned."  Either way, many (if not most) Christian worship services have become mainly mere mental exercises, whether for the emotions or for the reason center of the brain.  In of itself, that is not bad.  The brain/mind/soul/psyche/nous need to be active participants in the worship service, but what about the rest of the body?  Have Christians today become gnostic even in their worship of God?

The Gnostics were the original Christian dualists.  Everything was assigned in one category alongside a diametric opposite:  Good vs. evil, created vs. uncreated, light vs. dark, spirit vs. mind, body vs. soul, hunger vs. satiety, etc.  Now, this type of dualist thought even pervades the Johannine universe of Christianity (read his Gospel and his letters), but it doesn't come close to the extreme application of the Gnostics.  The Gnostics believed that anything created or of the world was evil.  Only things of the spirit of the mind were valuable and were of the true God.  The Gnostic Christians went so far as to say that the act of creation can only be the act of an evil god and thus there were two Gods--one of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament.  In order to draw closer to the true god, one needed to gain "gnosis" or knowledge and that could only be achieved by a severe detachment to the things of the world which lead to harsh asceticism and privation.  Now, the Church, in contrast, has always correctly understood that asceticism and privation are useful disciplines for the body to be a participant in the spiritual life.  Thus, the lenten discipline of fasting is to let the body in on repentance.

In Greek, the word μετανοια is translated as repentance.  It literally means "a change of the nous" which is another word that his hard to translate.  St. John Damascene says the nous is the eye or the heart of the soul, maybe even the power of the soul.  It is through the nous that we communicate with God from the depth of our very self.  But, again, we Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, are not gnostics.  Repentance and communion with God involve the totality of the person, flesh and spirit alike.  In fact, it is  only because we have flesh that we can repent.  The angels who rebelled against God in the beginning cannot repent and thus are forever outside the forgiveness that God offers.  So, if our bodies should be let in on repentance, shouldn't they also be let in for the worship of God?

The obvious answer to that question is yes, but, let's face it, most people don't.  Worship has become an almost exclusively mental activity. What about the rest of the body?  

This is the season of Great Lent.  During this time, Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, take more time out of their already busy lives to immerse themselves into the liturgical life of the Church.  During the first week of Lent, Orthodox Christians are treated to Great Compline (for some, this may be the only time their parish celebrates Great Compline).  It is a long evening prayer service, with many readings from the psalter, prayers and hymns of penance and repentance.  Most of these prayers and hymns are accompanied by not only the sign of the Cross, but also bows and/or full prostations to the ground sometimes one right after the other.  For those not used to it, even for those in good physical shape, it can be a rigorous workout (I sometimes call the experience "The Great Compline Workout').  And sometimes, you can hurt, especially your knees. 

Have many of us ever considered that worship should be physically engaging to the point of feeling stiffness or soreness in muscles and bones?  My back is not in the best shape but I was really feeling it last week.  I should add that I am not advocating that people who have bodily injuries should ignore their doctor's advice and throw themselves fully into the workout. 

Worship should leave us aching...aching for God.  The soul and mind are fed and are prepared for nourishment with the readings, the hymns and the prayers.  Then, the nourishment in the form of the Eucharist is given.  We also should prepare our bodies by bowing, making the sign of the Cross, kneeling, prostrations to the ground and even standing.  The body then is also nourished by the Eucharist which, we pray, is for the feeding of both body and soul.

In many Christian confessions, rubrics have changed so as to eliminate bodily participation in worship or severely limit it.  That will only make the body lethargic.  Pews have helped this along so much.  Worship is about comfort.  There are some churches which advertise themselves by promoting the comfort of their seats!  If the body is a non-participant in worship and repentance, then we do not truly worship nor repent.  For some this will be difficult, physically.  For others, there are physical obstacles in the way, notably pews.

There is an old hymn called "Stand up, stand up for Jesus."  The writer of that hymn, I guess, was not speaking metaphorically, but literally.  Stand up for Jesus, bow to Jesus, kneel to Jesus.  Love and worship  the Lord and repent in soul AND body.