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.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Attention, Catholics! There are STILL Doctrinal Differences

The Roman Catholics ecumenists seem to conveniently never get the memo that there are still many and major points of doctrinal disagreement between them and the Orthodox Communion of Churches.  It's like a relationship that's been split up and one party still continues to insist they are boyfriend-girlfriend and the other party says no.  It is aggravating to hear Catholics on internet forums, in churches, at friendly get-togethers continuing to put forward the absolute myth that there are no major disagreements.  That's ridiculous.

I will direct you to my friend Anastasia's blog where she recalls an instance when a Roman Catholic, at an ecumenical meeting got up and made that blatantly false statement.  Her response to it is worth reading. (FYI:  I have a comment on that post)

She asks at the end How the Orthodox are supposed to have any real dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church who simply must know, must know that there are no doctrinal differences is blatantly false.  The simple answer is "We can't and we shouldn't."  If the Roman Catholics are not going to even be honest with the fact that divisions still do exist, then they are being disingenous, at best. 

The question then arises about why they do this?  They cannot plead ignorance because I believe that they are being actively taught this by their clergy and hierarchs.  I believe that the Roman Catholics do this because they know that their beliefs of being subject to the pope who has universal primacy over doctrine is completely anathema to us Orthodox.  They can't say it else the conversation is immediately ended.  So, they'll deny it to hopefully keep us talking and, when the moment is right and when the ink on the paper is still wet indicating full communion, some Cardinal will jump out of the cake and yell, "You're papists now!"

Dialogue only works when both sides approach it from absolute honesty.  Sadly, the Catholics are not being honest and when they are called on it, they cry foul.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Millennials Longing for Liturgy

In this era of pulling out all the stops to step up or just retain membership in a church congregation, the first thing to do is to understand your demographics.  How do we best retain x demographic, whether it's women, men, college-age, the elderly, generation X, generation Y aka millennials, baby-boomers, take your pick.  Rather than appeal to the whole (catholic), churches attune their message, their church programs, their activities to certain demographics.  There's no way you're going to get all of them.  In the world of business, people want products which are cheap, come fast and are of good quality.  You can't have all three so smart businesspeople say you can only have two. 

Drawing in the millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000), I would argue, has been the bullseye when it comes to church growth or church sustainability.  Those on the older end, some of them at least, are starting to get married and sometimes have children, while those on the younger end are college age, often a critical time when the likelihood of abandoning the religion (if any) they grew up with and maybe trying something different.   The standard thinking by many churches to retain or  gain this group has been to make church watered down, polite and, most importantly, "relevant" to their lives as if the exact thing that millennials do in the world should be replicated in the service of God.  Hence, many churches have gone to a church "Style" that appeals most to this group:  quasi-rock music "praise music" devoid of any theological meaning and concentrating on what the individual "feels" about God; sermons that speak seldom, if ever, about sin and focus more on cheap therapy for one's self-esteem;  abandonment of repentance or change since God loves you as you are; rejection of doctrine and favoring of believing whatever one wishes; services that are short to allow people to get back to the "real" world, etc.

The results of implementing this line of thinking have been disastrous, to say the least.  Now, 1 in 5 Americans considers himself to be a "none" in terms of a specific confession of faith.  There is a rise of "spiritual, but not religious" demographic.  And baby-boomers, wishing to be their kids' friends rather than parents, have abnegated their responsibility of raising their kids in the faith, because that would be mean.  Churches are losing, but continue to practice the proverbial doing the same crazy thing over and over and expecting different results.  

Is there an alternative?  Possibly.  Though this is not backed up by any statistical evidence and is a summary of anecdotes, perhaps the answer to seek out and retain millennials is not rooted in any "relevant" approach at all, but a return to the liturgy.  I encourage you to read this article here.  It gives the account of three people, all of whom grew up in an evangelical or liberal Protestant background and found a home in the Anglican (not Episcopal), Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches.   Again, we need to stress that though this is occurring, there are no firm statistics to corroborate. 

I would argue that the Liturgy has been and always will be catholic (encompassing the whole) and is not just for one group or another, but for all.  The liturgy is the great uniter precisely because it does not cater to the whims and feelings of one group versus another.   The problem is that many of the evangelical churches and liberal Protestant churches are lead overwhelmingly by those who are still stuck in the mindset that you have to appeal to people's feelings above all. Once those leaders are gone, maybe there will be an upswing in the number of churches which seek to reclaim their now lost liturgical roots. 

Despite the lack  of statistics, the point of the article cannot simply be ignored.  There is a desire, a need for the liturgical worship that has been cast aside starting since the 1960s.  In an era where every whim and want can be instantly gratified thanks to the internet, fast food, smart phones, globalization, there needs to be a place where mystery and the unknown prevail.  And that should be in the churches.  The churches which worship according to the ancient liturgies do not give people immediately what they want, do not heal every wound at once, do not cater to their demands.  There must be periods of waiting, of expectation and then, at last, partaking.  And that takes time, though the Liturgy itself is timeless.  People DO long for mystery, do long for the unexpected, do long for uncertainty in the spiritual life.  Victory then, in the spiritual life, is so much sweeter.

Churches will probably continue to do as they did, but they should be honest about why they are losing people.  Adding new programs according to the old model may work for the time being.  But, it's like using a drug.  At first, you have a contact high and then you want more and more until using it fails to achieve that feeling like when it was first tried.   Churches which always seek to give the congregations the newest fads, the newest trends to keep them in their buildings, will hold onto them for a  little while.  But, like a drug, it wears off and people still don't have what they really need and desire.  Time for a change by embracing the changeless--the Divine Liturgy.

NB:  I use the term liturgy to refer to any particular church's traditional mode of worship.  For Orthodox, this is the Divine LIturgy of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great; for Catholics, the Tridentine Rite; for Anglicans, the Book of Common Prayer; for Lutherans, the common service.