Friday, March 26, 2010

It's that time of year again

...when the media gives us all sorts of articles and "insights" as to what really happened during Holy Week and what Christ's Resurrection "really means." More often than not, we are bombarded by scholarly opinions about how current Christian observance of Holy Week and Pascha are misguided and are mere inventions of third century totalitarian bishops (read, Pope of Rome, which is, of course a historical anachronism) wishing to impose an orthodoxy that was at odds with the beliefs and faith of MOST of the world's Christians. Also, at this time, such ecumenical groups as the National Council of Churches laments that the observance of Western Christians and Eastern Christians is, with the exception of this year and next, most often on differing dates. So, the NCC, with its obvious respect to the traditions of other Christian confessions, says that we must all observe Pascha of the Lord on the same date so as not to give a divided witness. In fact, you can read their most current press release about that very issue here.

It is no secret that I favor the Old (Julian) Calendar to determine ALL feast days of the Orthodox Church and that the adoption of the New (Revised Julian) Calendar by the Antiochians, Greeks, Romanians and Bulgarians among others, does nothing, whether in this country or in the world, to promote an Orthodox unity while respecting local traditions. The calendar issue is no small "t" tradition as many hierarchs would make it out to be. To reverse the canons as egregiously as this requires the imprimatur and approval of nothing less than ecumenical council. We all pray that such an event may happen sometime soon. Though we will use the Old Calendar to calculate the date of Pascha and thus observe with our fellow Orthodox our Lord's triumph over death, why should we not also celebrate our Lord's Nativity together or the Annunciation to Our Lady? Are those of less importance? Surely not, even though Pascha is called rightly the "feast of feasts and holy day of holy days."

As such, I must reiterate on no uncertain terms that for any Orthodox hierarch, priest or layperson to suggest that we should join with the NCC and other confessions to support a common observance of Pascha is unacceptable. The argument goes that all Christians should celebrate together because, otherwise, we are giving a divided witness. Well, news flash: WE ARE DIVIDED AND WE ARE GIVING DIVIDED WITNESS ALREADY! Celebrating on the same day does nothing to eradicate the facts that too many western confessions of Christianity give a blatantly false message of our Lord's Pascha, going even so far as to deny that it actually happened! What is the point of celebrating with christians who see Christ's resurrection as nothing more than a symbolic act or as nothing more than a metaphor instead of the reality of God's triumph over death? Why celebrate with many of these confessions who think that faith in Christ and faith in mankind are but one and the same Gospel? Why celebrate with many christians who deny the sin for which Christ even came into the world? Why celebrate with many christians who deny the Virgin Birth, deny the incarnation, the sacraments among other things? Why celebrate together the feast, the source of all Eastern theology, when that theology is merely branded as one choice of many, not holding any more truth than what a Methodist may believe? Therefore, I hope and pray that all Orthodox hierarchs, priest and laity continue to support what has always been church tradition. If it should come to it that an Orthodox ecumenical council adopts a new means for celebrating Pascha that is in line with other western confessions, fine. But, let me make it clear that until Ecumenical Council is called, there should be no deviation from Holy Tradition and practice, not now, not ever.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Feast of the Annunciation

With one week remaining before Holy Week, we take a small break from our "bright sadness" to embrace all joy in celebrating the Annunciation. Annunciation is a strangely placed feast in a lot of ways simply because it always occurs during Lent (unless you are Old Calendar when it can possibly coincide with Pascha or even Bright Week, but that's rare), but, of course, it is perfectly reasonably placed as it is nine months before our Lord's Nativity on December 25.

But, aside from the logic of placing it nine months before our Lord's Nativity, the wisdom of placing it in Lent is in many ways necessary. As I have talked before about how the Adoration of the Cross is placed on the third Sunday of Lent to give us hope and encouragement for the rest of Lent, thus the Feast of the Annunciation is in Lent, whether beginning or at the end, to give us hope and encouragement for the rest of the season. Why do we need this encouragement? Because, many of us, including myself, are buckling under the pressure of realizing and contemplating our own sins, our own shortcomings, our own failings to the point that we become despondent and lose hope.

The Church is a hospital. It is not some regulatory commission which sets up bunch of rules and regulations to follow, tells you to do them and says good luck without any kind of help in the process. The Church realizes that its members will fall, fail, buckle, despair, but there are always remedies available through the Church. The Church prescribes remedies and one of them is this Feast where we are called to remove our joyous lamentation for all joy because Christ has come to renew and recreate us through His Incarnation. He did not come so that only our souls will be saved, but so that everything that we are, body, soul and mind is saved. St. Paul tell us a mystery that we shall all be changed. And he's not talking about a renunciation of the body to the point that we condemn it as something that is a punishment. As Gregory the Theologian says and is often quoted, "Whatever Christ did not assume is unhealed."

Despite our failings in warring against the passions, we know that Christ became everything that we are to help us in this warfare. Thus, let us embrace this feast with joy, knowing in both soul and body that we are saved through His coming.

Happy Annunciation!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Fifth and Final Sunday of Great Lent--Commemoration of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt

I cannot believe that we have arrived at the fifth Sunday of Lent so soon. For awhile it seemed that Lent was proceeding as quickly as a snail, but the pace seems to have increased as of recent weeks. But, here we are, one week closer to the holiest of weeks. After the third Sunday of Lent when we venerate the Life-giving Cross of our Lord, this is my favorite Sunday in Lent. I have a particular affection towards St. Mary of Egypt and even in the weeks leading up to this one, her name and her story can often be heard in various chants and hymns such as in the Great Canon where several petitions are addressed to her that she would pray for us.

St. Mary of Egypt is the great icon of the life of repentance. Both Jesus and St. John the Forerunner preached repentance, St. Augustine wrote about it and many have practiced it and have run the course well, but none so famously or with such a depth of contrition as St. Mary. I don't need to get into the details of her life or her story (you can read St. Sophronius' Life of St. Mary for that). The reason that this particular Sunday resonates so much with me is that just as the third Sunday's commemoration of the Cross exists to give us strength when we start to lose heart, so this Sunday exists for us to put before our very eyes a person who lived the life of repentance so well. Even by our modern standards, her sins may have been great, but it doesn't matter. Her repentance proves definitively that neither greatness of sinning or transgression can separate us from the love and compassion of our God.

As Lent starts to wind down, we can more easily start to lose heart and patience that it is maybe Ok to lessen our preparation for our Lord's empty tomb at Pascha. Such is the work of the evil one. Satan will even use our fruits of repentance against us, to try to convince us that we have accomplished some sort of "bare minimum" of repentance and thus we can live as we please for the remainder of the time. Indeed, the evil one tried this very tactic with St. Mary and she resisted. A similar story is told about another prostitute who turned to the desert for her repentance. When the evil one could not persuade or trick her to go back to her previous way of life, he attempted to instill in her a sense of pride that Satan's wiles had been defeated. This woman, recognizing the devil's trick, said that it was not she who defeated Satan, but her Lord, Jesus Christ who had accomplished it. St. Zosimas, who brought the life giving mysteries to St. Mary of Egypt before her death and who buried her, though an excellent ascetic realized that he had become prideful in his asceticism to the point that he became despondent. But, meeting our mother Mary in the desert, he wept all the more for his own sins.

Our repentance is never wholly ours. We must make effort, to be sure, but without Christ, our repentance is always doomed to fail. It will be a mere temporary abstaining from the sins of the flesh, nothing more. Our Mother Mary not only gives us an example of true repentance but of how never to be distracted by the vainglory and pride that even successful repentance can bring. Because no matter how many sins we have committed and repented of, there are always more.

Through the intercessions of our Holy Mother Mary, may we continue through the rest of the Lent with fasting, both of the spirit and mind.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian

In a post a month ago, I talked briefly about St. Ephraim as he was commemorated on that particular day. Lent had not yet begun and as I was going through some difficulties with regards to my spiritual life and I need counsel and repentance. My priest, always eager to recommend good spiritual reading, recommended Ephraim's Spiritual Psalter. During Lent, when I can pray the hours, in place of the psalter that is read, I read Ephraim's Spiritual Psalter instead which is also divided up into kathismata and respective stases. I have found it to be such a great gift to my spiritual life.

As I prayed the 1st hour this morning, when the 9th Kathisma was prescribed, I read this from St. Ephraim:

I strain to redirect my will, but my previous state will not allow me any success in this endeavor. I who am miserable try to free my soul from its debts, but immediately does the evil usurer lead me into greater debt. Generously does he grant me loans, never mentioning repayment. He does not even want to take anything back, for he desires only my slavery. He lends and then does not seek after my debts, that I might be made rich in passions. I want to pay off my old debt, but he adds a new one.

I encounter new passion and, occupied with them, I forget about former ones. I befriend teh passions which reappear and become again a debtor. I run to them as to friends and again my usurers behave toward me like masters. And I, who not so long ago tried to gain freedom, make myself their loyal slave. Again I hasten to tear apart their bonds and again I put on new ones. I hasten to free myself from the obligation to fight in their ranks, but because I have taken many gifts from them I find myself involuntarily bound to them.

O, how great is the authority of the sinful passions over me! O, how great is the soverignty of the wicked and cunning serpent.

St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kathisma 12, Stases 3, Psalm 69

Again, this spiritual psalter is meant to be read along with the psalter itself. Here is the 69th Psalm. It is short, but St. Ephraim has really brought out how much is contained in this short psalm.

Make haste, O God, to deliver me!
O Lord, make haste to help me!
2 Let them be put to shame and confusion
who seek my life!
Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor
who delight in my hurt!
3 Let them turn back because of their shame
who say, “Well done, well done!”

4 May all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you!
May those who love your salvation
say evermore, “God is great!”
5 But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay!

How well does St. Ephraim lay out as to how our sins only multiply further sins. How well does St. Eprhaim reveal to us that when we sin we are nothing more than slaves. Sinfulness is not buying something and needing a loan to make payment. It is about the giving of our very self to the evil one. There is no repayment, because we are entirely the evil one's. He already owns us! We are no longer the Lord's.

But, despite this fact, there is always one thing that makes the evil one and the sins with which he entraps us flee. It is the sign of the Cross, to be made reverently and with purpose. It is not a batting of flies as you see some make it. It is the light of His countenance that has been signed upon us (Psalm 4). The cross gives us the way to repentance and salvation. St. Ephraim makes that very clear as well. To those, outside Orthodoxy, who think that the Orthodox lack the Cross in its theology only should read St. Ephraim and see how wrong they are. And for those who think that St. Ephraim is not a major figure and thus is to be discoutned should remember that St. Basil the Great considered Ephraim to be the eloquent master of the truths of the Lord. And, for the Orthodox, St. Basil the Great's testimony ranks pretty high.

This work, I think, has made all the difference for my Lenten journey. I hope it can continue to enrich my private prayer life and show fruits in the spiritual contest.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Veneration of the Life Giving Cross

I love the third Sunday of Lent. Why? It reminds us of why we are on the Lenten journey in the first place. For those who choose not to follow the Lenten fasting practices, for whatever reasons, this Sunday is for them. For those of us who desire to follow the Lenten discipline of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, we are starting to show signs of fatigue, of frustration, of somberness. This Sunday gives us encouragement to continue on because of the mercy and compassion that Christ showed on his way to the Corss. And for some, getting to this halfway point with more generosity to our fellow man, restricting our diet to fruits, bread and vegetables and praying every chance we get can lead very quickly to pride and hubris thinking that our own merits are getting us somewhere. This Sunday shows that there is no humility or generosity or compassion that even comes close to what our Lord accomplished upon His Holy Cross. In short, this Sunday has something for everyone: for the faster and non-faster alike.

When we appraoch to kiss the icon of our Lord's crucifixion, we should be very careful to notice that the Christ on the Cross is not just the suffering servant, but that He is still the compassionante theanthropos who became incarnate only to die with the sins of the world upon his shoulders, who extends His hands out as to invite us to Himself so that He may embrace us with the very same love that He displays in His being crucified. Let us not lose heart; let us gain courage; let us not be frustrated; let us gain hope! The Cross is the source of all virtues, it is the giver of Life.

Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify!

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Liturgy as a Family Reunion

We are now starting the third week of Great Lent and the Fast. It is now where I am beginning to struggle with the fasting and the additional prayers. It's not because I am bored with them or feel that they are ineffective but because I am genuinely tired and worn out. Prayer, true prayer, is a herculean effort and to compound it with fasting on top of normal daily activities and the fact that time has not increased for a given day only adds further to the struggle. But, of course, if we contend only as individuals, we are bound to be tired and worn out. Sinners are condemned alone, but the saved are saved communally. The Lenten struggle is ameliorated since all that we do and all that we should do is supported by our family, i.e. our fellow Orthodox least in theory.

This past week I had a brief discussion with a friend of mine who was noticeably disillusioned by the lack of attendees at the presanctified Liturgies on Wednesday. I could see that he was clearly bothered that no more than about 20 people have attended each service thus far. I, of course, tried to answer his negative assessment with some of the old tried excuses such as Lent began so early this year, it's still very cold out, people are still getting out of the Christmas mode, etc. I was really not trying to justify people being gone, but, every year, it is a fact taht most people simply do not want to come. It's not important to them. It's as simple as that. The conversation naturally steered to how we get more people to come out. It was at this point that I felt that the conversation would only exascerbate already disappointed feelings so it ended abruptly.

I'm sure that at this time, every church, at least every church that observes the Lenten season even in some reduced fashion, is wondering where everyone else is. It is a conversation that will always be held. To try and come up with solutions to this problem is too much to get into and I won't attempt such a feat here.

But in the conversation, my friend repeatedly referred to his St. Mary family. Now, this is by no means a unique or unheard of description about the church membership, but it got me thinking that the Liturgy is a family reunion. It is not a gathering of us Orthodox Christians and our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also the gathering of the saints gone before us who congregate together to sing with the angels the praises of God.

Every family reunion though has its share of people who cannot simply make it, for whatever reason. Yet the reunion goes on as planned. With our Liturgies, the prayers still go on, the Word is still preached, we are forgiven, we are encouraged and we are given the life giving medicine of the Eucharist. All these things still happen! And we rejoice that they do. We may take note of our absent brothers and sisters but if this becomes our focus, like it seemed to with my friend, then what is the purpose of participating in the work of the people in the first place? There is none.

Rather than be sad at the family members who are absent, we should all the more rejoice at those family members who are mystically there. Pray for those absent, but rejoice with those present. Do we only go to parties to talk about those people who aren't there? Why should we go to the Liturgy and do that same thing? We are in the presence of God, where the boundaries of Heaven and Earth mystically fade away so that we are enveloped totally by God. And that is completion enough.

We can proceed through the rest of the fast faithfully and with reverence knowing that we do have good support from our family that is present. We are encouraged by their prayers and exhorted by their examples. Thus, we persevere. There are always more than enough at the Liturgies and Offices to help and compensate for the many who are not present, for whatever reason.

To my friend, if you read this, I mean no disrespect. As I have said before, I am of like disposition, but I think we need to see the bigger issues.