Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Nativity Fast

On November 15, the Holy Orthodox Church begins its preparation to celebrate our Lord's incarnation. Our Lord's taking on human flesh and the celebration of the Theophany a little more than a week later are but the mere beginning of our Lord's mercy to save us from the passions which consume us every day. But in order to feast and celebrate, we must first fast and prepare. This fasting must never be done in a manner to draw attention to ourselves, nor should we do so with sadness, but with joy. Fasting is a discipline that must be accompanied by prayer. Without prayer our fasting is only dieting. And we should not only fast from food, we should also fast from other pleasures. For me, I'm taking a break from the internet, save for email so I will not be writing anything again (not that I've been writing much lately) until Nativity. I will be using the extra time to devote to more reading and prayer. This is not a meritorious activity. I do it not to earn points with God but because God has done so much for me that a break from certain foods, TV and internet is really but a small recompense.

For those of you who are about to enter the fast, I wish you well. We must remember that most of our fellow Christians, even our fellow Orthodox Christians do not observe the fast. We must remember St. Paul's advice that we are not to judge because one brother eats meat and another doesn't.

Many still believe that in spite of what I just wrote that fasting is nothing more than a legalism. I challenge you to prove that. I also am reprinting these words from which give a brief synopsis on what fasting is and isn't. I shall return on Nativity when I hope you will rejoice with me, chanting: Christos Gennetai! Blessed fast.

The Purpose of Fasting

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example.

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.
We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us.
We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together.
Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now.
Most of all, we should not devour each other. We ask God to “set a watch and keep the door of our lips.”

Do Not Fast

between December 25 and January 5 (even on Wednesdays and Fridays);
if you are pregnant or nursing a newborn;
during serious illness;
without prayer;
without alms-giving;
according to your own will without guidance from your spiritual father.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Who are the barbarians?

The very famous Troparion of the Cross, chanted at every Matins and also on feast days of the Cross as a dismissal hymn (Aug. 1, Sept. 14 and 3rd Sunday of Lent) is known by these words:

O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting to Thy people victory over all adversaries and by the power of Thy Cross, preserving thine estate.

Such is what we chant. However, even a basic knowledge of Greek will indicate that the boldfaced words are poor translations (if not politically correct) of the Greek. What should be said is that victory be granted to our "kings" over "barbarians." Granted, kings is probably not going to resonate with our democratic/republican tendencies. And barbarian even less so because who are we to judge? But here's a good take on why barbarian should be the preferred translation and used. In short, it's because there are still barbarians around us. My thanks to Fr. Milovan Katanic for his thoughts on this.

For those of us who have only a superficial knowledge of trends when it comes to social issues, we realize that in about a decade's time the acceptance of homosexual marriage and relations as well as abortion on the demand has gone up amongst people who consider themselves faithful Christians. That is probably due to the fact that many, if not most, of us actually know a person or persons who are gay and know women who have had abortions. I myself can attest to both. I wish I did not know those things, not because I don't like these people, but because I have a terrible tendency to be judgmental and condemnatory and I fear that such would get the best of me. Of course, it's not my business, but somehow that knowledge gets passed along.

Even for Orthodox Christians, the number of the faithful who actually support legislation granting marriage to homosexuals and keeping abortion legal in all situations, is a majority of Orthodox Christians. Though I'm sure many of these faithful people say that they are repulsed by abortion and would never sanction one in their own family, why is it not wrong for everyone else, but wrong for us? A firm, consistent and moral clarity is obviously lacking.

OK. So, what does this have to do with barbarians? Fr. Katanic reprints this incisive critique from Fr. Gregory Jensen of the OCA:

According to the PEW survey, the majority of Orthodox laity agree that abortion and gay marriage should be legal. It may surprise you, then, that the problem isn’t Schaeffer – it’s us; specifically, it’s the clergy. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, we clergy are not effectively communicating the moral tradition of the Church to the laity. Or, if we are, the laity aren’t listening—which would imply that the clergy are willing to tolerate the laity ignoring the Gospel.

We see the same prevalence of pro-choice, pro-gay marriage positions among Orthodox politicians. This kind of a consistent pattern of belief does not just happen. As in the Catholic Church, we see in the Orthodox Church evidence of a significant pastoral failing. This appears to be more than just a widespread lack of sound moral education for the faithful. It appears to be an embrace of, or at least resignation to, the influence of secularism in our parishes.

This is a very serious problem. This isn’t a debate about the practices of potentially faithful followers—as can be the case when addressing, say, Old Calendar or New Calendar, or the issue of women wearing headscarves, or whether priests should have beards and wear cassocks, or whether we have pews or not, or whether to use an organ to lead the choir. This goes much deeper—to the heart of Christian discipleship. It seems that we have simply lost sight of the beauty and power of Christian virtue; perhaps worse, it seems that we have given over leadership to moral barbarians.

I know that sounds like a harsh judgment, but what else can one call it? A barbarian isn’t a bad person. A barbarian isn’t likely to love his wife and children any less than you or I. He isn’t necessarily an atheist or polytheist. In fact, many barbarians believed—and believe—in Christ, though for the same reason that they believed in the old gods: to secure power for their people.

John Courtney Murray writes in his introduction to The Civilization of the Pluralist Society that “the barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand.” Instead he…

…may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen with which to write his advertising copy. In fact, even beneath the academic gown there may lurk a child of the wilderness, untutored in the high tradition of civility, who goes busily and happily about his work, a domesticated and law-abiding man, engaged in the construction of a philosophy to put an end to all philosophy, and thus put an end to the possibility of a vital consensus and to civility itself.

In Murray’s view, the perennial “work of the barbarian” is “to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived.” He does this not “by spreading new beliefs” but…

…by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life is dimmed and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed, so that finally what you have is the impotent nihilism of the “generation of the third eye,” now presently appearing on our university campuses. [This was written in 1958!] (One is, I take it, on the brink of impotence and nihilism when one begins to be aware of one’s own awareness of what one is doing, saying, thinking. This is the paralysis of all serious thought; it is likewise the destruction of all the spontaneities of love.)

In the modern world, then, “the barbarian is the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs. He is the man who reduces all spiritual and moral questions to the test of practical results or to an analysis of language or to decision in terms of individual subjective feeling.” By these criteria, it seems that we live in an increasingly barbarian world—even in our own parishes.

Those of us who are involved heavily in our churches, whether as clergy or laity, know that the war against Christ and the teachings of His Church is wages from within far more than from without. Mainstream Protestant denominations are suffering from a hemorrhage of people because of the "liberal" stances these church bodies take when it comes to social issues of the time. Though the Orthodox have preserved the fullness of the faith, neither adding nor subtracting to it, and though we have preserved the Liturgy and the Offices unlike the Protestants and Catholics, how much longer will it be before Orthodox churches start to look like high church mainstream Protestants? The barbarians are no longer at the gates; they're inside sipping the wine.