Saturday, February 26, 2011

By the waters of Babylon

we wept when we remembered Sion. Psalm 136 (137)

In the third week, reflecting on our exile from God due to our sin, at Orthros, we chant this psalm before we chant the Evlogetaria which proclaims Christ's trampling down death by death. This is how it is chanted in the churches which use the Typicon of the Great Church of Christ. It is an absolute favorite of mine.

The Third Week of the Triodion--Saturday of Souls

On the eve of the that day (Meat-Fare Saturday), the Church invites us to a universal commemoration of all those who have "fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection and life eternal." This is indeed the Church's great day of prayer for her departed members. To understand the meaning o this connection between Lent and the prayer for the dead, one must remember that Christianity is the religion of love. Christ left with his disciples not a doctrine of individual salvation but a new commandment "that they love one another," and He added: "By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Love is thus the foundation, the very life of the Church...We ask God to remember them because we love them. Praying for them we meet them in Christ who is Love and who, because He is Love, overcomes death which is the ultimate victory of separation and lovelessness. In Christ there is no difference between living and dead because all are alive in Him...It is truly our love in Christ that keeps them alive because it keeps them alive because it keeps them "in Christ," and how wrong, how hopelessly wrong, are those Western Christians who either reduce prayer for the dead to a judicial doctrine of "merits" and "compensations" or simply reject it as useless.--Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, 23-4

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Homily on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

From my godfather and friend, Fr. Aaron Warwick, pastor of St. Mary Orthodox Church in Wichita, KS, a great sermon on the virtues, humility and sin. Many years, Father!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Second Sunday of Triodion--Lesson #2: Exile and Repentance

Of what great blessings in my wretchedness have I deprived myself! From what kingdom in my misery have I fallen! I have wasted the riches that were given to me, I have transgressed the commandment. Alas, unhappy soul! Thou art henceforth condemned to the eternal fire. Therefore, before the end cry out to Christ our God: Receive me as the Prodigal Son, O God, and have mercy upon me. Doxasticon at Psalm 140 at Vespers for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Perhaps my favorite parable in the New Testament, the parable of the Prodigal Son makes us to recall why we need Great Lent prior to Pascha. We need Great Lent because we are exiled from God, just as the prodigal exiled himself from his home and became a slave in a foreign land. The prodigal's sin physically exiled him from his father. Our sin exiles us from communion with God, which is why we don't walk with Him in Paradise. This is not some metaphysical metaphor or allegory. This exile is ACTUAL, PHYSICAL and SPIRITUAL! If it weren't then why would we need the Eucharist at all Liturgies or confession or baptism? We wouldn't. Our bodies are physically removed such is why the sacraments are a part of our Christian lives.

The second lesson is repentance, which is the lesson for all of Lent. That very word began John the Baptist's and Christ's ministries. For those who decry Lent and see it as a bunch of legalisms that are incompatible with a modern, enlightened understanding of Christianity, repentance is unnecessary since their Christianity has been replaced by feelings. "To repent is not to feel dissatisfied, but to make a decision and to act upon it." (Lenten Triodion, 44), just as the prodigal says that he will rise and go (verse 18). Repentance is not just about feeling bad, it is admitting that we are alienated from God and that we need to do something about it. Christ has done the work so that we may follow Him; Christianity is not passive which brings us to another reason as to why we need Great Lent.

If repentance is the lesson of this Sunday and the whole of Lent, then Lent is the school to continually teach it, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann says. In school, we are taught and then must apply the teachings. Of course, there are way too many who think that merely showing up to the lesson qualifies for a passing grade. It does not.

So what is repentance? It is literally "a change of mind." The word in Greek is metanoia. The elements are "meta" which talks of change, hence in other words like metamorphosis and metathesis and "noia" from "nous" which is, according to St. John Damascene, the eye of the soul. Repentance is to change us, physically and spiritually. It is no mere lip service, it is not showing up for one or two extra services, it is not saying one more "Our Father" and it is not "going to confession once a year." Lent and repentance are not for us to get things legally in order prior to the next Lenten season. It requires and demands a change! Yes, going to more services, praying more and confessing are all great things to do, but unless they comprise your Christian habit, you will not be any different in substance!

As we come closer to the beginning of Great Lent, let us embark with the knowledge that we are exiled from God and that only by a change of mind, a change of our very selves can we enter into the Kingdom of God, our country and be received once more as God's child.

Salvation: Protestant vs. Orthodox

Using chairs to illustrate the difference of Protestant and Orthodox soteriology. My thanks to Fr. Joseph Honeycutt for providing the link on his website, Orthodixie. If you do want to contact Steven Robinson (which he encourages you to do), you may do so here.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Losing the young and how not to keep them

Those of you who know me know that I am a huge fans of "The Simpsons." It can be argued that I am perhaps most annoying whenever I bring one or thirty Simpson anecdotes to any conversation. I do so not because I want to show off my ridiculous recall of Simpsons minutiae but because I genuinely believe that "The Simpsons" is one of the finest satirical comedies (or at least used to be) on television.

Last night, I watched the episode "She of Little Faith" from season 13. In this episode, the local Presbo-Lutheran Church burns down thanks to one of Homer's and Bart's ill conceived plans. Unable to rebuild, the parishioners turn to mega tycoon Montgomery Burns to fund the church and his method is to turn the church into one huge advertisement campaign. Going into the church following the renovations, the Simpsons are aghast that the Christ on the front entrance has a lasso, showing that "He's all man" according to Homer. Upon the walls of the sanctuary are advertisements for various local Springfield shops including "Sportacus", "Let's Get Fiscal Financial Planning" and "Buzz Cola." You can even get your photo taken in a cardboard cutout of Christ during the Last Supper. There's even a money changer! The pews are now comfortable recliners.

Now, we come to Lisa. Lisa is, after Homer and Ned Flanders, my favorite Simpsons character. She's a genuine seeker for truth though I may question where that takes her. Nonetheless, Lisa is the show's embodiment of moral outrage. She laments that all of these nice things have cost this church its soul. In her outrage, she is displayed as a "Pouting Thomas" on the Godcam and once the Noid is introduced to give a sermon on deliciousness, she cries that she's had enough. Reverend Lovejoy says that it's the same basic message but dressed up a bit. Lisa then quips, "Like the whore of Babylon?" She then storms out of the church saying she's never returning and later that night prays to find a church free of corruption.

I believe Lisa is being a little simplistic when she says that the corruption must spread beyond just this one church, but she may not have another choice. Other Simpsons episodes have shown that the Catholics do have a presence in Springfield, but mainly for mockery purposes. But, regardless of whatever other churches are out there to choose from in the mythical land of Springfield, Lisa's leaving is exactly what is going on with today's youth in the church.

For years, evangelicals and church growth movements have insisted that churches ought not to be counter cultural but part of the culture itself. And what has been the result? Even in churches where there are many attempts to give the church "street cred" and a "rock n' roll" image, the youth are leaving in droves. They've been told that church is cool, that it's hip, that it's no different than the other facets of your life. You can come in wearing your backwards or sideways hats, do skits and rap songs, rock out to songs with good beats. But, they still leave and many will not come back. Those who do come back will generally go to a different denomination. Those who leave permanently often become atheists or adherents to other spiritualities or pay lip service to the confession they were brought up in.

But Lisa is different from most other American youth. As I said earlier, she's a genuine seeker, an intellectual, a vocal pro-claimer about the good and the ill in society, not that I agree with her assessments. Lisa's quest lead her to Buddhism. I don't believe that the vast majority of today's American youth would go through the same searching that Lisa does. They may later in life, but more often not. But this episode rightly shows what is wrong with modern American Mainline Christianity. It isn't drawing the lost, it is pushing away the lambs. Rather than admit that such a style of catechesis and worship and theology is only one inch thick, they keep playing to the tired old template. Einstein is said to have remarked that doing the same thing 10,000 times and expecting a different result every time is the very definition of insanity.

Yes, The Simpsons is a TV show. But great satire comes about when there is more than a grain of truth in it. Bravo, Simpsons!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How does one become humble?

I attempted to answer this question yesterday, but a theologian of much better skill should answer this so I give you the words of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. He writes:

How does one become humble? The answer, for a Christian, is simple: by contemplating Christ, the divine humility incarnate, the One in whom Gad has revealed once and for all his glory as humility and His humility as glory. "Today," Christ said on the night of His ultimate self-humiliation, "the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in Him." Humility is learned by contemplating Christ who said: "Learn from Me for I am meek and humble in heart." Finally, it is learned by measuring everything by Him, by referring everything to Him. For without Christ, true humility is impossible, while with the Pharisee, even religion becomes pride in human achievements, another form of pharisaic self-glorification.

The lenten season begins then by a quest, a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance.
--Great Lent, 20.

Hymn at Sunday Orthros during Triodion

These troparia accompany us all through the Triodion and Great Lenten fast. Following the reading of the Gospel of the Sunday Eothinon (these are the 11 Resurrection appearances of Christ in the four Gospels) and the reading of Psalm 50, we chant in the plagal of the fourth tone:

Glory...Open unto me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards Thy Temple
Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But, in Thy Compassion, purify me by the loving kindness of Thy mercy.

Both now...Lead me on the paths of righteousness, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins
and have wasted my life in slothfulness.
But, by thine intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.

Have mercy...When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgment.
But trusting in Thy loving compassion, like David I cry unto Thee:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy Great Mercy.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Triodion Begins--Lesson # 1: Humility

Today was the beginning of the use of the Lenten Triodion. The next four Sundays in the Eastern Rite churches are pre-Lenten but serve as springboards for how we are to enter into the great fast with attention to our spiritual plight, the necessity of our Lord's cross and repentance. Today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.

I need not go into a full recap of the story since this is probably one of the most familiar parables from the Gospel according to St. Luke. Two very different men, a tax collector loathed by all and a Pharisee, a member of the "holier than thou" religious party both enter into the synagogue to pray. The Pharisee boasts of his own great deeds; the publican can only boast of his sinfulness. The Pharisee exults in his generosity; the publican exults in his meekness. The Pharisee praises his alms-giving; publicans were well known for outright theft. The Pharisee commends his own phsyical fasting from foods; the publican does not fast from his sins. The lesson of this parable can be summed up in one word: HUMILITY.

Our society has a skewed idea as to what is considered humility. Some view humility as the inability to take a complement. "Hey, you're a good singer." "No, I'm not." "Wow, that guy is so humble." Others view humility as not reacting in the same manner when another person attacks or curses you. In most cases, we harbor resentment towards the person that attacks and curses us. Humility is not a passive aggressive trait.

Humility derives from the Latin word, humus which means "earth." To be humble and to possess humility one must be as the earth. Consider what we humans do to the earth. We pollute it, we contaminate it, we treat it as a commodity. But, in spite of all of that, the earth produces wheat, fruit and other great plants in abundance for us. And it keeps doing so year after year, of course helped by man's innovations. To be humble is to not simply shrug off complements or foster a passive aggressive mindset to those who persecute us. Humility and being humble is to be steadfast in the Gospel to bless those who curse, pray for those who persecute, love those who are indifferent or even spiteful. It is to regard ourselves as the lowest so that others may have what is the highest.

To live the Life in Christ, humility must be paramount. Without humility all other virtues we have will be for naught. Such is why that this week is free from all fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fasting, as excellent and necessary it is as a spiritual discipline, is only a diet without humility. Fasting without prayer, without alms giving, without our eyes on Christ is nothing more than a change in diet. Humility must be incorporated.

How do we practice humility? For starters, we must do as the publican does. In our churches, in our icon corners or at any time we pray to God, we must first confess that we are sinners and that only God can forgive our sins. Yes, give thanks to God and entreat Him for what you need, but be mindful of your own sinfulness before the Lord who made you not to be a sinner but to be in His image and likeness.

Let us begin our journey to Golgotha with humility!