Tuesday, February 28, 2012

You're doing Great Compline? Is this a Church or a Monastery?

This evening, before Great Compline began, we were fortunate to have a visitor: the priest from the local Serbian church. He is from the old country and is very tall and imposing. He has a beautiful baritone (I remember when he chanted in Serbian the troparia to St. Nicholas and was just astounded how beautiful it was). And he is a kind man.

Sitting down next to me and a fellow chanter, he asked (though he already knew) if we were going to chant Great Compline. I responded yes. He then retorted, "It's like a monastery." We all chuckled. Now, I know he was joking. We are a simple parish church. I think we may have some future monastics among us and maybe even some who practice a truncated form of monasticism, but a monastery we are not. But, every good joke has an specter of truth behind it.

It seems to be a pretty accurate picture that a great number (not a majority, I think) of Orthodox churches in this country do not, even during Lent, increase the amount of services. Not all churches have the Wednesday Liturgy of the Presanctified. Church services continue as normal on Sundays and Sundays only. Holy Week is a different story. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that there were simply many areas of the United States where immigrants from Greece, Russia, the Levant, Romania, Bulgaria, etc. did not have priests to minister to them. A priest may have been available only once a month or maybe even once a year. Thus, there were fewer services and so the laity came to be accustomed with maybe celebrating one liturgy a month, if that. More services were simply out of the question. And so, that became the standard.

Of course, today, with greater ease of transportation, such problems are mitigated, though many Orthodox communities struggle to have a full time priest especially in more isolated areas of the United States. And even in those communities, only Sunday liturgies are the norm because that's a huge increase from what was available only a generation ago.

Despite that, I find it odd that a church having services outside of Sunday liturgy may be jokingly referred to as a monastery. The hours are not just for monastics. It is impossible for one who lives in the world to set enough time aside to worship and pray as a monastic. So, why should the presence of one of the hours in a parish church warrant this particular label?

I have my theories, none of which I like including that there is a hostility towards monasteries, especially from people who are from the old country. But there are plenty of people from the old countries who enter monasteries here in the New World. Maybe I'm reading too much into one little comment. I was certainly not offended by it, but I always like to find out the origins of things. Or perhaps I'm traveling down a road to nowhere. It would not be the first time!

Monday, February 27, 2012

First Monday--The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

What a way to start off the Lenten season! The Canon of St. Andrew of Canon, appropriately called the "Great Canon" because of its length is definitely one of the greatest compositions on fallen man, his need for repentance and his utter dependence upon God. It dashes us down; it lifts us up. It chastises; it comforts. It humbles; it exults. It is somber; it is joyous. It is Lenten; it is Resurrectional. I cannot imagine going through Lent without hearing it.

My soul, my soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is drawing near, and you will be confounded. Wake, then, and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things.--Kontakion of the Great Canon, Plagal Tone 2

Here's a recording from my fellow chanter and fellow-Simpsons enabler, Rdr. Moses Fillmore from last year.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Fourth Sunday of Triiodion: The Expulsion of Adam from Paradise

Prior to the beginning of the Great Lenten season, the daily lectionary takes us through great chunks of Hebrews, all of 1 and 2 Timothy, sections of Titus, all of 1 & 2 Peter, the 3 Johnanine Epistles, all of James and all of Jude. The 3 Johnannine Epistles, James and Jude are all some of the shortest books of the Scriptures and can easily be read in a few minutes. The reading of these particular books prior to the Great Fast is no accident. Those who disparage the daily lectionary have usually not even used it, but like to complain about it probably because it's one of those bad "traditional" things.

Anyone who has read through the 3 Johnannine Epistles in particular knows the famous passage that "If we say we have not sinned we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1: 8-9) Such words should be at the very front of our minds as today is the gateway to the Great Lenten Season. Today, we take our last eats of cheese and dairy (for those who observe the fast strictly) until Pascha, we increase our prayers, we start using the prayer of St. Ephraim and we immerse ourselves in repentance.

But if those words from John are not to be found in us, then there is no point to Lent. Our ancestors were expelled from Paradise because of sin. The Expulsion didn't occur because God was thinking that maybe some "tough love" and not living off his credit card for a while would be a good character builder for Adam and Eve. We are exactly like Adam; we are cast out of paradise. Yes, there is the hope that we may return, but not yet.

Despite the grandiose name, this day has another important theme: forgiveness. At all times of His presence on earth, Christ emphasized, preached, practiced, taught, lived forgiveness. Even right before His Ascension into heaven, He preached forgiveness. Lent cannot be strictly about an inward focus on repentance, as good as that is. It must also include an outward display of forgiveness. Otherwise, in our spiritual life, Christ continues to hang on the tree and does not resurrect on the third day.

I thus ask forgiveness from all of you whom I have offended this past year. A blessed Great Lent to all of you. Let us journey well to the empty tomb.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hymn from the Sunday of the Expulsion from Paradise

The sun hid its rays, the moon and stars were turned to blood, the mountains were afraid, the hills trembled, when Paradise was shut. Adam departed, beating his hands upon his face and saying: ‘I am fallen: merciful Lord, have mercy on me.’--At the Lity of Great Vespers

Sounds very similar to the hymns that we sing at the Vespers on Great and Holy Friday and again at the Orthros for Holy Saturday..

Lenten Arithmetic

Ash Wednesday, observed by Western Christians this past Wednesday, marks the beginning of their 40 day preparation towards Easter. As expected, the secular media covers this holy day with its usual stereotypcial and (hardly) insightful observations tainted with a sense of disgust and astonishment that anyone would actually go along with this.

Stories abound about what people are "giving up for Lent." You hear of abstaining from meat on Fridays (which is replaced by gorging on fish) or giving up a treat like chocolate or caffeinated beverages or TV or whatever. There is nothing wrong with these practices and they may well be good aids for discipline. However, why only focus on the subtraction? Why little to no mention of what people add to Lent? The almost exclusive focus on Lent has damaged the perception of Lent almost irrevocably that many Christians see it as a gloomy time, a time that's to be endured just "to get it over with" or just avoided.

So, let's reconsider our Lenten arithmetic to focus on what we can be added. So, let's do some addition and add to our sadness a sense of joy.

1) Prayer. Abstinence is fine and fasting is too, but if it is not coupled without prayer, it is dieting. Many churches, especially the Orthodox, offer many more opportunities for prayer this season.

2) Hunger. Adding this makes us realize our dependence upon God.

3) More money. The money that we don't use in our abstaining from certain foods can add up.

4) Works of charity/alms-giving. Increasing our giving, whether in money or time form, for the sake of Christ who gave up way much more than those is following Christ's commandment to do unto the least of these.

5) Confession. If we don't routinely make confession to a priest/pastor, this is the time to get back on track.

6) Scripture readings. There's a daily lectionary. In the Orthodox communions, the lectionary on the weekdays is exclusively taken from the Old(er) Testament, particularly Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs. This is a time to return to our Biblical roots and puts into perspective why Christ did what He did.

7) Reading the fathers. There is an abundance of materials from the church fathers on the Lenten season and much of it can be read with the daily lectionary of the Scriptures.

8) Alleluia. Well, if you're a Western Rite Orthodox or Western Christian, this will be out of the question, but in the Eastern churches, Alleluia is sung even more. It replaces the hymn "God is the Lord" at Orthros. Alleluia is seen as less joyful, but joyful none the less. Incorporate this into your prayer life during the season.

9) Incense. This may not be for everybody especially for those with asthmatic conditions or who are just not used to it, but incense was used in both Jewish worship and the rites of the ancient church and is, unfortunately, derided by some as unnecessary. In Psalm 140, we chant "Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as the incense." The incense pervades and spreads over everything and rises into the heavens. Such should be model for our prayers, whether in Lent or out of Lent. It should arise and permeate everything.

10) Read more __________. It's great to read the Scriptures and the fathers, but if that's not really your thing, just read something.

11) Spend more time with family. Our life in Christ cannot be just an individual thing. It is realized in community and sacrifice towards one another.

I've given 11 things that Christians can add to Lent for this year. This is hardly a comprehensive list so if you've more suggestions, please make them. Let our arithmetic for Lent, every Lent, be more of addition than subtraction.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian

Mourn over my nakedness, O my beloved brothers! I have angered Christ with my wanton life. For the Good One created me and gave me freedom, but I have abused it and repaid Him with evil, with my lawless deeds...

To Thee, O Victor pierced by nails on the cross Who calleth out to sinners saying: Come, receive forgiveness freely--to Thee I unrelentingly pray, O my Savior: turn Thine eyes away from my lawlessness, and by Thy sufferings heal my sores that I may glorify Thy kindness.--St. Ephraim the Syrian, The Spiritual Psalter, 1st Kathisma, Third Stasis, 8

Monday of Cheeseweek

The gateway to divine repentance has been opened; let us enter eagerly, purified in our bodies and observing abstinence from food and passions, as obedient servants of Christ who has called the world into the heavenly Kingdom. Let us offer to the King of all a tenth part of the whole year, that we may look with love upon His Resurrection.--Sessional Hymn after the Second Psalter Reading at Orthros, 1st Tone

The Third Sunday of Triodion: The Last Judgment and Meatfare

The text: Matthew 25: 31-46
The lesson: love, Christian love

It is difficult, at face value, to read any of the parables or Christ's warnings of the end times and come away from them with the same hope and joy that one would hear from John 3. But, love is at the very heart of the parable which forms the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Triodion. After this Sunday, no more animal flesh is to be consumed (for those who follow the fast strictly) until Pascha morning. So how is that a parable talking about our Lord's return and the fear that should ensue from it also be a parable of Christian love? The key is in the second half of the parable. Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains it best:

The parable of the Last Judgement is about Christian love. Not all of us are called to work for "humanity," yet each one of us have received the gift and grace of Christ's love. We know that all men ultimately need this personal love--the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole creation is reflected in a unique way. We also know that men are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry, because that personal love has been denied them. And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ's love. Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we have loved or refused to love, shall be judged. For "inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me..."--Great Lent, p. 26

If I can be so bold to add to Fr. Alexander's words, I would also say that the fear that one may take away from the first part of this parable is in no way incompatible with the love present in the second part. As we come forward to receive our Lord's Holy Body and Blood in the Mysteries, the priest says, "With fear and love, come forth." According to Proverbs, fear is the beginning of wisdom. And if we are wise, we are also loving. Fear and love are two sides of the same coin. They are not opposites, but complement each other. I would suggest that we fear not so much because punishment may ensue for stepping out of line, but we fear because love is made perfect by it. Our Lord feared that His creation may perish so in His love for man, He gave His Son to save it. That's how I see it anyway. I'll leave it at that.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Some (more) notes on fasting

As Christians approach the Great Lenten season, they will hear a lot about fasting. The exhortations are myriad: Don't fast, fast only if you can, fasting is trying to win points with God, fast only on certain days, eat this but not this, etc. Even among Orthodox jurisdictions, there are different practices which are driven by circumstances of history and geography. For instance, in the Greek churches, fish is allowed on Annunciation (March 25) and Palm Sunday. However, because the climate was much colder and the availability of vegetables and grains more scarce, the Russian churches said fish was permissible all through Lent, though only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends.

For those of us Orthodox who have friends and family in heterodox communions, it's easy for us to condemn their adversity towards fasting. We should let them continue as they will. At the same time, we are often the victims of attacks from leaders of these heterodox communions (especially if we left) who say that fasting is nothing but legalism, something that you have to do. Let's make it very clear: Fasting should be something we WANT to do. If you don't want to, don't do it because fasting is not the end, it is a means to an end.

The big problem, especially in mainline Protestantism, is a schism between the soul, the mind, and the body. The body has been exorcised from modern worship, while everything is focused on the soul and mind. Sometimes I wonder if Manichaeism and Gnosticism have really been eradicated from the church. In most Protestant buildings, there are no images, there is no communion, there is no incense. The presence of these is to elevate all the five senses. Essentially, the body is left out of prayer when it should be involved just as much. The Lord says that He should be worshiped with all our soul, mind and body, but why is the body ignored? The discipline of fasting is, to borrow from a recent book on the subject, to bring the body into the act of repentance. Though the Greek work for repentance, metanoia, means change of mind, our mind and body are united. The body is guided by the mind. We don't just train one and ignore the other. Both are involved.

Speaking of both mind and body, if the body is being disciplined so must the mind. The body is starving from certain foods which nourish it for most of the year and it groans. To prevent us from being guided by our stomachs, we must employ more and more prayer. Less food=more prayer. Even our Lord said as much.

Fasting, as fine a discipline as it is, should never be done with a possibility of harming oneself. And it should never be looked at as a means to win points with God. Bishop KALLISTOS writes:

At all times, it is important to bear in mind that 'you are not under hte law but under grace' (Rom. 6:14), and that the 'letter kills, but the spirit gives life' (2 Cor. 3:6). The rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously, are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; 'for the Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Rom. 14:17).--"The Meaning of Great Lent" from The Lenten Triodion, p. 37

And it is important also to remember to be joyful as we do this. To fast and be despondent is not the way of the Christian life.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Church Fathers DON'T Need Your Help

It is no secret that I read blogs of people with whom I disagree, even vehemently. One of those persons with whom I have regularly sparred with (full disclosure: we do not like one another. Harsh words have passed from both his lips and mine towards each other) is Paul McCain, an ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and also director (not sure if that's hist title) of Concordia Publishing House, the publishing arm of the LCMS.

McCain regularly uses his blog (which is his right) to talk about Christian freedom and how uses of incense and icons and bells and vestments, etc. can all be used to distort the Gospel. Roman Catholics and Orthodox and even very confessional Lutherans are his favorite targets. He's especially fond to call out those of us who have departed Wittenberg and "swum the Bosphorus" as traitors and as something less than Christian. It's even worse if you happened to be a pastor in the LCMS who has left and then McCain really lets loose. Still, despite that, I regularly read what he writes or posts simply because there's some good material. It may not be right, but it's still good reading.

Lutherans quote the church fathers for their own purposes. I find it ironic that a church that prides itself so much on the (incorrect) doctrine of sola scriptura cannot argue support for that doctrine from Scripture itself. Instead they rely on the fathers. Actually, they tend to rely on excerpts from the fathers while ignoring greater context. So, whenever Protestants, but particularly Lutherans quote the fathers to defend their doctrine or praxis, you must be very weary.

What I love even more is when Lutherans get upset when the fathers don't say what they want them to say. Lutherans will often say that great saints like John Chrysostom or Augustine or John Damascene would be Lutheran if they were alive today, but then have to go through their respective works and treatises with a scalpel or with a paste function to make their sayings fit the Lutheran mold.

Take for example the following. Yesterday, on his blog, McCain was talking about fasting and then quoted from St. Ephraim the Syrian's Spiritual Psalter. Ephraim is one of our greatest hymn writers and his Spiritual Psalter is a must for anyone who wishes to really get into the depths of one's own soul and how it cries for repentance and its dependence on the Lord. Here is the excerpt:

Before Thy glory, O Christ my Savior, I will announce all my misconduct
and confess the infinitude of Thy mercies, which Thou pourest out upon
me according to Thy kindness.

From my mother’s womb I began to grieve Thee, and utterly have I
disregarded Thy grace, for I have neglected my soul. Thou, O my Master,
according to the multitude of Thy mercies, hast regarded all my
wickedness with patience and kindess. Thy grace has lifted up my head,
but daily it is brought low by my sins.

Bad habits entangle me like snares, and I rejoice at being thus bound.
I sink to the very depths of evil, and this delights me. Daily the
enemy gives me new shackles, for he sees how this variety of bonds
pleases me.

The fact that I am bound by my own desires should provoke weeping and
lamentation, shame and disgrace. And yet more terrible is the fact that
I bind myself with the shackles that the enemy places upon me, and I
slay myself with the passions that give him pleasure.

Although I know how dreadful these shackles are, I hide behind a noble
appearance from all who might see. I appear to be robed in the
beautiful clothes of reverence, but my soul is entagled with shameful
thoughts. Before all who might see, I am reverent, but inside I am
filled with all manner of indecency.

My conscience accuses me of all this, and I act as if I wish to be
freed of my shackles, yet I ever remain bound by the same snares.

How pitiful I am; and how pitiful is my daily repentance, for it has no
foundation. Every day I lay a foundation for the building, and again
with my own hands I demolish it.

My repentance has not even made a good beginning as yet; yet there is
no end to my wicked negligence. I have become a slave to passions and
to the evil will of the enemy who destroys me.

Who will give the water to my head, and the founts to my eyes for
tears, so that I may ever weep before Thee, O merciful God, that Thou
mightest send Thy grace and draw me, a sinner, out of the sea, furious
with the waves of sin, that hourly convulses my soul? For my desires
are worse than wounds that cannot be bandaged.

I wait hoping for repentance and deceive myself with this vain promise
until my death. Ever do I say, “I will repent,” but never do I repent.
My words give the appearance of heartfelt repentance, but in deed I am
always far from repentance.

What will happen to me in the day of the trial, when God unveils all
things at His court! Certainly I shall be sentenced to torment, if here
I have not moved Thee to mercy, O my Judge, by my tears.

Beautiful, isn't it? I can only imagine the beauty of it in the original Syriac. The themes of sin and the need for repentance are ever present here, but for McCain, it's simply not good enough. It needs to be "corrected" so McCain inserts his own words:

I hope on Thy mercies, O Lord; I fall at Thy feet and beseech Thee:
Grant me the spirit of repentance and lead my soul out of the dungeon
of iniquity! May a ray of light shine in my mind before I go to the
terrible judgment which awaits me, where there is no opportunity to
repent of one’s wicked deeds.

Anyone who has read St. Eprhaim's Spiritual Psalter knows that man's hope on the mercies and compassions of God is also an ever present theme. But, McCain feels the need to add to this one section. What St. Ephraim wrote was not wrong, theologically or otherwise, so why the insertion? My honest opinion is that people today make the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers say what they want them to say. Gay marriage or unions? No women priests? No abortion? No fasting? No liturgy? No monasticism? That was then, this is now. And we moderns are always right, right?

What McCain did is a microcosm of the war that is being waged against the church fathers and Scriptures from both without and within the various Christian communities. The rallying cry is that "we know better." How could anyone living 2000 years ago with cable, without internet, without ultrasounds, without cars, without MP3s, without HVACs, without indoor plumbing know "anything?" They don't hence the need to "update" their theology. Because no one could possibly know God without having the enlightenment of today.

Rather than let the Fathers and the Scriptures speak, we rehabilitate and redefine what is said. It is relativism where all viewpoints, except for traditional ones, are valid. Nothing is certain except for the certainty that things will change again depending on one's mood.

If Christ is the same yesterday, today and until the end of ages, then this constant rehabilitation to the witnesses of His Incarnation (i.e. Scriptures and the Fathers, amidst other things) mocks His Incarnation. It mocks our salvation in him. And it makes our egos our Lord and Master, rather than Christ.

Monday, February 13, 2012

It's a boy

My wife and I just found out that we will be having a son. His due date is July 7. I'm excited and nervous!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

By the Waters of Babylon

One of the few things I think the Russian Orthodox got right, liturgically speaking, is their use of Psalm 136, By the Waters of Babylon, as the Polyeleon psalm at Matins on Sunday of the Prodigal Sun. In the Greek and Arabic Typicon, this Psalm is prescribed for the next two Sundays but not for today.

As the Hebrews sang this psalm as they were exiled from their homes so we sing this psalm because we are exiled from God and it is only through conscientious awareness of that fact that any kind of repentance can begin. To deny we are exiled from God because of our sin destroys any chance of a new beginning. God is with us, though we cannot walk with Him as did Adam and Eve before sin entered His creation.

Here is a Russian version of this psalm

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The First Sunday of Triodion: The Publican and the Pharisee

Gospel: St. Luke 18: 10-14. The lessons: humility and repentance.

The Lenten season begins then by a quest,a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance. For repentance, above everything else, is a return o the genuine order of things, the restoration of the right vision. It is, therefore, rooted in humility, and humility--the divine and beautiful humility--is its fruit and end.--Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p.25

The fault of the Pharisee is that he has no desire to change his outlook; he is complacent, self-satisfied, and so he allows no place for God to act within him. The Publican, on the other hand, truly longs for a "change of mind": he is self-dissatisfied, "poor in spirit," and where there is this saving self-dissatisfaction, there is room for God to act. Unless we learn the secret of the Publican's inward poverty, we hall not share in the Lenten springtime.--Bishop KALLISTOS, "The Meaning of the Great Fast" from The Lenten Triodion, p. 40

The Church welcomes the Lenten spring with a spirit of exultation. She greets the time of repentance with the expectancy and enthusiasm of a child entering into a new and exciting experience. The tone of the church services is one of brightness and light. The words are a clarion call to a spiritual contest, the invitation to a spiritual adventure, the summons to a spiritual feat. There is nothing gloomy here, nothing dark or remorseful, masochistic or morbid, anxious or hysterical, pietistic or sentimental.--Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring, p. 9

Brethren, let us not pray as the Pharisee: for he who exults himself s hall be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God and with fasting cry aloud as the Publican: God be merciful to us sinners.

A Pharisee, overcome with vainglory, and a Publican, bowed down in repentance came to Thee the only Master. The one boasted and was deprived of blessings, while the other kept silent and was accounted worthy of gifts. Confirm me, O Christ our God, in these his cries of sorrow, for Thou lovest mankind.--Idiomela stichera at Psalm 140 at Great Vespers

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Express Lane Communion?

From the files of the "What were you thinking?"

There are express lanes for everything everywhere. If you have a special pass, you can go in the express lane for tollbooths. There are express check outs at grocery stores. You can have express shipping. Everything is express now. So, I suppose it was not unusual when I read this article about Express Lane Communion.

From the article:

For at least 40 years, this downtown United Methodist church has offered communion to city dwellers and commuters during the morning rush. At 7:30, Phil Blackwell--who inherited the tradition--consecrates the elements with whomever happens to be in the room at the moment. For the next 90 minutes, communion and a simple prayer are offered for anyone who walks in.

The communion, offered without a traditional liturgy, could very well have an "express lane" feel. When I first heard about this communal rite, I wondered: theologically, what is communion absent community? Culturally, why do I and others imagine we don't have time for liturgy?

Though I could go to great lengths about what is wrong with this practice, I'm going to focus on instead the root cause of why such new practices as Express Lane Communion have become a part of the Christian mainstream.

What is communion without community and why do people not have time for the full liturgy? The answer to both questions is the same: that people are egoists and have time only for themselves. It's a horrible reality that even in the midst of the Kingdom of God, we are still focusing on ourselves as individuals and not as the Body of Christ.

People want the Eucharist but they want it on their own terms. Why take an hour and a half for prayer when I can just get the Eucharist in 90 seconds? Why prepare at all? That doesn't do it for me; I'm ready when I say I am whether that's four seconds or four hours. It's all about me.

This egoism is not a mainstream Protestant problem or a Catholic problem or an Orthodox problem: It's a Christian problem. The Church, the Ecclesia, the body of those "called out" (ek+kaleo is Greek for "to call out" or "choose") is a foil to the needs of self. But too many Christians reject the Church or church in general. They want to be spiritual and love Jesus, but again, it's always on their own terms. They want their own express lanes to come into the Kingdom, carrying as many items or as few as they wish.

For all the errors that exist within the Church or churches, whether Orthodox or other confession, the root cause can be traced to egoism. Arius and Nestorius and Eutyches and Pelagius and the Basileus Leo III "Isaurian" were no doubt pious men, but they wanted to elevate their own understanding of God above the Church's consensus and teaching.

Removing the community from communion and jettisoning the preparation for communion are opposite sides of the same coin. That is why no Orthodox Liturgy can ever occur without at least two or three people present. The Reformation in the West considered the private communion and private masses of the priests as one of its main grudges. (Ironic that the Protestants who decried this are the ones perpetuating it now).

If we are all about ourselves, then why even receive the Lord in the Eucharist? There's probably not even room.

Friday, February 3, 2012

One long journey done...another one to shortly begin

On November 15, we started fasting and praying fervently in anticipation of our Lord's Incarnation, taking on humanity in all ways. On December 23, we celebrated the Royal Hours which proclaimed the truth of the Old Testament Prophets. On December 24 and 25, we celebrated the actual feast of our Lord's coming in the flesh with the Magi who were there to adore Him. Our fasting changed to feasting uninterrupted for 12 more days.

On January 1, we celebrated our Lord's Circumcision in the Flesh, by which He showed Himself to be not a destroyer of the law but its fulfillment. With another short fast on January 5, we celebrated Theophany, our Lord's baptism in the Jordan at the hands of John the Foreunner, where creation and creator were united and the Trinity was made manifest. We gave especial attention to His Baptizer, John on January 7, the one who prepared the way for the Lord. We continued to celebrate Theophany for 8 more days.

During the rest of January we celebrated the memories of many great saints who proclaimed the mystery of the Incarnation and the dogma of the Trinity in Unity. Father such as as Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian vigorously defended the doctrine of the Trinity against the Arians. Sts. Cyril and Athanasius defended vigorously that our Lord was not two persons but one united in Christ and whom Mary did give birth to was indeed God and thus she was Theotokos. St. Maxiumus the Confessor refuted the evils of the Monothelete heresy, which was an offshoot of monophysitism and Arianism. All these heresies denied that Christ is BOTH truly God and truly human.

We also commemorated great ascetics such as St. Anthony the Great who lived the Christ-like life, renouncing the trappings of this world, emptying themselves of them as Christ emptied Himself of His Divinity, to commune more with God.

We celebrated great hymn writers and commentators on the Christ-like life and the Scriptures, notably St. John Chrysostom, St. John of Damascus and Sts. Ephraim and Isaac the Syrians. Their words continue to form the prayers for the repentant.

We commemorated great martyrs such as Sts. Barbara, Eugenia, Anastasia of Rome and others all of whom gave their life for the Bridegroom whom they loved because He loved us.

We celebrated again the Feast of the Meeting of our Lord where our Lord, again in fulfillment of the Law, was brought by his parents to the Temple in Jerusalem, where He was seen by the Righteous Simeon and Anna who both proclaimed that this child was the salvation which God had promised to the nation of Israel.

For more than 80 days, a little more than 1/5 of the total year, our devotion was centered on our Lord's incarnation. Tomorrow, Orthodox Christians begin yet another journey, the journey to the empty tomb of Christ and the Lord's sending of the Holy Spirit to proclaim what the Lord has done. This journey will be much more difficult as the events that we commemorate during the Great Lenten fast up through Holy Week, really do not mince what we are, what we have become because of our sin and our absolute need of God. Our fasting will be intense, our prayer even more fervent, the remembrance of the Patriarchs and Old Testament fathers who only had small foretastes of what would be realized in Christ will be at the center of our meditations.

Tomorrow, with the beginning of Triodion, we are called to repentance which can only be realized by the addition of what the publican had and the pharisee lacked: Humility. If we lack that single virtue, the next 120 days (the total time of the Triodio and the Pentecostarion), the next 1/3 of the year will be a difficult journey. Even if we should stumble, multiple times, five or ten times a day, there is always one more chance to get up.

Our Winter Pascha must give way to the Lenten Spring. Our feasting must give way to fasting. Our joy will now turn to sadness. But it will be a bright sadness for we already know the outcome: the Resurrection!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Purification of Mary

While the Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Meeting (or Presentation) of the Lord in the Temple on this day, the West celebrates the Purification of Mary. This feast is also referred to in the West as Candlemas because this was the traditional day when candles to be used in the church throughout the year were blessed. Though the East centers its liturgical focus on Christ meeting Simeon and Anna and being seen by Simeon as the Messiah incarnate and the West centers its liturgical focus on Mary fulfilling the law to be purified from her childbirth after 40 days, both East and West will not that one focus is inherently more important than the other. For the Eastern Christians, though, the term purification may throw some people into thinking that the Virgin Mary had done something wrong that required purification.

We do not know any of the sins of the Virgin Mary, though St. John Chrysostom mentions in his homilies that the Virgin was guilty of pride (especially at the Wedding at Cana, but that was years later, of course). But what we should not forget is that the Virgin Mary is not, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann is known to have said, the great exception but the great example. If Christ is the icon of salvation, the Theotokos is the icon of the saved. So, of what then does she come to be purified? Fr. Thomas Hopko explains:

...the scriptures teach that all human beings who are inevitably caught up in the falleness of the sinful world, are in need of "purification" when they come into direct contact with God, and especially when they are objects of direct divine action. God is always acting in our lives...These are also the times of worship, such as when the priests go into the Holy Place or when they touch the Holy Objects. thus, according to the Mosaic law, mere human beings who were in direct tough with God through His concrete divine actions were required to offer signs of ritual "purification" to express the fact that being mere mortals and victims of sin not to say sinners in their own right in virtually all cases) they had also the objects of the holy actions of the Most High and Holy God.--The Winter Pascha, p. 176

Lest we forget at any time, the Virgin Mary inherited the same mortal corruption as the rest of man. She still had to obey the law and still had to die and was in need of our Lord's crucifixion and death as the rest of us. This feast reminds us that Mary was simply human although she had direct communion with God whereas the priests and us, while we live, can only commune in mystical fashion. Such is why she is deserving of all honor and all praise as Theotokos. And such is why she is a powerful advocate for us before the dread judgment seat of Christ.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lord, Now Let Thy Servant Depart in Peace

When the Lord Jesus is brought by His parents to the temple, He is met there by the old man Simeon and the old woman Anna. It is from this meeting in the temple that the festival gets its name in the Orthodox Church. This meeting is spiritually and theologically significant. it tells us that the Old is over and that the New has come. It tells us that the tow covenants have now met: Israel has accomplished its God-given task in producing the Messiah. The promises made to Abraham in the beginning of the nation's calling have now been fulfilled. Israel's glory has dawned in the person of Christ who is now encountered int he world as the "light of revelation to the Gentiles." In Him the whole world is illumined and saved. The New Testament has come. God's final covenant community is established on earth.--Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha, p. 171

At the end of the Vespers of the Feast, just as at any other Vespers, we chant the canticle "Lord now let Thy servant depart in peace" (called Nunc Dimittis, in the West) which are the words the elder Simeon says as he lifts up the Christ child. Now he can take solace that he may finally die after living, according to church tradition, for more than 300 years since it was prophesied that he would not die until he saw the Christ come into the world. He now can come to his end which will only manifest in a new beginning.

On a praxis note, though this canticle ends Vespers, we have only come to the beginning of the new day on which Christ Himself has manifested. It is at Vespers, whether daily or festal or Resurrectional, where we begin to be fed theologically and spiritually and bodily by our Lord and His saving acts. It is at Vespers where the covenant of old and new are met together with most of the readings coming from the Old Testament and the hymns framed by the Psalter. The fulfilment of the Old in the New will be amplified even more by the Midnight Office, Orthros, the Hours and come to ultimate culmination in the Divine Liturgy.

I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but such is why attendance at the Divine Liturgy is simply not enough to understand, to pray and to live the Orthodox faith to its fullest. Vespers, with that canticle, marks only the beginning. The rest and the best is yet to come. But to finish, one must start well. The Greeks have a proverb for that: Well begun is half done.