Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Sunday of the Myrrhbearers

The Second Sunday after our Lord's Pascha takes us back to the first revelation of our Lord to his followers after His Resuurrection. We also give honor to St. Joseph of Arimathea as well as Nicodemus.  But, as we know from the Gospel, both Nicodemus and Joseph were followers of Jesus in secret.  Those women, on the other hand, who defied the possibility of threat of death to anoint our Lord with spices and ointments while he was entombed, were openly followers of our Lord and were prepared to even go to their deaths. 

But, as we know from the story, to their surprise, there were no soldiers guarding the tomb and the stone which they wondered how to roll away from the tomb had already been removed.  Astonished they saw the grave clothes and were told about the Resurrection by an Angel sitting upon the stone and were commanded to also go tell the Apostles what they had seen.  The Apostles were still in hiding.  They were in hiding ever since the crucifixion and remained in hiding for at least another week (so that St. Thomas could join them).  But the women's faith never wavered.  I don't think it coincidence then that the good news of Christ's Resurrection was preached to them first, even before the Apostles.

If this account confirms anything, it confirms that without these women, the Christian faith might well have never emerged as it did.  And this same spirit, this same courage has been present in many generations of Orthodox women across many lands.  Great martyrs, like St. Barbara and St. Paraskeve and St. Thekla all had great faith.  During the time of the Russian Revolution, the men were the ones who hid in their upper rooms while it was the women who still went to church on Sundays and feast days keeping the faith alive in themselves and teaching their children and grandchildren so the faith would not die.

Such great faith and courage cannot be readily dismissed.  In the hymnography of today's feast, the myrrhbearers are often described as the "weaker sex" or "weaker by nature."  But, as we know from the Imitation "highest cannot stand without the lowest."  Though weak, their faith made them strong and St. Mary Magdalen was made an "apostle to the apostles" to confirm their faith. Despite the fact that Christ had consistently told his Apostles of his impending death and Resurrection, they seemed to lose heart and focus.  The lowest had to support the highest.

Women of the Orthodox women still play a very necessary and important role in ensuring that the faith remains strong for future generations of Orthodox Christians.  We should be thankful to them for having helped preserve the faith for 2000 years  as teachers, as wives, as mothers, as myrrhbearers, as martyrs, as carers for the sick and lonely, and, especially, as true servants of God.  May the faith of the myrrhbearers confirm our fledgling faith and through their intercessions, may our Risen Lord have mercy upon us and save us.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ascesis--A Short How-Not-To-Primer

I do not rejoice in anyone's death or at least I hope that I do not.  But I will admit that when I read this article about a Swiss woman's death, caused by self-starvation (for she was trying to live off only the sun), I couldn't but throw up my hands and say "What were you thinking?  What kind of silly person believes that the sun is the only thing needed for survival?"  I've never heard of anyone dieing from lack of sunlight, though rickets may ensue. I've never heard of anyone living without food.  According to the article, the woman was following the teachings of an Indian guru whom she had seen in a documentary on Austrian TV.

When I posted this article on my facebook page, it got a few responses, mainly from friends of mine who are non-Christian, anti-Christian or just nominally Christian or anti-Orthodox Christian.  All of them said that this was no different from monks and other holy men and women who have died because of their own ascetic practices.  Of course, when I asked them to name one specific example, they could not. 

Now, I will certainly concede that I have not seen the documentary about this Indian guru and his teachings so I'm making a lot of assumptions.  My point here is not to debunk what this person teaches but to demonstrate that to make an ascetic struggle, this woman was lacking everything that she needed.  I do not question her motives--I'm sure that she, like many other people who desire to engage in self-renunciation, did so out of pure motives. But, for ascesis to be a success, it cannot be driven simply by one's own interpretation and will.

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, ascesis is mandatory.  And I do not mean mandatory in the sense that it is legally prescribed and that you "have to do it or else" kind of legalism that many, particularly Protestant, Christians wrongly associate with us.  Ascesis is not the Gospel, but it is a means to fulfillment of the Gospel in each of us.  And it is for all Christians, regardless of age, sex, socio-economic status, marital status, vocation, etc.  It does vary by degree and intensity for those who have the strength.  But, no one is to engage in ascesis without the help and direction of a spiritual mentor.  That mentor, clergy, monastic, godparent, laity, is to guide and advise.  Without that help and direction which he or she can provide, ascesis will become an egoistic endeavour. Ascesis is to turn us to God, not to turn God to us by making sure He's taking note of what we're doing for points.

Again, the details of this story our pretty sparse, but the woman who engaged in this sunlight only diet of this Indian guru most likely did not have a mentor.  She also probably did not ease into it, but charged right for the finish line without realizing how far away it really was. 

With many Orthodox Christians, particularly converts who wish to rediscover the discipline associated with the church which has been largely drummed out of other Christian confessions, the immediate temptation is to jump into fasting, almsgiving and prayer with all guns blazing, full speed ahead.  That is dangerous and will most often lead to faintheartedness when immediate success is not realized to the point that the despair is so deep that those who fail count it as sinful. Many such people give up with ascesis entirely.  We must remember, always remember, that the struggle is not whether we fall, but whether we get right up and pick up where we fell.  And this cannot be done on one's own by one's own rule.  Christianity is communal and sacramental.  We all need each other and the spiritual life depends upon what we give to one another.

I am sorry that this woman  has died. I am not passing any judgment on the ascesis of the Indian guru she was attempting to fulfill, but any ascesis (whether it's giving up meat for two days a week or committing oneself to a vigil of prayer) must be done with a spiritual guide and free of ego.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Don't just read the Scriptures

but pray them as well.  In this era of Biblical Illiteracy (and I'm not simply talking about being able to quote book, chapter and verse. That's fine, but that does not constitute literacy), it is not uncommon for even clergy to be woefully ignorant of the Scriptures as much as the laity, the flock they are entrusted to shepherd.  We can go into the many reasons for the cause of this illiteracy, but I suspect that one of the main reasons is that the Scriptures are not prayed.  This is particularly prominent in western confessions of Christianity where the worship services have been largely stripped of their Scriptural identities.  It has been said that, at least for the Eastern Church, if all the Bibles in the world were destroyed, the totality of the Scriptures could be completely reconstituted from the offices and the liturgy.  The fathers knew that the Scriptures were not simply some book to be read at one's leisure.  Why else then would our hymns and whole prayers be derived, whether verbatim or paraphrased, from them?  The scrapping of the historic liturgy and the historic lectionary have robbed people in the western churches of both a rule of prayer and a knowledge of the Scriptures.

Ignorance of the Scriptures also stems from how it is merely become a book to be read from. I recall a Simpsons episode where Springfield's Presbo-Lutheran pastor, Rev. Lovejoy receives a call from Principal Skinner who is complaining, yet again, about another spat with his mother (The episode is "In Marge We Trust" from the eighth season).  Skinner asks, naturally, from Rev. Lovejoy what to do.  Rev. Lovejoy responds, "Maybe you should read your Bible."  Skinner asks, "Uh...any particular passage?"  Lovejoy concludes, "Oh, it's all good."   At that point, disheartened, Skinner hangs up.  Yes, it is all good.  That's not the question, but what Rev. Lovejoy suggests is, unfortunately, the same thing that pastors are advocating across the nation to their congregations:  Just read your Bible.  Reading the Bible is fine, but if it is not read prayerfully or even as prayer, then the knowledge gained is only stored in the brain not also in the heart. I've read countless books on ancient Rome and Greece.  I don't pray those books (and I shouldn't).  They're in my brain, not in my heart and that's where I want them to stay.

The hardest thing in the Christian life, in my opinion, is to get the head and the heart to talk to one another.  My priest often says that we have to move the brain into the heart.  I'm an intellectual at heart (no pun intended) so I know it is extremely very difficult for me to realize something in my brain and yet firmly trust in it with my heart.  I have Christ in my head though He is lacking in my heart.  If we only have an intellectual knowledge of the Scriptures are we any better than the demons?  They know the Scriptures, too. They quote it. Satan quoted the Scriptures extensively to Christ during the temptation in the desert and I'm sure Satan was whispering Scriptures in his ear while our Saviour went His way to Golgotha to convince Him not to go through with it.  We shouldn't just know the Scriptures, we should be praying the Scriptures.  They are the witness to the Word, Christ Himself.  And how much better it is to pray using the same words which the Word Himself spoke? It certainly saves us the problem from having to come up with our own prayers.

Thus, I submit that to combat the problem, nay, epidemic, of Scriptural illiteracy, we need to incorporate them more into our prayer life.  The Psalter is perfect for this and has often been referred to as the Church's hymnal.  Simply reading the Scriptures or having Bible studies runs too much of a risk of simply knowing the Scriptures, but not believing them. 

I also submit that this problem is not one limited to the western confessions. We have our problems with this in the Eastern Church, though we have the advantage of not having purged the historic liturgy and lectionary.  In fact, one of my favorite hymns is the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  Now, that is a walking tour of the Scriptures.  After the first four days of Great Lent, I find myself having to relook up certain passages that the Canon alludes to directly or indirectly.  I'm grateful that the Eastern Church has retained that.  But outside of the church's formal services, many Orthodox do not make the Scriptures their own private prayer.  It is certainly something that we also need to address in our own communion.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

That dreaded 10 letter word

The following words are not mine, but come from this site which I recently have included in the list of blogs I regularly follow. These are great words about repentance. Words, such as these, should be preached, not only during Lent or even on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, but as often as possible in the churches. Repentance has become an almost dirty word for many Christian confessions. Even we Orthodox are guilty of paying it mere lip service. Repentance is meant to be our life. In the litanies, do we not pray for a life of repentance? And repentance is not something only for Lent. It may be emphasized in Lent, but it should encapsulate the whole of our existence. Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his Great Lent that Lent is the preparation for a lifetime of repentance, a time of practice for what should become secondary nature. Enjoy.

Repentance. I must admit, when I hear this word there’s something in me that almost shudders – or even better – freezes. There’s a ‘heaviness’ to it that is almost unbearable. I guess you could say, ‘repentance is heavy; it’s serious and there’s nothing light about it.’ That would be true, but I would have to explain myself a bit more for you to see where my error lies, since – as far as I can see – this ‘heaviness’ that I feel has nothing to do with real repentance at all; even worse, it’s just an imposter, a false repentance – mixing me up. I’ll explain a bit, and hopefully you’ll see through my ridiculousness.

For example, hearing that ten-letter-word my mind rushes to images of the harsh ascetic labours that such Repentant Ones did, and still do: the deprivations, the sighs, the exile and loneliness, the severe fasting, never ending prostrations, the flight from this world, and finally the terrible tortures, and horrific deaths – all due to their great repentance. Unable to identify in the least bit with such actions, such feats, I feel a crushing weight set into my bones. That’s when I’d sigh. And that’s when my mind despairs of my weakness – of my lack of love. And then the distance sets in – the utter separation. I am not good enough. With Christ having such good friends, I have no chance. 

My thinking this way, it seems to me, is utter poison. I am wrong to identify these deeds – these actions – with the state of repentance. In themselves they are nothing, since even these can be done out of pride. Didn’t I learn from the Publican and the Pharisee? Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! And learn humility from the Publican’s tears! Certainly these great acts done by Christ’s Saints truly spring from repentant hearts, but even these God-pleasing, pure, deeds are not the repentance – an expression of it, yes, but not the repentance itself. It’s not the knees pounding into the floor that pleases Christ, but the repentant heart inspiring such a bodily response. I don’t measure up – this is undeniable – but why should I let this bring hopeless despair or utter coldness of heart? Why do I think I should earn Christ’s love? Don’t I realize that this is impossible? In this moment of realizing how very far away I am from Christ – right before the despair (in myself) and cool feelings of helplessness – lies the possibility for repentance, but only if I take it.

 Through their recorded lives, we see that all these saints known especially for their repentance had these moments – and usually in extreme degrees. Feeling the utter weight of the truth (that they were very far from God) they acknowledged this fact and fell down beneath the weight of it. But at the very same moment, God permeates them (and us if we want it) with Himself, and overcomes this impossible divide. The harlot, so far away just moments before, accepts this reality and because of it leaps towards Christ: “ A harlot knowing you, the Son of the Virgin, to be God, imploring you with weeping, for she had done things worthy of tears, said, ‘Loose my debt, as I unloose my hair; love one who loves, though justly hated, and along with tax-collectors I shall proclaim you, O Benefactor, who loves mankind’”(Holy Wednesday). To feel the weight of our nothingness before God, but then to cry out to Him – with hope and belief – because that’s what He’s told us to do! That’s what we see his Holy Ones do! And from this the distance is overcome, and we are raised high, “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’” (Luke 14, 10). It seems to me that the true weight of this word ‘repentance’ comes not from anything crushing, or overwhelming. St. Mary of Egypt tells us: “Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before — as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me — I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the life-giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Thus, repentance for her (and for us) was a key – an entrance into something otherwise closed. The true weight of this word ‘repentance’ lies in its incomprehensible power – and from this the demons tremble. By it, we are able to call down the divine; we empty ourselves but only to be filled. And in this – we are told – lies incredible sweetness. Have we surmounted our sins, fixed our problems, before this moment? Absolutely not! 

It seems to me, there’s no more powerful, dynamic, way of approaching God than this. It is not about being “good” or “bad” – of course we must strive to acquire the virtues – but it’s about the state of the heart. Let us become good! But let us first have repentance! And let us keep this repentance! “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15, 7). When we hear the cry of the Baptist and Forerunner: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” let us not be overwhelmed – let us not freeze! Repentance is not heavy, but light! It is freedom – perhaps disguised to those of us lacking this sweet experience – but it is there for the taking. There are no prerequisites. No divine ladder which must first be climbed. Let us be like the thief on the cross and repent, so that Christ can also say to us: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23, 43).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Commemoration of St. George the Trophy Bearer

Today, on April 23, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates St. George the Trophy Bearer, one of the great martyrs of Christ's Church on earth.

To get an idea of how popular this saint is, there is an old joke among Orthodox Christians that if a job needs to be done, "Let George do it" since so many of the men are given this name as their Baptismal name. His popularity is not just found in traditional Orthodox countries, but also in Western Europe. In a knighting ceremony, the formula "In the name of God and St. Michael and St. George" was commonplace. The last time I was in Germany, there was no shortage of towns I went to which had a statue of St. George even in the most die hard Protestant areas of the country. As a patron saint of the military, his image and his story is hard to just simply wipe away.

From the Prologue of Ohrid: This glorious and victorious saint was born in Cappadocia the son of wealthy and virtuous parents. His father suffered for Christ and his mother then moved to Palestine. When George grew up, he entered the military, where in his twentieth year, attained the rank of a Tribune and as such was in the service of the Emperor Diocletian. When Diocletian began the terrible persecution against Christians, George came before him and courageously confessed that he is a Christian. The emperor had him thrown into prison and ordered that his feet be placed in a stockade of wooden hobbles and that a heavy stone be placed on his chest. After that, the emperor commanded that George be tied to a wheel under which was a board with large nails and he was to be rotated until his entire body became as one bloody wound. After that, they buried him in a pit with only his head showing above the ground and there they left him for three days and three nights. Then George was given a deadly poison to drink by some magician. But, through all of these sufferings, George continuously prayed to God and God healed him instantly and saved him from death to the great astonishment of the people. When he resurrected a dead man through his prayer, many then accepted the Faith of Christ. Among these also was Alexandra, the wife of the Emperor Athanasius, the chief pagan priest and the farmers: Glycerius, Valerius, Donatus and Therinus. Finally the emperor ordered George and his wife Alexandra beheaded. Blessed Alexandra died on the scaffold before being beheaded. St. George was beheaded in the year 303 A.D. The miracles which have occurred over the grave of St. George are without number. Numerous are his appearances, either in dreams or openly, to those who have invoked him and implored his help from that time until today. Enflamed with love for Christ the Lord, it was not difficult for this saintly George to leave all for the sake of this love: rank, wealth, imperial honor, his friends and the entire world. For this love, the Lord rewarded him with the wealth of unfading glory in heaven and on earth and eternal life in His kingdom. In addition, the Lord bestowed upon him the power and authority to assist all those in miseries and difficulties who honor him and call upon his name.

Through the prayers of Thy Martyr, George, O Christ our True God, risen from the dead, have mercy upon us and save us!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Dangerous alliances in the age of piety

Piety is a word that has undergone numerous semantic shifts. For anyone who knows Latin, he realizes that piety stems from the Latin word pietas which means duty or responsibility. And, to an Ancient Roman, responsibility and duty were to three things in this order: 1) Gods 2) State 3) Family. Only after those three had been satisfied could the individual's concerns have been dealt with. The hero of Rome's national epic was Aeneas whose name was frequently joined with the epithet of pius, or pious. Of course, it was the abandonment of this pietas by ambitious men starting in the mid 2nd century B.C. that lead to the Roman Republic's downfall and the rise of the Caesars.

Today, piety now is measured largely on an individual level. We say that such a man is pious. What do we mean by that? We mean that he is devout, goes to church, says prayers, etc.. In other words, he meets merely external descriptors. Even the media may be praiseworthy of such a pious man but will unleash the attack dogs if it's actually discovered that the outward displays are manifestations of actual belief in those things. Hence that is why many in the media describe Catholic politicians as pious and will praise them for supporting Roe v. Wade and vice-versa.

Piety is relativism. Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians and other Christian groups are using piety as the basis in which to form alliances to deal with social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, same-sex adoption, death penalty, etc. That is not to say that it is a bad thing to join forces, but when you consider that an Evangelical and an Orthodox Christian may believe similarly that gay marriage is wrong, but when it comes to why, they have completely different answers. And that bodes for disaster.

The why is doctrine. And we must be very clear that the history of Christianity, even in its darkest moments, were many struggles over doctrine. Doctrine was the cause of bloodshed and schism and heresy; it was not piety. The Catholics and the Lutherans may well have agreed that music was perfectly appropriate for the worship of God (which is a concern of piety) but they didn't ally themselves and go after the Calvinists who had no place for music. Doctrine stood in the way.

Councils were convened not to discuss matters of piety (though some canons did address things like kneeling), but to solidify and prevent dissent from established church doctrine which was being challenged.

Today, we see morality (which is a form of piety) becoming the bridge between various confessions of Christianity. I read frequent articles about how different churches are "coming together" to combat the social ills of our time. It is a laudable but it is also dangerous. Though we may come to the same answer, the way to get to that answer is so diverse. It's a Machiavellian "ends justify the means." One can be right for the wrong reasons. The problem is that many are overlooking the doctrinal differences. It's fighting a common enemy without having a common goal. Many of the Evangelicals and mainstream Protestants and Roman Catholics with whom we seek these alliances have the same common enemy. But let us say those enemies are vanquished. Doctrine will once again come up.

I'm not suggesting that doctrine be replaced or watered down. God forbid! But we must be very careful, especially in this age of false ecumenism, to understand that unity can only be achieved by total union to the Church.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

New revelation about the end of the Gospel of St. Mark

The other day, in my random reflections on Pascha, I wrote the following:

The Gospel read at Matins is from the end of St. Mark which ends with the women being afraid. Many have lamented that this should be the Orthros Gospel and should be replaced with something from Matthew or Luke or John instead that has more joy. But this is completely appropriate. We should be in a state of fear. Our Lord has just been crucified and buried and harrowed Hades. Those things should be frightening because they should never have happened. But such is the God we have, a God who has ALWAYS gone to great extraordinary means to recall His chosen people to Himself. That should inspire us with fear. At the same time, immediately after reading this Gospel, the Priest chants the first "Christ is Risen" alleviating our fear and changing it into joy just like it did for the women and the Disciples.

Today, I was listening to a talk given by Fr. Thomas Hopko which can be heard on Ancient Faith Radio concerning the Resurrection of Christ and one of the things he mentioned touched a little bit on what I had written above.

First, we have to remember that the last chapter (16) of Mark's gospel ends at verse 8:
And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

The remaining verses in chapter 16 are universally regarded by scholars and the church fathers to have been added later. The reasons for why are myriad, but, as I commented above, perhaps it was done by some people who felt that Mark ends too abruptly and is not joyful enough, so something needed to be added to convey the sense of the Resurrection. Fr. Thomas Hopko has an interesting take.

First, we should also be mindful of what verse 7 says:

But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.

Fr. Thomas says that he met an Archimandrite from Balamand, Lebanon who said that this is the only time in Mark where human beings are actually given permission to talk about the Messiah, to declare what He has done and what He will do. Every time Christ heals or performs miracles in the Gospel according to St. Mark, He commands both the recipient and the witnesses and the disciples not to speak about who did this and how. In fact, the only ones who are allowed to speak of Christ's work are the demons although Christ silences them before and then casts them out. This is an extraordinary observation.

First, according to the Archimandrite, this shows that God is controlling the message and the messengers. Human beings aren't entrusted yet to proclaim anything because they have not yet seen and heard everything for the message to be proclaimed. But, He does speak openly (parresiai) about His death and Resurrection. I put forth the notion that Christ's miracles, healings, etc. can only be understood through the lens of the events of Holy Friday, Holy Saturday and Pascha. This is something I noticed a few months ago when I was going through the daily lectionary. Thus, I can imagine why the women would be astonished and afraid: They are entrusted to proclaim the Resurrection that explains everything they have seen Christ do prior to it. Now, only now, does it all make sense!

But, notice that the Gospel ends abruptly there (again, we are not counting the additional verses as those are clearly added later). We are not told if the women actually do proclaim the word of the angel to the apostles. We're left in a state of "what if?" If Mark were a screenplay writer today, he'd be acclaimed as a master of suspense. Maybe the women couldn't do it. And who would want to end a story with even more of a downer? Thankfully, Mark's witness is not the only one.

God controls the message. God controls the messengers. Everything is revealed in due time. How often do we feel that we are the ones who have to control and shape the message and the messengers as well as the time in which it is proclaimed? Hasn't God already done that? Maybe this Gospel lesson is also a reminder that God does not ultimately depend on us for His will to be done, though I'm sure He would prefer and desire that we would cooperate with His will. That's humility, the same kind of humility our Lord had when He went to His Passion and Death.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Pascha of the Lord

Some random thoughts on this Feast of feasts in my parish.

1) The Byzantine Men's Choir really did a great service to the church today chanting Odes 3, 5, 7 and 9 as well as the Ainoi and Paschal Stichera. There are still a lot of things to iron out (blending, dynamics, intonation, pitches, enunciation and breathing) but it was a glorious first effort. I'm very privileged to be a part of this fine group of outstanding musicians who wish to enhance the state of Byzantine music not only in our parish but for the Orthodox churches who still do use it or are trying to reintegrate back into common practice (e.g. Antiochian and Greek).

2) One of the Paschal verses from Psalm 67 says "Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered." God must have had some enemies at the Orthros this morning because after we processed outside to read the Gospel, chant the first "Christ is Risen" of this Paschal year and reenter the church, I notice that our ranks had thinned a little. It wasn't a lot but it was noticeable. The church was packed for people to light their candle during "Dhefte lavete phos" (Come take light) with no open seats in sight, but for the rest of the Orthros proceeding into the Divine Liturgy, I saw some empty spaces. I hope it wasn't the chanting that scared them off!

3) The Gospel read at Matins is from the end of St. Mark which ends with the women being afraid. Many have lamented that this should be the Orthros Gospel and should be replaced with something from Matthew or Luke or John instead that has more joy. But this is completely appropriate. We should be in a state of fear. Our Lord has just been crucified and buried and harrowed Hades. Those things should be frightening because they should never have happened. But such is the God we have, a God who has ALWAYS gone to great extraordinary means to recall His chosen people to Himself. That should inspire us with fear. At the same time, immediately after reading this Gospel, the Priest chants the first "Christ is Risen" alleviating our fear and changing it into joy just like it did for the women and the Disciples.

4) We really need to get a new translation of St. John Chrysostom's Homily for Pascha morning. I don't know where it comes from, but the translation I have heard on Sunday mornings for years is fraught with so many vocabulary errors (some of which are understandable considering how the Greek cannot be rendered into English on a 1:1 basis). Some of the word plays and the natural rhetorical flow are compromised. There's got to be a better way to translate it faithfully while retaining those features. Of course, it would be better if it were just read in Greek, but I know I'm not going to win that battle.

5) Speaking of Greek, I actually got to sneak some in there. I'm sorry, but the Byzantine chant just flows so much more naturally with the Greek words than English. English has too many muted and liquid consonants and so many harsh sounding consonant clusters that not only cause delays in the music (e.g. the "rect" in Resurrection) and just sound harsh. Again, a battle I'm not going to win.

6) We do our vigil in the morning at 5:30 beginning with the Pannychis (Midnight Office). I really wish we would start at 11:00 on Saturday evening or at midnight (like every other Orthodox church does). I think we could get a bigger crowd and even more kids. I think the total number of kids was maybe 15 or so (we have lots more) and 5:30 is too early in the morning. What kid doesn't want the opportunity to stay up late? And if this time does keep kids away what kind of message are we sending?

7) Is it just me or does anyone else especially a let down after the Liturgy is done? I've been waiting for 8 weeks now, fasting, praying and preparing for our Lord's resurrection and finally it has arrived and this morning was joyous as it should be. But it has come and gone so fast. I know we still celebrate the feast for 40 days but I wonder if "Christ is Risen" will start to sound hollow by next Saturday evening. I already miss my Triodion.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Great and Holy Saturday

After the lamentations of Great and Holy Friday and the joy that comes with the first glimpse of the Resurrection that awaits our Lord and also us, the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil on Great and Holy Saturday often becomes forgotten. It is such a shame that except for new converts who are received into the Church on this day, their families, their sponsors and those usual attendees, the church is only maybe a quarter full of what it was last night. Most people, like our Lord, take today to rest, though He was resting in Hades proclaiming the same good news He gave to the living, freeing Adam and Eve from their bondage and trampling down death.

It is a common mistake that icons like the one pictured above are called Resurrection Icons. That is patently false. The actual description is that of the Harrowing of Hades which is prophesied by Habakkuk in the Old(er) Testament. There is NO icon of the Resurrection for that event cannot be properly seen. The Resurrection is something that must be experienced. And without the Resurrection, says St. Paul, our faith is utterly in vain.

And today on this Great and Holy Saturday, we see our first glimpses of the Resurrection that awaits us. Those who come for the Liturgy on this day are probably even more eager for the holy flame to come into our midst and sing that Christ has risen and trampled down death by death.

Our Lord rests today and awakens as one out of sleep, delivering us from the ancestral curse of Adam (cf. Koinonikon of Holy Saturday), so let us rest with anticipation for the Great and Glorious Pascha very soon to come.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Emphatic "NO" to common date for Pascha

Here's yet another entry in the now (in)famous "I've said it before and I'll say it again" series. I think we're on part three now.

As Orthodox Christians and Western Christians celebrate Pascha yet again at different dates, it is of no surprise that there are many articles on the web and in the other media explaining why the same event has to be commemorated twice. There are instances of ecumenical bodies that are calling for, even demanding, some sort of new system, though I've yet to see any really this year, contrary to years past to set a common date for Pascha.

Regardless, Orthodox Christians should not bend on this at all, not least because Orthodox Christians would be the ones giving up the most.

The most frequently posted reason as to why all the churches should have one common celebration is because Christians are giving a divided witness. The fact is that even if our celebrations were to coincide, our message of Pascha is not the same as that of the Western Churches. Granted, many of them have elements of the truth, but that truth they do have is often outweighed by the heresies that the Western Churches have embraced in both the past and the modern era.

Why celebrate with churches who ostensibly and clearly teach that Jesus did not rise from the dead or teach that His Resurrection is only symbolic? If the Christian faith is mere symbolism, what's the point? If there is nothing beyond this life, what's then keeping us from being crazed maniacal hedonists?

Why celebrate with other churches who hold on to the disgusting theology of Anselm's Satisfactionary Atonement which teaches that God's honor was so wronged by Adam's sin that justice demanded that He be satisfied only by taking it out physically on someone? My honor was wronged the other day by a fellow parishioner's kid who told me to kiss his butt so I guess I should have killed one of his sisters to obtain satisfaction? It's sadistic, pure and simple. And that has no place in Christian theology.

Why celebrate with churches who hold only to a forensic justification as the central point of Christ's Resurrection? The key word is only. Forensic justification does have its place, especially in the Pauline epistles, but to make that the ONLY purpose of Christ's Resurrection diminshes the incarnation and leaves no room for transformation and change. It's like being charged for a crime and the judge pronounces a "not guilty" verdict. Sure, you're free to go, but have you been changed at all to grow in the image and likeness of God? No.

Why celebrate with churches that routinely deny that Christ was really God? Why celebrate with churches that routinely deny that Christ was really Man?

A unity of a common date for Pascha does not translate to a unity of confession. And it's clear the Western churches are not going to change so why pursue this?

Again, not all Western Churches hold all of these, but many of them cling to one or several of these false theologies. My question is why the Western churches are so much more interested in having a common date than the Eastern Churches? I'm going to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but I honestly believe it is because the Western churches who are in charge of such "ecumenical" bodies like the NCC and WCC hate the Orthodox and want us to modernize. They realize that many of the denominations they represent are dead and/or dieing and that many are fleeing towards Orthodox communions for the true faith. Since they seem incapable of stopping this emigration since people are fleeing their false doctrines, they have to change the churches that they are fleeing to instead. The common date of Pascha is but the first hurdle to clear. Again, with any kind of common date for Pascha, it will be the Orthodox who will be the ones giving up because the Western churches think they've got it right though they are clearly the ones who have abrogated the Canons from Nicaea.

The Orthodox Church is the Church of the Holy Fathers. No other church body can make that claim. The Catholics used to be until they started innovating with purgatory, papal supremacy, unleavened bread, filioque, indulgences, etc.. The Reformers threw out most of the fathers, especially the Greek ones, preferring only Augustine and even Augustine would be aghast as what has been made of his theology in the current incarnations of their churches. To throw out the fathers is to throw away the witnesses to the faith in every century. The fathers are the ones who kept the Church faithful to Christ. To jettison them is akin to cutting off an arm or a leg. Yes, we could survive but we would be diminished.

As I close, I must state emphatically that I am making no judgment with regards to the salvation of individuals of the Western churches. That's between them and God. And God saves whom he desires. I am absolutely certain that in the heavenly abodes will only be Orthodox Christians, though while they dwelt on earth they may have been Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, atheist, agnostic, animist, Buddhist or Muslim. I'm not God and those judgments are not and should not be mine. But when it comes to the proclamation of the true faith, I hold no other truth than what the Orthodox Church teaches and I will defend its doctrine and praxis tooth and nail to the end, even if it means my life, should it come to that against all who would assail it. A common Pascha/Easter sounds like an innocuous thing, but once the Orthodox Churches start giving up little things like this, how soon the rest could crumble.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

It is Finished

Every year around Paschal time, I always have a nice "plan" to not only separate myself from things like TV and movies but also to return to my collection of some of the greatest music ever written for this greatest of weeks. In particular, I try to make it a point to listen to J.S. Bach's great Passion according to St. John and the Passion according to St. Matthew. If either or both of these works were actually his faith written down musically, then what a faith he had!

I finally had the chance to listen to the St. John Passion in its entirety, something I've never really done before. Though there are so many great selections from this work, the one that forced me to stop the recording and play it again was No. 58, the aria for Alto "Es ist vollbracht!" (It is finished). The aria starts off beautifully with a soaring solo for the violoncello with the organ basso continuo. It is so profoundly depressing!

But, the mood suddenly changes to one of joy and triumph. For the words "it is finished" do not solely refer to Christ's completing his earthly life as man, but at the same time finishing death's hold on us as God. Es ist vollbracht!

I don't want to get into the debates about which of Bach's Passions is better. Many people simply prefer the St. Matthew passion because the Christ is more human. That may be the case, but I think then that the St. John Passion excels so much more theologically because the Man and the Divine, incarnate singly into one Person, the Theanthropos is on display.

J.S. Bach was a superb creator of melody and his word painting has few equals. And not only was he a superb musician but also a man who knew his Scriptures very well. I think that his church music would have been poorer had he not been as astute a reader of Scripture as he was the compositions of others. Check out the recording below.

The translated text is:
It is finished.
O rest for stricken spirits;
This dreary night
lets me count to the final hour.
Our Hero battles on with might
and ends the fight.
It is finished.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I've said it before and I'll say it again...

I think I'll make this a regular feature. I guess this would be Part II.

I've said it before and I'll say it again...not singing in church does NOT equal non participation. The gift to sing is precisely that--a gift. It is something given by the grace of God. Singing/chanting is a gift of the spirit much like teaching, prophesying, preaching, etc. Many people may want the gift to sing, but many people simply do not have it.

I'm tired of priests and other laymen who equate participation in the Divine Liturgy almost exclusively with singing. I guess a deaf mute can never participate (hyperbole alert!) then. Our church regularly uses Byzantine chant which is a very difficult musical language. Trained Byzantine musicians, especially classically trained Byzantine musicians will testify to the absolute demand, efforts and study required of one to execute it. So, what is the good to put out 60+ page service books (for one service) for the congregation most of whom have not the first clue about Byzantine music which contains all the musical settings? Answer: it serves no purpose except to create a cacophony.

It is not an unreasonable thing to demand that the service to God be both reverent and aesthetically beautiful. The emissaries from Prince Vladimir of Kiev who found themselves in the Church of the Hagia Sophia hearing the Divine Liturgy being chanted were so amazed by its beauty that they were "out of themselves" and could not tell if they were in Heaven or on earth. I don't think Prince Vladimir asked if everyone was singing along and participating (the sources don't seem to indicate taht). So why the "need" to have everyone sing especially those who have no business doing so?

A friend of mine in the congregation is named George. George is a faithful man, but he cannot sing in tune to save his life. He doesn't even sing words just belts out random notes and does so loudly that it disrupts the heavenly beauty I've never corrected him on this; I'm going to leave that to his family to do so. Again, he's a very faithful man to the church, but singing is not one of his gifts. Why should we insist that he sing?

Not all of the monks on Mt. Athos or in any monastery chant the services and NO ONE would accuse those silent monks of not participating in the Liturgy or the Offices. So why have we created this false standard? I suspect a good reason is the influence of Protestantism. Too many converts have brought over their own remnants of their previous faith and want it instilled in the Orthodox church because something's lacking for them. That's pure egoism. The Catholic Church has suffered great harm because the creators of Vatican II created a liturgy and new hymns which were Protestant in nature and demanded that everyone sing when that was never part of the practice. Now, Byzantine Rite Orthodoxy is not importing Protestant hymns, at least not yet and I hope it never will, but Protestantism is definitely having an effect and it's not a good one.

Encourage people to know the hymns and the prayers but let the dialogue between the priest and the choir be conducted reverently AND beautifully. No one is being denied anything here...unless you feel that you have a RIGHT to sing from the Holy Spirit. Pray the hymns with your lips, your heart and your mind. If that's not participation, then I don't know what is.