Thursday, December 24, 2015

Joseph and the Nativity of Christ

Of all of the main characters in the Scripture, there is one from whom we never hear a word.  That, of course, is Joseph, Jesus' step-father and husband to Mary.  We see him, of course, in every Nativity scene and his importance cannot be understated especially since if he did not listen to to the angel and choose to take Mary as his bride, then the history of salvation may have well turned out differently. His reputation of being Jesus' protector can also not be underestimated as it is he who took Mary and the infant, Jesus, to Egypt to protect them from Herod.   He is honored for his actions and rightfully so, but I've always been curious as to what Joseph may have said.  Though none is recorded in Scriptures, at the hymns of the Royal Hours, Joseph is given some very intriguing things to say.

From the first Hour:  Joseph spoke thus to the Virgin:  "What is this doing, O Mary, that I see in thee?  I fail to understand and am amazed, and y mind is struck with dismay.  Go from my sight, therefore, with all speed.  What is this doing, O Mary, that I see in thee?  Instead of honor, thou has brought me shame; instead of gladness, sorrow; instead of praise, reproof.  No further shall I bear the reproach of men. I received thee from the priests of the temple, as one blameless before the Lord.  And what is this that I now see?"

From the third Hour:  "I have searched the prophets, " said he, "and have been warned by an angel:  and I am persuaded that Mary shall give birth to God, in ways surpassing all interpretation.  Magi from the east shall come to worship Him with precious gifts."

From the sixth Hour:  "What is this strange mystery in thee, O Virgin?  And how shalt though bring forth a child, Calf upon whom the yoke has never come?"

Then in the ninth Hour, Mary responds to Joseph's hesitations and doubts:  "Why are thou downcast and troubled, seeing me great with child?  Why are thou wholly ignorant of the fearful mystery that comes to pass in me?  Henceforth, case every fear aside and understand this strange marvel:  for in my womb, God now descends upon the earth for mercy's sake, and He has taken flesh.  Thou shalt see Him according to His good pleasure, when He is born; and filled with joy thou shalt worship Him as thy Creator.  Him the angels praise without ceasing in song and glorify with the Father and the Holy Spirit."

Joseph's doubt is met with the confidence of Mary who first said "yes" to the Lord when Gabriel announced she was pregnant.  Joseph's concern for this reputation is met with Mary's revelation that the mercy Jesus brings in the flesh will make such a concern trivial. Joseph's amazement that Mary is pregnant in the first place is compounded by who is contained within Mary. Sure the words are not Scriptural, but they don't have to be.  This dialogue illustrates not only the concerns we frail humans have, but also the real importance of this day and who has come in the flesh, truly in the flesh.

Christ is born to raise up the image that fell aforetime.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Wrong Way to Reach the Nones or the UnChurched

At the risk of sounding cliche, do you know what really grinds my gears?  When my church, which I love, decides that the way to reach out to the Millennials or the Nones or just the plain old-fashioned UnChurched is to use some byproduct that has been discredited by the Evangelical Community as a way of promoting Holy Orthodoxy.  This particular program is benignly labeled as Visitors Day.

Now, before I'm labeled as some insular, insecure and greedy fool, (which I'm sure has probably already happened), I am not opposed to growing the Church or individual parishes. I am not opposed to visitors. Hell, I was one myself at one time.  What I am opposed to is using the Liturgy specifically to evangelize.  That is wrong.

In the ancient church, people who wished to be joined to the Church were not able to stay for the entire liturgy.  They were permitted to attend the parts of the Liturgy where general hymns were sung, Scripture read and the homily given.  But, after that and the cries of "the doors, the doors", people who were not initiates (i.e. the  unbaptized) were not allowed to stay.  Instead, they left and received catechism instruction from a priest while the Liturgy proceeded with the Anaphora and the consecration and the reception of the Holy Eucharist by the faithful.  Now, this was NOT done to shun such people or to make them feel unworthy, but because the Church wisely knew that full participation in her actions and communion with God was specifically for those who had been called out of the world by God to the Holy Mysteries.  Those desiring to join themselves to the Holy Church would certainly be welcome to that, just not yet.  They needed both time and instruction.

Now, though we have retained the refrain of "the doors, the doors" very few Orthodox Churches, if any, insist that non-baptized persons in attendance leave.  Things are very different now in the 21st century than they were in the 3rd, 4th or 16th centuries.  But, one thing that the Church Fathers never did was use the Liturgy to evangelize.  We simply should and must remember that Liturgy first and foremost is for those who have been called out of the world.  In short, it's for us, because we need it.  It is a gift from God which is then offered back humbly to him.  As said by the priest during the singing of the Cherubimic Hymn, Christ is the "offerer and the offered."  It is offered to us so that we may be thankful for being called out of the sin of this world.

The Liturgy is not some tool to use to reach those groups mentioned above.  Yes, it is instructional. Yes, it is beautiful.  Yes, it is useful.  But there are many other instructional and beautiful and useful means to reach the unchurched.  Why must it be Liturgy or bust?

The fact is that  my parish receives many visitors every year.  I think very few of them come because they were asked by a friend or a coworker.  Most of them are seekers and found their way to my parish by any number of means.  And that's all good.  But, for every visitor that we had, we didn't stop the Liturgy to explain to them what is going on.  We didn't call out from the solea to make sure everyone was on the right page.   Now, I grant that I don't know exactly how this Visitor's Day is going to look on Sunday.   And it could be that I am way off in my perception, but my point remains is that the Liturgy should not be used and cannot be used as an evangelization tool because it is precisely not that.  It is not for the unchurched. It is for those called to God.  To use it in such a way cheapens it and risks making it into a spectacle to be observed rather than a prayer offered by the faithful to God.  Perhaps it is time to enforce "the doors, the doors" again, but I doubt that will happen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Death and the Justice of God

A friend and coworker recently lost his 19 year old daughter.  She was a very happy, energetic young woman with her whole life in front of her.  She had only three months before graduated from college, played for  a championship softball team at her college, was engaged to be married, procured a job right out of college with the potential for advancement, was about to buy a house where she and her future husband would live, etc.  Despite such a great future ahead of her, she was taken from this life.

At the visitation, the sheer number of people there was overwhelming.  This young woman had clearly made an impact on those around her.  There were friends from her high school and college, friends of friends, coworkers and friends of her parents and siblings.  It was inspiring though under tragic circumstances.  While waiting to see the deceased''s father, I overheard some people talking about how this young woman's death was tragic and unfair and how could God do this.  As a parent myself, I probably would ask those same questions should I find myself (God forbid!) in the same situation.

In the movie, Rudy, a disheartened Rudy Ruttiger, upon learning yet again that he was denied entrance to the University of Notre Dame, tries to get some comfort and counsel from the priest.  The priest says that in his life he is only certain of two things:  there is a God and he is not Him.  I know from the Scriptures that the Lord says "My thoughts are not your thoughts; My ways are not your ways." (Isaiah 55:8).  I don't know that would be much of a comfort to me if I were to find myself in this situation, but if I were to understand the reasons why certain things, especially bad things like the death of your own child happen, I know that then I would be God.  But I'm not.

When studying the mythology of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and examining just how petty and emotionally insecure the gods and goddesses appear to be, I ask my students if it is possible for the gods or God to be moral in our sight.  They most often respond with a unanimous "no."  When I ask why, they reply something along the lines about how we humans operate or try to operate on a system of fair play.  And we do.  Then I ask the question, do you want life to be fair?  At this point, the class is pretty silent not knowing how to answer, though after a few seconds of awkward silence a few chirp up and say, "Absolutely!"  I then challenge them to consider about how many things they have gotten away with in their life:   How many times they screwed up and no one noticed, how many times they broke a rule and didn't get caught, how many times they got away unscathed without any punishment.  If life were truly fair, you would get what you deserve for everything you do.  And I know what I would be punished far more than rewarded.  When I bring this up, most students then grudgingly approve of the system we currently have in place.  There is a God and I'm not Him.

God will never get a fair shake from us mortal men.  He will never play fair.  If God were fair, this sweet young woman would not have died.  Truth be told, God shouldn't give us a fair shake either. And he doesn't; he goes way, way, way beyond that.  While we deal and try to rationalize the world in terms of fair play, God does differently.  His ways are not our ways.   If the justice of God were paramount, then there would have been no incarnation, no Crucifixion, no death and surely no Resurrection. But those things did happen, not because it satisfied some notion of justice, but because it was done for God's love of His creation.

God will never be just in our sight.  God's ways our different than ours.  Nevertheless, as  humans we continue to want God to be human rather than us to be more like God.  A Christian life is not a guarantee to be free from suffering in this life.  That's one of the reasons that the "Prosperity Gospel" is a false gospel.  There will be suffering.  But that does not mean we should be morose.  If anything we should be joyful because God's justice, at least for the time being, has not come.  It will eventually, at the Last Judgment, but for the here and now, the Compassion and Mercy of God reign supreme.

Is this fair?  No and I would really be afraid if everything I see and do every day of my life is the result of fairness.

Monday, August 10, 2015

It's a political issue

For those of us who are Christians in the orthodox sense, we know full well that the culture around us is fast becoming post-Christian and even anti-Christian.  To be honest, I don't know what the end result will be.  The late Cardinal George had a famous remark (which I paraphrase) that he would die in his sleep, his predecessor will die in jail and his predecessor will be martyred.  I don't know if such things will come about or even that quickly, but we Christians must recognize that the culture around us is becoming more and more hostile to those of us who hold on to a traditional morality, often, but not exclusively, girded in the Church.  So, what are we to do? Ignore it and just keep on going as if nothing is happening?  A Benedict Option? 

I say absolutely not.  At the same time, I am hesitant and unconvinced that Christians should use the mechanism of the state to enforce our mores, just as our cultural opponents are doing right now.  I believe in liberty first and foremost and believe that freedom exists for the purpose of choosing the good, not having the good rammed down your throat or used as a means of coercion like what you have with "morality" police in Saudi Arabia or Iran or even the "vice" squads of numerous police departments here in the USA. 

Liberty does not mean surrender.  The Church should and does (even though it can do more) to speak out about the evils we see around us.  And I'm not  just talking about things like abortion, gay marriage or anything like that, but about promiscuity, gambling, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, broken families, etc.  The problem is that the Church, again from within and without, is told to stay out of those issues, because they are "political" issues.  And since they have been politicized, the Church must watch from the sidelines and wait for the government OK before they speak.

I remember once my priest (the only time I remember him talking about a "social" issue) talked about abortion in his homily and one person got up and left (and let everyone know he was getting up and leaving, too) because the Church shouldn't be involved in political issues.  Now my priest only restated Church teaching that abortion was a grave sin and that a life was sacred, but at the same time reaffirming that the Church is a place for healing.  He wasn't telling people to go out and support a candidate or vote a certain way on a referendum.  But, for the person who got up and left, I suspect he did so not because he thought that the priest was out of line for bringing up a "political" issue, but because he does not support church teaching.  And these people are the really dangerous ones.

A brother of a friend of mine remarked the same thing once about how the Church should not  talk about these issues.  I then asked why?  He said that the Church was wrong.  I asked him if he would stay during a homily if the priest were to talk about the damaging effects of gambling or drinking. He said that would be fine.  But even gambling and drinking have been politicized, I replied.  Gambling is heavily regulated by the states as is drinking.  So, what's the difference?  I surmised he was completely honest when he said that because the Church was right about drinking and gambling but wrong about abortion.  In his mind, abortion was approved of by the government so the Church should, too.  I replied that gambling is also sanctioned by the government, so why doesn't the Church get on board and say it's no longer dangerous or immoral?  He didn't have an answer.  I suspect for issues like gay marriage and abortion, in particular, the ones who say the Church should refrain from preaching on "political" issues are the same who demand the Church's teachings should change.  However, they will never admit that up front.

There are some who say that a persecution of the Church would actually be a good thing because it will strengthen its core members and weed out those who were only lukewarm.  Maybe.  The Church is not going to win popularity contests with its stance on the "issues" of the day, but it's not supposed to.  Churches becoming "relevant" or bending with the times are the same ones that are dying.  Right now, I would settle for the Church actually doing what it was founded to do--bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone, without conditions, emendations or changes.

Friday, July 31, 2015


Saw this on another blog, but it sums up pretty much all the cliched, nonsense in modern "contemporary" or "praise" or "relevant" church services.

HT:  Pastoral Meanderings

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Conversion and Divorce

A couple of days I got locked into an internet forum discussion (something which happens way too often and I need to stop) regarding the conversion of a spouse to Orthodoxy while the other remains in his/her confession of faith.  This does happen and I have observed it in my own parish to good and ill results.  While reading the comments, I saw a lot of responses that came off as wholly uncharitable to the person who did not convert which I thought was totally unacceptable.  The Church is to strengthen the weak and cure the ill, but the way it was being presented, it seemed that many wanted the Church to continue to make weak and make ill those who were not ready to come into the Orthodox faith. 

Before I was married I was told by a friend who has a good friend who is a divorce attorney that, in the USA, the single biggest reason for divorce is--after infidelity, abuse and financial pressures--differences in religion.  My wife is not Orthodox, something I do not and will not ever hold against her.  She is my wife and I love her and that love is not contingent upon her being a member of the Church because even the Church does not make that a contingency.  If my wife were atheist, agnostic or non-Christian in general, then there would be issues, but that's not the case. 

I have seen several instances where a non-Orthodox couple had one spouse who wanted to convert and the other didn't, for whatever reason.  Becoming Orthodox is not something that happens by signing a sheet of paper or coming to a couple hour long classes, but, in general is a whole year of catechesis, with expectations that you would come to the extra services during Great Lent (my particular parish only receives converts in on Holy Saturday; other parishes may do it whenever the need arises), and make confession to the priest along with a host of other requirements.  Becoming Orthodox is embracing a Christian dogma and practice that many, especially for those coming from a Western confession of Christianity, will and do see as quite foreign and incomprehensible.  And because of that it can leave family members estranged.  A good friend of mine told me that his in-laws will have nothing to do with their daughter anymore because she converted from Southern Baptist to Orthodoxy.  There are many examples of this.  It can be particular troubling for a spouse who is unwilling and hostile to the move.  The extreme outcome can be divorce which is hardly ideal.  If that is the way things go, then both spouses are going to have deal with a lot of pain, trauma, guilt, anger, etc.  And what of the kids?  They're going to be torn, too.  Should the plan for conversion keep going as planned?  I replied no.  And for that, I took all sorts of flack.

I counseled that in these situations, the priest--who, I assume, is well informed about the situation--would suggest patience and a longer time of discernment for the potential convert.  Perhaps, in time, the unwilling spouse will be willing to give her assent without the divorce and may even come over him/herself.  For suggesting that, I was vilified.  The responses and the tones were downright harsh.  Scripture was thrown at me like "He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me" and the counsels from St. Paul in Ephesians about how women should submit to their husbands.  So, if a spouse converted, and the other spouse threatened divorce, the conversion should still happen?  It was pretty much a unanimous "yes."  So, the person who converts is going to be received into the Church (good for them), but will also have to suffer the pains of divorce along with the spouse and if there are children, what are they to think?  I replied that if the Church exists for all and desires to bring all to the knowledge of the Truth, is the Church doing that for the estranged spouse and the kids by essentially countenancing the divorce?  No, it's not.  The Church is, again, about strengthening the weak and curing the ill and to bring them into the Una Sancta.  Does anyone really believe that the estranged spouse and children are going to be willing to come into the Church after that?  I don't think so.  That's one great way to evangelize.

I have actually witnessed several couples divorce because one spouse wanted to convert and the other wasn't ready, but it went ahead anyway.  I have to ask why priests would allow this to go forward if there was such a risk?  Why not allow for extra time?  I think I have a possible answer.  Just as doctors are pressured by their patience to prescribe for them some drug or do some procedure to cure them from an illness, so priests are pressured often by converts who are so zealous to be received into the Church that they seem to fast track the process.  Of course, people are people, too.  And no matter how much you may try to accommodate them and help them, they just don't want it.

How serious of an issue is this?  I don't know if it's a rampant issue, but I have seen it play out a few times.  Divorce happened in two instances and almost happened in another.  The result of the latter situation was that the spouse who converted went back to Roman Catholicism.  I haven't heard from him in years.  There's not a one-size-fits-all solution nor should there be.  Unbending rigidity is only going to exacerbate the issue, not solve it.  It has to be dealt with pastorally and it has to be honest.  Should a priest go ahead and counsel the potential convert to go ahead knowing full well that it could estrange the other spouse, kids even leading to divorce? I would think that if time would work things out, then give it time. The Church isn't going anywhere.  I am frequently reminded by my priest that the spiritual life is a marathon, not a sprint.  And many people are received into the Church on their deathbed.

The responses I received on this forum reeked in many ways of pride and arrogance.  If divorce happened, they said, and the conversion happened, then that was good.  None of them were of course defending divorce as anything less than a sin (however, divorce is allowed in the Orthodox Church, but a time of penance must follow), but the willingness to overlook it in favor of one more soul in the Church at the expense of harming another just struck me as uncharitable.  Situations like this require a case by case examination, but, being a married man and a father, I could not and would not anything that would risk my marriage and my kid's well-being for some immediate good.  Maybe just saying that makes me unworthy of Christ and His Church but if marriage, even in a marriage outside of the Church, is a martyrdom of the self for the glory of Christ and the Church for the salvation of both spouses, there has to be some gray.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reflections on Father's Day

This is now my third father's day.  Being called "daddy" by my soon-to-be-three-year old is something that 15, 10 or 6 years I would have deemed highly unlikely to impossible. Whenever my son says "daddy", it is at times difficult to hold back tears.  Here is a little boy who depends upon me and his mother for basically everything in his little life.  He is starting to assert some independence, but when it comes to the basics, he still needs me and will probably need me for a few more years before it becomes "uncool" or "embarrassing."  But, for the time being, I'll take every utterance of "daddy" with great joy.

My reasons for thinking that I would never become a father, let alone married, were myriad.  Chief among them was that I thought I was pre-declined for any possible date considering that when I started (very late when compared to most people), I was consistently rejected.  Then there was the possibility that I thought I would join the monastic life.  But, like I tell my students who think that they too will never have kids, things always change.

And what changes that being married and having a kid have made.  Perhaps to people who only know me on a very limited basis, I don't appear to have changed very much.  To those who are on more intimate terms, they see the change far more profoundly.  However, in self-examination, I tend to dwell on those areas I need to change but have not, for whatever reason.  But the changes that I and others have noticed were for the better.  Here are some general things I have learned over these past few years.

Parenting does change you because it requires sacrifice of self.  It requires you to forget about your own needs and wants and put the kid first above all.  Even though my wife and I were told by my priest during our premarital counseling sessions that we should not put our kids above our marriage, I find it difficult to impossible to do that.  My wife and I do spend a lot of time together in the presence of our son.  When we do get some time to ourselves, it's mainly to recharge or rest or sleep or get caught up on things that we simply need to do.  Date nights are scarce but they do happen.  But our kid always comes first.

Parenting is tough.  Duh!  I think the only people who would say otherwise are not parents themselves or just produced the kid and didn't do anything to raise him.  No more explanation needed.

Parenting requires you to be inventive.  I've found out just about every free thing a toddler can do around this town so he's entertained and we are not scrapping by.  

Parenting can also be low tech.  Do you want to know how far a tickle session can last?  I don't know what the record is but for the past 30 minutes before he went upstairs for his nighttime routine, I chased my son around and tickled him which he kept asking me to do!  It can grow tiresome, except for him.

When you get past one hurdle, another gets in the way immediately.  Our son has made great progress in his speech and vocabulary acquisition this year.  Now, we're on to another fun chapter:  Potty training.

Kids aren't going to sit still even at church.  I have to admit that I get frustrated taking my son to church because I spend a great deal of the Divine Liturgy out of the church tending to him and chasing him down.  He wants to get around and explore and play.  Sometimes this causes groans and moans from others in the nave who, I think, have forgotten what i is like to have young children.  As much as I try to prepare him to sit still and emphasize the importance of being quiet, when we get there, nothing of the sort happens. 

The faith resonates with him.  He doesn't understand the whys, the hows, the whats and the wheres, etc.  But, at home, he honors his icons, even saying "Pray for me" before his icon of St. Eleftherios and "have mercy" before his Christ icon.  He can make his sign of the cross (though in the Roman Catholic manner; nothing wrong with that. We can change later).  And he knows to say "Amen" after prayers in the evening and at meals. 

I've learned much over these past three years.  I've still much more to learn.  There is one thing, however, that I have only started to being to think to understand. This is something I would have had a hard time of doing without being married and having kids.  That thing is compassion.  I don't think that anyone can really even define compassion before they have kids.  And I don't think we can even begin to understand just how hard John 3:16 hits home until we have kids. 

To all the fathers out there, Happy Fathers Day.  To my father, in particular, thanks for showing me what I need to do to be maybe half as good a father to my son as you were to me.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom of Worship

The United States Citizenship test--take by immigrants who wish to become citizens--asks the tester to name two rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.  There are five rights:  Religion, Press, Assembly, Petition and Speech.  All of these rights are listed here because the Federal Government says it has no authority to dictate how individual States or citizens exercise these rights, if at all.  However, since 2008, a change has been made which, in my opinion, is not small or insignificant.  The change is that word "religion" has been changed to "worship."  This has caused some controversy and I was reading some headlines this morning, I discovered that the junior Senator from the State of Oklahoma, Mr. James Lankford, has sent a letter to the Director of Homeland Security requesting that the word "religion" only be accepted (assuming the tester listed that at all) in place of "worship."   The article's writer said that this is a "distinction without a difference."  Au contraire!

Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but I believe that the people who authored the text of the U.S. Constitution were educated persons who knew what words meant. I would daresay that they knew more English words and how to use them correctly than most high school seniors who just received their diplomas this past month.  Considering that the Founding Fathers were journeying into unknown territory as far as government was concerned, I'm sure that the right vocabulary and grammar were an absolute necessity to communicate the ideals they wanted to enshrine.  They did not choose "worship."  They chose "religion."  And there is a distinction!  Quite simply, worship is private and personal.  Religion is public and communal.

Worship is the style of religion.  Religion is the substance that can (or not) make up a person.  For instance, I am a Greek Orthodox Christian.  I worship according to the Byzantine Rite following the parameters set up in the Typikon of the Great Church of Christ (with revisions made by Violakis).  That means, on most Sundays or feast days, I worship God according to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  No one, especially in the federal government, may dictate to me or to my church that I should be using some Roman Rite or some contemporary style on Sunday mornings or at any time I am engaged in prayer at my home or anywhere else I choose to be.

Freedom of Religion is the inalienable right that I may practice the dictates of my Church without fear of any federal government infringement.  This means that if I choose to close by business on a Sunday to observe the Sabbath, I may do so.  This means that if I choose not to bake a cake for a bunch of racists for their annual hate-a-thon against anyone, I cannot be compelled to.  This means that if I choose to give money to a beggar in the street, I may do so, regardless of some ordinance which forbids "panhanding."  And on and on it goes.

Religion is for all seven days of the week. Worship is for that one or two or three hour or whatever amount of time a person puts in at church, synagogue, mosque, drum circle, etc.  Freedom of religion dictates who I want to be in the presence of others who are not part of that particular church community. 

Now, obviously, I do not have the right to practice a religion that would deprive someone else of their life, liberty or property.  That means, if my church commanded me to kill a person on the third day of every month and I obeyed, I would rightly be prosecuted.  But my right to practice my religion in terms of with whom I choose to associate, business or not, is sacrosanct.  I am depriving nobody of life, liberty or property by not associating with them. Only the most twisted and sophistic reading of plain text can say otherwise. 

Regardless of one's religious proclivities in this nation which is becoming a less religious nation, that does not mean that those who choose to adhere to the dicta of their respective churches should abandon them.  That's the point of the first amendment, that it is guaranteed that I may hold on to my beliefs regardless of how society has moved with them.  At one point in time, many of the original states had State Churches.   Massachusetts, whose constitution was written by the very religious John Adams, even had the Congregationalist Church set up as the State Church.  Now, in time, that went away, but not because it was ordered to by a Supreme Court of the Congress of the United States.  Because there was a state church did not mean that the Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists were persecuted and thrown in jail.  They may not have been well liked, but that is a far cry from genuine persecution.

So, I support Mr. Lankford's letter and his aims.  We are a nation founded on the freedom of religion, on the right to practice our religion even and especially in the public sector. Changing the wording is changing the meaning and for those who wish to become citizens, they are being taught a lie.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Triple Crown Winner and Disproving Science

Yesterday, American Pharoah defied the odds and became the first Triple Crown Winner in 37 years.  Even if horse racing isn't your thing (it's certainly not mine), one cannot help but be impressed by the accomplishment of this rare feat. 

In the lead up to the Belmont Stakes, I couldn't help but notice on Facebook, twitter and many other media outlets about how science demonstrates that American Pharoah was not going to win the Triple Crown.  Now, notice the difference between saying the "odds do not favor" versus "science does not favor."  Science, we are constantly reminded, is grounded in fact which can be observed and measured.  So, if science says that there would be no Triple Crown Winner this year, then there should have been no Triple Crown Winner this year.  Lo, and behold.  Here, we are.   After all, just becomes teams don't match up on a piece of paper doesn't mean they don't play.  If a team is supposed to win nine times out of ten, there is still that one game for an upset.  That's what make sporting events fun.

Now, I have yet to notice one single person saying that the result "disproves" science.  And I don't think they should.  Because science is the result of observation and measurement, you cannot disprove that sound travels at 340.29 m/s, unless, of course, you were just wrong.  If all of the articles and memes and other media were talking about merely the odds, then no one should give it a second thought.  However, let's say for sake of argument that  American Pharoah was deemed to win by some religious authority, the media would go out of its way to say that the actual result disproves religion.  Of course, such a thing didn't happen, but one needn't search too hard to find that there are numerous "Studies", "archaeological evidence," "textual evidence," etc. that disprove what Christians teach from morality to God.  Every year around Easter, numerous news magazines like Time and Newsweek run articles about the Jesus Seminar and how their conclusions disprove what the Church teaches about Christ and His Resurrection.  And we are ordered to buy into that without any argument whatsoever.  Because, if science says, it must be true.

I am not writing this to deride science. I love science.  Had it not been for a few bumps in the road, I would have gone into medicine.  I love chemistry and biology in particular.  But science itself is not infallible.  It has been made that way by modern society as a more plausible alternative to God and, because of this, has become a religion in of itself, though the people who actually think this way will never admit that.  But science and scientists aren't always correct either.  One famous example I can give is that the famous Alexandrian scientist Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, but was about 2000 miles off.  Why?  He assumed that the earth was completely spherical and that the city of Cyzicus was directly south of Alexandria (which would form an arc on a circle).  He was wrong on both counts, but we can certainly excuse him for his mistakes.  Science evolves in its conclusions all the time based on the accumulation of more evidence.  But it does not explain the why of life?  Science can explain a lot of "whats" and "hows", but not "whys" especially the "why are we here" type questions.

I do not believe there is a contradiction between science and religion.  The two do work harmoniously together.  But science does require a moral component and science by itself does not have one.  That is why we have laws and religion.  We can technologically progress, but because we can doesn't always mean that we should.  Science needs responsibility to function well.  Science by itself does not guarantee a world that would resemble the planet Vulcan.  But still, even the Vulcans still had to deal with emotional and biological issues that could only be settled, at times, by fights to the death.

Science was not disproved yesterday by American Pharoah's winning of the Triple Crown.  The odds were not in the naysayers' favor.  Nor is the Resurrection of Christ disproven because one person thinks he found a tomb with an inscription on it of Jesus' name (that was later proven to be a hoax).  The only thing I want is for those people who venerate science so highly not use it as a club against those of the Christian church in particular and religion, in general.  And vice versa.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Anti-Hero and the Vague Ambiguity of "Good"

I just finished watching the seventh and final season of the show, Sons of Anarchy.  I don't even remember why or how I got into this show in the first place, but I stuck with it throughout and waited with eager anticipation for the release of the next season on Netflix.  If you want to watch a show which really drives you into the pit of despair concerning humanity and just how screwed up it can be, this is a good show to point you in that direction.  Now that I've finished it, I had a few thoughts. (Disclaimer:  Spoiler alerts.)

The show's protagonist is Jackson "Jax" Teller who has worked through the ranks of his Motorcycle Club (MC) called the Sons of Anarchy to become president.  Though a social club, they are a wealthy organization due to the legitimate businesses they have, but mainly from the  criminal enterprises they support, e.g. drugs, gun running, prostitution, pornography, etc.  Throughout the show, Jax wants to reform his MC since the enterprises it has engaged in has not only cost them the lives of friends and family, but also their wealth and connections and also put them under the microscope of law enforcement beyond the local level. 

Jax's father's ghost haunts him throughout the series.  His father who started the MC and was its president died mysteriously when Jax was a kid.  His father left behind a manifesto which detailed how the MC lost its way and how it can be changed.  Jax made that his mission.  But, for all of Jax's good intentions, for all of his cleverness and street-smarts, things blow up in his face.  More friends are killed.  His connection to his kids becomes more tenuous.  His mother's interests start to conflict with his to the point that she even goes so far as to kill Jax's wife in a fit of rage over a misconception.  In fact, misconceptions pervade the characters in this show. They think "x" when "y" has actually occurred.  And because they think "x" they act out on it immediately without thinking.  Jax's mother tells him that a rival gang killed Tara which spurs him to set into action a number of events that only leads to a lot more killing, a lot of new alliances, more killing, patching up damages, more killing and round and round we go.

All throughout this process of bodies being stacked up, we, the audience, are told by other characters about how Jax is a good person.  This is a man guilty of numerous murders, numerous felonies, unfaithfulness and being an absentee father.  He claims he does everything for his family, but hardly ever does he ever stop to think.  His clever solutions often find him digging a bigger hole for himself which trigger more "brilliant" solutions and bigger holes.  It never seems to end.  But, we are still told he's good and/or decent.  This decent man is responsible for killing his own mother.

It seems that modern TV has little to no use for the traditional hero who does right for the sake of doing right with little to no reward.  There are no longer any shows like The Rifleman or Buck Rogers where the hero of the story did good for good's sake.  Now, granted even in older shows like The Lone Ranger and Zorro, the hero was checkered a little bit since he operated outside the law.  But today's TV and even movie heroes, we are treated to more anti-heroes.  We want them to win, but at the same time our moral compass is praying for them to get caught and get what they deserve.  We see the same Jax "anti-hero" in other shows like Breaking Bad, White Collar, Suits, Bosch, Hell on Wheels, House of Cards, etc.   In movies, even the modern incarnation of Batman becomes less the traditional hero and more of an anarchist.  Yet, they are still referred to as good.

How far we have come as a society where the descriptor "good" is applied more to intentions than to reality.  It is true that Jax wants to do well for his family and make sure they are safe and taken care of.  But the extent he goes to ensure that results in death and destruction for everyone, especially him.  Without doubt, everyone wants to think of himself as good.  But even Jesus balked when someone called Him good saying that no one is good save God alone.  Facts are we are not good.  Intending to be is not the same as being.  Still, we like to confuse the two or say that they are one and the same.

I cannot explain the explosion of anti-heroes in modern television and cinema.  Maybe it has something to do with Americans wanting to cheer for the underdog, even if the underdog is a hardened criminal. But even if we do cheer for the criminal underdog, why does that presuppose wanting to imagine him or make him into some good person in his own right?  Is good an absolute or a relative term?  I think if we are really honest with ourselves, we know the answer to that question.  When and where the individual reigns supreme, the overreaching definition of a word or concept goes with it.

I am not suggesting that the perpetuation of such shows is the result of the devaluation of what constitutes good and bad.  Nor am I suggesting that there should be some censorship to reverse the course.  For the latter, that is in the hands of our parents, our teachers, our clergy, our friends and ourselves.  But what I do see is that we are going to have a lot fewer Lone Rangers and a lot more Jax Tellers in our entertainment.  The word, "good", will continually be redefined for each character to the point that as an absolute, it will be almost entirely absent.  Good intentions will rule the day. Considering how much TV our children watch, it will take a lot of effort to deprogram them.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

He hath trampled down death by His death

And bestowed life to those in the tombs.

Our waiting has been turned into joy and excitement at hearing the Gospel according to St. Mark announcing that the Lord was no longer in the tomb that He has arisen.   Death is no longer able to keep us captive.  We, too, will arise.  And after judgment, we will be enjoy alongside of Him the first fruits of a life in Christ.
  Let us go forth joyously and say "Christ is Risen."  Kalo Pascha.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

And now...we wait

Ever since His triumphant entry into Jerusalem with cries of Hosanna and Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord,  we have followed with the Lord every step of the way.  We kept watch for the Bridegroom to come like the ten virgins, we have been there at the cursing of the fig tree, we have been seen how the Lord will revile those who do not use the talents entrusted to them, we have been with Christ at his Last Supper, with Him at His betrayal by Judas, listened to Him speak about the hardships that necessarily come from being His Apostle and servant, watched Him as Master wash the feet of His servants, watched Him as He was tried like a common criminal by the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod, the denial of Him three times by Peter, His scourging, His agony, His ridicule, His march to Gologotha, His pleas that no one weep for Him,  His Crucifixion, His prayer for forgiveness to His Crucifiers, His bestowal of eternal life on the good thief, entrusting John the care of His mother, His cry of agony to His Father, His death, His piercing by the Spear, the oupouring of both blood and water, the confession of the Roman centurion, the destruction of the temple, the trembling of the earth, the sun blackened, the dead rising from their tombs, the tempest, His taking down from the Cross and entombment by Joseph of Arimethea and, today, His Harrowing of Hades, preaching to those already dead.  And now...we wait.

We have fasted, we have prayed, we have given alms, we have sacrificed time from our pursuits and even our families, we have denied ourselves some of our simple pleasures.  And now...we wait.

We wait as the excitement for our Lord's Resurrection as celebrated in the Rush and the Divine Liturgy is but only half a day away.  But still, we must wait.  We must not get ahead of ourselves.

The waiting IS the hardest part. You don't need Tom Petty to tell you that (although it is a pretty nice song).  His Resurrection will come.  And it will bestow eternal life to those in the tombs.  But now, we wait...and wait some more.  But, it WILL come.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Not Getting What You Expected

In a remote area of England following the end of the First World War, a small country school  was given great news:  the King of England himself would be making a stop at the train station of their little town during his tour.  The children were excited like it was Christmas but unlike Santa Claus, they would actually be able to see their king in the flesh.  For the next few days, the children were busy making signs and greeting cards and decorating other knickknacks to present to the king.  At last the great day arrived and the king's train pulled into their little train station.  The children could barely contain their excitement when at last the door to the last passenger car. which had the Royal Seal on it, opened.  The King of England himself stood before the schoolchildren who were clapping, shouting and smiling like it was the best day of their life.  Several kids were able to give the cards they had made to the king and it was clear that he was very grateful for such an enthusiastic response.  After a few minutes, he waved again from his passenger car, got back in and the train left.  The schoolchildren were still left in a state of shock and awe after having witnessed such a spectacle.  The teachers rounded up the kids and were taking them back to school when one of the teachers noticed one child in tears and clearly upset.  She approached the little boy and asked him what was wrong.  He responded, "I didn't see a king today.  All I saw was a man in a suit."

Today, the Orthodox Church celebrates Palm Sunday, the triumphant entry of Jesus into the Holy City Jerusalem.  In front of him, cheering throngs received Him as He was carried in by an ass' foal.  The crowd laid down palms to mark his way.  Children shouted and sang "Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!"  The joy and excitement which overtook this crowd so suddenly about this prophet from Nazareth did not look like it would dissipate soon.  But, it did. For we know the rest of the story:  Betrayal, Trial, Agony, Suffering, Crucifixion, Death, Burial.

The throng that had greeted Jesus as He entered was awaiting the Messiah who would bring about a new golden age for the Jews and would start by ending the tyranny of Rome which had ruled over their country now for nearly a century.  Before the Romans, it was the Seleucids.  Before them, the Persians. Before them, the Babylonians. Before them, the Assyrians.  Before them, Philistines. Before them, Amalekites, Canaanites, etc. Before them, Egyptians.  The Jews knew suffering and oppression.  Maybe now, just now, with this prophet coming into the Holy City to celebrate the Passover, a time of deliverance from one of Israel's enemies,  the people were gazing upon the very man who would deliver them from any more suffering. Unfortunately, what they expected they did not receive.

I'm sure Christ Himself was confused as to just how wrong these people were, but He didn't stop to tell them that their reason for celebration and expectations were wrong.  For, as the Scripture says, which serves as the Orthros Prokeimenon for this day, "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, Thou hast perfected praise."  They were rejoicing, which was right, but for the wrong reasons.  They all had an image of a conquering King, which was right, but wrong in what He was going to conquer.  And how quickly that joy and exultation turned to disbelief, anger and even hatred.  How quickly those cries of "Hosanna" changed to "Crucify Him!"

Such is the problem when people believe in an idea.  The idea may well be fine but not manifest in itself in the way you have hoped and prayed for.  I'm sure that was the issue for the Jews who greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday.  The problem with believing in ideas is that the idea itself doesn't care if you believe it or not.  That is why it is so dangerous, even in our postmodern culture, to reduce God with whom we can communicate personally to a mere idea.  Many people will say that they don't believe in God, but like the idea of God.  They like the idea of a God who is love, is compassion, is mercy is whatever good noun you can think of.  But, ideas cannot love you back.  Ideas cannot be compassionate or merciful with you.  Ideas don't work that way.  The Jewish people who had been suffering for so long were looking for an idea to save them.  God saves; ideas about Him do not. God loves; love as an idea does not love you back.

When that idea does not turn out as you would expect, it's very easy to immediately give in to anger, hatred, indifference, hardness of heart, etc.  Such a phenomenon doesn't just occur to Jesus on Palm Sunday, but happens all the time.  We have an idea of how the heroes of our culture are supposed to act and behave, but then react incredulously when we realize that they are just as sick and twisted as the rest of us.

Fortunately, for us, God does not and did not carry a grudge at those who had a false idea about what His Son would do.  Jesus still enters the city. He still is crucified and buried.  And He still rises on the third day.  A lesser God or a better man may well have reacted to the cheers and the laying of palms on the ground with "You have got it all wrong. And because you have it all wrong, you're not getting anything now!  I'm going home!"  But He didn't do that. His crucifixion and death and burial and resurrection were still for all.  Remember that even His Apostles still did not know what was going on.  The myrrhbearing women had to tell them and remind them of what Jesus had preached for all this time leading up to His Passion.   

As we enter into Holy Week, we know that we will receive what we expect:  The Lord, Resurrected, Triumphant over Death for us. For us.  FOR US and our salvation.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Why does Jesus weep at Lazarus' tomb?

The Orthodox faithful have now reached the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week.  In a way, today and tomorrow are small, short-lived breaks or feasts, prior to the trial, agony, suffering, scourging, crucifixion, death, burial and triumph over Hades of Jesus before His Resurrection.  Today, we commemorate the rising of Lazarus from the dead, an event only recorded in the Gospel according to St. John, an event that occurred before His triumphal entry into Jerusalem where He would be humiliated and sentenced to a horrible death. 

The story is familiar to most people and its entirety is read today at Liturgy as the appointed Gospel reading.  It is some 45 verses long; a little longer than most Gospel readings.  However, as I was standing there, my thoughts concentrated only on one verse which has only two words:  Jesus wept (verse 35).  In context, it makes perfect sense.  In the verses prior, Mary was weeping as she chastised Jesus for not being present while Lazarus was still alive, although ill.  The company of Jews who had come to console her were also weeping.  There was a lot of weeping all around.

Why does Jesus weep?  There is no shortage of explanations, some of which can be found here.  The Canon written by St. Andrew of Crete which is appointed to be read at Compline the night before unambiguously attributes Jesus' weeping to His human nature which contrasts with His Divine Nature which allows Christ to raise Lazarus from the dead after four days.  Perhaps Jesus was weeping because it is perfectly acceptable to do so at a funeral as many of us know. Or perhaps Jesus wept simply because He knew that death was a tragic consequence of the sin that our parents, Adam and Eve, dared to commit in paradise.  If I dare to be presumptuous, maybe Jesus will weep over my tomb.

Though no theologian, I would posit a slightly different reason for Jesus' weeping though it is based on several of the explanations above.  As I wrote earlier, Jesus' raising of Lazarus occurs before His entry into Jerusalem and thus also right before His Trial, His Suffering, His Crucifixion, His Death and His Burial.  Before he was betrayed by Judas and lead by the guards to Pilate, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsamene that His Father would let this cup pass from Him, that there could be a way out.  Of course, Christ goes on to pray, saying "Let Thine, not mine, be done."  Even on the Cross, Christ cries out in agony "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"  There are no shortages of instances in the Gospel according to St. John where Jesus shows us that He is even afraid, scared to death, as it were.  I think that his weeping as he stands before Lazarus' tomb may indicate that He is frightened of the impending death and burial that is to await even Him in but a few short days.

Of course, this is only a guess.  St. John the Theologian doesn't explain why Jesus wept and maybe the question itself is, in the scheme of things, an unimportant one.  However, as we embark upon Holy Week and a walk with Christ in His suffering, crucifixion, death and burial, even though we know the joyous outcome of all of this, maybe we are called to weep before His tomb as He did at Lazarus' and even our own.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

St. Mary of Egypt: Crazy? Lunatic? Delusional? Too hard on herself? Self-centered? All of the above?

In the fifth week of the Great Fast, usually on a Wednesday night (or sometimes on a Thursday morning to coincide with Matins or Orthros), the theme of Lent--repentance--comes once again to the fore.  As in the first week, the entirety of the Great Canon is chanted, but this time the whole Great Canon is chanted at the same service rather than being drawn out over four nights.  In addition, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, written by Patriarch SOPHRONIOS of Jerusalem is read in two different sections.  Because of how the Feast of the Annunciation fell this year on that Wednesday, the Great Canon and her life were moved to Monday evening.
St. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to St. Mary of Egypt before her repose

Reading the Life of St. Mary, either alone or with others in the Church, is a bit of a struggle.  It is not a story one would expect to hear in a church especially if there were children present.  Also, it's just not an easy story to read as there is narrative and some dialogue and written in a language (even in translation) that is just hard for many to grasp.  However, for those who manage to get through the whole thing, the story is supposed to turn us to one more shot at repentance before Lent ends and Holy Week begins.

But the sad truth is that many Orthodox, if not MOST Orthodox Christians, have NEVER heard the Life of St. Mary of Egypt.  They may know that the fifth Sunday of Lent commemorates her, but they don't actually take the time to read it themselves or go to Church to hear its reading liturgically.  I have any number of theories as to why this is so:  Many people consider repentance to be nothing more than self-improvement and so the repentance that demands sacrifice and even denial of self is considered way off the deep end; there are others who believe that her repentance was sincere but it didn't need to go to such lengths as what she did; there are those who think that her repentance is exceedingly self-centered because what she "should" have done instead was helped others; more, still, think that the story is a complete fiction and should be disregarded simply because there's no proof as the written version did not come around until 100 years after she died.   Whatever the reason for Orthodox Christians staying away from this story, a lot of work needs to be done in Catechesis.

But let's consider the objections to the Life of St. Mary.  If you want to get a list of all possible objections, read no further than the comments left on Rod Dreher's post on the American Conservative.  St. Mary is actually denounced by many commentators who think that she is crazy, a lunatic, self-centered, etc.  Even when she was not called one of those derogatory terms, she was still labeled as someone who went too far, as someone who didn't need to do all of that.  It is absolutely infuriating that Christianity for many if not most Christians has been redesigned to be only a moral or ethical code.  And, what's more, that moral and ethical code needs to be updated to "get with the times."  I think it's a good time to point out just how Christianity and philosophy differ.  When you consider that the bulk of Christianity is what has been revealed by God to man, then to change Christianity into only a philosophy or ethical code is to strip it of any of that revelation and the residue will then form the foundation.  And that residue will be morality with a small tincture of theism.  God would be all but removed.  And if God is renewed, then the central tenet of Christianity would also have to be removed--The Resurrection!  St. Paul reminds us in his epistle to the Romans that without the Resurrection, our faith is in vain!  And what is required for Resurrection?  Death and then rebirth.

The Christian life was never meant to be a passive one.  It is not cheap psychological therapy. It is active. And it is self-denial which is a death of self, a death of ego, a death of "I."  For all the complaints about St. Mary of Egypt, we cannot and we should not dismiss her actions in the desert as something only a self-centered person would do.  A self-centered person does not deny himself and does not rid himself of the temptations of this world. A self-centered person calls all those things to him.  A self-centered person wants to be recognized and admired and adored.  St. Mary wanted no such thing, hence why she ran away from St. Zosimas.  A self-centered person does not give himself to prayer unceasingly.  A self-centered person prays only to himself and thinks of himself as God.  To rid ourselves of "I" we must rid ourselves of the world and embrace God.  Each person has a different path in his self-denial.  For St. Mary of Egypt it was to rid herself of the world; for someone like Mother Theresa it was to give of her self so that others could have a life in this world.  But for both women, their path was to deny self, not embrace it.  St. Mary embraced God by forsaking others; Mother Theresa embraced God by giving to others.  Who is to say which one is better?

Does repentance really need to go that far?  The only people who complain about this are people who rarely, if ever, even go to confession.  These are the Orthodox Christians who believe, like Protestants, that the only person you need to confess to is God.  But that's laziness.  You don't think God already knows?  I think that the reason many Orthodox do not go to confession is simply because they don't want a punishment.  A penance is NOT punishment.  It may require work, but if you were actually punished in accord with the sins that you confess, what you got was NO punishment but a slap on the wrist at best or a talking-to at worst. Now, THAT is self-centered! I remember once that I was given a penance to say the Jesus Prayer ten times with prostrations. I thought, "That's it?"  My priest thought it was sufficient so I did it and added 10 more for good measure.  I probably didn't go far enough.  To be honest, I think confessing the sin is much harder and much more humbling than the repentance that follows.  Who is to say that St. Mary's repentance was "too much."  If we are going by a strict measure of meeting out punishment for crime, maybe it was.  But approaching it in such a juridical way undermines what repentance is supposed to be--a change of self.  For St. Mary, this rigid self-denial changed her from the person she was into the person she hoped to be.  Death to the person she was and reborn as the person she wanted to be.  Who is to say to what degree repentance should take?

Can this type of repentance lead to vainglory and boasting?  Sure, but so can anything.  Anything can be abused.  Liturgy can be abused; sermons can be abused; doing charitable works can be abused. Should we do away with everything lest it not be abused?  Maybe we should just kill ourselves so that we don't have the temptation to sin any more!  Of course, that's ludicrous.  I got into an argument with a pastor of the LCMS who is a friend of mine about how he made his congregation wipe off the ashes after Ash Wednesday services lest any of them be tempted to boast.  I objected in the strongest terms.  Rather than let the parishioners decide for themselves, he decided for them.  Part of the spiritual life is screwing up.  One of the things that we, as a society, have really done as a disservice to our kids is making sure that they cannot screw up, especially in school.  We can't let them receive failing grades so we give them retakes; we can't let them get a 0, so we give them more time to do the project; we can't let them have 10 times to make up a quiz, so we give them 20!  We cannot learn, if we do not fail.  And yes, even in repentance, there is the possibility of failing.  We are to get back up and try again.  I doubt all of St. Mary's repentance in the desert was perfect.  Though the text doesn't mention it, I'm sure there were times she threw up her arms and said "What's the point?"  Failure must accompany the spiritual life.  Vainglory and boasting are undesired but often do happen in the midst of the repentance.  But that should not mean that we rid ourselves of good works to prevent those.  Faith without good works is a DEAD faith, says St. James. 

Let's also consider briefly about whether this story took place. So what if it didn't?  I ask my students if the story of the Trojan War as told in the Iliad would be a better story or a worst story if the Trojan War actually happened.  Most of them respond that it doesn't really matter.  And it shouldn't.  Just because Star Wars never actually happened (remember, it takes place in the past) does not make it a better or a worse trilogy.  If St. Mary of Egypt never lived, the TRUTH of the story should not be obscured just because it never factually occurred. 

The ambivalence of many towards the reading of the Life of St. Mary and even towards St.Mary of Egypt herself reveals a lot about how Christianity is practiced today.  It reveals that too many self-professed Christians see it as too hard and too serious and too burdensome so its requirements have to be lessened and made less than encompassing of our whole life.  Repentance is a necessary component of the Christian life.  Both Jesus and St. John the Baptist begin their ministries with that one word: "Repent!"  Thank God, in the end, that our repentance is not dependent on salvation.  But that does not mean we rid ourselves of it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Conversation between Mary and the Archangel, Gabriel

Scene:  Nazareth
Time:  About 4:30
Dramatis personae:  Mary, a young, unwed though betrothed maiden who has spent the last 12 years of her life in service of the Lord;  Gabriel, an Archangel, Captain of the Heavenly Hosts, and messenger of the Most High God.

Gabriel (alone and thinking to himself):  How is it that He Who is in the highest and incomprehensible shall be born of a virgin?  He Whose throne is Heaven and earth His footstool, how shall He be contained in a woman's womb?  How was he pleased to be incarnate of her by a word only, He Whom the six-winged Seraphim and those of many eyes cannot gaze upon?  He who comes is the Word of God?  Why then do I hesitate, and not address the maiden as I was commanded, saying:  'Rejoice, O full of grace, the grace of the Lord is with thee?  Rejoice, O spotless Virgin!  Rejoice, O groomless bride!  Rejoice, O Mother of life; blessed is the fruit of your womb?'

Sees Mary in the courtyard and appears to her and speaks.

Gabriel:  Hail, Mary!  Full of Grace!  Rejoice, O unseeded land!  Rejoice, O burning bush!  Rejoice, O depth inaccessible to vision!  Rejoice, O bridge leading to he havens!  Rejoice, O lofty ladder whom Jacob did behold!  Rejoice, O jar of manna! Rejoice, O dissolution of the curse!  Rejoice, O recall of Adam!  The Lord is with you!

Mary:  Truly, you have appeared to me as a man.  Why then do you utter supernatural tings saying that God shall be with me and dwell in my womb?  Tell me, how am I, then, to become a spacious place of sanctification for Him, who rides on the cherubim?  Mislead me not with deceit; for I have known no pleasure and have not approached wedlock.  How, then, shall I give birth to a son?

Gabriel:  When God so wills, the order of nature is overcome, and that which is supernatural is accomplished.  Therefore, O all-pure and holy one, believe my words. 

Mary:  Let it be unto me as you have said and I will give birth to the Incorporeal One, Who shall take a body from me so that, by His union with mankind, He may raise man to the first rank since He alone is mighty.

--Adapted from the Stichera and Doxastikon of Psalm 140 of the Vespers of the Feast of Annunciation

One of the things I have always loved about Orthodox hymnography is how much of it is framed in a conversation between a saint and the Lord, or an angel and the Lord or a saint and an angel.  Did such conversations actually take place?  Maybe, maybe not. But that is hardly the point.  The truth contained in those conversations is what matters. 

We have to remember that in the ancient world, many of the "Speeches" and "dialogues" even found in the great historians like Thucydides, Xenophon, Herodotus, Caesar, Tacitus and Livy were invented by the authors themselves.  They were not invented to deceive but to give a dramatic flavor to the events they sought to describe to their respective audiences.  Such is the case with much Byzantine hymnography.  Whether or not the conversation really took place is to miss the point.   The aim is not to supplant the Scriptures or to suggest that they are deficient but to give a dramatic edge while at the same time proclaiming the Gospel.  

In this case, the good news is that Christ will be born a man from a virgin, taking on human flesh to unite God with Man because of the separation that exists between the two because of sin.  And what a perfect time to remind the faithful of this news, especially as we are in the midst of Lent and the desire to worship the Lord's coming to Golgatha for His Crucifixion, His entombment and His Resurrection on the third day grows each day as we wait eagerly with anticipation:  That God, having become Man, died and rose again, born in humility and poverty though announced splendidly by the chief captain of the Bodiless powers.  I needed to hear this today.  I would dare say we all do.   Happy feast, everyone!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

This video PROVES that you need not dumb down Liturgy for kids

Growing up in a Lutheran Church, one of the (many) things I could never wrap my mind around was the need for a special sermon for the young people present in the congregation.  More often than not, it seemed to be an excuse for kids to go up, holding hands with a sibling and for the congregation to go "aww" about how cute these kids are especially when they gave outrageous responses to the Pastor's questions as if we were watching "Kids say the darndest things!"  Usually this children's message was a paraphrased version of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel readings which would then be dialed up for the adults after the children were dismissed.  And again, there would be "ooing" and "awwing" as the kids went back to their pews.  (Disclaimer:  As a parent now, I probably should excuse the fawning over the kids going up.  They can be pretty darn cute as they do that).

In tandem with the children's message, which, I admit, I often derisively called the "babies' message" was the need to involve the young of the congregation with the worship and the liturgy.  So, there were moves to make sure that things were hip and trendy such as making a "worship ensemble" with drums, guitar, bass and lyrics that would make most pop artists blush. Sometimes, "special services" were created by the youth group with skits and up-tempo music.  I remember once that I committed a piece to this, but it was a four part arrangement for the words "Kyrie Eleison."  I also remember that there were some, especially among the adults, who balked at the addition of this saying that it wasn't keeping with the spirit of what they were trying to do.  I probably wouldn't have minded these things so much, but it always took place in the church itself.  I did not think that was the proper venue to perform plays.

Furthermore, I recall so many instances when, as a member of one of the youth groups, that we were encouraged to go to various "Christian Rock Concerts" so that we could learn more about our faith.  I remember going on camping trips (which were generally quite fun) and while getting there being subject to listen to Christian contemporary artists.  At this time in my life, I would listen to nothing but classical music and I failed to understand (and still do) how these CC artists could rival the artistry, the talent and the religiosity of someone like J.S. Bach! 

My church was not exceptional. I think every church, mainline Protestant or even Roman Catholic was doing something along those lines.  Everything had to be hip, trendy, cool or people won't come or want to come, especially kids.  And those kids had to be there or else it would die.

I'd like you to watch this video.  HT:  Pastor Peters at Pastoral Meanderings.  In it, you see two Russian youths who are around five or six years old essentially "playing at Liturgy."  They are recreating parts of what you may find at the Vigil.  They are censing (Notice what their "Censer" is made from), reading from a "Gospel" book and chanting Alleluia.  They are placing the holy oil on their mother's forehead all while she is chanting a Slavonic Hymn (don't know which one, though I recognize the melody and the other is the Troparion "O Lord, save Thy People"), they are kissing the hands of the "priest."  They are blessing with their hands in the correct posture, blessing with the "Gospel book", placing it reverently upon their "altar".  Notice even the "vestments" they designed and how they remove their hats (I don't know what the Russian version is called) at the appropriate times.  Simply, this is fantastic.  These kids were definitely paying attention.  Kudos should also go to their mother who probably took them to the vigils and the Divine Liturgy.  Kids do get it.  And if they start out that young, then they're probably going to be less likely to want to rid themselves of it. 

Thus, you church growth people out there, even in the Orthodox world, do not need to pander to the lowest common denominator.  Kids can and do get it. It doesn't need to be made simple or paraphrased for them.  Hold on to what you do and let the kids imitate them.  So, watch below and be amazed.  And, yes, it's even cute, too!