Archive for February, 2007

The Lenten Eucharist

February 22, 2007


There can be little surprise that on the Sundays in Lent the Liturgy of St. Basil is used. It’s longer than St. John Chrysostom’s, and that alone is reason enough to use it during Lent. It is also “deeper” if I can dare to say such a thing. There’s just more doctrine in St. Basil’s Liturgy than in Chrysostom’s, mind you, not much, but more. In good Orthodox parlance, I might say it’s “fuller.”

Lenten services tend to be longer, and they’re meant to be. They tend to be more sober, and they’re meant to be. There are more of them – at least in the normal parish.

But alone in the Christian world is the Eastern Church’s practice of not celebrating the Eucharist on the weekdays of Lent. It’s a sort of fast all its own. Not that we don’t receive communion during the week. No, extra devotion means the need for even greater grace, so that an Orthodox Christian ought to receive communion yet more often during Lent.

But the peculiarity of the Eastern Church is the use of the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Dialogist (a.k.a. “Gregory the Great” in the West), the liturgy that is most commonly known as “The Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts.” It is just what the name implies. We receive communion on certain weekdays (usually Wednesday and Friday) from the “reserved” sacrament as the West would call it – but known in the East as the “Pre-sanctified Gifts.”

It is a “Lamb,” consecrated on the previous Sunday along with the Sunday Eucharist, and intincted with the Blood of Christ. It remains in an artophorion (Bread Box) on the altar until the service of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts. No particular devotion is shown (not in the sense of the service of the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament). The Orthodox believe the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ, but the most common devotion shown to it is to eat it and drink it, rather than carry it about and look at it.

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts a slight exception to this. After the Vespers portion of the service (it is and was traditionally served in the evening), and a number of prayers and readings from Scripture, the Body and Blood are brought forth from the altar, veiled, and carried with lighted candle and incense from the table where it has been prepared, out into the congregation and into the altar through the Royal Doors. And this is in complete silence, while the congregation has heads bowed to the floor.

There is reverence and devotion, but here the service is not visual, but almost tactile. Often the silence is profound, and the slight shuffle of the priest give the only signal that God is being borne uplifted and into the altar. It is a devotion, perhaps to the Sacrament (a Westerner would be quick to point out) but one which feels more like devotion to God (though He is indeed sacramentally present). He is not seen in this process – but He is profoundly felt, a presence moving through the dimly lit Church and to the place from which He will be fed to us all.

My common thoughts have been on the Crucified Christ during these services – not that there is any particular mention of that – but the solemnity reminds me as much of the services of Holy Week as anything.

And then my thoughts go on to think of the Crucified Christ now feeding me. Even in His death He is Life.

If I remember my studies some years back, the pre-sanctified gifts came as something of an answer to Nestorianism – which, at its worst, sought to make a great distinction between the Divine and Human in Christ. In these Pre-sanctified gifts the Holy Union of God and Man is emphasized. Once united, never divided. Once consecrated, the Holy Gifts remain consecrated. My thoughts rarely go there – Nestorianism is not my particular temptation.

That God is with us, every day of this Lenten journey, even in the fullness of His Body and Blood – this I need to know and to hear.

Help me, dear Christ, not to stumble or fall.

Lent in the South

February 21, 2007


One of the hallmarks of my generation in the South is that we never grew up without a great deal of attention to God. Whether it was the absolute assurance in the sermons of preachers who could say with some precision who was going where when they died, or even with assurance describe heaven, or the far more mundane mutterings of public figures giving lip-service to the God in Whom we believed. I have mentioned before that I am grateful for the fact that in my childhood, memorizing Psalms in public school was considered normal.

What was missing, strangely, was God Himself. There was a mystical South, to be sure. Pentecostalism was thriving (in my childhood it was almost completely confined to Mill Villages), and you could hear stories of people jumping in and out of windows at Church and many other sorts of wild things that may never have happened.

What was missing was any sense of a quiet, deep knowledge of the Living God, garnered over a life-time of prayer and repentance. I’m sure it existed – but not anywhere you could notice. To read Flannery O’Connor is to engage in some level of self-recognition for many of us in my Southern generation. We love her writings, but wince at some passages that tell more of the truth than any of us would like to see. “Tell it not in Gath” (2 Samuel 1:20).

The discovery by some of the historic Church (whether Catholic or Anglican) was the discovery of a different world, with tales of saints and heroes that bore no resemblance to the experience we had known as children. I recall being in high school before I ever heard the phrase, “Giving up something for Lent.” Living in a household that was not of a single religious mind, I don’t remember ever giving up anything for Lent.

In seminary (Anglican) I once gave up anger for Lent. It’s the hardest fast I’ve ever kept.

What strikes me the most in my Orthodox life are the stories of many saints, living and departed, who (particularly in our modern world) came from atheism into Orthodoxy. In Russia, the more common term for a Christian is simply, “Believer.” And this is as it should be.

Our default position within modern America is some form of atheistic or agnostic materialism. On a bad day, we barely believe in God but remain utterly convinced of the power of the market and the engine of industry.

Lent comes to take on even greater importance in such a setting – for we are not only seeking to repent – we seek to believe. And Lent makes it clear that the two are not separate things but mutually interdependent. Without repentance, there can be no belief in the God Who Is. To know God – to actually know Him – repentance is indispensable. Only a broken and contrite heart can know God.

There are many things that break our hearts, and many others that bring us to the point of contrition. But often these very crushing blows drive us only deeper into ourselves and despair. Thus the need of Great Lent.

To be broken by grace and crushed by the hand of God is far kinder than the treatment we receive from the world. To take up the Church’s Way of Life during Lent, and to lean into it, will always put us on a path towards brokenness and contrition. But there is a world of difference between the brokenness and contrition that comes as the gift of grace and the brutality of the world’s humiliation.

St. Paul said, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). To fast and pray, to give alms and show mercy, for the sake of knowing God is to take up a cross of “godly grief” and the fruit it bears in our life is salvation itself. The grief of the world can be submitted to God and become a godly grief, at least in my experience I have found it so.

But whatever we do in Lent, we should be looking for God. There is no other purpose to our existence than fellowship with God and with His creation. We simply need to take up the journey that follows that path.

Of course, this journey is not peculiar to the South: it is simply new for many.

For Southerners, and others who may be fans of Flannery O’Connor, I recommend an article by my dear friend, Fr. Paul Yerger. I first heard it at an assembly in Dallas and find it good to reread now and again. It may be found here.

Lenten Thoughts

February 21, 2007


I recommend a short paragraph by Ian Dalrymple over at his site The Scrivener. Good thoughts. Today we labor under cloudy skies and thunderstorms. Sure signs in Tennessee that Spring will be not far away. I have no idea what happened with the groundhog. But it will surely be a very beautiful Pascha this year.

All Things Were Created For Him

February 20, 2007


St. Paul makes the remarkable statement in Colossians: “For all things were created through Him and for Him.” This remarkable statement gives rise to a later even more remarkable statement by St. Maximus the Confessor: “The incarnation is the cause of everything.”

This statement takes the “all things were created for Him and sees it applying to the incarnation itself, rather than to Christ as some eschatological point. In truth, the incarnation itself is eschatological. It certainly occurred in History, but because of Who Christ is, everything He does is done by the Alpha and the Omega. Christ Himself is the eschaton regardless of the setting. Indeed, His presence in any setting changes that setting into an eschatological confrontation.

Christ doesn’t just appear at a wedding in Cana and the wedding not take on overtones of the Messianic Banquet, the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. And though He was not choosing that moment to reveal the eschatological nature of Himself, He nevertheless did so at the urging of His Mother.

This, of course, brings us to the other conclusion of the statement, “The incarnation is the cause of all things.” The incarnation, of course, is not simply God putting on humanity, as if there were a spare human suit laying around that He could slip on and zip up (I mean no disrespect). But the incarnation always implies the only other one who is directly involved, i.e., His mother.

Thus it is that in some Eastern Church hymns we hear wild statements and epithets such as, “Co-cause,” attributed to Mary. This is not attributed to her because of some uniqueness of her identity alone, but because she stood at a moment in time, utterly united, bone to bone, flesh to flesh, with the One who is the Cause of all things.

Such thoughts are lofty, I readily admit, and I take no credit for them. These are the thoughts and teachings of the Fathers and among the most mystical of them all.

And yet as we take on this labor of Lent, we must look at the Biblical model (the incarnation is a Biblical model par excellence).  Mary is there at the incarnation of the Word, and herself becomes a part of that incarnation: “incarnate of the Virgin Mary and Holy Spirit….”

So, too, must we walk in such a union as we struggle through Lent, because there is nothing within us that by itself would please God. Just as when we say “Son of God” we imply another (“the Father”), so, too, when we say “created in His image,” our existence has no meaning apart from the One in whose image we were created, and predestined to be conformed to. There therefore can be no laboring towards Christ that is not Christ’s labor as well.

So what labor do we perform?

We fast – He fasted.

We repent – He submitted to Baptism

We pray – He prayed.

We give alms – He showed mercy to all.

And more than this, we do all these things not merely of ourselves, but by Christ, through Christ and in Christ. So that He can say to us, “Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these my brethren you did it unto Me.”

In His Church, Christ carries us back on the journey to Golgotha, for it is there that all things will be accomplished. It is only by sharing in His death (as in Baptism) that we find a means of sharing in His life. Thus Lent becomes an extended Baptism of sorts. Indeed, the Fathers referred to repentance itself as a “second Baptism.”

We journey to the only place where we can have the mind of Christ:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

With every day’s step, let that mind become ours! ‘Til at last we reach the One who is the Cause of all things.

St. John Chrysostom on Fasting

February 20, 2007

The following text comes from’s Great Lent 2003 (a CD I purchased), though the text is from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 9. As we begin the fast I can think of no better passage in the Fathers for our consideration.


By St John Chrysostom

From Concerning the Statues, Excerpts from Homily III

I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins too.

For the nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. “For the wrestler,” it is said, “is not crowned unless he strive lawfully.”

To the end then, that when we have gone through the labor of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, but afterwards went down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting.

The Publican fasted not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted; in order that thou mayest learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it.

The Ninevites fasted, and won the favor of God.

The Jews fasted too, and profited nothing, nay they departed with blame.

Since then the danger in fasting is so great to those who do not know how they ought to fast, we should learn the laws of this exercise, in order that we may not “run uncertainly,” nor “beat the air,” nor while we are fighting contend with a shadow.

Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine, though it be never so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskillfulness of him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the temperament of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of the year; and the corresponding diet; as well as various other particulars; any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named.

Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part, much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular with the utmost accuracy.

I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting; for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it.

Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works!

Is it said by what kind of works?

If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him!

If thou seest an enemy, be reconciled to him!

If thou seest a friend gaining honor, envy him not!

If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by!

For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice.

Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles.

Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties.

For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting.

For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes.

Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says.

From The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 9.

If You Want to Read Some Basic Zizioulas

February 19, 2007


The name of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) came up in discussion on one of the other threads. He is well known in the West for his book Being as Communion, which is a difficult read. There is, however, a remarkable resource available in English from his lectures at the University of Thessaloniki. I would commend it to anyone who is a serious student of theology and wanted to form an opinion of Zizioulas’ work beyond the one work available in English. The site is available here.

The Difficulty of Lent

February 19, 2007


Great Lent is one of the most important spiritual undertakings in the course of the Orthodox Church year. There is nothing unusual asked of us, nothing that we do not do the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do all of them with greater intensity and frequency and the Church’s contextualization of the season drives its points further and deeper.

Of course, repentance is at its heart. I there I think mostly of St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1-3:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.

No other single passage seems to catch as many aspects of the Lenten life (and thus daily life all the time). Our bodies become “a living sacrifice.” I can only wonder which sacrifice St. Paul might have had in mind (there were many different ones in the Old Testament). Or it may be that the sacrifice of Christ is now the dominant image for him. But our bodies, now “crucified” with Christ are offered up and described as “spiritual worship”  logikh.n latrein

 To offer our bodies as a sacrifice, through fasting and prayer, is itself lifted up to the level of worship, and interestingly our “logike” worship (“spiritual” really is more accurate than “reasonable” as some render it). It is a struggle to fast, to present a “living” sacrifice. This is so much more than a “one time” offering – but stretches through the days and nights of this great season.

He then admonishes us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (nous) which could easily be rendered “heart.” Fr. John Behr describes the passions, in his The Mystery of Christ, as “false perceptions,” our own misunderstanding of the body and its natural desires. Thus renewing our minds is an inner change in our perception of our self and our desires, or in the words of St. Irenaeus (quoted frequently by Behr) “the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of human beings.”

And I find it finally of most importance, that St. Paul concludes this small admonition by pointing us towards humility (as he will the Philippians in that epistle 2:5-11). It is in embracing the cross of Christ, in emptying ourselves towards God and towards others that our true self is to be found. We cannot look within ourselves to find our true selves. “For he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Rather it is found when we turn to the other and pour ourselves out towards them. I find myself by losing myself in the beloved. This is the love that makes all things possible for us.

But, of course, all that having been said, Lent is difficult. It is difficult because it is the straight and narrow way of the gospel – nothing more. Thus we can only say again and again, “Lord, have mercy!”

If You Love Dostoevsky

February 18, 2007


If you love Dostoevsky as I do, then you must read this article (actually a lecture) by Donald Sheehan. That’s his picture (which made me want to read the article in the first place – sort of ZZ Tops and Dosteoevsky) Forgive me. But it is exquisite. His own story and Memory Eternal is worth whatever time you give it.

It’s hard to read too much Dostoevsky.

To Forgive is Divine

February 18, 2007


One of the more important verses in the New Testament, it seems to me, is Christ statement, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). I have noticed that there are some side discussions that some of my comments have been used in on the subject of “synergism” vs. “monergism,” which is not a debate I wish to take part in (I don’t think debates serve much of a Godly purpose), and often we press things in a scholastic manner in which we wish to categorize what could be just as well remained uncategorized. Getting your categories right will not improve your soul’s state in any measure whatsoever, and may, indeed, do it great harm. Of course, my own approach to any such question is simply be to find out if the Church has a particular teaching on the matter. If it does, that is what I believe. If it does not, then I probably don’t need to have an opinion in the matter.

Having said that, I will add that I do think it worthwhile to give thought to what I would call the more “existential” questions of our salvation. I noted in an earlier post that though we are commanded to repent and commanded to forgive, we sometimes find it impossible to do either. I would not deny that when finally we do repent and when finally we do forgive (as the grace of God makes possible) it is still I who forgive and I who repent, not someone else. Surely I am involved in it. Again, I’m not sure how to analyze that, nor do I really care.

What matters to me is that I am commanded to do some things that are sometimes impossible, as far as I can see at that moment. And this is significant. It makes me think of Christ’s question to his disciples, “Will you leave me, too?” and their reply, “Where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It simply is the case that we find ourselves occasionally brought up against an impossible wall. It is then that we do well to remember that “with God all things are possible.”

The image I used earlier was of a young man lying at the gate of a monastery for days until he was finally admitted. By the same token, we should cast ourselves before God until the gates are opened. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Of course these things are the gift of God, or such prayers would be meaningless.

But our Orthodox faith teaches not a righteousness that is merely “imputed,” but a true change of who we are. Our salvation is real in every possible manner. Thus a new heart is created within me and a right spirit established within me. And this goes on time and again over the course of my Christian life.

Today we marked the beginning of Lent with the Vespers of Forgiveness. For some it may have been an easy matter, for others quite difficult. For some, even, an impossible event. But with God all things are possible.

As one of the Fathers said, “Man is dust who has been commanded to become God.”

To forgive others is indeed to be like God – but being commanded is not always enough within itself. I am reminded of the Orthodox prayer that says, “Save me whether I want it or not!” This is simply another way of saying, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

Far greater than solving the proper parsing of our salvation, is to forgive one another. The first will not likely be included on our finals. The other is our finals.

That One Must Be Watchful Not to Judge Anyone

February 17, 2007


From the Wisdom of the Desert Fathers.

In a monastery there were two remarkable brothers who soon merited to see the grace of God descend upon each other. Now one day it happened that one of them went out of the monastery on a Friday and saw someone who was eating in the morning, and he said to him, ‘Why are you eating at this hour on a Friday?’ Later there was the synaxis [assembly] as usual. Now his brother saw that grace had withdrawn from him, and he was grieved. When they had returned to the cell he said to him, ‘My brother, what have you done? Indeed, I do not see the grace of God upon you as it used to be.’ The other answered him, ‘I am not aware of having done anything wrong, either in act or in thought.’ His brother said to him, ‘Have you spoken any words?’ Then he remembered and said, ‘Yesterday I saw someone who was eating outside the monastery early in the day, and I said to him, ‘Why are you eating at this hour on a Friday?’ This is my sin. But labor with me for two weeks, praying God to forgive me.’ They did this, and at the end of two weeks one brother saw the grace of God come upon the other and they were comforted and gave thanks to God.