Archive for March, 2007

Reaching Holy Week

March 31, 2007


Holy Week has long been my favorite time of year. I remember coming to it rather slowly in my college years. My wife and I were active Episcopalians at the time (while in college we volunteered to be in charge of the junior youth group – some 60 teenagers – that qualifies as being “active”). For whatever reasons I had never paid much attention to Holy Week before. There was Palm Sunday and then there was Easter – Holy Week consisted of two interesting Sundays.

But in my first year of marriage, I recall going to a Maundy Thursday service (“Holy Thursday” in Orthodox parlance). The ritual action of stripping the sanctuary was deeply moving – and I remember hearing – really hearing for the first time the phrase in the Communion Service, “in the night in which He was betrayed…” It stayed with me for quite some time and left an impression that I had been missing a lot by not participating in the extra services of Holy Week.

In seminary years I served in a parish that had a very complete Anglo-Catholic Holy Week, and I continued that pattern throughout the years of my Anglican priesthood. I would not have thought at the time that much more could be done than I was doing. But such was my ignorance of Orthodox liturgical tradition.

Our Orthodox community, following the pattern of services that was handed down to us, has a pretty hefty set of Holy Week services – enough that I tend to think a lot about the physical exhaustion involved in worship. This morning (Lazarus Saturday) the service lasted three and one-half hours, which does not include the hour-and-a-half of preparation time that I put in before the service began (it’s almost impossible to get to Church before a service begins in Orthodoxy – there’s always some sort of service before the one you’re going to).

There will not be a morning or an evening without a service until we finally reach Pascha itself – exhausted with joy.

Throughout the week there will be verses from a hymn or some other small phrase that I’ll not have noticed before – that – like my Maundy Thursday experience of years ago – will redefine the day or take me somewhere I have not been before.

But foremost, it seems to me, is the effort itself. I think of St. Paul’s statement in Philippians:

Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul seems to have lived his life in a perpetual Holy Week – pressing forward – pushing past exhaustion – and reaching for Christ in a Pascha that reaches back and captures the soul for God. Nothing to be earned, but everything to be gained.

A Last Minute Word to Catechumens

March 30, 2007


“Are we really going to do this?”

Those were the words I greeted by dear wife with upon waking in our hotel room on February 15, 1998. We were in Columbia, SC, for the purpose of being received into the Orthodox Church by Father Peter Smith (then Rector of Holy Apostles in Columbia). Along with us were our four children, the oldest being 17 and the youngest age 7. This day that we had discussed and fantasized about for the whole of that decade was now upon us.

I had left the Episcopal Church; formally and voluntarily renounced my holy orders (it seemed the gentleman’s way of leaving) accepted a job as a Hospice Chaplain, and were now to be received into the Church. The week before was my last Sunday as an Episcopal priest. I had said my last Mass, preached my farewell sermon, and cried with many friends whom I knew I would be leaving.

As for catechumenate: my spiritual father later told me that it would have been better had we spent a few months as catechumens before being received into the Church. But such was not the case. The directive from the Archbishop to Father Peter was: “Chrismate them now. They’ve waited long enough!” Added to that was his request that I immediately accept the position as lay pastor for the newly founded OCA mission in the Knoxville, TN area. I had no idea what I was saying yes to. Nor have I ever looked back.

My wife’s answer that Sunday morning (accompanied by a groan) was, “Yes, we’re really going to do this.” As if I thought there could be any other answer. Given what I’ve seen since, I am deeply grateful that we were actually intact as a family, all reasonably healthy (no bugs, no infections) and together in Columbia for the day.

We were received. When our youngest, Clare, read the oath, “This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen,” her voice rang clear and pure. She was a good reader and did not stumble in the least – either over the difficulty of some words, much less the boldness of what she was saying. You could hear the echo of the many child martyrs the Church has known through the ages. Somehow all of us felt embarrassed by the purity and sincerity of her words – purity that older men and women rarely have any longer.

I was overwhelmed by the day and in many ways still feel overwhelmed. The 17 and 15 year olds are now married to priests, and will put their oath to the test far more than they could have imagined on that day.

The child of 7 is now 16, driving her own car, but it’s in the parking lot of the Church every Sunday and a number of other times. She knows who she is and what she promised.

And I am now a man heading to his mid-fifties. I have a congregation and a parish I could not have imagined on that day.

None of us can know the fullness of what we promise as we say, “Yes!” to God and to His Church. But what I know for a truth is that the fullness that is given to us is nothing less than God Himself. That is both staggering and renewing. To this day I feel like David in King Saul’s armor: far too small for the task set before me.

Tomorrow I will take my place and Baptize and Chrismate others. None of them can know yet the fullness that lies before them, because there are not words to describe it. But I know it to be the fullness that “filleth all in all.” My prayer is that God keep safe all the catechumens around the globe this week. Preserve them from harm, from doubt, from fear or alarm. Coming home is not a fearful thing – it is the thing we were all created for.

So that Sunday morning in 1998, I did what my wife told me: I got out of bed, put on my pants and shirt and headed home to Church.

The Incarnation: Cause of All Things Made, And Caused by None

March 29, 2007


The title of this post is a chapter heading in George Gabriel’s Mary the Untrodden Portal of God. Gabriel occasionally strikes hard at the West and the book would perhaps be strengthened with a less combative approach to the differences of East and West in the faith (my own opinion), but I liked the book and found Gabriel addressing many things, well foot-noted, that are not found in many other places. I share an excerpt.

From eternity, God provided for a communion with His creation that would remain forever. In that communion mankind would attain to the eternal theosis for which it was made. The communion, of course, is the Incarnation through the Ever-Virgin. Mankind’s existence and, therefore, that of all creation is inexorably tied to Mary because she was always to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word. The fathers say that neither the course of human events nor necessity of any kind forced the Uncreated One to join to Himself a creaturely mode of existence. God did not become flesh because some actions of the devil or of man made it necessary, but because it was the divine plan and mystery from before the ages. Despite the works of Satan and the coming of sin into the world, the eternal will of God was undeterred, and it moved forward.

History and the course of human events were the occasion and not the cause of the Incarnation. The Incarnation did not take place for the Crucifixion; the Crucifixion took place so the Incarnation and the eternal communion of God and man could be fulfilled despite Satan, sin, and death. Explaining that there was no necessity in God the Father that required the death of His Son, St. Gregory the Theologian says of the Father “neither asked for Him nor demanded Him, but accepts [His death] on account of the economy [of the Incarnation] and because mankind must be sanctified by the humanity of God.” St. Gregory is telling us that, from before the ages, it was the divine will for mankind to be sanctified and made immortal by communion with the humanity of the Incarnate God, but corruptibility and death came and stood in the way.  By His Passion and Resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed these obstacles and saved, that is, preserved, mankind for the Incarnation’s eternal communion of the God-Man and immortal men. St. John of Damascus repreats the same idea that the Incarnation is a prior and indeed ontological purpose in itself, and that redemption is the means to that end. Thus, he says the Holy Virgin “came to serve in the salvation of the world so that the ancient will of God for the Incarnation of the Word and our own theosis may be fulfilled through her.”

It seems worthwhile to me, for us to meditate on the fullness of our salvation which is to be accomplished in God’s great Pascha. Indeed, it seems to me that everything always was about Pascha – the “Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 12:8) We are approaching the end of all things – and, I should add, their beginning as well.

That You May not Grieve as Others Do Who Have No Hope

March 29, 2007


Most of the services and words of Holy Week are the ones I expect – I’ve heard them before and though something will leap out at me as though I had never heard it (this always happens), I still feel somewhat secure that I know what is coming.

In the Orthodox calendar, Holy Week begins on Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday. The services bear some similarity, as is appropriate, to those of Christ’s resurrection. The raising of Lazarus is a foretaste, a promise of what is to come in Pascha, and a reminded that Pascha includes us all.

I have always been struck by the story of the raising of Lazarus, if only because in that story we are told, “Jesus wept.” There is a profound sense that he has sanctified grief by taking it on Himself. He wept as anyone would at the death of a friend, even though He knows that He is shortly to raise Him from the dead.

We ourselves lay our family and friends to rest believing that they, too, will be raised from the dead, and yet, like Christ, we weep.

I was caught off-guard last night at our service of the Presanctified Gifts. My thoughts of Lazarus Saturday were several days away, also intertwined with the fact that we are receiving 15 new members into the Church. But my mind was not on Lazarus. But the services of the Church are vigilant and remember what we would not yet contemplate. One of the verses sung by the choir said this:

Now Lazarus has been in the tomb two days, seeing the dead of all the ages, beholding strange sights of terror: countless multitudes bound by the chains of hell. His sisters weep bitterly as they gaze at his tomb, but Christ is coming to bring His friend to life, to implement in this one man His plan for all. Blessed art Thou, O Savior, have mercy on us!

It struck me that this is where we live most of our days. Not at Lazarus Saturday, at the General Resurrection of the dead, but two days out, while those we love seem lost to us and Christ seems no where to be found. But He is somewhere to be found, and He has a precise intention regarding his friend Lazarus. Christ does not close Himself off from the natural grief of human beings, but He does not grieve as one who has no hope. He is our hope and the assurance of our own resurrection and of those we love.

Two days in the tomb is a hard place to live. But as St. Paul reminds us in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” For we do have hope.

As St. Paul will say to the Hebrews: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:19-20). We may be waiting with Lazarus – two days out – but we have a great hope – the greatest of hopes. We have Jesus who will not leave us to grieve as those who have no hope.

The Boundary of Death

March 27, 2007


Having spent two-and-a-half years as a Hospice Chaplain, I had opportunity to be present to over 200 deaths (that does not include the many I have witnessed in my years in ordained ministry. As you sit with someone who is dying, there finally arises a boundary beyond which you cannot go: death itself. I can pray for the “departure of the soul from the body” (the priestly service done at the time of death in Orthodoxy), and I can pray and even know the fellowship of the saints and the departed.

Christ told His disciples, “Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come. Then said the Jews among themselves, “Whither will he go, that we shall not find him?”

Christ has been where we have not and entered where we cannot yet go.

The experience of death, and the boundary it represents, also hides from us a reality we can only know by faith. And, according to Scripture, it is probably the greatest occasion for fear.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he[Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

I sometimes think that most fears are really about death on some level. The loss of power over our own lives that we frequently imagine to be true during our healthy years. It is admitting this powerlessness that is inevitably the case that gives us pause, and engenders fear.

I had a cousin, about a year older than myself. She was diagnosed with Childhood Onset Rheumatoid Arthritis (a very virulent form of the disease) when she was only ten. In the summer I used to go and stay a week or two with her family near the South Carolina mountains to be company for her. We gained a closeness that never seemed to leave the relationship over the years. She was among the most honest people I’ve ever known.

I recall talking to her in the months before she died  (it was becoming apparent that this was the case), we were both in our forties. In the conversation the subject of faith, God, heaven, etc. came up. She spoke with great tenderness about God. I remember asking her, “How is that you’ve been in pain and crippled for the 35 years and yet speak so kindly of God?”

Her answer was very enlightening.

“I haven’t always felt this way about God,” she said. “There was a time when I would wake up in the morning and curse God.” But then her voice lowered and she added meekly, “That was before I knew He was good.”

It is among the greatest professions of faith I have every heard.

To stand at the boundary of life and death, and to stand without fear, we must know that there is a good God. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles someone says of Aslan, “He’s not a tame lion, but He’s good.”

This is the fear of death: that goodness does not win in the end. I believe it therefore to be utterly necessary in the preaching of the gospel to remind people again and again, “He is a good God and loves mankind” (the words of the traditional Orthodox dismissal).

In is only in Christ, finally, that we have the perfect image of the perfect God and can say, based on that revelation, “He is good.” I rejoice in that goodness, and pray to know more each day as we journey to Pascha and beyond.

In Accordance with the Scriptures – Part 2

March 27, 2007


Another candidate for consideration within the New Testament (particularly the New Testament as Interpretation) is the Johanine Corpus, the writings of St. John.  I am particularly intruiged by its development of a theology of “glory.” Glory is not new to the Jewish Community. The glory of God inhabits (or once inhabited) the Temple. I would grant, in a mood of generosity, that early Christians might describe Christ as “glorified.” What becomes utterly astounding in St. John’s writings is the identification between glorification and crucifixion. There is not a logical step between one and the other, and yet it is there. In the 13th chapter in particular, Christ’s glorification and crucifixion are synonymous.

It is one thing for us to make that observation this many centuries along, but to say such a thing within the first century itself is an amazing leap! There is a radical reinterpretation of terms. This very paradoxical quality seems to be the hallmark of all of the teachings of Christ as we have received them in the canon of the New Testament. The first are last; the last are first. Love of enemy. Lose yourself to find yourself. On and on the list goes. And here, in its most extreme form is His glory which is nothing other than His crucifixion.

Admittedly there are the “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah with which we have become familiar. Their reading automatically echoes with sounds of Handel’s Messiah in our heads. But when we speak of the first century it is not a suffering servant that came to mind with the idea of a Messiah. Even after the resurrection the disciples are largely clueless, asking, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

It is the development (which again I can only posit as originating with Christ Himself) of a radical hermeneutic, an interpretation of the Scriptures in which the story is no longer the conquering of Rome, or Egypt or any other worldly entity, but the conquering of Death and Hades, and that through the paradoxical means of weakness and death. This is new and it carries with it not only that stirring climax of resurrection, it also has an ethic that is of a piece with this same action.

It is not just Christ who loves His enemies – now we are to do the same. It is not only Christ who takes up His cross, but we must do the same if we are to be His followers.

This is not the evolution of the Christian gospel over the centuries, but the gospel as it has been heard from the beginning. The Orthodox faith has not moved from this interpretation other than to push deeper into its life and implications.

This is not an evolved faith – but a teaching which shows every hallmark of what is claimed – this teaching was handed down to us from God.

The Grace of Repentance

March 26, 2007


From Archimandrite Sophrony’s On Prayer

There, on the Holy Mountain, my life found its right track. Almost every day after the Liturgy I knew a feeling of Easter joy.And strange as it may seem, my constant prayer like some volcanic eruption proceeded from the profound despair that ahd taken over my heart. Two seemingly totally incompatible states met together in me. I am recording facts. I did not understand myself what was happeing to me. Outwardly I was no less fortunate than most people.

Later, things became clear to me: The Lord had granted me the grace of repentance. Tes, it was a grace. The moment despair slackened, prayer cooled off and death would invade my heart. Through repentance, my being expanded until in spirit I touch upon both hell and the Kingdom…

The heart is such a strange thing – well revealed by the great Elder’s writings. To be both in a place of despair and yet in a place of prayer. It is why “technique” has so little place in the spiritual life. There are things we can do, and yet all that we do is and must be in relation to God. God is not an object or any such thing. He cannot be found by technique. Christ offers the simple formula: ‘ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).

The answer to the human heart is to be found in a relationship that is personal, a relationship that is marked by freedom and love. Strangely, we cannot change the heart by our own actions, but only by the gift of God. Thus we pray and thus we wait – ’til He have mercy.

In this sense the goal of the human life is a state of constant repentance – again, not that we can repent as an action of our own. Repentance is the state of the heart when it is in communion with God. This is the reason that Orthodox spiritual writings place such great store in the “gift of tears,” and similar attitudes of heart. It is, in my opinion, why Orthodox spiritual writings are not overwhelmingly concerned with issues of social justice and the like. One ought to do justice, with this there is no disagreement. But it may also be the case that the difficulties one encounters in life is itself are the very occasions in which repentance is born. It is a recognition that were every “wrong” set “right” the primary issue of our existence would still be unaddressed.

Nothing could bear witness to this better than the life of modern man. We enjoy a better “quality” of life than any generation previous to us, and yet that “quality” is somehow not the meaning of our life.

Thus asceticism, in which voluntarily make our lives more difficult, is seen as an utterly necessary part of our spiritual being. It may not necessarily be the “hell” which Archimandrite Sophrony writes about, but there is still the reality of true asceticism. There can be no Christian life that does not embrace the Cross, and by this is meant as well a life that is shaped by the taking up of the Cross.

In Accordance with the Scriptures

March 25, 2007


This short phrase, “in accordance with the Scriptures,” occurs rather politely in the course of the Nicene Creed. It does not mean that what is described is described “according to the Scriptures,” that is, in a literal sense, but rather that these matters – on the third day rose again from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures, are matters that happened in fulfillment of the Scriptures themselves. It is, first off, a reference to the Old Testament, and an affirmation that the ministry of Christ and His Passion and Resurrection are indeed the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Thus, this is a hermeneutical statement, a claim about how the Scriptures are to be interpreted.

It is interesting that the phrase is found within the New Testament itself, particularly in St. Paul’s recitation of Christian tradition in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. There we are told:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures (vs. 3-4).

I would argue (and be far from alone) that what we have here is St. Paul’s recitation of Tradition (parodosis in the Greek, which is the word he uses), and that the Traditional statement of Christ’s death and resurrection are themselves part of an early “Apostolic Creed,” or the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” as St. Irenaeus would later describe it. This “Hypothesis” is a general framework of understanding of Christ’s ministry and meaning by which and through which the Scriptures (Old Testament) are to be read.

Thus from the beginning the early Christian community was making a particular claim concerning the interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures (as we would now refer to them). This, of course, is no different than the statement Christ makes in St. John’s gospel, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). Christ is not only asserting His messiahship, but also His peculiar relationship with the Scriptures: “they bear witness to me.”

Now on a literal level this can be somewhat problematic. For instance, the resurrection “on the third day” is no where referenced other than in the oblique imagery of the prophet Jonah’s deliverance from the belly of the whale. But it would appear that this is precisely the reference Christ had in mind (“the sign of the prophet Jonah” in Matthew 12:40).

I had a recent internet conversation about the “historical” claims of the Church. I have asserted here and elsewhere that the Orthodox Church is indeed the Church founded by Christ (there are early schisms, such as the non-Chalcedonians, that I do not necessarily mean to exclude from this historic claim.) What I was confronted with in that conversation was the question of just how uniform the early Church might have been. Is it correct to speak of the Orthodox Church in the first century and not rather to speak of various local churches, some more like one another and some less like others?

Of course history is always problematic. There are no time machines that allow us to go back and make surveys and the like. We are always left speaking about what is most likely or what we believe to be true based on the evidence, etc.

Interestingly, for me, the overwhelming historical evidence of the Orthodox Church’s identity with the first century Church is to be found precisely in that phrase, “In accordance with the Scriptures.”

Gnostics certainly produced Scriptures, but in no way do those Scriptures have any affinity with the “Apostolic Hypothesis” described by St. Irenaeus, which I think can easily be argued to be itself Apostolic in origin and content. Indeed, St. Paul’s citing “paradosis” argues that the Apostolic Hypothesis (Creed, if you will) is older than the New Testament. I can think of nothing that presents earlier evidence of a common faith within the Christian community than such a “Hypothesis.”

Beyond that, stretching out from the New Testament forward, this framework of the Gospel continues to interpret the Scriptures. Within a very short span of time very mature interpretive frameworks can be found in St. Paul and St. John which will continue to be augmented though not changed as centuries go forward. There are no other candidates in the historical mix of the first century or so that have such a full Scriptural life. Heaven knows the Gnostics have all kinds of ideas, but nothing that seriously engages the material of the Old Testament, and certainly nothing that represents an alternative hypothesis of interpretation.

I believe that early statements, such as St. Paul’s simple declaration, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” are so deeply rooted in the Apostolic matrix that you cannot simply leap from some “Christ Event” we are not sure about to such a full-blown interpretive statement except that you accept that such interpretation goes back to Christ Himself and the Church instructed during the time of His resurrection appearances.

Many statements (such as Christ being the Passover Lamb) are all too easily glanced over without stopping to realize how utterly profound they are as interpretations. This same kind of thing happens repeatedly in the New Testament in Gospels and Epistles. The New Testament is an interpretive event itself that is utterly Orthodox in its conception and teaching. And it is in the Orthodox Catholic Church that this same interpretation continues as the centuries move forward – and there alone.

The rich hymnographic material that comprises the bulk of Orthodox services is itself part of a continuing interpretive life. The Church thus worships in accordance with the Scriptures. I can think of no other candidate with which to compare the interpretive community of the primitive Orthodox Church.

I may be somewhat conservative in my reading of Church history, but I have yet to see anything that would make me read it otherwise. The Orthodox Catholic Church was founded by Christ as witnessed in its unique interpretive life. For this, there was no early competition.

And the Word Became Flesh

March 24, 2007


Revealing to you the pre-eternal counsel,

Gabriel came and stood before you, O Maiden,

and in greeting said:

“Rejoice, earth that has not been sown!

Rejoice, burning bush that remains unconsumed!

Rejoice, unsearchable depth!

Rejoice, bridge that leads to Heaven!

Rejoice, ladder raised on high that Jacob saw!

Rejoice, divine jar of manna!

Rejoice, deliverance from the curse!

Rejoice, restoration of Adam;

the Lord is with you!”

From the Vesperal Stichera of the Vigil of the Annunciation

Whither the Episcopal Church?

March 23, 2007


Retired Bishop Wantland of Eau Claire’s statement, in response to the recent rejection by the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops of the demands by the other Primates of the Anglican Communion is staggering:

The Episcopal Church is no longer a Catholic body. It is no longer even a Christian one. Itis simply an embodiment of a corrupt, historically inaccurate, spirit of this age. And if the Anglican Communion does not see the Episcopal Church for what it really is, even that Communion will be on its way to be a miserable footnote in Christian history.

That is more than any Orthodox speaker had to say at the recent conference on Orthodoxy for Anglicans. Kindness prevented such a statement – but it is deeply disturbing if it is indeed the case. Pray for Anglican brothers and sisters.