Archive for April, 2009

Christos Voskrese

April 18, 2009

This delightful youtube video was posted a year ago. One of our readers and occasional commenter,  Dejan, (without a doubt my favorite Serb) provided the English translation.  The words are from a poem by St. Nikolai Velimirovich who served for a time as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s Seminary – truly one of the great Serbian saints of the modern era. 


People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mountains sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow*, animals roar:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to You God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Letter from Butyrskaya Prison – Pascha 1928

April 18, 2009

sergeschmemannSerge Schmemann, son of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his wonderful little book, Echoes of a Native Land, records a letter written from one of his family members of an earlier generation, who spent several years in the prisons of the Soviets and died there. The letter, written on the night of Pascha in 1928 is to a family member, “Uncle Grishanchik” (This was Grigory Trubetskoi who had managed to emigrate to Paris). This letter should become a classic of Orthodox writing and witness to the faith that sustained so many and is today being resurrected in so many places. The triumph of the Resurrection so transcends his prison cell it’s a wonder that the walls remained. The entire book is a wonderful read. I recommend it without reservation.

30 March/ 12 April 1928

Dear Uncle Grishanchik, I greet you and Aunt Masha with the impending Holy Day, and I wish you all the very best. For a long, long time I have wanted to write to you, dear Uncle Grishanchik; you always showed such concern for me, you helped me so generously in a difficult moment of my life, and, mainly, your entire image is so inseparably linked for each of us, your nephews, with such wonderful memories; you always are, were, and will be our dearest, most beloved uncle.

I am approaching the fourth Easter that I will spend behind these walls, separated from my family, but the feelings for these holy days which were infused in me from earliest childhood do not fail me now; from the beginning of Holy Week I have felt the approach of the Feast, I follow the life of the Church, I repeat to myself the hymns of the Holy Week services, and in my soul there arise those feelings of tender reverence that I used to feel as a child going to confession or communion. At 35 those feelings are as strong and as deep as in those childhood years.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, going over past Easters in my memory, I remember our last Easter at Sergiyevskoye, which we spent with you and Aunt Masha, and I felt the immediate need to write you. If you have not forgotten, Easter in 1918 was rather late, and spring was early and very warm, so when in the last weeks of Lent I had to take Aunt Masha to Ferzikovo, the roads were impassable. I remember that trip as now; it was a warm, heavy, and humid day, which consumed the last snow in the forests and gullies faster than the hottest sun; wherever you looked, water, water, and more water, and all the sounds seemed to rise from it, from the burbling and rushing of the streams on all sides to the ceaseless ring of countless larks. We had to go by sleigh – not on the road, which wound through the half-naked fields in a single muddy ridge, but alongside, carefully choosing the route. Each hoofprint, each track left by the runners, immediately turned into a small muddy stream, busily rushing off somewhere. We drove forever, exhausting the poor horse, and, finally, after successfully eluding the Polivanovo field, one of the most difficult places, I became too bold and got Aunt Masha so mired that I nearly drowned the horse and the sleigh; we had to unharness to pull it out and got wet to the eyebrows; in a word, total “local color.”

I remember the feeling I had that spring of growing strength, but that entire happy springtime din, for all the beauty and joy of awakening nature, could not muffle the sense of alarm that squeezed the heart in each of us. Either some hand rose in senseless fury to profane our Sergiyevskoye, or there was the troubling sense that our loving and closely welded family was being broken up: Sonia far off somewhere with a pile of kids, alone, separated from her husband; Seryozha, just married, we don’t know where or how, and you, my dear Uncle Grisha and Auht Masha, separated from your young ones, in constant worry over them. It was a hard and difficult time. But I believe that beyond these specific problems, this spiritual fog had a deeper common source: we all, old and young, stood then at a critical turning point: unaware of it, we were bidding farewell to a past filled with beloved memories, while ahead there loomed some hostile utterly unknown future.

And in the midst of all this came Holy Week. the spring was in that stage when nature, after a big shove to cast off winter’s shackles, suddenly grows quiet, as if resting from the first victory. But below this apparent calm there is always the sense of a complex, hidden process taking place somewhere deep in the earth, which is preparing to open up in all its force, in all the beauty  of growth and flowering. Plowing and seeding the earth rasied rich scents, and, following the plow on the sweaty, softly turning furrow, you were enveloped in the marvelous smell of moist earth. I always became intoxicated by that smell, because in it one senses the limitless creative power of nature.

I don’t know how you all felt at the time, because I lived a totally separate life and worked from morning to night in the fields, not seeing, and, yes, not wanting to see, anything else. It was too painful to think, and only total physical exhaustion gave one a chance, if not to forget, then at least to forget oneself. But with Holy Week began the services in church and at home, I had to lead the choir in rehearsal and in church; on Holy Wednesday I finished the sowing of oats and, putting away the plow and harrow, gave myself entirely over to the tuning fork. And here began that which I will never forget!

Dear Uncle Grishanchik! Do you remember the service of the Twelve Gospels in our Sergiyevskoye church? Do you remember that marvelous, inimitable manner of our little parson? This spring will be nine years that he passed away during the midnight Easter service, but even now, when I hear certain litanies or certain Gospel readings, I can hear the exhilarated voice of our kind parson, his intonations piercing to the very soul. I remember that you were taken by this service, that it had a large impact on you. I see now the huge crucifix rising in the midst of the church, with figures of the Mother of God on one side and the Apostle John on the other, framed by multicolored votive lights, the waving flame of many candles, and, among the thoroughly familiar throng of Sergiyevskoye peasants, your figure by the right wall in front of the candle counter, with a contemplative expression on your face. If you only knew what was happening in my soul at that time! It was an entire turnover, some huge, healing revelation!

Don’t be surprised that I’m writing this way; I don’t think I’m exaggerating anything, it’s just that I feel great emotion remembering all these things, because I am continuously breaking off to go to the window and listen. A quiet, starry night hangs over Moscow, and I can hear first one, then another church mark the successive Gospels with slow, measured strikes of the bell. I think of my Lina and our Marinochka, of Papa, Mama, my sisters, brothers, of all of you, feeling the sadness of expatriation in these days, all so dear and close. However painful, especially at this time, the awareness of our separation, I firmly, unshakably believe all the same that the hour will come when we will all gather together, just as you are all gathered now in my thoughts.

1/14 April – They’ve allowed me to finish writing letters, and I deliberately sat down to finish it this night. Any minute now the Easter matins will start; in our cell everything is clean, and on our large common table standkulichi and paskha, a huge “X.B.” [Christos Voskrese “Christ is risen”] from fresh watercress is beautifully arranged on a white table cloth with brightly colored eggs all around. It’s unusually quiet in the cell; in order not to arouse the guards, we all lay down on lowered cots (there are 24 of us) in anticipation of the bells, and I sat down to write to you again.

I remember I walked out of the Sergiyevskoye church at that time overwhelmed by a mass of feelings and sensations, and my earlier spiritual fog seemed a trifle, deserving of no attention. In the great images of the Holy Week services, the horror of man’s sin and the suffering of the Creator leading to the great triumph of the resurrection, I suddenly discovered that eternal, indestructible beginning, which was also in that temporarily quiet spring, hiding in itself the seed of a total renewal of all that lives. The services continued in their stern, rich order; images replaced images, and when, on Holy Saturday, after the singing of “Arise, O Lord,” the deacon, having changed into a white robe, walked into the center of the church to the burial cloth to read the gospel about the resurrection, it seemed to me that we are all equally shaken, that we all feel and pray as one.

In the meantime, spring went on the offensive. When we walked to the Easter matins, the night was humid, heavy clouds covered the sky, and walking through the dark alleys of the linden park, I imagined a motion in the ground, as if innumerable invisible plants were pushing through the earth toward air and light.

I don’t know if our midnight Easter matins made any impression on you then. For me there never was, and never will be, anything better than Easter at Seriyevskoye. We are all too organically tied to Sergiyevskoye for anything to transcend it, to evoke so much good. This is not blind patriotism, because for all of us Seriyevskoye was that spiritual cradle in which everything by which each of us lives and breathes was born and raised.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, as I’ve been writing to you the scattered ringing around Moscow has become a mighty festive peal. Processions have begun, the sounds of firecrackers reach us, one church after another joins the growing din of bells. The wave of sound swells. There! Somewhere entirely nearby, a small church breaks brightly through the common chord with such a joyous, exultant little voice. Sometimes it seems that the tumult has begun to wane, and suddenly a new wave rushes in with unexpected strength, a grand hymn between heaven and earth.

I cannot write any more! That which I now hear is too overwhelming, too good, to try to convey in words. The incontrovertible sermon of the Resurrection seems to rise from this mighty peal of praise. My dear uncle Grishanchik, it is so good in my soul that the only way I can express my spirit is to say to you once again, Christ is Risen!


Paradise in a Single Moment

April 17, 2009

img_0436The Exapostelarian for the Matins of Good Friday is the hymn, “The Wise Thief.” It draws our attention to the mercy of God – who promised paradise to the wise thief, “This day.” Thoughts on the nearness of paradise are also a theme in the writings of Dostoevsky. If paradise is so near – why do we settle for less?

During Holy Week, one of my favorite hymns in the Church is the Wise Thief (the Exapostelarion of Holy Friday). It recalls the thief, crucified on Christ’s right hand, who repents and finds paradise “in a single moment.” It demonstrates the fullness of God’s love who would take the repentance of a single moment and transform it into life eternal.

The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise,
in a single moment, O Lord.
By the wood of Thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me.

I often think of this hymn because I also believe that we generally stand but a single moment from paradise, even when we find ourselves tempted and filled with every other sort of thought. We stand but a single moment from paradise, for the same crucified Lord stands beside us. Either we rail at him with the other thief (though the one whom I rail at may not look like Christ, but only one of the least of His brethren). And while I rail, paradise stands beside me, even urging me towards that heavenly goal with the words, “I thirst.” It is for our love and repentance that He thirsts – He who endured so much for the love of man.

Another moving example of such repentance is found in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I have printed this excerpt before, and doubtless will again. It is the story of the Elder Zossima’s brother, Markel, who found paradise in a very short moment as he approached his death.

I am reminded of the Scripture:

For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 5:2).

From the Brothers Karamazov:

…but the doctor arrived and quickly whispered to dear mother that it was galloping consumption and that he would not survive the spring. Mother began to weep, began to ask my brother with circumspection (mainly in order not to frighten him) to fast for a little and then attend communion with God’s holy mysteries, for he was at that time still up and about. Upon hearing this, he lost his temper and gave God’s temple a good rating, but then he grew meditative….. Some three days went by, and Holy Week began. And then, from the Tuesday evening, my brother went to fast and take communion. ‘I am doing this, properly speaking, for you, dear mother, in order to please you and to calm your fears,’ he told her. Mother wept from happiness, and also from grief; ‘It means his end must be near, if there is such a sudden change in him.’ But not for long did he go to church; he took to his bed, and so was given confession and communion at home. The days were starting to be bright, serene and fragrant – it was a late Pascha. All night he would cough, I recall; he slept badly, and in the mornings would always get dressed and try to sit in a soft armchair. That is how I shall remember him: sitting there quietly meekly, smiling, in reality ill, but with a countenance of cheerfulness and joy. He had undergone a complete spiritual alteration – such a wondrous change had suddenly begun within him! Our old nurse would enter his room: ‘Let me light the lamp before your icon, dearie,’ she would say. And previously he had not allowed it, would even blow it out. ‘Light it, dear nurse, light it, I was a cruel monster to forbid you earlier. As you light the lamp you say your prayers, and I, in rejoicing for your sake, say mine also. That means we pray to the same God.’ Strange did those words seem to us, and mother would go away to her room and weep and weep, though when she came in again to him she would wipe her eyes and assume an air of cheerfulness. ‘Dear mother, don’t cry, my darling,’ he used to say. ‘I have much time to live yet, I shall make merry with you both, and my life, my life will be joyful and merry!’ ‘Oh, dear boy, what kind of merriment can there be for you, when all night you burn in a fever and cough till your chest nearly bursts apart?’ ‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….’Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation] …’Yes, he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

Take, Eat

April 16, 2009

bro-ephraim-mar-sabaThe simple words of Christ to His disciples at the Last Supper were profound on many levels: the commandment was short and straight-forward; it reversed an ancient prohibition; it set the primary manner for human beings to receive grace and thus teaches us much about how it is we receive grace in a normative manner (and were always meant to).

The Orthodox are somewhat fond of quoting this simple commandment, only if it is to pick a friendly fight with Roman Catholics. Western Christianity developed a devotion to the Body of Christ which became manifested as a visual devotion. Thus the service of the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament has as its focus the showing forth of the Eucharist in a manner to be seen by all.

Orthodoxy has almost the opposite instinct. The holier something is, the more likely we are to hide it until the last moment. Thus during Great Lent and part of Holy Week, when the Holy Eucharist is frequently only celebrated with “Pre-sanctified” Body and Blood of Christ (consecrated at the Sunday Liturgy), the entire service takes place with profound devotion, but without seeing the Body and Blood of Christ until the very moment in which we come forward to receive Him, in obedience to His commandment: “Take, eat.”

I will leave it to other Orthodox writers to concern themselves with the relative merits or faults in the Roman Catholic practice, or yet, the explanations for the historical development of the Eucharistic practices of Orthodoxy during Lent and Holy Week. I am simply concerned with the commandment to “take, eat” and to “drink ye all of this” (which, by the way means “all of you drink this” and not “drink all this.”

First, the commandment is simple – an action described in two words. It is also an action that can (and is) taken even by very young children. In Orthodoxy we commune children as soon as they are Baptized and Chrismated (from about 40 days old or so). It is not only a simple commandment but reverses the oldest of prohibitions in man’s story with God. We refused to keep the proper fast in the Garden, eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when we had been told it was the only tree from which we were not to eat.

Left untouched was the Tree of Life. To guard that tree, and to prevent man from becoming an everlasting, unrepentant demon, we were cast out of the Garden and an angel with a flaming sword was set to guard the tree’s approach. Of course, we now understand that the Cross is itself the Tree of Life, and Christ Himself is the Life that hangs from that Tree.

It is the fruit of the Tree of Life that is brought forth in the Cup in the Holy Eucharist. The doors of the iconostasis are opened (like the very gates of paradise) and the Deacon comes forth chanting, “In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near.” The Banquet of Life begins.

Christ told us:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.Whosoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever (John 6:53-58).

And this banquet is the normative means of receiving grace, God’s own Life. This is the grace of forgiveness, of healing, of union with God (there are not several graces but one grace which does all). There I sit and marvel. It is normative for us to receive grace by eating and drinking. As I tell my catechumens: “God has so purposed to give you grace that He put it on a spoon lest you miss it” (Orthodox are communed by a spoon with the Body and Blood mixed together).

Thus like babies, or even young chicks, we approach the cup with our mouths opened, humbling ourselves to receive the Life of God.

This simple act of receiving grace is not unique among God’s work with human beings. There has developed in some parts of Christianity an effort to “spiritualize” the reception of grace. Most of this development has come from the usual suspect: the nefarious “two-storey universe.” Thus we live normal lives, eating and drinking, washing and bathing, etc., but surround the receiving of grace with unusual activities: most particularly mental activities. For in the warped version of the faith that is the two-storey world, we equate our bodies with the secular and our minds with the spiritual. It is pure nonsense and a failure to properly understand the Scriptures.

God did not give us bodies in order to trap us in the lower storey of the universe. Neither does he intend to raise us up to heaven as disembodied minds. Such Platonistic nonsense has no proper place in Christianity.

I have heard the phrase “empty ritual” so many times in my life that I know I confront a cliche when I hear it. The speaker has put no great thought into his/her words. Nor do they understand the most basic gifts of God. Worse still, there is an anti-Semitic component to this phrase. The Old Testament, filled with instructions for the ritual of the Temple, is seen as somehow inferior (by nature) to what is imagined to be a “spiritual” approach in the New Testament. Though the first Passover in historical terms (in Christian understanding) was but a shadow of the eternal Pascha of Christ – the feasts are both quite physical in form. One eats the meat of a lamb in a ritual manner; the other eats the Body and Blood of God in a ritual manner.

For those who think of ritual as “empty ritual,” the argument is with God, not with me. He gave us these forms.

Liturgical actions are not to be done mindlessly, but with deep care and concern. Mishandling the Body and Blood of Christ can get an Orthodox priest deposed from his priesthood, or, at least, suspended for a time as a disciplinary measure. It is a most serious matter. In the same way, the laity is not to approach Christ’s Body and Blood in a nonchalant manner. 

The “ritual” aspects carry no inherent value, but instead a discipline and a respect, lest we treat holy things in an unholy manner. Those who despise the outward forms of this great gift are gnostics who are despising Christ’s gift to us. There can be no “drive-through” communions, or lunch bag communions (I’ve heard of both). These are ignorant blasphemies on the part of a people who have been taught that physical things do not matter, only the spiritual. As a result they do not know the spiritual things of God, only thoughts about spiritual things.

Take, eat. It is a simple commandment. But it gives us what had once been forbidden. It teaches us as well how grace is generally received. It comes to us in cup and spoon, in oil and water, in smoke and fragrance. In the bowing of the head or the prostration of our bodies. It comes to us in our words of forgiveness for another and in the daily rituals of kindness we perform for one another. 

God has not made the acquisition of His Life hard for us – unless you despise the simplicity of His method. Those who do may go with Naaman and enjoy the beauty of the rivers in Syria. But do not expect to be healed on your own terms.

For the Sake of Envy

April 14, 2009

img_10073In the Praises for Matins of Holy Wednesday, we read:

Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her hair while he bound himself with wrath. He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value. Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! Deliver our souls from this, O God.

We are also told in Scripture that Pilate perceived that Christ was being handed over to him “for the sake of envy” (Matt. 27:18). Thus, it seemed important to me to offer this small meditation on envy, or at least one of its sources – for it is rooted in false beliefs about God and His world and the hardness of our heart that keeps us from seeing the truth. There is much more to say of this primal passion. But this small re-write will have to suffice for now.


We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of Paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestle to gain whatever I can and cling to it ’til death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows “you have need of all these things.”

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation the abundance of the Kingdom needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of Life.

In the world in which we live it is all too easy to create yet another scheme of the two-storey universe. The world we inhabit we assume to be defined and finite with scarcity as one of its leading boundaries. Abundance is shuttled off to a heaven somewhere else. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. They receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was the blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet in our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) we worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!” 

The abundance found in the Kingdom of God is not the same as the abundance imagined by a planet enmeshed in its own cycle of scarcity and envy. The abundance proclaimed in the Kingdom of God in which the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, is an abundance in which there is not enough to waste but more than enough to share. The abundance flows from the enlargement of our heart as we expand our very existence to include the other. A world constituted by love rather than the envy of individualism will always have more than enough. 

Envy plays a large role in the events of Holy Week. Strangely, it is a passion which is rarely mentioned in our culture, even though the Fathers (at least some) thought of it as the root of all sin. We frequently think of pride as the root of all sin, but some of the Fathers note that pride, unlike envy, can be completely private, whereas envy always seeks harm for another.

Many times the sins we think of as pride, are, in fact, envy, insomuch as they are directed at other human beings. We envy their success, their “good fortune,” and many other such things. If we examine our heart carefully we will discover envy to be frequently at the root of anger, our sense of injustice and unfairness. The first murder, Abel’s death at the hand of his brother, is clearly the result of envy.

Even Judas is described as envious in the hymns of the Church, as well as the rulers of Israel by the Scriptures themselves. Sometimes in our “free-market” society, our failure and the envy it engenders gets turned against us and we condemn ourselves because we are not as clever as others. The basic inequalities of life become the source of either anger towards others of self-loathing depending on our own personality (and sometime a mixture of both).

The great difficulty with having a God is the fundamental requirement that we renounce envy. As one friend told me, “The most important thing to know about God is that you are not Him.” And this is something that I must learn to be content with. God is the Lord of the universe and not me. Things work together for good according to His own redemptive plan and not according to my secret machinations.

Envy is perhaps the most subtle of sins. Even in the desert where no one possesses anything, there is always something about another that we can find to envy. Our adversary, himself dominated by his envy of God, will always have envious suggestions to make to us.

To combat envy several things are necessary:

We must believe that God is good.

We must believe that God’s will for us in particular is good.

We must believe that God’s goodness is without limit.

We must believe that God’s goodness, shed upon someone else, does not come at our expense.

Thus we can “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We can see that it is possible to turn our lives over completely to God and trust Him in all things. We can bless who we are and where we are (even if our own sins and limitations have made of our lives a difficulty). God is good. We need not envy. Further, we can give thanks for all things for they proceed from the fullness of God and His kindness to us. Even those things we perceive as “evil” occur in the context of the world we have entered through Baptism. We may give thanks despite all the troubles that afflict us – for God is good, and His mercy endures forever. 

Envy has no place within the Christian life. It belongs to those who drive nails into the flesh of God and taunt Him with their perceived victory. When all is said, they will stand as mute as fish, unable to cry, “Alleluia.”

Riding on a Donkey

April 12, 2009


As far back as Genesis, in the prophecy of Jacob over his sons, we hear the association of the Messiah with a donkey:

Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s children shall bow down before you.
      Judah is a lion’s whelp;
      From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
      He bows down, he lies down as a lion;
      And as a lion, who shall rouse him?
      The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
      Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
      Until Shiloh comes;
      And to Him shall be the obedience of the people.
      Binding his donkey to the vine,
      And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
      He washed his garments in wine,
      And his clothes in the blood of grapes.
      His eyes are darker than wine,
      And his teeth whiter than milk. (Genesis 49:8-12)

There are additional prophecies:

Tell the daughter of Zion,
      ‘Behold, your King is coming to you,
      Lowly, and sitting on a donkey,
      A colt, the foal of a donkey.’

This word, taken from Zechariah, seems to fit the occasion in a manner that reveals Christ as He has been made known: “King coming to you lowly…” Christ is the lowly king.

Where we fail to draw the proper conclusion is that God is a lowly king. Many prefer the God of the philosophers, or the God of a religion ultimately foreign to Christ (“you know not what Spirit you are of”). In my postings here, many have rushed to defend the angry God, the God who destroys cities, as if by my suggestion that such interpretations are not consonant with the words of the Fathers, I was somehow making God to be less than He is. We cannot make of Him less than He made of Himself. For the great mystery that will be set forth before us in the words and actions of Holy Week and Pascha are the weakness of God which is the very manifestation of His power.

The tragedy of this lies not just in the false telling of the story of our salvation – but the false images to which we are willing to ally ourselves. To admit that it is God’s humility and emptiness, His meekness and lowliness to which we are to be conformed threatens us many times over – for it strikes at the very arrogance of our heart. “God resists the proud.”

We arrogantly refuse to fast. We arrogantly refuse to forgive. We judge in arrogance and in arrogance we raise our voices from the depths of hell. We hear not so much as an echo for there are no walls in hell. Even what passed for gates were long ago destroyed. Only our desire for delusion holds us there.

Our King, on the other hand, comes to us in lowliness. In my observation, there is no way to arrogantly ride a donkey. Donkeys are beasts of burden, but they are also beasts of buffoonery. 

I heard a story once of a man who sat in a restaurant contemplating his own suicide. He was an actor and his career was failing. As he sat, lost in his private hell, he heard tapping at the window. The tapping continued until he looked up. Even after he looked up the tapping continued until every head was raised and turned towards the annoyance. Then a sign was held up to the window:

“I’m a fool for Jesus,” it read. “Whose fool are you?”

That day a fool turned aside from his suicide. If we are willing to become foolish and follow the path of a donkey, we may become wise like God, Who for our sake became weak and lowly.

In the Tomb of Lazarus

April 11, 2009

img_1088Largely ignored by much of Christendom, the Orthodox today celebrate “Lazarus Saturday” in something of a prequel to next weekend’s Pascha. It is, indeed a little Pascha just before the greater one. And this, of course, was arranged by Christ Himself, who raised His friend Lazarus from the dead as something of a last action before entering Jerusalem and beginning His slow ascent to Golgotha through the days of next week (Orthodox celebrate Pascha a week later than Western Christians this year).

One of the hymns of the Vigil of Lazarus Saturday says that Christ “stole him from among the dead.” I rather like the phrase. Next weekend there will be no stealing, but a blasting of the gates of hell itself. What he does for Lazarus he will do for all. 

Lazarus, of course, is different from those previously raised from the dead by Christ (such as the daughter of Jairus). Lazarus had been four days day and corruption of the body had already set in. “My Lord, he stinks!” one of his sisters explained when Christ requested to be shown to the tomb.

I sat in that tomb last September, as I mentioned in my last post. It is not particularly notable as a shrine. It is today, in the possession of a private, Muslim family. You pay to get in. Several of our pilgrims did not want to pay to go in. I could not stop myself.

Lazarus is an important character in 19th century Russian literature. Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, finds the beginning of his repentance of the crime of murder, by listening to a reading of the story of Lazarus. It is, for many, and properly so, a reminder of the universal resurrection. What Christ has done for Lazarus He will do for all.

For me, he is also a sign of the universal entombment. That even before we die, we have frequently begun to inhabit our tombs. We live our life with the doors closed (and we stink). Our hearts are often places of corruption and not the habitation of the good God. Or, at best, we ask Him to visit us as He visited Lazarus. That visit brought tears to the eyes of Christ. The state of our corruption makes Him weep. It is such a contradiction to the will of God. We were not created for the tomb.

I also note that in the story of Lazarus – even in his being raised from the dead – he rises in weakness. He remains bound by his graveclothes. Someone must “unbind” him. We ourselves, having been plunged into the waters of Baptism and robed with the righteousness of Christ, too often exchange those glorious robes for graveclothes. Christ has made us alive, be we remain bound like dead men.

I sat in the tomb of Lazarus because it seemed so familiar. 

I have to go now. Someone is calling.

From Friday to Friday

April 10, 2009

img_0965Orthodox and Western calendars rarely coincide on the question of the date of Pascha (Easter). They work with different numbers and come up with different answers. Thus it is that the common pattern obtains this year: Pascha one week apart. It is possible as an Orthodox Christian to ignore the world around you and pretend that the majority of Christians are not marking Good Friday today or that their Easter will come this Sunday. Admittedly, it can be hard to hold such things together. Besides, the cycle of services leading to Pascha begins tonight for Orthodox parishes.

But if we complain about things in the surrounding culture, it should not be a complaint about others celebrating our Lord’s death and resurrection. Would that the whole world stopped and gave those events their proper recognition. 

The death and resurrection of Christ are not entirely matters of calendar. How can the beginning of all things be held by a calendar? It holds the calendar and all calendars. On what day do we not remember that Christ tramples down death by death? Even on Pascha itself, we never forget the Cross – for the Cross properly belongs to Pascha.

Some of my readers have noted that I write in a fairly “existential” tone on the events of Christ suffering, death and resurrection. It’s not an invention of mine, but rather my discipleship to the lives and works of many modern saints and ascetics of the Church: Fr. Sophrony Sakharov; St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, et al. I believe it is the effective word to our generation (as St. Silouan believed as well). We have struggled for too long as Christians under the yoke of moralism, in which everything of Christ’s is interpreted in moralistic terms – geared only towards our legal admission into heaven. 

This moralism is a caricature of true Christianity. Were the impacts of Christ’s victory on our existence to be forgotten – the faith would be in danger of its own death. If moralism disappears – it will doubtless be replaced by another. Moralism is simple, useful for judging others, and plays well in a world dominated by its neurotic psychological fantasies.

To understand instead that sin is death – that it attacks us at the very point of our existence – is a different matter altogether. Humanity stands poised at the edge of an abyss – driven there by its own defiance of God – Who alone gives us life and all things. The daily events on the world stage are only a tragic opera that illustrate the inner drama of our lives. In our hearts we are the insane builders of weapons. We are the suicide bombers (a fitting image for much of our sin).

All of which brings us to the Cross of Christ. There, all the insanity of the world and its mad rush towards self-destruction is gathered in one lonely cry, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” Of course, in context, Christ is reciting Psalm 22 which is both a prophetic description of His crucifixion as well as a promise of His victory. But it is also an echo of the cry of our empty existence. On our lips, of course, it is a lie. God has not abandoned us – we have abandoned Him. But we feel abandoned, nonetheless.

But this is a day of great good news. For all of you who are sitting in hell (I reckon myself among your number on many days and only flee there because I am afraid to stay and pray for us all) Christ is coming to break down the doors and reveal the brightness of His resurrection.

Last September I sat in the tomb of Lazarus. My ears strained to hear the echo of the cry, “Come forth.” For the day is coming and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God… Me we all hear His voice this year and every day of this year. May we be brought from the grave of our sins and into the glorious company of the saints in Light.

It Is But a Small Thing

April 9, 2009


childcandleI have noticed in my daily struggle that most of the things that are of importance turn on very “small things.” The decisions that set me on the course of prayer or kindness are made not with fanfare or even large efforts, but on a moment’s turn. By the same token, the decisions that set me on a course of sin are often so small that I can hardly notice that they were decisions at all.

History books are written about large things – making the in between times in our lives seem insignificant and not worth much trouble. Generally, large decisions are made because we have reached an unavoidable crossroad – but a crossroad that would not exist except for many, even hundreds, of small so-called insignificant decisions.

Dostoevsky is correct that God and the devil engage in warfare and the battleground is the human heart. However, the battle is often fought in very small skirmishes. Brief encounters with the good and brief encounters with evil.

It is not true that the little things do not matter. It may well be that the little things are all we will ever encounter. It is true in every great battle. The historians write about large movements of troops and the effect of terrain – but those who actually do the fighting are aware of each stroke of the sword, of the difficulty of fighting wounded, or without food or rest.

By the same token, those who take up their prayers and beg for the mercy of God, may appear to be engaged in a very small thing. Yet prayer is never small. If it has gained the ear of the God of the universe, how can it ever be small?

No act of kindness is ever too small. No generosity of spirit is ever insignificant. No harsh word not spoken is a minor act of restraint. No effort of forgiveness is without value.

This is the day of salvation. It may come in a thousand discreet moments, every one of which is alive with the fire of God. May He gives us grace to know that all that we are, have and do, is truly great and worthy of every prayer and effort of grace. We draw near to the end of Lent (for the Orthodox). The benefit we will have gained will rest on the grace we have received – mostly as we went faithfully about the small things. Even Pascha itself – for us – will largely consist in our efforts to be present. Christ is our Pascha. We do not have to make it happen. We need only come to the feast. Christ our Pascha is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.

Where He Leads

April 7, 2009

img_10071The journey to Pascha is nearly complete. This weekend the Orthodox celebrate Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, marking the beginning of Holy Week. I sat in the tomb of Lazarus last year, located in Bethany. It is not a very long journey from there to Jerusalem.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Holy Week and Jerusalem is simply how small everything is. All the events that mark that make up Holy Week took place within a very small walking-distance. The salvation of the world – on the stage of this world – was quite intimate and compact. This is fitting. For the point at which our salvation itself occurred is small indeed – the Hades into which our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ entered is infinitesimally small.

Very striking is the relatively short distance between Golgotha and the tomb of Christ. We are told in Scripture that the tomb was nearby. Today, Golgotha and the tomb are under the same roof, with Golgotha situated high in a corner of the Church, and the Sepulchre standing in what would pass for a Narthex in most Orthodox Churches. 

Standing before the altar built over the very place of our Lord’s crucifixion, I was stuck by the fact that there is an icon beneath the altar. It is the icon of Christ the Bridegroom which will be placed in the center of Orthodox Churches at Matins on the evening of Palm Sunday. I took it to be a “road sign.”

There is a path from Golgotha to Pascha – Pascha cannot be reached other than by this path. The Bridegroom icon marks the direction of the path (thus the road sign). In the architecture of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dictated by the actual historical sites located under its roof, one must travel down from the Cross (it was in the corner of a quarry in a place called ‘the place of the skull’ (Golgotha). I would estimate the Cross to be nearly two stories above where the tomb stands and at a distance of perhaps 200 yards (my guess). In the Church, the pilgrim descends stairs back into the main body of the Church in order to approach the tomb.

In life the path is similar – but the icon indicates the way. The journey from the Cross to Pascha (Pascha being marked by the emptiness of the tomb and the fullness of our existence) goes through the Bridegroom. In that icon we see Christ in His humiliation. “Like a lamb who before his shearers is mute so He uttered not a word.”

129963405_301bb0765b2To reach Pascha from the Cross, we must go through the Cross and follow the Bridegroom to Hades and in His resurrection, follow Him out of that dark place into the brilliant light of the brightness of Pascha.

St. Paul instructs us to “empty ourselves” by having among us the “mind of Christ” – but the “mind of Christ” precisely in His humility (Philippians 2:5-11). And so the journey of Holy Week has its path clearly marked. 

The services are long. The weakness that eventually threatens to overcome us all (“I don’t think I could stand up for another minute”) is itself a physical union with the sufferings of Christ. Holy Week is exhausting. So was the work accomplished on the cross – exhaustion to the point of death. Thus in Holy Week we are conformed to the image of Christ on the cross – including His weakness.

It is time again to forgive one another. If I stand with the humble Bridegroom and hear His words of humility: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (he offers no blame), how can I not with Him readily forgive all who have reason to hate me, or who hate me for no reason at all, or whom I hate (sinner that I am) even though their sins against me justly invite my wrath? Do I even dare to think of justice when the judgment of God looms so near? No, forgiveness can and must be given now! Rush to forgive – tell them quickly that their debt has been reduced or even taken away.

The coins with which we must purchase oil for our lamps as we follow the Bridegroom into His bridal

_44604810_0cfa7112-54f0-4015-a9b0-29f58a4fab29chamber, can only be obtained by giving away the currency of our self-righteousness and the wealth of our grudges.

As Fr. Sophrony would note – we can only follow Christ to His Pascha by traveling downwards.

 The journey up is made by going down. We go down to His death and His humility so that we may rise with Him in the glory of His compassion.

Behold, the Bridegroom comes. Blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching!


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