Archive for April, 2010

Behind Closed Doors

April 13, 2010

The phrase, “behind closed doors,” has become synonymous in English with things being done in secret – generally of an unsavory or nefarious sort. Institutions speak of an “open door policy,” and promise “transparency” to those from the outside. Closed doors have always had a sense of secrecy about them. Sometimes the secrecy hides the darkness of evil, other times it protects us from the wonder of the holy.

The stories of Christ’s resurrection are filled with closed doors. It is a common phrase in the resurrection narratives: “the doors being shut for fear of the Jews.” The disciples had lost their leader and teacher and they feared that they themselves would become victims. That fear led them to flee. It led St. Peter to deny that he even knew Christ. It led them all to hide behind closed doors.

Closed doors occur even earlier. The first doors known in the stories of Scripture are the gates of Paradise. Adam and Eve, having broken God’s only commandment to them, are forced to leave Paradise. The gates of the garden are shut and an angel is set at the gate to guard against their re-entry. More than the story of our first parents – it is the story of man.

The gates represent the brokenness of our communion with God. We exist – we have life – but our life is somehow cut off, “shut out” of its right and proper communion: we stand outside the Garden.

Later mystagogical teaching about the use of doors during an Orthodox service echo this estrangement. The priest praying before the closed doors at Vespers is sometimes said to represent Adam weeping before the closed gates of Paradise.

Our own lives are filled with closed doors – places from which we have been evicted – places into which we may not enter – places that represent secrets and broken relationships. Closed doors have gained an infamous character for good reason.

I can recall as a child standing outside closed doors while adults carried on arguments (“away from the ears of children”). I have stood outside closed doors as I understood responsible adults to be lying. There have been closed doors or wealth, class, education, ethnicity and education. Most people, in most places, have a profound sense that there is somewhere they do not belong. I can think of few things as painful as a door, slammed and locked in the midst of an argument. Few images rival it.

From the point of view of Christ’s resurrection – the doors are slammed and locked from the other side. The gates of Hades are not closed by God, but by those who would keep God out. The gates Christ smashes are the gates that would refuse entry to the Light of Life.

Even the gates of Paradise are closed only for our protection. It is not the joy of Paradise or any pleasure that God would deny us – only our own efforts to approach to Tree of Life in a manner that did not involve our repentance, and therefore our salvation. To have become an immortal sinner would to have been to become like the demons.

But at Pascha, Christ confronts the doors of fear. Interestingly, he does not smash these doors. He simply appears within. He does not ask His disciples to first overcome their fears so that He may come to them. He comes to them and their fears are overcome. We cannot do what we must do unless He comes to us.

Thus the New Testament image becomes: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).

It is not God who has closed the doors – it is God who knocks and who appears inside, though they be closed.

We live in a world of locked and closed doors. Only a loving and resurrected God could overcome such obstacles. Glory to God who appears behind closed doors and sets the prisoners free.

A Favor Is Asked

April 13, 2010

Dear Friends,

Donna Mazziotti, a librarian at The University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is conducting a study about theology and technology. She would love to hear from Glory to God for All Things readers about how they access the content and use the information contained on Glory to God for All Things. As a user of this site and its content, please take a brief moment to take this anonymous user survey, located at the following link:  Glory to God for All Things

Thank you! I deeply appreciate your help.

Father Stephen +


In a Single Moment – Paradise

April 11, 2010

Pascha and Bright Week always remind me of the joy of paradise. The doors of the altar stand open for all of Bright Week, reminding the people of God that Christ has opened paradise to us all. These are some thoughts on the suddenness and nearness of paradise. As the Elder Cleopas used to say, “May Paradise consume you!”

The 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 (theExapostelarion 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?’

The Mystery of Pascha – Expanded

April 9, 2010

I have, on occasion, edited and reissued a post – though not as quickly as this one. My post from earlier this week seemed to want a few more words – something to draw the reader closer to the mystery itself. I offer this small addition and pray it is of some use.

In his Revelation, St. John describes Christ as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (13:8). It is one of many interesting statements within that book of images and wonders. However, his description of Christ has much to say about the mystery ofPascha (Christ’s resurrection).

First, it is clear that Pascha is more than a historical event. It is certainly includes the historical death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But statements such as St. John’s point to the fact that Pascha is also an event in which that which is outside of time intersects time. For this reason the celebration of Pascha is never simply a celebration of something that happened long ago. The event that happened long ago is also the event that happened before there was a creation and the event that will be the culmination of everything in the End.

This is the very heart of the Orthodox Christian understanding of the life of the Church. Christ’s Pascha is our very life. It is present to us at every moment and is the source of our life and the truth of our existence. We believe that especially when the Church gathers together for worship, we stand in Christ’s Pascha. Heaven and earth meet and we are united with God in the feast of His Body and Blood. Heaven and earth meet; present, past and future meet with that which is beyond time. The created meets the Uncreated.

Within the Pascha of Christ is the meaning and fulfillment of all things. Much of modern Christianity has married itself to the secular world’s linear view of history. In such a context, Pascha begins to fade into a memorial of the past, or, worse still, an annual culture event.

Of course, it is impossible for such a festival not to have a cultural context – human beings produce cultures. However, we should understand that it is not the culture that gives meaning to Pascha – but Pascha which gives meaning to a culture.

In the 12th Chapter of Exodus, Passover or Pascha, is described as an “eternal festival.” The statement can be taken simply to mean that it is a feast that should always be observed. But it can also be taken to mean that the feast that is Pascha is an eternal matter, that its celebration is more than historical remembrance – it is a participation in the eternal Pascha of Christ.

St. Paul hints at this aspect of Christ’s Pascha:

For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthian 5:7-8)

Here St. Paul is not speaking of a particular feast day, but of the entire Christian life as the Pascha of Christ. Christ has become our Pascha – our way into life out of the bondage of death. Therefore, he says, we should keep this feast of the Christian life not with malice and wickedness – which St. Paul compares to “old leaven” or “old yeast” – meaning our old way of life. Rather, he says that our daily Christian Pascha should be with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Truth plays a very important role in the life of our daily Pascha. Part of the nature of the life given to us in Christ – is that it is truelife. To live a false life, or to speak in a way that is not true – is to have turned ourselves away from Christ, who is the Truth, and from His life, which is our true, authentic existence.

Speaking the truth is a manifestation of Pascha on our lips.

The same can be said of sincerity. To be truly who we are with others – not to lead a life of dissimulation or deceit – such things are the very nature of true life. The deceitfulness of modern existence is a denial of true existence. It raises that which is not to the level of that which is. Life becomes a living hell. Pascha has come to set us free from all of that.

At the End of all things only the truth will remain. Things that were part of the deceit of this world will have passed away. At the End of things there is Pascha. Everything and everyone will find its meaning there – which is fitting since Pascha was before all things.

Met. Kallistos Ware on Christ and Creation

April 6, 2010

The mystery of Christ’s Pascha, I noted in my previous post, is the meaning and fulfillment of all things. There are many ways to consider this in the heart. One is to look at creation from within the Scriptures. Today I offer some thoughts of Met. Kallistos Ware, from a small book of his The Beginning of the Day.  His thoughts are on creation and our Christian relationship to the world around us.

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The  Cosmic Christ

Before I end my reflections upon the Orthodox vision of creation – upon the bonds that unite us with the animals in a single ‘earth community’ – I ask you to recall with me how every part of the created order played a part in the story of Christ’s life and death:

  • a star appeared at His birth (Matt. 2:9-10);
  • an ox and and ass stood beside His crib as He lay in swaddling clothes (cf. Isa. 1:30)\
  • during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness He was with the wild beasts ( Mark 1:13);
  • repeatedly He spoke of Himself as a shepherd, and of His disciples as sheep (Luke 15:3-7; Matt. 18:10-14; John 10-1-16);
  • He likened His love for Jerusalem to the maternal love of a hen for her chickens (Matt. 23:37);
  • He taught that every sparrow is precious in the sight of God the Father (Matt. 10:29);
  • He illustrated His parables with references to the lilies (Matt. 6:28-30), to the mustard bush full of nesting birds (Mark 4:32);, to a domestic animal that has fallen into a pit on the Sabbath day (Matt. 12:11);
  • He urged us to show reptilian subtlety and avian guilelessness: ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt.l 10:16);
  • as Lord of creation, He stillled the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and walked upon water (Mark 6:45-51);

Most notably of all, the created order in its entirety participated in the Savior’s Passion: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the whole cosmos shuddered (Matt. 27:51). In the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian, ‘humans were silent, so the stones cried out’. As the old English poem The Dream of the Rood expresses it, ‘All creation wept.’ This all embracing participation in the death of God incarnate is memorably expressed in the Praises or Enkomia sung in the evening of Good Friday or early in the morning on Holy Saturday:

‘Come, and with the whole creation let us offer a funeral hymn to the Creator.’

‘The whole earth quaked with fear, O lord, and the Daystar hid its rays, when Thy great light was hidden in the earth.’

‘The sun and moon grew dark together, O Savior, like faithful servants clothed in black robes of mourning.’

‘O hills and valleys’, exclaims the Holy Virgin, ‘the multitude of mankind and all creation, weep and lament with me, the Mother of God.’

Most remarkably of all in what is truly an amazing statement, it is affirmed: ‘the whole creation was altered by Thy Passion: for all things suffered with Thee, knowing, O Lord, that Thou holdest all in unity.’

Do we reflect sufficiently, I wonder, upon the environmental impliations of our Lord’s Incarnation, upon the way in which Jesus is ecologically inclusive, embedded in the soil like us, containing within His humanity what has been termed ‘the whole evolving earth story’?

Do we allow properly for the fact that our Savior came to redeem, not only the human race, but the fullness of creation? Do we keep constantly in mind that we are not saved from but with the world?

Such, then, is our Orthodox vision of creation; such is our vocation as priests of the created order; such is our Christian reponse to the ecological crisis. Such is the deeper meaning implicit in the words that we say daily at the beginning of Vespers: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’.

The Mystery of Pascha

April 5, 2010

In his Revelation, St. John describes Christ as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (13:8). It is one of many interesting statements within that book of images and wonders. However, his description of Christ has much to say about the mystery of Pascha (Christ’s resurrection).

First, it is clear that Pascha is more than a historical event. It is certainly includes the historical death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But statements such as St. John’s point to the fact that Pascha is also an event in which that which is outside of time intersects time. For this reason the celebration of Pascha is never simply a celebration of something that happened long ago. The event that happened long ago is also the event that happened before there was a creation and the event that will be the culmination of everything in the End.

This is the very heart of Orthodox Christian understanding of the life of the Church. Christ’s Pascha is our very life. It is present to us at every moment and is the source of our life and the truth of our existence. We believe that especially when the Church gathers together for worship, we stand in Christ’s Pascha. Heaven and earth meet and we are united with God in the feast of His Body and Blood. Heaven and earth meet; present, past and future meet with that which is beyond time. The created meets the Uncreated.

Within the Pascha of Christ is the meaning and fulfillment of all things. Much of modern Christianity has married itself to the secular world’s linear view of history. In such a context, Pascha begins to fade into a memorial of the past, or, worse still, an annual culture event. It is impossible for such a festival not to have a cultural context – human beings produce cultures. However, we should understand that it is not the culture that gives meaning to Pascha – but Pascha which gives meaning to a culture.

At the End of all things, there is Pascha. Everything and everyone will find its meaning there – which is fitting since Pascha was before all things.

Christos Voskrese – Christ Is Risen!

April 3, 2010

This delightful youtube video is a favorite of mine. 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.

Translation:

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!

The Sound of Silence

April 2, 2010

On Holy Saturday the Church celebrates Christ victory in the very depths of Hades. I was reminded as well, that this victory happens “silently,” without a witness on the earth – and yet it is a dogma of the faith. It is a silence that overwhelms the world.

It is said that “silence is the language of the world to come.” We are also told that those who are in the grave (sheol) cannot offer praise. Hades is the land of the silent. Thus we have the paradox of the joyful silence of the age to come and sorrowful silence that can say nothing.

It seems the mystery lies in the nature of the silence. There is a silence that comes from fullness – a silence because there are no words that are sufficient. There is also a silence that comes from emptiness – when words fall back on themselves and never rise to the level of expression.

In the course of our lives we probably experience something of both forms of silence. I have known joy too great to be spoken and grief like an “emotional black hole” that has no words. I prefer the joy.

St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence” (Eph. XV). Vladimir Lossky comments on this that it is the necessary condition for hearing the Scriptures when they are properly transmitted in the Tradition. It is simply a way of saying that the Scriptures say more than can be heard without the Spirit dwelling in us. 

In a strange way we live in a world that is hungry for silence – not for the empty silence that grinds everything beneath it. We hunger for a silence that is capable of bearing the fullness of the Word – a silence that is filled with the praise and joy of God.

I remember well that torrent of words and thoughts that swirled around my journey to Orthodoxy. Not only were there the myriad questions and halting debates – the words served as a substitute for action – a noisy hesitation. I also remember the silence of submission when words came to an end and hesitation yielded to God. I have to be honest and say that the condition of my heart was such that these occasions were repetitive. The silence of surrender was frequently followed by another torrent of words only to end again in silence. 

I suspect that my life will continue in that model until it finds its final submission. Words flow until they finally meet their rest in the silence in which the Word reposes. It is a silence that is embraced – not for love of the silence but for love of the Word. It is the silence of the word of Jesus.

In the Midst of Holy Week

April 1, 2010

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. It is not unusual for a service to last three and one-half hours (Lazarus Saturday’s service was about that long), 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.