Paying Attention is the First Step

I’ve so often said that the problem I have with science is that it destroys the beauty of life. When I look at a tree, I want to see the beauty of it, not just the cells which make it up. Like Simba and Pumba stargazing; one sees the souls of the kings past gazing down upon them from the heavens, while the others see balls of gas floating down. When you try to analyze something too strongly, you remove the awe from its very existence and replace it with a different theory, which often times is still incorrect. This can be applied theologically as well. When we try to analyze God too much, we replace the sheer awe of His existence with our own theories, which are often much less correct than the truth of His greatness. I love the fact that in Orthodoxy, the expression “I don’t know” is perfectly acceptable as an answer. We don’t feel the need to have an answer to every question… there are certain things that can always remain a mystery.

This is not to say we replace study with mere imaginings, but rather that we don’t replace the reality of mystery with imagined theories that we can never possibly know the answer to. Rather than remove things that don’t “logically” make sense and replace them with our own explanations in this Eunomian method, creating the faith to be the spiritual equivalent of the Jefferson Bible, we humbly accept that we may not be able to definite an infinite God in our own finite terms.

Original article appears here

In eighth-grade science you took apart a flower and then labeled the parts: pistil, stamen, petal.  But did the flower remain?  You can stretch definitions and say, yes, the sum of these parts is the flower.  It would not, however, be the single chrysanthemum of the corsage you gave the girl you took to the September junior prom.  It did not have the same meaning in the lab that it had on the dance floor, where it was a sign to match her evening of beauty.  In the lab it was an object of dissection; on her gown it was a sign of affection.

Theology is roughly analogous to this distinction.  Throughout history there have been theologians who grindingly tried to define God down to every last thinkable thought, and the end result may be loss rather than gain.  In the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas, for all the great work he did in trying to comprehend every aspect of God in being and behavior, so to speak, reputedly said at the end of his life, “it was all straw.”  This does not mean that Aquinas is unworthy of study; many continue to study his work and the twentieth century saw a revival, called appropriately Neo-Thomism.  For many students, however, Aquinas lacks one crucial approach in his work: wonder and awe.

On the other hand, look at St. Gregory of Nyssa, fourth century theologian whose take was different.  For St. Gregory, God and beauty were intertwined.  He was awed by God and so his approach stressed mystery.  For him, beauty and mystery were also intertwined.  This approach enabled him to realize that we could never comprehend God, never wrap our arms around a definition of God, because there is never an end to our appreciation of beauty.  If we approach God through beauty, then we are always on an uphill path to see more and more of this beauty which is never-ending in this life and, who knows, might extend into any life beyond.  In order to do so, however, we have to see beauty.  And that requires additional steps.

This pathway to God by way of beauty may be seen in another group of theologians, who lived in Syria and other parts of the near east in those early centuries.  Their approach to theology was to write poetry.  Ah!  For St. Ephraim of Syria, for example, the only way to get to God seems to be through metaphor, simile, image and symbol.  These people understood intuitively that God cannot be dissected, labeled, and defined but must be approached through reverent contemplation.  They saw the chrysanthemum and not its individual parts.

Evagrius of Pontus, one of those eastern thinkers of the fourth century, said in his Treatise on Prayer, “If you are a theologian you will pray truly.  If you pray truly you will be a theologian.”  Prayer?  Beauty?  What do these have to do with each other?

Only this: recall the poetic approach of these thinkers.  Poetry is a way to describe your world and yet remain in awe and wonder.  Just like those theologians.  And at the heart of this awe and wonder is the simple, yet profound, act of paying attention.  Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “I don’t know what prayer is.  I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass…”  You can see the twinkle in her eye the same way you can see it in Ephraim the Syrian or Evagrius of Pontus.  This is prayer.  This is theology.  Pay attention!

Original post written by ARCHPRIEST GABRIEL ROCHELLE

On the Early Church

Acts 2:37-43

After having completed his sermon, the Scripture tells us that those who heard were “cut to the heart.” Because of the approach that he had used, using their knowledge of the Old Testament, he was able to disclose to them how Jesus had fulfilled each of the prophecies that had been taught to them. And so, being overwhelmed with this evidence, they were unable to say nothing further, other than, “what shall we do?”

And Peter’s answer defines the Christian life within the Church. “Repent, and be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And to this day, our baptismal service fully reflects this fact. When someone is brought into the Church, we first repent of all of our sinful deeds, confess our sins, and renounce the devil. Secondly, we are baptized, descending into the waters of regeneration as into a tomb, and rising up with Christ in the resurrection and newness of life. And then, through the sacrament of Charismation, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And our whole lives are characterized in this manner. The Christian life is a life of repentance, a life of recognizing all of our sins, repenting of them, confessing them, receiving the absolution of them, and asking the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us away from those transgressions.

And it tells us that “with many other words he testified and exhorted them to ‘be saved from this perverse generation.'” And, we find that “those who gladly received his word were baptized.” It’s important to recognize that they favorably received his word, with pleasure. The Greek word here is “asmenos,” which means “with joy, gladness.” It’s important, because they didn’t succumb to the word, as ones who had lost an argument, or compromised because they felt that he might be right. Rather, because he spoke within a frame of what they already believed, they gladly accepted the truth he taught because it was a logical procession. The prophecies had been spoken, which they accepted, and he merely explained how those prophecies had been fulfilled through Jesus.

What is also paramount to this passage is the chronology of the events presented to us. They received the teachings gladly, were baptized, and then only after each of those things joined the Church. See, one of my greatest “hang-ups” with churches in the West is our focus on numbers. We tend to be far more focused on how many people are in attendance than the actual faith of those who are present. I will never forget being invited, as a teenage anti-theist, to a Catholic Church service and being allowed to partake of the most Holy divine immortal and life creating mysteries, the Eucharist. And to this day, it plagues me that this Church allowed me, at that point a devout anti-theist, to receive the body and blood of our most holy Lord. I contemplate Jesus Himself, who sent away thousands who had no faith and rejected His harder teachings. Jesus, who would rather have had twelve who strongly believed, than thousands who were there for the show. That’s why I love the position of the Eastern Church so much, where some people go years before they are allowed entrance into the Church. This stands in such stark contrast to the Western (primarily) Protestant Church, where I personally know devout atheists who have been allowed to join themselves to the body because no one ever asked them what they believe. I personally know many who will denounce the very teachings of Christ Himself, while in the next breath claiming the name of Christ, and still be allowed to partake of the Eucharist.

And yet, all through the Scriptures, we see how much there is to learn about the faith and the Church before one is allowed to align themselves, join themselves, with the followers of Christ. And such is the pattern given here in this passage as well. Receive the teachings of the Church, believe and embrace them joyfully, be baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then, and only then, be joined to the body of Christ.

And then, this passage concludes by detailing certain central elements of worship; liturgical elements that are indispensable which are prescribe in Holy Scripture. The fellowship of daily assembly, remembering that joining the Church isn’t merely joining a social club, but rather your fellow Christians become your family. Your brother and sister in Christ do not become such merely in superficial nomenclature, they truly become your brother and sister. In the Eucharist, we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we not only join ourselves to Him, but to one another. The breaking of the Eucharistic bread, which is central to our Christian worship. During the Liturgy, we pray, “may the partaking of Thy Holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment or condemnation, but to the healing of soul and body.” This is not merely some symbolic thing that we do once a month, or can replace the elements with, but rather it is the physical and spiritual joining of our lives with Christ for the healing of our souls and bodies, and also the joining together of one another in the body of Christ. As we partake of the divine mysteries, we also join ourselves to one another. Lastly, specific liturgical prayers. Thus those things which the early Church did were to maintain the tradition (doctrine) of the apostles, met daily for liturgical prayer and fellowship, and break the Eucharistic bread. And the end result of this “formula” (for lack of a better word), “Fear came upon many souls, and many wonders and signs were done.”

There is a very popular trend in American churches that states that miracles no longer. It states that the supernatural gifts and wonders ceased with the close of canon. And yet, the Scriptures themselves never attest to this ideology. to the contrary, St Paul references the miracles performed by the Prophet Elias and that he (Elias) was a man just like us. To say that God has ceased to work these signs and wonders would be to say that God has changed, which is a direct contradiction of the Scriptures. Thus, if the Scriptures are to be believed, then it is we who must have changed. Perhaps God no longer performs miracles and signs and wonders because we don’t believe that He can or will.

Those who joined the first Church dedicated their lives to the teachings of the apostles, to the Church. They met daily; they received Eucharist together; they never once argued about what was required of them or what they could get away with. Instead, they “gladly received” the teachings of the Church. Contrast that to our current generation. We disbelieve that God can work miracles; we argue about what “works” are or aren’t required of us; we use prayer merely to hand God our shopping list and then question His existence if we don’t get everything that we want to suit our carnal desires. In the early Church, prayer was liturgical, and it was centered solely around glorifying God. God has never changed. And God’s Church, which St Paul calls the “pillar and foundation of truth,” has never changed. We have. We no longer want to gather just to glorify God, we want God to make us feel better, to give us stuff.

We have changed, my brethern. We have rejected God, we have made Him impotent, and we have rejected His Church. May we all, my brothers and sisters, repent, turn away from this world, and all of it’s “wisdom” and Eunomian precepts, and embrace the true faith. Let us seek Him, let us abide in His commands, and let us embrace the traditions which have been handed down to us throughout the centuries, in word and in epistle.

Christ is Risen!!!

On Evangelism

Acts 2:22-36

Peter concludes his sermon here, right after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church. Having begun by explaining the Prophecy fulfilled by quoting from the book of Joel, he begins to show how the Resurrection was also foretold. And he goes to great length to explain it in such a manner as to not offend the sensibilities of those who are listening, which would thereby get them on the defensive.

Look at what prudence he uses when he begins this. “Men of Israel,” he begins. While this seems like such a small matter, and certainly is not used as a means of flattery, he addresses them as such so as to put them in the mind of their ancestor, Israel. “Hear these words,” he continues. Not a harsh command, not “LISTEN TO ME!” or even “do as I command,” but simply hear these words. It’s important to realize that he is addressing them very matter of factly, but not confrontationally. “Jesus of Nazareth,” he continues. He realized that in beginning this way, he was showing no bias, no matter of opinion that could be contested. None could argue that Jesus was indeed from Nazareth. To the opposing side, so proclaiming would actually set them at ease, considering that Nazareth was not a place of high esteem. Remembering the words of the apostle, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” And, again, it’s important to note that there is no great claim made in his beginning about Jesus that would set them on the defensive. There was no claim about His divinity, or about His wisdom. Merely His name and His earthly origin.

“A man attested to by God to you by signs and miracles which God did through Him.” Again, we see this slowly building up, and yet, he makes no claim that it was Jesus Himself who had done these things, but rather God working through Him. This is vital, because, having put them in the mindset of their ancestors, they could not deny God’s ability to work through people. And lest anyone question that God had in fact worked through Jesus, Peter uses their own witness against them. “miracles, signs, and wonders which God did through Him, as you yourself know.” They had personally seen it all themselves, the lame walking, the blind seeing, the mute speaking. There was no room for disbelief; through their own witness they could not deny the signs which God had performed through Jesus.

And this is important. Peter had thus far sought to prove to them that Jesus had done nothing wrong in the eyes of God. All of these signs and miracles were truly of God, and they themselves bore witness to this fact. For only God Himself could raise the dead, could restore sight to the blind, could make the lame to walk.

And then, he does something which seems to make no sense to anyone. He seeks to acquit them of the grievous crime which they had been a part of. “By the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you delivered into lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” It’s the first part which is ever so important here. “By the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God.” He draws on this to show the comparison to them of Joseph and his brothers. They (the brothers) had sold Joseph into slavery, and yet God allowed it to happen in His foreknowledge. In Genesis, we read the words of Joseph, “do not be grieved or angry with one another: for God sent me before you to save your life.” (Genesis 45:5 LXX). See how Peter continues to appeal to their knowledge of the Torah. Though they had sought the death of Jesus, it was not their will which they carried out, but God’s will. It was not they who had ordained the crucifixion of our Lord, but God the Father. And, as Joseph had taught to his beloved brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God used it for good.” (Genesis 50:20 LXX). Likewise, this wickedness that they had done, now revealed to them, was revealed to be not wicked, but rather a part of God’s plan, of which they were involved.

And Peter concludes this homily with the statement that “This Jesus, whom God raised up, of which we are all witnesses…and having received the promise from the Father of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now both see and hear.” He actively seeks to explain to them that it is not drunkenness which they are witnessing, neither any sort of “mental disorder,” but rather is the very fulfillment of the promise which was given by the Prophet Joel and reiterated by our Lord Jesus.

It’s important to note that throughout this entire message, this “homily,” if you will, Peter never once seeks to offend. He never seeks to argue, or cause discord, but rather appeals to the truths which his listeners already affirm. Rather than an aggressive approach, he takes what he already know them to believe, and merely seeks to teach Christ as the “missing link” which ties it all together.

This is an ever so important lesson for all of us to remember. When we seek to teach the truth about Christ to others, we have to bear in mind where they currently are, and show them His hand in the midst of it. The biggest mistake we could ever make is to attack what someone currently believes and seek to “fight” them on our terms. We so often seek to use the Holy Scriptures as a foundation of an argument with someone who doesn’t believe in the Scriptures. If someone doesn’t believe in the Scripture and that is the foundation of our argument, then our whole argument becomes meaningless. Or, we seek to use the Holy Tradition of the Church as our foundation in an argument against someone who believes in the heretical doctrine of “Sola Scriptura.” Again, in so doing, we make our arguments laughable, because we are using something that someone is opposed to as the foundation of why the should believe it. A homosexual who doesn’t believe in the Scriptures will never accept a reference to Leviticus as a reason that they should repent of their sin. Likewise, a “non-denominational Evangelical” will never accept the council of Nicea as an acceptable reference point. We must be well versed in the beliefs of any that we encounter, should we choose to challenge their beliefs. Someone who disbelieves Scripture must be reproved with science, someone who believes in “Sola Scriptura” must be reproved using Scripture. So often, rather than meeting them on their ground, we seek to argue with someone based on our own beliefs. However, much more effectively, as we see from Peter here and Paul elsewhere (Acts 17:23), it is much more effective to take what we know someone to already believe and show them the grace of Jesus in those beliefs.

Let us be cautious of falling into this very trap, my beloved brethern. Let us meet, instead, our neighbors on their own grounds, in their own beliefs, and show them the hand of God in the midst of those beliefs. Let us never attack someone, or condemn them, for such is not our job. Rather, let us reveal to them the truth of God in the midst of their own lives. Love them, pray for them, and allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to help them. We can never argue someone into salvation, we don’t “score a victory for the kingdom” when we post random verses and offend people. Rather, when our lives are filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, others see that and seek it, and then we answer what they ask. “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” -St Seraphim of Sarov

Christ is Risen!

The Way

The very choice to seek the truth or to adjust it to oneself is made in the depths of the human spirit.  There is no one there, and not even God influences the heart.  And it is in this secret choice that the reason for the pre-election or rejection of a person is rooted.  God has revealed to all of us the only way to salvation, and therefore will not have mercy on those who have not sought Him.  The one who, in the depths of his heart, decided to seek God, is already among God’s chosen ones.  And now, during the New Testament, the Lord will not leave him alone.  He will certainly send a preacher to him, who will proclaim the way of salvation to him.

Hieromartyr Daniel Sysoev.

The Great Hospital

So, a little over a month ago, someone reached out to me. They were just leaving a doctor’s appointment and were therefore in the area, so he was wondering if I would like to meet up for an early lunch and to play catch up. This was during Great Lent, so I couldn’t really partake of the feasting, but the conversation and company seemed more than appealing, so I was more than happy to oblige.

We met up and discussed a variety of things, from science and politics to family life to philosophy; among a myriad of other topics as well. At one point I mentioned that it was Great Lent and how proud I was of my son, who for the first time was keeping the fast, and doing a great job of it. So that began a conversation about the rules of fasting in general, what was and wasn’t allowed, exceptions, etc. I pointed out that my wife, for health reasons, had received the blessing of the Church to keep a slightly altered form of the fast. And apparently, that statement struck a cord with him. Not because she was keeping a different fast than my son and I were, but it was the statement that she had received the blessing of the Church. It began a monologue about how the Church shouldn’t have that much power over our lives and how we shouldn’t have to obtain permission from the Church, and who is this one person that he should be allowed to determine if we keep the traditional fast and so on. And he looked dead at me and said, “the Church shouldn’t be allowed to tell someone what they can and can’t eat. If this one priest can change the tradition, then what does that say about the traditions themselves?”

And so I explained to him in the best possible way that I could think to, that the Church is our hospital. It’s the hospital of the soul, and things like fasting, prayer rules, etc are given to us as tools for our spiritual and physical health. In the Didache, we are taught to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays out of reverence for what happened on those two days (the betrayal and the crucifixion), but those two weekly fast days also serve to help discipline our bodies, to bring our bodies into submission so that we don’t as easily become enslaved to our passions. Our regular prayer rule serves to bring us before the Lord to begin our day, refocusing on Him during the midday hours, and then end our day in communion with Him. It also serves to help us to relax and turn away from the distractions of life, even if for only an hour or so a day.

What’s funny to me is that dietitians have now come out as stating that intermittent fasting is indeed helpful to the body; that meditation (or prayer) is very useful for dealing with stress and anxiety; that the scent of frankincense is helpful in calming one’s mind. The very disciplines that the Church has been teaching for millenia, science has finally admitted, although relabeling it in more secular terms. He came out stating that I needed to trust science and not religion, and I was able to honestly respond that the science that they are only now releasing is taking the tenets of thousands of years of Church teaching and rebranding it.

But even more ironically, what I pointed out was that he had just gone to a doctor’s appointment, where the doctor told him that his cholesterol was elevated and he needed to watch his diet. And though he intended to obey, he was sitting there eating a breakfast sandwich with eggs, cheese, bacon, and sausage using french toast for the bread. I pointed out to him on the one hand that he had just gone to the doctor who had told him that eating habits like that were detrimental to his health, and yet, because his body desired it, he was throwing caution to the wind and caving to his passion; something I was able to avoid solely through the discipline of the Church. And the second thing that I pointed out to him was that he had just paid a doctor to tell him what he could and couldn’t eat; whereas the Church freely offers this direction to any who come into it. Many people pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to sit and have someone listen to them talk about everything that’s wrong in their life and receive advice, while in the Church not only is this offered, but is expected of us in confession. We freely receive this same therapy that the secular world pays so much money for. People pay so much money for self-help and TED talks, and we receive those same motivational teachings for free every week, and often times multiple times a week, during the priests homilies. And they are more productive, because they are rooted in the Gospel. He on the other hand had just paid someone hundreds of dollars to do exactly what he said that the Church should have no power to do, tell him what to eat.

For those who are not in the one true, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, I fully understand. I understand the reticence to be obedient to the Church. It means admitting that you are not in control of every aspect of your life. And that’s so hard for us to do in this culture, in this generation. It’s so hard to surrender that facade of control that we all seem to think we have over every part of our lives. But, for those of us in the Church, the Church is a hospital. It’s a place where sick people (sinners) go for healing (salvation); and much like going to the doctor, we have to go in and be honest about what’s wrong, receive the prescription, and obey it to be made whole again. The biggest difference between our hospital and the world’s hospital is that the world’s hospital can delay death and make us a little more comfortable; in our hospital death no longer holds any power, having lost it’s sting through the power of the resurrection.

I am not a doctor. If I start feeling ill or having chest pains, I go to an expert to seek treatment. I’m not a mechanic. If my car starts having problems, I take it to a mechanic, someone who knows what’s wrong and how to fix it. If I seek help in those small trivial matters, why would I not take full advantage of those experts who can help me with something as important as eternity? And likewise, if I go to a doctor or a mechanic, and they tell me something that I need to do to prevent those things happen again, I would adhere to their advice. So, why would I not adhere to those things which the Church instructs me as well? It makes no sense to me that a doctor can tell someone what to and not to eat and they would obey it, meanwhile the Church says not to eat certain things for a temporary period of time and they would immediately argue it. The Church says that you are awake 16-20 hours a day, dedicate one of them incrementally to prayer and everyone says that’s zealous, but Marvel releases a new movie and suddenly an hour doesn’t seem that long. You get on Facebook and suddenly you complain that you only have an hour to scroll through the highlight reel of the lives of people you’ve never met; constantly bombarding yourself with images of things you don’t have, rather than taking that time to be in communion with the One who gave you everything you do have.

The life of a Christian seems foolish and almost laughable to anyone who is not in the Church; as St Paul tells us, “If the dead do not rise, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32), and again, “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, then we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). If Christ is not risen then our faith is futile and we have sacrificed so much of our physical pleasure in the name of faith. And yet, “Christ is risen from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20). And if Christ is risen then we are of all men most blessed. For we have received His inheritance, obey Him alone as the Lord and Master of our lives, and we grow to be more like Him every day, through the healing of our souls. And that healing, that salvation, comes through the truth, of which the Church is the “pillar and foundation.” Our hospital, our experts, leading us to the Physician. To whom belongs all glory, honor and majesty.

Christ is risen!

A Reflection on Pascha

So having just completed our Paschal services, and beginning Bright Week in the Orthodox Church, I’ve been contemplating a lot recently on what it means to say “Christ is risen!” In so contemplating, I began to think about my journey of faith, from childhood through leaving the Church, through rediscovering my faith and the entire process.

There have been during the course of my journey two prominent churches that stood out to me, which I shall not name. However, what I will say of each of them is that one of them taught me to be heavily vested in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a very emotional attachment to the faith; and the other taught me the value and importance of discernment, the value of testing everything against the Scriptures and how to reconcile those things which I was taught with the teaching of the Holy Scriptures to ensure that they were correct; akin to a modern day version of the Bereans. Each of those two taught me very valuable lessons, the like of which I am extremely grateful to God for. While seeming to be polar opposites on the surface, each of them were invaluable to me to teach the importance of each aspect of faith.

And then, one day, I was posed a question, by a prominent Protestant pastor. The question was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Forget everything you know about church, everything you know about theology, just forget all of that. Now, if you were stranded on an island for three years, with nothing but the Bible, and you read it day in and day out for all three years; and then you were to get off of the island and go to a church in America, would that church look anything like you would have imagined based on the Scripture?” And, the very honest answer, that I’m sure even the most devoted evangelical would give, is no. Not even close. So, after hearing that and deeply, prayerfully, contemplating that, I began to observe more and more each time I went to church, in order to return to the Church of the New Testament, what would have to change? And I found myself more and more going to services and thinking, “okay, this would need to change, and this would need to change, and…” so on and so on. I began studying the Catholic Church, against my better judgment, because it’s roots were much deeper than the Protestant Church.

And then a very valuable thing happened, I heard about Hank Hanegraaf converting to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I was wondering, “what is THAT?” I had never even heard of it. So, I began researching it more and more. And, as God would have it, I came into possession of a book (as good Protestant aspiring theologians seek) called, “Becoming Orthodox,” by Peter Gilliquist. And it was the founders of the “Campus Crusade for Christ,” and a detailed account of their search for the New Testament Church, the search for the Church that we read about in the Book of Acts. I won’t go really into detail about this book, but I will say that I highly recommend it. Basically, they divided into groups based on the important elements of Church, of prayer, of worship; and once they had all done years of research, they came to the conclusion that the Church of the New Testament, the Church that we read about and aspire to come to, still existed, and it was the Orthodox Church.

All of this was rekindled in me as we celebrated Holy Week last week, and the Passion of Good Friday last Friday; the descent into Hades on Saturday, and the Resurrection Saturday night/Sunday morning. It was all rekindled in me, because I started thinking about how exactly I had gotten here.

See, as a Protestant, I was taught all about the Resurrection from a very strong academic view. I was taught that Christ had been crucified 2000 years ago, was placed in the tomb, and was resurrected on the third day. But, it was almost like reading a history book, and a history book about something that I was chronologically challenged, that since I was born almost two centuries later, that I could never experience. Even the reenactments of “Maundy Thursday” and all of the movies never gave me the true sense of what was happening. Basically, it was “Christ died and was risen, and sorry kid, you missed it.”

And that’s what I love so much about the Orthodox Church. It’s not past tense, it’s not something that I missed due to the chronological challenge of being birthed nearly two thousand years after the fact, because our God exists outside of time. During Holy Week, we relive the whole experience of it all. We proclaim Hosanna as our savior rides into Jerusalem. We weep bitter tears as He is tried and crucified; we celebrate Saturday His descent into the depths of Hades to rescue the souls of those trapped therein. And then, on Pascha, we begin the vigil in tears and prostration before the tomb, in near total darkness; only to have procession and then end in the Sanctuary joyfully proclaiming that Christ is Risen. Christ IS Risen, not two thousand years ago, but today. Not theoretically, not historically, but in present day reality. He is resurrected, and we with Him, every day of our lives. As many as died with Christ in baptism are made alive with Him.

And THAT is the fullness of the faith, not studiously, but experientially. Not only to learn about Christ, but to experience Him as well. And that is what I have been contemplating on. My journey. I will never regret any of the time that I spent in any of the churches that I have encountered, because each of them taught me foundational truths that were necessary for me to experience the fullness of the faith. I love the very emotional approach of the Church that I was initially baptized in, because it taught me to love the feeling of being in the presence of God and to not overthink that feeling, to not try to rationalize away those feelings which the Holy Spirit Himself placed in me. I love the studious approach to Scripture that I learned in the other prominent influence in my life, because it taught me a degree of respect for the Scripture which I don’t know if I would ever have otherwise attained.

But, even more, I love the Orthodox Church because it ties the two together in a way that makes it truly real in my life. We have a very strict doctrine which is fully based on the Scriptures which has been preserved by millenia of tradition; while at the same time making it very real in our lives. So that, every Sunday, we are able to partake of that divine mystery of the Holy Eucharist. We are able to join ourselves every Sunday to the pure body and blood of our Lord. Every year on Holy Week, we are able to live the anguish, the joy, the sorrow, the excitement, the hope, and the truth that Christ IS risen, not just once 2000 years ago, but every day in our lives. Christ is risen, and we are risen with Him, and thus death itself has lost it’s sting, because our Lord has defeated the power of death itself. The wholeness of the faith that St Paul writes about is not a studious look at the historical resurrection, but rather the power of that Resurrection in our lives themselves.

“Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us: a new and holy Pascha, a mystical Pascha, a Pascha worthy of veneration, a Pascha which is Christ the Redeemer, a blameless Pascha, a great Pascha, a Pascha of the faithful, a Pascha which has opened for us the gates of paradise, a Pascha that sanctifies the faithful…So the sinners will perish before the face of God, but let the righteous be glad…This is the day of Resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call brothers even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection. And so let us cry out:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
Christ IS risen from the dead!!!” (from the Paschal Stichera).

Christ is risen!!

Great and Holy Week

Article originally appears at Pravmir.

This very day is clothed with the bright robes of the first-fruits of the Lord’s passion.
Come, then, all feast lovers, let us welcome it with songs.
(Kathisma, Holy Monday)

We have arrived, my beloved, at the saving Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, at Holy and Great Week. This week is called Great, because in its 168 hours from today until the night of the Resurrection, we give honor to great events, unique and world historic, which shocked the earth, the heavens, and that which is below the earth. This is why this week is called Great, and it is why it should not pass us by like all the others.

And I put forward the question: What are the duties of a Christian for Holy and Great Week? I am not addressing unbelievers, atheists or chiliasts; I am addressing believers who want to celebrate properly. What therefore are our duties during this week?

The first duty, my brethren, is to thank our Lord Jesus Christ from the bottom of our hearts. Of course, our whole life must be a thank you, a “Glory be to You, O Lord”, for His small and great benefactions, the visible and the invisible, for all the good things, material and spiritual, that His grace abides in; the sun, air, water, flowers, beaches, all over the place. We should also thank Him for our parents and siblings, our spouse and children, for times and seasons, for what is blessed and necessary. An ungrateful person is worse than an animal. You have a dog, you throw him a piece of bread, and he wags his tail and says thank you. People also must be grateful to God. To thank Him for everything, but above all for the sacrifice of His Son, for His revered Passion. We would also like to thank Him for something else; for His longsuffering in so many of our crimes and blasphemies, for which the earth should open up to swallow us and the sea to swell to drown us, and yet it tolerates us. That is why on Great Friday the Church says, “Glory to Your longsuffering, O Lord, glory to You.”

So one of our duties is to thank God. The other is to follow the sacred services. The services of Great Week are not like the others; they differ in many ways. The hymns are sweeter than honey, those inspired poems, such as the lamentations at the tomb, these exist in no other religion in the world. These hymns alone, which neither the Franks or the Protestants or anyone else possess, are enough to prove that our Church is not of this earth, but of heaven, inspired by God. Who did these? Where were they written? In schools and universities? They were done in caves by holy ascetics, as their tears fell to the ground and blossomed. They were not simply written with the mind and due to their education, but they were the blood of their hearts, of healthy feelings, an expression of life, of holy experiences, truths, which only those who truly love Christ can have. One must be unconscious so as not to be moved.

Our third duty is to fast. This week is a week of fasting, strict fasting. Don’t listen to the materialists and the impious. We keep the fasts of our holy Church, and especially this fast, as a tradition of the apostles and fathers of Orthodoxy. When we talk about fasting, we do not simply mean the fasting of the stomach to remember the vinegar of the cross, but with the fasting of the stomach our mouths must also fast from bad-mouthing, our tongue from obscenity, our eyes from filthy spectacles. During these days in Byzantine times the emperors would sign a decree: Great Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Pascha Sunday the hippodromes and all the theaters were closed. The Church is in mourning. If we were a Christian nation, centers of corruption would have to be closed from Great Monday, for mourning to be established for the One who was raised up for us on the cross.

But we have another duty. It is the duty of Confession and Divine Communion. I will not expand on this, but will only say that during these holy days, and especially on the night of the Resurrection, we are called to stay in church till the end with our Resurrection candle. Whoever hears “Christ is Risen” and then leaves, it would be preferable if they had just stayed home. That which takes place, where the churches empty after “Christ is Risen”, is a desecration, a contempt for Christ. Let us remain therefore until the end and prepare to receive Divine Communion. This week is especially a week for Divine Communion. What is Divine Communion? The Body and Blood of our Christ, fire from heaven. I ask, what are you? Are you straw? If so, then do not approach the holy things, otherwise you will burn. Are you gold? If you are gold, then gold is not threatened by the fire; the more it approaches the fire the more it is cleansed. So if you are a Christian, and remain unrepentant, the fire will burn you, just like it burned Judas who communed unworthily. But if you have gone through the furnace of sacred Confession, then approach; Divine Communion will be for you a medicine of immortality.

During Holy and Great Week we also have a sacred duty to our brethren who are suffering and are in need. It is a week of love and mercy. Give a fine meal to someone who is hungry, a new piece of clothing – not old and used – to someone who doesn’t have any, help a widow and an orphan, give some medicine to someone who needs it, visit someone who is sick, give a consoling word to someone that is sad, do whatever a heart of love thinks it can.

What I have said is nothing. There is something else which is more difficult. If you do everything we have said so far, and don’t do this last thing, then you are not a Christian. What is it? I know Christians who are people of prayer, whose ears are drawn to sacred words, who fast strictly, who confess and commune, but few are the Christians who have – what? “Let us forgive all things with the Resurrection” (Doxastikon of the Praises, Pascha Sunday). Great Week is a week of forgiveness. Who, my brethren, in this life has no dislikes, coldness, contradictions, who does not have an enemy? During these holy days let us look up towards the Crucified One. No one was wronged or hurt like our Christ. While the nails ripped into His flesh, at the same time the curses and anathemas of the Pharisees ripped into His heart, yet He prayed on the cross, saying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Let us forgive one another therefore during these holy days; brides and mothers in-law, brothers and sisters, friends with friends, children with parents, all without exception. Let us expand our hearts, let us feel the love of our Christ within us. How can we celebrate without love?

My brethren! Holy and Great Week equals a hand open to mercy, eyes with tears of repentance, feet that hasten to church, hearts reconciled, full of worship towards the Crucified One. Do we perform these duties? Do you know who we are like? We are like a beggar who every day has fifteen cents thrown at him, but one day a certain king passes by him and says, “Open your pockets!” and begins to count 1, 2, 3,… 5,… 10,… 100,… 168 gold coins that dazzle his eyes. And he, instead of taking this treasure to use it, he goes to the river and throws the gold coins in the water. Isn’t this insanity? These hours therefore that the Church gives us is a treasure. Every hour, every bell ring, every beat, every second, is an important hour.

Let us take advantage of these holy days. Let us not allow them to escape from us like the rest of our lives. Do we know if we will live to celebrate another Great Week? Perhaps this Great Week is the last of our lives? How many people did we have with us last year? Where are they now? We are leaving, the train is whistling, only once do we go through life with this skin.

I pray this Holy and Great Week is an important milestone in our lives. May the Lord give us this week holy thoughts, holy feelings, heroic decisions, sanctification of the soul. May we seal Holy Week with the words, “Remember me, Lord, when You come into Your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42).

Source: (This homily was recorded live from the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Moschato, Athens on April 10, 1960. Translation by John Sanidopoulos.)

The Eleventh Hour

So, you’re lying on the couch in the evening, watching some random show on the television receiving a much needed escape from all of the tensions and anxieties of the world. With a dim light in the background and the window blinds wide open, you are relaxing and fall asleep during your viewing. And then, a few hours later, you awaken, blinds still wide open, just before sunrise. The television is still playing, and you look around and find everything seems perfectly ordered, so you just lie there a few more minutes. And then something happens, the sun begins to rise. And as the warm glow of sunlight begins to seep in through the windows, you begin to notice some of the dust that has accumulated in your house. You notice a cobweb which has formed perfectly in the corner where the ceiling and the walls meet. You notice some of the dust which has formed under the table secretly on the hardwood floor. So, you stop looking around and shift your focus back to the television, and notice that it is getting harder and harder to see what is on the screen. As the sunlight begins to brighten, the screen on the television begins to seem dimmer and dimmer. At this exact moment, you have one of three options; you can either close your eyes and go back to sleep, you can throw closed the blinds and continue in your distraction, or you can embrace the light of the rising sun, turn away from the distractions, and begin to clean.

To me, this is the perfect image of what Great and Holy Lent is. This is the perfect image of our Lenten journey, our journey towards the Resurrection. We have all, you and I alike, fallen asleep in our distractions, in our darkness, and now as we near the Resurrection of our Lord, we slowly see the dawn rising and must make this same decision; will we close our eyes and go back to sleep, will we continue in our distraction and block out the light of our Christ, or will we embrace the light and turn away from our distractions, allowing his light to reveal to us that dust that we have allowed to accumulate in our lives? St John the Theologian warns us that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have communion with him and yet walk in darkness, we lie-and do not practice the truth.” (1 John 1:5-6).

See, Lent is this great time. It’s the time for us to turn away from these carnal passions and lusts, from these distractions. To no longer allow the lights of cell phones and televisions to illuminate our lives, but to throw open the blinds and allow the light of Christ, the true light, to reveal to us all of the places that we have allowed this dust to accumulate in our lives. To allow this pure light to come in and drown out our distractions and help us to focus on what is important. In so doing, he reveals to us our strengths and our weaknesses, and to be truly profitable, we must focus on and confess those weaknesses, knowing that it is in our weaknesses that his strength is truly revealed. It is through our humility that his glory is revealed. It is through our faults that his healing is magnified. Every morning we pray, “if thou hast mercy on a righteous man, it is no great thing, if thou savest a pure man, it is nothing wonderful since they are deserving of thy mercy. Rather, make known the wonder of thy mercy in me, who am wretched, sinful, and defiled and show thy compassion. Poor in all good works, I am a pauper, abandoned to thee. Save me for thy mercy’s sake O Lord, for blessed art thou, unto the generations of generations.” It is when we truly grasp our weakness that we learn that his grace is sufficient. And we must understand that the more we embrace that light, the more dust will be revealed, and thus the more grace we shall receive. Once we, through the grace of God, overcome the larger sins, then the smaller ones will be made known to us. I once read, when asked “what do you do in the monastery,” a monk replied, “we fall, we get up again.” And that characterizes perfectly the life of any Christian. We strive for the “righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21), we fall, we get up. And each time, it serves as a great chance for our spiritual growth.

This week marks the final week of Great and Holy Lent. Regardless of how any of us have done thus far during this years journey, let us remember the parable fo the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20). The workers who were hired in the first hour (6 AM) received the same pay, one denarius, as though who were hired in the 11th hour (5 PM). It is not too late, my brethern, to open the blinds and allow the light of Christ to shine in and reveal all of the dust we have allowed while drowning in the distractions of this world. Whether we have perfectly kept the fast from day one, or whether we have stumbled along up to this very point, Lent can, in fact, be equally profitable to each of us, we have but to open the blinds.

Christ is in our midst.

Persevere and Avoid Irritability

Original article appears here.

We are quickly approaching the middle of Lent! Our refrigerators have been depleted of non-fasting foods that happened to be there and are restocked with simple but satisfying foods. Our palette, having gone a few weeks without rich fats and proteins, is becoming more sensitive and easy to satisfy. Our stomachs, having at first rebelled against the fast, are now humbled and happy to have just about anything. Raw carrots are surprisingly sweet, and a plain piece of bread has a great variety of favors!

Yet our adversary, the devil, seeing our honorable efforts and the calming of the passions that is blossoming within us, has a new phase of temptation in store. Our humbled and wearied flesh is not so easily moved by his impulsive and carnal temptations any more, so he falls back on a simple, but effective weapon: irritability.

The Church teaches us clearly that when we restrain ourselves for the sake of virtue, which is to deprive ourselves of worldly things in exchange for heavenly things, we are tempted almost immediately by irritability. We are not used to being deprived of the things we desire, and the spiritual energy that was devoted to that which we’ve given up backs up within us, causing a state of spiritual imbalance. The self-restraint is a good thing! But we must redirect the surplus of spiritual energy, or the imbalance will burst out in ways such as irritability, anxiety, frustration, or simply accepting back what we’ve given up. So how do we redirect this energy? Prayer and prayerfulness.

We are taught that fasting is always accompanied by prayer. This means corporate worship, personal prayer, and a general sense of increased prayerfulness: that is, awareness of divine things, watchfulness, and a longing for God. When we feel tempted or pulled towards irritability during a fast, for no apparent reason or for typical “Lenten” reasons (car breaks down, irritable neighbor, increased demands, plans interrupted, that sense of “when it rains it pours,” etc.), we must consciously take hold of that energy going the wrong direction (towards anger, escape, despair, etc.) and turn it towards prayer and prayerfulness. In the moment of temptation, take a deep breath, acknowledge inwardly that these things are attacks against the spiritual focus you have committed yourself to, accept what is as God’s providence in your life at that moment, and pray inwardly, “Lord have mercy . . . Lord, I trust You will reward me for my feeble perseverance . . . Lord, my life is so soft and easy most of the time, yet I am thankless. Glory to You for all things!”

In this way our fasting takes life spiritually. It is transformed from a dead list of rules to which we submit into a way of life, a new existence, a spiritual experience, a journey by which we, with the grace of God, will increase in faith, depth, and wisdom. Christ endured crucifixion for our sake. May we endure for His sake also.

-ARCHPRIEST THADDAEUS HARDENBROOK