Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ten Years

I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church ten years ago today (liturgically speaking; as Pascha is a moveable feast, the actual calendar date doesn't matter so much). My family came up to Tulsa from West Texas, and a cute, petite blonde sat in a pew a little ways back (holding my then-baby cousin through the whole liturgy--one of the longest of the year!). She would be chrismated that December, and we would be married the following June.

It was the second Pascha I had witnessed--the first being a dark whirlwind that ended in blinding light and Al Masih Qam stuck in my head for weeks. Since then, it's been everything from Bay Leaves to Kulich to newborns to little white dresses to taking off a couple of teaching days (to "cushion the blow" of Holy Friday through Pascha) to staying up to get candle wax out of a cassock (a never ending job) to Pysanky to Shiner Bock beer in a pascha basket. Last year and this year--and, God willing, next year--are, of course, distinct for their being spent in the Northeast US at SVS. There are differences, of course--I miss the Pascha night multilingual gospel reading that we so enjoyed in parish life--but the joy of Pascha has been identical in all eleven times I've seen it...there is nothing in this world like it. This is both purposeful, and yet sad. There can be nothing like it in this world, and yet, paradoxically, all in this world is called to share in its light. Or, to hijack a phrase someone wrote about Flannery O'Conner's Catholic faith, Pascha is not "the only thing that one must see in this world, but it is the light by which all else must be seen."

One of the things that no doubt gave me pause and activated the famous "raised eyebrow" I have bequeathed to my third daughter was the changing of the liturgical colors to white and the placing of the Harrowing of Hell icon (see the sidebar) in the center icon podium. Why do that, I would ask, if it is not Pascha yet?

Answer? We just can't help ourselves.

Our change to these colors almost seems a slip, a liturgical wink and nod, if you will. We have just walked with our Lord through the Passion by way of hearing the Gospel accounts; that sacrament of hearing leads to lamentation, where we hear the Mother of God weep tragically:
"Where dost Thou go, my Child? Why dost Thou run so swiftly? Is there another wedding in Cana, and art Thou hastening there, to turn the water into wine? Shall I go with Thee, my Child, or shall I wait for Thee? Speak some word to me, O Word; do not pass me by in silence. Thou hast preserved my virginity, and Thou art my Son and God." (Ikos of Small Compline for Holy Friday)
Yet the Old Testament readings read over the tomb and the accompanying hymns make clear already what those first Christians read in the Hebrew Scriptures after having witnessed the death of Christ: "Arise...arise...arise."

I've often wondered why some folks in the Church tend to fixate on the penitential aspects of the faith--whether as a good thing (the wide-eyed, hand-on-heart, "ah, yes, I am--[faux pained sigh]--the chief of sinners") or a bad thing (i.e., the folks with almost an allergy to anything ascetic or demanding in the faith: "Oh, great, three more hours of 'I hate myself' hymnography")--when, as my middle girl has told me all week in dark-hued Holy Week services, "Yeah, but, Jesus isn't really dead!" The secret that's behind "abstain[ing] from passions as we abstain from food," as we sang at Lent's outset is leaked gloriously on this day and declared joyously tonight through the words of our father among the saints, John Chrysostom: "Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast." The ascetical practice we have here of praying the psalms in shifts during the night following Holy Friday is similarly glorious; we are asking this One who lies dead to arise and overthrow the adversaries of our souls, for the dead do not rise up to praise Him. Our darkened solemnity is always backlit by the reality of an empty tomb. A tortured God who lies dead accomplishes more than all the machinations of men as He rests in this New Sabbath of Sabbaths from His recreation of the whole cosmos.

"All lights are now extinguished, except one lamp in the sanctuary. So the period of the Lenten Triodion comes to a close, and at once there begin Mattins of the Resurrection." ~ Closing words of Metr. KALLISTOS' edition of the Triodion

I ask your prayers for more years in our Lord's blessed community of faith. Joyous Feast to all. In anticipation: Christ is risen! Cristo ha resucitado! Христос воскрес! Χριστός ἀνέστη!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"What Do I Do / When it Seems I Relate to Judas More than You?"

An old fav popped into my head at liturgy this morning. Poor Old Lu, anyone?

Two stichera from today's Matins Praises:

"Judas the transgressor at the supper dipped his hand into the dish with Thee, O Lord /
yet sinfully he reached out his hands to receive the money. /
He reckoned up the value of the oil of myrrh, /
and yet was not afraid to sell Thee who art above all price. /
He stretched out his feet to be washed, /
yet deceitfully he kissed the Master and betrayed Him to the breakers of the Law. /
Cast out of the company of the apostles, /
he threw away the thirty pieces of silver, /
and did not Thy Resurrection on the third day. //
Through this Thy Resurrection have mercy on us."

"Judas, servant and deceiver, /
disciple and traitor, /
friend and false accuser, /
was revealed by his deeds. /
For he followed the Master, /
yet inwardly he plotted to betray Him. /
He said in himself: 'I shall deliver Him up /
and gain the money that is promised.' /
He desired the oil of myrrh to be sold /
and Jesus to be taken by deceit. /
He gave a kiss and handed over Christ; /
and the Lord went as a sheep to the slaughter, //
for He alone is compassionate and loves mankind."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Mystery of Bodies and Words

A full week. The seminary community put forth a relatively strenuous effort this past week with, in addition to the normal lenten daily Matins/Vespers and Wed. Presanctified, a reading of the entire Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and a reading of the life of St. Mary of Egypt on Thursday morning (beginning at 6am), followed by another Presanctified Liturgy at noon the same day. Akathist to the Theotokos w/Matins was served Friday evening, followed by a Saturday liturgy the next morning, Vigil for the Resurrection last night, and liturgy this morning.

The body is a mystery. I spoke today with the husband of a dear friend of mine from college when we went to the zoo this afternoon (having three small children necessitates going more kid-friendly places, even if the company is currently without children of their own). He, a devout Evangelical Protestant, is nonetheless open to certain questions that some Evangelicals have been looking for answers to in the Orthodox Church. Consequently, the tension held between bodily, physical life and spiritual renewal and life is a mystery with which he is comfortable. The both/and of asceticism--where (ideally) our bodily efforts translate into steps towards sanctification (with the understanding that such is a participation in, and not an earning of, something that has already been freely made available to man apart from any effort or merit of man)--has been apparent during the fast.

Clean Week, the first week of Lent for Orthodox Christians--was full of lengthy services, much psalmody, and many prostrations, along with very little food, which left us exhausted, dazed, and hungry. This hunger for many folks was broken after several days with the Eucharist on Wednesday, when we traditionally celebrate the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (so called because an extra portion of bread is offered during the previous Sunday's liturgy and is changed by the Holy Spirit, according to Orthodox tradition and biblical witness, into the Body and Blood of Christ, which is then distributed to the faithful during the more somber Lenten week as a means of spiritual sustenance in a time of more penitential reflection, repentance, and increased spiritual effort). While I didn't refrain from food totally--the hospital hours were and are very demanding--such a period left me in a state of what I call "ascetic shock and awe," where the body is forcibly reminded that it is not, in fact, the one in charge, and that it is obliged to submit to the soul, which is in turn to be submissive to the Spirit of God.

Lent being the time of battle that it is, such a well-intended beginning often comes under fire and, as many Orthodox Christians can no doubt attest, we often wind up forgetting the word given to us and losing ourselves in the very things we tried to strip away from ourselves in detachment during Lent. This past week was a renewal of sorts, with a reminder that seasons of physical exertion are part and parcel to our life as humans who live in and have a body as an integral part of who we are. What is most glorious about this fifth week of Lent, now past, however, is (in my opinion) the fact that such an austere, extremely penitential Thursday not only shows us how someone as given over to what we now term sex addiction can be brought to lightness and redemption in Christ, but is followed almost immediately with the bright, buoyant--even triumphalistic!--hymns of rejoicing to the Mother of God. Here is she who, surrounded by an understanding of where and how babies are brought into being and knowing the consequences of straying from Mosaic norms, has the mind-blowing wideness of mind and largeness of heart to be the New Eve and say "Yes!" When all of the physical things around her demanded to be taken on their own terms and as ends in themselves, she realized that the order of those things' nature can be overthrown in a moment. All she was given was the word of an angel--fleeting, ethereal to human ears, but eternal in its power and scope, accomplishing what it was purposed to accomplish--and she gave it a place to settle in her blessed heart, where it was cherished and kept...and from her taking in the word came forth a short Word in the earth, the Word made flesh. Her body was the property of and temple of this Word. Our bodies are subject to--and, God grant, illumined by--this Truth.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Lift Up Your Eyes on High and See -- A Homily

From this morning in of the difficulties for me in putting this together was the fact that seminary guidelines constrain us to five to seven minutes. We have a pretty short morning service--20-30 min. each weekday morning--and this is sort of a short sermonette (I call it "spiritual breakfast") that is given by second- and third-year seminarians at the conclusion to accompany the reading.

They say it's harder to write a short sermon than a longer sermon, and I'd agree; I tend to want to tackle the entire passage (a rookie mistake, I'm told). So this is what I pulled out for the seminary community (from whence I pulled it I'll leave y'all to deduce) from Isaiah 40:18-31.

Your critiques, suggestions, and snide remarks are, of course, welcome.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?

Today’s reading marks a shift in Isaiah. Up to this point, Isaiah has been predicting the coming judgment of Judah; our reading today is the first of Isaiah’s prophecies to come after Jerusalem has been conquered and the Jewish people have been scattered violently from their homeland. Their lives are in complete chaos, and nothing around them is familiar or secure. But, out of this chaos comes a new message: Comfort, comfort ye my people. Isaiah is told to lift up the eyes of the bruised people of God and dares them to trust again, even in their most painful moment, when everything is out of control.

Now, this can seem like an impossible order, because Israel was convinced that “my way is hidden from the LORD, and my justice is disregarded by God.” And this is certainly something that, to one degree or another, we can all relate to. Whenever we encounter a crisis or confusion, when things are uncertain, when we have no idea where to go from here, it’s easy to wonder if God really has a hand in it all.

A dear friend of mine who was grieving the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one gave me a glimpse of this when she said, “I need to know that God’s will really does govern all. I’m not mad at God, and I know I can’t understand the reasons, but I need to know that He has them and that He is in control. Otherwise, He’s just not worth believing in.”

And certainly we as seminarians are not immune to this wondering if having faith will ultimately be “worth it.” We may not have experienced a great tragedy, but often our experience can be one disappointment, one struggle after another. We understand what it means to uproot our lives, to journey here for two or three years (maybe more), to take what looks like a very impractical step of faith, and (in our case) to decide to live lives that quite often defy all manner of stability or common sense. And in spite of our best laid plans—perhaps we’ll take these courses while at seminary, maybe we’ll do this for a while after graduation—often we’re left with realities that are so different than what we worked so hard to make them, and we can find ourselves seriously doubting our Lord’s guiding presence when it seems like He’s left us “twisting in the wind,” and the idols we’ve made of our expectations come crashing down around us.

Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?

Isaiah’s prophecy here is, yes, a reminder of the things we try to make for ourselves and in which we often trust, but it’s also a call for us to lift up our eyes to see the work of the One who has sustained us and brought us this far and who will continue to remember and sustain us as His children.

When Isaiah tells the Israelites to lift up their eyes to the stars, they not only remember that He is the One who made the stars, but also the One who made them, the children of Abraham, as numerous as those same stars, just like He said He would, and that, surely--surely!--He has not forgotten them as they wait, confused, even in the whirling dust of exile.

Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?

We are those stars, as well; we are children of Abraham, and we are called to look up in our waiting, as well. Yet we are not waiting merely for the One Who put the stars in their places and Who calls them—and us—all by name; we are waiting for the One who ascended to the heavens and who will come again for us. St. Paul echoes Isaiah for us in his letter to the Colossians: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Our task, when we become consumed with the affairs of this world, is to remember that our true stability comes from another one. When the temptation comes to become attached to this plan or that vision we have for our lives, we are then called to remember God, to lift up our minds, even in times of uncertainty, and remember that our ways are not hidden from the Lord, even though they may be hidden from us right now.

As we go through the remainder of this Lenten journey together, we struggle with diet, with thoughts, and with these unexpected concerns of life; regardless of where you are, remember to lift up your eyes and see the Creator and Sustainer of the stars of heaven, who comes to us soon as our Bright and Morning Star, the risen Lord who is mindful of us, and who will keep us, even as He keeps the stars. Amen.