Do You Struggle With Your Faith?

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.
(W. Edwards Deming)

I’ve been traveling a lot lately.

No matter where I go, I meet people who are struggling with their faith.

And it isn’t just young people: it’s parents and grandparents, it’s youth workers and clergy.

So many of us are struggling with our faith.

Isn’t that odd? Or at least disappointing?

After all, for years, the Church has organized countless events and programs to help people (young people in particular) “own” their faith. We’ve created stacks of materials and resources to help “keep young people in Church.”

But it doesn’t seem to be working

Adults who struggle with their faith today spent years in youth programs yesterday. And we all know about the struggles of today’s young people

Even after close to two decades in youth ministry programs and events, it seems so easy for young people to simply fall away from the Church.

Why?

Maybe it’s because we’ve been cultivating the wrong kind of faith.

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus’s disciples try (and fail) to cast out demons.

And they’re incredibly embarrassed by this! So they approach Jesus with shame, and ask why they failed.

But Jesus doesn’t directly answer the question. Instead, He says:

This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting. (Mark 9:29)

We so often obsess about “what the Church can do for young people.”

We demand new programs, new conferences, new resources, new materials.

And yet the core practices of Christian life (things like prayer and fasting) seem to be afterthoughts.

We’re far more likely to invite young people to a basketball tournament or cultural event than teach them to pray at home, or invite them to an additional Church service during the week.

But Jesus is telling His disciples that the real question isn’t what they can do: it’s what He can do through them.

If we take Him seriously, we need to design better systems that are geared towards better outcomes.

We need a model of ministry that doesn’t simply teach religious facts or see the Faith as a club we need to join, but rather offers us a way to be transformed.

That’s why we need to focus on a faith that isn’t just about abstract ideas or program attendance.

We need to focus on how we all personally encounter the crucified and risen Lord.

Look at the following video.

Peace,
Steve

P.S. Have you ever struggled with prayer? This short talk can help!

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Standing at the Judgment Seat of Christ

Last-Judgement-5

by Fr. Stephen Freeman

“Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

This statement by the 7th Council aptly describes the work of an icon – but fails to do justice to the reality. Scripture, as words to be read, necessarily becomes linear – words follow words and cannot be read except in the order in which they’re written. Icons, however, can do what Scripture does, but can also bring multiple Scriptures together in a single place, forming something of a commentary. Of course, icons that do this have a tendency to be somewhat jumbled, even busy. Formed by habits of reading, we frequently see such icons and attempt to “read” them, failing to notice the inner relationships within the various items and the commentary that they form.

This is particularly true in the traditional icon of the Last Judgment. Christ is seated (on the cherubim), surrounded by a mandorla, a circle that represents His transcendent glory. From beneath His feet proceeds the river of fire. The apostles are seated with Him. We see some who are being judged (with various demons being pictured as well). Of interest to me are a few details just below the seated Christ. They are the Cross, an altar, and the “balance scales (zygos) of righteousness.” This small collection does something Scripture (in words) cannot do. The three things are placed together because they are one and the same thing.

The Cross is itself the judgment seat of Christ. It is His throne. It is the place from which He reigns. It is also the place of atonement, and is thus the altar. Within the Church, the altar is understood to be both throne, footstool, place of atonement, etc. Lastly, the scales of righteousness, the judgment of Christ itself. Here the judgment is placed in a manner to say that these are all one thing. The Cross is all of these things, and all of these things are the Cross.

The icon directs our attention towards the manner of reading and understanding the Scriptures. Our tendency is to hear “judgment seat of Christ” and immediately picture a law court with the judge presiding, passing sentence. However, when that image is set within the context of the Cross, as in the icon, something different emerges. For example, we have this saying of Christ regarding judgment:

…God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” (Joh 3:17-21)

The imagery of judgment is changed. Here, it is not the assignment of punishment and reward, but the self-selection of all regarding the Light. Those who do evil hate the Light. Those who do the truth, are drawn to it. Compared to the imagery of the judge, the fire and the worms, such language is perhaps not as fascinating (in its original sense). But this language does much to reveal Christ’s Cross as the most faithful revelation of Christ’s judgment.

For so it was on the day of His crucifixion. The Judgment is revealed on Golgotha. The two thieves, sheep and goat, right and left respond to the Light. The words of judgment proceed from Christ: “Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing!” The hearts of the thieves are revealed (the Light reveals all things). One joins in the mockery of those who crucify and adds his own taunt, “Save yourself and us!” The other, whom tradition calls the “wise thief,” finds paradise in a single moment. He acknowledges his own shame and bears it. In his prayer he enters into communion with Christ. The forgiveness, already spoken by Christ, is made his own.

This is the true character of the Judgment. It is the Judgment prophesied by the elder Simeon when Christ was presented in the Temple as a child:

Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luk 2:34-35)

The Light always reveals things to be what they are. The heart of the wise thief is revealed in a manner that is truly surprising, and is not rebuffed. The other thief echoes the words of those who stand about and mock Christ. They rejoice at the shame they imagine themselves to have placed upon Him, though all that is revealed is the darkness and shame of their own lives. They will not bear any of it and would gladly thrust it on God Himself.

The shaming of God is a frequent thing, even to this day. “Why doesn’t God stop the violence, save the children, give us peace, make them stop, etc.?” All of the suffering in the world is a reflection of our own hearts, and we cannot bear it. It is too great in its enormity. Our shame is ultimately of our own making.

Christ brings no word of rebuke to the wise thief (nor to the thief who rejected Him). He says nothing to those who crucify. His words are for their forgiveness (strangely increasing the shame of those who hate the Light). His words are for His mother and His friend. He covers the shame of the wise thief who willingly yielded himself to public view (he acknowledges his crucifixion is just).

As I look at the icon of the Last Judgment, I realize that this same image stands before me every time I serve the Liturgy – the altar and the Cross. It is the dread Judgment seat of Christ.

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1Jo 1:7-10)

That is the Lenten journey. The Cross. The Altar. The Judgment.

A Christian ending to our life, painless, unashamed, peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask.

Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom!

On the entrance of Jesus in the the Temple (Metr. Anthony Bloom)

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(Extract from a sermon preached at the University Church of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, on 19 May 1985)
…, lastly, two events which I would like to bring together. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the Crucifixion. Every male child first-born of a woman was to be brought to the Temple as an offering. If we read back into the Old Testament about the institution of the act we discover that God commanded the Hebrews to bring the first-born male children of every family to the temple as a blood offering, as a ransom for the first-born of Egypt, who had to die that the Jews might go free. Every first-born male child was therefore brought and God had the right of death and of life upon him. Century after century God accepted a vicarious offering, turtle doves and sheep, and once only in the whole of history he accepted a human offering: his only begotten Son became man who had to die on the Cross to redeem mankind – so that the two events are really connected with one another. But the mother who brought this child knew that God had all power over him of life and death, and unhesitatingly, in humility and faithfulness, brought this child.
Later, when we see Calvary as described in the Gospel, we do not see a mother fainting or a mother protesting or a mother clamoring for mercy, as so many pictures have it. At the foot of the Cross, we see the Mother of God wrapt in deep, tragic silence seeing the fulfilment of what had been begun when she brought her child to the Temple. She stood silent, at one with the divine and human will of her son: she was fulfilling the offering which she had begun thirty-three or so years before. At one with the will of God, at one with the will of her divine son, renouncing her own will, her own hopes, in an act of offering. This is something that very few of us will ever have to face in life, or at least I hope so; but it happens all the time in various parts of the world, and it has happened throughout history when one person has allowed another to give his or her life for a cause, for God or for men. Without a word of protest, sharing in the heroic offering. I would like to leave these images with you, however incomplete and imperfect they are. Look at them and ask yourselves. Where do I stand? What would I do, placed in the same circumstances? The Mother of God was the response of all creation to God’s love, but God’s love is sacrificial love. At the heart of the love of God there is the gift of self, the Cross. May God grant us to learn from this frail maiden her heroic simplicity and her wonderful wholeness. And let us learn from all the steps of her life, all the self-denial and the gift of self, all the beauty of her surpassing humility and its perfect obedience to the law of eternal life. Amen.

January 30: Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs

Each of these saints has his own feast day: St. Basil the Great, January 1; St. Gregory the Theologian, January 25; and St. John Chrysostom, January 27. This combined feast day, January 30, was instituted in the eleventh century during the reign of Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Once, a debate arose among the people concerning who among the three was the greatest. Some extolled Basil because of his purity and courage; others extolled Gregory for his unequaled depth and lofty mind in theology; still, others extolled Chrysostom because of his eloquence and clarity in expounding the Faith. Thus some were called Basilians, others Gregorians, and the third were called Johannites. This debate was settled by divine providence, to the benefit of the Church and to the even greater glory of the three saints. Bishop John of Euchaita (June 14) had a vision in a dream: At first all three of these saints appeared to him separately in great glory and indescribable beauty, and after that, all three appeared together. They said to him: “As you see, we are one in God and there is nothing contradictory in us; neither is there a first or a second among us.” The saints also advised Bishop John to write a common service for them and to order a common feast day of celebration. Following this wonderful vision, the debate was settled in this manner: January 30 would be designated as the common feast of these three hierarchs. The Greeks consider the feast not only an ecclesiastical feast but also their greatest national and school holiday.

Source: St. Nikolai Velimirovic, The Prologue of Ohrid – Volume One.

Apolytikion

The three most great luminaries of the Three-Sun Divinity have illumined all of the worlds with the rays of doctrines divine and true; they are the sweetly-flowing rivers of wisdom, who with godly knowledge have watered all creation in clear and mighty streams: The great and sacred Basil, and the Theologian, wise Gregory, together with the renowned John, the famed Chrysostom of golden speech. Let us all who love their divinely-wise words come together, honoring them with hymns; for ceaselessly they offer entreaty for us to the Trinity.

Kontakion

Receive, O Lord, the Sacred Heralds who preached God, the pinnacle of Teachers, unto the enjoyment of Your riches and rest. You have received their labors and their suffering as being above and beyond all fruitful offering. For You alone glorify Your Saints.

 

Source

Metropolitan Pavlos of Siatista, reposed in the Lord

 

Suddenly today, Metropolitan Pavlos of Siatista, reposed in the Lord. He was a very beloved and respected hierarch of the Church of Greece and a spiritual child of St. Iakovos of Evia. His words, example and advice carry great weight and his talks are filled with true love and wisdom. Below are a brief biography and a wonderful recent talk of his with English subtitles. May he have a blessed Paradise, and may we have his blessing!
Brief Biography of Metropolitan of Pavlos of Siatista
He was born in Halkida in 1947. After his cycle of studies he entered the Theological School of Athens and graduated in 1971.
In 1973 he was ordained a Deacon by Metropolitan Nikolaos of Halkida, Istiaias and Northern Sporades and appointed to serve in Mantoudi.
In November 1974 he was ordained a priest and received the position of Archimandrite from Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Halkida and served the parish of Mantoudiou for 25 years.
In that area, he became the Hierarchical Representative and was a respected preacher and pastoral guide. For over thirty years he focused on the youth and their problems, as a priest, spiritual father, catechist, and educator, while at the same time he was called to speak to schools of parents, religious and youth gatherings in many Metropolises in Greece and Cyprus.
On February 28th, 2006, he was elected by the hierarchy of the Church of Greece as Metropolitan of the Holy Metropolis of Sisaniou and Siatistis, his ordination taking place on March 4th, 2006 in the Holy Metropolis of Athens.
He took special care to cultivate the ranks of priests and monastics in his Metropolis.
In his 14 years of shepherding the Holy Metropolis of Sisaniou and Siatistis, he built and consecrated many holy churches, founded new parishes and ordained new clergy.
He was the author of books and had circulated many religious articles.
His last night he spent in the Monastery of St. David of Evia and St. Iakovos, which he loved so much, and until noon of his last day he was near there in Rovies, serving his final Divine Liturgy on Sunday January 13th next to the Precious Skull of St. David.
In his home town of Halkida there will be a viewing on Monday, January 14th in the Church of St. Paraskevi. There will be a vigil that evening served by Metropolitan Chrysostom of Halkida. On January 15th, the body of the blessed Metropolitan Pavlos of Sisaniou will be brought to Siatista where there will be another viewing. His funeral will be served on Wednesday, January 16th at noon in the Metropolis Church of St. Demetrios in Siatista.

The Central Problem of the Lack of Change in the World is the Excess of Good Wishes and the Absence of Good Deeds

Protopresbyter Antonios Christou

Dear readers, by God’s grace, here we are at the start of a new year, only a few days after the last one ended. We’ve been here before and have shared thoughts and resolutions for a better year in all aspects of our life. In our first article for the new year of the Lord (or better, for us, ‘with the Lord’) 2019, we’ll discuss the title. Certainly, it’s a polite and wonderful custom to exchange good wishes with other people, one which we all enjoy doing, but, if we’re content with that, in the long term it becomes at the very least an incipient illness which, unfortunately is persistent and general and which, because it’s unobtrusive, is hard to identify. If we sit down and reckon up how many good wishes we’ve given or received- verbally, in writing or pictorially, through the internet or our cell phones- we’ll see that we have a surfeit of good wishes, but we’re suffering and starving from a lack of good deeds […]

We stress this particularly so that people don’t think that the Church just prays and blesses, without doing anything else. It is, of course true that its pastoral task (the multi-faceted work it performs on behalf of people in need) always begins with an appeal to Divine Grace, through the sacraments and services of the Church. Christ emphasizes this strongly: ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (Jn. 15, 5). And we also say: ‘Start with God’. That’s where we begin and then we go on to work with people.

So the problem isn’t that we wish for something; it’s that we shouldn’t stop there. As far as we’re concerned we should apply the old saying: ‘God helps those who help themselves’. In Aesop’s Fables, there’s the story of a rich Athenian man who’s shipwrecked and who, instead of trying to swim, keeps imploring the goddess Athena to deliver him, without the slightest effort on his part. Often in our lives we’re like that drowning man. We have greater or lesser concerns and should act, but we’d rather stick our head in the sand or demand that other people assume the responsibilities which are really ours. And, on the pretext of piety, we may even assign these responsibilities to God.

To be honest, isn’t it inconsistent of us to wish for world peace, but through our vote or our silence, to allow the geo-political interests of states to prevail and to apply the law of the rich to the detriment of the poor? In the society in which I live, how can I oppress those in inferior positions or other fellow human beings? Isn’t it contradictory to wish ‘Good Health’ just when we are, or are about to become, under the influence of alcohol and a host of other gastronomic excesses and ‘festal’ peccadillos? How can I have health when I do the opposite to what the human organism naturally wants? Isn’t it contrary for me to wish for love to prevail, but without cultivating humility? My inflated ego is unable to see other people as equals, but looks on them rather as possessions from which I can take something (instead of offering it to them). Isn’t it odd that I should wish for happiness but, in practice, identify it with consumerism, lots of money, worldly enjoyments and sensual delights, which bring us temporary pleasure but quickly backfire and overwhelm us? Finally, isn’t it strange that I should require that something in our life should change, when, in practice, I mean that everything and everybody should change, but not one jot of my character or my goals.

My friends, if we really want things to change and improve in 2019- and more generally, in all the years God will allow us to continue to live- let’s all make a really good effort, one that’s fitting and commensurate. The Bishop in his see; the priest in his parish; parishioners in whatever post the local church has entrusted them with: all together in the country and world in which we live. If we do what we can in practice, then we can wish and pray for those things which exclusively depend on and concern other people and God. Let’s do just a little, but all together. Then it’s certain that 2019 will be better than 2018. And even if it’s not, we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we did what we could. My friends, may you have a fruitful and blessed new year.

First published in the newspaper Κιβωτός της Ορθοδοξίας

The long lead up to the separation of the Ukrainian church

Andreja Bogdanovski December 25, 2018

 

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People attend the first liturgy since the creation of a new Ukrainian church independent from Russia in the Saint Michaelʼs Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kiev on December 16, 2018. On December 15, a historic council of Orthodox bishops in Kiev created a new Ukrainian church independent from Russia. The move followed a synod by Ukrainian priests in Kiev’s 11th-century Saint Sophia Cathedral which was snubbed by representatives of the Moscow-loyal branch. The council of bishops chose as the head of the new church 39-year-old Metropolitan Yepifaniy, whose secular name is Sergiy Dumenko. / AFP / Genya SAVILOV

 

The process of creating an independent Ukrainian church, removed from Russian influence has dominated recent news from eastern Europe. The decision of 15 December to elect the 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphany as the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a newly formed body, is a momentous development. It marks the last stage in a process establishing an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized by the leading figure in the Orthodox world and it is the culmination of many years of hard work of religious leaders and politicians.

In the last 30 years, Ukraine has experienced five presidents, open aggression from Russia and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The idea of an independent Ukrainian church persisted throughout these turbulent times and has become a reality in 2018.

The religious picture of Ukraine is complex. Since independence in 1991, there have been three religious structures competing for dominance over Ukraine’s religious life. The first is the Moscow Patriarchate, a Ukrainian church subordinate to the Russian Orthodox church, and which has the largest number of parishes in Ukraine. Due to its connection with the Russian Orthodox Church, it was widely recognised by the other Orthodox Churches. The smaller Kyiv Patriarchate (from which the newly appointed Metropolitan Epifaniy comes) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church have functioned as unrecognised churches since the 1990s. They have been the main instigators of a break with Russian influence and the establishment of a new independent unified church.

 

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 Believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate pray in front of the parliament building in Kiev, Ukraine December 20, 2018. Reuters

 

On 11 October 2018, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul (historically known as Constantinople) and regarded in the worldwide Orthodox Church as the “first among equals”, decided in principle to proceed with the grant of autocephaly, in effect recognition of independence, to the Ukrainians.

He then abolished what he considered to be a temporary measure dating from 1686. In that year his predecessor, Dionysius IV, gave permission to the Patriarch of Moscow to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv (head of an ecclesiastical province). The Ecumenical Patriarchate decided that the 1686 decision had come to an end due to a number of violations of its terms such as the non-recognition of the overarching authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch as well as the failure of the Russian Orthodox Church over the last 30 years, to address the church split in Ukraine. Given the silence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on this issue for over 300 years, the Russian Orthodox Church was taken by surprise.

In response, the Russian Orthodox Church decided to break all ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The result has therefore been a huge split in the Orthodox world and huge blow to Orthodox unity. There are about 150 million followers of the Russian Orthodox Church out of 300 million Orthodox adherents worldwide. Among other things, Russian Orthodox believers will no longer be able to take communion in the churches of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Its biggest effect will likely be felt in diaspora communities such as in the United States, where those baptised in the Russian Orthodox Church will not be able to take part of services or sacraments at a church that is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The annulment of the 1686 decision allowed the territory of Ukraine to be returned to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, until the Head of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine receives the tomos of autocephaly, a formal decree of independence, expected to take place on 6th of January 2019.

The idea for an independent Ukrainian church first emerged in 1921 during the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic but the religious oppression of the Soviet rule and the lack of recognition by the rest of the Orthodoxy meant the idea didn’t gain momentum until after Ukraine became independent in 1991.

In the first years of Ukraine’s independence after 1991, its ecclesiastical life was turbulent with frequent changes in the church structures. These include the Russian Orthodox Church charging Filaret with leading the Moscow Patriarchate into schism in 1992, a failed church unification attempt the same year and the appointment of Metropolitan Filaret as a Head of the Kyiv Patriarchate in 1995.

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 Newly elected Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine Yepifaniy Sergiy Dumenko conducts the first liturgy of the new Ukrainian church in the Saint Michaelʼs Cathedral in Kiev on December 16, 2018. AFP

 

In the years after 1991, the Kyiv Patriarchate worked hard to secure an independent church driven by the country’s political independence. This coincided with the Ukrainian secular authorities showing an interest in the autocephaly project. As early as 1993, Ukraine’s first President, Leonid Kravchuk, sent a representative to discuss the possibility of autocephaly with the Ecumenical Patriarch. President Leonid Kuchma kept a more balanced approach towards the autocephaly question, while President Viktor Yushchenko worked hard for autocephaly and unification of all the Ukrainian churches, but with little result. With the election of the pro- Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in 2010, presidential support for an autocephalous church declined.

The proxy war with Russia in Ukraine’s east and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 revived the religious battle over autocephaly. The Moscow Patriarchate has often been portrayed as a mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It has been criticized by the Ukrainian administration for its role regarding the war, with claims that it has sided with pro-Russian forces. President Petro Poroshenko has frequently described Russian interference in Ukraine’s religious life as a matter of hybrid warfare and portrayed the push for church independence as a national security question.

The Euromaidan protests at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, and the ensuing annexation of Crimea provided a valuable boost to President Poroshenko’s bid for church independence. The protests, which were triggered by the non-signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union, resulted in more than 100 deaths, with many more injured. Pro-Russian President Yanukovich fled the country in February 2014 and Mr Poroshenko won the following elections in the first round with his pro-EU narrative and the promise to reclaim Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine.

During Mr Poroshenko’s presidency, the question of church independence for Ukrainian believers gained in importance and became politicised. As President, Mr Poroshenko has used the entire state machinery to persuade the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to grant autocephaly.

January 1 – A Day of two and a half Celebrations

But first, let’s get Christmas out of the way.

Sorry, folks, it’s all over. Western Christians get a full 12 days of Christmas, but we Orthodox get only 7. No fair – though our fast-free period lasts for 12 days till Epiphany. However, in our liturgical calendar December 31, this coming Sunday, is the “Leavetaking (last day) of Christmas”. (For what it’s worth, Khouria Dianna and I keep our house Christmas decorations up till the Leavetaking of the Epiphany, January 14 – and our “winter” lights in the windows beyond that. Anything to help us get through our long, cold, dark Wisconsin winter nights.)

This Sunday is also titled the Sunday before the Epiphany. Already we  prepare for Christ’s Manifestation to the World. (For any Westerners who may be reading, Epiphany in the West is the feast of the Visit of the Wise Men. Orthodox cover that on Christmas morning.) Orthodox Epiphany, also called the Theophany, is the feast of the Baptism of Christ.*  In ancient times in the East, the Epiphany was considered more important than Christmas. Poor Epiphany – these days hardly anyone has even heard of it. More about that next week.

* By the way, Old Calendar Orthodox keep the same feast dates but move them ahead 13 days because the Old Julian calendar is now 13 days out of sync with nature’s calendar. Are you Westerners all still with us?)

But moving back to January 1: In the Orthodox Church this is the feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus Christ, and the feast of Saint Basil the Great. January 1 is also, of course, the Civil New Year. Orthodox New Year’s Day is September 1. Nevertheless the Church also appoints some new year’s prayers for January 1. So we’ll call this our half-a-feast. Let’s take these 2 /12 in order.

1 The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ

On the eighth day after birth Jewish boy babies are circumcised and named and join the Old Covenant community. The name Jesus (“Yeshu”), given to Joseph by the angel, means “God saves”. Jesus said later to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation comes from the Jews.” And so he did. From that one Jewish Man God’s saving grace has reached out to all the world. We Orthodox still have 8 day Naming prayers for new babies, but the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision is Baptism which includes both males and females on an equal basis. This is what Saint Paul called the “circumcision not made with hands”, i.e. performed directly by God. Through the waters of Baptism we are joined to Christ’s body, the Church, the New Covenant community, and become partakers of his death and resurrection and enter into eternal life.

I have not seen many icons of the feast of the Circumcision.  Several I have seen show the priest with a long knife welcoming the infant Lord in a rather menacingly way.  I give special thanks on this feast that I, a Christian priest, do not have to perform circumcisions!

2 The Feast of Saint Basil the Great

Saint Basil the Great – my patron, and a rather intimidating patron he is. He was one of those people who did everything well. Basil (in his own way, of course) reminds me of the guys I knew in high school and college: football star, scholar, musician, handsome. Saint Basil was like that for the Church.

Born in 330 into a wealthy Christian family of Caesarea of Cappadocia, in Asia Minor, his father was a prominent teacher, his mother a devout Christian. His was a family of saints: His grandmother Saint Emelia guided and preserved her family during the years of persecution. His sister Saint Macrina  founded  women’s monasticism and was spiritual guide to her brothers. One of Basil’s brothers was Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Another Peter was a bishop.

Basil was brilliant, studied classics in Constantinople and Athens. He was unsure about Christianity but then, influenced by Macrina, he returned to faith. He traveled east, spent time in Jerusalem, in Alexandria and among the desert fathers. Then he returned to Caesarea and formed a small monastery, apparently the first west of Egypt, where he took the preliminary monastic rules of Saint Antony the Great, refined and added to them, and to this day they are followed in every Orthodox monastery. A generation later Saint Benedict in Italy used them as the foundation of his monastic rule which became the norm in the west. Visit almost any Western Benedictine monastery today, and you’ll find that, while the modernized Mass seems foreign to us, the Daily Offices and general atmosphere still retain an Orthodox feel.

The Archbishbp of Caesarea convinced Basil to be ordained priest. Only 8 years later Basil at age 40 was chosen as his successor. Now his greatness came into full blossom. He showed himself to be a profound theologian, preacher, teacher and writer. He wrote the definitive theology on the Holy Trinity and the Holy Spirit. (See his book On the Holy Spirit, part of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press’ Popular Patristics series, available from Saint Vladimir’s, Light and Life Publishing, on Amazon and other places.) The latter part of the Creed on the Holy Spirit and the Church was chiefly Basil’s work. He wrote on monastic life, on problems of youth, on controversies plaguing the Church, and a multitude of other things. In a sermon on the book of Genesis he suggested that the term “day” in the creation story may refer to a period of time, an “age”, an “aeon”. He compiled the core of the Divine Liturgy which goes by his name, shortened from earlier longer liturgies, because he felt his people were not as pious as earlier Christians and could no longer handle 4 hour liturgies! Perhaps 90% of the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is composed of Scriptural passages pulled together. Though long by our standards, it is magnificent and I think the best summary of the history of salvation ever written. I hope the priest reads it aloud in the your church. People should hear this masterpiece. If so, when it comes up at Christmas and Epiphany and during  Lent, don’t endure it. Listen to it; pray it. It reflects Basil’s concern for every person, every human need. It is said Archbishop Basil responded personally to every letter written to him, giving advice to orphans and widows, to businessmen, to the clergy whom he valiantly tried to reform (clergy are always getting lax), humorous letters to his friends and firm letters to emperors, defending his people against injustice and promoting Orthodoxy.

Saint Basil was bold. Once the Arian emperor Valens threatened to silence him by confiscating his possessions or exiling him or maybe executing him. Basil replied to the emperor’s envoy (I paraphrase here) that he had already given away his possessions so he had nothing to lose, he would welcome exile for it would give him a chance to get some rest, and if he was executed the people of Cappadocia would rise up in revolt. The envoy was amazed; he said he was accustomed to compliant bishops. Basil responded, “Perhaps you’ve never dealt with a real bishop before.” The emperor backed off.

Indeed Archbishop Basil had given away his possessions. He spent nearly all his inheritance building a community for the poor just outside Caesarea. It included a hospital, several homes for poor widows, orphanages, a leprosarium, inns where poor travelers could sleep without charge, food kitchens where the poor could eat without paying. He also used his resources to endow the upkeep of the town so that money and food would be distributed regularly for the poor. He inspired the wealthy to give and threatened them with hellfire if they didn’t give generously. He also got government aid – what we now call (and many despise) federal “welfare”- and for centuries afterwards Byzantine emperors supported the charitable work of the town. After Basil’s death it was named Vasilios in his honor.

When famine struck Basil wrote to his people: “If you are reduced to your last loaf of bread and a beggar appears at the door, then take that loaf, lift your eyes to heaven and say, Lord I have but this one loaf: hunger awaits but I revere your commandments more than all else. If you should say this, then the bread you gave in your poverty will be changed into an abundant harvest.” (Read another little book of the Popular Patristics series, On Social Justice, with Basil’s quotes on the subject. If you think today’s social justice advocates are radical…)

So great was Basil’s charitable work that in Greece to this day it is not Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus who brings gifts, but rather Saint Basil on his feast day, January 1.

Archbishop Basil was a tireless worker, often remaining sleepless at night writing, praying, thinking. He had fasted strictly all his life from the time he was a young monk. Finally it all got to be too much for his system. He died exhausted of kidney failure on January 1, 379, at age 49. Only 49. He had been bishop less than 10 years, ordained only 17. In those few years he had accomplished all this. Yet he wrote once to a friend, “Because of my sins I seem to fail at everything.”

Thousands gathered at his funeral. The crowds pressed so hard to touch his coffin that it is said some were crushed or asphyxiated. Even within his lifetime he was considered a saint, After his death people quickly titled him Saint Basil the Great. Little wonder. Holy Basil, pray for us.

Speaking for myself again, I’ve been ordained over 50 years now (counting my time as both an Anglican and as an Orthodox priest) and compared to him, I have done so very little. I told you he is an intimidating patron saint. Look at him over there staring at me. Holy Basil, pray for me.

2 1/2 The Civil New Year

The date of the new year is completely arbitrary. Unlike days and seasons and years, which are ordered by nature, the date of the new year could be fixed at any time – as with the Chinese New Year, the Jewish New Year, Western Christian Advent, and our Orthodox ecclesiastical New Year, September 1, which is almost completely ignored –  apparently ever since the Emperor Constantine decided it should be taxation day in the empire – and you know how we Americans celebrate April 15! (Though at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, we have occasionally brought out a little champagne on September 1.) In the pagan Roman empire, January 1 marked the new year, and for some reason that seems to be taking over most of the world. From Australia to China to Europe to North America, it’s fireworks on January 1. So even we immovable Orthodox have some new year prayers for January 1.

No matter how people now describe the years – Anno Domini or Christian Era or Common Era or whatever may come next – the obvious fact is that they are all measured from the birth of Jesus Christ. The truth is that even the modern secular world can’t get away from him.

The even more important truth is this: Every day we begin a new year. Every day we start all over again with a new beginning, a new chance for each of us. Every day is a fresh gift of God. Every morning is God’s new creation, the first morning in Eden.

So Happy New Year to you – today and tomorrow and every day.

 

Entering the Mystery of Christmas

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Orthodox Christianity is deeply associated with the word “mystery.”  Its theological hymns are replete with paradox, repeatedly affirming two things to be true that are seemingly contradictory. Most of these things are associated with what is called “apophatic” theology, or a theology that is “unspeakable.” This same theological approach is sometimes called the Via Negativa. This is easily misunderstood in common conversation. An Orthodox discussion takes place and reaches an impasse. Inevitably, someone will remind us that some things are simply a “mystery,” etc. But this “unknowableness” is actually a misuse of mystery and its place in the Church’s life. For though mystery, paradox, and contradiction frame something as “unknowable,” they do so for the purpose of knowing.

To know is not the equivalent of mastering facts. Knowledge, in the New Testament, is equated with salvation itself (Jn. 17:3). But what kind of knowing is itself salvific? In the simplest terms, it is knowledge as participation.

Then they said to Him, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” (Joh 8:19)

and

O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. (Joh 17:25-26)

Christ is by no means speaking of knowledge as information. Instead, it is knowledge that “dwells” in them. Such knowledge cannot be gained by the simple sharing of information nor by the acquisition of a system of ideas. It is experiential, on the one hand, but in a manner that is itself transformative.

We experience things all the time. It is possible to say that we are changed by experience. But it is another thing to say that the experience itself now dwells in you and communicates a new life to you. At its very heart, this is the nature of revelation. And this is key within the life of Orthodoxy. What dwells in us as “knowledge,” is, in fact, Christ Himself as knowledge. Christ Himself is the revealer, the revealing and what is revealed.

It would be possible to “master” Orthodoxy as a system of thought. One could know a set of doctrines and teachings, and even be able to enter into discussion and argument. But this in no way actually constitutes true knowledge of Orthodoxy, much less Orthodoxy as saving knowledge.

The Orthodox faith is a making-known-of-the-mystery. And this is utterly essential. However, the Orthodox faith is not static content, but the dynamic reality of the living Christ. It is, properly, a revealed faith, and cannot be had in any other manner. And strangely, the mystery is as essential as the knowing. Only that which is hidden can be revealed.

It is a common mistake to treat the New Testament itself as the revelation of God, or the collection of the information newly revealed through Christ. We historicize Christ’s work as a set of teachings, an assemblage of theological information that we may now discuss, dissect and comprehend, rendering into nothing more than religion. However, the New Testament (and the fullness of the Church) have the mystery within them, and must be encountered first as mystery before they can be acquired as knowledge.

Paradox and contradiction, hiddenness and mystery are all inherent means of saving knowledge. Their presence within Scripture and the liturgical tradition are not mere styles of communication. They provide an access into a form a knowledge that cannot be communicated in any other manner. They are not mere screens shielding wonderful knowledge from our view, a knowledge that once revealed can then be shared without reference to the mystery. Because the kind of knowledge that is saving knowledge both causes and requires an inner transformation, it cannot be shared in a manner other than that through which it was first acquired. The single most important means of saving knowledge in the Tradition is the liturgical life of the Church. It is there that we sing the mystery. The hymns of the Church delight in paradox and contradiction. They urge the heart to enter into this mystical bounty. Those who have no experience of Orthodox liturgical worship can only wonder at this. Those who do, I daresay, understand exactly what I am saying.

We can say that it is not merely the rationalization of Christian teaching that is problematic, but even the efforts to make plain and straightforward and easily accessible what can only be known through mystery, paradox and contradiction. For this reason, it is true that most engagement in theological speech is done by those who don’t know what they are talking about. What passes for “theology” can easily be little more than one swine discussing pearls with another.

True theology is as much a matter of how we know as it is what we know. Further, everything about our own condition also matters in both what we may know and how we may know it. Saving knowledge cannot be isolated from the whole of who we are and how we are. The experience encountered in paradox and mystery is frequently a necessary condition for knowing the truth. We may very well come away with knowledge, and yet be speechless.

I studied Orthodoxy and the Fathers for over 20 years before I was received into the Church. But there were some things that I only began to know on the day of my reception. More than that, a slow process began in which everything I thought I knew was changed. The manner of knowing the faith as a communicant made the content of faith something other than what I thought I knew. Christ is quite clear that purity of heart is essential in the knowledge of God. St. Silouan says that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. So it is always right to ask of ourselves, “What is the state of my heart as I approach this mystery?”

We are drawing near to the feast of Christ’s Nativity, His birth as a child and entrance into the human condition. That event is among the greatest mysteries of the faith, surrounded by paradox and contradiction. It can (as so much else) be reduced to a greeting card or a doctrinal fact. But such a reduction cannot save. “Peace on earth, goodwill among men,” is a greeting of paradox and contradiction.

If you would enter into the mystery, then, like Christ Himself, you must become small, weak, poor, misunderstood, and willing to be broken. You cannot know Him if you refuse to be like Him. This is the only path that is truly Christian. Outside the mystery, there is nothing to be known, nothing that will save.

Why Does God Hide?

God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.

This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?

In a previous article, I wrote:

Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.

God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.

This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.

The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.

Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life (a life among objects).

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.

But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.

Christ uses the imagery of seeking or true desire (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…

But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.

Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought:

You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)

What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.

The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other money in the world.

When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me. The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe). And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted began to come true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.

But the point that had found me was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.

st cuthbert praysSt. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach. He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.

Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.

All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.

I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.

There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.

All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”