25 November 2007

The Sign of the Son of Man in Heaven

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Using the propers for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for the Twenty-sixth and Last Sunday after Pentecost.

Our Lord [today] speaks not only of His own end, but also of the end of all things. And so we are allowed to hear His whisperings to the disciples not only to look back with understanding, but also to look forward with faith. And as we look forward, let us keep in mind the central statement in Our Lord’s discourse: then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven.

These words are central because they remind us how we are to read the signs. For all these signs—the darkened sun, the unlit moon, the falling stars, the wars and rumors of wars, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulations, the false Christs, and even the carcass-feeding vultures—all these signs both bring to mind Our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection, and proclaim that Good Friday and Easter are the apex of all world history—and the one event that forever reverberates in eternity. So everything points to and comes from and—yes, for us at this Mass—leads to Our Lord’s glorious sacrifice. All events, good and bad, find their meaning and purpose in the Christ who came down and even now, in this place, re-presents His scarred yet resurrected Body for us men and for our salvation. And so, as hear about the horrors of the past; and as we see frightfully inexplicable events unfold before our eyes; and as we hear predictions of future terrors—all these things must be seen in the light of the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.

Yet as we use Our Lord’s sign to understand the signs of the times, we ought to quickly discover that Our Lord whispers today not about Himself, not about His life or suffering; rather, He whispers, kindly and gently and mercifully, about our life in Him, and what we must be prepared to face for His sake. For as Our Lord speaks, surely we must never forget what He had said before; namely, that he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved.

Our Lord’s words, then, direct us not only to consider the meaning of His Passion, but also the possibility and meaning of our own. Our Lord’s words urge us not only to look back and ahead, but also to look within, so that we might realize the struggles, the wrestlings, and the inner turmoil that we endure. And Our Lord’s words point us not only to the mystery of His suffering, or the mystery of others’ suffering, but also to the mystery of our own suffering and death.

24 November 2007

Augustine's Admonition Against a Hidden Church

Brethren, let us hasten in the way, because we are Catholic Christians, which is the one Church of God, as was foretold in the holy Scriptures. For it was not God’s Will that she be hidden; that no one might plead this as excuse. It was foretold that she would be established throughout the whole earth; ;and she has been made visible to the whole earth. Nor should we falter because there are heresies and schisms innumerable: it should trouble us more if there were not; for they too have been foretold. All, either those who remain in the Catholic Church, or those who are outside the Catholic Church, bear testimony to that Gospel. They bear testimony that all that was said in the Gospel is true. For in what form was it foretold that she would appear among the nations? As One; as founded on a Rock; and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her.

The beginning of sin is a gate of hell: For the wages of sin is death, and death here beyond leads to hell. And what is the beginning of sin? Let us ask the Scriptures. Pride, they say, is the beginning of all sin. And if pride is the beginning of sin, pride is a gate of hell. Think now of what it was gate birth to all the heresies; and you will find they had no other mother save pride. For when they think much of themselves, and call themselves saints, and seek to draw crowds to themselves, and draw them from Christ, they promote heresies to their advantage, and likewise schisms, and this solely through pride. But because the Catholic Church shall not be overcome by all these heresies and schisms, that is, by the sons of pride, it was therefore foretold: That the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Alt. Strikes Again

As one raised on German hymns, this time of year cannot but help remind me of Philipp Nicolai's grand Wachet Auf. The lyric and tune, to my mind, are perfectly wedded. No English translation seems to understand this better than Catherine Winkworth's, which first appeared in Lyra Germanica: Second Series. (See the end of this paper for a more astute analysis than I can give.)

Yet nowhere does Winkworth's original translation appear in modern hymnals. Someone always feels the need to tinker. To be sure, Winkworth is almost slavish in her desire to retain the meter and original thought which, I opine, leads to some rather "clunky" phrasing. However, the ever-present alt. that appears at the end of the references to her name tinker not only with poetry, but also with the theology. Most frequently, the Eucharistic references, which hearken to the Apocalypse (i.e., the book of the Revelation) are written out.

Over the years, I've read numerous reviews that have suggested why Winkworth's translation is altered. I've also read various translations not by Winkworth (or claiming, tenuously, to be based on Winkworth's work). The weakest of these, I find, are in various American Episcopal hymnals.

None of this qualifies me for what comes next--my feeble attempt at tinkering with Winkworth. Perhaps you'll see it as just one more disposable alt. among many. (Those familiar with The Lutheran Hymnal will no doubt see the dependence on and preference for its alt. version.)

“Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
The watchmen on the heights are crying;
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Oh, where are ye, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes, awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care
Yourselves prepare
To feast with Him, Your Bridegroom, there.”

Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing,
She wakes, she rises from her gloom;
For her Lord comes down all-glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious,
Her Star is ris’n, her Light is come.
“Now come, Thou Blessed One,
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son,
Hail! Hosanna!
We follow Thee,
The halls we see
Where Thou hast bid up sup with Thee!”

Now let all the heav’ns adore Thee,
Let men and angels sing before Thee,
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone.
Of one pearl each shining portal,
Where we are with the choir immortal
Of angels round Thy radiant throne.
No vision ever brought,
No ear hath ever caught,
Such great glory;
Therefore will we
Sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee.

21 November 2007

Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today Orthodox Christians in both the Byzantine and Western traditions commemorate the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the temple.

This feast is based on the follow episode recorded in the Protoevangelium of St James:

[When Mary] was two years old, Joachim [her father] said: “Let us take her up to the temple of the Lord, that we may pay the vow that we have vowed, lest perchance the Lord send to us, and our offering be not received.” And Anna [her mother] said: “Let us wait for the third year, in order that the child may not seek for father or mother.” And Joachim said: “So let us wait.”

And the child was three years old, and Joachim said: “Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord.” And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: “The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.” And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.

And her parents went down marveling, and praising the Lord God, because the child had not turned back. And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel.

In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, St John of Damascus offers this commentary:

Joachim then took to wife that revered and praiseworthy woman, Anna. But just as the earlier Anna [1 Samuel 1:2], who was barren, bore Samuel by prayer and by promise, so also this Anna by supplication and promise from God bare the Mother of God in order that she might not even in this be behind the matrons of fame. Accordingly it was grace (for this is the interpretation of Anna) that bore the lady: (for she became truly the Lady of all created things in becoming the Mother of the Creator). Further, Joachim was born in the house of the Probatica, and was brought up to the temple. Then planted in the House of God and increased by the Spirit, like a fruitful olive tree, she became the home of every virtue, turning her mind away from every secular and carnal desire, and thus keeping her soul as well as her body virginal, as was meet for her who was to receive God into her bosom: for as He is holy, He finds rest among the holy. Thus, therefore, she strove after holiness, and was declared a holy and wonderful temple fit for the most high God.

The website for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America offers wonderful meditations excerpted from the Byzantine rite. In addition to these, let me commend the collect for the feast from the Western Rite:

O God, who on this day didst vouchsafe that blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, the dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost, should be presented in the Temple : grant, we beseech thee ; that by her intercession we may be found worthy to be presented unto thee in the temple of thy glory. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord, who with thee in the unity of the same Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth God, world without end.

20 November 2007

The Nativity Fast -- Western tradition

Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine tradition began their Nativity Fast last Thursday (15 November). For Orthodox Christians in the Western tradition, the Advent fast begins with First Vespers for the First Sunday in Advent. This year, First Vespers for Advent I will be prayed the evening of Saturday, 1 December.

In the Western tradition, the Advent fast consists of

  • Fasting on all Wednesdays in Advent
  • Fasting and abstention on all Fridays in Advent
  • Fasting and abstention on Ember Wednesday, Ember Friday and Ember Saturday in Advent. (This year the Ember days occur on December 19, 21, 22)

NOTE: In the Western tradition, fasting consists of not eating until after noon; and then eating only one full meal with a collation (about 1/4 of a meal) permitted as a second meal. Abstinence refers to refraining from flesh meat (pork, beef, chicken, etc.) and their juices or broths. Shell fish and fin fish as well as dairy products are permitted. All Orthodox communicants and catechumens in the Western tradition are asked to follow these rules; however, only those between the ages of 21 and 60 are obligated to observe the fasts of the Church, and those who have completed their seventh year of age are bound to the law of abstinence.

18 November 2007

Fr Joseph Lester Angwin - May He Rest in Peace

We have been informed by Father Michael Massouh that Father Joseph Lester Angwin departed this life earlier today. Here follows a brief obituary written by Father David Lynch.

The Right Reverend Archimandrite Joseph Lester Angwin the sometime Rector of the Church of the Holy Incarnation, Detroit, Michigan, departed this life on Sunday, November 18th, 2007. Father Joseph was born in Toronto, Ontario in Canada. He was a graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit. He attended Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin and received the Bachelor of Divinity degree and was ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church in 1954. He served at the Church of the Incarnation until 1977, when the parish became the first congregation to be received “whole and entire” into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. He was ordained to the priesthood and elevated to be an archimandrite by the Most Reverend PHILIP. Under his leadership, the Liturgy of St. Tikon was refined and initiated in the parish. His ministry, lasting almost fifty years, concluded with his retirement in 2001. Since then he has lived in retirement in Florida where he was attached to St. Nicholas Church, Pinellas Park.

Arrangements for Father Joseph’s funeral are pending. A requiem Mass for Father Joseph at Holy Incarnation will be announced later this week.

Into paradise may the angels lead thee:
At thy coming may the Martyrs receive thee,
And bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem.
May the Choir of Angels receive thee,
And with Lazarus, one poor, mayest thou have eternal rest.

In paradisum from The Orthodox Ritual

Mustard Seed & Leaven

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Using the propers for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for the Twenty-fifh Sunday after Pentecost.

We tend to believe that all that matters in life, all that makes our life worthwhile, all that brings meaning and joy to our lives are the things we experience, the things we reach for, and the things we attain for in this world. And so that is too often where our focus is—on whatever excites, titillates or amuses our senses. Yet our senses simply take in the sights, sounds, aroma, texture and flavor of this decaying world. Our soul, however, urges us to reach beyond activity for activity’s sake; beyond trying to have it all, experience it all, and take it all in. Our soul urges us to reach beyond decaying and corrupting instances and occurrences, beyond whatever this world offers, beyond all these things that turn to powder in our hands. The soul urges us to strain for the sights, sounds, aroma, flavor and texture of the kingdom of heaven—that “world” where reckless activity is exceeded by resting forever in the loving embrace of Our Lord God.

But to strain and strive for this kingdom is not easy. Not only because there is much that distracts or gets in our way, but also because this kingdom which we seek is rarely perceptible to our senses. For what does Our Lord say? Not that the kingdom of heaven is like mustard seed, but that it is like a mustard seed which has already been planted in a field. And He does not say that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, but rather that it is like yeast that has already been kneaded into dough, and so has begun leavening.

Yet what does this mean? Among other things, it means that the kingdom of heaven is not readily apparent to our senses. And it means that the kingdom of heaven is hidden deeply within the things we know. It also means that the kingdom of heaven gives meaning to what we think matters; that it should be our true focus; and that the kingdom of heaven is what matters most. For what good is dough without yeast? Will not leaven-less dough produce flat, bland bread? And what good is a field without seeds? Does not a field achieve its true purpose and final end only when seed is planted, decays, takes root, and grows?

The first lesson we learn, then, is that we too often focus on the field, not seeing the life that is hidden in the seeds that have been planted. And too often we focus on the dough, not remembering that leaven gives life to the dough, and makes the dough into flavorful bread.

17 November 2007

Holy Incarnation NEWS

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Seeing Saul, Seeing Paul

This past Sunday we considered the parable of the wheat and tares. As I suggested in my sermon, this parable raises parallels with the story of Job; namely, why the Lord permits suffering or sin when He could easily prevent both. Both the story of Job and the parable of wheat and tares lead us to conclude that (a) we cannot understand this mystery and so (b) we must persevere with patience and trust.

The church fathers particularly emphasize the theme of patience when interpreting the parable of the wheat and tares. Several reasons are given for this patience, the most prominent reason being "time for repentance." Among the several fathers who stressed this theme, I found the most striking--and comforting--in these words of St Peter Chrysologus:

If the patience of God did not come to the aid of the tares, the Church would not have either Matthew as an evangelist after having been a tax collector, or Paul as an apostle after having been a persecutor.

And so Ananias was seeking to uproot the wheat on that occasion when he was sent to Saul and made this complaint about Paul: "Lord, how great are the evils which he did against your saints!" What he means is, "Uproot the tares! Why send a sheep to a wolf? Why send a devoted servant to the insolent? Why send such a preacher to a persecutor?" But Ananias had seen Saul, while the Lord was seeing Paul. When Ananias was calling him a persecutor, the Lord already knew him as a preacher; and when he was judging him to be tares destined for hell, Christ already had a hold on [Paul] as a chosen vessel, wheat for the heavenly granary. Do you not know, he says, "that he is a chosen vessel of mine?"

Source: The Fathers of the Church: St. Peter Chrysologus, Selected Sermons (110.104)

11 November 2007

Pondering God's Mercy

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Using the propers for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.

The book of Job invites us to ponder this age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Yet as we enter into the conversation with Job, as we listen to the deliberations between righteous Job and his unrighteous friends, as we hear our own voices in Job’s searching and also in the searing arguments of his so-called friends, we might begin to understand that the real question is not why bad things happen to good people, but rather why the Lord gives good to anyone. For when the words of Job are ended, when he is exhausted and is out of words, when the Lord finally gets his say, then we hear the rat-a-tat-tat of rhetorical questions—questions all designed to ask one thing: Why am I, the Lord and Maker of all things, why am I good? And merciful? And kind?

Job has no answer. And neither do we. But notice the question. It is not the self-centered question we ask: the question about why God lets us or makes us suffer; or why the all-knowing God doesn’t stop the suffering. That is the lesser question because it begins with us, and it is the product of our pride. With it, we presume to question God. And by questioning God we implicitly blame Him. And by questioning God, we go nowhere.

But the question God asks; the question that spring not from us but from Him—this question does not lead us nowhere, but leads us to consider all that we have and all that we are. God’s question—Why am I merciful?—that question leads us not to wallow in our misery, but to reflect upon the Lord, and the manifold ways in which He deigns to have mercy, and—most importantly—why He has mercy at all. For with the patriarch Jacob we must say, “I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies, and of thy truth which thou hast showed to thy servant.” (Gen 32.10) And yet, even as we repeat these words, even as we hear ourselves say, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof,”—with those words we must admit that the Lord inexplicably has mercy on us; that He graciously gives us what we do not deserve; that He kindly overlooks our sins and does not deal with us as we deal with each other; and that He not only has mercy, but even also is mercy.

And then, with the patriarch Job, we have nothing left to say except: I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes; for I know that You can do every thing, and that no thought can be withheld from You. And with St. Paul, we can only acclaim the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.

As we acclaim the Lord’s wisdom; as we proclaim that all wisdom is from the Lord God (Sir 1.1); as we confess that the Lord’s foolishness exceeds our wisest wisdom—then, perhaps, we will begin to understand the point Our Lord is making in today’s parable.