30 December 2007

The Old Man's Strange Blessing

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 Sunday within the Octave of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Now as this devout just man holds the child and blesses God, he then blesses the holy Child’s parents. This blessing is as unexpected as it is strange. For who blesses a foster father when he could bless the true Father? And who blesses a mother after he has called her child the Lord’s light and glory? Yet St Simeon blesses St Mary and St Joseph—but which such an unlikely blessing. For the old man’s blessing is that their child is not destined for greatness, as men count greatness. For His greatness will not consist in defying death, but in embracing it. And His notoriety will be achieved not by consolidating power, but by refusing to exercise His overwhelming strength. And His victory will be sealed not by conquering but by being conquered. But above all this, the saint’s blessing is that this holy Child will win over hearts by leading them not to pride, but to humiliation; not to earthly riches, but to poverty; not to great praise, but to ridicule; not to a life of ease, but to suffering; and not to length of days, but to certain death. Yet this leadership will attain more than anyone could ever imagine; and achieve greater riches than any man could ever hope for. Yet His way—both where He leads and how He leads—His way will be so paradoxical, so against the grain, so contrary to our survival instincts, that He will be the most despised and rejected of men. And so, says the pious old saint, this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted.

Yet there is more to the old man’s blessing. To the mother he flatly declares, “Thy own soul a sword shall pierce.” And so she also shall not escape suffering, but will grieve as she sees these things come to pass. For which mother, even when she knows how it all ends, wishes to see her son, her only son, endure the ridicule, the spitting, the suffering, the shame? Yet this is her blessing. Not just because an old man said so. But because in his words she sees coming together the glory the angels proclaimed, the joy the Forerunner showed, the sacrifices the Magi offered, the blessings that her once mute and barren relatives declared. For the blessed Mother sees what old man means: that her Child will not go the way of famous men, by rising and then falling. Rather, in her Son’s fall, many shall rise; in His humiliation, many shall be exalted; in His suffering, many will achieve glory; and in His death, all men shall find life.

So in St. Simeon’s words, the Blessed Virgin Mary sees the death of martyrs, the endurance of confessors, and the willing sacrifice of virgins. In that blessing, she sees the Church arise. For she understands and perceives, she knows and believes, that in her Son is the salvation of all men. In Him, all the seeming contradictions become the way of Truth. In Him, all that we are prone to resist become the way of Life. And in Him, all that she suffers—and all that we suffer—become the way to glory. Yet Mary sees and knows that all these things come to be not simply in what her Son does or says, but in Him; that is, in His Body. For those incorporated into Him—in His flesh and in His bones—they shall never be wanting but shall receive what they have hoped for. For in Him all men shall both die and rise; die to self and rise to true life. For that is this holy Child’s destiny—to die all men’s death so that, in Him, all men might live life to the fullest.

Read more.

The Fall & Rise of Many

What Christ born, destined to die? Or was He destined to live? In short, why was He born? That question sets the stage for today’s Mass. We shall hear St. Paul declare that “God sent his Son, made of a woman…that He might redeem them who were under the law.” (Epistle) Earlier in the same epistle, the holy Apostle had indicated how Christ would redeem those under the law: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written: Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” (Gal 3.13) No doubt, it is this self-chosen destiny to suffer death in our flesh that St Simeon had in mind when he flatly decreed that the holy Child in his arms was “set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted.” (Gospel)

But notice three things. First, the Lord’s destiny toward death is described in the softest terms. He is “set for the fall”—which indicates (as St Simeon goes on to say) that He also will rise. Furthermore, the words “fall” and “resurrection” evoke the opposite of what usually happens to famous men, who rise to greatness only to fall in shame or death. Second, Our Lord’s fall is merely His penultimate destiny. His ultimate destiny is the “resurrection of many in Israel.” In other words, His death is not the end but merely a means toward raising up those who have fallen, and restoring those who are downcast. Third, the Lord’s destiny is our destiny as well. For He is not simply destined for His own fall and resurrection, but for the fall and resurrection of many. In other words, those united to Him will both fall and rise with Him.

Our Lord’s fall, His resurrection, and our being caught up in His falling and rising—these three themes govern today’s Mass. That they may be faithfully appropriated by us so that we rise with Christ, we urge Our Father to regular our actions according to His divine will.

28 December 2007

Why Does Jesus Flee from Herod?

St Peter Chrysologus has a knack for tackling, with wonderful rhetorical flare, the tough textual questions in his homilies. The latest example I've found are from his series of sermons on the flight of Jesus into Egypt, and Herod's murder of the holy innocent boys. (Mt 2.13-18)

In sermon 151 (Fathers of the Church, 110.257-260), St Peter Chrysologus begins by declaring that the Gospel reading "has troubled our hearts, shaken us in the depths of our being, and has made us wonder if we were hearing correctly." Why? Because we heard that God fled when St Matthew records that the angel told Joseph, "Flee to Egypt!" "It would have been more reverent," says the sainted homilist, "to say: 'Make your way to Egypt,' so as to indicate a journey, not a flight..." However, flight is precisely what the text says, and what St Peter Chrysologus wants us to hear and consider. He urges us to ponder God running away from danger, God fleeing from the devil. And he wants us to consider how this matches with God's promise that He is our refuge and strength. "If the refuge flees, if the strength is afraid, if the protection goes away, what life, hope, security, or defense is there?"

St Peter designs his sermons to shake us. And having done so, how does he answer his own question? With the sweetest Gospel. St Peter Chrysologus boldly asserts the following: "Brothers, that Christ fled had to do with a mystery, not fear; it was the liberation of the creature, not a peril to the Creator; it was a matter of divine power, not human fraility; of concern was not the death of the Creator, but the life of the world." So what does Christ flee? For us men and for our salvation.

Yet how does Christ's flight prefigure our salvation, or preach comfort to us? In three ways. First, Christ flees so that willingly, deliberately, and on his own terms He may take up our fight against the Devil. So Christ flees so that He might fully and willingly suffer our sufferings, endure our death, and enter our grave. "Christ assumed us in himself in order to give himself to us; he endured our sufferings in order to remove our sufferings." So Christ's flees so that the Devil does not prematurely ruin His saving work.

Second, St Chrysologus states that Christ flees in order to have mercy on his persecutors--and, at the same time, to teach us how to have mercy. "When a martyr has been taken into custody he must hold steadfast, but when he has not been taken into custody he must flee the persecutor, in order to grant the persecutor an opportunity to come to his senses..." Oh, that many strong-willed Christians would learn this lesson! By defiantly throwing ourselves into the hands of those who seek to ridicule us, we are hastening their judgment and refusing them time for repentance and, in a sense, participating in their sin. Furthermore, we are giving the devil what he wants rather than loving others by helping them attain the kingdom of heaven. What we must rather consider is what Our Lord says ("If you are persecuted in one town, flee to another"; Mt 10.23) and the story of St Paul ("Brothers, if the martyrs had not fled from Saul, they would not have made Paul a martyr.") or the Innocent Martyrs ("If Christ had stood fast, the synagogues would have them as sons, and the Church would not have them as martyrs.")

As the excellent orator that he is, St Peter Chrysologus saves the best and "most gospelly" reason for last. "Christ fled...[so] that he who had made the human being fully equipped for life might refashion him for the fullness of life; and so that he might likewise hand over to heaven the one whom he had put on earth." In other words, Christ's flight is not ultimately about His fight against the devil, but about taking us--and all men--to Himself and with Himself.

Such sweeter Gospel can scarcely be preached!

25 December 2007

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

To all readers of this blog:

A merry and blessed Christ Mass to you and yours!

May these Twelve Days of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord find you rejoicing in the grace, kindness and love of God who has appeared to all men in His incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. May you rejoice not only in thought and mind, but also in word and deed as you celebrate Our Lord’s feast by attending Mass (or the Divine Liturgy) often in the next two weeks, and receive Him who came in our flesh to restore our flesh.

As you receive various Christ Mass greetings, I encourage you to listen to the Christ Mass greetings given by the bishops of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Love Freely Given, Freely Received

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 Third Mass at the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Let us believe and understand and know that Christ’s birth was not a necessity. Nothing obligated the Father to send His only-begotten Son into our flesh; nothing required the Son to do His Father’s bidding or to knit His divine nature to our human nature; and nothing compelled the Spirit to announce to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would be the Mother of our God.

In the same way, no one requires any man to receive the Word and Grace of God when He came down from heaven. So no one and nothing forced the holy Virgin say, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” And no one makes those for whom Christ comes, and those to whom He came, welcome or embrace Him; or even believe in Him.

All of this then—God’s action and our reaction; the Spirit’s bestowal of the Son, and man’s reception of Him in faith; and the Son’s desire to be our Savior, and our desire to know Him as such—all of this is done in true freedom. None of it is forced or obligatory; all of it is unconstrained. Freely given and freely received; freely bestowed and freely embraced.

This is the way of love. For love never forces itself upon another, nor obligates another to accept what love gives. And love gives hopeful that the gift will be received and appreciated, but with no thought or expectation of getting something in return. So who, then, came into our world? Whose birth do we celebrate? Is it not the birth of Love incarnate, and the appearance of Him who not only loves but is Love Himself? St. Paul certainly thought so. For the holy Apostle said that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared. And how did He appear? As love does: Not by works of righteousness which we have done, nor by obligating us to welcome Him, but according to his mercy he saved us.

Read more.

The Angelic Hymn

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 First Mass at for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

It is fitting that when Our Lord and Savior came to earth; when He determined to knit His divine nature unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably to our human nature; when He did not abhor the virgin’s womb, but deigned for us men and for our salvation to be born in our flesh—it is fitting that the angels gathered together and shouted for joy. For the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ declared that the union of God and man has been accomplished, that the divide between heaven and earth had been bridged, and that the reign of death in sin was ended. And so what recourse did the angels have, and how else should they have responded except to sing glorious praise to the Father who, by His Spirit, had gifted all men and the whole world with His incarnate Son?

So in splendid song, with glorious chant, and in magnificent hymn the angels praised God. But notice that their praise was not directed to God; rather, it was directed to men. The angels declared the greatness of God not by fawning over Him, but by proclaiming the wonders of His love to those He was determined to save. And they rejoiced and exalted His mercy not by remaining in heaven, but by seeking out men to whom they could sing their glad tidings.

Read more.

24 December 2007

The Peace of the Lord Stands in our Midst!

Now that First Vespers for the Nativity of Our Lord has been sung, it is fitting to rejoice the acclamation of St Peter Chrysologus.

Today, the Church is in peace, and the heretic is in anger.
Today, the ship of the Church is in port, and the fury of the heretics is tossed about on the waves.
Today, brethren, the pastors [and shepherds] of the Church are in security, and the heretics are in consternation.
Today, the sheep of the Lord are in a safe place, and the wolves rage in anger.
Today, the vineyard of the Lord has abundance, and the workers of iniquity are indigent.
Today, very dearly beloved, the people of Christ has been exalted, and the enemies of truth have been humbled.
Today, dearly beloved, Christ is in joy, and the Devil in grief.
Today, the angels are in exultation, and the demons in confusion.

Why should I say more? Today, Christ, who is the King of peace, has come forth with His peace and routed all discord, banished dissensions, and dissipated conflicts. As the brilliance of the sun lights up the sky, so He illumines the Church with the splendor of peace. 'For,' the text says, 'there has been born to you today a Savior of the world.' O how desirable is the very name of peace! How firm a foundation peace is for the Christian religion, and what a heavenly ornament for the altar of the Lord!

What can we utter worthy of peace? Peace is a name of Christ Himself, as even the Apostle says: "For Christ is our peace, He it is who has made both one." The two were at variance, not over conflicting opinions or faith, but because of the Devil's envy. But, just as the streets are cleansed when the king comes forth, and the whole city decked with myriad flowers and banners to keep out of sight anything less worthy of the king's countenance, so also now, when Christ the King of peace comes forth, let everything depressing be removed from our midst. While truth is shining, let falsehood be banished, and discord flee, and concord be resplendent. ... [For] at present, the Peace of the Lord standing in our midst, and with palpitating bosom joining both of us together, teaches separated persons to come to agreement in [the] Spirit by linking elbows. In all this is fulfilled, no doubt, the prophetical statement which says: "And the counsel of peace shall be between them both."

The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. Saint Peter Chrysologus (Selected Sermons) and Saint Valerian (Homilies). Volume 17. (New York: The Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953). pp. 252-253.

Images of the Antiochian Orthodox Church

A friend alerted me to this video. Using images a only a few words, it offers a collage of the Antiochian Orthodox Church (i.e., those churches under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch).

23 December 2007

The Voice Cries Out

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 Fourth Sunday of Advent.

You would think that we should today hear something about the great Feast which we shall celebrate in two days. You would think that we should hear about the announcement by the archangel Gabriel or the Blessed Virgin Mary. And if we had been able, we would have heard of these things since they were the focus of Masses last Wednesday and Friday. And our Byzantine brothers and sisters are today hearing about the visit of St Gabriel to St Joseph, and the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.

We, however, get to hear another prophecy from Isaiah. We hear not about a virgin, but about a voice; not about a barren virgin with child, but about a voice crying out in the barren wilderness. And we hear not the news about the birth of Emmanuel, but rather the exhortation to prepare the way of the Lord by repentance; which means by fasting from sin and by restraining and suppressing the desires of the flesh.

As we hear such a stern exhortation, as we hear the voice seemingly dampen our mood, we must remember why the voice cries out, why the prophet prophesies, why the Forerunner urges us to set our hearts and minds straight. The voice cries out not to scold but to refocus our soul, to reset our heart’s desire—all so that we might take comfort. For what does the prophet Isaiah say?
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double [forgiveness] for all her sins.

Read more.

Reasons that are lacking

In response to my question, one of the readers of this blog has declared that he has completed his "little masterpiece on why no sane person should ever be(come) Orthodox."

The reasons give me pause because (a) "Orthodox" is confused with "Byzantine"; (b) the reasons depend upon a legalistic reading of canons (as if they are "canon law"); and (c) the reasons appear to be an argument against the discipline of the church.

Concerning (a), the confusion is quite common; nevertheless, it is a confusion. "Orthodox" is not synonymous with "Byzantine rite" anymore than it is synonymous with "Russian" or "Greek" or "Romanian." "Orthodox" applies to the life of faith in all places by those in communion with the canonical Orthodox bishops.

Concerning (b), the canons of the Orthodox Church are not a uniform legal code but pastoral applications of the Church's Faith in specific contexts.

Concerning (c), the Church's discipline is intended to focus the heart and mind in order to "seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God" and thereby desire "things above, not on things on the earth."

22 December 2007

Christ Mass at Holy Incarnation

Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church
An Orthodox Parish in the Western tradition

Cordially invites you to the Christ Masses
which will be celebrated during the
Twelve Days of Christ Mass

Click here for a complete schedule.
Check here for directions to Holy Incarnation.

Patience - Only Three More Days

Like little children impatiently staring at the presents under a Christmass tree, we eagerly await the celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity. Yet our kind and loving Mother Church gently but firmly urges us not to celebrate too soon, but to remain patient. For those who begin the celebration too soon, do not celebrate with the fulsome joy of those who have patiently waited with fasting and prayer. And those who know no patience have set their hearts and stomachs on the worldly distraction which threaten to overtake the true spiritual benefits of Christ Mass. Therefore, patient preparation is the Church’s exhortation: “Not yet, but soon!” So let us force our fleshly desires and our impatience to submit to the Church’s wise counsel.

And as we submit, let us carefully attend to what the Church says. She teaches us to beg Our Lord God to come quickly. She advises us that He is found not in the excesses of this world, but in the sacred mysteries, the “hidden things of darkness” which shall soon be revealed. She reminds us that “the Lord is nigh” and so we should be ready to “give thanks to His holy name.” And she tells us to look not to the temptresses of this age, but to the holy, blessed, ever-Virgin Mary who bears Christ in her womb so that He might make His home in our hearts.

Patience, then, is the Church’s earnest counsel. For by patiently and diligently attending to the holy mysteries, our devotion is increased and we are brought to salvation. Hence St John the Baptizer’s plea to “prepare the way of the Lord” is a plea for us to continue patiently in repentance, fasting and prayer. And it should evoke in us an equally earnest prayer: that Our Lord come, mightily aid us, and speedily help and deliver us so that His “indulgent mercy may hasten what is delayed by our sins.”

17 December 2007

I'm Just Curious - Why Are you Not Orthodox?

A cyber-friend of many years has posted in his blog a provocative question: Why are you not Catholic? He's apparently not looking to "sell" anyone on why he (a former Lutheran pastor & former Traditional Anglican priest) is now a Roman Catholic layman. He's just curious. So am I. So I read the responses.

I'm also curious why certain persons are not Orthodox. You see, when my father asked me why I was considering Orthodoxy, I gave a host of theological reasons. And when my wife and eldest daughters and various friends asked the same, I again gave a number of theological arguments. But in the end, when I finally determined that I had to become Orthodox, the reason was fairly simple.

"Because I think it's right for you," is what I told my father days after I resigned my Lutheran parish. And I said the same thing again when he (and my mother and siblings) asked again last Thanksgiving. "Because it's right for you." My dad's still a bit stumped by the answer, but it's the answer that communicates everything I think is necessary and important.

And because I think being Orthodox is right for you, I'm curious why you're not. In other words, I guess I'm asking for the obverse of the usual "journey story."

So here's the question (with apologies to "Bob Catholic"):

For those who are not a member of the Orthodox Church,
(that is Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or generic Protestant)
what is keeping you?
What are the reasons why you are not a Orthodox?

For those who have left the Church, I'd like to hear from you as well.
Why aren't you Orthodox any longer?

Add your voice via the comments. But please, limit yourself to the question and do not degenerate into ad hominem attacks.

Like "Bob Catholic," I'll step aside and not comment on the comments.

St Peter Chrysologus on St John the Baptizer

That blessed John was the messenger to the messengers of Christ, the witness to his witnesses, and the foremost of his promoters, we have frequently mentioned in our preaching. Then why is it that the messenger asks a question, the witness is in doubt, and the promoter is lacking in knowledge? Are you the One who is to come, or do we wait for another? (Mt 11.3) John, you perfect man, are you asking whether he is the Christ who is to come, when while you were still within your mother’s womb you announced that he had already come?

John, there are your words: “Behold, the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” And when he submitted to be baptized by your hands, you said: “I ought to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Are you not the one who heard amidst the waters of the Jordan the voice of the Father resounding from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”? You certainly were the only human being who saw the Holy Spirit come down in bodily form from heaven upon him. You are the one who grasped the Father with your ears, the Son with your hands, and the Holy Spirit with your eyes at one and the same moment in an unparalleled manifestation of power.

And after this you ask whether he is the Christ or whether there is another who is to come?

We are disturbed, John, we who sing your praises are disturbed… So give an answer, John, assist yourself and assist us; say why you who used to have knowledge sent them to ask a question.

Let us pay attention, brothers, let us pay attention more in-depth attention, and let us listen to the answer John gives here not only with our ears, but also with our hearts. John says: “If while I was still in the womb I instantly announced that Christ was going to be born, now after hearing of his works, works which attest to his divinity, have I plunged into the waves of doubt? Far from it!

“This is the reason form my question: my disciples, who had seen my good reputation, who had admired my life, who had heard me impose penance, forgive sins, and promise that the kingdom of heaven was arriving in him who was to come, were so prepared to be bound with chains, to live in prison with me, to share my punishments, and to become my partners with me in death, that they failed to see my Lord, for whom I had prepared them. They were following the teacher of penitence so closely that they were neglecting the Giver of grace; on account of ignorance they considered themselves mine to such an extent that they were unaware that the servant’s property belongs to his Master.

“So I sent them out, in order to put heavenly goods before them, to lead them to divine ones, to hand them over to God, to return them to the Creator. I sent them, so that by his works they would affirm that he was the Christ about whom they had heard my words, and so that my [disciples] would not be lost to my Lord with my passing away. I sent them to him who knew very well why I sent them. I sent them to the One who probes the heart; I sent them to the One who judges thoughts. I sent them to him who was in me and with me. I sent them so that by recognizing his divinity by means of his works, they would not find his humanity to be a stumbling block. I sent them, so that gazing upon his humanity would not disturb them who could not but be strengthened by the signs of his divine powers.

“And so the Lord, who knew why I sent them, responded with his works before he did with words.”

Source: The Fathers of the Church, Volume 110. St Peter Chrysologus Selected Sermons, Volume 3. Translated by William B. Palardy (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), pp. 355-356.

09 December 2007

Is it Really Worth It?

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 Second Sunday of Advent.

You might take comfort in thinking that St John the Baptizer had his doubts; that when he was in prison, his strength of spirit and strength of faith began to waver. You might think that this makes St John “more human”—which means that you can identify with him because he’s more like you: susceptible to doubts, prone to weakness, able to stumble. You might think that if we see St John faltering, then he is more real, common, everyday—and not on some pedestal. And, in some perverse way, that makes us feel better—not better about St John, but better about ourselves; that it’s okay that we stumble and falter and waver and doubt.

For how often do we falter and waver and doubt? How often do we wonder about what good our religion does us; about whether the fuss of fasting and the sacrifice of self-denial is really worth while and necessary—especially when all our coworkers are partying. And how often do we wonder about whether it’s practical, realistic or necessary to wrestle with the kids so long and so often in church—especially when all that wrestling seems a waste of time because we feel like we get so little from going to church. And how often do we wonder about the good of praying at a set time, or even taking the time to pray—especially when not praying doesn’t seem to hurt us, and we’re not so sure God truly cares, or hears, or helps? We are prone to believe that we’re usually just going through the motions, and that these motions are taking us nowhere and getting us nothing.

And so we hear the story of St John the Baptizer, we hear the question he asks Jesus, and we hear it as the strong becoming weak, the mighty hero faltering, the prophet losing faith—and we feel better. Not necessarily because his question is our question. But because we often find comfort in other people’s misery. Because we revel in Schadenfreude. Because St John comes down to our level, and then in some queer way we can sympathize with what he seems to be going through; we can relate. And as we’re relating, we hear St John say aloud what we often think—“Is this all worth it? Is it worth the time and effort? Is it worth the sacrifice and expense? Do we really get ahead by playing by all these church rules, by explaining our eating habits, by risking ridicule or hard questions, by disciplining our routine and words, by bundling everyone one up and trudging off to church once again?”

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, it’s worth every sacrifice—every penny, every minute, every hassle, every strange look, every delayed or denied gratification. It’s all worth it—but not because hanging tough, doing the time, and making the sacrifice finally gets us the reward we’re after. For that’s looking at it backwards. Just like thinking St John is today “more human” is looking at things backwards. For in both of those instances—in following the rules hoping for a payoff, and in dragging St John down to our level—in both of those instances, we’re still focusing on ourselves: our fears, our feelings, our perspective, our doubts, our questions, and how much we feel we have to do to finally make it all worthwhile.

Read more.

Devouring the Advent Fast

"Christmas has devoured Advent."

So declares Joseph Bottum, editor of FIRST THINGS in an article entitled "The End of Advent" appearing in the December 2007 issue. His argument is that the scurrying, the buying, the partying and various other commercializings and celebratings have not only threatened the true meaning of Chirstmass, but have also destroyed the time of preparation.

Advent prepares for Christmass. And, as Bottom rightly notes, it prepares as all true spiritual preparations prepare: by offering a discipline so that the celebration may its rightful place and thereby be truly celebratory. "What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal."

The goal, of course, is the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. And that celebration is not merely another annual marker. That celebration is a spiritual participation in one facet of our salvation.

One might think that spiritual participations suggest spiritual celebrations which, in turn, necessitate nothing more than spiritual preparations. In other words, keep the spirit of Christmass mentally, internally, in the private of your prayer closet; but that doesn't have to constrict joining in the modern pre-Christmass activities (which often anticipate Christmass by having Christmass, or portions of Christmass, early). But that's a platonic "eat your cake and have it too" attitude.

Bottum is quite correct in his analysis; especially when he suggests that Christmass' "setting in the church year" requires Advent's season of self-discipline.

The Jesse trees and the Advent calendars, St. Martin’s Fast and St. Nicholas’ Feast, Gaudete Sunday, the childless crèches, the candle wreaths, the vigil of Christmas Eve: They give a shape to the anticipation of the season. They discipline the ideas and emotions that otherwise would shake themselves to pieces, like a flywheel wobbling wilder and wilder till it finally snaps off its axle. ... Through all the preparatory readings, through all the genealogical Jesse trees, the somber candles on the wreaths, the vigils, and the hymns, Advent keeps Christmas on Christmas Day: a fulfillment, a perfection, of what had gone before.

Let me suggest, however, two other key practices: one slightly mentioned and one unmentioned. The unmentioned is discipline and restraint of setting up and decorating the Christmass tree on Christmass Eve. Let the house be bare during the preparatory season, and then festive with decorations throughout the Twelve Days of Christmass.

And the slightly mentioned practice is the discipline of regular prayer, fasting and abstention. In other words, keeping a true spiritual and physical Advent fast (or the older "St Martin's Fast"). Yet this latter discipline, more than any others, is communal; that is, it may be done individually but is greatly aided when the community of faith intentionally determines together "for a season" to consume less, both in quality as well as in quantity.

But such an Advent fast is hardly to be found. And, in fact, it has been replaced by its opposite--a devouring, gorging, gluttonous appetite. Yet is it fair, Mr Bottum, to blame this on Christ Mass?

08 December 2007

Stir up our hearts!

The following is from tomorrow's Sunday bulletin.

The doubts that filled the disciples of St John the Baptizer often fill our own hearts, especially when we are restless, despairing, fearful or confused. Then we wonder if Christ is truly our hope and salvation, or if we should look elsewhere. Our behavior often betrays our tendency to find solace, purpose and comfort in other “saviors.” It is fitting, then, that we hear both Our Lord’s answer and the counsel of the Holy Apostle Paul. Our Lord urges us to judge Him by according to His miracles, and to observe His life in the strength and virtues of the saints, beginning with St. John. And St. Paul exhorts us recall that both our Father and His Word grant the patience and comfort which gives birth to and sustains true hope in His expected mercy.

Our prayer at this Mass, then, is that Our Lord stir up our doubt-filled hearts that they may be filled with all joy and peace in believing so that we abound in hope and the power of the Holy Spirit. For with our hearts duly stirred, we are both prepared for Our Lord’s coming and enabled to serve Him with a pure mind.

The Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The feast of the Virgin Mary's conception by St. Anne is kept with high regard and due devotion by Orthodox Christians in both the Western and Byzantine traditions. In the Western tradition, this feast is celebrated today (8 December); and amongst those in the Byzantine tradition, the same feast is celebrated tomorrow (9 December).

I can produce no finer summary than the following from a Synaxarion (a Byzantine liturgical book containing descriptions of various feasts and saints' days).

In accordance with the eternal purpose of God, who willed to prepare a most pure habitation for Himself in order to take flesh and dwell among men, Joachim and Anna were prevented from having children for many years. Their barren old age was symbolic of human nature itself, bowed down and dried up under the weight of sin and death, yet they never ceased begging God to take away their reproach. Now when the time of preparation determined by the Lord had been fulfilled, God sent an Angel to Joachim in solitude on a mountain, and to Anna in her affliction weeping in her garden, to tell them that the ancient prophecies were soon to be fulfilled in them: a child would be born to them, who was destined to become the veritable Ark of the new Covenant, the divine Ladder, the unburnt Bush, the living Temple where the Word of God would take up his abode. Through the conception of Saint Anna, the barrenness of human nature itself, separated from God by death, has on this day been brought to an end; and by the wondrous birth-giving of her who had remained childless until the age when women can no longer bear fruit, God announced and testified to the more astonishing miracle of the Conception without seed, and of the immaculate coming to birth of Christ within the heart and the womb of the Most Holy Virgin and Mother of God.

Even though the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary took place through a miraculous action of God, she was conceived by the union of man and woman in accordance with the laws of our human nature, which has fallen through Adam's transgression and become subject to sin and corruption (cf. Gen. 3:16). As the chosen Vessel and precious Shrine prepared by God since the beginning of time, she is indeed the most pure and the most perfect of mankind, but even so, she has not been set apart from our common inheritance nor from the consequences of the sin of our first parents. Just as it was fitting that Christ, in order to deliver us from death by his own voluntary death (Heb. 2:14), should by His Incarnation be made like to men in all things except sin; so it was meet that His Mother, in whose womb the Word of God would unite with human nature, should be subject to death and corruption like every child of Adam, lest we not be fully included in Salvation and Redemption. The Mother of God has been chosen and preferred among all women, not arbitrarily, but because God foresaw that she would preserve her purity and keep it perfect: conceived and born like all of us, she has been worthy to become the Mother of the Son of God and the mother of us all. So, in her tenderness and compassion, she is able to intercede for us with her Son, that He may have mercy upon us.

Just as the Lord Jesus Christ was the fruit of the virginity of the holy Mother of God, so she herself was the fruit of the chastity of Joachim and Anna. And by following the same path of chastity we too, monks and Christian married people, can bring Christ to be born and grow in us.

02 December 2007

Living Not Tied to This World

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 First Sunday of Advent.

Let us consider, then, what Our Lord is truly saying. He is not telling us to do nothing as the world implodes. In fact, Our Lord in many places urges us to help others see what we see, and believe what we believe, and live as we live. And how should we live? Not as men and women tied to the pursuits of this world; not as men and women who find the greatest happiness in the busy-ness of parties and shopping and decorating; and not as men and women whose lives are governed by gratifying our desires and satisfying whatever whims or fads we are told we must have. Rather, we are to live with the knowledge, and with the earnest belief, that this world and this world’s goods offer us nothing, do nothing for us, and bring us no true joy or happiness. We are to live as men and women who can easily walk away from everything, because in Christ we already have all things. And we are to live as men and women who understand that this world—and all its charms and all its false promises and all its excitements—this world is destined to pass away. And so we are not to live as men who try to have it all before it’s all gone, but as men who know that all we pursue is nothing, and what is to come is everything.

So Truth Himself is reminding us of the truth—the truth that the world is not your friend, and so it should not be your heart’s desire. Your heart’s desire is in what lies beyond this world, in the world to come. That is the feast you should yearn for. That is the present you should eagerly await. That is the life you should sacrifice all to attain. And for that life you should eagerly decorate your person, your children, your home and all that you have with every good work, every kindness, every icon and every symbol so that you may never forget, but always strive for, that kingdom.

Read more.

Rorate Mass - Revisited

Nearly one year ago (7 Dec 06 to be precise), I posted an entry concerning the Rorate Mass. The Rorate Mass is a votive Mass commemorating the Blessed Virgin Mary which is sung during Advent. Yet in my original entry, I indicated that this particular Mass was a favorite among German people. Both in the original and in a subsequent entry, I commended readers to information provided by Diane at Te Deum Laudamus.

A reader has lately commented on the original entry and has provided the following additional historical information. Since it is that time of year again, I thought it was fitting to post the comment in its entirety.

This old custom originates from the Territory of the former Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy. The Alternative names of the Rorate Mass in Hungary are the daybreak Mass, Angel Mass, Golden Mass or Mass of Blessed Virgin. The Rorate Masses were said in Hungary since the 12th Century. According to the Ordo Stigonienis these early morning Masses were said in white. If it was a Solemn Mass, the Gloria and Credo were also sung. This special privilege was kept after the introducing the Tridentine Rite, as a Hungarian custom. After Vatican II these Mass are said in purple. In Hungary traditionally these Masses were started in the dark at 6:00 am and finished after sunrise. This custom is continued in lot of Hungarian Churches, which are usually full on these mornings. Young people likes to go there and they are competing who can go to more Rorate Mass. This is a very nice practice of virtue.

01 December 2007

Advent as Spiritual Preparation

The following is from tomorrow's Sunday bulletin.

It is fitting that we begin the new liturgical year as we ended the previous year: by hearing of our Lord’s final coming. By itself, such a dire warning should evoke in each Christian a desire for true repentance, for increased prayer, and for earnest re-commitment to live godly. Those desires, however, should be further heightened by the realization that on this day we also begin preparing for the annual celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity.

Our desires and preparations ought to lead us, then, to “put on the armor of light” (Epistle) not simply by adding a few extra moments of reflection or prayer to our daily routine; but also by making “no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its desires.” The discipline of denying whatever gratifies and pleases us, and instead pursuing chiefly those things that promote the spiritual welfare of others (and thereby ourselves)—this is spiritual preparation for Christ Mass. Such spiritual preparation ought to take priority over any material preparations that society encourages. For what good is our celebration if our hearts are not truly prepared; and if our attention is solely or mostly on things that gain us nothing in the life to come?

Let us pray both in this Mass and throughout Advent that Our Lord would stir up our hearts that they may be truly prepared for the coming of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

The Advent Fast Has Begun

Those who may be interested in a brief description of the practical application of the Advent Fast this year, as this fast is followed in among Orthodox in the Western tradition, are directed here.