30 November 2008

This is not the world we ought to desire

Advent Sunday was commemorated today at Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church. Below is a portion of the sermon. The full sermon can be accessed at the Holy Incarnation blog.

Our Blessed Lord Jesus has often instructed us in the true delights of the heart. He has told us how great His love is for us, how He has mercy on us, how intimately He unites us to Himself by His Spirit, how He has stored up riches for us, and how earnestly He longs us for us join His saints and angels in His heavenly kingdom. And when we hear these things, how our hearts burn within us! And how our desire fades for this world and this world’s good!

Yet now, with that same deep compassion and undying love, Our Lord today warns us that we may lose these riches and His kingdom. For while Our Lord God will never quit His love for us, and will never leave us nor forsake us, He knows that we can become so enwrapped in the cares and occupations of our life, in our pursuit for fleeting honors, and in satisfying our present appetite, that we lose our focus and so may miss out on the things that truly make for our peace. Our Lord knows that we can become so preoccupied with ourselves and our own anxieties that we forget all that He has given us and promised to us; and live unmindful that this is not the world we ought to desire.

28 November 2008

Of my daughter I shall boast...

This past Sunday I stepped off the plane and was driven directly to Alexander Recital Hall on the Eastern Michigan University campus to hear my eldest daughter, Johannah, play her senior recital. After only seven semesters Johannah will graduate in a few weeks with a double major in Applied Music and Math. She intends to be an actuary by day, and a chamber or local symphony violist by night.

Johannah is pictured with her father (an Orthodox priest) and her grandfather (a retired Lutheran minister).

27 November 2008

Why Seminarians attend Seminary

I am increasingly impressed with the words Metropolitan Jonah speaks. The newly elected OCA primate recently visited St Vladimir's Seminary as its new president (by virtue of his election as Metropolitan). Most impressive, I find, is this description of why seminarians should attend the seminary:

Seminarians do not come to theological schools to become 'professionals' and to be 'respected,' but rather to be crucified and thereby shine forth the light of Christ.

15 November 2008

This Year's Reflection on the Rubrics

For the past 10-15 years, I’ve had the annual habit of carefully reading through the rubrics for the ordinary of the Mass. Well, it’s that time of year again, and so I’ve been reading through Fr John Mangels' well written manual "How to Celebrate Low Mass."

When I was a Lutheran and read the rubrics, without much thought or attention I would skip over or edit those rubrics which I determined did not apply to the Lutheran liturgy. Among other things, that means I skipped nearly everything having to do with the canon of the Mass, and all the “ostentatious” rubrics about tones of voice, types of bows, etc. Of course, I would do the same with the liturgy itself. If I lifted some particular feast or text from the Roman or Anglican Missal, I would edit these to fit what I determined was the “Lutheran ethos.” (Honestly, I also did the same when reading the church fathers, aloud or privately.) It was only after I determined that I was not smart enough to correct or edit the church’s liturgy and tradition that I truly began to become Orthodox. The same applies to the rubrics. I’m simply not smart enough to know what to omit or change; and, frankly, the more I follow the rubrics as received within the Western tradition, the more I see not only the practical but also theological wisdom which they contain.

That is what previous reflections on the rubrics have led me to. This year’s reading of the rubrics, however, has reminded me of one of the key principles in liturgy; namely, that since the tradition (i.e., the liturgy) is a living tradition, it is not learned from a book. Rather, the book merely reminds one of what one has seen or witnessed from other celebrants.

But what if, like me, one did not grow up witnessing the traditional Mass? All the bows, tones of voice, movements of the hands, etc seem so foreign and like so much unnecessary (and, at times, overly showy) “folderol.” They certainly don’t seem to fit our modern mindset. So one is tempted to jettison them.

Yet my three year old has taught me something else. All he knows liturgically is the Mass that he’s seen me celebrate. So, from time to time when he’s in the mood to “play church,” I’ll catch him speaking nonsense while conscientiously mimicking all the bows and gestures. He’s begun to learn the tradition—and simply by watching! I envy him that. At the same time, his mimickings are urging me to be ever much more careful in how I celebrate the Mass. For, like it or not, I’m passing on the tradition to him in a way that I never received; and I’d hate for him to have to relearn something because I was careless in my teaching when I was at the altar. Worse yet, I’m not sure I could stand the judgment in his tone when, later, he would either say, “Why didn’t you follow the tradition” or “If you can omit that gesture, why can’t we also omit this or that teaching”?

You see, that’s where “cafeteria Christianity” begins. Not in the philosophy of religion; that is, not when one is taught or determines that certain dogmas or morals don’t apply. Rather, the notion to adopt “cafeteria Christianity” (“which we used to call heresy”—Peter Kreeft) begins when three year olds mimic the priest celebrating Mass, and then later learn that the priest had the hubris to edit the traditional bows or gestures or tones of voice. And then these three year olds, when older, begin to ask themselves “Why didn’t the priest follow the tradition” and “If he can omit that gesture, why can’t we also omit this or that teaching”?

01 November 2008

And if One Never Lives...?

With the election looming, and a proposal favoring embryonic stem cell research on the Michigan ballot, discussions in the philosophy and theology classes I teach have become lively. Not heated, just lively.

Like all high schools, these Catholic school students seek to understand by pushing the limits. More often than not, I repeat the clear logic I heard Dr Peter Kreeft present at a local Catholic parish earlier in October. It goes like this:

Life, liberty and the pursuit of prosperity/happiness are set in a specific order. How can one pursue prosperity or happiness if one has not liberty? And how can one pursue liberty is one has no life? Therefore, of the three, life is the greatest moral good.

I believe that, amongst all the very important issues in this year's presidential campaign, that greatest moral good of life must always reign firm. Of course, one could argue (as many do) that the war in Iraq is a life-issue. So are, to greater or lesser degrees, the policies touching upon poverty, healthcare and the like. But these are to greater or lesser degrees. To the greatest degree is that one can live.

Again, Dr Kreeft offers clear logic when he asserts that the war in Iraq is a key life issue, but what good is saving a soldier's life if we allow the destruction of the life of one who never had a chance to be a soldier--or anything else?

Recently, the Most Reverend Joseph Martino, Catholic Bishop of Scranton, offered the same clarity in a Pastoral Letter:

Another argument goes like this: “As wrong as abortion is, I don't think it is the only relevant ‘life’ issue that should be considered when deciding for whom to vote.” This reasoning is sound only if other issues carry the same moral weight as abortion does, such as in the case of euthanasia and destruction of embryos for research purposes. Health care, education, economic security, immigration, and taxes are very important concerns. Neglect of any one of them has dire consequences as the recent financial crisis demonstrates. However, the solutions to problems in these areas do not usually involve a rejection of the sanctity of human life in the way that abortion does. Being “right” on taxes, education, health care, immigration, and the economy fails to make up for the error of disregarding the value of a human life. Consider this: the finest health and education systems, the fairest immigration laws, and the soundest economy do nothing for the child who never sees the light of day.

Which Saints on All Saints?

On All Saints Day, the Church does not celebrate all those who were baptized, particularly the faithful who are still living. For the Church does not use the word “saint” lightly. Therefore, she does not refer to any or every Christian as a “saint.” Rather, the word “saint” is reserved for those who have led exemplary lives of holiness. And as a mark of their holiness, these men and women would not see themselves as saints. Rather, they would see themselves as unworthy of this honor.

It is not a mark of pride, then, but a recognition of godly humility when a person is canonized (officially recognized) as a “saint.” And it is a witness to all the faithful that we should strive not to be saints, but to live humbly, “soberly, and justly, and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.” (Ti 2.12-13)

The greatest honor bestowed upon a saint, then, is to imitate that person’s life. And there are two things in particular that we should strive to imitate so that we might worthily commemorate the saints.

First, all saints—whether known or unknown—freely confessed Christ and His unending mercy by willingly sacrificing their life. Many of the saints made this confession by spilling their blood as martyrs. Others, however, did not receive the crown of martyrdom, but nevertheless made a great confession by sacrificing all that they had and all that they were for the love of God and the love of all men.

To commemorate the saints by imitation, then, means that we adopt this same attitude of self-sacrifice; that we become willing to give up all our possessions, all our ambitions, all our desires, even our own life if necessary, in order to attain the kingdom of heaven. That is how the saints lived and died; and we honor them by living as they did.

Secondly, all saints strove not for fame, but for humility. All of them desired to be known not for their deeds or writings. Rather, they desired simply to gain true life by losing their lives in a life dedicated to repentance. For they saw themselves as unworthy of even the least of Christ’s mercies, and so lived St. Paul’s creed: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Tim 1.15)

To commemorate the saints rightly, then, means that we adopt their spirit of repentance and humility; that we strive not to impress others, but instead strive to divest ourselves of all pride and self-serving desires. To live knowing that no one is worse than we are, that all are more deserving, and that the Lord should first save everyone else, even the worst sinner—that is the saints’ spirit of humility and repentance that we should strive to imitate. And whenever we do, we truly honor them.