31 October 2017

The Irony of the Reformation

Ever since, as an 18 year old college freshman, I first read Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther (Here I Stand), I’ve been struck by the irony of how October 31, 1517 came to be. The standard tale, which is hardly disputed, is that Luther was exercised over the abuse of one of the holy sacraments; namely, the Sacrament of Penance (Private Confession). He was exercised, not because he thought that sacrament was illegitimately termed a sacrament, or that it imposed the clergy between God and the person. Luther never advocated the abolition of Private Confession. Rather, Luther was exercised because the sale of indulgences was pastorally destructive. In other words, it destroyed the pastoral means of curing the soul. And it did so by encouraging the average person to think that, with one piece of paper, he no longer needed to go to confession.

This abuse, this despising of the sacrament, which undermined the best of pastoral care—this is what caused Luther to re-examine Rome’s understanding of forgiveness. Justification was the theological term. But, as at least one Lutheran scholar has pointed out, the abstract notion of justification takes on concrete form when the penitent sinner, after confessing before a faithful witness, hears, outside of himself, God’s forgiveness by one authorized (ordained) to speak it.

What is ironic is that a protest against the despising of a sacrament very quickly morphed into a rebellion against most (if not all) of the sacraments, as well as against the very means that Christ set up to administer justification individually to the repentant sinner. It’s as if the patients, upon hearing that the medicine was being withheld, then determined—with all manner of support—to overturn the entire medical profession and, in fact, all medical science in order to establish their own self-serving cures.

Now, that might seem a bit harsh, but that’s not my intent. My intent is merely to point out, in stark terms, how awry went Luther’s academic propositions for (in his mind in 1517) well-meaning debate. And also this: to remind the reader that Luther’s initial concern—that Private Confession was threatened—led to a large group of Christians who continue the same vehement insistence as the indulgence-bearing hedonists that Luther wanted to heal. For both the by-gone indulgence wavers and today’s Protestants have in common the desire not merely to avoid, but to deride the precious and living-renewing Sacrament of Penance.

21 September 2017

The Mass is Not Ours but For Us

During the Mass, we say (or sing) together these words: “Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven.” Those words are, of course, from the Nicene Creed—the statement that summarizes the basics of the Orthodox Faith.
For now, let’s focus on the word “for.” As in, “for us men” and “for our salvation.” In the context of the creed, that word “for” means “on behalf of” and “for the sake of.” It’s a way of saying that Our Lord Jesus accomplished our salvation because we could not; and that what He did He offered to His Father on our behalf.
We summarize that concept using the word “sacrifice.” A sacrifice is something we do for, or on behalf of, or for the sake of, others. We do the work; they get the benefit. In its purest form, this sacrifice “for” someone else is unselfish.
A synonym of the word “sacrifice” is the word “liturgy.” Liturgy is a work done for others. For their sake, on their behalf, and even in their place. That’s how the word was used in both politics. The ruler is a liturgist because makes decisions “for” the people. Ideally, he or she is acting on our behalf, for our good. At least, that is how St Paul sees it when he writes that the Emperor Nero is the liturgist of God for good. (Rom 13.4)
The use of the word “liturgy” in ancient worship came from its use in politics. In the Old Testament, the priest offers prayers and sacrifices to God for the people. In other words, he takes their offerings into the temple, and says the prescribed prayers. And the person who offers gets the benefit from the work the priest does. Hence, it’s a sacrifice—a selfless act on behalf of another person.
Because of His sacrifice, and because He does it “for us men and for our salvation,” Jesus is called a liturgist. His sacrifice is our liturgy. Only, the liturgy Christ offers far exceeds anything done by a politician. For the Lord’s liturgy, His work for us, is enacted and firmly rooted in better promises than any politician makes. And Our Lord’s goal is not merely to represent us, but to present us to the heavenly Father in His kingdom. And to present us, He must cleanse us, restore us, and renovate us. That is His work for us—His liturgy. And that work for the people—that liturgy—is what redeems and saves us.
Yet Our Lord’s work seems so distant—both in time and in our minds. And so we need to recall it, again and again. And recall, here, is not a memory thing but a re-enactment thing; in the sense that Christ Jesus enacts once again, before our hearts and minds, that exact same liturgy or work for us that brings us salvation. Not that He is repeating what He did; but that He is mystically transporting back to the original act, back to the sacrifice, back to His work for us.
Because we are weak, and because we are too earthly-bound, Our Lord uses ministers—liturgists—to do this re-enacting work for His people. As the priest offers the liturgy, He is presenting once again Christ’s sacrifice before our spirit’s eyes. The priest is working for us in order to help us see that we stand, both at the same time, at the foot of Calvary 2000 years ago and in the timeless Kingdom of Heaven.
Perhaps we could do this work ourselves. But if we did, then it would no longer be a selfless sacrifice; instead, it would be our work for our own sake. And then it would no longer be the work for the people, but the work of the people. And if it’s our work, it no longer needs Christ working “for us men and for our salvation.”

All of this is to say that, when we are in the Divine Liturgy, when we assist at the Mass, it is not our work, like paying our tax or obligation to God. Instead, it is us receiving what the Lord has already accomplished and done for us; receiving the work He has worked for our benefit. And our “work,” if we need to call it that, is simply to receive gratefully and in true faith all the benefits that our great liturgist presents and offers and gives to us.

This reflection is constructed from these thoughts 

21 July 2017

The Mass Presents Christ

As we stand in heaven during the Mass, Christ is in our midst. He is in our midst mentally, as we think about, contemplate, and meditate on His saving work and His sacred gifts. He is in our midst emotionally, as our hearts are uplifted due to His loving-kindness and many mercies which we certainly do not deserve. He is in our midst spiritually, as the Holy Spirit draws us slowly, gently, kindly, into His soothing and invigorating embrace. But most of all, Christ is in our midst physically. He is really present, standing before us not figuratively but literally, not symbolically but actually, not metaphorically but truly.

How do we know this? How do we know most anything that really matters, anything that soothes our soul and helps us see beyond this life? Only by faith. Only by faith do we know, and trust, and embrace that Christ is in our midst. Just as, only by faith, do we know and trust and believe that we stand in heaven during the Mass.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Yet faith, for us, is easily distracted because we tend to get caught up in our own selves and so rely, way too much, on the impermanent things and feelings that we are convinced are so real. What is real is what lives beyond death. And what is real is what gives us a happiness that no heartache or suffering can diminish.

As well as being easily distracted, our faith is also weak because faith requires us to see beyond our eyes, to see past our hopes and fears, and even to see more than we can imagine. And so, to help our faith and to lift our hearts into what is truly real, Christ provides us with various means, modes and instruments that speak not just to our eyes but to all our senses, so that we might truly see Him as He stands before us.

We tend to think that our most powerful sense is sight. The Lord recognizes this, and so He offers us visual cues of His real and actual presence during the Mass. The most obvious of these is the priest. This is obvious, not because the priest stands up front and leads the liturgy, but because he dresses so differently from the rest of us; so differently, in fact, that the priest is covered, head to toe, with uncommon clothing. It’s as if we don’t want to see him; as if we want his shape and other attributes to fade away; as if his clothing wants to transport us to another time and place; as if we don’t want him there for himself, but instead long for someone else in his place. And that’s precisely why we dress-up the priest. It is so that we remember that Christ is in our midst, when the priest stands before us; and so that we remember that the words he speaks and the prayers he says are not his words but the Lord’s own Word. (By the way, that also explains why the bishop requires the priest to say so few words of his own, and to say instead the Scripturally-soaked words.)

Yet, if truth be told, one of our most powerful senses is our sense of smell. Among other things, it governs our reactions, triggers our memories, and directs our taste buds. Using our olfactory organ, Christ shows us that He is truly present. With the help of the servers, the priest uses the censor to produce, emit, and disperse perfumed fragrance. But not any fragrance; rather, the precise fragrance that was used when Christ was buried, the fragrance that emanated from His resurrected body when He stood in the midst of the Apostles. That cologne from His body as He spoke—that is the same scent we get to smell during the Mass. It announces to us, as it did to Peter and Thomas, that the resurrected Christ is in our midst, bringing not the stench of death but the aroma of life.

And how close to us is Christ? Consider what is incensed: the altar (which represents the tomb of Christ); the priest (who operates in the person of Christ); the Gospel (which contains the words of Christ); the faithful (who are the Body of Christ); and the Eucharist (which is Christ Himself). How close is Christ to us? “He is nearer than we believe.” Like the incense, He permeates and saturates and pervades the church and the liturgy.

And what ought be our response? To approach Christ Himself as He presents Himself as our means of salvation. For that is why Christ is in our midst—so that we might connect with Him, trust Him, and embrace Him as authentically and truly as He is present for us.

16 June 2017

In the Midst: Holy Orders

he Ordination of men as priests or deacons can occur at any time. In the Western Orthodox tradition, the Ember Days of Advent, Lent, September—and most especially the week of Pentecost—are designated for conferring the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
During these Ember days, the entire Church joins the candidates in a special fast and penitential Mass on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday leading up to the ordination of deacons and priests during the Saturday Divine Liturgy. (The lesser orders may also be
conferred at this time.). At this time, the entire community of the faithful pray for the Spirit’s grace both upon the men who will be ordained, and upon the whole church so that she may increase and her members may grow in faith and holiness.
Our Lord’s Church cannot grow in faith or holiness without His sacred ministers. Their ministry is to deliver His gifts—the sacred mysteries—which unite us to Christ, seal us with His Spirit, heal our bodies and forgive our souls, and strengthen our life in and with each other until we together attain the fullness of the kingdom of heaven.
But there is something more that is revealed in this Ember Day practice. The whole Christian community fasts and prays (while only some are being ordained) because this Holy Sacrament—unlike all the sacred mysteries—centers the Christian parish family. That is the essence of this sacrament. Fr Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, puts it this way:
If each man [or woman] is to find in Christ his own life, if Christian engineers find in the Church what it means to be a Christian engineer, if a Christian novelist finds in the church the idea of what is Christian art, if a Christian father and a Christian mother find in the Church the essence of Christian parenthood, there must be someone in the center of the community who, just as Christ, has nothing of his own, but in whom and through whom everyone else can find his way.
That “someone” who stands in the center of the community is “the one who makes Christ present—who ‘represents,’ but in a very real sense, Christ’s care, Christ’s love, Christ’s teaching.” (Schmemann) To say it simply, the Priest is the one who re-presents Christ; that is, who repeatedly makes Christ present. And it is the same with the Deacon: he also presents Christ again and again.
The significant difference between the priest and deacon is that the priest’s primary focus is making present Christ’s compassion and mercy for the soul (i.e., through the sacraments and visitations), while the deacon’s primary emphasis is making present Christ’s compassion for the body (i.e., through material assistance and prayer).
These roles are clearly demonstrated in the Divine Liturgy. The Deacon reads the Gospel of Our Incarnate Lord, reminding us in every word that God came in our flesh to put an end to our captivity to ungodly passions not by freeing our souls from our bodies, but by healing, redeeming, and restoring our bodies as well as our souls; and that this liberation culminates when, by His Ascension, Our Lord shows that our flesh will be capable of being raised up to heaven to see the Father with our very own eyes.
In a similar way, the Priest does not just promise but actually bestows upon us the compassion and mercy of the Father through the Son in the unity of the Spirit. This peace with God, which surpasses our understanding, is delivered when the Priest leads the prayers, and gives the blessing. And most especially, when the Priest handles the Lord’s very own Body and Blood, and leads us to give thanks by consuming the Holy Eucharist, then is the Lord’s own divine nature, abundantly and unfathomably, knitted to our own flesh and coursing through our veins.
In both instances, when the Deacon and the Priest serve us, the re-present Christ to us, making Him present, standing in our midst. For they say, “The Lord be with you,” each time before they exercise their specific ministry. These words mean that the “I AM,” who is always with us, now, by means of the Deacon and Priest, stands in the midst of the “two or three” (or more). The faithful acknowledge this whenever they respond, “And with thy spirit.” For those speak declare that the Holy Spirit, given to the Sacred Ministers in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, has permitted us to see not them, but Christ; not their failings and weaknesses, but His strength and undying kind-heartedness.
In practical, every-day terms, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is exactly that: a re-ordering of the life of the ordained man. No longer does that man have a “private” or “individual” life. No longer can he make decisions based solely on what is best for himself, his health, his prosperity or success, or even his family. And no longer can he set aside, even when “vacationing” or on his “day-off,” his duty and responsibility to serve at the altar or pray the prescribed prayers.
In a very real sense, then, the ordained man is “under orders.” In every moment, he must “become all things to all men.” He must “do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” For his life is no longer his own, but is offered up as Christ gave Himself completely as a self-offering for men.
This is why Holy Orders is a sacrament which conveys the grace to bolster and sustain those who are ordained. And perhaps you see why it is both good and necessary for the whole Church to join in the fasts and prayers—not only for the men who will be ordained, but even more so for the priests and deacons who now serve. For by your fasting, you remember the sacrifice; and by your prayers, you support and encourage them in being faithful to their orders.

V. Rev. John W. Fenton
Pastor, St Michael Orthodox Christian Church, Whittier CA
Assistant to the Vicar General, Western Rite Vicariate

Pentecost Week 2017

Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy: A Review

In his Retractationes (Retractions), St Augustine has demonstrated that one of the marks of humility is the willingness to critically self-evaluate one’s writing and then make needed corrections. In some cases, this may lead to the arduous work of a thorough-going revision.

This Augustinian-like humility is displayed in Fr Andrew Damick’s revised and expanded edition of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. The revision was necessary not only because the original scope of the book had changed, but also because he realized that the picture he drew of other Christian denominations was unrecognizable to them.

I was among those underwhelmed with the first edition. The Lutheranism he depicted was too simplistic and flat; and the Roman Catholicism was heavy on tired caricatures.

St Augustine set out to make corrections because he knew that, over time, his faith had deepened and his charity lengthened. Fr Andrew made his revision because he wanted to avoid the all too easy comparison of misrepresentation with reality, of popular religion with official dogma.

I am convinced that this edition far exceeds the previous, and accomplishes all that Fr Andrew desired. In fact, it is a book that I recommend to Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, and will incorporate in parish instruction.

Fr Andrew offers a survey of main ideas rather than an in-depth analysis. His book is not laden with theological jargon, and does not require the reader to unpack heady concepts. His style, instead, is to speak to the Christian who has a fair to good understanding of his faith. He is neither pedantic nor condescending. In fact, he occasionally slips into contemporary or even hip language. This is not distracting but, in its limited use, somewhat charming.

I recommend this book primarily because it is an easy-to-read and balanced presentation, without falling into a kind of false objectivity where the author pretends not to take sides. Fr Andrew is clear and forthright in taking sides. He is comparing other Christians and non-Christians with Orthodoxy. It is apparent that he wants to be very careful in presenting the teachings of the other faiths. At the same time he is consistent with the Orthodox faith.

His tone is neither polemical nor condescending, but kind and humble. “Here are the similarities and differences,” I can hear him say. “And here is where the Orthodox Church stands. And so now we can begin to compare apples with apples.”

03 May 2017

Ascension: Exalting the Human Body

t is no coincidence  that the recent decline in the reverence and respect for the human body has coincided with the equally recent decline in the celebration of Our Lord’s Ascension.
Among too many people, these days, the human body is little more than a casing or covering for the real “you.” This real “you” consists, primarily, of one’s thoughts, dreams, loves, emotions, thinking, etc.; in other words, the immaterial aspect of the human. In theology and philosophy, this is what has usually been ascribed to the soul.
With this thinking, what is the role of the body—our material aspect? It becomes something that can be changed, or reconfigured, or ignored, or discarded. In other words, it has little bearing on the real “you,” and so hardly matters.
Historically, those who claimed that body matter doesn’t matter were commonly known as Gnostics. Most often, they believed that the body was something like a prison that housed the real “you” until, at death, you could escape it. And once the soul escaped the body, the body could be burned or cremated because it wasn’t really part of who you are.
Among other things, this thinking denigrates God’s original design of humans—and of all creation. And today’s popular view of the human body does the same thing: it asserts that the body is incidental and inconsequential to your humanity.
By contrast, the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord exalts our human nature. Our Lord’s ascension declares that the human body is integral and essential to the real “you.”

Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand:
There we sit in heav’nly places, There with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
We by faith behold our own.

For why else would Our Lord ascend in His body? If His real “you” was the soul—or had little to do with the body—then did He bodily ascend merely as a show? Or so that He could be seen, letting the body then dissolve somewhere in the atmosphere?
If that is true, then Our Lord’s suffering, His death and resurrection, and the wounds He insisted on keeping and showing—these also were part of the show, since they were not vital to who He is.
But by ascending, Our Lord shows us two things: that His physical body is vitally important to His work of redemption; and that our own bodies cannot be disregarded, or divorced from who we truly are.
Furthermore, by ascending Our Lord elevates our human nature (body, as well as soul) far above the dignity of all the creation, above the ranks of angels, above the exalted status of archangels. For in Christ Himself, Our Lord seats our human nature (body and soul) at the right hand of God.
This is possible because, by becoming human, Our Lord interwove our human nature into such a close union with Himself that He redeemed, healed, and revitalized our bodies as well as our souls.
And that is the great revelation of Our Lord’s Ascension. Our bodies matter. And they are gifts from God—to be received, and rejoiced in, and worn with the dignity that Our Lord has bestowed when He, for our salvation, determined to complete His earthly work by exalting the entirety of our human nature.

26 April 2017

The Mass Attracts

Consider this question: how did the church grow so quickly in the earliest days? Without a doubt, 3000 people were attracted by the miracle of tongues when St Peter and the other apostles spoke outside the temple on Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. And while preaching on the streets continued, it wasn’t street preaching that produced the steady commitment and the sustained spiritual growth of those 3000 and the church-family that they formed.
Neither is growth in God, inner deification, and holiness of life produced by many different programs, like Bible studies and outreaches and retreats—and Sunday meals. All of these are important, and certainly enhance our growth. And they can aid the growth of a parish. But that’s all they can do—enhance and aid. And they can attract on a superficial level. But none of the programs we offer actually stimulate or produce true, godly growth.
What, then, actually, really attracts people to our parish? Certainly, welcoming everyone who comes in the door as if he or she was Christ Himself is very attractive. Certainly, compassion, genuine kindness, authentic hospitality—these are even more attractive qualities. And definitely visitors mention most our warm friendliness as very attractive characteristic of this parish. But, if you dig a little deeper, that’s not why they keep coming back. And our friendliness does not produce a longing to return.
If the Bible is to be believed (and I think it should be!), the most important tool that God has given us to attract people to the Christian faith is the one we too often take for granted. The Mass itself attracts. And the more often we offer Mass—the more often we attend the Mass that is offered—the more people will be attracted to Our Lord and the service He provides for us in His Divine Liturgy.
Consider, again, this question: how did the nascent church grow so quickly? Simple: they had Mass every day. Listen to these words carefully: “Daily they continued with one accord in the temple, breaking bread…praising God. And daily the Lord added to the church those who were being saved.”
Those words occur just moments after the baptism of 3000 is described; and just seconds after it described their devotion of the Christian Faith. Their devotion was centered on two things: the apostolic teaching and the Eucharist. And that devotion—shown in the simplest of ways, by attending Mass—that is what caused others to want to be there with them.
And don’t think that this is simply an early church phenomenon. That is how the church has grown in every country where it has been planted. To be sure, street preaching and miracles attracted the first folks. But the sustained growth in God—the growth that is truly theosis, the inner relationship with God, as well as numerical growth—that growth occurred because Mass was celebrated daily, and people came to the daily celebration.
Just to give one example, which is quite common: when monks first landed in Ireland, all they did was build a small chapel and begin to pray. Every day. With Mass. It didn’t take long, and people wanted to know what they were doing, and why it was so important. And what attracted them to stay, to convert, to pass along the faith was the daily Mass.
I don’t think it’s any mistake, then, that this little parish has recently experienced continued, sustained growth—both inwardly and outwardly—especially in the last two months. For in the last two months, there has been Mass daily. Since February 28, there has been only one day when Mass was not served. And I’m convinced that this faithfulness, this daily offering of Our Lord’s sacrifice—this is what has attracted people.
Now, if you ask them, they won’t say that. And if you seek a scientific answer (like with polling data), you won’t find it. For this is a spiritual thing—a mystery governed most graciously by the Holy Spirit. And so it takes spiritual eyes to see it. Just as it also takes spiritual eyes to see that the growth has not simply been in numbers, but also in a longing, a desire, to live in God and to live for Him. And all of that, I lay at the doorstep of the Church: where Our Lord’s Spirit is poured out daily, even if only a handful are in attendance on any given day. For the Lord is pleased when we give thanks by offering and receiving the Sacrifice that He desired to offer and give us in His Son.