MORNING MEDITATIONS 2002

by V. Rev. Steven Kostoff
Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church, Cincinnati, Ohio

 

WEDNESDAY, MAY 29

 

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED HE IS RISEN!

I just finished serving the Liturgy for the commemoration known as the MIDFEAST OF PENTECOST. (At this Liturgy we literally put into effect the words of Christ, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my Name …") The hymnography of the Feast expresses its meaning nicely:

The middle of the fifty days has come, beginning with the Savior's resurrection, and sealed by the Holy Pentecost. The first and the last glisten with splendor. We rejoice in the union of both feasts, as we draw near to the Lord's Ascension: the sign of our coming glorification.

The hymns tells us that Pascha ("the first") and Pentecost ("the last") "glisten with splendor." What a wonderful phrase! In our lives today or in the world around us do we experience anything that we can honestly say "glistens with splendor?" This phrase may even sound archaic to our ears. Nowadays, some event or other may be "interesting," "neat," "cool," or, of course, it may receive the highest of all possible praise when it is said to be "fun" (I have even heard Pascha described as "fun!"). But "glisten with splendor!?" Yet further, do either of these Feasts "glisten with splendor" for us today? Do we recall the Paschal Feast of (only!) twenty-five days ago when, indeed, the Church — and we ourselves — truly "glistened with splendor?" Do we anticipate the Feast of Pentecost which is only twenty-five days ahead of us when the Church will again "glisten with splendor" at the descent of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps only if we "perceive … the Mystery of Christ" (EPH. 34) in our ecclesial assemblies, as the following hymn for the Midfeast declares:

We have assembled, O Christ, to praise the miracle of your Mysteries: the Midfeast of your Resurrection and the coming of your Holy Spirit. Send down on us great mercy!

"Mystery" or the "miracle of your Mysteries" means that "something" directly coming from God is being disclosed to us for our salvation and eventual glorification. This is Christ Himself. The resurrected and glorified Christ "glistens with splendor" as do the souls of those who believe in Him as "Lord and God" and who rejoice in His presence.

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, MAY 20

 

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED HE IS RISEN!

"Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him." (MK. 16:6)

Since that first mysterious and ineffable morning — described by St. Matthew as the "dawn of the first day of the week" (MT. 28:1) — when the empty tomb and the reason for its emptiness were revealed to the myrrhbearing women, countless believers have joyfully proclaimed "Christ is Risen!" Truly risen. Not metaphorically, "spiritually" or poetically — but really. That is, the whole person, body and soul, was raised to life. Jesus of Nazareth died and was buried; and it was Jesus of Nazareth who was raised from the dead. No part of our human nature assumed in the Incarnation was "lost" following the death of the Lord on the Cross:

He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. (ACTS 2:31)

In his wonderful book, THE FIRST DAY OF THE NEW CREATION, Prof. Veselin Kesich writes this about the nature of the Lord's victory over death:

The very expression that Jesus was "raised up" implies that the tomb in which he was buried was empty at the resurrection. Both the noun "resurrection" (anastasis) and the verb "to rise, to raise up" (egeiren) include by themselves a "movement of the body" — the body did not remain in the tomb. These words are used to point to the bodily character of the resurrection. It is not simply a spiritual awakening of the soul, but the resurrection of soul and body. (p. 78)

And yet we are not to think of the resurrected Lord in crude or in an overly materialistic manner. His body may have been "sown in dishonor", but it has been "raised in glory." If it was "sown a physical body," it has been "raised a spiritual body." (see I COR. 15:42-50) The body of the Lord is now the "spiritual body" of the resurrection. Lazarus was not raised to a life beyond death, but the Lord was:

For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. (ROM. 6:9)

The Lord now is what we await to become by grace. That is why St. Paul refers to the risen Christ as the "first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." (I COR. 15:20) And in a beautiful passage filled with hope and expectation, St. John writes:

Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And everyone who hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (I JN. 3:2-3)

This is why at the conclusion of many of our liturgical services we cry out in prayer: "Glory to Thee O Christ, our God and our hope, glory to Thee!" The Church is filled with the inexhaustable radiance of the Risen Lord. As Nicholas Arseviev writes in his book MYSTICISM AND THE EASTERN CHURCH:

The Eastern Church concentrates her whole fervor upon the glory of the risen Lord. The radiance of His transfigured life even now lights up the world and life. The primitive, joyful, mystical and, at the same time, eschatological realism here appears in all its force and significance … This spirit, this triumph, this joy of victory pervade, for example, all the resounding hymns of the Eastern Church's year. (p. 31-32)

In times of persecution, this is what kept believers coming together for worship - wherever that may have been. Do we need any other reason(s) for coming to church faithfully and joyfully? Or perhaps it only becomes "boring" or "long" if we are there for other reasons. May the Risen Lord continue to bless us with His presence until "the end of the age." (MATT. 28:20)

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, MAY 6

 

Dear Parish Faithful,

 

CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED HE IS RISEN!

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith faith is in vain. (I COR. 15:14)

The Day of Pascha so joyously celebrated yesterday was the beginning of the paschal season that extends for forty days until Ascension (thus balancing Great Lent); or the fifty days until Pentecost (thus balancing both Great Lent and Holy Week). The point is that Pascha has just begun — it is not over even though everyone is back to either work or school and life begins to take on its normal (somewhat predictable and boring) pace.

Christ is truly Risen; but alas, there is a new battle in the never-ending series of battles the Christian warrior engages in: to struggle against the 'post-paschal blues' or the (inevitable?) 'post-paschal swoon.' You may totally disagree with me, but I think this could just well be a harder battle than fasting, abstinence, self-discipline, etc! Out of sheer fatigue — both of mind and body — we are in need of rest this week. Thus, for many Bright Week becomes Recovery Week. Clearly, there is no 'technique' by which to maintain paschal joy. It is a matter of faith and the heart:

because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord AND BELIEVE IN YOUR HEART THAT GOD RAISED HIM FROM THE DEAD, you will be saved. (ROM. 10:9)

But, the practice of the Church encourages us to maintain the paschal spirit. The 'forms' are intact so that we can fill them with 'content' based upon the depth of our faith. Sometimes, maintaining the forms, though not the ideal, 'keeps us going,' so to speak, awaiting to be filled with meaning and purpose. What are some of these liturgical and personal forms for the paschal season:

A special rule of prayer for Bright Week, based upon the Hours of Pascha, with its rich hymnography. This was distributed yesterday at the Agape Vespers. Make sure to pick one up, if you come to any of the Bright Week Vespers this week.

The use of the paschal troparion — "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling …" — for forty days in church, in our personal rule of prayer, before blessing our meals, etc.

An extension of this: the use of 'The Angel Cried' at home (especially effective with young children); or the paschal stichera, "Let God Arise."

The paschal greeting and response: Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!

The reading of the accounts of Christ's Resurrection in the four Gospels. This could be an excellent family event.

We also read THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, St. Luke's account of the transformed disciples who go out into the world preaching the Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ.

These are perhaps a few of the more concrete forms that remind us of, and extend the paschal spirit into our churchly and daily lives so that the promise of the Risen Christ - "Behold, I am with you until the end of the world" - will further penetrate into our minds and hearts.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. (I COR. 15:20)

Fr. Steven

We will serve the paschal Vespers tonight and Wednesday at 7:00 P.M. and Friday evening at 6:30 P.M. On Friday, one and all are invited to our Bright Friday evening entitled "A Night at the Opera."

 

MONDAY, APRIL 15

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Having passed beyond the middle point in this holy season of the Fast, with joy let us go forward to the part that still remains, anointing our souls with the oil of almsgiving. So may we be counted worthy to venerate the divine Passion of Christ our God, and to attain His dread and holy Resurrection. (Vespers, Sunday Evening of the Fourth Week)

As Orthodox Christians, we are perhaps beginning to sense the upcoming Paschal celebration to some degree as we have passed the midpoint of the Fast according to the above hymn; and in addition, we have heard the Lord in the Gospel on the last two Sundays prophesy His impending Passion and Resurrection once He enters the holy city of Jerusalem. There is not only 'relief,' but joy on the way: "For through the Cross, joy has come into world!"

And yet each day demands of us a Christian response based upon an evangelical way of life, meaning a way of life based upon the Gospel image of Christ. This way of life is extensively and intensively expressed by St. Benedict of Nursia (+547) in his famous RULE. This is a longer meditation than those I usually include, but this one so well sums up the revelation of God's will as expressed in both the Old and New Testaments, that I am sure you will 'save' it for further reference and inspiration:

What are the rules of living a good life?
In the first place to love the Lord with all one's heart,
with all one's soul and with all one's strength.
Then to love one's neighbor as oneself.
Then not to kill.
Not to commit adultery.
Not to steal.
Not to covet.
Not to bear falst witness.
To respect all people.
And not to do to others what one would not wish to have done
to oneself.
To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.
To be master of one's own body …
To help the poor.
To clothe the naked.
To visit the sick.
To bury the dead.
To assist those in distress
To console the afflicted …
Not to let anyone come before the love of Christ.
Not to give rein to one' wrath.
Not to meditate revenge.
Not to harbour deceit in one's heart.
Not to offer a pretended peace.
Not to forsake charity.
Not to swear, for fear of perjury.
To speak the truth from heart and mouth.
Not to render evil for evil.
Not to commit injustice but to bear patiently what is done
to oneself.
To love one's enemies.
Not to render cursing for cursing, but rather blessing.
To endure persecution for righteousness' sake …
To place one's hope in God.
If one sees any good in oneself, to ascribe it to God,
not to oneself.
To fear the day of judgment.
To dread hell.
To desire eternal life with all one's heart and soul.
Every day to keep death present before one's eyes …
Not to hate anyone.
Not to entertain jealousy.
Not to to give oneself up to envy …
To respect the aged.
To love the young.
In the love of Christ to pray for one's enemies.
After a disagreement, to make peace before the sun goes down.
And never to despair of God's mercy.
Such are the tools of the spiritual art.

Perhaps this is why is seems rather absurd to speak with certainty about 'being saved.' The Christian life is a process in which each person is meant to grow from "one degree of glory to another …" (II COR. 3:18) as we each struggle to assimilate and then to actually incarnate the life envisioned above in the concrete circumstances of our lives. Yet, no sense spoiling this with any lengthy commentary. Or rather, the saint's summation speaks for itself, let us say.

May the rest of your day be blessed.

 

Fr. Steven

 

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

The BOOK OF PROVERBS is prescribed to be read during the forty days of Great Lent, and indeed we hear passages from this work of wisdom duing the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. The following text is representative of the teaching encountered in this book, and can certainly serve as a 'check list' of sorts as we make our way through Great Lent:

There are six things which the Lord hates, seven which are an abomination to him:

haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers. (PROVERBS 6:16-19)

With the exception of "hands that shed innocent blood," the other forms of unrighteous behavior here may enter our lives both consciously, as when we plan or plot our evil; or unconsciously, as when such actions become habitual or "second nature" due to constant repetition — and at this point they do not even seem that sinful, though we will dutifully enumerate them in confession.

But notice that the Lord is not "suggesting" that we refrain from such actions; or that such behavior is "rude" or "impolite." No, to God Himself these actions are an "abomination," the Lord "hates" these things! The Lord is not a celestial version of a pop psychologist, but rather the holy One of Israel. He does not abide in the murky realm of "situation ethics" but in the light of moral choices that spring forth from the heart.

When our bodies accumulate a list of illnesses or ailments, the whole organism begins to suffer and seemingly to "break down." The same principle applies to our souls. Of the list of seven abominations above, how many can we "take on" before our souls begin to suffer something of a spiritual meltdown?

Let us run to our Lord Jesus Christ, falling down before Him and confessing our sins with true compunction of heart, that we may receive from His inexhaustable love. He awaits our conversion. He forgives us "seventy times seven." Since He is "gentle and lowly of heart" we will "find rest for our souls" (MAT. 11:29), for He is the "Physician of our souls and bodies."

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (PROVERBS 3:5-8)

Fr. Steven

 

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 3

Dear Parish Faithful,

 

As we all know, Great Lent is a forty day period of intense fasting, prayer and almsgiving as we journey toward Holy Week and the glorious Feast of Pascha. Our ascetical efforts continue, with perhaps an even more marked intensity, during Holy Week. Forty days (plus Holy Week) is not that long of a period, but certainly long enough (far too long?!) to test our capacity to sustain a life of discipline centered around God and the Church. Who is not experiencing a spiritual "tug of war" as the world, oblivious to the Christian life we are engaged in, pulls us in the opposite direction? In the Bible, the number forty — be it years or days — represents a significant event begun and completed: Israel in the wilderness or Our Lord in the desert. In the following passage, Bp. Kallistos Ware reminds us as to why any effort to draw close to God is such a struggle for us:

In an unfallen world man's response to divine love would be altogether spontaneous and joyful. Even in a fallen world the element of spontaneity and joy remains, but there is also the need to fight resolutely against the deeply-rooted habits and inclinations that are the result of sin, both original and personal. One of the most important qualities needed by the traveller on the Way is faithful perseverance. The endurance required from one who climbs a mountain physically is required likewise from those who would ascend the mountain of God.

The Tradition is consistent on this point. From a Saying of the Desert Fathers:

God demands everything from a man — his mind, his reason, all his actions … Do you wish to be saved when you die? Go and exhaust yourself; go and labour; go, seek and you shall find; watch and knock, and it shall be opened to you.

And, from St. Theophan the Recluse:

Nothing comes without effort. The help of God is always ready and always near, but is given only to those who seek and work, and only to those seekers who, after putting all their powers to the test, then cry out with their whole heart: Lord, help us!

All of this sounds like extended commentary on the words of Christ Himself:

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross DAILY. (LK. 9:23)

"Holy rest" comes after "holy labours." But can anything be greater than to rest in Christ?

 

Fr. Steven

Additional note: the above passages were taken from the book THE ORTHODOX WAY, by Bp. Kallistos Ware. We will have copies of this book for sale in our bookstore on Sunday to coincide with Bp. Kallistos' visit to our parish.

 

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 27

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

For Orthodox Christians it is (only) the second week of Great Lent, while other Christians are preparing for this Sunday's approaching celebration of Easter. At this point in time, I am not that aware of the fasting practices of non-Orthodox Christians, but perhaps some fasting is expected of them in during their current Holy Week. In today's world, however, we realize that the fasting discipline of the Orthodox Church can seem more than a little bit austere!

Yet, Orthodox spiritualiy is really about discovering the "royal path" that seeks balance, sobriety and moderation in asceticism (especially if someone is not under the guidance of an experienced spiritual director), together with appreciating the unique individuality of each person — his/her age, health, life circumstances, etc. To be nominal in our approach is hardly fruitful, but to be excessive or too demanding is to foolishly "ask for trouble" in the form of irritability, exhaustion, frustration, etc.

I came across some insightful excerpts from the letters of the 19th c. Russian staretz (elder) Amvrosy of Optina. These passages can be found in the Appendix to a remarkably fine book entitled STARETZ AMVROSY, by John Dunlop. I would highly recommend this book. Especially if you would like to read about a near-contemporary Orthodox saint (Staretz Amvrosy was recently canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church) and the training, perseverance, steadfastness, faith, hope and love that is essentially demanded of a genuine spiritual guide entrusted with leading others along the straight and narrow path to the Kingdom of God. He met with and counselled such famous Russian writers as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and the philosopher Solovyov.

To get back to our topic of fasting and the elder's letters: here are three excerpts from three different letters taken from his voluminous correspondence. They were written to specific individuals in response to their questions or even complaints, so it may be somewhat hazardous to look for general principles that apply to everyone here. Nevertheless, I find them quite insightful and balanced in their over-all approach to the ascetical practice of fasting and hence worthy of our meditation and possible actualization in our own lenten efforts.

Fasting is praiseworthy and necessary in the proper time and place; it is best to maintain moderation in the use of food and drink, avoiding satiety, the sign of which is a slight heaviness of the self, and on the other hand, excessive and inappropriate restraint. Both extremes are bad and harmful. Moderation and the middle of the two extremes render a man more capable of undertaking spiritual activity. (November 17, 1870)

Again you write concerning food that is difficult for you to get accustomed to eating only a little and that after you finish a meal you remain hungry. Concerning food the Holy Fathers established the following three stages: temperance, so that after taking food you remain a little hungry; sastisfaction, so that you are neither sated nor hungry; and satiety, so that you eat to the point of satiety and remain not without a certain heaviness. Of these three steps each man can choose whichever accords with his strength and constitution, be he healthy or sick. For a sick man it is difficult to take food only once a day. (October 10, 1867)

To fast does not suit you. Try rather to be moderate in your use of food to the glory of God. Irritability is not tamed by fasting but by humility and self-criticism and the realization that we deserve the unpleasant situations into which we fall. Also it does not suit you to pray every hour in a specified way. Pray whenever God gives you the time and opportunity, again with humility and without anger and indignation against others. (November 29, 1860)

The balanced advice of the elder is remarkable in that it what said of him that "he never ate more food than could be eaten by a three-year-old child." He simply realized that people are different and have different capacities.

Fasting is a weapon in the arsenal of weapons given to us within the Church in our spiritual warfare against the evil one in the 'arena' of life. St. John Chrysostom likens it to a 'sword' and a 'sickle' by which we cut a path leading to heaven. Used with care, sobriety and moderation it is a discipline worthy of our attention and practice.

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, MARCH 18

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins today, as it always begins on a Monday. So, on this Monday morning Orthodox Christians awaken and 'enroll' in the 'School of Repentance,' which defines Lent in terms of its purpose — our repentance and return to God. This means there will be a "change in our way of life," as expressed in the following hymn:

Showing joyfulness of soul in the Fast, let us not be of sad countenance; for the CHANGE IN OUR WAY OF LIFE during these blessed days will help us gain holiness. (Canon from Lenten Matins)

If our way of life does not change significantly, then we can hardly be said to be keeping the Fast. This will demand 'eagerness' on our part, not reluctance. The following hymn from the book of lenten hymnography, THE TRIODION, captures the whole spirit of the Great Fast well:

Come, O you people, and today let us accept the Grace of the Fast as a gift from God and as a time for repentance, in which we may find mercy with the Savior. The time for combat is at hand and has already begun; let all of us set forth EAGERLY upon the course of the Fast, offering our virtues as gifts to the Lord. (Matins for Monday of the First Week of Lent)

If we are entering into a 'combat' then Lent is assuredly not the fainthearted; yet the hymns above do not speak of grimness or longsuffering, but of 'gift' and 'joyfulness,' etc. The English word lent, by the way, originally meant 'springtime:'

The springtime of the Fast has dawned, The flower of repentance has begun to open.

Our Lord Himself told us to "anoint your head and wash your face," (MATT. 6:17) when embracing the difficult challenge of fasting. And why do we fast? Perhaps the contrast between Adam and Christ, as expressed by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, will explain this for us:

Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone but by God. By doing this, Christ restored that relationship between food and life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break every day.

… Yet if one is hungry and then discovers that he can truly be independent of that hunger, not be destroyed by it but just on the contrary, can transform it into a source of spiritual power and victory, then nothing remains of that great lie in which we have been living since Adam.

To my ear, everything offered above for our meditation, sounds truly liberating — and thus not only meaningful, but exciting. However, we could be getting ahead of ourselves if we fail to take into consideration our weaknesses, habits and propensity for comfort and ease. There is the 'lenten vision' and there is the reality of our concrete situations. There is the pattern for holiness set before our spiritual gaze; and yet there are the patterns of our daily lives that resemble something far different. There is that 'passion for God' that overcomes many obstacles; and there are our many 'passions' that enslave us to this world. If Great Lent is the time of year that we begin to break our old, boring and lifeless patterns (what else does sin bring into our lives?) in order to fashion new patterns of virtue and holiness, then we must realistically assess the 'cost:' struggle, effort, patience, perseverance and self-denial. St. John Climacus expressed it perfectly when he spoke of a 'joy-creating sorrow.'

Let us aim highly for that liberation that comes from Christ; and yet not be disappointed or deflected when we stumble along the way. A saying from the monastic tradition captures this well:

A monk was once asked: What do you do there in the monastery? He replied: We fall down and get
up, we fall down and get up, fall down and get up again.

I am quite certain that this describes my experience of Great Lent. If it also describes your experience, then let us together be assured that Our Lord always extends His hand to lift us up.

May your lenten journey be a blessed one!

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, MARCH 11

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. (MATT. 25:40)

In our fast-paced, acquisition-based, don't-stop-or-you'll-be-left behind, non-metaphysical, religion-as-therapy, social and cultural world around us, it is difficult indeed to maintain the "fear of God" in our minds and hearts on a crisp, sunny Monday morning. Difficult, but essential. At least if we are serious about the Parable of the Last Judgment that we heard as the Gospel reading just yesterday morning in the Liturgy (MATT. 25:31-46). In the Orthodox Church, this Gospel is always read on the second Sunday before Great Lent begins (this year, March 18). Hence, this day is called the "Sunday of the Last Judgment." How are we to possibly balance the overwhelming images of the Gospel — the Lord in glory as universal Judge, holy angels, sheep and goats being divided and sent to an everlasting existence, together with the dispossessed and downtrodden crying out for relief — with the mundane concerns of everyday life, concerns which often are means of getting us ahead in a Darwinian-shaped "survival of the fittest" struggle covered up with a veneer or civility, etiquette and polite discourse?! If we are "good people," an assurance that floats our way with a disarming regularity from like-minded "good people," then certainly there is nothing to fear! God is practically obliged to reward us for our goodness. The mere hint of anything different would leave us speechless if not offended. Then is the Church hopelessly "medieval" by presenting to our minds and hearts such hymns as the following?

How shall it be in that hour and fearful day, when the Judge shall sit on His dread throne! The books shall be opened and men's actions shall be examined, and the secrets of darkness shall be made public. Angels shall hasten to and fro, gathering all the nations. Come ye and hearken, kings and princes, slaves and free, sinners and righteous, rich and poor: for the Judge comes to pass sentence on the whole inhabited earth. And who shall bear to stand before his face in the presence of the angels, as they call us to account for our actions and our thoughts, whether by night or by day? How shall it be then in that hour? But before the end is here, make haste, my soul and cry: O God who only art compassionate, turn me back and save me. (Matins, stichera on the Praises)

Successive waves of secularization over the centuries now, have made it difficult for us to respond to such Scriptual images as:

 

  • the "throne of glory"
  • the "river of fire"
  • the "outer darkness"
  • the "unquenchable fire"
  • the "eternal bridal chamber"

 

But does that only mean that we have lost the "scriptural mind" and replaced such images in our mind with others drawn from other sources? And if so, how well, then, do we "relate" to the "mind of the Church" which has nourished the minds and hearts of the faithful since the First Coming of our Savior?

The impending Last Judgment does not reveal God to be the Supreme Terrorist or an arbitrary Tyrant that whimsically toys with His creation. It does mean, I humbly believe, that God takes us seriously. That all of our deeds, words and thoughts "count." That we are responsbible for what we have made of the lives given to us as supreme gift in the beginning. That much is expected of us because we are made "in the image and likeness of God." That if God was and is merciful to us in our need (languishing in sin and death), than we must be merciful to others in their need. As the saints teach us, the last judgment will be a time of clarification, for the Lord Jesus Christ is a "Just Judge." We will be saved or condemned according to what the Lord will uncover for us to see in our own consciences and we will understand. There will be no room for debate, for all will be made clear.

That we will die and that we will be judged by God according to the revelation received from Christ and kept alive in the Church are two realities that the Christian should ever keep before the eye of his/her mind. There is nothing morbid, pessimistic or negative about this if we place this within the over-all context of the Gospel proclamation:

For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (JN. 3:17)

If there is no judgment to come than what does that mean for our actions, even the basest and most horrible crimes? This is what Dostoevsky meant when he said, "If there is no God than everything is permitted."

There is, then, a spiritually-healthy "fear of God" that is constantly nurtured by a sober and vigilant awareness of that final accountability that we must make for our lives before the Son of Man who will return in glory. It concerns the "neighbor," the very one we often miss as our lives unfold in all of their complexity. The following hymn from the Sunday of the Last Judgment captures this essential dimension:

Daniel the prophet, a man greatly beloved, when he saw the power of God, cried out: "The court sat for judgment, and the books were opened.' Consider well, my soul: dost thou fast? Then despise not thy neighbor. Does thou abstain from food? Condemn not thy brother, lest thou be sent away into the fire, there to burn as wax. But may Christ lead thee without stumbling into His Kingdom. (Matins, stichera on the Praises)

May your Monday morning and the rest of the week be blessed.

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, MARCH 4

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Thus says the Lord of hosts: the fast … shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts." (Zechariah 8:19)

The students in my Orthodox Church class were assigned to read a particular article for this morning entitled "Lent and the Consumer Society" by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Since Monday morning comes after the weekend — weekend being defined, according to student theory and practice, as Friday and Saturday night; all others times, including Sunday as the "day of rest" are designated for sleeping in — I will be most fortunate, indeed, if ten per cent have actually read the article. Too bad, for this is a wonderful article that pours forth insight after insight into the meaning, purpose and practice of Great Lent. Bp. Ware's article, in turn, is found in a book entitled LIVING ORTHODOXY IN THE MODERN WORLD (SVS Press), described on the back cover thus:

This book brings together twelve lay and ordained Orthodox writers, who provide profound and fascinating insights into the role and mission of the Church in today's world. While prayer and worship are considered the highest calling of all believers, the issues covered here range far more widely, including family life and bereavement, ecology and consumerism, politics, medical ethics and psychology.

The quality of the articles throughout the book is of the highest level. In other words, a good book for one's personal library to be read with care!

As Orthodox Christians are preparing for the "Great Fast" or the "Great Forty Days" that will commence two weeks from today, I thought to pass on a few of Bp. Kallistos' many insights, some of which may just dispel some less than accurate notions we may have of Lent. Of immediate interest is the fact that in a twenty-page article, Bp. Kallistos does not speak in any detail concerning the dietary rules of the Fast until the last third of the article. He wants to create a greater, more wholistic context, an integral part of which is our actual fasting from certain foods, because we have the tendency to limit the Fast to that aspect. His Grace states it simply:

Thus it becomes evident that fasting, which is often regarded as the chief feature of Lent, is not an end but a means. Fasting is valueless if it fails to bring about a restoration of relationships. In fact, in the Gospels, Jesus does not simply speak of fasting alone but often employs the doublet 'prayer and fasting' (see Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29). If we fast, it is in order to render ourselves more apt for prayer, that is to say, in order to bring us back into relationship with God.

Now that I have "jumped" ahead into this realm of the Fast, I will pass on Bp. Ware's "three useful guidelines:

First, we should not fast in such a way as to damage our health or to make ourselves inefficient in our work.

Secondly, we should not fast 'like the hypocrites' (Matthew 6:16), in such a way as to excite notice or to draw attention to ourselves.

Thirdly, at the same time, our fasting should be more than merely casual and nominal.

Is such self-denial "negative" or "positive"? Bp. Kallistos assures us:

Its purpose is most definitely positive: not to chastise the body, but to render it spiritual; not to fill us with weariness and self-disgust, but to break down our sinful sense of self-sufficiency and to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.

So, what is that greater, wholistic context in which we place our fasting? For this article, Bp. Kallistos presents the following:

If we wished to sum up the meaning of Lent in three words, those words could be sacrifice, schooling and sharing.

A mere "taste" from these three beautifully written sections would render the following for our meditation:

Sacrifice affirms our sense of gratitude and stewardship before God. We simply give back to Him that which we have received as gift:

Sacrifice, that is to say, is not primarily a matter of giving UP but of GIVING. The main emphasis falls not upon what we deny to ourselves, but upon what we offer to God and to our neighbors. And the effect of our making a gift to God — a gift which God then accepts — is to re-establish the personal relationship between ourselves and him. Such exactly is the aim of all sacrificial offering: to restore communion. This notion of Lent as a time for the restoration of relationships needs to be kept constantly in view …

Based upon the notion that Lent can be loosely viewed as a tithe of the year, Bp. Ware asks the following:

Could we not offer to God in this way at least a tithe of our waking hours: say, twelve hours of each week of Lent?

(I figured it out. Bp. Ware is generously allowing for a full eight hours of sleep each night!).

As for schooling, Bp. Kallistos is refering to the early Christian practice of making the forty days of Lent a time of final preparation for the baptism of the catechumens through intense fasting, prayer and learning. Yet, very early on, the entire Church joined the catechumens in this effort:

In this way, the entire congregration came increasingly to participate in the forty days of fasting, vigils and prayer and instruction that the catechumens underwent. The pre-paschal forty days became each year a decisive event in the personal experience of every Christian, a shared event, a time of spiritual schooling for the community as a whole.

We thus re-affirm our own baptismal vows and our missionary sense of spreading the Gospel to others. Yet this leads to a searching, if not searing, question:

We are each to ask ourselves: What have I done since last Easter to communicate this light to others?

And as to the third point, sharing, Bp. Kallistos first reminds us of our vocation to restore koinonia or community is a world that has lost that precious sense of belonging together.

Contemporary society, as we are all acutely conscious, is marked by a twofold breakdown in fellowship or koinonia: a breakdown in the human community, and a breakdown in the cosmic community.

We must discover the person in the "other," our neighbor, or else we have fasting in vain:

Persons come first, rules of fasting come afterwards. Our Lenten abstinence will be worse than useless if it does not bring us closer to our fellow humans. A fast without love is the fast of demons. What is the use of our abstinence, protests St. Basil the Great (d. 379), if instead of eating meat we devour our brother or sister through cruel gossip? It is better to eat meat and at the same time to be king and humble, that to eat nothing but lentils and to be a sour rigorist.

I have already gone on a bit lengthily in trying to convey something of this rich article's quality. Therefore, let Bp. Kallistos's own conclusion draw our Monday Morning Meditation to a close:

The Great Forty Days proclaim a world-view utterly at variance with the standards of our consumer society. As the Lenten Fast returns each year, we can make it a season of inner sprigtime — an occasion, that is to say, for renewed sacrifice and self-offering; for renewed schooling in our baptismal commitment and for renewed missionary witness: for renewed sharing between self and neighbor, and between self and cosmos.

Who can possibly not look forward to Great Lent?

 

Fr. Steven

 

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 27

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

It is actually cold enough today to make one realize that it is, indeed, winter after all.

The Gospel this past Sunday was the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (LK. 18:10-14) Basically, pride (the Pharisee) was contrasted with humility (the Publican); or, we could further say, religious self-righteousness with genuine contrition of heart. Christ makes it clear that the proud will be forcefully — and by implication, unpleasantly — "humbled;" while the humble will be graciously — and by implication, wondrously — "exalted." This reveals an evangelical "reversal of fortune" so characteristic of the Gospel and so challenging to us. The challenge comes from within and from the surrounding culture, described by Fr. Schmemann in the following terms:

The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the One who all the time "gives credit" for man's achievements and good deeds.

In a somewhat different style, we learn some valuable insights from the famous 19th c. Russian elder, Amvrosy of Optina:

Envy and hatred, anger and the holding of grudges are common offspring of vainglory and pride. St. Macarius of Egypt shows the chain itself, how these passions are hooked onto each other and how one gives birth to another. He writes that hatred is from anger, anger from pride and pride, from self-love. And the Lord in the Gospel directly declares that those who do good here on earth for the sake of glory and praise will receive their reward here on earth. Similarly, virtues which are accompanied by pride and the judging of others are rejected by God, as the Gospel parable of the Publican and the Pharisee shows. But blessed humility, as is said in the same parable, justifies both the incorrigible and the sinful before God.

"Holy humility" — this wonderful phrase goes back at least to St. John Klimakos and his LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT. There it is described as the "queen of virtues." In Step 25, St. John describes a humble person in the following manner:

He who has been united with humility as his bride is above all gentle, kind, easily moved to compunction, sympathetic, calm, bright, compliant, inoffensive, vigilant, not indolent and (why say more?) free from passion; for the Lord remembered us in our humility, and redeemed us from our enemies (PS. 135:23-24), and our passions and impurities.

Turning again to Fr. Schmemann, he offers a straightforward but essential answer to the question: "How does one become humble?"

… The answer, for a Christian, is simple: by contemplating Christ, the divine humility incarnate, the One in whom God has revealed once and for all His glory as humility and His humility as glory. "Today," Christ said on the night of His ultimate self-humiliation, "the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in Him." Humility is learned from contemplating Christ who said: "Learn from Me for I am meek and humble in heart." Finally, it is learned by measuring everything by Him, by referring everything to Him. For without Christ, true humility is impossible, while with the Pharisee, even religion becomes pride in human achievements, another form of pharisaic self-glorification.

Now that is a lenten goal worthy of puruing.

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 4

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

Certain that the Super Bowl would have been over, I turned the television on well past ten o'clock last night. Lo and behold, I caught the last few plays and the dramatic finish! I have consistently failed to watch the Super Bowl for the last quarter century or so — give or take a quarter here or there. The particular, if not peculiar, admixture of professional sports, patriotism and profiteering (advertising) somehow awakens in me an "interior protest" of sorts to the whole extravagant affair. Or, at least, there is no real attraction. (And by the way, whatever happened to the LOS ANGELES Rams; the St. Louis CARDINALS; and the BOSTON Patriots? This mercenary, corporate, vagabond city-hopping leaves me glancing back into the past for a seemingly purer time). An NPR report earlier in the week stated that the advertising costs were "down" to two million dollars per minute! A hefty fee indeed to entertain us with beer, blue jeans and Broncos (or whatever commodity was being promoted). The point was that this meant a loss for the network covering the game. I cannot quite feel their pain.

Anyway, the Super Bowl is behind us and everyone has awakened to another Monday morning alive and well I trust. Monday mornings, however, can seem less than super. Perhaps we now need to hear these striking words of the Apostle Paul as we have "risen" to a new day:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (COL. 3:1-3)

The simple and effective way to do this is through prayer, the "wings" that lift our spirits above into that mysterious realm of God's presence and grace. Do we have the opportunity to pray before racing out of the door in the morning, clutching in our hands a briefcase, a backpack or even a baby! Perhaps we first need to arrive at our destination and then, before settling down to the day's work, pause and offer up a prayer to God. In the past, I have passed on the beautiful Prayer of the Hours; and many are familiar with the now widely-used Prayer of the Last Optina Elders. Keeping things simple this morning, I thought to perhaps add to your collection of morning prayers a couple which also powerfully express those daily needs for an authentic "life in Christ." The first is from St. Macarius of Egypt (4th c.), and has been called a "Prayer for the beginning of the day:"

To Thee, O Master that lovest all men, I hasten on rising from sleep; by Thy mercy I go forth to do Thy work, and I pray to Thee: help me at all times, in everything; deliver me from every evil thing of this world and from every attack of the devil; save me and bring me to Thine eternal Kingdom. For Thou art my Creator, the Giver and Provider of everything good; in Thee is all my hope, and to Thee I ascribe glory, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

The second is from St. Philaret of Moscow (19th c.) and it has been entitled by some a "Prayer for the acceptance of God's will:"

O Lord, I know not what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask either a cross or consolation. I can only wait on Thee. My heart is open to Thee. Visit and help me, for Thy great mercy's sake. Strike me and heal me, cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine inscrutable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I put all my trust in Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me how to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.

Wherever anyone is right now, or whatever anyone may be doing, let us call upon the Lord with the petition of the Liturgy:

That the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless, let us ask of the Lord.

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, JANUARY 28

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

Glad to be able to greet everyone on a Monday morning after a couple of "delayed" Midweek Morning Meditations — although our spiritual condition may be more desparate by Wednesday and a good text from the Holy Scriptures or the Fathers will help us to lift up our "drooping hands" and strengthen our "weak knees"(see HEB. 12:12) so as to complete the week with our sanity intact. (Tuesday is eliminated for it has no alliterative value).

Our sanity, of course, depends upon God. For without God we are faced with the insane task, within the confines of a rather insane world, of finding meaning and purpose in the face of the void, that emptiness from which we came accidentally and to which we are racing toward with a disheartening inevitability that can drive you insane.

Our Lord Jesus Christ never spoke a word about "proving" the existence of God. The One Who revealed Himself with the words: "I am Who I am" simply exists. He dwells in "light unapproachable" (I TIM. 6:16) and yet speaks to us as a "friend" as St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we read this magnificent passage:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them whey you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (DEUT. 6:4-7)

The pious Jew in the time of Christ, and beyond, would solemnly recite these words — the Shema — on a daily basis. This consciousness of God, to use a more contemporary term, is essential in a world that seeks to relegate God to the artificially-conceived realm of "private religion."

What did some of the "ancients" or Church Fathers have to say about God? With what words, images or concepts did they describe the One Who, ultimately, is indescribable? There are some short definitions meant to establish a sense of God as "ultimate reality" when we seek to understand Him:

God is a sea of being, immeasurable and limitless. (St. Gregory the Theologian)

God is the fulness of all qualities and perfections
in their highest and infinite form. (St. Basil the Great)

Then, there are more comprehensive attempts — as the following from St. John of Damascus, a great synthesizer of the 8th c. — to somehow capture the overwhelming inclusiveness of all reality, all thought, all meaningful concepts in God:

God is unoriginate, unending, eternal, constant, uncreated, unchanging, unalterable, simple, in-
comples, bodiless, invisible, intangible, indescribable, without bounds, inaccessible to the mind, uncontainable, incomprehensible, good, righteous, the Creator of all creatures, the Almighty Pantocrator, He Who looks down upon all, whose Providence is over everthing, Who has dominion over all, the Judge.

The great Fathers knew that all words and concepts were wholly inadequate in describing God, that ultimately He is wholly Other, and that we can only understand God through His actions toward us:

We do not know God in His essence. We know Him rather from the grandeur of His creation and from His providential care for all creatures. For by this means, as if using a mirror, we attain insight into His infinite goodness, wisdom and power. (St. Maximus the Confessor)

And yet, ultimately, our God is a personal God — a Friend — as we said above. God is not a concept, an idea, a theory, the unmoved Mover, a philosophical notion, etc. If so, the psalmist would never have cried out:

As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God. (PS. 1-2)

We do not long for an Idea, but for a living, personal Reality. St. Gregory of Nyssa makes this point in a beautiful passage about coming to God as the One who quenches our thirst:

Is someone is making a journey in the middle of the day, when the sun with its hot rays scorches the head and by its heat dries up everything liquid in the body, and under one's feet is the hard earth which is difficult for walking and waterless; and then such a man encounters a spring with splendid, transparent, pleasing and refreshing streams pouring out abundantly — will he sit down by the water and begin to reason about its nature, seeking out from whence it comes, how, from what, and all such things which idle speakers are wont to judge about? … Will he not rather, saying farewell to all rational deliberations, bend down his head to the stream and press his lips to it, quench his thirst, refresh his tongue, satisfy his desire, and give thanks to the One Who gave this grace? Therefore, let you also imitate this thristing one.

Yes, let us imitate this thirsting one! As St. Herman of Alaska once said:

For our good, for our happiness, let us make a vow: at least that from this day, this hour, this very minute, we should try to love God above all else and carry out His teaching.

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, JANUARY 7

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Water is at the origin of the world, the Jordan is at the origin of the Gospels. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem)

The Feast of Epiphany/Theophany celebrated on January 6 — and thus yesterday for us on this wintry Monday morning — is different from the feast of the same name as celebrated in the Western churches. In the West, the Feast has always been a commemoration of the gift-bearing Wise Men coming to Christ as representative of the Gentile world acknowledging the true Light of the world in the newborn Infant. (How perceptive are our contemporary, postmodern "wise men" when compared to the Magi of old when it comes to humbly recognizing Truth?) This is an epiphany or "manifestation" of Christ to the greater world, thus anticipating the conversion of the Gentile world that would begin following the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

In the Orthodox Church, this particular Feast commemorates Christ's baptism in the Jordan, the great inaugural event of His public ministry that would culminate in His victory over death following the Crucifixion. More precisely, this is a genuine Theophany of God, for the trinitarian nature of God is revealed at the Jordan when the voice of the Father and the presence of the Spirit in the form of a dove accompany and confirm the messianic role of Christ as He is baptized. To paraprhase St. Irenaeus of Lyons: the Father anoints, the Son is anointed, the Holy Spirit is the ointment.

Human nature was anointed and renewed when the Lord humbly submitted Himself to baptism. As two of the hymns of the Church say:

As man He is cleansed that I may be made clean. (Compline)

Though as God he needs no cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man, He is cleansed in the Jordan. (Matins)

For a Christian, Baptism is a cleansing, an illumination, a regeneration, a sanctification, a restoration, and a purification together with being for the "remission of sins." It is a putting on of Christ, of dying and rising with Him to a new life and a new creation. For this reason, Baptism is a Mystery/Sacrament of the Church, a grace-bestowing event which is a gift from the Lord. (In the Orthodox Church, the Sacraments are referred to as the Mysteries). The life of grace that flows through the sacramental life of the Church has been beautifully described by St. Nicholas Cabasilas, a 14th c. Byzantine theologian:

Through these sacred Mysteries as through windows the Sun of Righteousness enters this dark world. He puts to death the life which accords with this world, but raises up that which is above the world... When the sunlight enters a house the lamp no longer attracts the sight of the onlookers, but the brightness of the sunlight overcomes it and dims it. Similarly, when in this life the brightness of the life to come enters through the Mysteries and dwells in our souls it overcomes the life which is in the flesh and the beauty of this world and conceals their brightness. (THE LIFE IN CHRIST, Book I)

In another fine passage about Baptism itself in which he comments on the ancient rite of triple immersion, St. Nicholas writes:

As the name of the Trinity is invoked, the candidate is immersed three times in the water and then three times rises up from the water once more: and immediately he enters into posssession of all that he seeks. He is born and created; he receives the good seal; he is granted all the happiness that he desires; darkness before, he now receives existence. God claims him for his own and adopts him as a child. From prison and utter enslavement he is led to a royal throne. (THE LIFE IN CHRIST, Book II)

Once baptized and conscious of it, we must respond to Christ by manifesting the fruit of baptismal grace working in our lives. This is essential, for the baptismal rite and the accompanying grace is not some sort of "water magic" that will continue to be active in our lives independent of our willful co-operation. St. Gregory of Nyssa makes this point strikingly:

… If the life after initiation (baptism) is of the same quality as the uninitiated life (before baptism), then, though it may be a bold thing to say, I will say it without flinching: in the case of such people the water is merely water, for the gift of the Holy Spirit in no way shows itself in what takes place ... A child born to any one is entirely akin to his parent. If then you have received God, and have become the child of God, display in the purpose of your life the God that is in you, display in yourself the Father who gave you birth.

We need to act, speak, and think as "baptised people." For in baptism, we claim to belong to Christ and not to the world:

The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of the most holy and life- giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism. (St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos & St. Kallistos)

Fr. Steven

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