27 April 2008

Paschal Joy, part 3

But wait! There's more! After a few short hours of sleep, we roused ourselves and traveled to our mother parish, St. Nicholas, for the Agape Vespers. One of the highlights of this service is the reading of the holy Gospel in as many languages as can be respresented in the parish. This morning, literally with 5 minutes' notice, Fr. Dan Daly assembled speakers of 12 languages to read St. John's account of the resurrection.

Most of my family is now at the annual Pascha afternoon party. I have to grade papers, so I've stayed home. But I wanted to share with you all a little of the taste of an Orthodox Pascha.

Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!
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Paschal Joy, part 2

Well, actually--part 2.5.

This photo was taken about 3 am this morning. What gets so many people up in the middle of the night, you ask?

We were celebrating the joy of Christ's holy resurrection! Our service began about 10:30 pm. After some beginning prayers, the priest takes the paschal candle and comes to the holy doors (the central doors on the icon screen) and sings, "Come receive light from the Light that is never overtaken by night. Come glorify Christ, who is risen from the dead." The people light their candles from the priest's. Then we have a great procession around the building, singing of Christ's resurrection. Somewhere around 2:30 am, having received the Eucharistic mystery, the parish gathers for a feast. When all was done last night, we got home--about 4:15 this morning.

This Pascha is all the more precious to me, since I lost my father just before Lent began. How precious were these words of the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom this year:

Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour's death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.
By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is thy sting?O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.
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26 April 2008

Paschal Joy, Part 1

This morning we celebrated the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil, together with Holy Baptism and Holy Chrismation. The picture at left shows me doing the pre-baptismal anointing of a three year old child who received the Kingdom of God. (In the background you can see part of a horse-trough used as a font by all the Orthodox parishes in the Grand Rapids area when we baptise someone larger than an infant.) We also received her parents, and my daughter's boyfriend, by chrismation.

In the Orthodox Church we celebrate all three chief mysteries at the same time. Those who are baptised, are anointed with chrism and then given their first taste of the Eucharistic gifts. What joy, to be joined to Christ's body and share in his love! He gives us the great gift: to believe in him, to suffer with him, and to be glorified with him.
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25 April 2008

Come and see!

Allow me to extend an invitation to all our western Christian friends to come to the services of Great and Holy Friday, which I've highlighted in the previous post. Call your local Orthodox parish to find out when they are held, and stay as long as you like. (At our parish, following the last service, there will be an all-night reading of the Psalter.)

Great and Holy Friday

Last evening at Matins (yes, you read rightly; during Holy Week the services of the Church shift forward, so that Matins is celebrated in the evening, and Vespers in the morning) we witnessed the crucifixion of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. During the singing of the antiphon below, a large cross is carried to the midst of the nave. The icon of Christ crucified is fixed to the cross, and priest and people come forward to reverence the Lord.

Today the Church has three services, each of them highlighting a portion of the good news of our salvation.

At 1 pm, we do the "Royal Hours"--so named because during the Byzantine empire, the Emperor and his court would attend this service, thus acknowledging the supremacy of the heavenly King, transfixed to the tree.

At 3 pm, we do the "Unnailing Vespers," commemorating the taking down of Christ's body from the cross. During the reading of the holy Gospel, the icon of the Lord's body is taken down from the cross, wrapped in linen and placed in the sanctuary. Later, the Epitaphios, a tapestry with the depiction of the lifeless body of the Lord, is carried from the sanctuary and placed in a bier. The gospel book, cross up, is placed on the epitaphios. Fragrant blossoms are then sprinkled on the epitaphios and the priest and people venerate the gospel book.

Looking back over more than 20 years, I believe it was the Unnailing Vespers that introduced me to the Church. I was utterly stunned as I heard purest and sweetest gospel in such words as these:

Today is beheld the working of a dread and strange mystery; for he who is inapprehensible is laid hold of; and he who released Adam is chained. He who trieth the hearts and reins is tried falsely, and he who looketh into the depths is locked in prison. He before whom the heavenly powers stand trembling standeth before Pilate. The Creator is smitten by the hand of his creatures! The Judge of the living and the dead is condemned to death on a Tree; and the Destroyer of Hades is enfolded in the grave. Wherefore, O thou who didst of thy compassion bear all these things, saving all from the curse, O long-suffering Lord, glory to thee.

It took 18 years from that service till my chrismation, but I was never the same afterwards. It gave me hope, because I had already seen the rot and corruption that others now notice, and I had feared that there would be nowhere else for me to turn. From then on I knew there was a haven, unshaken and unchanging, for storm-tossed sinners like me: the ark of salvation, the Church.

Finally, at 7 pm we do the "Lamentations" service. Like Anastasia, I think this is one of the most beautiful of all the services. The centerpiece of the service is the Lamentations: sung in sweet simplicity, they capture the heart of the mystery of our salvation. Here is a brief excerpt:

In a grave they laid thee,
O my Life and my Christ:
And the armies of the angels were sore amazed,
As they sang the praise of thy submissive love.

How, O Life, canst thou die?
In a grave how canst dwell?
For the proud domain of Death thou destroyest now,
and the dead of Hades makest thou to rise.

Now we magnify thee,
O Lord Jesus our King;
and we venerate thy Passion and Burial:
for therewith hast thou delivered us from death.

O my dear Christ Jesus,
King and Ruler of all,
Why to them that dwelt in Hades didst thou descend?
Was it not to set the race of mortals free?

Lo, the sov'reign Ruler
Of creation is dead,
And is buried in a tomb never used before,
he that all the graves hath emptied of their dead.

In a grave they laid thee,
O my Life and my Christ:
Yet the Lord of Death hast thou by thy Death destroyed,
And the world of thee doth drink rich streams of life.

These are the first six verses. There are a total of 51, divided into 3 groups of 17 each.

Taken together, and in their place with the other services of Holy Week, these services proclaim Christ crucified, died and buried. They also proclaim, most clearly and eloquently, the "What does this mean for us?" of our Lord's Passion.
Today is suspended upon the Tree, He who suspended the land upon waters.
Today is suspended upon the Tree, He who suspended the land upon waters.
Today is suspended upon the Tree, He who suspended the land upon waters.

A crown of thorns crowns Him, who is the King of the angels.
He is wrapped in the purple robe of mockery, who wraps the heavens with clouds.
He receives smitings, who freed Adam in the Jordan.
He is tranfixed with nails, Who is the Son of the Virgin.

We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection!

20 April 2008

(Just Like) Starting Over

One of my guilty pleasures is an enjoyment for some of John Lennon's music. I was reminded of one of those songs, "(Just Like) Starting Over", when I read Fr. Christopher Hall's excellent blog the other day.

In the song, Lennon sings of how complicated and busy his life with Yoko had become. He advocates getting away for a while, to make a fresh start. Of course, he recognizes that relationships are organic, and historical, and no one can really make a fresh start. Hence he adds the (just like) to his plea for starting over.

Fr. Hall surveys the situation in my former confession and says, "We don't even have a church body. The LCMS is a non-profit organization." He also shows the underlying problem in his words, ". . . since we had no oversight, everyone did what was right in his own eyes."

One of Fr. Hall's commentators agrees with his desire for oversight. He calls it "godly" and "biblical." But he concludes by saying, "For this kind of church body, you need to start over."

Like a human relationship, the Church is organic and historical. All that the Lord Jesus began to do and to teach, he continued to do and to teach through his apostles and the parishes begun through their ministry. By giving his Church apostles, he gave them that oversight they would need for guidance in their task. Those apostles, in turn, chose bishops to oversee the Church. As the Church began new parishes, those bishops naturally and necessarily exercised oversight over many parishes, assisted by the presbyters to whom they delegated some of their responsibilities. (For years, as a Lutheran, I wondered how the episcopal office grew out of the presbyteral office; I now see that the historical reality was just the opposite: the presbyteral office grew out of the episcopal office. ) Those bishops worked in symphony with each other, and even when the Bishop of Rome unilaterally broke the concord, the others continued to work together. The right that the Bishop of Rome claimed for himself--to act without the consensus of his brethren--was soon exercised over against him. (It was called the Reformation.) A proliferation of bodies, confessions and traditions resulted. But the original bishops, minus their Roman brother, continued to work together, and still do until this day.

Any "church body" so-called that can "start over" is inherently an impossibility. Any "oversight" that occurs merely de iure humano, by human agreement, is doomed to failure. Christ can as little have a newly-formed body as the Church can have a newly-formed Head. The body draws its life from the Head, and that life is one and the same as the Head's. The body is filled with all the fullness of God. She is perfect, pure, and holy though her members are weak and sinful.

There is one way of starting over. And that is to join oneself to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As Khomiakov said over a century ago,

Readers and brothers! A ruinous legacy has come down to you from the ignorance and sinfulness of past ages—the embryo of death; and you are suffering punishment for it without being directly responsible, since you have had no definite understanding of the mar involved. You have done much for mankind in science and art, in constitutional law and in the civilization of peoples, in the practical realization of the meaning of truth and in the practical application of love. More than that, you have done all you could for man in his relation to God, preaching Christ to people who had never before heard His Divine Name. All honor and thanks to you for your immeasurable labors, the fruits of which mankind is gathering now and will continue to gather in the future. But as long as it still inspires you, this ruinous legacy will kill your spiritual life.

The cure is within your power. Of course, as long as the disease is alive in popular prejudices and in the ignorance of the means to stop its spread (and this will last a long time), it is impossible to expect the healing of the masses; but the cure is accessible now to private individuals. If any one of my readers is convinced of the truth of my words, of the validity of my definition of the origins of the schism and its rationalistic character, then I beg him to consider. If he will make but one acknowledgment of the truth, then he must accept all the practical consequences flowing from it; if he will make but one confession of error, he must then repair it, to the extent that this is possible.

I beg him to undertake a moral exploit—to tear himself away from rationalism, to condemn the excommunication which was once pronounced upon his Eastern brothers, to reject all the later decrees flowing from this falsehood, to accept us once more in his communion with the rights of brotherly equality, and to restore in his soul the unity of the Church, so that by this fact he might have the right to repeat with her: "Let us love one another, and with one mind confess the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

The disease carries death within itself, but the cure is not difficult; it only requires an act of justice. Will people want to undertake this exploit, or will they prefer to perpetuate the reign of falsehood, deluding their own consciences and the minds of their brothers?

My readers, judge for yourselves!"

17 April 2008

Another little exercise for young theologians

The flap over "Issues, Etc." has now been going on for several weeks. Perhaps it's worth taking a step or two back from the fray: to consider what this flap, and the arguments being made, reveal. (Note: if anyone asks why I should care, please see my post on that topic.)

For this exercise to work, it will take time to think and reflect on one point, before moving to the next.

1. Make a list of the arguments being made by each side. What is the nature of the pro-"Issues" arguments? What is the nature of the con-"Issues" arguments? (My suspicion is that you'll find the pro-"Issues" main arguments are theological and churchly; the con-"Issues" main arguments are drawn from corporate life.)

2. How has each side responded to the arguments of the other? (The pro-"Issues" side tried showing popular support with a demonstration and petition drive, has raised questions of corporate malfeasance and has threatened to withdraw financial support; the con-"Issues" side dismisses the demonstration and petition as a blip on the screen and, by and large, has maintained corporate silence.) What does the nature of each side's response reveal about that side's own deepest-held assumptions?

3. (I raise this point with some hesitation. Only one who's actually gone through the loss of a job knows the anxiety you experience when you give up safety for the sake of the truth. I assume here that, in the case of a theological strife one puts life and living on the line--the "So take they then our life, goods, fame child and wife" strategy; but in the case of a corporate policy with which one disagrees, one learns to "eat it" or find another job.)

  • Assuming that there are some pro-"Issues" people living in the belly of the corporate offices, how have they responded to the whole thing? Do their actions or non-actions reveal this whole affair as, at bottom, a theological strife or a corporate kerfuffle?
  • Some pastors have said, "I'll stay until they boot me out." But they live at a relatively safe distance from ground zero, in terms of their livelihood. As long as their people are happy, there's little that the corporate office can do to them.

This third point cuts close to the bone, I'll grant. But the corporate and theological sides of the LCMS have grown together so closely, for so long, only such practical cutting can reveal the underlying reality.

4. What do ##1-3 reveal about the nature of the entity in which this tempest has arisen? Is it, at bottom, a corporation with churchly decor?

a. How is it that the cancelling of a radio program which talks about theology and worship is so much more distressing than the cancelling in practice of theology and worship, across thousands of parishes?
b. Would leaving to make a new corporation solve any fundamental problem with the picture?
c. What, then, follows from all this?

When you wrestle a pig, you get dirty and the pig stays happy.

15 April 2008

A little exercise for young theologians (apologies to Helmut Thielicke)

Read the following paragraphs. Note carefully, and ponder, the words in boldface.

This Task Force believes the Council of Presidents and the Board of Directors are the elected “leaders” of the Synod that should be given the responsibility to initiate a specific plan to clarify for the sake of the whole church a strategy to restore harmony in our Synod. We encourage them to consider bringing together a representative group of respected leaders throughout this church for a summit. At the end of this summit these church leaders should author a unanimously adopted “symphony” that demonstrates how this great church body can provide a God-pleasing witness of our confession and practice.
Let them deal with current topics to define how narrow or wide is the road we “walk together” (SYNOD) must be when it comes to worship practice, the role of the laity, close communion, the role of women and our interaction with fellow Christians. But let the product of their coming together be to honor the Scriptures (including the Great Commission) and Confessions and dishonor the work of Satan that diverts us from the “way of the Lord”.
The generation long divisions among us have frustrated us all. Allowing for proper dissent through by-law allowed procedures, we also recommend that those members of
this Synod that cannot embrace the convention mandated mission of our church should feel free to leave this fellowship with truth-filled integrity and find another association with whom they can partner.

Now, a question: What is this group's self-understanding? What is its ecclesiology?

13 April 2008

St. John Chrysostom on today's Gospel

Be not then afraid, as though thine honor were plucked down. For how much soever thou humblest thyself, thou canst not descend so much as thy Lord. And yet His descent hath become the ascent of all, and hath made His own glory shine forth. For before He was made man, He was known amongst angels only; but after He was made man and was crucified, so far from lessening that glory, He acquired other besides, even that from the knowledge of the world.

Fear not then, as though thine honor were put down, if thou shouldest abase thyself, for in this way is thy glory more exalted, in this way it becomes greater. This is the door of the kingdom.

12 April 2008

Good lecture on Hume and miracles

I went to a lecture yesterday given by Dr. Tim McGrew, head of the department of philosophy at Western Michigan University, on David Hume's argument against miracles. It was very well done! Dr. McGrew put Hume's writing in its context, demonstrated some weaknesses in Hume's argument, and showed that vigorous responses were given to Hume almost at once.

10 April 2008

Forty Days

Today marks the 40th day since my father fell asleep in Christ. We will do the 40 days' memorial this Sunday. (This photo was taken exactly a year to the day before he reposed.)

With the spirits of the righteous made perfect in faith,
Give rest, O Lord, to the souls of Your servants
And preserve them in that life of blessedness
That is lived with thee, O Friend of man.
In the place of Your rest, O Lord, Where all Your saints repose,
Give rest also to the souls of Your servants
For You alone are immortal.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…

You are our God who descended into Hell
To loose the pains of the dead who were held there
Give rest also to the souls of Your servants, O Savior.

Now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen

O Virgin alone pure and immaculate
Who in maiden-motherhood brought forth God
Intercede for the salvation of the souls of Your servants.

May his memory be eternal!
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Why should we care?

Is it a perverse kind of Schadenfreude, this tendency I have to surf Lutheran blogs to see what's going on over there? One guy who calls himself "David" asked my son, "Why should you care about Lutherans?"

Here are some reasons:
1. Because a lot of my life was spent within Lutheranism, and I found so much that was good there: the focus on Christ, the importance of the sacraments and the liturgy etc.
2. Because most of my family remain in Lutheranism.
3. Because many other people I love remain there, too: former parishioners, classmates, professors etc.
4. Because I know that the inevitable end toward which they're veering is either isolationist fundamentalism, or relativism (or both, I suppose)--either of which makes faith difficult or impossible.

One correction to David: we Orthodox *can* say whether Lutheranism is church or not. It's not. What we can't say, is whether any individual Lutheran is saved or not. We can't say that, because it's not ours to judge any individual. It belongs to God to judge. And it belongs to him to convert as well.

09 April 2008

A word from St. Innocent

Nothing in this world but God can fill our heart or fully satisfy our desires. A fire cannot be put out with brushwood and oil, because only water will put it out. In exactly the same way, the desires of the human heart cannot be satisfied with the goods of this world, because only the Grace of God can quench the thirst of our desires.

St. Innocent of Alaska

08 April 2008

From St. Basil, letter 5: Consolation on the loss of a loved one

St. Basil sets the context:

"The heir of an illustrious house, the bulwark of his race, the hope of his fatherland, the offspring of pious parents, a lad nurtured amid countless prayers, in the very flower of youth--he is gone, torn from the very arms of his parents..."

Then he applies the remedy:

"We have not been bereft of the boy, but we have given him back to the lender; nor has his life been destroyed, but merely transformed for the better; earth has not covered our beloved one, but heaven has received him. Let us abide a brief space, and we shall be with him whose loss we mourn. Nor will the period of separation be great, since in this life, as on a journey, we are all hastening to the same inn; and although one has already taken up his lodging there, and another has just arrived, and another is hastening thither, yet the same goal will receive us all. For even though your son has finished his journey first, nevertheless we shall all travel the same path, and the same hospice awaits us all. Only may God grant that we through virtue may become like to him in purity, that by the blamelessness of our character we may obtain the same repose as the children of Christ."

07 April 2008

I'm a grandpa!

My son Chip called this morning (@3:15 am) to tell us that he and Amy are the proud parents of a baby girl--Sophia Irene. She weighs 7 lbs 12 oz, and is 20" long.

God grant her many years!

03 April 2008

St. Basil the Great on hesychia

We must try to keep the mind in tranquillity (εν ησυχια). For just as the eye which constantly shifts its gaze, now turning to the right or to the left, now incessantly peering up and down, cannot see distinctly what lies before it, but the sight must be fixed firmly on the object in view if one would make hsi vision of it clear, so too man's mind when distracted by his countless worldly cares cannot focus itself distinctly on the truth.
from Letter 2