This last Friday, I did not place my accustomed posting on this blog. Ria and I were in Houston for the forty day blessing of our newest grandson, Peter. It was a great honour for us to be present as a new child of God made his entrance into the temple of Our Lord. I hope you all excuse me for being a proud Papou and skipping the last entry. I promise to make it up, as this conversation continues.
Today, I would like to talk about silence. As I was growing up, my parents always referred to the Friday before the Saturday of Lazarus – as the “Silence (oi koufi)”. I always thought this was because the Akathist had finished and there wasn’t a service that night. Ok, there was silence. Now, I look at this a bit more deeply. If you remember a few years ago, there was this movement to help young people make better decisions by using the question, “What would Jesus do?” As I recall, there were even little rubber bracelets with the letters “WWJD” on them. In this case this is the question that should be asked. The Gospel reading of the Raising of Lazarus, (John 11, 1 – 45) begins with Jesus apparently hesitating to go to his friend’s aid. Well, this supposed hesitation had a real purpose, for all to see the glory of God. How was this to be accomplished? Our Lord seemingly was blasé about Lazarus’s illness and rushing to his side. After staying put for two days, Jesus prepared to go to Bethany informing His disciples that Lazarus was dead. As Jesus encountered Martha and Mary, they expressed thoughts that we all feel at sometime, “if only.” They were sure that if only Jesus had been there Lazarus wouldn’t have died, but Jesus was silent and missing. For us to truly understand Jesus’ hesitation, we need to know a bit about the Jewish teaching concerning death. At day four, in the Jewish understanding, the soul left the body in other words the body was a cadaver, a corpse. So if Lazarus was a corpse, Jesus did not simply resuscitate him. As Jesus called forth Lazarus and Lazarus walked out of his tomb Christ created life from dead matter. The Creator God bestowed life on Lazarus. Christ is God and the silence of Lazarus’ tomb was shattered. To the assembled crowd this silence was deafening.
It hardly seems possible, but here we are at week four of Great Lent. The Church tries to bolster our spirits by holding up the Holy Cross as a symbol of courage, sacrifice and victory; pointing us to the Resurrection. Never the less, if you’re like me there is this feeling of a slump. We start the fast with enthusiasm and zeal, but we’ve come this far and it seems that we’re tiring of the whole thing. Besides during this Lenten period, it seems that there are “slumps” everywhere, the markets have really slumped, the employment picture is slumping, and even the new president’s popularity numbers are slumping. I guess we are not immune to the sense of dissatisfaction even with the course of our progress towards the Great Feast.
As a young boy, I remember my dad, who was a priest, always placed the Holy Cross on a tray of bright yellow daffodils. This sign of spring and the promise of the coming of Pascha seemed enough when I was that age. Now, I don’t know! I am much older; life is much more complex. Our consumer society offers so many distractions and alternatives. In every Orthodox parish there is the increased availability of services during this period, but there is also all those other things that sidetrack us. It is so easy to say not tonight, not this morning, next time. So what should we do? I know you’re probably thinking … Here it comes – the scolding and the guilt trip. Actually no – because this year I am more at fault than most of you! Well, again, what do we do? I really don’t know. Last night, when I was trying to think how to structure this entry something came to me. Maybe, what I need is to quiet the clamor. The word that came to mind, which reminded me of St. Gregory Palamas, is hesychia, silence or quiet. This might be the time to sit down, shut the world out and let God speak to me and tell me how to fight the slump. What a novel idea listen, don’t think – don’t talk – just listen. As you probably guessed, the concept of not thinking and being quiet is difficult for me. I’ll let you know if it helps.
There is a word that appears in the hymnography of the Church which is prominent in Great Lent and in Holy Week on which I would like to spend a few minutes. That word is stavrotheotokion. If we look at this compound word and break it down to its component parts we can recognize a couple of fairly familiar Greek words, Stavro – Greek for cross and Theoto(kos), the Mother of God. Now, we can connect the concepts The Theotokos and the Cross. The Stavrotheotokion is a troparion (short hymn with a theme usually sung after a verse of psalm), which is a manifestation of true human emotion. It is a poetic expression of the pain, sorrow and astonishment of a mother beholding her Son and her God on the Cross. These verses of theology and tenderness are heard in many of the services of the Great Lent, but reach their zenith in the services of the Holy Passion. The Theotokos expresses the wonder of us all. The awe, which could only be articulated by a mother who has kept a secret for many years (“and his mother kept all these things in her heart” Luke 2, 51). The identity of her Son as the incarnate God was known the Theotokos since the Annunciation. Now she suffers a new mystery, the inscrutability of her Son and Creator taking on death by His own free choice. Each of these verses proclaims the truth of Christ’s condescension.
…”Woe is me beloved Child, light of my eyes! Thou has hung the earth above the waters, how can you endure to be nailed upon the Tree between two evildoers.” – Vespers of Tuesday in the Third Week.
None the less, the Virgin stands by the cross, hour by hour true to her mission to intercede for the entire world. Her pain is palpable. Her lament is moving and yet there is true nobility in her devotion. When all the disciples, except John the Beloved, had fled because of their fear, she and the other women stood there unafraid. St. Romanos the Melodist has captured her grief and her consolation in a kontakion (a combination of troparia of the same structure, connect alphabetically or acrostically) used on Great and Holy Friday. This dialogue between the Theotokos and her Son becomes the revelation of God’s plan of salvation in poetry. This kontakion is lyrical theology, stavrotheotokion with the voice of response by our Crucified Lord. Christ assures the Theotokos just as she witnesses his hanging on the Cross, she would receive this grace.
“Courage, Mother because you will see me first on my coming first from the tombs. I am coming to show you by how many toils I ransomed Adam and how much I sweated for his sake. I shall show it to my friends by showing the marks in my hands and then you will see Eve, Mother, living as before, and you will cry out with joy: ‘He has saved my forebears, my Son and my God.’*
*(St. Romanos the Melodist. On the Life of Christ: Kontakia. Translated by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash. Edited by Kerry Brown, The Sacred Literature Series. New York et al.: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, p. 148).
As we enter the second week of Great Lent, I would like to reflect on a theme, which recurs throughout the hymns of the Church during this period. Repeatedly, we are reminded of the image of the fallen Adam seated outside the gates of Paradise lamenting his state.
Most strikingly this image is brought to our attention during the first and fifth week of the Great Fast with the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This beautiful piece of poetry is more than words and chant. The difficulty that we experience is that the theology and metaphors are lovely, but how do we relate to them in this day and age. The theme of repentance has been developed from the pre-lenten Sundays until this time in Lent, so let’s leave that one aside. I would like to think about an aspect of the illustration of Adam sitting in front of the gates pondering his circumstance. The idea that we must sit back and consider “where we are” is one painfully close to home. When I think about the things that must have been going through Adam’s mind, one possibility keeps bothering me more than any other. It occurs to me that he might very well be thinking about being separated from a friend, a real friend, one who genuinely cared for him. Was Adam aware of his new condition? How aware was he of the emptiness in his heart and did he long to have God back in his life?
During these difficult days, people out of work (me included), the economy in a tailspin, major companies in trouble and the markets very unpredictable, the sense of uncertainty can be overwhelming. What must Adam have been thinking? Talk about an uncertain future! Did he ask the same questions we all have asked? Where do I go from here? My world has changed, it will never again be the same, – can I cope? Where has God gone? The reality is that even after Adam had disobeyed God’s law; God came looking for him. The plan of salvation was already in process. God loved so much He already had humanity’s restoration willed through the grace of the mystery of the incarnation of the Son through the Holy Spirit, for our sake. As Christians, we live in the light of Christ’s Resurrection. Our fallen nature has been lifted out of Hades, just as our ancestral parents were seized by the hand of Christ and rescued from darkness. When we think that our life is so dark know that Christ our God is there in the darkness waiting to lift us up by the hand.
Our prayer should be: “O my God, here is my hand!”
AS OUR HOLY ORTHODOX CHURCH PREPARES US GREAT LENT, SHE PREPARES US FOR A JOURNEY. SHE SPEAKS TO US CONCERNING OUR JOURNEY TO PASCHA. THE JOURNEY WE BEGIN IS TO THE CROSS, TO THE TOMB AND TO THE GLORIOUS RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD, GOD AND SAVIOUR, JESUS CHRIST. WE ARE REMINDED THAT WE WILL NOT MAKE THIS JOURNEY ALONE, BUT THAT WE WILL JOURNEY WITH THE LORD, AND TRAVEL WITH OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN CHRIST. PREPARING FOR THIS JOURNEY WE ARE NOT GIVEN A LIST OF THINGS TO BRING, NOR DOES THE CHURCH TELL US WHAT TO EAT OR NOT TO EAT ON THE ROAD. HOWEVER, SHE SPEAKS DIRECTLY TO US ABOUT OUR ATTITUDES. LENT CAN BE SUMMED UP BY THE PHRASE, “SHARING AND CARING” INSTEAD OF “DO’S OR DON’TS”. ATTITUDES CONCERNING OUR NEIGHBOUR ARE OF THE PRIMARY IMPORTANCE DURING THIS PREPARATION FOR PASCHA. IN OUR HEARTS, EACH OF US KNOWS THAT OUR LIVES ARE FAR FROM PERFECT. WE REALIZE THAT WE MUST SEEK FORGIVENESS FROM GOD FOR FALLING AWAY FROM HIM, BY PUTTING HIM OUT OF FOCUS IN OUR LIVES. WE KNOW THAT THIS FORGIVENESS IS NECESSARY FOR OUR RETURN TO HIM. AT THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT FAST, WE ARE TOLD THAT THE FORGIVENESS, WHICH WE SEEK FROM GOD IS CONDITIONAL. IT IS CONTINGENT ON OUR ATTITUDES TOWARD OTHERS. ARE WE PREPARED TO SHARE OURSELVES WITH OUR NEIGHBOUR? ARE WE PREPARED TO CARE WITH COMPASSION? CAN WE FORGIVE OTHERS? DO WE CARRY ANIMOSITY IN OUR HEARTS, WHILE SEEKING FORGIVENESS FOR OURSELVES? OUR FORGIVENESS FROM GOD IS COMMENSURATE WITH THE FORGIVENESS WE OFFER THOSE WHO HAVE OFFENDED US. THE GREAT CHRISTIAN MARTYR OF THIS LAST CENTURY, DIETRICH BONHOEFFER SUMMED UP OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS IN THIS WAY:
” IN A WORD, LIVE TOGETHER IN FORGIVENESS OF YOUR SINS, FOR WITHOUT IT NO HUMAN FELLOWSHIP CAN SURVIVE. dON’T INSIST ON YOUR RIGHTS, DON’T BLAME EACH OTHER, DON’T JUDGE OR CONDEMN EACH OTHER, DON’T FIND FAULT WITH EACH OTHER, BUT ACCEPT EACH OTHER AS YOU ARE AND FORGIVE EACH OTHER EVERY DAY FROM THE BOTTOM OF YOUR HEARTS.”
AS WE BEGIN OUR LENTEN JOURNEY, LET US NOT BE SO CONCERNED WITH WHAT ENTERS OUR MOUTHS, AS WHAT COMES OUT OF THEM. AS WE PROVIDE FOR OUR SPIRIT IN ADDITIONAL PRAYER AND SOUL SEARCHING. LET US SUBDUE OUR EGOS AND OUR JUDGEMENT OF THOSE WE ENCOUNTER. LET US TURN TO GOD IN REPENTANCE WITH HUMILITY, ONLY AFTER WE SOFTEN THE HARDNESS OF OUR OWN HEARTS AND GRANT FORGIVENESS TO THOSE CLOSE TO US. WE MUST REACH OUT TO THOSE WHO HAVE HURT US OR OFFENDED US. EQUALLY WE MUST GENEROUSLY ACCEPT OTHERS SEEKING OUR FORGIVENESS. AS THE HYMNS OF VESPERS OF FORGIVENESS REVEAL:
“REJOICING IN THE VIRTUES OF THE SPIRIT – MAY WE PERSEVERE WITH LOVE, AND SO BE COUNTED WORTHY TO SEE THE SOLEMN PASSION OF CHRIST OUR GOD, AND WITH GREAT SPIRITUAL GLADNESS TO BEHOLD HIS HOLY RESURRECTION.”
I don’t know if you ever ask this question, but as far as I’m concerned I seem to ask this question a lot!Ok, God what do you want from me?It seems that I am always asking the question without expecting an answer.Well, the Gospel for next Sunday, the Gospel of the Last Judgment (Matt 25, 31 – 46) answers this
SEPERATING SHEEP FROM GOATS
question pretty specifically and without equivocation. The entire exhortation can be boiled down to one sentence.Blessed are the merciful!It requires mercy to feed, clothe, heal, visit, give drink, or welcome.St John Chrysostom remarked in a sermon on this passage, that we take pity on a poor stray dog and feed him when we encounter him, but we are most likely to ignore our fellow human if we come upon them by the side of the road.If we care for the physical needs of our fellow man, do we ignore their more basic spiritual needs?Do we welcome strangers to Church or think about clothing them in the garment of incorruption, their baptismal garment?Do we try to feed them with spiritual food, free them from the prison of loneliness or despair?It seems that if we go down to the soup kitchen or meet people’s physical needs out the back door of the community center, we’ve done our good deed.
However, we really don’t want “those kinds of people” in the pew next to us. It is easy to give a loaf of bread, but a much more difficult commitment to share the bread of life, the Holy Eucharist. The banquet of the Kingdom is the wedding feast, and the king wishes all to attend. He desires the room to be full.The servants gathered “the good and the bad” and invited them into the feast.Has the king invited you?Whom shall you bring?
This coming Sunday is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the second Sunday of the Triodion in the Orthodox calendar. It seems to me that every year when this week rolls around I tend to play a mind game with myself. Who am I this year? The quick and the safe answer is to say I am the prodigal.
How very humble and fitting. We’re all prodigals at one time or another. After all last Sunday we were reminded that the “good guy” was the Publican; when he realized he had a lot to answer for and admitted it. So, once again the safe bet is to tell ourselves, that’s me. None the less, when we shut the door isn’t it human nature to say, I am really not that bad. So, who do you think you are in this story.? My view is that at times we imagine ourselves to be each of the characters at one time or the other, Maybe that’s the way Christ intended us to look at this parable. At different times of our lives, we are anyone of the characters in the tale. Perhaps we are the prodigal, the owner of the swine, the companions in sin, the brother, the servants who attend to the returning son, the party going friends of the brother, the waiting forgiving father. Or even someone never mentioned, the mother, who may very well waited, worried and quietly rejoiced at her son’s return only to cry again at her elder son’s callousness. The question is: Who am I this year?.