Monday, April 23, 2007

Pondering Life and Death and Resurrection...

On this Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women, we recall their intention to anoint the corpse of our Lord on that first Pascha morning. Their intentions were graciously and gloriously thwarted by the angel's report of Christ's Resurrection. The women who set out to anoint their Lord's body were instead commissioned to announce the good news of His victory over death and hell to His Apostles.

The following paragraphs were written by Father Olivier Clement in honor of his friend, Father Boris Bobrinskoy. They were included in a recent column by Father John Breck and speak powerfully to the meaning of Pascha today:
In our civilization, so rich in knowledge and in power, we can no longer offer any reply to the enigma of death. We want only to forget death. Yet it meets us again and again in the form of hatred, oppression, separation, illness, and the disappearance of persons we love. This is why the message of Easter, of Holy Pascha, resounds today with such renewed strength. God takes on human flesh, suffers, dies, and descends into hell, in order to destroy both death and hell, and to grant us life.

“Henceforth all is filled with light,” we proclaim at the Paschal celebration, “heaven, the earth, and even hell itself.”

The Body of the crucified Lord is enlivened by the Holy Spirit. It has become the Eucharistic Body of human kind and of the universe as a whole. No one nor any thing is separated from Christ. His victory over death is a victory over separation. His life becomes our own so completely that the apostle Paul can declare: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” (Gal 2:20).

This is why Christ’s Resurrection concerns us and takes hold of us today. Now, today, we are called to die in Him, in order to rise up in Him. Saint Paul calls us to be conformed with Christ in death, in communion with His suffering, in order “to know Him and the power of His Resurrection” (Phil 3:10), in order to yield ourselves to Him as those “who have been brought from death to life” (Rom 6:13). From this time forth the Resurrection determines our very being. If we assume our suffering, even our agony, with humble abandon, with a perfectly humble and childlike confidence, we will be able to unite them to the suffering and agony of Christ. We will find that they issue in a life that is stronger than death. Once it seemed that Christ had died, yet death exists no longer. Once we wept over those who had passed away, yet now we find that they are not dead but are alive in Christ, and in close communion with us.

The Resurrection enables us to welcome others and to love them with a wholly disinterested love. I no longer need to make another person into a scape-goat for my distress, my pain, since death has been vanquished, and my inner anguish has been transformed into trusting confidence.

Today, ironically, humanity flees death while it multiplies the means of its own suicide. Christians, therefore, have above all else the obligation to proclaim the great joy of Holy Pascha. Their primary task is to announce and to manifest the glory of Pascha: by the beauty of liturgical celebration and by the witness of the saints, as by the accusations and promises of the Prophets. They are called to proclaim and to radiate Paschal joy by the words and gestures of their every-day interactions with others, by their prayer, but also by their work, by their art, by their acts of tenderness. This Paschal proclamation can even perfect science and technology, together with every aspect of our modern life.

Our radiant proclamation of Christ’s victory should include a struggle against every form of death, within us and around us, as well as within our culture and society. For Christ’s Resurrection is not merely an increased assurance that our souls are immortal. Its purpose is to rekindle life and love throughout the entire earth: every living being and every object, every moment, every person, everything, in fact, from a blade of grass to the galaxies of outer space. Everything without exception should find its place within the glorious Body of the Resurrected Lord.

We are called to announce and radiate this resurrectional joy throughout all of history, in order to prepare for Christ’s return. This includes a return of all things to Christ and in Christ, made possible, by anticipation, in the signs put forth by what the contemporary French poet Pierre Emmanuel called “a culture of being and of faces.” All of us are capable of facilitating this return, this universal incorporation of all things into Christ, even if we are lying immobilized in a hospital bed. All that is required is a little confidence, a little love, a little joy. These things, together with a humble prayer of self-effacement, which will allow the energy of the Resurrection to burst forth upon the world.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Meditation for the Second Sunday of Pashca: Thomas Sunday

On this day, our Gospel reading begins on the evening of that first Pascha, the evening of the Day our Lord Jesus arose from the dead. The disciples were gathered together and the doors were shut and locked – they were afraid of what the authorities might do to them. Their Master had been arrested, tried, executed… perhaps the police were looking for them, as well.

And something amazing and astounding happens. Jesus enters into the midst of their fear, their terror… This is not a ghost, a hallucination – he shows them his hands and his side. This is the crucified One who has been raised from the dead… Imagine what the past few days had been like for them: the last supper together on Thursday, followed by long time of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane… then the demoralizing pain and anguish of Great and Holy Friday. With only a few exceptions, the disciples had fled in terror and confusion.

But now, Jesus has come to them and he speaks words of peace. He brings healing to troubled hearts and minds. Their terror is transformed to joy – they are glad to see their Lord. Then Jesus speaks another word to them, another word of Peace. The first word was calming and healing; this second word is a commission. We’re going to hear more about this: Jesus commissions his disciples at his Ascension. Then at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon them, they will be commissioned to go forth into all the world to proclaim the Gospel. But even before all that, on this Pascha evening, Jesus breathes the Spirit upon them and gives them a much more modest, fundamental assignment: they are to practice forgiveness. With these words of peace and forgiveness, Jesus is rebuilding, reconstituting the fellowship of his disciples that was unraveled by the events of Holy Week. But now, re-gathered with Christ in their midst, they are given peace and the power and opportunity to forgive.

Today is known as Thomas Sunday, because St Thomas was absent that Pascha evening when the Lord appeared to the disciples. They told him about it, but it just seemed to be too much for Thomas to take in. He utters those famous words: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

This has earned him the title, “Doubting Thomas.” We live in a world that makes a great deal of skepticism: to be a doubter, or an agnostic, is to be a kind of intellectual hero. The so-called conflict of religion and science is emphasized again and again: you may have seen or heard about the very popular recent books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins which are angry, atheistic attacks on traditional belief, on traditional faith. Sometimes you’ll even see St. Thomas co-opted as a kind of hero of skepticism, or doubt, or even agnosticism.

That’s not a very good reading of this Gospel story. Several points need to be emphasized. The disciples believe when they’re given something to believe. They don’t just believe anything and everything – they’re not gullible. They’re hiding behind locked doors because they’re smart. They know what happened to Jesus, and they’re wise enough to know that that’s probably going to happen to them, too. Jesus comes to them, appears to them, and when they see that it’s him, nail scars and all, then they believe.

And although Thomas isn’t there, he isn’t any different. He has to be given something to believe. And he has a pretty good sense of what it will take. If he’s going to believe, then it has to be Jesus – and not just the idea of Jesus, but the Risen Jesus with nail-scarred flesh. Nothing else, no one else, will satisfy. Thomas was exercising what some have called “provisional doubt.” He was willing to believe, but if and only if it were true.

And by grace, Jesus comes to him. Our Lord speaks the same words of peace, and offers Thomas to look and to touch, to verify the reality of what he’s seeing and hearing: place your finger in the nail prints, place your hand in the spear-wound on My side… Verify! It’s true! Believe! And Thomas did believe. He responds with veneration, with worship: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus praises him, but then speaks words of blessing to those of us who do not see, and yet believe. We don’t see the Risen Christ the way Thomas and the others did, and yet we have their testimony. We have the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church enduring through time. We have what we have been given – that we, too, may believe.

Perhaps the most striking thing for me about this passage is the invitation for Thomas to touch. Touch is important, feeling is important. I’ve been told by people who have recently lost a loved one – a parent, a spouse, a child – that what they miss most is the ability to touch, to reach out and grasp the one they love. I’ve heard others say that the almost pathological obsession that some people have with multiple body-piercings, even with cutting themselves, concerns an overwhelming need and desire to feel something, anything. They desperately want to touch and be touched, to grasp, to take hold of something. Touch matters.

That may be why touch is so important in our worship of God: when we welcome one another, we grasp hands (or more traditionally, we embrace and kiss – three times!). When we venerate the icons, we touch them with our lips, kissing them. When we’re Baptized or Chrismated, we’re immersed in water and anointed with oil. When we receive the Eucharist, the sacred Body and precious Blood of our Lord touches our lips, and we often then kiss the chalice which holds the mystery. Touch matters. It connects us with something, someone, other than ourselves. It reminds us that we’re not alone.

St. Thomas knew that it would take that touch to transform his doubt into profound faith. And that opportunity is exactly what Jesus gives him. Glory to Jesus Christ, our Resurrected Lord, who has laid hold of us as His people. Glory to Him who invites us to reach out in faith, and taste and see and believe and share his abundant life. Glory to Him forever! Amen.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Pascha, Glorious Pascha!

Our mission congregation celebrated Holy Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, with tremendous joy. Through the course of Holy Week, nearly thirty persons participated in the variety of services that were offered. We were delighted to welcome a number of first time visitors who responded to our advertisements in the local paper. The following photographs offer a glimpse of the wonder of it all, including the feast which followed the feast...

Father Sergius Clark provided tremendous leadership and guidance throughout the various services from Great and Holy Thursday through to the Divine Liturgy of Holy Pascha.

Learning the music for the multitude of services proved to be something of a challenge, but what we lacked in harmony, we more-than-manifested in enthusiasm and gusto.

Because of several generous gifts, we were able to adorn the church with lilies and other flowers.

Throughout the week, we were delighted to welcome local participants from Maringouin and St. Francisville, and others from various parts of Russia, Serbia, and Lebanon. Nearly everyone brought something to contribute to the feast!

O glorious Pascha!

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Great and Holy Saturday
Great and Holy Pascha

Today, hell cries out, groaning,
"I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary,
He came and destroyed my power.
He shattered the gates of brass.
As God, He raised the souls that I had held captive."
Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord.

Arise, O God, and judge the earth,
For to Thee belong all the nations!

Let God arise! Let His enemies be scattered!

Let those who hate him flee from before His face!

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Great and Holy Friday

Come, let us all sing the praises of Him who was crucified for us,
For Mary said when she beheld Him upon the tree:
Though You do endure the cross, You are my Son and my God!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Great and Holy Thursday:
The Mystical Supper

Of Your Mystical Supper, O Son of God,
Accept me today as a communicant.
For I will not speak of Your mysteries to Your enemies,
Neither like Judas will I give You a kiss,
But like the thief will I confess You.
Remember me, O Lord, in Your Kingdom!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Great and Holy Monday, Tuesday, and
Wednesday: Behold the Bridegroom

Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight,
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching,
And again unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, are You, O our God!
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!
- the Troparion, Tone 8

Father Alexander Schmemann's reflections on these days:
These three days, which the Church calls Great and Holy have within the liturgical development of the Holy Week a very definite purpose. They place all its celebrations in the perspective of End ; they remind us of the eschatological meaning of Pascha. So often Holy Week is considered one of the "beautiful traditions" or "customs," a self-evident "part" of our calendar. We take it for granted and enjoy it as a cherished annual event which we have "observed" since childhood, we admire the beauty of its services, the pageantry of its rites and, last but not least, we like the fuss about the paschal table. And then, when all this is done we resume our normal life. But do we understand that when the world rejected its Savior, when "Jesus began to be sorrowful and very heavy... and his soul was exceedingly sorrowful even unto death," when He died on the Cross, "normal life" came to its end and is no longer possible. For there were "normal" men who shouted "Crucify Him," who spat at Him and nailed Him to the Cross. And they hated and killed Him precisely because He was troubling their normal life. It was indeed a perfectly "normal" world which preferred darkness and death to light and life.... By the death of Jesus the "normal" world, and "normal" life were irrevocably condemned. Or rather they revealed their true and abnormal inability to receive the Light, the terrible power of evil in them. "Now is the Judgment of this world" (John 12:31). The Pascha of Jesus signified its end to "this world" and it has been at its end since then. This end can last for hundreds of centuries this does not alter the nature of time in which we live as the "last time." "The fashion of this world passeth away..." (I Cor. 7:31).

Pascha means passover, passage. The feast of Passover was for the Jews the annual commemoration of their whole history as salvation, and of salvation as passage from the slavery of Egypt into freedom, from exile into the promised land. It was also the anticipation of the ultimate passage - into the Kingdom of God. And Christ was the fulfillment of Pascha. He performed the ultimate passage: from death into life, from this "old world" into the new world into the new time of the Kingdom. And he opened the possibility of this passage to us. Living in "this world" we can already be "not of this world," i.e. be free from slavery to death and sin, partakers of the "world to come." But for this we must also perform our own passage, we must condemn the old Adam in us, we must put on Christ in the baptismal death and have our true life hidden in God with Christ, in the "world to come...."

And thus Easter is not an annual commemoration, solemn and beautiful, of a past event. It is this Event itself shown, given to us, as always efficient, always revealing our world, our time, our life as being at their end, and announcing the Beginning of the new life.... And the function of the three first days of Holy Week is precisely to challenge us with this ultimate meaning of Pascha and to prepare us to the understanding and acceptance of it...

Icon from the website of the OCA.

Read the entire meditation here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Palm Sunday: The Triumphal Entry

On the website of the Orthodox Church in America, Fr Paul Lazor offers these reflections to orient our hearts and minds for the beginning of Holy Week:

Palm Sunday is the celebration of the triumphant entrance of Christ into the royal city of Jerusalem. He rode on a colt for which He Himself had sent, and He permitted the people to hail Him publicly as a king. A large crowd met Him in a manner befitting royalty, waving palm branches and placing their garments in His path. They greeted Him with these words: "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel! (John 12:13).

This day together with the raising of Lazarus are signs pointing beyond themselves to the mighty deeds and events which consummate Christ's earthly ministry. The time of fulfillment was at hand. Christ's raising of Lazarus points to the destruction of death and the joy of resurrection which will be accessible to all through His own death and resurrection. His entrance into Jerusalem is a fulfillment of the messianic prophecies about the king who will enter his holy city to establish a final kingdom. "Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass" (Zech 9:9).

Finally, the events of these triumphant two days are but the passage to Holy Week: the "hour" of suffering and death for which Christ came. Thus the triumph in a earthly sense is extremely short-lived. Jesus enters openly into the midst of His enemies, publicly saying and doing those things which most. enrage them. The people themselves will soon reject' Him. They misread His brief earthly triumph as a sign of something else: His emergence as a political. messiah who will lead them to the glories of an earthly kingdom.

The liturgy of the Church is more than meditation or praise concerning past events. It communicates to us the eternal presence and power of the events being celebrated and makes us participants in those events. Thus the services of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday bring us to our own moment of life and death and entrance into the Kingdom of God: a Kingdom not of this world, a Kingdom accessible in the Church through repentance and baptism.

On Palm Sunday palm and willow branches are blessed in the Church. We take them in order to raise them up and greet the King and Ruler of our life: Jesus Christ. We take them in order to reaffirm our baptismal pledges. As the One who raised Lazarus and entered Jerusalem to go to His voluntary Passion stands in our midst, we are faced with the same question addressed to us at baptism: "Do you accept Christ?" We give our answer by daring to take the branch and raise it up: "I accept Him as King and God!"

Thus, on the eve of Christ's Passion, in the /celebration of the joyful cycle of the triumphant days of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, we reunite ourselves to Christ, affirm His Lordship lover the totality of our life and express our readiness to follow Him to His Kingdom:

... that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible 1 may attain the resurrection from the dead
(Philippians 3:10-11).