Sunday May 11, 2014

With Your divine protection, O Lord,as You once raised the paralytic,
now lift up my soul paralyzed with all kinds of sin and evil deeds of wickedness, so that, as saved,
I may cry out to You:”
Glory be to Your might, O Merciful Christ!”

 paralyticOn this third weekend after the great feast of Easter, the Church again presents, through the appointed readings, the characteristics She understands to be necessary for a person to be a true follower of Jesus. They build on the characteristics already shared with us on the last two weekends. First, a follower of Jesus must be someone who does not doubt that God has revealed Himself through the Person of Jesus. Second, a follower understands that the way he/she makes God’s Kingdom present is by being of service to others. Service to   others is the hallmark of a Christian way of life.

Today the readings clearly suggest that to be a true follower of Jesus we must not let our fears paralyze us and keep us from living as Jesus lived. By His life and death, Jesus attempted to convince us that we should not be afraid of death, change or living a life of unconditional love for others – a life of service to others. That is how Jesus lived! He lived in this manner to reveal to us how God intends us to live during this earthly sojourn.

In order to gain the benefits of this earthly existence, we have to decide to live life the way that God intended us to live. He gave us His Son, Jesus, as a model. If we can only have the courage to live as Jesus lived we will truly experience the fullness of life – we will know what it means to be a human being and a child of God.

This, of course, requires us to develop a vision of life that reflects this understanding. Earthly life is given to us to teach us how to be God’s children. It is but one of many existences that we will have (remember, life is eternal and dynamic. This means we will, for all eternity, be learning how to be His children).

I believe that it is not by mistake that we see in our Epistle reading from ACTS two miracles joined together, namely (1) the giving of life to a young, dead woman, and (2) the curing of a paralytic man. True human life is a life without spiritual paralysis.  When our spirits are not paralyzed we can live in a manner that brings spiritual, emotional and psychological growth. This, of course, is the purpose of this present life.

How can we become free of any spiritual paralysis (i.e., fears) we might have? We can freely decide to live like Jesus lived and ask Almighty God for help. When we are convinced that God intends us to live like Jesus lived, then life begins to make much more sense. Christos Voskrese! (Old Slavonic)

Getting to Know Something About Our Greek Catholic Faith — 20140511

It is the glory of Byzantine Christianity to have established and elucidated, as much as the human mind can, the characteristic truths of Christianity. Those truths include:
(1) the oneness of God in his divine Trinity;
(2) the Incarnation;
(3) the Resurrection;
(4) the Divinization of the human person and of the universe; and
(5) the return in Ascension of humanity and the universe to their divine Source and Origin, the Author of  Creation (Life’s Journey is an Ascension to the Heavenly Father).

These basic truths of Byzantine theology are still the mainstream of our thinking. It is only with such theology that humanity can remain in constant contact with the light, sound, and feel of the sublime! It is only through this type of Christian theology that humanity can find hope in despair, salvation in sin, and resurrection in death.

For a complete picture, it is important that we consider the character and sources of Byzantine theology. This means sharing some history of which many may already be aware.

Emperor Constantine ended the period of confrontation between Christianity and the Roman Empire. He abandoned the ancient capital, Rome, and moved the center of political and cultural life of what was then seen as the civilized world, to the site of an ancient Greek city on the rivers of the Bosphorus – Byzantium. It was officially called Constantinople, the New Rome, and remained the capital of an Empire still called Roman for over eleven centuries, until its fall to the Turks in 1453. You will recall the he moved his capital in 313.

Especially after the disappearance of the ancient Christian centers in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, Constantinople became the unquestionable center of Eastern Christianity. You will recall that much of our hymnography (various prayers used by the Church in her daily office) were written by monks from these countries.

Missionaries from New Rome brought the Christian faith to the people of the Balkans. Since it is Byzantine theology that is the foundation of our Church, it is important that we understand it. It differs from the theology of the Western Church.

For example, the central theme of Byzantine theology is that man’s nature is not a static, “closed, autonomous     entity, but a dynamic reality, determined in its very existence by its relationship to God. This relationship is seen as a process of ascent and as communion – man, created in the image of God, is called to freely achieve a divine similitude or likeness. The vision of man in the Western world is considerably different.                     Χριστός Ανέστη!

The Spirituality of the Christian East — 20140511

In the last issue of this article I began to present Theophan’s ideas on the characteristics of a sinner. Theophan believed that a sinner is a person who has turned away from God and has become self-centered, making himself the main object of his entire life and activity. However, this self-centeredness only leaves man empty and he then turns all of his activities to finding ways to fill this real emptiness. The saint says:

This emptiness, which was formed in him as a result of falling away from God, kindles in him an incessant craving that nothing can satisfy. This craving is vague, but constant. A man becomes a bottomless abyss; he tries hard to fill this abyss, but he cannot.

It is important to note that Theophan can only assert this because of one of the basic beliefs of the Church: man, who has been made in God’s image and likeness, is created for union with God. The only thing that can truly satisfy man is union with God. Why? Because that is the way God created us.

Many of the Fathers of the Church have expressed this same sentiment. It can be summarized by the simple words: my soul is restless until it is joined with you, O Lord.

I believe that humans, because God created us with free will, seem to strive for independence and fear any suggestion of being totally dependent, even on God. And yet it is only when we can be dependent upon God and surrender ourselves to His plan for us, that we can truly experience freedom and   fullness of life. So the human struggle is one of surrendering, voluntarily, to total dependence on God and not allowing our desire for independence to keep us from such dependence.

The interesting thing is that the Fathers and Saints discovered that when they surrendered their whole lives to God they truly gained freedom. It is the act of free surrender that is so totally important.

These are heavy thoughts. Think about them. Ask yourself: Am I dependent on God or myself?
Kristus vstal zmŕtvych! (Slovak)

Learning Our Faith from the Church Fathers — 20140511

The unity that exists within the Trinity, which we believe is composed of Three Distinct Divine Persons, is truly beyond human comprehension. The dialectic or debate about the one and the many in the Christian Godhead has been an enduring and fascinating theme in theology and   philosophy from the very outset. We know that other religions find it difficult to believe and therefore maintain that there is only ONE GOD, Who is Creator of all.

Philosophic reflection, in its various ways of understanding reality, became an ally of religion and mysticism and of the ways by which they represented the unity of, and union with, divinity. Our understanding of God, as articulated by the Councils of the Church, use an abundance of philosophical concepts and expressions to give us an idea of God, the Incarnated Jesus, the Mother of God and the Holy Eucharist. Without the help of philosophy, Christian religion would not have as developed an idea of God as we do.

For Christians, unlike others, all things are one in the free and loving person of the Father. Such unity is inconceivable to the human mind. Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite stated: it is a super-essential unity that joins the Three Persons into ONE GOD. All we know is that our God has interacted with us in three very distinct ways: He created us and shares His life with us; He is God’s revelation to us about human life and how to live it; and He is the source of those powers within us that make us truly human. God is our Creator. He is our Savior. He is the Giver of Life (if you pay attention to the Divine Liturgy you will find all of these God roles expressed).

Every movement of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, aims at bringing us into a living communion with Christ and with the Father, at deifying us. In spite of the serious liabilities attached to it. The terminology of deification and divinization was to impose itself upon the Father as capable of expressing the newness of the condition to which man had been restored through the Incarnation of the Son of God. The deification of man corresponds to the man-becoming of God. It deals with a mysterious exchange by which each takes on the qualities of the other. The act of God joining Himself completely to human nature through His incarnation, reveals a truth about human nature that allows us to comprehend the meaning of life. We are called, through the experiences of life, to come into ever-greater union with our Triune God. Jesus reveals, in a very concrete manner, the union that exists between God and man.

Learning About the Practices of Our Religion — 20140511

In the last issue of this article, I began to share with you the structure of the churches in the time of Chrysostom. The ambon stood roughly in the middle of the church’s nave (i.e., that central part of the church building where the faithful were gathered). It consisted of a raisedplatform enclosed with a parapet (a low wall) of stone slabs, to which two flights of steps gave access. It was connected with the sanctuary by a protected way called the solea: a narrow passage bordered by stone slabs set into pillars in the same way as the sanctuary barrier. It might connect immediately with the sanctuary, or there might be a gap between the two. In either case the solea enabled unhindered passage through a crowded church between sanctuary and ambon. Today, it would be in the center aisle and, because of pews, unhindered access down the main aisle would allow clergy to move from the ambon to the sanctuary or altar (it should be noted that typically in Eastern Christian churches the whole area containing the Holy Table is called the “altar” instead of sanctuary).

It was thus in this type of setting that Chrysostom presided over the celebration of the Eucharist. He entered with his     attendant clergy through the central, royal, doors leading from the narthex (vestibule) into the nave (i.e., the main area of the building where the faithful gathered). He was preceded by lights and incense, and by a deacon carrying the book of the Gospels. Since there was no electricity in the church buildings, candles were needed. Incense was also used to sweeten the odor of the area.

When the procession reached the altar the Gospels were placed on the Holy Table as a symbol of Christ. Then the clergy went to their respective places. The bishop gave the greeting: Peace be with all, to which the people responded: And with your spirit.

This differs slightly from the way that we now celebrate with a bishop. The bishop comes into the church and a throne for him is set up in the middle of the Church. The first part of the Liturgy is then celebrated with him sitting in the middle of the church.

The bishop’s greeting was the signal for the scripture readings to begin. This greeting is still a part of our Liturgy, albeit the Liturgy begins with the Great Litany (originally said after the readings and sermon).

In the time of Chrysostom, there were probably three readings: one from the Old Testament, an Epistle and then a Gospel. A responsorial psalm was sung between the readings (i.e., our Prokimenon and Alleluia verses). We no longer have three readings.            Krisztus feltámadt! (Hungarian)

Gaining a Deeper Understanding of the New Testament — 20140511

As indicated in the last issue of this article, Paul addresses the issue of the resurrected body of Christ, indicating that it was a spiritual body. What Paul means by a spiritual body is not completely clear. It appears, however, that he made a distinction between it and a physical body. The resurrected body was not, according to Paul, a physical body. He even explicitly denies that the resurrected body is a flesh and blood body.

Modern scholarship has often noted that Paul never mentions that Jesus’ tomb was empty – neither in this chapter nor anywhere else in his letters. Is this because Paul took it for granted that affirming the   resurrection of Jesus meant that of course Jesus’ tomb was empty? Or is it because for Paul the resurrection of Jesus was not about something spectacular happening to the corpse of Jesus?

In either case, the resurrection of Jesus mattered utterly to Paul. For him, it meant Jesus lives and Jesus is Lord – and he lives and is Lord because God vindicated him against the powers that had crucified him. To vindicate means to say yes to what Jesus was doing and no to this world, the world that crucified him. This is the heart of Paul’s experience and thought.

As you can tell, Paul believes in the resurrection of Christ and doesn’t need physical proof of this fact. For Paul the resurrected Christ doesn’t need a body! He was real to Paul and to others and that is the main point.

We modern people, however, think that it is essential that Christ had some sort of physical body. This point has truly been debated for centuries! I am sure that most Christians, when they think of the resurrection of Christ, think about the fact that His physical body was brought back to life and He was the same physical   person that He was before His death and resurrection. All we know is this: Christ was not immediately recognized by those to whom He appeared. He was different in some way. And yet, all recognized Him in His voice and the things that He did and said. We know that He told Mary Magdalene that she should not touch Him since He had not yet gone to the Father in heaven. Mary did, however, recognize His voice when He said her name. Also, several disciples recognized Him in His action of breaking bread. It really doesn’t matter what kind of body Jesus had after the resurrection. The fact of the matter is that his friends and others believed He was alive and had real experiences of His presence.

Unfortunately modern man wants more proof! Proof cannot be given except for the testimony of people who were willing to go to their deaths for the sake of their belief. Somehow, Jesus was experienced as living by many after His death and proclaimed resurrection.       Christ IS Risen

Called To Holiness — 20140511

In speaking of being called to holiness, we look at the first letter of St Peter in which he tells us: Rather, become holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, after the   likeness of the holy One who called you; remember, Scripture says, Be holy, for I am holy.

The holy One we know to be Jesus, the Christ. He was holy because He lived an other-centered life and unconditionally loved, forgave and respected all other humans that came into His life. There were absolutely no exceptions.

We are called to imitate His holiness. Our response must be to try with all power within us to imitate Him by unconditionally loving, accepting and forgiving as He did all people who come into our life.

How do we truly develop the power to do this? I think the first step is to make sure that our attitudes about all others are non-judgmental. It starts with the way we think.  If we are in the habit of judging others, we can never learn how to unconditionally love all others. Anytime I make even one exception, I weaken my ability to live like Jesus lived.

One might ask: How can I learn to live this way? If you begin to realize and believe that all human beings share in the same life that you do and are a part of the same human family, you will begin to develop more tolerance for others and the ability to not judge them if they think or act differently than you do. Any time I judge someone else, I lessen my own self-worth since I don’t act like a child of God. Prejudice and bigotry hurt the person expressing prejudice and bigotry more than the person at whom prejudice and bigotry is directed. Why? Because it reduces the person expressing prejudice and bigotry to less than he/she is in God’s Kingdom. God accepts all others. When I don’t, I attempt to make myself greater than God.

The greatest problem I see in our world today is that so many people believe, when they hate and judge others, that they are acting as true believers in God and only expressing His judgment. What fools! As Jesus said, there is only one Judge, God Himself. We cannot presume to judge in His behalf unless we want to be judged. And God’s judgment on us, when we express prejudice and bigotry, is that we are not living as His children. The greatest fault of many modern people is that they judge others as sinners, thus becoming sinners themselves. How sad!  Meshiha qam! (Syriac)

Sunday May 4, 2014

The Angel stood by the tomb and cried out to the women bringing ointment:
“Ointments are for the dead,
but Christ has shown Himself  not subject to corruption.
So now cry out: “The Lord has risen, bestowing great mercy upon the world.”

pascha_14_myrrhbearingwomenOn this second weekend after Easter, both readings appointed by the Church highlight one of the essential characteristics of true Christianity, namely service to others. Jesus modeled service to others and, as we hear in the New Testament, His followers understood the importance of this way of living.

The hallmark of any community that desires to call itself Christian is an active outreach program wherein members of the community can be of service to others. Christians imitate Jesus when they intentionally engage in activities that help others. Jesus strove to be of service to His fellowmen because in doing so His Father’s Kingdom became real. Service to others is based on a vision and understanding of humankind. Service to others becomes natural when we see all others, regardless of who they are, as brothers and sisters and part of our family.

Being of service to others, however, doesn’t seem to just come naturally in our modern world. When we look around us and think about the type of society that has emerged in our modern world, we realize that there are great divisions between humans. Society seems to promote the differences between humans instead of stressing the similarities that exist. The reality is this: all human beings are animated by the same life-force, which happens to be God’s Spirit. All human beings, regardless of how they behave or think, have been made in God’s image and likeness.

The problem is that many humans do not see themselves as God’s children and, because they don’t act like God’s children, others tend to treat them as if they weren’t God’s children. It is critical that we, who call ourselves followers of Jesus, do everything in our power to treat others as Jesus did so that they might see, hopefully, themselves as God’s children. We are to bear witness, as St. John says, to the Light, which is the truth about humankind that was revealed by God through the Person of Jesus. We are called to bear witness to the Good News – the Gospel. This is done by the way we treat all others.           

Myrrh_Bearing_WomenХристос Воскрес!

Getting to Know Something About Our Greek Catholic Faith — 20140504

Charles Diehl (a French historian who was a native of Strasbourg, is a leading authority on Byzantine art and history. He received his education at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and later taught classes on Byzantine history at the Sorbonne) summarizes accurately the history of the liturgical contribution of the East to Byzantium: “Throughout the     history of Byzantium, the Eastern current flows through its civilization, its literature and its art. From the East came many of its stories, proverbs and popular beliefs, its liturgical and political movements, its ideas and its art forms. There the Church found the pattern and structure for many of its ceremonies and there artists learned that art’s true function was to glorify God and the Emperor.”

patcathThe East – especially Antioch – made constant pilgrimages to Constantinople in order to establish contact with Greeks, Rus and other Slavic peoples, in order to nourish them with the Gospel of Christ.

Byzantine culture is therefore a complex culture, mobile and varied with all the variety of the twenty-five turbulent nations the Empire had to civilize, humanize and unite into one Eastern Christian Church.

Eastern Christianity and Byzantine culture are, essentially, one and the same. All these peoples became in fact Eastern Christians. The Church provided them with enough sustenance to allow their soul to join the divine feast, and threw enough sparks into their humanity to make them sing and dance, life in Christ being always the guiding star.

Displayed in the ceremonies of Byzantine monasteries or in the humblest church, the elegance of worship becomes dazzling brilliance, splendor and glory for the people of God who share in it. Ukrainians or Melkites, Chinese or French and all who participate find in it enlightenment and delight. It is made to create an atmosphere of light to provide a feeling of nobility and freedom, not because of human voices and intellectual pronouncements, but because God is heard revealing the secrets of his love and the richness of his life, and summoning the human person to self-revelation.

Think about what you experience as we pray and celebrate together. I think that the very last phrase of the Liturgy says it so beautifully: for He is gracious and loves mankind. Our Liturgy, I truly believe, declares over and over again that the God we worship and adore is a God Who truly loves us and only wants us to come to a deep awareness of how much He loves us so that we can experience the fullness of life!

Learning About the Practices of Our Religion — 20140504

hagiasophialastChrysostom no doubt officiated in each of the several large churches with which the city of Constantinople had been adorned since 330. In addition to the original Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the Great Church which served as the Cathedral and begun by Constantine and completed in 360 by Constantius, there existed the High Church, Hagia Irene (Holy Peace), close by, and the Church of the Apostles, the former enlarged and beautified by Constantine, the latter built by him. These churches were all basilicas. Although none have survived as active places of Christian worship, they are museums and we are certain of their features and their influence on the Liturgy. Worshippers first entered through an imposing portico, whose doorway might be hung with rich curtains. They found themselves in an atrium, or forecourt, surrounded on three sides by a columned arcade. In the middle was a fountain where the faithful could wash their hands on their way into church, as much in preparation for prayer as for receiving the sacrament. The atrium was also where the poor gathered in the hope of  receiving alms from the churchgoers.

The church itself was entered by way of the narthex, or porch (now called the vestibule), on the fourth side of the atrium. Several doors led into the narthex, where people could gather before the service began. Whether or not they entered the church before the bishop arrived is not clear (there was always a procession of the clergy, with the bishop, into the church. In the renewed Latin Liturgy, we see this reinstated and we still see this when a bishop visits the church).

Certainly in the first half of the seventh century the congregation seems to have gathered outside the church, and to have entered it only after the bishop had made his ceremonial entrance. The larger churches all seem to have had doors at the east end, on either side of the apse, as well as at the west end, and often in the north and south sides too. The central doors leading from the narthex into the nave were known as the royal doors, and it was through them that the Emperor entered with the Patriarch into the church on those occasions when he took part formally in the Liturgy. The name royal doors was only later given to the doors that eventually developed on the iconastasis (originally the iconastasis had no doors).                      Al-Masih-Qam!