St. Paul – 20140216

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians has had little theological significance in Christian history. His reminiscences and gratitude, over half of the letter, have not often been grist for theological mills. The letter does, however, contain “nuggets” that are central to Christianity. Twice Paul refers to the famous triad of faith, hope and love. But when Christians think of these words, they are more likely to think of them as the climax of first Corinthians 13, often called the “great love chapter.”

There is, however, one text in this first letter that has been important to two very different groups of Christians. For      millions of Christians, mostly in independent Protestant churches, the text is one of the foundations of what is called rapture theology. This is the belief that true believers will be raptured from the earth seven years before the   second coming of Jesus. They will be spared the suffering – the trials and   tribulations, plagues and wars and amines – that will engulf those left behind. The rapture is the premise of the recent best-selling novel series Left Behind.

Rapture theology is almost always accompanied by the claim that the second coming of Jesus will be soon. Polls suggest that around 40 percent of American Christians believe that it will happen in the next fifty years. Most do so because they belong to churches that teach this.

The text (Thessalonians 4: 13-18) is also important for mainstream biblical scholars. It is one of the reasons for the conclusion that Paul (and many early followers of Jesus) expected the second coming of Jesus to be soon. This expectation was obviously wrong – it didn’t happen. People serious about understanding their faith and how other Christians understand the faith, do well to pick up a New Testament and read the referenced text. The text is about the second coming of Jesus and modern scholarship agrees about this. The imagery is vivid: the cry of the archangel, the sound of God’s trumpet, the Lord Himself descending from heaven, the raising of the dead, gathering them together with those still alive, meeting the Lord in the air, and being with the Lord forever.

Rapture theology and other future second-coming-of-Jesus scenarios begin with the premise that all of this will someday happen, for the obvious reason that it hasn’t happened yet. Modern historical scholarship begins with a different premise, namely, that this text tells us what Paul wrote to the Christ-community in Thessalonica around the year 50. In that context, as best as we can discern, what did this text mean for Paul and those who heard it read in the  community?

In the next issue I will take up what this meant for Paul and others!

Getting Ready for the Great Fast

Holy-NapkinWhen I recently announced the date of Easter, which is late this year, the Great Fast seemed so far away. Now it is almost upon us. This coming week is already Meat Fare week which ends with the celebration of the partial beginning of the Fast (traditionally the faithful gave up eating meat after next Sunday). It just doesn’t seem possible.

It is my hope again to offer the following extra service during the Great Fast:

Presanctified Liturgy

Each Friday Evening at 7:00 PM

I had also hoped to find a way to provide either some ongoing discussions during the Great Fast or a simple
Day of Recollection

This day, or half-day, would be scheduled closer to the Great and Holy Week.

A Look at the New Testament – St. Paul – 20140209

According to ACTS, Paul’s mission to Europe began with a vision of a man urging Paul to come to Macedonia to help them with the Christian message. Paul’s first stop was the city of Philippi and then Thessalonica. There, Paul went to the synagogue and converted some Jews and a great many of the devout Gentile God-lovers. Then, presumable after some weeks or months, riots broke out because of Paul. He left the city and went south to Athens and Corinth.

From his first letter to the Thessalonians we learn that while in Athens he sent his companion Timothy back to Thessalonica, which was about 300 miles away, to find out how the community was doing. By foot, the journey took fifteen or twenty days each way. By boat it took around a week. Timothy returned to Paul, who was probably in Corinth, with news of the community. Paul’s first letter to the     Thessalonians is in response to what he heard from Timothy. It follows the standard form of a Greek letter, as all of Paul’s letters do: (1) sender’s name, (2) the addressee, (3) a brief greeting, (4) a thanksgiving, (5) the body of the letter, a teaching, and (6) a closing.

In the teaching of this first letter Paul wants to maintain his relationship with the community. It is full of gratitude and affection. Paul reminisces about his time with them and how he has longed to see them. He also expresses his relief that they still want be in touch with him despite his absence. He expresses the fact that perhaps both they and he had really expected him to return to Thessalonica much sooner. He indicated that he sent Timothy to take his place and wondered if the community still thought well of   him even though there had been some disputes that arose before he left.

Paul fills this affectionate letter with family imagery. Fourteen different times he addresses the community as brothers and sisters. Though the Greek text has only brothers, the community included men and women and the intent was to address both. Brothers did not mean the mean among you but all of you as siblings in the new family. Family    imagery continues as Paul speaks of his relationship to them. He is like their mother or father. He also expresses the fact that he feels like an    orphan when separated from them.

In this metaphor of the Christian community as a new family, the relationship of the members to one       another is not based solely on intimacy or sentiment, but also on mutual support, including material responsibility for each other. This was a share community, just as a family is a sharing community.    Sharing in Paul’s communities, however, did not mean absolute equality of financial resources. It did mean that the community would make sure that all had the means for survival.

Getting to Know Something About Our Eastern Catholic Faith – 20140209

Disturbed not only by the extension of the German influence in the Balkans and by the use of the Filioque, in 867 Photius took action. He wrote an Encyclical Letter to the other Patriarchs of the east, denouncing the Filioque at length and charging those who used it with heresy. Photius has often been blamed for writing this letter. The great Catholic historian Francis Dvornik who is in general highly sympathetic to Photius, calls his action on this occasion a futile attack, and says the lapse was inconsiderate, hasty, and big with fatal consequences’. But if Photius really considered the Filioque heretical, what else could he do except speak his mind? It must also be remembered that it was not Photius who first made the Filioque a matter of controversy, but Charlemagne and his scholars 70 years before.

Photius followed up his letter by summoning a council to Constantinople, which excommunicated Pope Nicolas, terming him a heretic who ravages the vineyard of the Lord.

At this critical point in the dispute, the whole situation suddenly changed. In this same year (867) Photius was deposed by the Emperor. Ignatius became Patriarch once more and communion with Rome was restored. In 869-70 another council was held at Constantinople, known as the Anti-Photian Council, which condemned and anathematized Photius, reversing the decisions of 867. This council, later reckoned in the west as the eighth Ecumenical Council, opened with the unimpressive total of 12 bishops, although numbers at subsequent sessions rose to 103.

Further changes, however, were to come. The 869-70 council requested the Emperor to resolve the status of the Bulgarian Church and not surprisingly he decided that it should be assigned to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Realizing that Rome would allow him less independence than Byzantium, Boris accepted this decision. From 870, then, the German missionaries were expelled and the Filioque was heard no more in the confines of Bulgaria. Nor was this all. At Constantinople, Ignatius and Photius were reconciled to one another and, when Ignatius died in 877, Photius once more succeeded him as Patriarch. In 879 yet another council was held attended by 383 bishops – a notable contrast with the   meager total at the anti-Photian council. The council of 869 was anathematized and all condemnations of Photius were withdrawn and these decisions were  accepted without protest at Rome.

Learning Our Faith from the Church Fathers – 201400209

The Eastern Church’s anthropology accepts punishment, death and mortality, not as God’s retribution or revenge for sin as much as pedagogy. The human being’s finitude would make repentance well up within her, the possibility of free love to God, the Creator and the source of all life. And, God’s plan has not changed; He always desires that man should be united with Him and transfigure the whole earth. The whole history of humanity will thus be that of salvation. As microcosm the human being represents and assimilates in herself the whole macrocosm, the creation. What happens to human beings, happens to creation. God is the Savior of all.

It is critical that we understand the real difference between the anthropology of the East and the West. They are both catholic! There is, however, a different emphasis.

The two major results of the Fall, namely physical death and the distortion of the image of God, call for the regaining of immortality and the restoration of the image. Salvation, then, is not primarily viewed as liberation from sin even though that is not a matter of indifference, but rather as a return to life immortal and the reshaping of the human being into the image of her creator. These two elements constitute the two greatest reasons for the incarnation of the Son of God. Consequently, Eastern theology takes the New Testament term soteria (salvation) in its biblical sense, which goes beyond terms such as redemption, reconciliation, justification and the like to encompass the wholeness of new life under God.

God did not “fail” in the creation of human beings. If, like Athanasius and others argued, God is truly the embodiment of truthfulness and goodness, then His incarnation as man means the restoration of human   beings and the creation.

The perfect God-man was the only qualified person to sum up in his own life the corruptibility and distortion of the image and bring about a recapitulation of the whole human race and creation. We have seen, Athanasius states, that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing. That only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that non save our Lord   Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.  In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection. Think about the difference between eastern and western anthropology!

The Spirituality of the Christian East – 20140209

The concept of imitation of Christ, which was put forth in the last issue of this article, seems therefore sufficiently clear. ‘The Christian’, wrote John Climacus, ‘is one who imitates Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as is possible for human beings.’ The imitation of Christ is linked to the doctrine of the image and the likeness. It coincides with the progressive realization of ‘the likeness’. So the more that we come to understand that we are created in the image and   likeness of God, the more likely we are to more sincerely attempt to imitate Christ.

Another question must be asked. For Origen, to follow Christ meant to cultivate the virtues, of which he gave a list: knowledge, wisdom, truth and righteousness to name but a few. These are the attributes of the Divine Word of God, the Logos (i.e., Christ). We know that the West chose to imitate the Word made flesh as he was seen in the mysteries of his life on earth. Origen adopted the same point of view toward the end of his life. For Saint Gregory Nazianzen, to imitate Christ meant trying to become ‘all that he became for us’. Every detail of the mysteries he evoked in his orations called for a participation: ‘Guided by the star, we ran to him, and with the magi we worshipped, and with the shepherds we were illumined, and with the angels we glorified him.

This corresponds well to the essence of the liturgical Anamnesis (i.e., Commemoration – Remembrance), Christ living in the ritual of the Church: ‘At Christmas he is truly born, just as at Easter he truly dies.’

Being conscious of the absolute oneness of Christ, the Christian will avoid the pitfalls of mimicry and formalism. It is not a matter of repeating the physical gestures of Christ but of imitating their spiritual intent, of using the sentiments of Christ as models for our feelings. The imitation of Christ will. Therefore vary according to each person’s vocation. When we put on the sentiments of Christ, we learn how to unconditionally love.

Learning About the Practices of Our Religion – 20140209

In the last issue of this article, I introduced the Mystagogical Catechesis attributed to St. Cyril and indicated that the last two lectures, given to new converts after their initiation into the Church, dealt with the Eucharist. In these two lectures Cyril presents a new way of speaking of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Church of the first three centuries was clear that Christ was present at its celebration, as the active, invisible celebrant. For Cyril he is present rather also as the passive victim. Christians in the early centuries did not doubt that in Communion they received the Body and Blood of Christ, the bread of eternal life and the cup of everlasting salvation. But Cyril speaks of the consecration of the elements as bringing about a change of an almost chemical kind: he cites the changing of water into wine at Cana in Galilee as an example of the kind of change effected in the Eucharist. The East anticipated the medieval Western doctrine of the real presence by many hundreds of years.

It must be remembered that just as it took time for the Church to sort out her thoughts about who Jesus is, it took time for her to find the words to express her belief about the Eucharist. Because we have always lived in a church that had already found a way to express her belief in the Eucharist, we sometimes think that her ideas about it were clear right from the very beginning.

This change in thinking about the Eucharist was brought about by the Holy Spirit. Cyril’s ideas reflect the fully-developed theology of the Third Person of the Trinity (i.e., Holy Spirity) which emerged in the fourth century in the course of theological argument and was proclaimed as the true doctrine of the church at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE. Cyril is quite clear that ‘whatsoever the Holy Spirit touches is sanctified and changed’. In the Eucharist this doctrine received expression in the invocation, or epiclesis, of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic prayer (one of the reasons why I take the epiclesis out loud). Cyril is the first witness to this fully-developed epiclesis which became characteristic of Eastern eucharistic prayers. The West, by contrast, did not adopt the new fashion and the eucharistic prayer of the Roman Mass continued to pray for consecration in an older way, by asking God to accept the gifts at his heavenly altar. Nicholas Cabasilas, in the fourteenth century, was to point to the Roman prayer as equivalent in function to the Eastern epiclesis: but it reflected an older and rather different view of the Eucharist.

Different but equally Catholic!

Being a Vibrant Parish – 20140209

Praying with the Scriptures can be best facilitated by following five simple “Ps”. The first was, as we saw last week, Pick a Passage. The second is Pick a PlaceReading and praying with the Scriptures requires the right place. Find a quiet place where you can find God. Turn off the television and radio. Go to a place where you can be alone. Many people say that they can pray best out in nature. While this is wonderful, weather can be a hindrance (especially during winter). It is also critical that we read and pray the Scriptures in a   consistent place. The very place itself, when used over and over again for this purpose, can then be helpful in disposing us to quiet.

We must make sure that, if we are living with others, they know not to bother us when we are in our place of prayer. If you set a time-limit, you can always tell your family to give you 5-10-15 minutes to be alone and that you are not to be bothered unless it is an absolute emergency. You have a right to your privacy and time alone. Insist on it.

It is also important that you attempt to pick the same time of the day for being in your place of prayer. Place and time can be very conducive to helping you let go of the cares of the day and can be very beneficial helps to cultivating quiet.

The third “P” is Pick a Posture. Take a comfortable posture, one in which your body does not interfere with your prayer. For too long we have associated prayer with pain, as though suffering (e.g., kneeling with arms outstretched) would somehow make our prayer better. Remember that prayer is  supposed to be like a chat with your father/mother. I small child typically sits in his father’s/mother’s lap when he/she wants to tell them something important.

The fourth “P” stands for Presence. It is so important that if we skip it we may not be praying at all. Picking a passage, finding a place, settling into a comfortable position, all precede prayer but they are not prayer. They only set the stage. Prayer begins when we come into the Presence of God. How do we do this? Simply by starting to address God by saying: Lord, I believe you are here. I’m happy to have this time with you. Or, simply, some other greeting that indicates that it is your desire to be in His presence. He’ll do the rest if you give Him time.

Sunday February 9, 2014

20140208We hear these very poignant words in Paul’s second letter to Timothy:

From your infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, the source of the wisdom which, through faith in Jesus Christ, leads to salvation…. All Scripture is inspired of God and is useful….

One of the immediate questions that should come to mind is: What did Paul really mean? It is obvious that when Paul referred to the Scriptures he was not referring to the writings contained in the New Testament (NT). Those writings did not exist at that time since his letters to Timothy were probably written between 63-67 CE. What was Paul encouraging Timothy to do?

It should be remembered that Jesus never rejected in any way the message of the Old Testament (OT). Indeed the message of the OT was about God’s promise to help those who believe in Him to navigate and survive the challenges of life. The OT is filled with God’s love and promise to His people.

So what did Jesus teach? Jesus taught us how to live in order to understand God’s promise and love for us. Jesus taught, and Paul truly reiterated and reinforced this teaching, that the way we can begin to understand how much we are loved by our Creator and what He truly promised to those who believe in His existence, is by living as Jesus lived. Something happens to us when we make an effort to live with unconditional love for our fellowmen: we truly become children of our Heavenly Father and   begin to understand the meaning and purpose of life.  There is, of course, no way that anyone can prove this to us. The only way we can begin to understand this is by trying to live like our brother Jesus lived. It is in our attempts to live what we believe that insight comes.

To live as Jesus lived – that is trying to think and act as He did – requires that we practice true humility and embrace the idea that it is only in the present moment that we can come to experience the fullness of life. We see the meaning of life when, with humility, we seriously make an attempt to unconditionally love all others – that is to love others without exceptions or conditions.

True humility allows us to see that we need to engage in metanoia – need to constantly work on changing the way we think and behave, always recognizing that we are not perfect!


Pastoral Prattle

As I am sure all will agree, this winter has already been a real challenge. The bill alone for snow removal is more than double than what it was the last several years. The cold weather has a way of zapping one’s personal energy. According to the ground hogs (I have always wondered how and why they were chosen as weather forecasters) we still have six more weeks of    winter. That will put us right at the beginning of the Great Fast which starts, as I have reminded you, on March 3rd.

Have you given any thought to what you might do to make Lent a special spiritual time for yourself? Now truly is the time to begin planning!