Sunday February 2, 2014

20130202This weekend, because of the way the feast of Easter is calculated, we celebrate the feast of the Presentation or the Encounter of the Lord with Simeon and Anna and also begin our preparation for the Great Fast. This feast was, in the past, also known as the Purification.

meetingthelordJewish tradition required mothers to observe 40 days of purification (hence the old name for this feast) after giving birth. During this time they were not allowed to go to the Temple. On the fortieth day, however, they were ritually reintroduced into the Temple and, if their child was a firstborn male, a special ritual (Pidyon Ha’ben – Redemption of First Born) was also performed.  Originally, God intended for the first-born of each Jewish family to be a Kohen – i.e. family’s representative to the Holy Temple. But then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: “Make your choice – either God or the idol”. Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. At that point, God decreed that each family’s first-born would forfeit their Kohen status – and henceforth all the Kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. Which brings us to the mitzvah of Pidyon Ha’Ben. Since the first-born child is   technically a Kohen whose potential cannot be actualized, he has to be replaced by a Kohen from the tribe of Levi. This is accomplished by the father of the baby offering the Kohen a redemptive value of five silver coins for the boy. An even deeper reason why the Jewish people perform this mitzvah is to remind them of the Exodus from Egypt, when God killed the Egyptian first born, yet spared the Jewish first born. This practice acknowledges that everything we own belongs to God and the firstborn is the prime person who inherits the family name and fortune.

ZacchaeusOur preparation for the Fast consists of a five-week sequence of Gospel stories that present the various dimensions of metanoia or repentance, the focus of our spiritual efforts during the 40 days before Easter. The first of these stories is about Zacchaeus, the small man who climbed a tree in his desire to see Jesus. Desire to change and spiritually grow is absolutely essential if we are to benefit from the Great Fast. Desire only comes when we realize that we, like all others, need to grow. It is the fool who thinks he does not have to change and grow.

Learning About the Practices of Our Religion – 20140202

After Constantine established the New Rome – Constantinople – the Great Church of the capital, Holy Wisdom, became the center of ecclesiastical and liturgical influence. The rite of the Great Church gradually spread further afield to become, by the end of the twelfth century, virtually the only rite of the Eastern Churches.

About the middle of the fourth century Cyril of Jerusalem, or perhaps, later, his successor, John, composed the catechetical lectures given to those preparing for baptism. The last five lectures were delivered after the candidates had been baptized, chrismated and had taken part for the first time in the Eucharist. They explained the significance of the rites of initiation through which the newly-baptized had recently passed. The fourth and fifth of these lectures, Mystagogical Catecheses, deal with the Eucharist. They are the first evidence we possess of fourth-century Eucharistic theology and devotion, and they reveal several      characteristics significantly different from what we know from previous centuries. From Cyril’s description of the rite in mind-fourth-century Jerusalem it emerges that the Eucharist was quite definitely regarded as a sacrifice. But it was less a sacrifice of thanksgiving than one of propitiation (an act to prevent or reduce anger; win the favor of; appease or conciliate). On the face of it, the eucharistic prayer described by Cyril consists of a brief thanksgiving for     creation, an invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) on the gifts and a lengthy and comprehensive intercession. To some historians of Christian worship such a prayer, containing no institution narrative and no thanksgiving for redemption, has seemed so improbable that they have supposed Cyril to be   mentioning only the salient features of the prayer. However that may be, what is significant for the development of eucharistic theology and piety is that he mentions only what he does. The chief interest of the mid-fourth-century Church in Jerusalem was in offering a propitiatory sacrifice that would do good to those for whom the prayer was made in as close association as possible with the sacrifice. Several features of Cyril’s description of the service must be noticed.

Before we take a closer look at Cyril’s description of fourth-century liturgy in Jerusalem, we do well to stop and think about what we think of when we offer the Liturgy together. What is the purpose of our prayer? Why do we do what we do? What do you feel when we pray the Liturgy together?

Getting to Know Something About Our Eastern Catholic Faith – 20140202

Four incidents are of particular importance when we think about the causes of the Great Schism: (1) the quarrel between Photius and Pope Nicolas I; (2) the incident of the Diptychs in 1009 (the name of the pope was dropped from the list of hierarchs that are commemorated in the Liturgy); (3) the attempt at reconciliation in 1053-4 and its disastrous sequel; and (4) the   Crusades, one of which resulted in the sacking of Constantinople. It was actions such as these that sealed the separation of the Churches of the east and west. Soon not only the Papal claims but the Filioque became involved in the dispute. Byzantium and the west (chiefly the Germans) were both launching great   missionary ventures among the Slavs. The two lines of missionary advance, from the east and from the west, soon converged and when Greek and German missionaries found themselves at work in the same land, it was difficult to avoid a conflict since the two missions were run on widely different principles. The clash naturally brought to the fore the question of the Filioque, used by the Germans in the Creed, but not used by the Greeks. The chief point of trouble was Bulgaria, a country which Rome and Constantinople alike were anxious to add to their sphere of jurisdiction. The Khan Boris was at first inclined to ask the German missionaries for baptism. Threatened, however, with a Byzantine invasion, he changed his policy and around 865 accepted baptism from Greek clergy. But Boris wanted the Church in Bulgaria to be independent and when Constantinople refused to grant autonomy, he turned to the west in hope of better terms. Given a free hand in Bulgaria, the Latin missionaries promptly launched a violent attack on the Greeks, singling out the points where Byzantine practice differed from their own: married clergy, rules of fasting, and above all the Filioque. At Rome itself the Filioque was still not in use, but Nicolas gave full support to the Germans when they insisted upon its    insertion in Bulgaria. The Papacy, which in 808 had mediated between the Franks and the Greeks, was now neutral no longer.

While Photius was naturally alarmed by the extension of German influence in the Balkans, on the very borders of the Byzantine Empire, he was much more alarmed by the question of the Filioque, now brought forcibly to his attention. In 867 he took action.

Religion and politics have, throughout history, been closed intertwined.

Being a Vibrant Parish – 20140202

In the last issue of this article it was my desire to encourage my readers to make the reading of the New Testament an essential part of their lives. I suggest, in particular, the New Testament and, the Psalms from the Old Testament, because I believe they best help us to develop the spirituality that is coherent with our worship. While many suggest also the Old Testament, I find that they are more difficult to utilize especially when the intent is to find more ways in which to live in Christ. I would also suggest that a novice begin with the Gospels instead of the Epistles, with the exception of the three Epistles of St. John. The letters of Paul are a little more difficult to understand and, therefore, may not be as easily used to bring us to prayer.

A priest at Gonzaga University in Spokane has developed a helpful scheme for learning to pray with scripture which he calls the Five P’s. I think that he offers good hints for using the Scriptures for prayer.

The first “P” stands for Pick A Passage. There are ways of finding a good passage for prayer. One way is to read one of the gospels, beginning with chapter one, verse one, and using just a few lines until we come to a resting place, a passage that captures our attention, or seems to speak to us. Put a marker there. The next day continue from where you left off.

One of the saints found that by just flipping open the Gospels randomly and pointing at a passage was even more inspirational for using the Gospels as a source of our prayer.

My suggestion is to try several different ways to pick a passage to reflect on. Believe in the Holy Spirit. He will guide you in your desire to spiritually grow and bring you to the right text. This is a simple way to help build your trust and hope in God. Believe that He will guide you in your honest efforts to become more united to Him.

The main thing is to not pick too big of a passage. One verse or a couple of verses are enough. Then, simply read the verse(s) and ask yourself this question: What can I derive from this passage that will help me lead my life today? If it is a story, ask yourself: What can this story tell me about life (e.g., if it is about curing a blind man, what blind spots do you have in your life? Prejudice?) Don’t think about what the correct interpretation of the story is. Think about how you can relate the story to your own life, right now! That’s what is important!

A Look at the New Testament – St. Paul – 20140202

In the canon, that is the actual writings that are accepted as inspired and a part of the New Testament, the thirteen letters attributed to Paul are basically organized according to two principles: (1) the letters addressed to communities, whether they were established by him or not; and (2) to individuals. Within each of these categories, the letters are arranged in     descending order of length, from the longest to shortest. The one exception is the Letter to the Galatians. It comes before Ephesians, even though the latter is about two hundred words longer.

It is interesting that the Fathers of the Church used length as one criteria when establishing the Canon which also includes the order in which the writings are always presented.

If the letters of Paul are presented in a chronological order, the canon looks much different, as originally pointed out. If you would like to get a different perspective on Paul’s message, read his letters in the Chronological order. These seven were written before the Gospels: 1 Thessalonians; 1 and 2 Galatians; Corinthians; Philemon; Philippians; and Romans.

I would suggest, therefore, that any one desirous of studying the New Testament begin with these seven letters and then approach the Gospels and the remaining letters that are attributed to St. Paul. It does give you a new perspective of the Gospel message.

The first Christian document to be written, then, is Paul’s letter to a Christ-community in Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia, a province in northern Greece. It was written around the year 50, possibly a year or two earlier. Somewhat surprisingly, given the Jesus movement’s origin among the Jews in the Jewish homeland, the earliest Christian document is written to a    community in Europe, which was largely Gentile. The letter was written in Greek.

Meanwhile, the apostles and disciples where preaching to Jews in the Diaspora as well as the homeland. They were not, however, writing things down yet since people who knew Jesus were still alive and relating stories about Jesus to those who wanted to listen. They saw no reason, at that point in time, to write things down. They were busy sharing the Good News. They had the writings of the Old Testament, which were considered sacred. They had no intention, at that time, of replacing the Torah and books of the Jews. They used the Psalms in their worship. The idea of a separate religion from Judaism was yet to emerge. It was Paul’s reflection on the teaching of Jesus and its ramifications for living that began directing the movement in the direction of a new, reformed Abrahamic religion. Christianity is one of three “Abrahamic Religions” – Each now has its own BOOK.

Learning Our Faith from the Church Fathers / St. Gregory of Nyssa – 201400202

As I shared in the last issue of this article, there is a great difference between the East and West with regards to the “Fall” of mankind that is recorded in Genesis. Indeed, according to one Eastern Christian author, the view in the East differs from the West in several crucial respects. In opposition to the Western anthropology, influence by Augustine’s sharp polemics against Pelagius, the Eastern view of human beings and the Fall is critical of the understanding of original sin and its influences: (1) as inherited guilt; (2) as total destruction of God’s image in the human being; (3) as a sin of nature and not a personal sin of Adam and Eve; and (4) as legalistic relations of human beings with God and salvation based on Christ’s death as satisfaction of divine justice.

In the East, the cross of Christ is envisaged not so much as the punishment of the just one, which satisfies transcendent Justice requiring a retribution for the sins of human beings. Rather, the death of the Cross was effective, not as the death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord. The point was not to satisfy a legal requirement, but to vanquish death. God alone is able to vanquish death, because he alone has immortality. It is truly noteworthy that Eastern theology never produced any significant elaboration of the Pauline doctrine of justification. Even the commentaries on Romans and Galatians by the Fathers generally interpreted passages such as Galatians 3:13 (take time to look this up – to do this helps with becoming a vibrant Christian – another Bulletin article) as victory over death and sanctification of life. Understandably, the Eastern Fathers also never developed the theory of  satisfaction along the lines of Anselm’s theory.

You will recall, hopefully, that in the West the two great theories that developed were justification and satisfaction, especially among those who broke from the Roman Church – known as Protestants. Of course the West does not seem to have grasped the idea of Theosis which, I believe, is the foundation of taking this different approach to the work of God through Jesus Christ (the Cross).

   St Gregory of Nazianzus taught that God’s voluntary assumption, in the Person of Jesus, of human mortality was an act of God’s condescension by which he united to himself the whole of  humanity. He also taught that What is not assumed is not healed and what is united to God is saved. Therefore we needed a God made flesh and put to death in order that we could live again. One of the preferred images of the effects of Christ’s death in the Christian East has been medical: the cross is an antidote to the poison of corruptibility and sin.

The Spirituality of the Christian East – 20140202

The theme of the imitation of Christ occupies an important place in the history of spirituality, even though in their reaction to medieval    piety, the Reformers in the West replaced the concept of imitation, which they viewed as an arrogant human effort, with a following of Christ in response to his call.

One Eastern Christian writer has said that in the spiritual life of the Eastern Church, the way of the imitation of Christ is never practiced. Indeed this way seems to have a certain lack of fullness. It would seem to imply a somewhat external attitude toward Christ. Rather, it was his belief that Eastern spirituality may instead be defined as a life in Christ. While this may seem like just an exercise in semantics, when you consider this closely you can understand the subtle difference. It is the true spirituality of the Eastern Church that we followers should live our lives in Him. That is why, at our initiation into the Church, we sing: All you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. We are called to live in Christ.

Indeed, unlike the Greek world, which attached great importance to imitation in its philosophic reflection (Plato) or in its pedagogy (the attractive value of the example), Scripture seems to ignore the virtue of imitation. In fact, this concept is viewed from quite a different perspective: as ancient nomads, the Hebrews preferred the theme of the way, the road. Man must walk in Yahweh’s footsteps.

This reminds us that our culture greatly influences how we look at life and does influence even spirituality.  The theme of imitation is found in Pauline thought, but it seems to have been developed there mainly as an ethical ramification of a much more     fundamental principle, namely, the union of the believer with Christ, which is expressed especially by the formula in Christ (used approximately 165 times by Paul in his letters). Let us truly attempt to lead our lives in Christ.

Pastoral Prattle

With the Great Fast almost upon us, I have been thinking about what I could do in order to engage our membership in faith learning activities. In the past we tried to hold classes after our Friday evening   services. We have all come to realize that this doesn’t really work . . . by Friday evening we are all too tired to stay late. So my question is: What can we do to make the Great Fast truly a time of special learning?

I’m open to suggestions. I was going to try video podcasting but then realized that I would need more equipment than I have and would anyone watch a video if I prepared one?

What about scheduling a Day of Recollection? One day during the Great Fast.

Sunday January 26, 2014

blindmanThis weekend we finish our post-Pentecost sequence of readings. Next week we actually begin the five week sequence of pre-Lent commemorations and readings that deliver a clear message. The   message of these pre-Lent weeks pertain to the meaning of metanoia, that   process we are encouraged to engage in more intensely during the Great Fast. Metanoia deals with the process of changing our hearts and minds and opening them to God’s Spirit.

(It should be noted that frequently the word metanoia is translated in English as repentance. The English verb t0 repent or repentance does not fully connote the meaning of metanoia).

It is fortuitous, I believe, that this pre-Lent sequence is preceded by today’s readings. When you attempt to integrate the message conveyed by the Epistle and the Gospel and spiritually interpret the messages they convey, you see that they prepare us for the work of the five weeks before the Great Fast.

I believe that today’s readings exhort us to ask God to cure us of any spiritual blindness (the message of the Gospel) we might have so that we can truly believe this: God came into our world in the    Person of Jesus to save us, that is to show us how to live in order that we might experience the fullness of life and discern the true meaning and purpose of our earthly existence (the message of the Epistle). Hopefully we might join with the blind man and sincerely say with him: Lord, I want to see!

Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, which we use as our Epistle reading, writes: “You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. (We are all, by the way, sinners not because we do dumb things and are weak but because our knowledge is still incomplete and we don’t totally understand the meaning and purpose of life).

As sinners, we tend to have certain spiritual blind spots. We don’t yet see the world as God sees it – as He intended it and us to be when He created us. Our human condition, which consists of not completely and truly knowing the meaning and purpose of life, is what makes us sinners. Life is given to us in order to help us learn why we have been called to this earthly existence.

The one wonderful thing is that our Creator-God understands this and has and is giving us all the various possible opportunities for spiritual grow.

Accept whole-heartedly the fact that God loves you and cares about you.

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Learning About the Practices of Our Religion – 20140126

In the fourth century, while Arians rallied around appropriate slogans such as ‘There was a time when he (the Son) was not’, the defenders of what was to be    defined as true doctrine were led by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who adopted the term homoousios (of one substance) as the formula best suited to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father and to defend biblical faith in philosophical terms.

The Emperor could not allow the Church which he intended to be a unifying force within the Empire to be riven by doctrinal disputes. He convoked a Council of all the bishops      of the Empire at Nicaea in 325 and presided over its deliberations. Arius was condemned and Christ pronounced to be of one substance with the Father.

But the argument went on, and in the reaction against the adoption of the novel, non-biblical term homoousios the Arians seemed likely to win the day. Not until the 360s did it become clear that the Nicene party would succeed in their defense of the decision of 325. By then fresh disputes were raging over the status of the Holy Spirit, whom extreme Arians were treating as a created being, subordinate to both Father and Son. (You can guess that this, of course, led to the Eastern Church’s complete and total opposition to the Western Church’s addition of the Filioque to the Creed. The Eastern Church believed that this addition in, some way, reflected the belief that the Spirit was subordinate to both the Father and the Son). It was the three Cappadocian fathers, Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, whose Trinitarian teaching was approved at the Council of Constantinople in 381, clearly defining true Christian belief. God is one ousia, or substance, and three hypostaseis, or persons: The Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God: yet there are not three Gods, but one God. It was an affirmation of faith demanded by the biblical revelation and the Christian experience of God. (Remember that monotheism – belief in one God – was seen as an advancement over the polytheism – many gods – that much of the known world believed existed).

These Trinitarian disputes left their permanent mark on Eastern worship, particularly in the doxologies with which liturgical prayers concluded. The early Christian tradition had been to pray to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. But this tradition had been cited by the Arians in support of their teaching that the Son was subordinate to the Father. Hopefully the picture is becoming clearer!supper_01