The Spirituality of the Christian East — 20170507

The goal of Eastern Christian spirituality is a mystical life of union with God. The path that leads to this union includes the ascent that leads to this peak. As such, this path is different than the peak; yet it is organically connected to it, in the same way as the ascent of a mountain is to the peak. Only by prolonged effort, by discipline, can the state of perfection and mystical union with God be reached. Efforts that don’t contribute to this crowning, this final moment of ascetic discipline (i.e., the practice characterized by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence for religious reasons included typically in such discipline in the East is fasting) or to the mystical union with God, seem to be without purpose.

The connection between ascetical discipline and the mystical union with God is also closer than that between the path and the goal. Even though the living of that union is realized at the final end of ascetical efforts, its aura begins in the soul beforehand, along with them.

Christian perfection therefore requires a whole series of efforts until it is attained. The Apostle Paul compares these strivings with the training that athletes employ to get in shape in order to sin. Without referring to the word asceticism, St. Paul used the image of the ancient physical exercises to characterized the efforts made by the Christian to reach perfection. Clement of Alexandria and Origen later introduced the terms of asceticism and ascetic. Little by little in the East they gained a monastic coloring. Monasteries are called askitiria, places for physical training. The askitis (the ascetic) is the monk who strives to obtain perfection by observing all the rules of restraint or temperance through cleansing from the passions. Origen calls zealous Christians ascetics; theyare disciplining themselves to mortify the passions and develop good habits that lead to perfection.

Now the problem seems to be that people in our modern society don’t buy into true self-discipline. There seems to be a sense in our society that self-gratification, which is instantaneous, is what we deserve. Our society seems to disparage such things as voluntary fasting or abstaining from things. And yet history tells us that there is no other way to spiritually grow that by the use of self-discipline.

The goal of Eastern Christian spirituality is a mystical life of union with God. The path that leads to this union includes the ascent that leads to this peak. As such, this path is different than the peak; yet it is organically connected to it, in the same way as the ascent of a mountain is to the peak. Only by prolonged effort, by discipline, can the state of perfection and mystical union with God be reached. Efforts that don’t contribute to this crowning, this final moment of ascetic discipline (i.e., the practice characterized by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence for religious reasons included typically in such discipline in the East is fasting) or to the mystical union with God, seem to be without purpose.

The connection between ascetical discipline and the mystical union with God is also closer than that between the path and the goal. Even though the living of that union is realized at the final end of ascetical efforts, its aura begins in the soul beforehand, along with them.

Christian perfection therefore requires a whole series of efforts until it is attained. The Apostle Paul compares these strivings with the training that athletes employ to get in shape in order to sin. Without referring to the word asceticism, St. Paul used the image of the ancient physical exercises to characterized the efforts made by the Christian to reach perfection. Clement of Alexandria and Origen later introduced the terms of asceticism and ascetic. Little by little in the East they gained a monastic coloring. Monasteries are called askitiria, places for physical training. The askitis (the ascetic) is the monk who strives to obtain perfection by observing all the rules of restraint or temperance through cleansing from the passions. Origen calls zealous Christians ascetics; theyare disciplining themselves to mortify the passions and develop good habits that lead to perfection.

Now the problem seems to be that people in our modern society don’t buy into true self-discipline. There seems to be a sense in our society that self-gratification, which is instantaneous, is what we deserve. Our society seems to disparage such things as voluntary fasting or abstaining from things. And yet history tells us that there is no other way to spiritually grow that by the use of self-discipline.

Understanding Our Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church — 20170507

As I shared in the last issue of this article, I truly believe, and our Church exhorts us to believe, that in worship we encounter our living God. Through worship, as I shared with you, God makes Himself present and active in our time. Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection constituted the essence of His redemptive work. The narrative of these salvific actions of the Incarnate Son of God formed the oldest part of the Gospel tradition. The solemn celebrations that we just recently experienced again, are centered on these events. The divine services of Great and Holy Week, crafted long ago in continuity with the experience, tradition and faith of the first Christians, help us penetrate and celebrate the mystery of our salvation. The prayers and the ritual of these special services are meant to help us experience, in some way, these salvific acts. Of course in order to experience this we must psychologically and spiritually fully enter into these rituals. This means we must reflect upon what we pray and do.

The prototype of Pascha is the Jewish Passover, the festival of Israel’s deliverance from bondage. Like the Old Testament (OT) Passover, Pascha is truly a festival of deliverance. But its nature is wholly other and unique, of which the Passover is only a prefigurement. Pascha involves the ultimate redemption – deliverance and liberation of all humanity from the malignant power of death – through the death and resurrection of Christ. Pascha is the feast of universal redemption.

Of course a person can only experience this if he has a sense of being in bondage – limited and captive to the things of this world. The fears that we have as humans are a sign of this bondage. God has indeed freed us even from the fear of death.

Our earliest sources for the annual celebration of the Christian Pascha come to us from the second century. The feast, however, must have originated in the apostolic period. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine otherwise. The first Christians were Jews and obviously conscious of the Jewish festal calendar. They truly could not have forgotten that the remarkable and compelling events of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection occurred at a time in which the annual Passover was being observed. These Christians could not have failed to project the events of the passion and the resurrection of Christ on the Jewish festal calendar, nor would they have failed to connect and impose their faith on the annual observance of the Jewish Passover. St. Paul seems to indicate as much when writing to the Corinthians, (1 Cor 5:7-8) “purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

If and when we enter into these celebrations with a desire to become more aware of their true meaning, we will be rewarded with great insight.

Learning Our Faith From the Greek Fathers of the Church — 20170507

Athanasius the Great

In continuing Athanasius’ arguments discrediting Arius’ teachings, he reminds his reader that “my Father is still working, and I also am working (Jn 5:17). And had not the Old Testament wisdom literature averred that “when he [God] marked out the foundations of the earth, then I [God’s Wisdom) was beside him, like a mater worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:29-31).

The logic of worship, then, seems to be plain. If God’s Wisdom and Word creates, as Creator he is worthy of praise and adoration. And if God’s Wisdom and Word is worthy of the Church’s worship, he must be God, though in an ineffable, mysterious fashion.

The Arians felt that Athanasius was moving much too quickly. Did Proverbs 8 really teach what Athanasius was saying? What of Proverbs 8:22? “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” Surely if the text spoke of God’s Wisdom as created, it must have a beginning, even if that beginning was somehow before time itself. Here, at least from Athanasius’ perspective we approach the heart of the Arians’ error. Had not the apostle Paul described the Son as “before all things” (Col 1:17). Athanasius reasons that if the Son is “before all things,” the creation of Wisdom mentioned in Proverbs must be pointing to a specific purpose in the “economy” of God, that is, God’s plan for human salvation.

Clearly Athanasius believes that if we compare Scripture with Scripture, Paul with the text of Proverbs, we are driven to discover a different interpretation for Proverbs 8:22 than that of the Arians. Athanasius finds his answer in the rhyme and reason of the incarnation and Christ’s redemption of humanity.

Proverbs 8:22 does speak of God’s Wisdom as created. When did this creation take place? At the time of the incarnation, Athanasius contends, when the Word “put on created flesh.” The Wisdom of God was “created for his works,” in the sense that in the incarnation the Son becomes what we are to save us from what we have become. “If he says that he was ‘created for the works’ it is clear that he means to signify not his substance but the dispensation [incarnation] which happened ‘for his works.’

So we see that the early Church, in attempting to truly understand who Jesus IS, looked to the Scriptures and tried to find an answer there. It is clear, as we consider the arguments on both sides, that this debate evolved out of a real desire to understand Who Jesus IS. It is clear that the Arians didn’t truly believe that Jesus was God Himself incarnate. It is equally clear that the followers of Athanasius embraced the fact that Jesus was and is truly God and truly Man. They were dealing, of course, with a GREAT MYSTERY.

Reflections on the Scripture Readings for this Weekend — 20170430

On this third Paschal Weekend, the Church calls us to remember the Ointment-Bearing Women, those seven women who came to anoint the body of Jesus and carry out the traditional Jewish practices of burial. This remembrance places emphasis on one of the essential activities that true followers of Jesus Christ are called to engage in, namely that of service to others. In imitation of Jesus, followers find ways to integrate service to others into their lives. This is in accord not only with the words of Jesus but also in accord with the way He lived. Jesus told His disciples that anyone who aspires to follow Him must think of being of service to others. We truly begin to imitate Jesus when we make service to others a priority in our lives. You will recall that His entire life was dedicated to helping others. We are called to “follow” Him in this effort.

In the scriptures the seven myrrh-bearing women are named: Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James and wife of Clephas; Joanna, the wife of Chusa, who was steward to Herod Antipas; Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Suzanna; and Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. So that we might not think that service to others is something that only women are called upon to do, the scriptures also name Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemos as the persons who actually took Jesus down from the cross and buried Him. This shows us that men are called upon to also be of service to others.

While it is true that the events that are recalled during the first several weeks after Pascha actually took place in history (i.e., Christ appearing to the apostles and St. Thomas and the Ointment-Bearers going to the grave), it is important to note that they are not presented by the church in chronological order. The women went to the grave two days after the burial of Jesus while Jesus appeared to the gathering of apostles when Thomas was present, almost seven days later. This fact suggests that the church is highlighting several essential things to us by presenting these events in this sequence. The first, of course, is obvious. We are exhorted not to DOUBT the fact of the Lord’s Resurrection. The second is that we be reminded of THE WAY that we are called to live as followers of the Risen Christ. When we focus on service to others, we find that we grow in our ability to love others. Of course we must always remember that we should not expect a positive response from others when we attempt to be of service to them. Jesus and His early followers never expected anything in response to their desire to help others. If we desire to be thanked for our service, then we should not make it a part of our life. Our service must be freely given without any sort of expectation of receiving the gratitude of those helped!

Gaining a Deeper Understanding of the New Testament — 20170430

I have been sharing information about the Gospel of Mark in order to provide my readers with an understanding of the four Gospels in general. Too frequently people expect the Gospels to be pure history, only presenting the events in the life of Jesus as they actually happened. It should be remembered that before the Gospels were actually written down, they were stories about Jesus that were shared by small groups of Christians during their Eucharistic meal. Then these stories were gathered and written down in order to be documents of faith that might lead others to truly believe that Jesus came to teach humans how to live. In fact, the early Christians referred to these teachings as THE WAY.

Given Mark’s careful choice of words and also patterns, it is surely no accident that he places the scene of Jesus’ transfiguration exactly in the middle of his Gospel (9:2). The transfiguration of Jesus is Mark’s way of imaging his resurrection. On one side of this scene, Mark shows the ecstatic response of those who see the paralytic rise up from his mat and those who witness a little girl rise up from her deathbed. On the other side, he shows the ecstatic response of the women who have come to realize that Jesus himself has been “raised up.” The scene of Jesus’ transfiguration overshadows both parts of the Gospel, emphasizing god’s creative, transforming, transfiguring power to restore life.

Mark’s Gospel is sometimes called “the Gospel of the Cross,” so it is worth noting that the Lord’s Transfiguration overshadows the cross. Mark arranges events so that the scene of transfiguration follows right after Jesus speaks to his disciples about taking up the cross, and it completes his meaning. Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” Mark does not show Jesus elevating the cross for its own sake, but rather embracing it as a means to Transfiguration. In Mark, the whole teaching of Jesus is:

death-and-resurrection,

cross-and-Transfiguration.

Mark’s Gospel is truly rich in Scripture, theological in purpose, and brilliant in design and invites its readers to become followers of Jesus’ transfiguring wisdom. In practical terms, Mark clearly understands that Jesus taught His followers how to live and think. When you think of the challenges of life as an opportunity to spiritually grow, then life changes – you become transformed. The way that Jesus thought about life, how He thought about others and how He treated them, when embraced, is transformative.

Mark’s Gospel became a model for the two other Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew and Luke). They are documents that are meant to also present Jesus’ transfiguring wisdom – a wisdom that expresses clearly the meaning and purpose of life.

CALLED TO HOLINESS — 20170430

In the very last issue of the Bulletin I challenged my readers to answer the question: What do you understand as the Good News that we say God revealed to us? Each of us, if our religion is to be meaningful, must decide what the Good News is all about. The early Christians were decidedly excited about the Good News – so very excited about it that they were even willing to die rather than to discount it or deny it. Something about the Good News changed them and they courageously professed it openly, even though it meant that they would be persecuted and killed. They witnessed to their belief in the man Jesus in spite of the fact that enemies to their WAY OF LIVING did everything to stamp them out.

We must remember that the early Christians were not surrounded by great numbers of people who, after centuries of thoughtful consideration, believed that this Jesus was and is also God Himself incarnate. There was something about what Jesus taught about how to live that so emboldened them that they were willing to die rather than deny their belief in Jesus.

What was there about this Good News that so gave them this courage and do we feel the same thing about the Good News as they did?

The call to holiness is a call to discover the Good News that God has revealed to us and to allow that Good News to transform, change and transfigure our lives. We see from history that the Good News has the power to change human lives. It happened! Thousands upon thousands of people were changed by it.

The critical question that must be answered today is: Has the Good News lost it’s ability to change human lives or have humans lost their ability to discover the intrinsic value and power of the Good News? I suspect that the Good News is as powerful today as when it was first revealed to humankind. It is modern people who are lacking in their ability to become excited by the Good News and what it reveals. Think about this!

The Spirituality of the Christian East — 20170430

As I indicated in the last issue of this article, the goal of Eastern Christian spirituality is none other than living in a state of deification or participation in the divine life. This experience, strikingly expressed as a state of deification, includes first of all two general teachings:

  1. It represents the ultimate step of man’s perfection; so this supreme phase of the believer’s earthly life or the goal of his whole life is also called perfection.
  2. Deification is realized through the believer’s participation in the divine powers, by flooding him with boundless divine things.

I believe these teachings will become clearer as I continue to share thoughts on Eastern Christian spirituality – that which you and I are called to by our membership in an Eastern Christian Church.

Because this experience represents the highest step of perfection on earth, it means the normalization and supreme realization of human powers: knowledge, love, and spiritual force. Experienced by the believer, the state exceeds the limits of his powers; it is fed by divine power.

The culminating state of the spiritual life is when the believer is raised higher than the level of his own powers, not of his own accord, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. “Our mind goes outside itself and so unites with God; it becomes more than mind,” says St. Gregory Palamas.

Although I realize that at first glance this may all seem to be either frightening or impossible, it is possible because of God’s actions within the life of a person who truly desires to become united to God. It doesn’t happen by osmosis or accident. It happens when we turn our minds and hearts to the effort of becoming, in a real and true way, the children of God. Nothing is impossible for God. Indeed, true personal transformation is possible with God’s help. Of course we have to welcome God into our lives and become serious about spiritual development. God does not and will not force His way into our lives. He enters in wherever He is welcome.

God does continuously offer to become a part of our lives, however. He allows life to deliver a multitude of real opportunities to place our hope and trust in Him. It only requires that we become aware of these opportunities.

The Divine Liturgy and Our Worship of God — 20170430

The Eucharist, which is made present through the ritual of the Divine Liturgy, is truly the sacrament of the Kingdom. As one author has stated, the Mystery of the Eucharist is the Church’s ascent to the “table of the Lord, in his Kingdom.” By using ritual actions and words that try to emulate the actions and words that Jesus Himself performed on the night before He died, we are not only brought into His presence but we are joined with Him. In pedestrian terms, “we become what we eat and drink”.

What I believe is important, however, is that we see the transformation of the bread and wine within the context of the entire Divine Liturgy. Too frequently the only thing that people do is focus on the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. This, in my humble opinion, depreciates the power of the Divine Liturgy as a ritual action that can bring us into the presence of God.

Think about it. We begin the Divine Liturgy by the celebrant declaring: Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit now and ever and forever. To this all respond AMEN. The word AMEN is a Hebrew word which means “truly” or “it is true.” It always expresses acceptance of what has just been said. Jesus Himself is called “the AMEN,” the one who is faithful to His word. Its use by Jesus Himself in the Gospels is frequent and has no real parallel elsewhere. It is used to introduce solemn affirmations and adds a note not only of asseveration but also of authority. So, we declare as a group of believing people that we have gathered as a people to make God’s Kingdom real and present to us when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. It expresses our desire to truly enter into the Kingdom of God.

We are reminded of this by the fact that ICONS always stand between us and the TABLE of THRONE OF GOD. The Nave or main body of the worship area, is the Kingdom of God in time and space – in the present moment. The icons clearly remind us that in order to truly enter into the full Kingdom of God, that is the Kingdom which also exists within the spiritual dimension, we must go through a personal transformation process (This is why icons are stylized. We know that the persons they represent are human but they look different. The difference is that they have undergone personal change and transformation).

What is wonderful about the Divine Liturgy, however, is that it also clearly demonstrates that God has shown us how to undergo this personal transformation. It also clearly depicts the fact that if we are open to God’s Kingdom in the present moment, He is constantly coming from the spiritual dimension into our world to LEAD US INTO THE KINGDOM. The celebrant, who depicts God’s movements, comes from before the Throne, enters into the worship space – Nave – and processes back to the space beyond the icons which represents the spiritual dimension of the Kingdom.

Learning Our Faith From the Greek Fathers of the Church — 20170430

Athanasius the Great

I have been sharing in this article Athanasius’ arguments against Arius. Arius was the proponent of the first and one of the greatest heresies. Arianism, in Christianity, is a Christological concept that asserts that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was begotten by God the Father at a point in time, is distinct from the Father and is therefore subordinate to the Father. Arian teachings were first attributed to Arius, a Christian Priest in Alexandria Egypt. The teachings of Arius and his supporters were opposed to the theological views held by Christians, regarding the nature of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist but was begotten by God the Father. Athanasius firmly believed that the errors of Arius and his followers could be laid at the doorstep of theological and spiritual presumption. They are either asking the wrong questions or asking questions that should not be asked at all, questions such as: Why is the Word of God not like our word? How is the Word of God from God? How is he God’s radiance? How does God beget? And What is the manner of his begetting? Asking such questions is much like asking: Where is God? How does God exist? And What is the nature of the Father? It is enough merely to write down the kind of things they say, Athanasius scolds, “to show their reckless impiety. They ask such nonsensical questions as, ‘Has he free will, or not?’ Is he good from choice, of free will, and can he change, if he so will, being by nature capable of change? It is blasphemy even to utter such things.

Such questions cannot be adequately asked or answered because the human mind and its accompanying speech is inadequate for explaining the deep mystery of God. As Athanasius explains, these questions “demand to have explained in words something ineffable and proper to God’s nature, known only to him and to the Son.”

The Arians have forgotten, Athanasius believed, with whom they were dealing, a theological and spiritual shortness of memory that reflects a serious spiritual malady that Athanasius diagnosed as “a lack of reverence and ignorance of God.” When we measure God by ourselves, we will inevitably fall into error. Here the link between theology and worship become immediate and important.

Athanasius argues that Christian worship makes little sense, is indeed blasphemous, if Christ is a creature, however elevated he may be. Yet Christ must be worshiped if the Church is to remain true to the Scripture. “The whole earth,” Athanasius states, “sings the praises of the Creator and the truth, and blesses him and trembles before him.” Righty so. But who is this Creator? Does not both Old and New Testaments point to the Word, the Word now incarnate in Christ?

Understanding Our Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church — 20170430

The Pentecostarion (i.e., also known as the Flowery Triodion or Festal Triodion) is the service book of the Eastern Church that provides the texts for the moveable portions of the divine services from Pascha through the feast of All Saints (the weekend that follows Pentecost). You will recall that the Lenten Triodion is the service book of the Eastern Church that provides the texts for the divine services for the pre-Lenten weeks of preparation, the Great Lent and the Great and Holy Week. In Greek and Slavonic it is simply called the Triodion because the canons appointed for Matins (i.e., Morning Prayer) during this period are composed of three odes each. The Pentecostarion includes the following:

PASCHA – Resurrection Weekend
ANTI-PASCH – St. Thomas Weekend
MYRRH-BEARERS Weekend
THE PARALYTIC MAN Weekend
THE SAMARITAN WOMAN Weekend
THE BLIND MAN Weekend
THE ASCENSION
THE FATHERS OF THE 1ST ECUMENICAL COUNCIL Weekend
PENTECOST Weekend
ALL SAINTS Weekend

 

As you will recall, the weeks of the Triodion were originally designed to prepare potential converts for Initiation into the Church. Each week presented a different aspect of the Christian Way of Life – which is the way of METANOIA or change of heart and mind. The weeks of the Pentecostarion were originally designed to continue the religious education of the newly initiated, helping them to truly understand the WAY of living that Jesus revealed. I would like to challenge all my readers to think about these themed-weekends and attempt to determine what the Church is trying to teach us about the WAY. The Church deliberately chose these Gospel stories to teach us something. Over the next several weeks, I would like to share information about how our worship of these events came into existence.

In worship we encounter the living God. Through Worship God makes Himself present and active in our time, drawing the particles and moments of our life into the realm of redemption. He bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, who makes real the promise of Jesus to be in the midst of those gathered in His name (Mt 18.20). In our church, therefore, we do more than remember past events and recall future promises. We experience the risen Christ, who is clothed with his past and future acts. Thus, all that is past and all that is future are made present in the course of our liturgical celebrations.

Pascha, which commemorates the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is the oldest, most venerable and preeminent feast of the Church. It is the great Christian festival, the very center and heart of the liturgical year.

It is important, if we are to truly understand our Church, that we understand more about our worship.

More to follow!