Sunday, February 15, 2015

Homily for the Meeting of the Lord and the Sunday of the Last Judgment

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear brothers and sisters, one of the wonderful aspects of the liturgy is timelessness. Normally we think of time as like a line: past, present, and future. The past is consigned to oblivion and we hope or worry for the future. However, in the Church, in Christ, the divisions of time are overcome, and the past, present, and future come to dwell in one another, not as a closed circle, but morel ike an endlessly ascending spiral. Today both the past and the present come to us in the celebrations of the Meeting of the Lord and the Sunday of the Last Judgment. We are celebrating two meetings of the Lord: one in Jerusalem two millennia ago, and one at the end of time.

Let us first go to Jerusalem, to see with the eyes of faith what happened there. The temple is full of crowds coming and going, unaware that One who is greater than the temple is present. Christ was brought to the temple in accordance with the divine command to Moses: “Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is Mine.” His holy Mother also presented two turtle-doves in order to purify herself, for the Law of Moses also stated that a woman is considered ritually impure for forty days after giving birth. Thus, this feast is often called the “Purification of the Virgin,” which is why we are wearing blue vestments.

Although the Child and His Mother followed the Law, they did not have to submit themselves to it. Just as the Son out of His own free will humbled Himself and took the form of a man, He also submitted Himself to the Law which He Himself had issued. As for the Mother, she conceived and gave birth to her Son in a miraculous way, through the Holy Spirit, and had no need for purification. Tradition tells us that the High Priest, sensing the purity of the Theotokos, put her in the court reserved for virgins, which enraged the Pharisees.

At the Temple, there was a holy elder named Simeon who knew that this little infant was indeed the Christ, the Lord of all. He took up the child into his frail arms, and said: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

There came another woman, a prophetess named Anna, who stayed in the Temple and prayed to God night and day. She also recognized the Christ-child, and preached of Him to everyone in earshot. Why were these two, Simeon and Anna, able to recognize Christ? It was through the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who was with Simeon, and which told Him that he would not see death until he saw the Christ. Simeon waited patiently, faithfully, never losing hope that he would see the promised Messiah. Likewise, the prophetess Anna also had the Holy Spirit and prayed constantly. Without the Holy Spirit, we fail to recognize Christ and become like the Pharisees, who were so blind that they could not acknowledge the miracles of Christ as the work of the Spirit and instead said it was the work of the devil.

When Simeon blessed the Mother of God, he told her: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” This prophecy was partially fulfilled in the Crucifixion of Christ, which indeed pierced the heart of His Mother. Moreover, this prophecy will be fully fulfilled at the Second Coming. Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and the thoughts and deeds of all will be revealed.

Thus, coming from Jerusalem, let us now stand with fear and trembling at the Dread Judgment Seat. A hymn from yesterday evening’s Vespers tells us: “The trumpet shall sound and the graves be opened: all mankind will arise in trembling; the righteous will rejoice, as they receive their reward, but the wicked will depart to eternal fire with wailing and horror.”

And as we stand before the Judge, what will He say to us? In today’s Gospel, the Lord presents a parable which describes the Last Judgment. To the righteous He will say: “I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in . . .” When asked by the righteous where and how He was fed, and given drink, the Son of Man answers: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” The unrighteous, on the other hand, did the opposite, thus Christ says to them: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels . . . Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

My brothers and sisters, the image of Christ is not only seen in the Holy Icons, for we—human beings—are all created according to His Image. In this church we rightly venerate the holy icons, which are made of wood and paint. We should also venerate the living icons of Christ, especially the poor, for Christ was born and lived in poverty. Rich or poor, great or humble, nice or annoying—we are all cut from the same cloth and go to the same end. Why, then, do we complain about each other, do evil to one another, or fail to recognize the divine image in one another?

During the Great Fast, let us also, alongside prayer and fasting, do good to one other, and overcome the divisions between us. Through loving our neighbor we will rejoice and reign forever with Christ the Lord, Who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is due all honor, glory, and dominion, unto the ages of ages.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Early Monastics (Today in Class)

Today in Patrology class, we discussed monasticism in the early centuries of the Church, focusing on St. Anthony the Great and St. Ammon.

St. Anthony (ca. 251 – 356) was born in Egypt, and he and St. Ammon are considered the fathers of Egyptian monasticism. Although ascetic practice is as old as the Church, St. Anthony is regarded as the first prominent monk. His life was written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, also known for the work On the Incarnation.

As a young person, St. Anthony loved attending church services and hearing the Scriptures; although he could not read or write, he knew the Scriptures by heart. While in church, he heard the words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). He left his sister in the care of a group of Virgins (like proto-nuns) and became an ascetic.

At first he was under the tutelage of a hermit, but around 285, he moved to the banks of the Nile, and found a tower half in ruins, where he took up cloistered residence for twenty years. Soon enough, people sought him out for spiritual counsel. At the end of twenty years, he finally left his enclosure. They expected to see some kind of emaciated mummy, but amazingly enough, his physical appearance was perfectly healthy, neither fat nor thin. He passed through the crowds as if no one was there, focused completely on God.

While cloistered, St. Anthony faced great temptations, including being actually physically accosted by demons. After this attack, the saint saw a vision of heaven, and asked God, “Where were You?” and the answer came: “I was here but I would see and abide to see thy battle, and because thou hast manly fought and well maintained thy battle, I shall make thy name to be spread through all the world.” This incident has been famously depicted in numerous scary-looking paintings which I don’t feel like posting on this blog; you can Google them yourselves!

In 311, St. Anthony left the desert and went to Alexandria, one of two times when he left seclusion. He visited the Christians (still being persecuted) in prison, and himself sought martyrdom, but he did not receive the crown of martyrdom, and returned to the desert.

He did not organize a monastery, but there he had many, many disciples who lived around him. He and his disciples engaged in both manual work and prayer, “Ora et Labora,” so to speak. The most common form of manual labor was weaving baskets, mats and the like out of rushes.

In 338, he went again, this time to a Christian Alexandria, in order to confront the menace of Arianism. Despite his lack of formal education he was able through his spiritual authority and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures to refute the Arians and confirm the Orthodox in their faith. When the local governor sought him to stay in the city longer, St. Anthony answered, “Fish die if they are taken from the water; so does a monk wither away if he forsakes his solitude.”

He died around 356, at the age of 105. His many disciples contributed to the flourishing of monasticism in the Egyptian desert and the world.

The words of St. Anthony are full of practical wisdom. As Christians we need to strive to know ourselves; from there we will be able to know the virtues, which are the kingdom of God inside our hearts. Love for God comes from keeping ourselves from unclean thoughts, which come through constant inner vigilance. The main goal in life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The characteristics of his teachings are asceticism (forming the soul), morality, and some dogma (against Arianism). Compared to other Fathers, St. Anthony is quite easy to read. He did not make up a monastic rule like St. Benedict, but he did speak much about the monastic spirit. For an example of his teaching, please see his Thirty-Eight Sayings, found in the most popular collection of the sayings of the Desert Fathers.

St. Ammon (or Ammoun) was a contemporary/disciple of St. Anthony. When he married his wife (out of pressure from his uncle), they lived as brother and sister, and later separated to each life the monastic life. He lived in the desert of Nitria, where he established a monastery known as Kellia (The Cells). It was not like modern cenobitic monasteries, but the cells were placed far apart from each other, and the monks only gathered for common meals on Saturday and Sunday, as well as the common prayer, known as the Synaxis.

We have fourteen surviving letters of Abba* Ammon, which focused on moral asceticism. He stressed the importance of obtaining and maintaining the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to share with the people around you. By the gifts of the Holy Spirit he did not mean what televangelists mean today, but as St. Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23). These gifts of the Holy Spirit are obtained by giving yourself entirely over to God. We also need to love our neighbor, which begins with not holding evil in our hearts, but letting it go. Asceticism is not crushing the body, but making the body work for God.

*Abba, from the Aramaic אבא, meaning father, is commonly applied to the Desert Fathers, eg. Abba Anthony, Abba Moses, etc.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Divorce in Canon Law (Today in Class)

The All-Russian Council of 1917–1918, presided by St. Tikhon of Moscow

This is the first in a new blog post series called “Today in Class,” which will be an overview of what I learned today in class. This is a way for me to reorganize my class notes into a coherent form to share with the world.

Today in Canon Law class, we briefly went over our assigned readings, which was about what a canon was, various different collections of church canons, and important canonists.

A canon (Gk. κανών) is not like a civil law, but is more like a rule or standard which is interpreted and applied by the bishops of the Orthodox Church. There are canons applicable to only one local church (Russian, Greek, Antiochian, etc.) and canons applicable to the entire Church. These canons are basically those which have been accepted by the Seven Ecumenical Councils, both the canons formulated at the councils, and those canons of local councils which were accepted by the Council Fathers, thus granting them ecumenical status. All of these canons were put together in various compilations. The earliest we know of is the Nomocanon in 14 Chapters attributed to St. Photius the Great (9th c.). A Nomocanon is a collection of both canons and (Byzantine) civil law (nomoi). In the English-speaking world, the most famous collection of canons is The Rudder or Pedalion of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (18th c.).

In the second hour of the class, a visiting scholar from Finland discussed the change in divorce law in the Russian Orthodox Church as a result of the very important All-Russian Church Council of 1917–1918. Before, divorce was only allowed in both civil and church law under four specific cases. The Council expanded these guidelines, which are followed in our own Church Abroad. Although it was a local council which decided marriage laws, the same guidelines are generally followed in other churches.

Conservative Roman Catholics, who believe that a valid sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved in any way, would be scandalized by the Orthodox view on divorce and remarriage. However, the Orthodox view has always been that there are legitimate reasons for the dissolution of a marriage. As our Pastoral Theology instructor put it, “the Church is not giving a divorce, but acknowledging that the marriage has dissolved.” Nonetheless, the Church by no means supports divorce and remarriage, seeing them as deviations from the Gospel ideal which are only allowed out of condescension. The Church “blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth.”

Also discussed at the All-Russian Council was the question of the remarriage of priests. In the Russian Church at the time, there were many widowed young priests who wanted to remarry. Normally a priest who is widowed has to either leave the priesthood if he wanted to remarry or else become a monk. The vast majority of the widowed priests at the time were in favor of changing the laws. The canonists were also divided on the issue. The Serbian bishop Nikodim Milaš supported a more liberal view, whereas the Russian canonist S. Troitsky favored the strict view. Ultimately, priests were not allowed to remarry based on the scriptures (I Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6) and precedence of the canons. However, the council made provisions to try to help widowed priests in difficult situations because of their status.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Four states in four days

Today I would like to congratulate you all with the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity, especially the parishioners of the parish in Albany which is celebrating its patronal feast day.

It’s been a while since my last post, which recounted Holy Saturday, with a promise of Paschal joy; sadly, I never managed to get around to it! Since then, much has happened. Fourth year ended, I went to San Francisco to seek my fortune, and I managed to get a decent summer job in the city. I came back to Jordanville several weeks before the beginning of the school year. My last year.

The Thursday before the school year started, I took a trip down to Lakewood, New Jersey for the feast day of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. In addition, it was the official retirement celebration for Protopresbyter Valery Lukianov and the opening of the new Diocesan Center for the Eastern American Diocese.

I drove down with Fr. Ephraim, who was going there both to sing and to act as representative for the Seminary. He said that he had to make a speech for the banquet accepting the St. Alexander Nevsky Scholarship.

“Oh…so, who’s getting the scholarship?” I nonchalantly asked.

“Well, you are,” he said. It was quite an unexpected relief, especially since I would have otherwise had to use my summer money to pay for tuition! In addition, I am merely one of the many recipients of the scholarship. Apparently, the organizers of the scholarship are planning to expand it to help out up to twenty seminarians each year, so hopefully this will allow for more to come to the seminary.

We managed to get to the church in time to practice a little for the vigil. The choir director was the formidable Maestro Vladimir Gorbik. Although he was very strict with us, the high caliber of the singers allowed us to proceed at a quicker pace. For my part, I barely managed to hang on!

Vigil was long and festive. After vigil, Fr. Ephraim and I tried to find a place to eat, but it was already ten and many places were closed. We settled on Applebee’s, not known for its Lenten food. We ordered onion rings, fried shrimp, and other heavy food. I don’t recommend going to Applebee’s on a fasting day. After dinner, we went to our lodgings. Our host was a long-time parishioner, a very friendly and hospitable woman, who gave us an impromptu tour of her curio-filled house.

On Friday, the next morning, we drove to church, which took longer than usual because apparently Lakewood is infamous for its bad drivers. There’s even a popular bumper sticker which says “Pray for me—I drive in Lakewood.” Nonetheless, we managed to make it to the church on time.

Liturgy happened, followed by long announcements and awards, and then a cross procession round the church. By the time we had the banquet it was already two o’clock. I was a little worried, because I was planning on meeting Sophia in Albany; we were to go to Massachusetts for the weekend. When all was said and done, it was almost five when we got back on the road. Fr. Ephraim dropped me off in Albany at half past eight, where I met a long-suffering Sophia, who had spent the past few hours in Albany going stir-crazy.

“I hadn’t gone stir-crazy! I helped out at the church, listened to podcasts, and stretched,” said Sophia, who is currently sitting next to me while I type out this blog post.

Sophia and I went to Massachusetts in her grey Honda Odyssey (the “mom van” as she calls it) and arrived in Springfield, where gracious Matushka was awaiting us at Fr. Brendan Crowley’s.

On Saturday, we went to Amherst and Northampton, north of Springfield, where the knuckle-shaped mountains of the Pioneer Valley protruded from the horizon. We also went shopping for a sweater, because I was chilly. After scouring the Salvation Army racks and finding only badly-fitting, ugly sweaters, Sophia settled on a few gardening books, and was standing in line for the cashier when she spotted a brand-new grey sweater, with the sticker still on it, hanging practically in front of her. It was my size! I immediately accepted this turn of fate.

That evening, we went to St. Nicholas Church for vigil. Though the parish is said to be based in the Springfield, MA area, its new physical location happens to be across the state line in Enfield, CT. After a half-century of having their church life centered in a former store building with a spooky basement (and a pretty flower garden), the parishioners at St. Nicholas prayed and raised enough money to relocate to a newer building. Because she had been farming in Central New York all summer, this was Sophia's first visit to her childhood parish's new home.

After the morning liturgy, we joined in for coffee hour, where the parishioners had realized that the new building’s kitchen was adjacent to the yard and that food could be simply passed out through the window. Sophia and I then went to meet up with her parents, and we had a delightful time munching on Chinese food and visiting Forest Park, which had a lot of stuff in it.

Sophia: “No!!! There’s a zoo and waterfalls and ducks, and—”

Me: “A lot of stuff.”

Sophia: “Imagine if I was in Hawaii and I wrote a blog entry saying there was a lot of stuff there!”

Thus, I had been in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut over the course of four days. I am very grateful for the kind hospitality, not to mention the convivial company I enjoyed.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Great and Holy Friday and Saturday

On Thursday night, we celebrated the matins for Holy Friday. This service is very old, and can be traced as far back as Jerusalem in the 4th century. The structure of the service also follows the older pattern of matins, which was a series of sung antiphons interspersed with prayers. Here we have fifteen antiphons on the theme of the Crucifixion, as well as twelve selections from the Gospels telling of Our Lord’s Passion.

The most well-known and poignant antiphon is the fifteenth:

Today is suspended upon the Tree, He who suspended the land upon waters.
A crown of thorns crowns Him, who is the King of the angels.
He is wrapped in the purple robe of mockery, who wraps the heavens with clouds. He receives smitings, who freed Adam in the Jordan.
He is transfixed with nails, Who is the Son of the Virgin.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection!

The next morning, after the Royal Hours, I finished cleaning up the restrooms across from the bookstore, which was part of my assigned pre-paschal cleaning. Sophia, who is of course here for the weekend, volunteered to help with the eggs. One of the women asked Fr. Cyprian how many eggs they were doing. “A little less than last year,” he said, “only nine hundred.”

On Friday afternoon, we had vespers, with the removal of the winding-sheet or “burial shroud” of the Lord, which was put in the middle of the church. After that, we had a light repast in the trapeza; otherwise there was no eating or drinking.

In the middle of the night we did matins for Holy Saturday, which essentially was a funeral service. Like during a funeral, we chanted the 118th psalm, which was interspersed with verses known as the Lamentations. The service began at two o’clock in the morning and lasted until a little after five. The church was completely dark, lit only by candles. I was honestly getting so tired I was afraid that I was going to light my hair on fire!

We got enough sleep to have yet another service this morning, which is the Holy Saturday vesperal liturgy! This liturgy was originally the ancient paschal vigil; in fact, it’s technically supposed to be served much later in the day, before the traditional reading of the Acts of the Apostles and the paschal matins. This is why the vestments in the church turn white today. There are many readings from the Old Testament (15 in all) which originally served to “cover” the baptizing which went on during this time. Although we served the liturgy much earlier than prescribed in the typikon, we did follow ancient custom by serving bread and wine at the end of the service, which was quite refreshing after long days of fasting.

I got assigned to set tables for the paschal breakfast that takes place after the midnight liturgy. Putting the milk chocolate eggs and other goodies on the table made me feel sorely tempted!

But it’s just a few more hours! Tonight we will have the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the Midnight Office, and then…Pascha!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Do this in remembrance of Me...

Well, it looks like the snow’s mostly gone:

Today we had a vesperal liturgy of St. Basil the Great for Holy Thursday. This day commemorates the institution of Holy Communion at the Mystical (Last) Supper. Everyone in the monastic community was expected to commune today, so yesterday and today we had preparation prayers, and at the end of Liturgy everyone heard the prayers of thanksgiving after Holy Communion. The practice of the abbot/bishop washing the feet of twelve men, common in cathedrals, was not done here.

Also of note is that as of last night we stopped reading the long sections from the Psalter known as kathismata, which are usually done at vespers and matins (as well as the hours) in the Orthodox Church. Less psalter reading means more festivity, and when we get to Pascha we won’t have any Psalter reading at all, but everything will be sung.

The myrrh-streaming icon of the Mother of God, “The Softener of Evil Hearts” is also here at the monastery through Pascha.

Since this is a great feast, it’s also an oil/wine day. In the trapeza we had some tasty pasta drenched in olive oil. No wine, though!

The rest of the day I’ve been resting. I’ve had on average about nine hours a sleep every night this week, repaying all the sleep debt accumulated over the past semester. Also, even though the snow’s melted, it’s still cold and I don’t feel like turning on the radiator in my room because it turns it into a furnace. There’s nothing much for me to do except spend my hours under the covers and blog away…

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I'm dreaming of a white...Pascha?

The first three days of Holy Week repeat themselves to such an extent that I lose track of time. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning, the serving priest reads all four gospels, symbolizing Christ's preaching in the Temple. At ten in the morning, we serve Presanctified Liturgy. And in the evening, we have the Bridegroom Matins, which takes its name from one of the hymns we sing:
Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching, and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God, through the Theotokos have mercy on us.
There are differences on certain days. On Tuesday evening, we had the service of Holy Unction, which is commonly done during Holy Week. Seven priests anointed everyone gathered with a mixture of oil and wine, recalling both the the parable of the Good Samaritan and the epistle of St. James: “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”. By the end, our faces and hands were covered in holy oil; we wiped off the excess with paper napkins, which we disposed in a special container for “holy trash”.

Somewhere in all this, Nature greeted us with this sight:

Alas, the poor buds of Spring were swallowed up in an inverse Indian Summer (or should I say Indian Winter?). Thankfully, it looks like the snow’s melting…for now!

This morning, we gathered in church again for the rite of forgiveness. We lined up and prostrated to each other, saying, “Forgive me, a sinner!” and answering, “God forgives, forgive me!” This rite is also done at the very beginning of Great Lent. After making many prostrations to each other, it’s hard not to feel a sense of Christian brotherhood.

And after today’s Presanctified Liturgy, we did the last Prayer of St. Ephraim. The blue lights above the Royal Doors lit up, signaling the end of prostrations in church (for the most part).

It’s the home stretch!