Saturday, September 17, 2016

Prayer from our Archdiocese on the Fifteenth Anniversary of 9/11/01

The following prayer was said after the Prayer Before the Ambon last Sunday in churches all around our archdiocese.

"O Lord our God, Who art Thyself, the Hope of the hopeless, the Help of the helpless, the Savior of the storm-tossed, the Haven of the voyager, the Physician of the sick; be all things to our land which fifteen years ago on this date was devastated by the cowardly and hateful acts of false martyrs; who imitated wicked Herod in his slaughter of the 14,000 innocents. To those who lost loved ones, grant the comfort thou didst impart to Mary and Martha before Thou didst raise their brother Lazarus from the dead, and care for them as Thou didst care for Thy Mother from the Cross, putting her in the care of the Apostle John. To the survivors, grant healing in every sense, as thou didst strengthen and heal the confessors. To those related to and aiding the survivors and the families of the fallen, grant the strength and compassion Thou didst instill in Thine adopted father Joseph, who was Thy guardian in Thine earthly youth. To those who died, grant remission of their every sin in Thy great compassion; both to those who like the wise servant and the wise virgins, constantly prepared themselves to enter the heavenly banquet at any hour; as well as those who emulated the Rich Fool, preferring to enjoy earthly pursuits and ignore heavenly ones. To us, grant the knowledge that while the devil still manipulates our Divinely-given free will to his own ends in this world, his power is fleeting and ultimately void, as Thou hast already crushed his dominion. And as for those who hate us, speak to their hearts as St. Procla sought to speak to her husband Pontius Pilate concerning Thee, and as Thou didst speak to Pharoah concerning the Hebrews, and so soften the hearts of those who seek our destruction. Spare, O Lord, those who protect us, the law enforcement agents and the first responders, from despondency, disillusionment, and all things which would undermine their righteous calling to protect us in the manner of our Guardian Angels, and care for us in the manner of the Good Samaritan. All this we ask of Thee our All-powerful and All-loving Savior, giving glory to Thee together with Thine unorginate Father and Thine all-holy and good and life-giving and Comforting Spirit; now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen."

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Sacred Music Institute, 2016

I am a bit late in posting this.  Unfortunately taking 5 days off to go to a music conference in Pennsylvania threw a wrench into the rest of my life that I am just now extricating.  Still, I wanted to post about the experience, because it was amazing.

Our choir director, John, and I attended the Sacred Music Institute at Antiochian Village last month.  Our priest encouraged us to do so, and we were both eager to do so, though neither of us had ever been nor did we have any idea what to expect.  It was a combination of immersion in the music of the Church and information overload.  There is no way we could make use of all of the wonderful things we were exposed to, and yet we both left wanting to learn more.  The experience itself was great, we met a lot of new friends and even some folks connected to old friends, and in some cases "friends" we knew online but had not yet met in person.  We spent a lot of time learning from Bishop Anthony and being led by various choir directors and chanters.  And we got to see how others approach the unchanging Divine Liturgy we all celebrate each week, as well as the prayer offices, as well as chanting.  It's the same -- always the same.  And yet, within that sameness there is a beautiful variety available.

John spent most of his time "auditing" classes.  I don't want to misremember, so I won't try to recall each and every class he attended, but I can say he got a lot of exposure to information about small choirs, directing, different musical settings, and the like.  I know that he was impressed with the sheer variety of musical settings available for the parts of the Divine Liturgy such as the Cherubic Hymn and the Trisagion Hymn, as was I.  I am sure there are things we will use as we go forward, things we will try that simply will not work, and things that we will not bother to try.  I'm sure there will be suggestions vetoed by our priest or other members of the choir.  Even so, it was good to be exposed to them, and I feel comfortable that as we move forward, we will find use for some of the settings we used that week.

I, on the other hand, immersed myself in Byzantine notation for chanting.  My head is still spinning, but I intend to commit myself to learning this over the next few years (yes, years).  I found it interesting to learn that so much of what we do in Byzantine chant is actually written out in the notation, something that is more difficult to do in western notation.  I also found it interesting that resources for Byzantine notation are growing exponentially, so I expect to have greater opportunities to learn as the years pass.  Most especially, I found it valuable to be exposed to incredibly skilled and learned chanters who served at the prayer offices and the Divine Liturgy, including Bishop Anthony himself.  The variety of chanters allowed me to hear different interpretations of the Byzantine performance tradition, and to hopefully improve my own chanting as I continue to grow as a reader.  Right now I'm working on the most basic of the basics -- learning the various symbols used to denote what to sing and how those notes form natural attractions to each other.  I am not really exploring microtones at this point (there are 72 different tones in the Byzantine scale), but I hope to as I firm up my ability to read the music itself.

Despite the tight schedule, which had us basically occupied from 8:00 AM until nearly 11:00 PM, I managed to take some time away with the folks from the Byzantine notation classes to practice chanting and reading notation.  That is something I wish we could have done more of, because the practical aspects of chant practice are hard to learn when you have no time in the schedule and only sleeping and eating apart from the schedule.  As it is, we simply skipped some of the choir practice for the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy to make time to practice chanting.

This brings me to another great benefit of this conference -- the marriage of Byzantine chant with more modern choral arrangements.  We had the opportunity to celebrate the Divine Liturgy every day, using a different setting each day.  One of those was a traditional Byzantine liturgy, but the rest were choral arrangements.  And yet even within the choral arrangements, there was opportunity for the chanters to do the more traditional chanted pieces, especially for Vespers or for the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, which was preceded by Orthros.  It was a beautiful and seamless joining of the older with the newer, and yet was still done in perfect reverence and with utmost beauty.

I hope to return next year if possible, and I would recommend that anyone interested in the music of the Church likewise attend.  It was a valuable week for us.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sunday of Orthodoxy

Our girls in 2011 on the Sunday of Orthodoxy
with the icons of their patron saints
Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the triumph of Orthodoxy, the victory of those in the Church who rightly venerate icons over the iconoclasts.  This victory was complete at the Second Council of Nicea in 787, where the entire Church condemned the iconoclasts.  We celebrate by processing around and outside the Church holding icons, in the case of my family, the icons of our patrons, St. John the Theologian, St. Stephanie of Spain, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, St. Catherine the Great and St. Emmelia.  From our confession of faith today:

"As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, the Church has received... as the teachers have dogmatized, the Universe has agreed,... as Grace has shown forth, Truth has revealed, falsehood has been dissolved, Wisdom has presented, Christ Awarded,...thus we declare,...thus we assert,...thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.

This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe."

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Forgiveness Vespers

In going back through the blog (I can't believe we're going into our sixth year!) I am a little surprised I have never posted about one of the most beautiful services in the Orthodox Church - Forgiveness Vespers.

Falling on Cheesefare Sunday (the day we stop eating dairy products until Pascha), also known as Forgiveness Sunday, the Church holds a Vespers service in the afternoon following the Divine Liturgy.  The service is intended to usher in Great Lent, and draw the Church into a season of repentance, fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  It begins as a normal Vespers service, but during the Prokeimenon, the paraments are changed from gold to purple, the lights are dimmed, and Lent begins.  The service then takes on a more penitential tone.

However, the real beauty comes at the end of the service.  The choir sings the Paschal Canon, foreshadowing the feast to come, and culminating in the Paschal hymn "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"  As this hymn is sung, each parishioner goes around the parish one-by-one greeting every other parishioner with the petition "forgive me, a sinner."  Each parishioner then responds "God forgives" and repeats the petition to the first.  This means that by the time Forgiveness Vespers is over, each member of the congregation has both asked for and received forgiveness from every other member of the congregation.  As it is customary to go to confession prior to the start of Great Lent, this means that each and every parishioner has been expressly forgiven by God and each and every other parishioner prior to the start of this penitential season, which is why tomorrow is called "Clean Monday."

Father Alexander Schmemann wrote regarding Forgiveness Vespers:
Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.
So it is that the request for forgiveness is answered not merely with "I forgive you," but with "God forgives," a hearkening to the Lord's prayer, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." We remind ourselves and each other that we hold nothing against the other, because God forgives us.  As the Scripture says, "we love because He first loved us."

As best I can tell, this is a ritual unique to the Orthodox Church.  When we feast, we feast, and when we fast, we fast, and Lent begins with the ultimate fast, as we start Great Lent by fasting from holding our sins against each other.  We forgive, freely, as God forgives, freely.  And in so doing, we love, freely, as God loves, freely.  

Forgive me, a sinner.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

O Lord save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance

Granting to Thy people victory over all their enemies

And by the power of Thy cross, preserving Thy Kingdom

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Church, the Culture, Tolerance, Repentance and Love

Crowning, June 2013
I've been disappointed in much of what I have read online the past few days in the wake of the Supreme Court's historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage, which was handed down two days after the 20th anniversary of my own marriage and the 2nd anniversary of our Crowning in the Orthodox Church.  The disappointment is directed more toward the fringe extremes on both sides of the issue, though the same concerns seem to seep into the more murky middle as well.  The following encapsulates my specific concerns, and my thoughts on the issue as pertains specifically to the Orthodox Church.

To those disappointed in the Supreme Court's decision, I understand your concerns.  However, the tone and tenor of some of those concerns are both overblown and frankly ill considered.  I have seen everything from calls for like-minded states to secede from the Union, to claims that clergy will be "persecuted" by the government, to claims that our nation is now beyond hope, to claims that our country has abandoned God.  My response: settle down.  It seems to me a call to secede only goes to further the (IMHO, false) claims of those who slander those opposed to same-sex marriage by claiming they are no different than racists in the 1950s who opposed integration.  It also is quite an apoplectic response to what just happened.  Likewise the claims that clergy will be persecuted for not performing same-sex marriages.  In addition to suggesting the free exercise clause would forbid this, allow me to also submit that this country knows of no real persecution based on religion.  Our brethren are currently being beheaded, raped, burned and drowned in the Middle East.  And you feel persecuted because the government might remove your tax exemptions or people might shun you or treat you poorly based on your beliefs?  If the Church can withstand the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire, Islam and the Bolsheviks, we'll manage just fine in this brave new America.  Let us be glad to be so "persecuted" for the sake of Christ.  As for the claim that the country is now finally spinning down the tubes, this is the straw that broke the camel's back for you?  Beginning with the Court's decision in Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), the Supreme Court has steadily increased Federal power at the expense of the state and local governments and the individual.  This is simply another extension of that ever growing power.  Beyond that, as a society, we have sanctioned the killing of our unborn, no fault divorce, sexual liberation to include cohabitation and, let's just be honest, serial bed hopping.  And all of this by heterosexuals.  Do you really think allowing same-sex couples to get married is the one thing that finally will send our country into the moral sewer and violate the sanctity of Holy Marriage?  Christians have been looking the other way as sexual sins go on right under our noses for decades now.  I would suggest this outcome is a natural result of our society's lax views on marriage and sexuality, not to mention the sin that infects us all.  And honestly, I don't think this is the end, but merely a step along the way.  The same logic that commands same-sex marriage to be recognized will inevitably lead to polygamy and polyandry, or simply polyamory.  It could easily lead also to at least some forms of incest being allowed (after all, there may be quite good reasons why I cannot marry my sister, given the potential for harm to our future offspring, but such concerns in no way argue that I shouldn't be allowed to marry my brother or uncle).  Not only is this not the last straw, it might be barely the first.

The most ill considered of all of these concerns, however, has to be the notion that our country has "abandoned God."  In the first place, we were founded largely by deists who were not Christians except in the most nominal sense.  Thomas Jefferson was a rank heretic.  Washington, by all accounts, did not commune in his Anglican parish.  Adams was a Christian, but he is more an anomaly than representative.  Putting "In God We Trust" on our money and "under God" in the Pledge does nothing to save our pluralistic, watered down civil religion from its own trappings.  Put simply, we are not a Christian nation, and we never were.  Further, our system of government is set up precisely to avoid making Christian doctrine into law.  And for good reason -- as an Orthodox Christian living in the heart of Evangelical and Teetotaler country, I have no desire to let the majority Christian denominations determine what I may and may not do.  I am not, and ought not be, bound by their doctrine.  Thankfully, we have the establishment clause, which forbids government from legislating based on religious doctrine.  I've long said that if the only argument against same-sex marriage is that God disapproves, then it not only ought, but must be allowed in the United States.  If that's the best argument that can be made, then prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying is unconstitutional, and every Christian ought to support the Court's decision, since the alternative is to have your religious beliefs trumped by the religious beliefs of others.

This brings me to those elated by the Court's decision.  First, congratulations.  In our country, we make our arguments, we vote, we submit our laws to the courts and we agree to abide by the outcome, whether it is through the direct democratic process, representative legislation or Court decree.  The Court has ruled.  There are reasons for all of us, you included, to be concerned about how the Court got to its decision, but the simple fact is you won.  Your arguments carried the day.  

I have seen far too many of you, however, dancing on the proverbial graves of those you defeated.  Including callous and frankly intellectually dishonest suggestions that everyone who disagrees with you is bigoted and evil.  I've seen this from a lot of sources, but this one from Gawker (I refuse to link to it and support the author with web hits) might be the worst (warning: severely foul language follows):

I can’t help but be happiest, though, about the defeat of the anti-marriage equality crusaders. The defeat of people who signed up to lose, who wasted their time and ours on a platform of animus and contempt. The defeat of people who put principle over the practical, who fought to preserve their limited understanding of an already imperfect institution over the actual human lives that would benefit from it. The defeat of people who did what bigots do: discriminate, vilify, fear-monger, argue irrationally and without respect to human dignity, and then bristle when they’re called out for what they are (bigots).

The jig is up. The world has turned and left you fuming, seething, weeping. Fuck you, Mike Huckabee. Fuck you, Bryan Fischer. Fuck you, Maggie Gallagher. Fuck you, Ben Carson. Fuck you, Fox News. You should all feel like assholes because you are all assholes. And now you’re also, definitively, losers. And it feels incredible.

Thus, "tolerance" dies (more on that infra).

While this language and forceful hatred is unusual, the sentiment is not, and I would like to see such nonsense stop.  There are people who have real, honest concerns about same-sex marriage, particularly in light of how we got there, determining that childbearing is no longer related to government's interest in marriage.  And you too, dear reader, might find yourself on the wrong end of that stick one day.  After all, it has not taken very long for "keep the government out of our bedrooms" to meld into "we want the government to sanction our private relationships."  You may live to regret that decision down the road.  Those who had concerns about the path that took us here are not all your enemies.  They are not all "bigots."  They are not all evil.  Some of them (many of them) simply disagree with you and have concerns. Please refrain from lumping them all into the same box with the Westboro Baptist Church (we mainstream Christians despise them too, after all), the better to flog them with your derision and hatred.

Which brings me to "tolerance."  The scare quotes are intentional.  Tolerance means being willing to live alongside those who disagree with you.  The greater the disagreement, the more tolerant one is to abide it.  What passes for "tolerance" anymore, however, is better described as "agree with me or else." The most intolerant, bigoted, hateful comments I have seen following the Supreme Court's ruling, and honestly preceding it, are those which claim that no dissent is legitimate.  No concern is honest.  All disagreement on this issue is bigoted and hateful.  This is not tolerance.  It is hateful.  Shame on those of you who think, speak and act this way.  You are what you pretend to despise.  And when your own rhetorical smears are turned against you on an issue you care about, you deserve whatever you get, because you set the rules of debate.  Be careful the poison you pick.

So ……… how does the Church deal with all of this?  I would submit, no differently than it ever has.  The Church does not and will not bless same-sex relationships with the Sacrament of Marriage.  Full stop.  Those who think that given enough public shaming and name calling and so forth, the Church will do an about face on this issue are sadly mistaken.  And while I cannot speak for the Roman Catholic Church, I feel quite comfortable saying the same is true of that communion, and collectively, we comprise roughly three-quarters of the world's Christians.  Both communions believe, and have always believed, that Christ, the Apostles, the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers taught that same-sex activity is sin.  The Church has held the same view on this issue for 2000 years, and it is not in the Church's nature to change its doctrine.  Given the fact that our aforementioned brethren in the Middle East are willing to have their heads sawn off rather than denounce Christ and His Church, it is unlikely that rude manners and petty childish behavior will bend the Church to change on this issue.  Given our ecclesiology, where each bishop is bound in love to his brother bishops, to teach the truth as handed down and never change the doctrine he received, those hoping for the Church to come around on this issue will be waiting into eternity.  This is what we believe, what we have always believed.  Get used to it.

However, steadfast though she is, it must be said that the Church does not condemn homosexuals, nor advocate hatred toward homosexuals.  As Father Andrew Stephen Damick has said:

When my gay friend asked me whether I was required to hate her, I told her no. She asked me why. I told her it’s because, even though I see homosexual activity (though not identity) as sinful, I believed my own sins were far worse than hers. It’s true. I really do. And I am (by choice) bound by my faith commitments to believe that, to see myself as the “chief of sinners.” I confess that every time I am about to engage in the most central act of my faith—receiving Holy Communion.

Father Andrew refers to the pre-communion prayer all Orthodox Christians pray before going to the chalice:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
So while we do say homosexual conduct is sinful, we do not condemn homosexuals, even practicing homosexuals, much less condemn them to eternal damnation.  Instead, we place them behind us as sinners.  This is something that is not well understood, so much so that I have had lengthy discussions with people who, after literally hours of discussion, remain outraged that we see homosexuals as "sinners."  Well, get in line.  Behind me.  We see everyone as a "sinner."  No one escapes that judgment.  Nor do we pretend that those with same sex attraction are qualitatively different than we are, other than of course being lesser sinners than me.  Same sex attraction or activity is no different than the sin I commit every time I linger my eyes on a woman other than my wife.  Except, of course, that my sin is worse.  Worse because I am betrothed and wed to another.  Worse because I do it more often than I should.  Worse because I hold a clerical office in the Church.  Worse because I am to worry about my own sins and not those of my neighbor, so I commit the sins of self-love and pride when I judge my neighbor and excuse myself.  Moreover, we believe that sexual activity or attraction within heterosexual marriage can also be sinful.  Both when we seek out that activity selfishly and when we selfishly deprive our spouse of that intimacy.  So when we say we are worse sinners than you, please believe we mean it.  Because we really believe that we are.

The practical application of this within the Church is one of pastoral concern.  Meaning, for the most part, the communion status and standing in the Church of a gay Orthodox Christian is to remain between him or her and his or her priest and, by extension, his or her bishop.  It is to be dealt with in confession and with guidance by a competent spiritual father.  We do not interfere in that relationship between priest and penitent any more than we would interfere in any other person's relationship if we were aware they were greedy, or lustful, or prideful, or vainglorious, or whatever.  I do not ask my priest why so-and-so is allowed to commune while he/she does this, that or the other sin.  I will not ask my priest why one of my gay brethren is allowed to commune either.  It is none of my business.  The state of repentance of the homosexual is something for the homosexual to sort out with his spiritual father.  I have my own concerns to deal with, my own sins to confess and repent of, and I hope no one goes behind my back asking our priest why I am allowed to commune, chief of sinners though I be.

In short, the charge for us as Orthodox Christians is to remember our place in the world.  We call all to repent, and to get in line behind us in that endeavor.  We see ourselves as chief among sinners, and we are to defend and speak well of our neighbor instead of slandering him.  This means that when my neighbor is slandered for being a homosexual, I must defend him.  I must stand between him and those who accuse him and lay my own sins bare, for they are worse than his.  I must speak well of him and demand that others do the same.  I must refuse to allow him to be mistreated, or marginalized, or slandered.

And when he comes to me asking what he must do to be saved, I must point him to the Church and invite him to repent.  Lord grant that he will love me as much if I am ever able to put aside my pride and ask the same of him, for my sins are worse and my need is greater.  Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Great and Holy Pascha: Agape Vespers

Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee from before His face.
Today Christ, our saving Pascha, hath been revealed unto us a noble Pascha; the Pascha new and holy; the mystical Pascha; the Pascha all august; the blameless Pascha; the great Pascha; the Pascha of the faithful; the Pascha which openeth unto us the gates of paradise; the Pascha which sanctifieth all the faithful.

As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish; as wax melteth before the fire.
O come from the vision, ye women, heralds of good tidings, and say ye unto Zion, Receive from us the glad tidings of the joy of the Resurrection of Christ. Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and leap for joy, in that thou beholdest Christ the King like a bridegroom come forth from the grave.

So let sinners perish at the presence of God, and let the righteous be glad.
When the ointment-bearing women stood, very early in the morning, before the tomb of the Life- giver, they found an angel sitting upon the stone. And he cried out unto them, saying: Why seek ye the Living among the dead? Why mourn ye the Incorruptible amidst corruption? Go, proclaim the glad tidings to His Disciples.

This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad therein.
The joyful Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord, the Pascha all majestic hath shone upon us! The Pascha in which we embrace one another with joy! O what a Pascha, delivering from sorrow! For today from the tomb, as from a chamber Christ shone, and hath filled the women with joy, saying: Proclaim the glad tidings to the Apostles.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Today is the Day of Resurrection! Let us shine with the Feast! Let us embrace one another. Let us say, Brethren! And because of the Resurrection, let us forgive all things to those who hate us, and in this wise, exclaim: Christ is risen from the dead; trampling Death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!