Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nativity Fast

Today marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast.  A common objection I hear to fasting, mostly from Protestants, is that it is fine "as long as you don't think you're earning anything by it."

It is with that in mind that I read with marvel this morning the Epistle reading for today.  Each day my homeschooled children, my wife and I begin the day by saying morning prayers, after which the children and I go through the readings of the day, the life of a saint of the day, and a short Bible study.

Today, the reading was Colossians 2:20-3:3.
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules:  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?  These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
On the day we begin fasting, St. Paul is instructing us not to follow the rules of this world.  Not to say "Do not handle!  Do not taste!  Do not touch!"  Why, on this day of all days, does the Church choose this passage?  Precisely because we do not believe we are earning anything by fasting.  Actually, the opposite is true.

As St. Paul teaches us, our fasting is not to follow legalistic rules to earn heaven or favor with the Father.  Rather, fasting is to teach us to deny ourselves, and our inability to fast properly, in humility, with right attitude, and to put neighbor above self teaches us precisely that we cannot earn heaven or favor with God by fasting or anything else.  This is made most clear in the Gospel reading for today, Luke 14:25-35:

Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. 
“Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
Here, Jesus teaches us that we must hate our father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even our own lives.  What does this mean?  Why does the Church give us this message on the day we begin fasting?  To show us the life Christ has given us to live, and to show us the magnitude of our inability to live it apart from Him.  "[W]hoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple."  This is what bearing the cross looks like.  Does it seem outrageous that one would be willing to lose father, mother, children, brothers and sisters?  How much more outrageous that one would give up his own life?

Jesus is teaching us to deny ourselves.  Not to earn heaven or favor with God, since sin is "missing the mark," and the mark is Christ Himself.  No, denying ourselves is precisely what it means to be Christian, because Christ denied Himself on the cross, gave His own life for the life of the world.  He denied Himself that we might live, and so we deny ourselves that we might learn (in however small a measure) to live in Him and not of ourselves.  So it is that as the Church begins the first of the Church's four fasting seasons, she has given us the wisdom of Jesus to deny ourselves (in much greater measure) and follow Him, and the wisdom of His Apostle to place no great weight on our doing so.  St. Paul puts quite a nice punctuation on this juxtaposition:
These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
Indeed.  May your Nativity fast be a blessed one, with your hearts set on things above and not on earthly things.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Election Post-Mortem

I did not post any political commentary before the election, and ordinarily I would not after the election.  What prompts me to write today is the horrific scene I see from my fellow men, on both sides of the aisle.

Putting my cards on the table, I did not vote for President-elect Trump.  I also did not vote for Secretary Clinton.  I voted for Gary Johnson, primarily because I think the country needs a new voice.  The proof of that, in my mind, was the two major party candidates we had to choose from.  This is not a new sentiment on my part.  I haven't voted for a Republican since George W. Bush in 2000 (notably, I voted Libertarian for all of those as well, though I seriously considered voting for Sen. Kerry, in 2004, thwarted mostly by the fact that I lived in a state such that my vote for him would have done no good, something that is also true in 2016).

As a sidenote, readers of this blog know I do not heavily moderate comments, but I will remove any comments indicating to me that I wasted my vote or that my third-party vote is responsible for Mr. Trump winning over Mrs. Clinton.  Both because I disagree and because that issue is tangential to what I wish to discuss.  I offer my own voting history as background for a larger point.

With that said, I still remember 2008.  I did not vote for President Obama.  I did not support President Obama and I disagreed with most of his policies.  However........however.......I defended him against what I saw as unfair accusations.  I defended him from those who said his connection to Rev. Wright meant he was a Marxist racist.  I defended him from those who said he was a Muslim, not on the grounds that there would be anything wrong with him being a Muslim and also being President, but on the grounds that it was 1) untrue, and 2) completely bigoted against Muslims, since it implied this supposed affiliation should be a problem.  I defended him from those who said he was not born in this country, including our current President-elect.  Why did I do these things, for someone I generally oppose in principle?  Because he is the President of the United States.

That does not mean, in any sense, that we have to hope a given president's goals succeed inasmuch as they are inapposite to our own vision for our country or our lives.  We do not have to support the President when he promotes, proposes and implements policy goals that we believe harm our country.  We can and we should vigorously oppose those who do so.  That was true of President Obama, and it is true of President-elect Trump.  I am not speaking against opposition here.  I also believe we as Christians also ought vigorously object to the life, words and actions of President-elect Trump inasmuch as they exhibit a decidedly un-Christian and immoral view of the world.  What I reject -- and what I see far too much of since last Tuesday -- is opposing the President to the point that we are no longer making principled rejections on policy grounds, or even suggesting he is an unfit person to hold the office on moral or ethical grounds, but rather opposing him simply because we did not get the result we wanted.  Opposing him because we think his "vision for America" is not what we prefer.  In other words, opposing him not inasmuch as we disagree with him, but even where we might otherwise agree with him, simply because he was not our preference.  That is what President Obama's opponents have spent eight years doing, and it is now what President-elect Trump's opponents are doing, even as we speak.

How do we know this?  Simply look at the actions and words of the loudest voices, though certainly not the majority of voices by a long shot.  Protests and rhetoric that delegitimize the Presidency.  "Not my President" (hint: he will be your President, for at least the next four years).  Violence against those who voted for the new President or, in some cases, against the property of those who just happen to be in the vicinity of the protests.  Immediate and angry denunciations of the President-elect from media figures and, not for nothing, littering my Facebook feed.  This cesspool -- not very different in kind (if, perhaps, more worrisome in scope) than the cesspool that followed 2008 -- indicates to us that we as a nation have lost the ability to accept the will of the people as expressed in free and fair elections through our chosen political process.  And how do I know this is not a one-sided phenomenon?  Simply look at President-elect Trump's rhetoric leading up the election, when he and everyone else thought he was going to lose.  "He started it" is not an excuse I accept from my children, and I don't accept it now, but I do offer it as evidence that both sides of the political divide have a serious problem simply accepting that their preferred candidate lost.  This is not new, but it is worsening.

Let me also take a moment to also acknowledge and denounce the violence and violent and hateful rhetoric from some Trump supporters since the election.  Though some of those have turned out to be staged hoaxes, and though such rhetoric is largely tangential to my point since I am speaking to the larger issue of acceptance of free and fair elections, I have no doubt at all that some of it, perhaps most of it, is absolutely true.  Not for nothing, it is also expected given the acerbic campaign President-elect Trump ran.  I write this even though it is tangential to my point, only because I do not want anyone to think I denounce the actions of a small minority of opponents of the President-elect and yet ignore the actions of a small minority of his supporters.  And as above, I think it is completely fair to note that President-elect Trump has invited a large measure of this with his own rhetoric, and to criticize him on that point.

Our nation is built, in part, on the promise of free and fair elections.  That means that oftentimes we find ourselves living in a country led by people who do not share our core values.  Who are even completely opposed to our core values.  Many of us felt that way about President Obama.  I did.  And yet I felt compelled to defend him.  I felt compelled to not have the nation's verdict on my own policy preferences turn me into someone who would delegitimize the Presidency itself.  Where I opposed him on policy, I said so.  Where I did not, I congratulated and praised him.  Such is the hard reality of self-rule.

And yet, as Christians, we believe God is in control.  "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help."  Psalm 146:3 (MT).  Ultimately, I observe that we are a faithless people.  Two separate friends have recently noted that in our collective inability to accept the outcomes of free and fair elections, there is evidence that we have traded a Christian worldview in this country for an essentially Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic view.  We believe that this world is essentially bad, but there is an ideal world within our reach, but it cannot be realized without worldly power to bring it to fruition.  This utopian fantasy cannot be realized if the wrong people win elections and achieve worldly power, because its potentiality is only seen by some (usually, those who agree with us).  When our side loses the race for worldly power, we do not know how to react.  We believe the frustration of this utopian purpose is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand, and so we refuse the legitimacy of the outcome, as the outcome itself is deemed immoral and unacceptable.   As my friend Perry Robinson from Energetic Procession noted on Facebook, speaking of the current protests against President-elect Trump, "this is why their rhetoric is hyper moralistic and puritanical, to the point of making Pharisees blush at their self righteous smugness."  I go a step further -- I believe very firmly that this is a problem on both sides of the political aisle, for reasons I articulate above.

The Christian worldview, contra the above view, is that worldly power cannot overcome the Kingdom of God.  The most glaring and obvious manifestation of this is Pilate.
Therefore, when Pilate heard that saying, he was the more afraid, and went again into the Praetorium, and said to Jesus, “Where are You from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.
Then Pilate said to Him, “Are You not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?”
Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”  (John 19:8-11).
Jesus was not simply facing the prospect of having his preferred candidate out of office and not being able to impose his utopian vision of the world on others around Him.  No, Jesus was facing the wrath of the the office itself -- the religious authorities, the public authorities, and even the overwhelming weight of public opinion.  And they were not going to institute policy goals that Jesus disagreed with to the point His feelings were hurt.  Instead, they were going to flog, scourge and beat Him, then nail Him to a cross to slowly and in agonizing fashion torture and kill Him.
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd, so that he should rather release Barabbas to them. Pilate answered and said to them again, “What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?”
So they cried out again, “Crucify Him!”
Then Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?”
But they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!”
So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified.  (Mark 15:11-15).
It should be obvious by now that Christians do not seek victory in worldly authorities.  Christ didn't.  For Jesus, the governor, the chief priests and even the public at large were completely against Him.  And yet this was the stage for His greatest glory.  Christ defeated sin, death and the devil not by removing Pilate and getting a better governor to force the assembled crowd, the chief priests and the elders to live under His vision for mankind by the sword.  Christ defeated sin, death and the devil by submitting Himself to those same authorities,  dying on the cross for the life of the world and rising again on the third day.  Moreover, and quite notably, Christ did not react with violence, or even indignation, to His fate.  His Kingdom is not of this world.  And because He is in us and we in Him, neither is ours.

Viewing political candidates as enemies of God or enemies of the common good requires that we walk away from the Scriptures and strike out our own path.  For we are told in the Scriptures that the worldly authorities are appointed by God for peace, good order, and for our protection.  To serve us.  That some worldly authorities do not recognize this, or even seem to act against it, does not change this truth.  One might consider poor rulers as an act of Fatherly chastisement -- a Scriptural twist on the old saying "we get the government we deserve."

St. Paul writes:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.  (Romans 13:1-7).
This is true of President Obama.  It is true of President-elect Trump.  It would have been true of Secretary Clinton had she won.  It will be true even if the office of the President of the United States is occupied by a despot and a tyrant.  Would that we would all act like it.

The Christian Church is not immune to persecution, even from worldly leaders.  We do not seek it out, but we are not immune to it.  I do not mean "persecution" in the sense too many in this country mean it -- that people disagree with us and say mean things that hurt our feelings.  I mean real persecution.  Through her history, the Church has been persecuted under the rule of the Turks, Communists, and otherwise.  Oftentimes, various Christians factions have persecuted each other, one reason the Great Schism persists to this day, I believe.  There is no guarantee that she will not face persecution now or in the future.  Our brethren in the Middle East are being persecuted horribly as I write this, for example.  If anything, Christ's words to us seem to foreshadow persecution, since He came not to bring peace but a sword, etc.

How much more is it true, then, that we have no cause to think that the loss of an election is the loss of our freedom, our way of life, our utopia.  There is no utopia this side of heaven.  Put not your trust in princes.  Return to a Christian worldview that recognizes that even in times of trouble, God is in control and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the Gospel.  And above all, be kind to others.  Most especially our new President.  He too is redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  Let us all act like it.

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,...as the Church has received... as the teachers have dogmatized,...as the Universe has agreed,... as Grace has shown forth,...as Truth has revealed,...as falsehood has been dissolved,...as Wisdom has presented,...as 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.