Musings from a twilight world…

Sundry thoughts from an Eastern Catholic Priest

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The Lost Art of Fasting

Posted by Fr. Ron on February 27, 2019

We enter once again into the time of the Great Fast, that great penitential season before the celebration of Pascha, the Feast of Feasts.  In our preparations, we are always encouraged to the three pillars of penitence: prayer, fastingand almsgiving.  Two are very straightforward in explanation: we are encouraged to pray more deeply, and more often; we are to give alms to all in need.  But although we think we know what is needed in fasting, I believe that the depths of fasting have been lost on our society.  Fasting has been reduced to “What are you giving up for Lent?” It seems that all Catholics say, “I didn’t think we needed to do that anymore.”  During Lent, Western Catholics are now called to abstain from meat on Fridays, whereas that used to be true for the entire year.  Eastern Catholics are called to complete fasting and abstinence on the first day of the Great Fast and on Good Friday, and abstinence from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, whereas we used to fast and/or abstain from all meat and dairy for the entire Fast – thus the true import of Meat-fare Sunday and Cheese-fare Sunday.

Expulsion of Adam and Eve

And so, we need to rediscover fasting.  Fasting has its place in every religion in the world, from ancient times. It doesn’t matter if one is Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American or Wiccan or pagan – fasting is found in all of them.  In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, there is still a strong fasting tradition.  But Catholics seem generally to have let it go by the wayside, much to our shame.

We need to rediscover the terms.  What is fasting, and what is abstinence?  Do either necessarily entail just eating, or are there other aspects of life where it can be applied?  Abstinencetraditionally refers to certain types of food, regardless of quantity, while fastingtraditionally refers to limiting the number of meals and/or amounts of food consumed, regardless of types of food.  There can be abstinence from meat and meat products for an entire period of time, or fasting from every form of food for a period.  Most Lenten fasts, when kept traditionally, consist of only vegetables.  In our modern society, we can also abstain from certain activities, but the desirable concentration of either abstinence or fasting from food.  Why this particular point?  Other than the fact that fasting from food is the common fast throughout religions, it is in response to basic needs and desires.  No other part of our lives is so fundamental than the need to eat.  If there is one addiction that gets short-shrift in our lives it is the addiction to eating, especially in Western civilization.  No denial of any aspect of our lives upset us more than when we miss our meal.

I think the main thing that fasting from foods does is remind us of how much we are slaves to our bodies.  Hunger can be overpowering, to the point where dieters “cheat” or tell themselves they “deserve a reward for doing so well the past week.”  And we can extend this to our treatment of sin. Sinful habits and mindsets overpower our desire to be more like Christ, and we find ourselves crying out as did the holy Apostle Paul: “Indeed, I do not know what I am doing!  I do not practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, this is what I do!” (Rom. 7:15).  Fasting reminds us that in and of ourselves we can do nothing, and we are in constant need of God in our lives to overcome our sinful nature.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal to our Father’s house.  In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means ‘abstinence not only from food but from sins.’ …It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil. and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: ‘You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.’”

Many years ago, I read something from Fr, Anthony Coniaris that has stuck with me.  His analogy is: When you squeeze an orange, what comes out?  Our usual response is, “orange juice.”  But Fr. Anthony says, “No; it is whatever is inside the orange that comes out.”  In times of stress or anger, we find out what is truly inside of us.  When we get angry, do we yell at a person, or go into road rage, or say things that should not be said out loud?  If we do, we betray that what is in our heart is not peace or love but turmoil and anger.  When we are stressed at any situation, do we panic, make abrupt, and probably incorrect, assumptions and decisions, or do we take a deep breath and really examine the situation and act prudently.  Yes, it is kind of disturbing to find what is really inside us, rather than what we think is inside.  Fasting shows us who we are.  It shows our weakness and our need for diligence over our hearts, minds and words, and how we cannot do otherwise without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is only then that we can call upon Him to heal us in the very depths of who we are.

Again, Bishop Kallistos: “Fasting, then, is valueless or even harmful when not combined with prayer.”  When Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a demon, St. Matthew writes, “Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, ‘Why were we not able to cast it out?’  Jesus replied, ‘Because of your unbelief!  Amen, I tell you that if you have faith even like a grain of mustard, you will tell this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you!  But this kind [of spirit] does not go out except by prayer and fasting.’” (Matthew 17: 19-21).  So, too, it is with us: we cannot expect to make any spiritual progress during Lent without fasting accompanied by prayer.

Of course, we are in need also of the Holy Mysteries.  St. Thomas Aquinas calls the Holy Eucharist ‘“spiritual food and spiritual medicine.”  After all communicants have received the Eucharist, the priest proclaims, “Behold! This has touched your lips, and will take away your iniquities and will cleanse your sins.”  Holy Confession is also necessary for us to call to mind where we fall short in our efforts to become more like Christ.  We relieve the burdens on our hearts, receive counsel from our spiritual father, and received absolution and remission of our sins. This Mystery is the most neglected today, and yet we ask why it seems God does not hear our prayers: “You lust, and do not have!  You kill, covet, and [still] cannot obtain!  You fight and make war.  You do not have because you do not ask!  You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, in order to spend it for your pleasures.”  (James 4:2, 3).

We need to fast.  We need to pray.  We need to reach out to others through our giving of ourselves and our substance to others.  Without all this, our fasting is doomed to failure; our prayer will be weak and ineffective; and we will not attain the Kingdom we seek.


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“When the fullness of time had come…”

Posted by Fr. Ron on December 10, 2018

1225nativity08“When Augustus became supreme ruler of the world, the many kingdoms among the people came to an end.  Likewise, when You became incarnate of the Immaculate One, the worship of many gods had to cease.  The cities came under a universal power, and the Gentiles believed in the one supreme Divinity.  Nations were registered in the name of Caesar Augustus, and we, the faithful, were registered in Your divine name, O Incarnate One.  O Lord, great is Your mercy; glory to You!” (At Psalm 140, Vespers for the Feast of the Nativity)

When I read this, it struck me that I had read this sentiment elsewhere. In fact, it was in the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his little book, “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” In it, he says of the time of Jesus’ birth that “the context of world history was important for Luke….  For the first time, there is a great expanse of peace in which everyone’s property can be registered and placed at the service of the wider community.”  An inscription at Priene, in Ionia, from 9 B.C. said of the birth of Augustus: “Providence, which has ordered all things, filled this man with virtue that he might benefit mankind, sending him as a Savior both for us and our descendants…. The birthday of the god was the beginning of the good tidings that he brought forth for the world.  From his birth, a new reckoning of time must begin” (Chapter 3, pg. 59).  Sounds very similar to our understanding of Christ at His Incarnation, doesn’t it?

The world has always looked for a savior.  We look to political figures time and time again, and are disappointed when we find that they have “feet of clay.”  We put our hope and faith in socio-economical systems, from Capitalism to Anarchy, hoping to find peace in the world.  It is no wonder that the writer of that inscription held out so much for the world because of Caesar Augustus.  It is so sad that, at this season, so many people celebrate Christmas rather than actually celebrate the Nativity, the coming of our God into our world.

It is said that other feasts of the Church, Pascha and Theophany, are much older than our celebration of Jesus’ birth, but we should not take that to mean that Christmas is of less importance.  The Incarnation is so important in making these feasts possible that the Nativity, even in the popular celebration, has taken such a deep hold in the hearts of all. No matter if a person is a believer or not, this season has become a time for thinking about others rather than ourselves, giving gifts, outreach into our communities, and so on.  Food drives, clothing drives, even placing coins and bills into the pots of Salvation Army workers is a sign of a change of heart in most people, even if only for this season.  The cries for peace between people and countries become louder and persistent.  And at the heart of it all is not a spontaneous burst of goodwill but a deep response to the Gift given to us this season.  “For God so loved the world….”  God taking flesh, becoming like one of us in everything except sin, is such a profound occurrence in human history that it affects everyone whether they believe or not.  This deep, abiding need for a savior is part of who we are, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Saint Augustine wrote, “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in You.”  So, it should not surprise us that the writer of the inscription at Priene expressed the desire for a savior, and saw it in Caesar Augustus.  Mirroring the words of Augustine, we go from person to person, politician to politician, movement to movement, seeking a savior, and only becoming disillusioned when they fall through.  We are restless until we find rest in the True Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, God-become-man.  Even if we cannot accept God’s gift to us in the Incarnation, even if we deny the existence of God or the Truth of His Church, we are still restless, and will remain so, until we accept this Gift and fall into the arms of our loving God.

It is so easy for us to want to take this season away from those who do not believe, those who mis-use it.  We can look at the partying, the drunkenness, the greed for physical gifts and mourn how Christmas has been paganized, but we should realize that, whether celebrated properly or improperly, Christ’s birth is still having an impact on everyone. Even if we hear people trying to tear Christmas to shreds, we should recognize that even they cannot deny that something exceptional is happening once again this year.  They may bridle when you wish them a Merry Christmas, but they cannot deny the power that is being celebrated.  God has given all of mankind this season as an opportunity, year after year, to change themselves from self-centered to other-centered.  It gives Christians, year after year, an opportunity to show forth the love of God to those in darkness and, hopefully, to extend their acts of mercy, kindness and love beyond defined point on our calendar. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption.  As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’   So, you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal. 4:4-7).

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Protection and the Priesthood

Posted by Fr. Ron on September 30, 2018

protection_icon“O most-pure Mother of God, you are a mighty defender for those in sorrow.  You are a ready help to those in trouble.  You are the salvation and confirmation of the world.  You are the depth of mercy, the fount of God’s wisdom and the protectress of the world.  O faithful, let us sing and praise her glorious protection saying: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you, and through you He grants great mercy to the world.” – “At Psalm 140,” Vespers for the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos, October 1.

My Seasonal Reflection is going to be more of a personal one this time around, but with effects for all of us.  October is an especially spiritual time of year for me for a couple of reasons.  When I lived in Virginia Beach, back in the day, we had no Byzantine Catholic Church in our area, and did not know of Ascension Parish, one hour away in Williamsburg.  One day, my mother saw in the local section of our newspaper that there was going to be a mission at a local Roman Catholic parish on October 1, 1989. Now, October 1st is my birthday, and I thought it was such a treat that we could go to “our own” church as a “birthday present.”  And so, Mom, Dad and I went to the chapel at Saint Gregory the Great parish that night. We had not been in our church for decades by then.  Fr. Ed Cimbala, pastor of Ascension Parish, Williamsburg, at the time, and Cantor (now Deacon) Nicholas Sotack were there to offer the Divine Liturgy for the first time in Virginia Beach.  The Liturgy began, and as it progressed, they began to sing the Jedinorodinyj Syne, (“Only-begotten Son”); the melody awoke deep memories in my heart, and I said to myself, “I’m home!”  There I found out that my birthday was the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, and I was a bit dumbfounded.  This one mission eventually became Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Virginia Beach, VA.  I became the first cantor; my father helped build our first icon screen when we finally found a permanent home.  In April of 1991, Father Ed drove me up to meet with Bishop Michael, and I entered seminary in the Autumn of that year.

During the early part of my priesthood, I met a parishioner who introduced me to Saint Thérèse of Lisiéux and her “Little Way.” I was intrigued by her life and bought up all the books I could find about her, and took her on as a patron saint. I then found out that she had had a mission to priests.

At age 14, she understood her vocation to pray for priests, to be “an apostle to apostles.” In September 1890, at her canonical examination before she professed her religious vows, she was asked why she had come to Carmel.  She answered “I came to save souls, and especially to pray for priests.”  Throughout her life she prayed fervently for priests, and she corresponded with and prayed for a young priest, Adolphe Roulland, and a young seminarian, Maurice Bellière.  She wrote to her sister, “Our mission as Carmelites is to form evangelical workers who will save thousands of souls whose mothers we shall be.”

In October 1895 a young seminarian and subdeacon of the White Fathers, Abbé Bellière, asked the Carmel of Lisiéux for a nun who would support – by prayer and sacrifice – his missionary work, and the souls that were in the future to be entrusted to him.  Mother Agnes designated Thérèse.  She never met Father Bellière but ten letters passed between them.

A year later Father Adolphe Roulland (1870–1934) of the Society of Foreign Missions requested the same service of the Lisiéux Carmel.  Once more Thérèse was assigned the duties of spiritual sister. “It is quite clear that Thérèse, in spite of all her reverence for the priestly office, in both cases felt herself to be the teacher and the giver.  It is she who consoles and warns, encourages and praises, answers questions, offers corroboration, and instructs the priests in the meaning of her little way.

My priesthood has always been blessed by the knowledge that Saint Thérèse, a “Western” saint, and the Feast of the Protection, and “Eastern” feast, were part of who I was as a priest, a child of God, and as a Catholic Christian.  Both of these women in my life have been a source of strength to me throughout what, in many ways, has been a bumpy ride through the past 23+ years.  Every October 1st, as I celebrate the feast in my parish, I am reminded of how both these feasts have been part of my formation as a priest, how our Blessed Mother has sustained me and covered me with her veil as I fought with human weaknesses and temptations.  I am a priest because of a Divine Liturgy that took place on my birthday. I remain a priest because of the protection, prayers and intercessions of the Blessed Theotokos, and through the prayers and intercessions of our Mother, Doctor of the Church, and Little Flower, Thérèse of Lisiéux.  With this, I commend to you, be you priest or layperson, the prayers of these two standards that our Lord has raised up for us during the month of October.


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“We Bow to Your Cross…”

Posted by Fr. Ron on September 3, 2018

0914elevationI think it is rather moving that the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross falls on a Friday this year.  We fast every Friday throughout the year since every Friday is a memorial of Good Friday, just as every Sunday is a memorial of Easter Sunday. So it is that we honor and exalt the cross of our Lord on “the day” of His crucifixion.  This should make us all the more aware of what took place on that cross and praise our Lord for opening the door to salvation for us.  “Joy to you, life-bearing Cross of the Lord, invincible triumph of the true faith.  You are the gate to Paradise, the strength of the faithful, and the stronghold of the Church. Because of you, corruption no longer has meaning nor power. By you we have been lifted up from earth to heaven. You are an invincible weapon against evil, a glory indeed for saints and martyrs, and a haven for salvation.  You are the source of mercy to the world.” (Vespers, Aposticha for the Feast)

Our services for this feast bring home the fact that, although we are celebrating the discovery of the True Cross by St. Helena, we are really celebrating the salvation that comes through that cross. “O most venerable Cross of the Lord, the angels surround you with joy at your elevation today.  You raise up those who had fallen and had been delivered from death for having eaten of the forbidden tree.  Therefore, we praise you with our lips, begging for sanctification, saying: Exalt Christ our gracious God, O you nations, and adore His divine footsteps forever.” (Vespers, “At Psalm 140”).  We are also presented with the Cross as the Tree of Life in juxtaposition of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  In Genesis 2:9 it is written: “Also, in the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of learning the knowledge of good and evil.” Verse 17 relates that God says to Adam, “…but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat; for in whatever day you eat from it, you shall die by death.”  Instead of eating of the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve sinned by preferring the knowledge of good and evil over life itself.  In verses 22 and 23, God says: “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil.  Now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever—” “therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of pleasure….”  In contrast then, we see that the Tree of the Cross, through which we receive forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, is the same as the tree of life in the garden. And it is through the voluntary death of Christ on the Cross that He conquers sin, corruption and death, and gives to those who believe that everlasting life that was denied us in the garden.  It brings sharper focus the words recorded for us between the one criminal and Jesus as they hung on their crosses: “Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:42-43).  Through his act of repentance and prayer to our Lord, the Cross of Christ became his gate to salvation!  And so it is with us who believe.  If we ask for forgiveness and repent, the Cross becomes our gate to Paradise.

With all this, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross should take on a deeper meaning.  At our liturgies for the feast, the priest, in imitation of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, elevates the cross and blesses the four corners of the earth, consecrating the whole world to God.  When we see this elevation take place, it should strike such awe in our hearts that we rededicate ourselves to following Christ, receive the blessing given to us by the cross, and allow Him to strip off the gown of sinfulness and garb us with the gown of righteousness.  “We bow to Your Cross, O Lord, and we glorify Your holy resurrection.”  “Save Your people, O Lord, and bless Your inheritance; grant victory to Your Church over her enemies and protect Your people by Your Cross.”


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“You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God…”

Posted by Fr. Ron on July 30, 2018

0806Transfiguration    “O Christ our God, when You willed to prefigure Your resurrection, You chose three disciples, Peter, James and John; and You went up with them to Mount Tabor.  At the moment of Your Transfiguration, O Savior, the mountain was flooded with light, and Your disciples fell with their faces to the ground; for they could not bear the sight of Your countenance upon which no one may gaze, O Word.  Angels attended with trembling and awe; the heavens were afraid; and the earth shook to its very foundations when they saw the Lord of Glory come upon the earth.”  – At Psalm 140, Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

“When David, forefather of the Lord, foresaw in spirit Your coming in the flesh, he invited the whole creation to rejoice, crying out prophetically: O Savior, Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in Your name, for indeed You ascended this mountain with Your disciples.  Through Your Transfiguration You returned Adam’s nature to its original splendor, restoring its very elements to the glory and brilliance of Your divinity.  Therefore we cry out to You: O Creator of All, glory to You!”  – Aposticha for the Feast of the Transfiguration

I was struck by two themes, if you will, of these vesperal stichera, as they pertain to Christ in His humanity and divinity, and as they also pertain to us.  First, the author says, “…when You willed to prefigure Your resurrection…”.  We believe that the resurrection of Christ was not merely a reanimation of His body after His death, but that He was raised in an immortal, glorified body.  Here we see that this glorification is shown beforehand on Mount Tabor to His disciples.  Peter, James and John saw our Lord as He would appear to them after the resurrection, and saw distinctly His divinity radiating through His humanity.  No wonder our Troparion for the Feast says that He revealed “as much of [His] glory to [His] disciples as they could behold” [emphasis added].  When Moses, on Mount Sinai, asked God, “Show me Your glory, I pray,” God replies: “You cannot see My face; for no one shall see Me and live” (cf. Exodus 33:12-13).  Thus, the disciples cannot bear to see but so much glory of the Son of God revealed to them on Tabor, “they could not bear the sight of Your countenance upon which no one may gaze.”  Yet, after the Resurrection, they would now be able to see Him in all His glory.  And, in our theology, they and we see the “original beauty of Adam,” and the original beauty will be manifest also in our bodies at the Resurrection of the dead!  “Through Your Transfiguration You returned Adam’s nature to its original splendor, restoring its very elements to the glory and brilliance of Your divinity.”  Thus it is that we see the eventual restoration of all of Mankind in His Transfiguration!

With His Transfiguration, we pray in the Ambon Prayer for the Feast, “Open the eyes of our minds to a sight of indescribable beauty, just as your did for Your apostles….  Guide us also into higher things by Your all-powerful right hand.  …Give us an unfailing memory of the voice of Your eternal Father revealing You as His beloved Son, so that, putting Your commandments into action, we may shine forth among those worthy of Your eternal kingdom….”

The Feast of the Transfiguration is also a call for us to conform ourselves to the will of God, and to carry out our vocation to be lights in the darkness, bringing the Good News to our world today.  “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit.  We have found the true faith….”  What is the purpose of the witness of the Transfiguration if we do not follow through by our own transformation: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).  Everything we experience during our liturgical year is given to us for our repentance, our transformation, and our salvation.  The Transfiguration is a prefiguration of the glorification that we will receive when He raises us from the dead, just as His resurrection is the prefiguration of our resurrection.  God’s promises are not to be shrugged off as “spiritual talk” but as assurances that we were made for Him, and that, as we pray in the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, “You brought us out of nonexistence into being, and again raised us up when we had fallen, and left nothing undone until You brought us to heaven and gave us Your kingdom to come.”  The Transfiguration is the revelation of what He has in store for us.  Therefore, we glorify Him with our lives, and thank Him for this great feast.

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Take heed lest you forget the Lord…

Posted by Fr. Ron on June 22, 2018

Christ the True Vine

“Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God, by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes, which I command you this day: lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, Who brought you water out of the flinty rock, Who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.  Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’  You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth; that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as at this day.” (Deut. 8:11-19)

I love our liturgical year, in all its richness; how it guides us in all the things of God.  We have been led through so much so far this year in the things of the salvation of God given to us: we have witnessed His incarnation at the Feast of the Nativity; we have been brought successfully through the Red Sea of the Great Fast; we have wept at His betrayal, arrest, at the foot of His cross, and as He was laid in His tomb.  We have also risen early on the first day of the week and gone out with the Myrrh-bearers and found the huge stone rolled away, and heard the words of the angel, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  We have seen our Lord risen from the dead; placed our fingers in the nail-prints and our hand in His side and believed.  We have watched as He ascended to His Father and our Father.  And we have received the heavenly Spirit.

Now, though, we may feel spiritually exhausted, and just want to “get on” to other things in our lives.  All the “heavy stuff” is behind us, and it is the traditional time of year for vacations, cook-outs, and just enjoying the warmth of summer.  And yet, we have to remember that, as our Lord’s earthly ministry has ended, our ministry as Church has begun.  At His ascension, our Lord told us, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:6–8).  We are so wont to set aside all spiritualcares, to paraphrase the words of the Cherubic Hymn, but the Church reminds us at this season that we are to be about our Father’s business, and to now put into action all that the Lord has taught us over these past months.  We have received our Lord’s teachings and are now to put them into practice.  It is not enough to have dutifully attended all the services and done all the prostrations and sung all the praises: we must now follow through on our promises to God: “Make vows to the Lord your God, and fulfill them” (Psalm 75 [76]: 11) we sing in the Sunday Prokeimenon for Tone 8.  At our Baptism, our sponsors made vows in our name, or we made those vows ourselves: “Have you united yourself to Christ?”  “Yes, I have united myself to Christ.”  “Then worship Him.”  During this season, we have been given the time to worship Him, and to do all things in His name and to His glory.  As much as we want to leave all this aside for the summer, we are obliged to continue along the path on which we started out; we are still to take up our cross daily and follow Christ.  “But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working still, and I am working’” (John 5:17). God does not cease His work during this season, and we, in concert with Jesus, are not to cease doing good, being there for one another, and gathering together in our local parish (or the nearest parish to where we are vacationing) at least every Sunday to worship Him and sing His praises.  “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God, by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes, which I command you this day.”

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Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

Posted by Fr. Ron on April 28, 2018

samaritanwomanSunday of the Samaritan Woman: John 4: 5-42

The story of Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well can go in so many directions, which is one reason why it is part of our readings for the Paschal Season. To try to keep things short, I want to concentrate on a specific portion of the reading today.

When Jesus asks the woman to give Him a drink, He uses the well to open the conversation with the woman. Her reply is, “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  We see this distinction elaborated later, when she tries to change the direction of the conversation away from her embarrassment at the revelation that Jesus somehow knew about her “living arrangement,” but that is a topic for another day.  But, here she is drawn in by Jesus’ opening gambit, putting things in a tribal, if you will, and religious context.  Jesus draws her past what could, with another Jewish/Samaritan encounter, have become a debate or even an argument: He says, “If you recognized God’s gift and Who it is saying to you ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.”  This develops beautifully: she may be seeing this as a reference to flowing water, which is different from water that sits in a well, and responds, “You have no bucket.” Jesus can now go “full on” in leading the woman in the direction He wants her to go.  “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks from the water that I shall give him will most definitely never thirst, until the Age to come; rather the water that I shall give him will be come in him fountain springing up to the life of the age.”  She still hasn’t realized what Jesus was precisely saying, thinking it is physical water, but Jesus sees her heart opening, and can now lead her into deeper truths.  “Go call your husband and come here.”  He’s got a pry bar into the opening now.  “I do not have a husband.”  Now He can go to work!  “You speak well to say ‘I have no husband….’”

Now, I can get to the point of my homily!  We all, in deepest reaches of our hearts, long for fulfillment, to feel complete, to “find ourselves.”  And we do this in various earthly ways, whether through amassing money or possessions or people.  But no matter how much of this we have, we never find satisfaction, and keep going along the same path, thinking that it is some thingor some oneelse who will finally stop the thirst.  In this case, the woman is trying to find her fulfillment in another person.  As a matter of fact, Jesus points this out: “You have had fivehusbands, and he whom you have now is not your husband.”  It reminds us older folks of Zsa Zsa Gabor, who had nine husbands, or Mickey Rooney, who had eight wives.  More often than not, since we reallydesire the fulfillment we can only find in the person of Jesus Christ, we seek that fulfillment in anotherperson.  The overarching sadness of this is that, every time Person “A” doesn’t satisfy us, a heart or even a life is broken as we run off with Person “B.”  I concentrate on persons here rather than money or possessions because I believe we thirst for love and acceptance more than for things.  Things are just a substitute, like giving a baby a toy when we cannot give it personal attention.  We seek someone to love us, to love us as we are, to accept us, flaws and all.  Jesus, by homing in on this woman’s desire for love, can now bring her into the larger reality: no human love can ever slake the thirst in our belly; only accepting the love of God can do this.  “An hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”  (Interesting that Jesus says “you” in a personal way, letting her know that her life is about to change!)  “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him.  God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth.”  The Way and the One Who will satisfy her thirst is sitting right there, and the earthly mountain and the earthly Jerusalem are now replaced by the heavenly Kingdom.  Earthly worship is now replaced by the Divine Liturgy.

One of the beautiful things about this story is that, even though Jesus obviously knows everything about her, and exposes that He knows, He does not condemn her.  He doesn’t shy away from the truth, but neither does He use it as a hammer to condemn her.  He takes her where she is and leads her into a new life.  “I know that the Messiah is coming (He Who is called the Christ); and when He comes, He will show us all things.”  “I Who speak to you am He.”  Despite her past, she is obviously a religious person and knows her faith, and now she sees her expectations fulfilled.  Now there is a flood of feelings.  The Christ knows her and doesn’t reject her!  She is a sinner, but He knows it and accepts her anyway! In her relief and excitement, she leaves her water jar–she no longer has a need for that physical water because she has now received that living water!  She goes back to the town and tells everyone there what she experienced, and they come out to see for themselves.  John says that “many of the Samaritans of that city had faith in Him on account of the woman testifying….”  “And many more had faith as a result of His teachings.”

Today, we honor that woman who had five husbands, was sleeping with a man who was not her husband, as the holy Martyr Photina (Svetlana in Russian), Equal to the Apostles. We honor her today, and celebrate her on her feast, February 26thin the Eastern Calendar and March 20thin the Western.  She and her sons were martyred, together with her four sisters and two sons, during the reign of the Emperor Nero, in AD 66 in Rome.

“Photina” means “enlightened one,” “light,” “brilliant,” showing that she herself was not only enlightened, but that she was and is a light to others.  We celebrate her enlightenment and raise her as a standard as to how we are to live our own lives.

God takes us where we are, warts and all, no matter what our past is, no matter how much or how greatly we have sinned.  He does not leave us there, but draws us to enlightenment.  As with the woman caught in adultery, He tells us to “go and sin no more.”  The example of St. Photina gives us hope that, no matter who we are, no matter what we have done, God loves us, and loves us in a way that no other person can; He fulfills us in a way that wealth or possessions can never do.  He leads us out of the darkness of sin into His light. “And to those in the tombs He granted life” doesn’t only mean the resurrection of the dead; He grants life to all of us entombed in our sin.  Therefore, when we sing that song of joy, “Christ is risen from the dead; by death He trampled Death, and to those in the tombs, He granted life,” let’s make it a personal proclamation that, in His rising from the dead, He has shown us love; He has shown us acceptance; and He has raised us from our sin and grants us new life.

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Sunday of the Ointment-bearing Women

Posted by Fr. Ron on April 28, 2018

myrrhbearingwomenI always like to dedicate this Sunday of the Ointment-bearing Women to those who give service to the church.  The readings from Scripture for the day naturally lend themselves to this, as we continue to celebrate Pascha by remembering those who devoted themselves to Christ, even after His death.  The readings from the Acts of the Apostles speak of the calling of the first seven Deacons to serve the Church.  The criteria were simple: they were to be of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.  Their main task was to see to the temporal needs of the Church, the Body of Christ.

The Gospel reading relates the story of how Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, took personal possession of the body of Christ, bought with his own money a burial shroud, and laid Him in a tomb “hewn out of the rock,” which was an expensive way to go, and may have even been Joseph’s own tomb.  (It is interesting to note that this act was a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:9, which says, “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death.”)  So we see someone who was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews, risking at least his reputation to see to the needs of the body of Christ, seeing to His proper care even after death.  He honored Christ in honoring His body, which would probably would have had a profound affect on his standing in his community, but his love for Christ was stronger than anything else in his life.

And then we come to the Myrrh-bearers.  Mark says that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body of Christ was laid, and that Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James came out to properly anoint His body after His burial.  We have to remember that these women doubted the words Jesus spoke about His resurrection, or else they would not have been bringing the burial ointments with them.  At the same time, we see their extreme courage in venturing out to tend to the body of Christ: there was a great stone sealing off the entrance to the tomb; beyond that, Pilate had ordered that the stone itself have seals placed on it, and guards placed by it to ensure that no one could get to the tomb or Christ.  Despite their doubts, their fears and the dangers in what they went out to do, they venture out just before dawn on the first day of the week, because their devotion to Christ was greater than the danger and their fears.  Their courage was rewarded when they come to the tomb: they see that the stone has already been rolled away.  We must note at this point, as an aside, that Jesus did not open the tomb at His resurrection; He who appeared in the Upper Room although the doors were locked had no need to roll away that stone when He rose from the dead.  Rather, the wording of this passage in the Greek informs us that the angel had moved the stone to allow the women to see that the tomb was empty, since they could not have moved it themselves.

They were also, as a result, the first humans to proclaim the resurrection.  In a world where women were definitely second-class, God shows the nobility of their gender in that He has them go to the Apostles, rather than the Apostles being given that honor — perhaps due to their faintness of heart at His arrest.  Be that as it may, God bestows this honor on these three women.

So, on one side, we see the men serving the Body of Christ and, on the other, the women also.  Without going down into the rabbit-hole of clerical ministry in the Church, let us just see the universality of our ministry to the Body, the Church, today.  At the end of the Commemorations of the Anaphora, the priest prays: Remember, O Lord, those who bring offerings and perform good deeds in Your holy churches, and those who remember the poor, and upon all of us send down Your mercies.  We should never have a real hierarchy of whose offerings and good deeds are better than another’s.  Those who serve at the altar and those who usher, or bake for bake sales, or who are Bingo workers, or clean up after Sunday Hospitality when everyone else has gone — all of us share in the ministry of caring for the Body of Christ.  Like the Myrrh-bearers, we come to care for the Body, but also proclaim the Good News to all.  Everyone is a necessary part of the Church.  As I like to point out, the Holy Apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth this:  “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing?  If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as He chose.  If all were a single organ, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’  On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.  But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.  Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing?  Do all speak with tongues?  Do all interpret?”  So, in whatever ministry we have here, all are necessary, and we should not take ourselves or one another for granted.

And so I honor all of you today.  To our deacon, to our servers, to our ushers, to those who will clean the coffee pots after hospitality.  I honor all of you who keep faith and share it with others.  We all serve the Body of Christ, and give all glory to Him who has called us to serve Him and His Church.

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Sunday of the Resurrection

Posted by Fr. Ron on April 28, 2018

resurectPascha 2018

“The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!  The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!  Let all partake of the feast of faith.  Let all receive the riches of goodness.”

These words are from the traditional Paschal Homily of Saint John Chrysostom.  I want to tie these words with a line from a song from the new album of a friend of mine: “He is the strongest drink in all of history.”  When I heard that line, it really bowled me over, and is probably my new greatest line in a song ever.

We have finished the Great Fast of 2018.  The fast is not only to discipline our bodies, but it should make us hunger even stronger for God and His love for us.  It is difficult for me to remember, after all these years, what it is like to be a lay person in the Church, and I mourn that fact because it makes it harder at times to know what people really want and need from the Church.  I think most of the time in spiritual terms, with everything in the context of how it relates to God, and our Faith.  But I would hope that there is a hunger in your hearts to find peace in God, to find comfort and reassurance in Him.  I would hope that there is at least part that is unsatisfied with how your lives are going, how something is missing and makes us feel incomplete.  Because if there is no hunger for God, no hunger for the spiritual to be a large part of our lives, then the Feast of the Resurrection becomes just “Easter.”  Like so many people I have had contact with in the past, the Paschal Liturgy is just something we have to go through to get to the Blessing of the Baskets and then feasting at home.  It’s heartbreaking for a priest, whose primary vocation is shepherding a flock through the Narrow Gate into Heaven, to realize how many people have turned their backs on salvation in the name of a little ceremony where he splashes holy water on today’s dinner.

St. John Chrysostom tells us that, “The table is rich laden.  Let all partake of the feast of faith.  Let all receive the riches of goodness.”  On Holy Thursday, our Lord gives us His body and blood in the form of bread and wine.  On Good Friday, He gives us His body and blood through His death on the cross.  Holy Saturday is His descent into and the harrowing of Hades, putting to death the power of sin over us.  And on Easter Sunday, He gives all who believe everlasting life.  Today is the only reason the other 364 days of the year exist.  It is the only reason the Church exists.  In His death, He conquers sin.  In His resurrection, He gives us eternal life.  None of the rest of this makes any sense if we do not understand this.  Christianity becomes just another set of religious practices without His death and resurrection.  My favorite chapter in the New Testament is the sixth chapter of John.  “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’”  And again: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”

This is why I am concentrating on these lines from St. John’s homily, for he is not talking about the dinner we are having this afternoon, but the bread and wine, His body and His blood, which we will receive this morning.  And this is why I am so blown away at Keith’s line from this song, because as Jesus said to the Samaritan Woman at the well, he who drinks from the physical well will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that He shall give will never thirst again.  He who drinks of wine will thirst again, but he who drinks the wine which is consecrated and becomes His blood will have eternal life with Him.  “He is the strongest drink in all of history,” for in drinking His blood and eating His body, we are not nourished physically as with earthly food and drink, but we are nourished spiritually, which leads to eternal life in Him.  He who drinks what is called “Strong drink” will only get drunk and eventually destroy his life physically, emotionally, and spiritually; it can lead to words better left unsaid, to broken relationships, and even physical death.  But the “strongest drink” will heal us spiritually, emotionally, and even physically, for it makes us one with the One Who shed His blood for us.

So let us celebrate this feast with our whole heart, with our whole soul, and with our whole mind.  Let us celebrate this feast with everything we are and everything we have.  Let us partake of His body today, and may it heal our broken bodies.  Let us partake of His blood today, that the blood of the Son of God may flow through our veins.  Through His body and blood, may we have the fear of His blessed commandments in us so that, having trampled all carnal desires, we may lead a spiritual life both thinking and doing everything to please Him.

Welcome to the Feast of Faith.  Partake of the strongest drink in all of history.

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The Face of Evil in C.S. Lewis’ “Perelandra”

Posted by Fr. Ron on February 26, 2015

“As he was looking down at this [Ransom] suddenly noticed something else.  At first he thought it was a creature of more fantastic shape than he had yet seen on Perelandra.  Its shape was not only fantastic but hideous.  Then he dropped on one knee to examine it.  Finally he touched it, with reluctance.  A moment later he drew back his hands like a man who had touched a snake.

“It was a damaged animal.  It was, or had been, one of the brightly colored frogs.  But some accident had happened to it.  The whole back had been ripped open in a sort of V-shaped gash, the point of the V being a little behind the head.  Some thing had torn a widening wound backward—as we do in opening an envelope—along the trunk and pulled it out so far behind the animal that the hoppers or hind legs had been almost torn off with it.  They were so damaged that the frog could not leap.  On earth it would have been merely a nasty sight, but up to this moment Ransom had as yet seen nothing dead or spoiled in Perelandra, and it was like a blow in the face.  It was like the first spasm of well-remembered pain warning a man who had thought he was cured that his family have deceived him and he is dying after all.  It was like the first lie from the mouth of a friend on whose truth one was willing to stake a thousand pounds.  It was irrevocable.  The milk-warm wind blowing over the golden sea, the blues and silvers and greens of the floating garden, the sky itself—all these had become, in one instant, merely the illuminated margin of a book whose text was the struggling little horror at his feet, and he himself, in that same instant, had passed into a state of emotion which he could neither control nor understand.  He told himself that a creature of that kind probably had very little sensation.  But it did not much mend matters.  It was not merely pity for pain that had suddenly changed the rhythm of his heartbeats.  The thing was an intolerable obscenity which afflicted him with shame.  It would have been better, or so he thought at that moment, for the whole universe never to have existed than for this one thing to have happened.  Then he decided, in spite of his theoretical belief that it was an organism too low for much pain, that it had better be killed.  He had neither boots nor stone nor stick.  The frog proved remarkably hard to kill.  When it was far too late to desist he saw clearly that he had been a fool to make the attempt.  Whatever its sufferings might be he had certainly increased and not diminished them.  But he had to go through with it.  The job seemed to take nearly an hour.  And when at last the mangled result was quite still and he went down to the water’s edge to wash, he was sick and shaken.  It seems odd to say this of a man who had been on the Somme, but the architects tell us that nothing is great or small save by position.

“At last he got up and resumed his walk.  Next moment he started and looked at the ground again.  He quickened his pace, and then once more stopped and looked.  He stood stock-still and covered his face.  He called aloud upon heaven to break the nightmare or to let him understand what was happening.  A trail of mutilated frogs lay along the edge of the island.  Picking his footsteps with care, he followed it.  He counted ten, fifteen, twenty: and the twenty-first brought him to a place where the wood came down to the water’s edge.  He went into the wood and came out on the other side.  There he stopped dead and stared.  Weston, still clothed but without his pith helmet, was standing about thirty feet away: and as Ransom watched he was tearing a frog—quietly and almost surgically inserting his forefinger, with its long sharp nail, under the skin behind the creature’s head and ripping it open.  Ransom had not noticed before that Weston had such remarkable nails.  Then he finished the operation, threw the bleeding ruin away, and looked up.  Their eyes met.

“If Ransom said nothing, it was because he could not speak.  He saw a man who was certainly not ill, to judge from his easy stance and the powerful use he had just been making of his fingers.  He saw a man who was certainly Weston, to judge from his height and build and coloring and features.  In that sense he was quite recognizable.  But the terror was that he was also unrecognizable.  He did not look like a sick man: but he looked very like a dead one.  The face which he raised from torturing the frog had that terrible power which the face of a corpse sometimes has of simply rebuffing every conceivable human attitude one can adopt towards it.  The expressionless mouth, the unwinking stare of the eyes, something heavy and inorganic in the very folds of the cheek, said clearly: ‘I have features as you have, but there is nothing in common between you and me.’  It was this that kept Ransom speechless.  What could you say—what appeal or threat could have any meaning—to that?  And now, forcing its way up into consciousness, thrusting aside every mental habit and every longing not to believe, came the conviction that this, in fact, was not a man: that Weston’s body was kept, walking and undecaying, in Perelandra by some wholly different kind of life, and that Weston himself was gone.”

Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis.  “Perelandra.” HarperCollins Publishers, 1943.  iBooks.

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This passage has passed through my mind quite a bit as I contemplate the world in which I live.  We have seen evil in many forms, either indirectly or (God forbid) directly, whether in our study of 20th Century history or in reading the news media.  Whether it is one person’s torture of another, or the genocide of Nazi Germany, militarist Japan, Stalinist Russia, or down to ISIS today, we pretty much know what is evil when we see it.  My thought is that there is an evil that creeps into a man or a society or a culture, or what have you, that is born of hatred, anger, etc.  But then there is an evil like the one Lewis describes above — cold, calculating, almost passionless. Whereas there are evil deeds that are done by certain people, there is also evil deeds that we end up describing as “diabolical,” or that the person or people are possessed.  I can almost “wrap my head around” evil deeds born of passion, but what fills me more with dread is passionless evil, calculated evil, cold evil.

Of course, there are those who do not ascribe evil to a spiritual cause — a devil, if you will.  There are even Christians and others who avoid the thought of some sort of “other being” that is able to exert its will or influence us.  Be that as it may, I do believe that there is a being that has set itself in opposition to God, and whose purpose is the destruction of Creation and especially the destruction of the pinnacle of God’s creation, Mankind.  And this theme, I believe, runs all through Lewis’ “Perelandra” or “Space” trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength). It is also a central part of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

My thoughts are incomplete here.  I am just offering my thoughts to whoever happens upon this post, for further pondering.  But this evil is certainly present in our world today, if not in possession, then at least in influence.  People may disagree with me on how I think it is manifest today, but any thinking person would still admit that there is a force of evil in our world today, and has been in ages past, which the rational mind cannot comprehend.  But if we ignore what is happening around us, we do so at our peril.


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