Behold: Dying, we live!

Pascha approaches: we should reflect once again on this crux of our faith, orient ourselves anew by the perspective that it offers, and enter afresh into its mystery.

Man of Sorrows. Double sided icon; Byzantine Museum, Kastoria, Greece; Byzantine, second half of the 12th century.

Man of Sorrows. Double sided
icon; Byzantine Museum, Kastoria,
Greece; Byzantine, second half of the 12th century.

By his death, his voluntary self-offering in love for us, Christ has destroyed death and granted us life. We say such words so often, that we frequently become immune to the stumbling-block and scandal that they present, and so overlook their implications for us. By dying, as a human being, Christ has shown us what it is to be truly divine: Lordship manifest in service, strength in weakness, wisdom in folly. If he had shown us what it is to be divine in any other way (acting, for instance, as a superhuman god), we could have had no share in him and his work. The fact is that we are all going to die, whether we like it or not. The only question is how we are going to die? Clinging to all that we think is ours, our own life and possessions, our own status or merit? Or following him on his path to Golgotha, laying down our life in love for him and our neighbors? Living, yet still dying, or dying to live.

The Witnessing Body

By his action, by his shed blood and broken body, Christ has called us to be his Church. We like to use the language of the Church triumphant, the glorious body with a mission to bring the whole world within its fold and so manifest the Kingdom of God upon this earth. And indeed this is our mission: Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit . But we must never forget that the glory of this body is one that is only seen by those whose sight has been trained to look upon the cross and see the Lord of glory. As St Athanasius put it, the more that the Lord is persecuted and humiliated, the more his glory and divinity is manifest … to those that have eyes to see.

St. Blandina.

St. Blandina.

And this continues, he affirms, in those who now constitute his body, those who take up the faith of the cross and willingly submit themselves to death, that he might live in them. Such a one was Blandina, the slave girl, the epitome of weakness in the ancient world, who was hung on a stake to be eaten by wild beasts. Spectators in the stands only saw another seemingly misguided fool dying for their entertainment, but those who struggled alongside her in the arena “saw in the form of their sister the one who was crucified for them.” Dying, Christ lives in her, so that she now lives eternally.

The Scandalous Body

Let us never forget that this is the glory of the body of Christ, the Church, in this world, this is the life we profess to live, this is the inauguration of a kingdom not of this world. As we endeavor to extend this kingdom, we must of course strive to ensure that our behavior does not provide a scandal or stumbling block to others. At a minimum, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards of the society in which we live. But we must equally not fall into the error of supposing so doing is enough for the body of Christ to be in “good order”: as the body of Christ, we will be a laughing stock, held in scorn and derision –  let us never forget this, and let it always be for the right reason!

Troubles such as those that currently beset the Church have done so from the beginning, and they can easily become an occasion for loss of faith, especially if we set our stock solely on the “good order” of this world. Indeed, one of the desert fathers of old warned that in days to come one will scarcely find faith left on this earth, and that the struggle to keep the faith in such times will be greater than any ascetic feat performed of old. If such troubles can be an occasion for despair, they can also be a powerful impetus to make sure that our focus is properly oriented, that our faith is in Christ alone.

We live straining towards the future, the coming Christ, nourished by the hope that he offers. Let us not then be weighed down by the cares of today, for they too will pass; let us instead prepare ourselves for the still greater struggles ahead. But we can only do this if our sights are truly set on the Kingdom inaugurated by the Passion and manifest in those, in us, who by dying live.

Let us Forgive all in the Resurrection

Forgiveness is at the heart of the mystery of the Resurrection: “let us forgive one another so that we may cry aloud, ‘Christ is Risen!’” We cannot claim to be Christians, to dare to greet one another with this  paschal greeting, unless we do so with a forgiving heart. But the depths of this forgiveness is not plumbed if we think that this means the repentance of others and our forgiveness of them, resulting in a peace, or rather a truce, that suffices us. Christ came to call the sinners, so that if we would be amongst the called, this is how we must regard ourselves, the chief, indeed, amongst the sinners.

The Embrace of Sts. Peter and Paul, Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos, 12th century

The Embrace of Sts. Peter and Paul. Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos, Greece, 12th century.

We must be like the apostles: as Saul, confronted by Christ asking “Why are you persecuting me?” so becoming the great apostle Paul; as Peter, who before resuming his calling as a disciple, had to confess his love for Christ three times, standing by the burning coals, as he had denied Christ three times, warming himself by the burning coals, which harkens back to the vision of Isaiah who, seeing the Lord sitting upon the throne hymned by the seraphim, lamented “Woe is me, for I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips,” and so received the burning coal taken from the altar, hearing the words “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin forgiven.”

Approaching Christ in this way, as ourselves repentant and seeking forgiveness, our hearts will be broken so that the love and forgiveness of Christ can flow through us to others. Then we will be able to receive, from the same altar and with the same words of forgiveness, the medicine of immortality, so that dying we also may live.

Unless a Seed Falls in the Ground and Dies

We are called to take up the Cross, to die with Christ, to become the one body of Christ. Our divisions are truly a scandal of our own making. Whether they are between persons, within an ecclesial body, or between ecclesial bodies, each and every one of us is responsible for our failure to make Christ present through our witness, our martyria, to a world that is increasingly alienated from God and increasingly thirsting for Christ. Clinging on to that which we value, whether our own dignity confronting that of others, a strife-creating indignation within our ecclesial bodies, or our pride in the distinctiveness of our own ecclesial body and the hierarchies of a long-gone era, we are like the seed that remains alone, rather than dying to bear fruit. If we are to be Christ’s one true Body, we must follow him by dying to everything that separates us from him, all that belongs to this world rather than to the Kingdom, and hold ourselves open to wherever he may lead us. Dying, then, we might begin make Christ manifest by how we live as his one body.

We are on the threshold of the Pascha of the Lord. This is not simply an annual event, that we might forget once we stop singing that “Christ is Risen!” It is rather the eternal mystery, present at every moment – every moment, that is, that we do indeed take to heart its proclamation and by dying, live.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is Dean and Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His early work was on issues of asceticism and anthropology, focusing on St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. After spending almost a decade in the second century, Fr. John began the publication of a series on the Formation of Christian Theology, and has now reached the fifth and sixth centuries. He has recently completed an edition and translation of, and introduction to, the remaining texts of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He has also published a synthetic presentation of the theology of the early centuries, focused on the mystery of Christ. He is also a passionate cyclist, often rescheduling family events around the Tour de France. Fr. John’s wife, a Tour de France enthusiast and armchair cyclist, teaches English at a nearby college, and their two sons and daughter are being taught to appreciate the finer points of French culture: the great “constructeurs” of the last century, Le Grande Boucle, and … cheese.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reflection

The Lord’s Anointed: Thoughts on Holy Wednesday

Christ being led to the Crucifixion (detail: Christ), 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia

Christ being led to the
Crucifixion (detail: Christ), 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The woman poured precious oil of myrrh upon thine awesome and royal head, O Christ our God.
—Matins of Holy Wednesday, ode eight

I have found David my servant: with my holy oil have I anointed him. —Psalm 88:20

Among the righteous of the Old Testament, few shine more brightly than King David. God chose him as “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), and so much that transpires in Holy Week was foreshadowed in his life. Our Lord Jesus Christ is his descendant, and in Christ’s kingship are fulfilled all the promises once made to David:

Thy seed will I establish for ever, and set up thy throne from one generation to another … He shall call me: Thou art my Father, my God, and the defender of my salvation. And I will make him my first-born, higher than the kings of the earth (Ps. 88:5, 26–27).

David died, “and his tomb is with us to this day,” but these promises were made in prophecy concerning the One who was to come (cf. Acts 2:24–35).

“The Anointed”: this is everywhere a mark of kingship; it is also the very meaning of the title Messiah or Christ. Whereas David was anointed as king by Samuel the Prophet, the Son of David was anointed not by man, but by the Holy Spirit, who descended upon him in the form of a dove at his baptism in Jordan.

At the midpoint of Holy Week, however, we remember an occasion when Jesus was anointed, not by his “equal in Godhead,” as at Theophany, but by his creature, a woman who had “fallen into many sins” (Hymn of Kassiani).

Christ in the House of Simon, 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Christ in the House of Simon, 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

A repentant harlot: such is the woman we encounter on Holy Wednesday, and in her we perceive a great biblical theme. How often throughout Scripture has God’s chosen but unfaithful people been likened to a harlot? “For long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds,” we read in Jeremiah, “and you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yea, upon every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down as a harlot” (Jer. 2:20). And, in Hosea: “My people inquire of a thing of wood, and their staff gives them oracles. A spirit of harlotry has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the harlot” (Hosea 4:12).

That Israel should have asked for an earthly king at all was an instance of her pining after the ways of the nations. Samuel tried to dissuade them, but to no avail. “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Sam. 8:19–20)

And so God granted their desire—but not as a sign of favor. Samuel anointed Saul as king, but his reign was bitter, full of turmoil and envy. “Where now is your king, to save you; where are all your princes, to defend you—those of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’? I have given you kings in my anger, and I have taken them away in my wrath” (Hosea 13:10–11). Indeed, so severe was Saul’s reign that, while he still lived, the Lord commanded Samuel to anoint a new king, but in secret: David, the youngest of his brothers, and all but forgotten (1 Sam. 16:11–13).

Yet after David’s anointing, Saul’s spite grew only more intense. For in David, Saul now feared the challenge of a rival, though one who had no need to impose himself or vaunt his divine election. In fact, David fled from Saul in the wilderness where, at one point, he could easily have vanquished Saul forever, yet, Christ-like, he forbore (1 Sam. 24:3 ff).

Christ healing the lunatic (detail: Christ), 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (image: BLAGO Archives)

Christ healing the
lunatic (detail: Christ), 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

“My Kingdom,” Christ said to Pilate, “is not of this world” (John 18:36). In the world men continue to submit themselves to the tyranny of the devil. The prince of this world, like Saul, continues to fill the land with guile and madness, furiously raging against the legitimate authority of God.

After his baptism and the descent of the Spirit, Christ was driven into the wilderness, to be challenged and mocked by the evil one. Though it was well within his power at any point to vindicate his rightful claim as Son of God, he, like David, forbore (cf. Matt. 4:1–11).

Eventually, all Israel publicly acknowledged David as their ruler, conceding that it was he who had truly been leading them even while Saul was still alive (cf. 2 Sam. 5:1–3).

Christ too was openly recognized by the people: when he entered Jerusalem. They spread their garments before him and shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt. 21:9), expecting him to lead them in throwing off the Roman yoke, thus to “restore again the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). But since Christ’s warfare is “not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12), the people were disappointed of their hope, and their waning enthusiasm would soon give an opportunity for the Jewish rulers to make their move.

David, long into his reign, was betrayed by one of his closest confidants: Ahithophel, whose counsel David trusted as if he had asked at the oracle of God (2 Sam. 16:23). With David’s son Absalom, Ahithophel conspired against the king, but when his plan came to naught, he despaired and hanged himself (2 Sam. 17:23). How bitter is the Psalmist’s lament: “Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted up his heel against me” (Ps. 40:9).

Judas Brings Back Thirty Pieces of Silver to the Chief Priests, 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Judas Brings Back Thirty Pieces of Silver to the Chief Priests, 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

These words hang heavy in the air during the last week of Christ’s earthly sojourn as Judas becomes a spy for Christ’s enemies (cf. John 13:18). Entrusted with the moneybox, the false disciple can barely disguise his greed. Feigning concern for the poor, he begrudges the woman’s extravagance as she anoints the Lord with costly oil (cf. John 12:4–6). Was Judas, even at that hour, trying to stifle a faint inner misgiving when he saw the woman’s torrent of love for the one he had resolved to sell?

The harlotry of Israel—a millennium and more of lawlessness and idolatry—all this converged as through a funnel upon Iscariot’s treacherous heart. Israel always turned aside to other gods, and Judas entrusted himself to the protection of silver. He turned his back on the true God, only to find no hope or refuge in any other. Yet his heart was already so sunk in self-deceit that repentance proved beyond him. Like Ahithophel, despairing, he hanged himself.

Yet there is more than this to tell of the fate of Israel. For, alongside Judas, holy Church also shows us the sinful woman. She too, in her harlotry, is emblematic of faithless Israel. Yet she repents. And in her compunctionate heart is gathered together all Israel’s yearning for communion with God: centuries of sacrifices, prayers, and prophetic warnings. The false disciple may betray; the leaders of the Jews may plot and interrogate; Roman soldiers may mock and jeer—but this woman, like Samuel of old, anoints in secrecy the true King of the Jews, and on behalf of her people she confesses the Messiah of Israel.

She anoints the Lord not for the sake of an earthly kingdom, which passes away, but in readiness for death and burial, to which the Lord will submit, that “he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Heb. 2:14–15).

Adam and Eve, like shame-faced slaves, hid from the footsteps of the Lord in Paradise. But freed of the guilt of sin through her repentance, this woman draws near to those same beautiful feet with myrrh and tears (cf. Hymn of Kassiani). She is redeemed through Christ and raised to the dignity of a citizen in the New Jerusalem.

Christ appears to the women carrying spices (detail: Christ), 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Christ appears to the women carrying spices (detail: Christ), 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

As Orthodox Christians we too have been anointed with holy Chrism, that we should be raised even higher than the dignity of citizens: that we should reign with Christ for ever (cf. Rev. 22:5). Our anointing, like Christ’s, is a preparation for burial. Before we can reign with him, we must suffer with him and not deny him (1 Tim. 2:12); only through being buried with him can we be raised up to newness of life (cf. Rom. 6:4, 8). Vladimir Lossky puts it thus:

We have received the royal unction of the Holy Spirit, but we do not yet reign with Christ. Like the young David, who after his anointing by Samuel had to endure Saul’s hatred before he obtained his kingdom, we must resist the armies of Satan, who like Saul is dispossessed but still remains “the prince of this world.”*

The treacherous disciple grew faint at the sight of battle and gave himself over to evil and eternal death. But the woman, through repentance, put on the armor of salvation, fought the good fight, and took hold of eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12).

Through such warfare, a sin-loving harlot is transformed into a pure bride, adorned for her husband. Throughout the long, moonless night of this age, she keeps watch with joy for the midnight coming of the divine Bridegroom. Wise in her renewed virginity, she keeps her lamp full of oil and burning brightly. She is ready, when he comes, to be led by him into the eternal Bridal Chamber, there to partake of his delights.

Hierodeacon Herman (Majkrzak) is a graduate of Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey, and of St. Tikhon’s Seminary, South Canaan, Pennsylvania. Before becoming a monk at the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, Manton, California, Fr. Herman taught liturgical music and liturgical theology at St. Herman’s Seminary, in Kodiak, Alaska. Since 2010, Fr. Herman has served as the Chapel Music Director and Lecturer in Liturgical Music at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

* Vladimir Lossky, “Dominion and Kingship,” in In the Image and Likeness of God (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1974), 225.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Reflection

Lazarus Saturday, Resurrection, and the Faith of Children

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. (I Corinthians 15:12-14)

 

But now, Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. (I Corinthians 15:20-22)

The Raising of Lazarus (detail: Lazarus), 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The Raising of Lazarus (detail: Lazarus), 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

These words from the Apostle Paul beautifully underscore the centrality of the resurrection in the Orthodox Christian faith. We Orthodox Christians affirm our belief and give personal testimony, like St. Paul, each time we profess our faith with the words of the Nicene Creed. We rejoice on Pascha as we sing: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” We believe firmly that the first-fruits of the Old Testament given in offering to God are a promise of later fruits. (Exodus 23:16) In the same way, the Resurrection of Jesus is a first-fruit offering to God, a promise for all believers that we will be later fruit. (I Corinthians 15:23)

 

Lazarus Saturday is a unique liturgical affirmation of this centrality. Lazarus Saturday is the only time, outside of Sunday, that we Orthodox celebrate what can be called a resurrectional service. We shout on this day that Christ Jesus has raised Lazarus, confirming “the universal resurrection of mankind,” even before His own passion, death, and resurrection. From the Troparion of the Feast we sing:

Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God!

Like the children with branches of victory, we cry out to Thee, O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest!

Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.

 

The Resurrection (detail: Hades bound), 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The Resurrection (detail: Hades bound), 14th century, Gracanica Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The Evil One has given his best shot, but the message is now clear: as Lazarus is called forth from his tomb, the Devil’s best was not good enough to stand against the Love of God. On this day, Hades surely trembles as it anticipates the risen Lord descending into its very depths.

 

On Lazarus Saturday, the Great Fast has ended and the Great and Holy Week has not yet begun. We are given a brief respite, a time for renewal, before the solemnity and intensity of the holy days ahead and the future joy of hearing “Christ is risen!” It has been said that the Fathers placed this feast at this point in the liturgical calendar because it “… serves as a necessary ‘rest’ and ‘transition’ between the rigors of the Fast and the awesome and saving events of Holy Week. For in truth, yesterday evening’s Vespers not only ended the Holy Forty Days, but also ushered us into a joyous resurrectional prelude that will eventually lead to our Savior’s Passion.”[i]

 

The feast day has a clear foundation in the life of the Early Church. The Spanish nun Egeria, who kept an extensive diary noting liturgical practices as she traveled in the Levant and Jerusalem between 381–384 AD, records that Lazarus Saturday was a joyful celebration in the life of the Church. It was the last day of instruction for catechumens who were preparing for Christian initiation rites.[ii]

 

The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus, 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus, 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

In addition to Lazarus, there are two other occasions in the New Testament where a person is restored to life by the Lord. (Often, the word “resuscitation” is used in commentaries to make the distinction between those who will “die again” and resurrection which ends death, “trampling down death by death.”)St. Mark records the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43), and in St. Luke’s Gospel we read of the raising of the son of the Widow of Nain. (Luke 7:11-17) In the first of these stories, we see Jesus touch the little girl and we hear Him speak in Aramaic: “Talitha, cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”In the raising of the widow’s son, the boy himself is not touched by Christ; only his coffin is. From the story of Jarius’ daughter to the story of the widow’s son, we see a progression from Jesus physically touching a child to only needing to touch a coffin in order to raise the dead. The calling of Lazarus from his tomb requires no touch at all. The voice of the Lord is sufficient and all of creation hears Him say: “Lazarus, come forth!” and the command: “Loose him, and let him go.” Lazarus comes forth in his shroud, unlike the Lord who leaves the shroud behind, as Lazarus will someday need his burial clothes again.

 

The Raising of the Widow's Son, 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The Raising of the Widow’s Son, 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The concept of resurrection is not limited to the pages of the New Testament. Our Christian belief in the resurrection stems from Judaism itself. For Jews, Hades, a place of shades, is a kind of “holding pen” where contact with the living and God Himself is suspended. (Psalm 6:5) Some Old Testament figures, such as Enoch and Elijah, are simply “taken up” to heaven, avoiding Hades and death altogether. Traditionally, many Christian commentators have interpreted these events from this side of the Resurrection as prophecies of what is to come, looking forward to the general resurrection when as we read in John’s Gospel: “… for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”(John 5:28-29)

 

Orthodox Christian believers see Hades bound as Christ takes the hand of Adam in the icon of the Anastasis, (“Resurrection”). This powerful, personal encounter with the Resurrected Lord is what gives the Church its firm foundation—a foundation upon which the Canon of New Testament Scripture and the Nicene Creed rests. Indeed, it is this encounter with the raised Person of Christ that fuels the ascetic life lived by each Christian as he or she prepares in this life for eternal life beyond the grave.

The Resurrection (detail Adam being raised), 14th century, Gracanica Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The Resurrection (detail: Adam being raised), 14th century, Gracanica Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

 

We know that the Pharisees and Sadducees differed greatly on the Jewish teaching regarding the resurrection. We read in the Book of Acts the following:

 

Now as they spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of men came to be about five thousand.(Acts 4:1-4)

 

The great preacher, St. John Chrysostom, reflected on this passage:

 

They were annoyed, not only because the apostles were teaching, but because they declared that not only was Jesus Christ himself risen from the dead but that through him we too rise again… So powerful was his resurrection that he is the cause of resurrection for others as well.[iii]

 

Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers testify to the importance of resurrection, celebrated on this Feast of St. Lazarus. On Lazarus Saturday, all believers encounter the power of the resurrection as revealed in the Book of Acts. As those who keep this feast today, we rejoice as we hear the voice of Jesus calling forth Lazarus, four days dead! Adults work hard to rationalize the reality of the resurrection. These mental contortions often lead us away from the simple faith that children possess—a faith that Jesus tells us is the model of fruit-bearing discipleship. On Lazarus Saturday, our eyes see the joy of children as they behold the resurrection and rejoice in something they cannot explain in worldly terms, but acknowledge, by faith, to be true.

 

The Myrrhbearing Women at the Empty Tomb, 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The Myrrhbearing Women at the Empty Tomb, 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Many customs have developed through the centuries as this story of these friends of Jesus, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, has spread from Bethany. Most of these customs involve the participation of children. The procession following the Divine Liturgy on Lazarus Saturday is a foreshadowing of the Paschal procession. In the Middle Eastern tradition, special Lenten candies are made and are tied to a branch. As the children finish the outdoor procession and enter the church by passing under the branch, they pull off these treats and eat them. It has been said that after coming forth from the tomb and during his time as the bishop in Citium in Cypress, St. Lazarus only ate sweet tasting foods as a sign of the joy of having had a foretaste of the sweetness of eternal life in Christ. In this way, the children imitate St. Lazarus and eat sweets in anticipation of the “sweet taste” of eternal life.

 

In Romania, especially in the Wallachia, young girls will choose a girl from among them (usually the youngest) to be dressed in bridal clothing in anticipation of the wedding feast enjoyed by all believers at the time of the general resurrection. They all then trek through their villages, dancing and singing of St. Lazarus. As with many feasts in Romania, special breads are baked and given to the children and the needy. Flowers are also planted on this day, in preparation for Holy Pascha.

 

Serbian Orthodox Christians have the Lazarus Saturday custom of what is called “Vrbica,” or “Little Willows.” Children are encouraged to go into the woods to find pussy willows to bring back the church for the procession, as if they are going to meet Christ who is coming to the tomb of Lazarus, while singing the troparion of the feast. Children are also often dressed in their very best clothes, as if it were already Pascha. Bells are brought by the children to church on Lazarus Saturday, making a “holy noise.”

 

There are many other cultural customs that have evolved in different traditional Orthodox countries as a means for giving our children a preview of Pascha and the joy of the resurrection—the hope of all Christians.

 

The Entry into Jerusalem (detail: children), 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

The Entry into Jerusalem (detail: children), 14th century, Gracanica Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

On Palm Sunday, the children of the Hebrews will run to greet the Messiah, spreading branches and palms along the way as He enters Jerusalem on a colt. When we see our children rejoicing and having fun on Lazarus Saturday and on Palm Sunday—perhaps waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!”—remember the words of Jesus to His disciples when they tried to keep the children from coming to Him. He said: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14) We Orthodox baptize our children and do not forbid them to be partakers in the full life of the Church, in obedience to what our Lord teaches us. How many of us have had our hearts melted when seeing the excitement on the faces of our children as they carry candles that they have made on Lazarus Saturday in procession? How many of us have found our own faith renewed as we heard their excited voices telling us of the coming celebration of Holy Pascha? Our children model perfect faith for those of us who have made our faith too complicated to enjoy the simple truth that:

 

CHRIST IS RISEN!

 

Whatever ethnic background or local custom you observe on Lazarus Saturday, take special note of the children. When you give the children their place and their treats on this day, also hear Jesus when He speaks to us these words which are the key to those of us who seek life in His Kingdom:

 

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.” (Matthew 18:1-5)

Christ with the Children, 14th century, Gracanica Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Christ with the Children, 14th century, Gracanica Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Archpriest Chad Hatfield, Chancellor/CEO of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, also serves as the seminary’s Adjunct Professor of Missiology, one of the newest fields of study at SVOTS. Father Chad’s ordained ministry spans 35 years, during which he has served as a school chaplain spanning the elementary school to the university. In the past decade, he has held positions of leadership and administration at two of the OCA’s three seminaries. His many years in parish and school settings have provided him with a unique perspective on how to successfully include children in parish life and the importance of imbuing them with a foundational experience of the joy of Christian living. Father Chad and his wife, Matushka Thekla, have two grown sons, Jason and Sean, and three grandchildren.

________________________

[i] Kidd, David and Mother Gabriella (Ursache), Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion (Rives Junction, MI: HDM Press, 1999), 109-110.

[ii] Wilkinson John, Egeria’s Travels (Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, LTD, 1999), 58.

[iii] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament V, Acts, ed. Francis Martin, General Editor, Thomas C. Oden (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 47.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reflection

The Vocation of Fatherhood

trantAs a proud Texan, it is more than a little ironic that my daughter has a New York birth certificate. Having spent all of our married life in Texas, my wife and I would have gladly welcomed our daughter before we moved to New York to attend seminary. However, as God would have it and for reasons unknown to us, we had to wait for this particular blessing until we left home. A friend of mine once remarked that the most important things in life are often those things we have little or no control over. That is a hard lesson to learn especially when what we want seems to be good and selfless. Yet, God wanted us to wait, so wait we did. And now, having moved to New York to attend seminary, we have been blessed with a determined and cheerful daughter.

Having a daughter has prompted some reflection regarding my vocation. “Vocation” is a word often associated with seminary. If I remember correctly, in an admissions essay, I wrote that I wanted to attend seminary to “explore the priestly vocation.” I am not sure if I am any more certain of what that phrase means now than I did when I wrote it! Rather, I chose to attend seminary because I’d already made up my mind that if I was extended the grace of ordination, I would not refuse it.

This is the only way it works. A person chooses to be baptized into Christ without really knowing what that will mean in his life, day to day. We accept the responsibility of following Christ (no easy task!) and believe God will provide the grace to ensure it happens. I had accepted the vocation of “father” when I married my wife. All we needed was God to grace our love and marriage with one of the profound blessings of marital union, that of bringing new life into the world. I had no idea how to be a dad seven years ago when I married my wife, but now that I have a daughter the learning curve has been steep! Slowly, at times painfully, I am becoming conformed to this vocation. By God’s grace, hopefully I’ll have it down by the time my daughter is an adult.

My darling baby girl has taught me the “already-not-yet” nature of following Christ. I am already her father, but at times not yet ready to be her father. I fail miserably and hope she is able to forget at least a portion of my shortcomings. Similarly, by virtue of the grace of my baptism, I am a Christian. Yet, I fail miserably and am not worthy to bear the name that is above all names. I am already, and not yet, a true Christian. In this way, God’s blessings meet us where we are and then propel us forward, to a place closer and more intensely connected with His activity in this world—activities such as raising children to know, love, and depend upon Him.

A priest on campus always calls me “dad.” This is a daily reminder that God not only chooses which blessing to give but the timing of the blessing as well. The moniker “dad” reminds me that God has a plan for me, and He will give me the grace that matches the gift and the challenges that come with it. I accept this vocation and the abiding grace that comes with it even though I am still working out the details. Now, if I could just do something about that birth certificate!

Joshua Trant is in his second year of the Masters of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Joshua and his wife, Heather, welcomed their daughter, Tabitha, last August. Being a native Texan, Joshua sometimes wonders how New Yorkers have survived so long without decent BBQ brisket. This reflection first appeared on the website of St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reflection

St. Theophan the Recluse on prayer

St Theophan the RecluseWhy is it, you ask, that one can pray for so many years with a prayer book, and still not have prayer in his heart? I think the reason is that people only spend a little time lifting themselves up to God when they complete their prayer rule, and in other times, they do not remember God. For example, they finish their morning prayers, and think that their relation to God is fulfilled by them; then the whole day passes in work, and such a person does not attend to God. Then in the evening, the thought returns to him that he must quickly stand at prayer and complete his evening rule. In this case, it happens that even if the Lord grants a person spiritual feelings at the time of the morning prayer, the bustle and business of the day drowns them out. As a result, it happens that one does not often feel like praying, and cannot get control of himself even to soften his heart a little bit. In such an atmosphere, prayer develops and ripens poorly. This problem (is it not ubiquitous?) needs to be corrected, that is, one must ensure that the soul does not only make petition to God when standing in prayer, but during the whole day, as much as possible, one must unceasingly ascend to Him and remain with Him.

In order to begin this task, one must first, during the course of the day, cry out to God more often, even if only with a few words, according to need and the work of the day. Beginning anything, for example, say ‘Bless, O Lord!’ When you finish something, say, ‘Glory to Thee, O Lord’, and not only with your lips, but with feeling in your heart. If passions arise, say, ‘Save me, O Lord, I am perishing.’ If the darkness of disturbing thoughts comes up, cry out: ‘Lead my soul out of prison.’ If dishonest deeds present themselves and sin leads you to them, pray, ‘Set me, O Lord, in the way’, or ‘do not give up my feet to stumbling.’ If sin takes hold of you and leads you to despair, cry out with the voice of the publican, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Do this in every circumstance, or simply say often, ‘Lord, have mercy’, ‘Most Holy Theotokos save us”, ‘Holy Angel, my guardian, protect me’, or other such words. Say such prayers as often as possible, always making the effort for them come from your heart, as if squeezed out of it. When we do this, we will frequently ascend to God in our hearts, making frequent petitions and prayers. Such increased frequency will bring about the habit of mental conversation with God.

– St. Theophan the Recluse, On prayer, Homily 2
Delivered 22 November, 1864

1 Comment

Filed under Homily

Forgiveness (Cheese-Fare Sunday)

Written by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent is a book of spiritual reflections on the journey through Lent to Pascha. This particular excerpt is from the first chapter, entitled “Preparation for Lent.”

And now we have reached the very last days before Lent. Already during Meat-Fare Week, which precedes “Forgiveness Sunday,” two days – Wednesday and Friday – have been set apart as fully “lenten”: The Divine Liturgy is not to be served and the whole order and type of worship have the liturgical characteristics of Lent. On Wednesday at Vespers we greet Lent with this beautiful hymn:

The lenten spring has come! the light of repentance;

Let us, brothers, cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light:

Glory to Thee, O Lover of man.

Then on Cheese-Fare Saturday the Church commemorates all men and women who were “illumined through fasting:” the Saints who are the patterns we must follow, guides in the difficult art of fasting and repentance. In the effort we are about to begin we are not alone:

Let us praise the assemblies of holy fathers:

Anthony the Great, Euthymius the Great and all of their company!

Passing through their lives as through a paradise of sweetness…

We have helpers and examples:

We honor you as examples, O holy fathers!

You truly taught us to walk on the right path;

You are blessed for you worked for Christ….

Finally comes the last day, usually called “Forgiveness Sunday,” but whose other liturgical name must also be remembered: the “Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss.” This name summarizes indeed the entire preparation for Lent. By now we know that man was created for paradise, for knowledge of God and communion with Him. Man’s sin has deprived him of that blessed life and his existence on earth is exile. Christ, the Savior of the world, opens the door of paradise to everyone who follows Him, and the Church, by revealing to us the beauty of the Kingdom, makes our life a pilgrimage toward our heavenly fatherland. Thus, at the beginning of Lent, we are like Adam:

Adam was expelled from paradise through food;

Sitting, therefore, in front of it he cried:

‘Woe to me….

One commandment of God have I transgressed,

depriving myself of all that is good;

Paradise holy! Planted for me,

And now because of Eve closed to me;

Pray to thy Creator and mine

that I may be filled again by thy blossom.’

Then answered the Savior to him:

‘I wish not my creation to perish;

I desire it to be saved and to know the Truth;

For I will not turn away him who comes to Me….’

Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of “this world.” [emphasis added]  And the Gospel lesson of this last Sunday (Matt. 6:14-21) sets the conditions for that liberation. The first one is fasting – the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal, the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of flesh and matter over the spirit. To be effective, however, our fast must not be hypocritical, a “showing off.” We must “appear not unto men to fast but to our Father who is in secret.” The second condition is forgiveness – “If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.” The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world, is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness: the return to unity, solidarity, love. To forgive is to put between men and my “enemy” the radiant forgiveness of God Himself. To forgive is to reject the hopeless “dead-ends” of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness truly a “breakthrough” of the Kingdom into this sinful and fallen world….

We will have to wander forty days through the desert of Lent. Yet at the end shines already the light of Easter, the light of the Kingdom.

Excerpt from Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969, p. 27-28, 30.

Leave a comment

Filed under SVS Press Excerpt

A Male Convert and Female Saints: The Strong Women of the Orthodox Church and of My Family

Sts. Constantine and Helena, 11th c., Hosias Loukas, Boeotia, Greece

Sts. Constantine and Helena, 11th c., Hosias Loukas, Boeotia, Greece

I am surely not the only male convert to Orthodoxy who was initially surprised to discover how central the balance of the masculine and the feminine is to our faith and spiritual life. To some that may seem counter-intuitive in a church with a male priesthood with lots of facial hair, while to others it may be self-evident; nonetheless, it is true and important. For example, think of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Joachim and Anna, Zacharias and Elizabeth, or Constantine and Helen. We are always asking the female Theotokos to use her boldness as a mother to intercede for us with her male Son. We sing almost every Sunday about those myrrh-bearing women in matins and regularly chant and/or read about women saints of all kinds. We proclaim that Mary Magdalene was the preacher to the male apostles of the Lord’s resurrection and that she, together with various other women and men, are their equals. Since we are male and female in God’s image, this balance fits nicely with the deepest sensibilities of Orthodox Christianity.

Perhaps the strong women of my own family have helped me embrace enthusiastically the prominent role of women in the Orthodox spiritual life. In my hometown of Beaumont, TX, my three great aunts—whom we called by their nicknames, Hennie, Nig, and Gertie—lived just a few minutes from the house where I grew up. My grandmother had died when I was an infant, and these ladies more than fulfilled that role for my brother and me. One was a widow and two never married, but they lived together for decades and had very full lives. For example, Hennie was the first female school principal in Beaumont, an accomplished and enthusiastic fisherman (or fisherwoman ), and visited Alaska when she was around eighty. When my father first met these ladies in the late 1950’s, he said he had never met a group of such independent women. They were all devout and straight-laced Methodists, which is why my first educational experience was in a Methodist preschool. Since I did graduate work at Duke and now teach at Methodist-related McMurry, it is interesting that my academic experiences began and still continue in Methodist circles.

My mother and her late sister Fay have a lot in common with those great aunts. Both, like Hennie, were teachers, and they showed the same abundance of self-confidence that she had. I remember Fay once mentioning that someone at their Baptist church had asked where she and my mom got that quality. Her response was that it was from their father, who never gave them the impression that they should have been sons instead of daughters, and also instilled in them the belief that they could do whatever they set their minds to. I hope that I have sent the same message to my own girls.

My mother, now a widow and the only surviving member of her family of origin, lives independently in the house built by my great aunts. An active member of the Baptist congregation in which I grew up, she still spends lots of time and energy taking care of friends who suffer more than she does from the infirmities associated with a long life. A few years ago, Mom attended classes on Orthodoxy at St. Michael parish in Beaumont in order to learn more about her youngest son’s faith. Once when I was at St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, our Bishop Basil was on the phone with another priest at the same meeting. When it was my turn to say hello to him, His Grace began, “The parish council in Beaumont loves your mother!” What a joyful confluence of important people in my life. After she slept unharmed through a burglary in her house a while back, Mom said, “Well, I suppose that God has something left for me to do.” I do not doubt that for a minute.

Given the self-confident women in my upbringing, it is probably not surprising that my wife is a physician, that our oldest daughter had the courage to spend last summer interning at an AIDS foundation in Ghana, and that our youngest had the confidence to go by herself to three summer sessions of “nerd camp,” a residential program for gifted and talented students a few hours away. Growing up Orthodox in Abilene rarely leads to social advantages, and neither does attending nerd camp. The virtuous lives our girls lead in college and high school require courage and self-determination.

Virgin and Child, 11th c., Hosias Loukas, Boeotia, Greece

Virgin and Child, 11th c., Hosias Loukas, Boeotia, Greece

Like my mother and aunts, Paige and the girls are not timid shrinking violets by a long shot, and neither were the women saints who had the boldness to go to the tomb of Christ in the wee hours of Sunday morning to anoint His body, and thus put themselves in the place to become the first witnesses of His resurrection. Neither were the countless female martyrs who died after enduring the worst tortures their enemies could produce for refusing to abandon their Lord. Above all, the courage of the Theotokos to say “yes” to the message of the Archangel Gabriel stands as the epitome of humanity’s response to God’s calling, and it was given by a teenage girl.

Perhaps part of why venerating and asking for the prayers of female saints comes so easily to me is that my life has been blessed by so many righteous women who pray for me and for whom I pray, regardless of whether they are now among the living or the departed. They are not canonized by the Church (at least not yet!), but the witness of so many holy women has benefited my own journey in ways beyond words. I could say a lot about my father, priests, bishops, and many other male friends who have also played crucial roles in this regard, but that is for another time. For now, I will return to where I started. The masculine and feminine have legitimate and balanced roles in the spiritual path of Orthodoxy. Since we are created male and female in God’s image, and since the incarnate Son of God has a fully human mother, that really should not be surprising. It is simply part of the good news of our salvation, whether we are male or female.

Untitled

Female and Male Saints, 6th c., Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

Fr. Philip LeMasters is an Eastern Orthodox priest, a dean at McMurry University, a commentator on Ancient Faith Radio, and the author of The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity (Cascade Books, 2013), The Goodness of God’s Creation (Regina Orthodox Press, 2008), Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage, and Sex (Light & Life, 2004), three other books on Christian ethics, and many published essays and reviews. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. This blog post originally appeared on the blog Eastern Christian Insights and is republished here with the permission of the author.

1 Comment

Filed under Reflection