Monday, March 28, 2016

The Week Ahead - and the Distrubingly Swift Passage of Time

Today we begin the third week of the Holy Fast. If you are like me you are probably rather shocked at that fact. It seems like we just started! But how quickly the Great Lent flies by – and how often we waste this special time of year - this spiritual gift! The Lord so mercifully shows us our sins during this time – but we often do not take the time to notice. And if you would like to be a little more shocked at the breakneck speed at which Great Lent passes: this Sunday, April 3, is the midway point of the fast! Unbelievable but true. So, let us begin if we have not, and if we have, let us redouble our efforts.

One thing is to take the time to notice what the Lord is showing us during Great Lent, and to be thankful that He so kindly points out our weaknesses, shortcomings, and falls. That is not said tongue in cheek. We really should be thankful – much more thankful that we are. But the biggest problem generally is: we don't like to look at OUR sins, we like to look at OTHERS' sins (and judge them of course!). Put another way, we don't like to look at our own reflection in the “spiritual mirror”. Because what we see there does not match the fantasy of how we think of ourselves. It does not fit the way we want others to see us. It is does not reflect our social media profile. But when we look in the spiritual mirror, when we make a real effort to see what the Lord is showing us, even though we won't like it very much, we will grow spiritually. St. Anthony the Great said that if you know yourself you know everything. Of course he was talking about spiritual life – not educational attainments. And if we know where our weaknesses and temptations are we can avoid them. Yes – in complete opposition to what the world we live in tells us we are not to indulge our weaknesses and temptations, but rather to fight them. Not alone – but with the Lord's  help. That's right – not only is the Lord merciful enough to SHOW us our weaknesses, temptations, and sins – He is also there to help us FIGHT against these too. A common temptation about temptations: to try to fight them on our own. To use our imagined superpowers to overcome. This is a form a pride quite honestly. We are to struggle, we are to try, we are to battle – but with the Lord's help. We are to WORK TOGETHER with God in our spiritual struggles.

Soon we will be standing in the parish church on the Paschal night and wondering where the last weeks have gone. If you don't believe me, then tell me please where the first two weeks of the fast have gone! They have disappeared in the blink of an eye! Let us decide now that we will redouble our efforts to see what the Lord is showing us – to look in the spiritual mirror – and despite the horror that surely will come from that cautionary glance – to get to know ourselves spiritually so that we can avoid our most common falls. There is still time left to make this a fruitful Great Lent. But do not wait! Start today. A good addition to our prayer rule at this time of year is the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. This prayer is said at all the Great Lenten weekday services. If you haven't incorporated this into your usual prayer rule yet this Great Lent please do so starting today. And if you haven't yet come to Confession and Communion this Great Lent please plan to do so this coming weekend. We have Liturgy Friday night, Saturday morning, and Sunday morning.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

General Confession and Communion Theodore Saturday and the Sunday of Orthodoxy

It is a very strong tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church for each and every person that can possibly do so to confess during the first week of Great Lent and to partake of Holy Communion on the first Saturday (Theodore Saturday) or Sunday (the Sunday of Orthodoxy) of the Great Fast. In doing so we accomplish several important things that I think are worth calling out clearly.

The first of these is that we begin our Lenten journey spiritually strengthened by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. We are seeking a closer relationship with God during Great Lent, and partaking of Holy Communion is the most intimate way in which we experience God, and partaking worthily we partake “...unto the remission of sins and life everlasting.” As we are all aware, this is part of the prayer that the priest reads at the moment we partake of Holy Communion. But of course, as we also know, partaking unworthily is unto our condemnation. We often over think this, and that is logical on one hand, since we most certainly do not want to partake of Holy Communion unworthily. What we must understand is that the moment we leave the confessional we begin to sin again. To partake worthily does not mean that we partake without having committed any sin since our last confession. Partaking worthily means that we have made a sincere effort to prepare ourselves for Holy Communion: we have attended as many of the Divine Services in preparation for the Liturgy that we are able to, we have read our prayer rule, we have fasted, we have confessed without consciously withholding any sins, we have forgiven all and asked forgiveness of any we have wronged, etc. You can learn more about how to prepare for Holy Communion at the special page on our web site specifically covering this topic. This page is available in English and Russian.

The second of the important things that we do when we all partake of Holy Communion together is that we express openly and through our actions (not just our words) that we are a family. This is important. As you have heard me say many times, we perish alone and we are saved together. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but as those living in the world this is the usual order of things. Spiritual isolation is unhealthy – living in community as a family is healthy. Running from problems and struggles is unhealthy (rest assured that the problems will follow you) – dealing with them with the support of family is healthy. When we all prepare for and partake of Holy Communion together we clearly state for the world (and for ourselves) that we are a family – that we are in this effort together. And that this is a good, spiritually healthy, way to live in the world for Orthodox Christians. As with all families there can be tensions, there is the crazy uncle and the cat lady aunt (metaphorically of course). But these issues – the people we don't really get along with swimmingly, or the people that sort of rub us the wrong way, or whatever (fill in the blank for yourself here) – give us the opportunity to exercise the virtues and exorcise the vices. When we all work towards a shared goal together we grow closer, we are more tolerant of the foibles of our parish family members, and there is more room for God's love in our hearts and between us. Please recall our parish mission statement:

“The mission of St. Vladimir Orthodox Church is to gather Orthodox Christians of all nationalities and backgrounds, as well as all those desiring to embrace the Orthodox Christian Faith, as a parish family for mutual spiritual support and the salvation of our souls. We strive to emulate in our lives, and especially in our parish family, the relationship between the persons of the Holy Trinity as the highest and most profound example of love.”

Note the love of the Holy Trinity mentioned there. That is not a mistake, that is not hyperbole, that is a goal (so perhaps this is both a mission and a vision statement) that we all must strive for if we will be an example. Not an example of pride, but an example for the sake of those seeking Christ's love. An example for our children of how a Christian should live.

I hope you will all take the time, if you are able, to prepare yourself and to partake of Holy Communion this weekend. Please use this space to post comments, questions, or share thoughts. Your participation is welcome!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The First Week of Great Lent

On Monday, March 14 we begin the Christian Spring – Great Lent. One of the metaphors that has been used for the Holy Church since ancient times is that of a spiritual hospital. If this is the case during the rest of the year, then during Great Lent we could think of the Holy Church as a spiritual intensive care unit. Somehow, often through our own temptations, the Lord mercifully shows us our spiritual weaknesses and shortcomings especially starkly during this time of year. This is something for which we should be THANKFUL. Yes – thankful. We often avoid looking at ourselves honestly during much of our lives, but somehow, through God's Grace, we are able to see ourselves for who we really are during Great Lent. And this is something that allows us to better struggle with our sins. St. Anthony the Great said that if we know ourselves we know everything. Great Lent allows us to learn more about ourselves so that we may better struggle against our spiritual weaknesses both during Great Lent - and outside Great Lent as well.

The first week of Great Lent is replete with Divine Services. This is for our good – it allows us to come to God's House, to seek the solace that can only be found there, and also the medicine of repentance that allows us to begin to work in earnest on our spiritual shortcomings. Each day of the first week we allow time for confession – generally during and after the Great Compline services (once the Canon has been read). WE SHOULD TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS OPPORTUNITY. Each of us is called to prepare ourselves to partake of Holy Communion on Saturday or Sunday (or both) of the first week. Confession is an important part of preparation for Holy Communion – and if the Lord is helping us to better see our sins then we should bring these to Confession.

The Divine Services are the theology of the Holy Church in action. During Great Lent the services have a special penitential character. The Holy Church provided us five full Sundays of preparation for Great Lent. This should show us how important the Church considers this time of year. When we are participating in the Divine Services of the first week we especially feel the theology of the Church – that repentance is necessary for us to draw nearer to God. And that is why we offer the opportunity to confess each day – so that as the Lord reveals to each of us our need for repentance we have the opportunity to act on that immediately.

I would like to take this opportunity to encourage our parish family to participate in the Divine Services of this time of year to the greatest extent possible – and to push yourselves a bit in this regard. If one attends only the weekend Divine Services of Great Lent one notices little change from the non-Lenten time. But if one attends the weekday services – the difference is both clear and impressive – and this is very helpful for our spiritual lives. The hymnography of the Divine Services contains all the spiritual truths of our faith. Please participate in the services as your schedule allows.

And please ask questions here about fasting, the Divine Services, Great Lent in general, or any other aspect of our faith. May the Lord grant all a spiritually profitable Lenten journey!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Forgiveness Sunday – A Must Attend

The coming Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday. This Sunday is one of the most important Sundays of the the year. According to the Church's reckoning this Sunday is called “The Casting out of Adam”. In other words, the previous Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, may be thought of as the last day. With this coming Sunday being the first day – the beginning of the history of salvation. And the scripture readings for Great Lent reflect that. Note that we begin Clean Monday (the first day of Great Lent) with the first chapter of Genesis – the beginning of the Bible and the beginning of the story of the history of the Holy Church.

All very interesting, of course, but why do we also call this coming Sunday “Forgiveness Sunday”? This is due to the fact that after the Divine Liturgy we will immediately serve the first Divine Service of the Holy Fast. That does not mean that at the meal following vespers we will not eat dairy products. Rest assured that we will, but this vespers service is the LITURGICAL beginning of Great Lent. At this service the colors of the icon and altar covers are changed from gold to black (black being the weekday liturgical color for Great Lent), as are the vestments of the clergy. And most importantly for all of us – following the dismissal at vespers we will perform the Rite of Forgiveness. For those who have never participated in this service THIS IS THE YEAR! If kids have sports, art, music, or whatever, I strongly suggest that those activities be skipped if need be to participate in this very important service. At the Rite of Forgiveness we put into action the words of the Gospel read at the Divine Liturgy earlier that day. These words are so useful, so powerful, and so important for us that I will include the entirety of the short Gospel reading here:

“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6i:14-21)

At the Rite of Forgiveness we humble ourselves, bowing before each of our parish family members and asking their forgiveness for any way we have wronged them, real or perceived, in the last year. We “...forgiven men their trespasses...” so that our “...heavenly Father will also forgive [us]...”. These words of the Gospel are not just pretty phrases – these are calls to action! As we seek God's forgiveness, as we embrace repentance, as we work to better ourselves spiritually during the Holy Fast we first begin with forgiveness. This is not a quaint old practice. This is not some empty rite. This is LIFE! Our faith is not something we “go through the motions” with. Orthodox Christianity is not a Sunday morning club. It is a way of life – a world view – and a call to transformation. Much of this transformation relies on our struggle for humility and repentance (and of course the cooperation of and with God's Grace).

Recall when you first came to the Church – when you first realized that the life you had lived up until that point was not just an abstraction, but in many ways wrong in God's eyes. The loving Lord, in His mercy, awaited your repentance. And we felt as close to God then as the son felt in the embrace of his father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. That is not by accident – repentance and humility attract God's Grace. Over time, as we become the older son in the parable rather than the prodigal son, we lose that zeal – that desire to repent of our sins. This is something virtually everyone goes through and is, we may say, the “normal” course of spiritual life. But the Holy Church, as a loving mother, appoints for us a time each year when we can again embrace this zeal, when we can be Christians without any hesitation or excuse, when we can throw of that “normal”, and can again draw near to God in a special way that only comes with this understanding of and embracing of repentance.

Does this mean that you are “bad” in God's eyes? That you are “wretched”? Or in some other way unacceptable? Of course not! We are made in God's image, but it is up to us to embrace God's likeness. Our goal as Orthodox Christians is to raise ourselves to Heaven – not to drag God down to the street. We need to rise, to transform, to draw nearer to God. Not to demand that He accept us however we are or however we want to be. The onus is ON US – we need to work, we we need to struggle, we need to humble ourselves, we need to understand that we are the creature and that God is the Creator. And that He calls us to a life of drawing near to Him for our salvation that He shares with us freely out of His love for us. He created us to share His love with us. Now let us thank him by following the precepts that He gave us for salvation. Salvation is not on OUR terms – we cannot demand that it be as we, in all our brilliance and wisdom think it should be – this gift is given based on the terms of the Giver. Salvation is free – but God defines how we are to receive it, for He knows even better than we do what is best for our eternity. And His Holy Church, the Ark of Salvation, teaches us just as He taught us: forgiveness, repentance, spiritual struggle, humility – all these are necessary for our salvation. And all these are provided for us in a special way each year during Great Lent.

AND IT BEGINS ON SUNDAY! Please plan to join us for Forgiveness Vespers, and please reach out to me if you have any questions. Or even better – ask your question here so that other readers may learn from it. Must you also ask forgiveness of those who do not forgive you (at least in your mind)? Unquestionably yes. If your neighbor refuses to forgive you he is running towards perdition. If you in turn refuse to forgive  him to you are chasing him. Let us not chase each other to perdition, but let us embrace each other with love and forgiveness, starting the Christian Spring, the Holy and Great Lent, with light hearts, knowing that we have done all we can to act on the Gospel that we have included above, and trusting too that our Heavenly Father will forgive us as we embrace the special time of year that is Great Lent!

Questions and comments are welcome!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fr. Gregory's Annual Meeting Report

For those who would like to read the Rector's Report that I will provide at the parish annual meeting later today we have posted it on line. You can find it at this link. Please use this space to ask questions or provide comments. If you would prefer to email privately you may do that of course. Just click on my picture to the right. If you miss the annual meeting please do not worry. All reports from the meeting will be available to parish members beginning the first week of Great Lent. If you'd like to learn more about parish membership please visit this link, or again, send me an email. We welcome ALL to become members of our parish family!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Commemoration of the Departed

Saturday, March 5 marks the first of the four Saturdays connect with Great Lent that the Holy Church sets aside for the commemoration of those that have departed this life before us. As with all aspects of our faith, and with all actions of the Holy Church, these special days were set aside for our good – for our salvation. It of course benefits the souls of those who have departed when we pray for them, but it is also beneficial for us to do this, as it is our duty to pray for the departed, to teach our children to do so, and as a parish family to care not just for our living parish family members, but for those who have gone on to the next life before us. They live in Christ – if we ignore them we are shirking our duty as Orthodox Christians. Prayer for the departed has always been a part of the worship of God's people – from the time of Israel until now. And it always will be until the Lord comes again.

These Saturdays are not set in stone per se. It sometimes happens that Annunciation or the feast of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, or some other feast day falls on one of these Saturdays, in which case the service for the departed is replaced. But as a rule the Saturday following the Sunday of the Prodigal Son and the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of Great Lent are set aside for the commemoration of the departed. In fact, it may be a surprise to our parishioners that almost every Saturday of the year contains special prayers for the departed. It is the UNUSUAL Saturday that does not. In fact, it is the practice of the Holy Church to commemorate the departed at almost all Divine Liturgies of the entire year. Sunday, however, is not a day of the commemoration of the departed, but rather a day of the commemoration of life – of our Lord's glorious Resurrection. Because we mostly attend the Divine Services as part of the Sunday cycle we do not “feel” this commemoration of the departed as normal – it seems very unusual to us. It is the same with prostrations at the Liturgy. Because we do not do prostrations at the Liturgy on Sundays it seems odd to us. Yet, prostrations are done at the vast majority of the Divine Liturgies served throughout the year – but never on Sundays. If you'd like to know when prostrations are done at Liturgy you can learn more here.

I would like to urge our parish family to be diligent to commemorate their departed loved ones both at the special Liturgies set aside for this purpose (there are several others throughout the year as well and with God's help we try to serve them all at St. Vladimir's), as well as at all Divine Liturgies by sending in the names of their departed loved ones with a prosphora for commemoration at the Proskomidia. Please see our Commemorations page for more information in this regard. Please also see the short note about the importance of prayer for the departed you will find there. And please let me know if you have any questions. In fact, questions are welcome here! Please do post your question, comments, and thoughts. No doubt if you have a question others will do, and you will do them good if you are bold enough to ask your question.