Bright Tuesday (2017)

“This is the day of resurrection.  Let us be illumined, O people, Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord.  For from death to life and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us, as we sing the song of victory.”  (Pascha Matins)

In the book of Exodus, the Passover took the Jews out of  slavery in Egypt and put them on the road to the Promised Land.  Now, Christ who is the new Passover, leads us victoriously, not merely from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, but from earth to heaven and from death to life.  Our slavery to sin and death is brought to an end and we are brought to eternal life, where sickness, sighing and sorrow have fled away.  The Exodus of the Old Testament were a foreshadowing and a type of what was to come with Christ.

The Jews were commanded to commemorate the Passover each year, not to keep looking to the past, but as a prophecy, promise and reminder of what the Lord was going to do.  Those Christians who want to do a Seder to remember the Old Covenant Passover are looking in the wrong historical direction!  The Passover prepares God’s people for what God was going to do and is doing for all humanity in His Christ.  The Passover is not mostly about what God did for Jewish ancestors thousands of years ago.  Rather it is preparation for the future, for all that God is doing and is about to do for the salvation of all the world.    Even for us Christians, the resurrection – Pascha – is not looking backwards to what God did, but rather always looks forward to what God is doing now to move us to the eschaton, His heavenly Kingdom.

“… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14, emphasis not in the original text)

Christ is risen! Truly, He is risen!

Bright Monday (2017)

“Pascha of beauty, the Pascha of the Lord!  A Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us.  Pascha!  Let us embrace each other joyously.  O Pascha, ransom from affliction!  For today as from a bridal chamber Christ has shown forth from the tomb and filled the women with joy saying: Proclaim the glad tidings to the apostles.”  (Pascha Matins)

Though the death of Christ stunned His disciples, causing them to flee into hiding because they feared for their own lives, His death turned out to be the source of the greatest joy for us humans.  Christ emerged from the tomb not as a zombie or the walking dead but as a glorious groom on His wedding day.  The resurrected Christ though having a physical body no longer seems to have been limited by His body but rather moved in and out of the physical world.  In the resurrected life, we are united to God, experiencing the divine life.  We now can proclaim the joyous good news to all the world: Christ is risen!

Paschal Greetings: Christ is Risen!

Dearly Beloved,

On this day of Pascha, I offer to you the radiant words of  St. Paul, who we honor as the Apostle to the Nations:

“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

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Thirty-seven years ago, I submitted to being ordained an Orthodox priest in order to follow in St. Paul’s footsteps: to hand over to you what I received: our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. My hope was and is to remain focused on Christ, faithful to the Gospel, practicing Orthodox Christianity in such a way as to be a faithful witness to Christ. At Pascha, we celebrate the culmination of our spiritual lives and our Lenten efforts as we encounter the risen Lord and experience Christ who is the Good News. Lent and Pascha are not about eating or not eating meat and dairy products.  They are about our living relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord and our commitment to His Body, the Church, in which we find salvation. Pascha is God’s own acceptance of death in order to give us eternal life. The Christian Faith and the Paschal Feasts are summed up well by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who inspired me to choose Orthodoxy as the way to know God:

“Death is . . . man’s rejection of life in God. It is the rejection of God for the sake of man’s life in and for himself, the result of man’s alienation from God in whom alone is life and the life of man. Death, therefore, must be destroyed as the spiritual reality of man’s separation from God – hence, the gospel, the Good News. Christ has destroyed death by trampling it with his own death. . . . Under the guise of death, Divine Love itself enters Sheol, overcoming the separation and solitude. Dispelling the darkness of hades, Christ’s death is a divine and radiant act of love, and in his death, therefore, the spiritual reality of death is abolished.  Finally, the Christian gospel announces that with Christ’s resurrection a new life – a life which has no death in it – is given to all those who believe in him and are united with him.” (THE LITURGY OF DEATH, pp 45-46)

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In the Paschal Liturgy, we celebrate everything I believe and want to share with you. In the darkness, in the middle of the night, we are illumined by the resplendent Light which is Christ. Jesus sought out the gloom of Hades to find those hidden by the shadow of death. We came out in the pitch darkness of the night to see Christ and all those who are alive in Him. The glorious joy of the resurrection enlightens our hearts and shines light wherever there is darkness.

Christ is risen!  Indeed, He is risen!

Pascha: The Resurrection (2017)

“Hell rules the race of mortal humans, but not eternally; for when You were placed in the grave, O powerful One, You tore asunder the bars of death by Your life-creating hand and proclaimed true deliverance to those sleeping there from the ages, since You, O Savior, have become the first-born of the dead.”  (Pascha Nocturnes)

God warned Adam that should he choose to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he would die (Genesis 2).  God never said death was a permanent or an eternal punishment.  While Death claimed all humans, its power came to an end when Christ died and descended to the place of the dead.  Christ raises all the dead, bringing a permanent end to death’s reign over humanity.  This is the Good News Christianity proclaims to the entire world’s population.

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:7-9)

Despite the Good News and tragically many still choose death.  Some think war is the answer to human evils – that we can defeat evil, Satan, death by killing those who we believe are evil.  Some think death is the only way to escape the world and they choose it for themselves and sometimes for others.  Some are trapped in their own thinking and believe their own death or the death of some around them are the only way out of the box that imprisons them.  Orthodoxy sees death as an evil – separation from God.  Christ tramples down death by His own death and shows us the way to remain united to the Source of Life even through suffering and death.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.”

“Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

Orthodox bless the graves of their deceased loved ones after Pascha because we do believe they are alive in Christ – they are blessed.  Christ made it clear that those who we consider dead and buried are alive in God when He said:

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:37-38)

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob died long before Moses came along, yet God speaks about them not in the past tense – I was their God – but as being their God now because they are still alive in Him.

“This is the day of resurrection.  Let us be illumined by the feast.  Let us embrace each other.  Let us call “brothers” even those who hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry:  Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” (Pascha Matins)

There is no more joyous day for humanity than Pascha.  We are baptized into Christ’s death and raised from the dead with Him to eternal life.  Consequently, we can embrace everyone for death has no more power over any of us.  Death cannot separate us from our God or from those we love.  Death remains the sign that something is wrong with this world.  In Christ we find our way to triumph over death and to remain united to the Giver of Life.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

Holy Saturday (2017)

“The logic of the primitive Paschal Vigil is that a new age dawned with the appearance, death and resurrection of Christ. In preparation for the annual commemoration of that cosmic event, the liturgy revisited the pre-incarnational age through a rereading of key Old Testament passages that prefigure events of Christ’s incarnation.” (Paul Magdalino, The Old Testament in Byzantium, p. 71)

Holy Saturday is a day on which we contemplate the whole plan of God for our salvation from the beginning of creation.  The Old Testament is read as prophecy of the New with each narrative not only foreshadowing and prefiguring the events in Christ’s own life but also being a typology of our own spiritual sojourn in Christ and into His Kingdom.  There are 15 Old Testament lessons read during the Vespers-Liturgy which was originally part of the Paschal celebration.  The words, events and prophecies of the Old Testament find both their fulfillment and full meaning in Christ’s own life, death and resurrection.

“The Old Testament gave us an eschatological interpretation of the Exodus, showing it to us as a type of the Messianic age. The New Testament proclaims that this typology has been fulfilled in Christ, who achieved the New Exodus foretold by the Prophets, by freeing men from the power of the Devil. The Fathers of the Church, while they uphold these two interpretations, are chiefly concerned to show that the Exodus is the type of those major factors in the life of the Church day by day, that is, the Sacraments through which the power of God continues to achieve man’s redemption, typified by the Exodus, and accomplished by Jesus Christ. The Fathers first of all show that the passage of the Red Sea and the eating of the manna are the type of Baptism and the Eucharist received on the anniversary day of the departure from Egypt, and then go on to show how this interpretation widens to include all the events of the Exodus.

It is one of the most important themes of early typology that the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, and this will be more easily understood when it is remembered that Baptism was administered during the night of Holy Saturday, in the framework, that is, of the Jewish feast which recalled the departure from Egypt. The parallel between the historical event of the departure from Egypt and the mystical rejection of sin by the passing through the baptismal font forces itself upon us. The Liturgical connection between the water of Baptism and the water of the Red Sea is not just fortuitous: we can only insist once more on what was said of the Flood; the significance of the baptismal water lies not in it being a rite of purification, but a rite of initiation. In any rite of initiation there is always a certain ritual imitation of the historical event. Such was the case with Jewish baptism, which in the Christian era took the place of circumcision as the initiatory rite of proselytes to the Jewish faith. G. Foot-Moore writes: “this baptism was neither a real nor merely a symbolic purification: it was essentially a rite of initiation.” And the purpose of this initiation was to bring the proselyte through the same stages that the people of Israel had passed through at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Even Jewish baptism them was an imitation of the crossing of the Red Sea and the baptism of the desert (Ex. 14:30).

We have seen that the New Testament certainly sees in the departure from Egypt a type of Baptism. St. Paul tells the Jews that their fathers “were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized in the cloud and the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2-11), and the Gospel of St. John shows us how the great events of the Exodus were types of the Christian sacraments.”   (Jean Danielou, S.J., From Shadows to Reality, pp. 175-176).

As in every liturgical celebration in the Church – both sacraments and Feast days – we enter into Christ’s life and experience the world in Christ. We understand the Old Testament in Christ. We live our spiritual lives whether fasting or feasting in Christ. We are saved by His faith, for He is God’s faithful servant, chosen to give life to the world.

Holy Friday (2017)

“Even though he was crucified in weakness, he lives through the power of God!” (2 Corinthians 13:4, EOB)

 

On many occasions in the Old Testament God appears to have human attributes, human emotions, human limits.  God takes the dust of the earth to fashion human beings and breathes into the dust of the earth to create life. God walks in the Garden of Eden. God is saddened by human evil and grieves over having created humans. And while we who have sophistication today realize God doesn’t have hands and feet and lungs nor eyes and ears, we also realize that all of these primitive anthropomorphic descriptions of the invisible, incomprehensible, and ineffable God, prepared us humans for the incarnation, when God in fact took on flesh and became human. Not just any human, but perfect human. He became what we are created to be.  And, as a human, our God takes upon Himself our mortal nature, dying on a cross for us.  Holy Friday is the day on which we contemplate God’s love for us.  God endures everything we have to endure in His creation, including suffering and death.  Divine Love knows no limits, descending not only to earth but into Hades itself to restore life to all.  With His death on the cross, God shows His love for us is complete, total and absolute.

It is finished!

Finally finished and finally completed.

Finished and completed: “Behold the man” (John 19:5), the true human being, the image of God, the one who loved us till the end, even if I do not know him and do not comprehend him.

Among the gods there is not like thee O Lord; neither are there any works like thy works (Ps. 86:8).

God’s ways are past our understanding, shattering every constraint that limits our feeble imagination.

Christ shows us his divinity, not in a superhuman–inhuman–manner, but as truly human, human in the end common to us all.

Put to death on the cross, he yet voluntarily laid down his life in love for us, showing us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as human, for us.

And so, for us mortals, he opens up the possibility to share in his life, to live the life of God himself.

If he had shown us what it is to be truly human in any other way, what part could I have had in it?

But by his death, his life lived for others, a path of sacrifice and service, in his love and compassion for us, he has shown us a more noble way still, beyond our self-aggrandizing aspirations and merely human projections. And this life has led, as it must to the grave; yet it is not bound by the tomb.”   (Fr John Behr, The Cross Stands while the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, pp. 66-67)

God became human in order to die for us on the cross, to descend to the place of the dead in order to destroy death.  What we truly commemorate and celebrate on Holy Friday is not only the death of the Son of God, but the death of death itself.  God overthrows the tyranny which Death claimed over humanity.  

Holy Thursday (2017)

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

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On Holy Thursday, our Lord instituted the Eucharist, blessing the bread and wine, declaring them to be His Body and Blood and giving them to His disciples at the Mystical Supper.   As is normative in the Church, our commemoration of the Lord’s Last Supper with His disciples makes Christ present for us today.  We are with the disciples contemplating the Mystery which Christ places before us:  the bread and wine of the Passover transformed into His Body and Blood.   In a prayer from the Didache, a late First Century Christian document, we find the following prayer of the Eucharist:

“As this broken bread, once scattered over the mountains was gathered into one,

So gather Your Church together from the ends of the earth, in your Kingdom.

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Yes, to You be glory and power

Through Jesus Christ, for ever and ever.

We give you thanks, O holy Father,

For Your Holy name

That you have caused to dwell in our hearts,

For the gnosis, the faith, and the immortality,

That you have granted us through Jesus your servant,

Glory to you through the ages!

You it was, O all-powerful Master,

Who created the universe, to the praise of your Name:

You have given men food and drink

That they may enjoy them

And give you thanks.

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But You have favoured us

With a spiritual food and drink

And with eternal life through your servant.

We give you thanks above all

Because you are mighty!

Glory to you in the ages.

Remember, Lord, to deliver your Church

From all evil, and to perfect it in Your love.

Gather together from the four winds

The Church that You have sanctified

In the Kingdom that you have prepared for it.

For to You is the power and the glory

for all ages!

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May your grace come and the world pass away!

Hosannah to the God of David!

If anyone is holy, let him come:

If he is not, let him do penance,

Marana, tha!

Amen.”

(Louis Bouyer, The Spirit of the New Testament & the Fathers, pp. 178-179)

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Of Your Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant! Holy Week is not focused only on past historical events, it is focusing on our relationship today with Jesus Christ our Lord.  We live in Christ in the present, not in the past.

Holy Unction (2017)

“…there is no health in my bones because of my sin.”  (Psalm 38:3)

On Holy Wednesday evening in some Orthodox traditions, the service of holy unction is offered. Throughout Lent we were called to repent of our sins, to receive the healing forgiveness of Christ. On Holy Wednesday we experience that forgiveness and healing through the sacramental oil of unction.  Confession, Holy Communion and Unction are all Mysteries in which we received healing from Christ.  They are all means for us to experience the salvation which Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, made possible for all humanity.   All three Mysteries become available to us during Holy Week.

Here is one of the prayers the priests say at the service:

“For you are great and wonderful God: you keep your covenant and your mercy toward those who love you, granting forgiveness of sins through your holy Child, Jesus Christ, who grants us a new birth from sin, who gives light to the blind, who raises up those who are cast down, who loves the righteous and shows mercy to sinners, who leads us out of darkness and the shadow of death, saying to those in chains, ‘Go forth,’ and to those who sit in darkness, ‘Open your eyes.’

You made the light of the knowledge of his countenance to shine in our hearts when for our sake he revealed himself upon earth and dwelt among us. To those who accepted him, he gave the power to become children of God, granting us adoption through the washing of regeneration and removing us from the tyranny of the devil. For it did not please you that we should be cleansed by blood, but by holy oil, so you gave us the image of his cross, that we might become the flock of Christ, a royal priesthood, a holy nation; and you purified us with water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit…

Let this oil, O Lord, become the oil of gladness, the oil of sanctification, a royal robe, an armor of might, the averting of every work of the devil, an unassailable seal, the joy of the heart, and eternal rejoicing. Grant that those who are anointed with this oil of regeneration may be fearsome to their adversaries, and that they may shine with the radiance of your saints, having neither stain nor defect, and that they may attain your everlasting rest and receive the prize of their high calling.” (Paul Meyendorf, The Anointing of the Sick, p. 82)

Throughout Holy Week we encounter our Lord, God and Savior Jesus, the Messiah, who comes seeking us, who heals us, who gives us His Body and Blood for our salvation.  Sin is another illness which affects our souls and bodies.  In unction we come like so many did in Christ’s own lifetime to be healed by Him of our physical and spiritual infirmities.

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”    (1 Peter 2:24)

 

 

Holy Wednesday (2017)

8508303611_afc7c30ae6_nThroughout Holy Week, the Scripture readings are also reminding us of the Passover story in the book of Exodus. That first Passover and Exodus serve as a prefiguring of Christ’s own life, death and resurrection. Those ancient events help us understand the events of Holy Week, and what transpires in Holy Week reveals the true meaning of the original Exodus and Passover.

In the Gospels, the Evangelists intentionally remind us of the Passover narrative – by remembering the events of the Exodus, we come to understand the Christian life as being revealed in the Old Testament.   Holy Week reminds us that as Christians we are sojourners on earth – in exile from our true home in Paradise – we should have a sense that there is something more to life than than which we experience daily.

“In the missionary account in Matt. 10, Jesus forbids his disciples to take several items: on their way they should not take gold, silver, copper, wallet (for bread), two shirts, sandals, or staff. Mark 6 allows the staff and sandals and says that the disciples should not take bread, wallet, copper, or two shirts. Luke 9 and 10 together disallow taking staff, wallet, bread, silver or purse. Now it is intriguing that most of the items in Matt. 10 and its parallels famously appear in the exodus from Egypt. Exodus 12 tells us that Moses commanded the Israelites to eat the Passover hurriedly, with sandals (12:11) on their feet and staff in hand, and that they went forth on their way (12:39) with bread, with silver (12:35), with gold (12:35) and with clothing (12:35-36). Deuteronomy 8:4 and 29:5, moreover, relate that the Israelites’ garments were indestructible, so that they only needed one pair of sandals and one set of clothes. Is it just coincidence that Jesus’ disciples are similarly in a hurry but still more so, and that they accordingly take even less than the fleeing Israelites? Maybe Matt. 10 and its parallels are drawing some sort of analogy or contrast. Certainly elsewhere the Synoptics draw analogies between the history of Jesus and the history of the exodus.” (Dale C. Allison Jr., Studies in Matthew, pp. 120-121)

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As we sing at Pascha, the new Passover of Christ takes us not from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, but from death to life and from earth to heaven. We are the new sojourners, God’s people sojourning toward God’s kingdom.  Fasting reminds us that this world, no matter how much we love it, is not our permanent home, nor our final destination.