The Significance of Vespers

“…the recovery by the Church of the true spirit and meaning of the liturgy, as an all-embracing vision of life, including heaven and earth, time and eternity, spirit and matter and as the power of that vision to transform our lives… For, as we have seen, the only real justification of the parish as organization is precisely to make the liturgy, the cult of the Church as complete, as Orthodox, as adequate as possible, and it is the liturgy, therefore, that is the basic criterion of the only real “success” of the parish.

Let the Saturday service – this unique weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection, this essential “source” of our Christian understanding of time and life, be served week after week in an empty church – then at least the various secular “expressions” and “leaders” of the parish: committees, commissions and boards, may become aware of the simple fact that their claim: “we work for the Church” is an empty claim, for if the “Church” for which they work is not primarily a praying and worshiping Church it is not “church”, whatever their work, effort and enthusiasm. Is it not indeed a tragic paradox: we build ever greater and richer and more beautiful churches and we pray less and less in them?…

All conversations about people being “busy” and “having no time” are no excuses. People were always busy, people always worked, and in the past they were, in fact, much busier and had more obstacles to overcome in order to come to Church. In the last analysis it all depends where the treasure of man is – for there will be his heart. The only difference between the present and the past is – and I have repeated this many times – that in the past a man knew that he had to make an effort, and that today he expects from the Church an effort to adjust herself to him and his “possibilities.”

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Problems of Orthodoxy in the World,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1965, pp. 188-189)

Deliver Us From Evil

“The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.

Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation.

And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: “And lead us not into temptation.”

The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him.

It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted in him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.

We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.”   (Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 78-81)

A Christian End to Our Life

Then, I come to our faith. What is our faith concerning death? It can again be described in simple sentences, but behind each one lies a wealth of experience and vision. In Christian doctrine, death is first of all called the “sting of sin.” It is not just an elementary answer about biological or physical death. In Christian vocabulary death means separation from God as a result of sin – a kind of ontological catastrophe that has made creation, or rather man’s life, into what it was not when God created it. Thus death carries the sting of sin. As separation from God, death – not physical, not physiological death, but death as sin and separation – has been abolished by Christ’s death. Therefore the dead – those who sleep – are alive in Christ.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, p. 145)

For the human, separation from God is the definition of death.  Christ’s death has changed everything – for even in death we are not separated from Christ our God. There is no place we can go where we will be separated from Christ. As it says in Psalm 139:8 –

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

 He descended to the place of the dead, filling all things with Himself.  In death we are with Christ who triumphed over death and its separation from God.  Christ is Lord of the dead as well as the living for all are alive in Him.

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 14:8-9)

The Marriage Crown

Before the final blessing of the marriage, the priest prays that God will “take up their crowns.” This image is an encouragement for married couples to live in holiness and follow the ways of the martyrs and married saints to salvation. Salvation is a gift that is tried by many obstacles and temptations; yet, it is expressed as joyful life in the presence of God in his kingdom. This joy is not as fleeting or simple as temporary “happiness.” Rather, it contains within itself the fruits of labor and assists in the development of the unquenchable desire to serve the other in accordance with one’s natural inclination as a communal being.

Then secondly, the glory and the honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the kingdom is the martyria–bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. (Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

Crowns become the reward for and sign of carrying the cross. Before marriage a specific cross is given to the individual, but now a new cross is given to the two united as one. This new cross requires cohesive work with the other in a way that is unique to the individual and is bearable only in services to Christ, through the spouse, by the Holy Spirit and in concordance with the Father. In this sacrificial love, martyrdom is made manifest. Again, in the words of Fr. Schmemann,

In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not ‘happiness’!] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

(Bp. John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 57-58)

The Joy of Humility

Everything, absolutely everything in religion is ambiguous, and this ambiguity can be cleared only by humility, so that the whole spiritual life is or must be directed at seeking humility. The signs of humility: joy! Pride excludes joy. Then: simplicity, i.e., the absence of any turn into one’s self. Finally, trust, as the main directive in life, applied to everything (purity of heart, when man can see God). The signs of pride are: the absence of joy; complexity and fear.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, p. 161)

 

 

 

The Beauty of Holiness

“From earliest times man called sacred or holy that which he perceived as the supreme value, demanding reverence, acknowledgement, awe, and thanksgiving; which at the same time attracted man to itself, inspiring familiarity and intimacy. We speak of the sacred feeling of homeland, of the sacred love towards parents, of sacred awe in the face of beauty, perfection, wonder. Thus, the sacred is that which is higher, purer, demanding all that is best: the best sentiments, the best efforts, the best hopes in man. The peculiarity of the sacred is precisely in the fact that it demands from us an inner awareness of self-evident and free desires; yet not simply an awareness, but action and life consistent with this awareness. The awareness that two times two makes four, or that water boils at a specific temperature leaves us neither better nor worse; such an awareness belongs to the righteous and the unrighteous, to the ignorant and the intelligent, the genius and the simpleton. But if we experience a sacred awareness in terms of beauty, or moral perfection, or a special intuition about the world and life, then this awareness immediately makes some demand on us, effects some change in us, invites us somewhere, captivates us, seduces us.

How simply and beautifully Pushkin described this in his famous poem, “The memory of a glorious moment….” The poet forgets the “vision,” the instruction of “disturbing storms,” the dispersion of “previous hopes,” and writes,

…my soul was stirred

And once again you came,

A passing vision,

A glimmer of beauty pure.

In fullness beats my heart,

Feeling once again

The resurrection of divinity,

And inspiration, and life,

And tears, and love.

Here is the description of the sacred as beauty. This experience changes life in its entirety, fills it, in the words of Pushkin, with meaning, and inspiration, and joy, and the divine. “

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 26-28)

Holy Tuesday (2018)

 

Eschatology” is the name given to the understanding by religion of the ultimate destiny of the world and of man, the doctrine of the so-called “last things.” Everyone agrees that the early Church was eschatological par excellance. Her whole faith, her whole life, was shaped by her joyful and confident expectation of Christ’s return in glory, her anticipation of the common resurrection, and the consummation of all things in God. “Come, Lord Jesus: Maranatha!” This is the ultimate expression of her faith and worship in the liturgy, in prayer. This eschatology can be termed “cosmic,” for it is distinct, as such, from the individual or personal one.

To put it differently, and in somewhat over simplified terms, eschatology’s interest lies not in what happens to me when I come to the end of my life and die; rather, it is concerned with what will happen to the entire creation when Christ returns in glory and, according to Saint Paul, “All things shall be subjected unto him, and he himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).  (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, 120-121)

Great Lent: To Soften the Heart, Not Empty the Belly

Lenten Rose

However, if we pay close attention to the Lenten prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings, we quickly realize that Lent is a time when we should put greater emphasis on others rather than on ourselves as we literally lay down our life for our neighbor.

The late Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemman referred to Lent as the Lenten Spring, a new birth, where we turn away from the darkness of sin and once again turn back to God:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of forma, predominantly negative rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent-something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning.

This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may be open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

The grace has shown forth, O Lord!

The grace which illumines our soul.

This is the acceptable time!

This is the time of repentance!

Let us lay aside all the works of darkness

And put on the armor of light

That passing through the fast as through a great sea

We may reach the resurrection on the third day

Of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior, of our souls.

(Apostikha for Forgiveness Sunday)

(William C. Mills, Let Us Attend: Reflections of the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. V, IX-X, 1)

If Christ is Not Risen

A tremendous task faces us of correlating our theology with the gospel, for ‘If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14).‘ The world was converted to Christianity not by the subtleties of the Palamite controversy, but by this impossible, unheard-of affirmation that ‘death has been trampled down by death.’  Whose death? Christ’s death. How could he? Because he is the Son of God. Why ‘Son of God’? Because he was obedient to his Father. We are back to the Trinity, to Christology.”   (Alexander Schmemman, The Liturgy of Death, pp. 153-154)

To Love as Christ Loves

“Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to ‘prove’ His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: ‘He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…’ (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: ‘…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe’ (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do‘ (Lk 23:34).

Once again, the Gospels and genuine Christian faith do not view miracles as proofs to force belief, since this would deprive man of what Christianity regards as most precious, his freedom. Christ wants people to believe in Him willingly without the coercion of a miracle. ‘If you love me,‘ Christ says, ‘you will keep my commandments‘ (Jn 14:15). And we love Christ–sadly, all too little–not because of His love, His humility and because, as those who heard Him said, ‘No man ever spoke like this Man!’ (Jn 7:46).

(Alexander Schmemmann, The Virgin Mary, p. 17-18)