Friday, November 29, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Feast of St. Andrew

The feast of St. Andrew is celebrated on November 30th. St. Andrew was called by Christ Himself to "come and see". He came immediately and saw where Jesus was staying and stayed with Him. Because he came, he was able to see. He saw who Jesus was and he went and brought the news to his brother Peter saying, "We have found the Messiah"

What do we see if we also choose to come? We see who Jesus is. He is revealed to us, as He was revealed to His disciples.

To go the way of the Winter Pascha is, according to Saint Gregory the Theologian, to "travel without fault through every stage and faculty of the life of Christ." It is to enter into the mysteries of the Messiah,  "all of which have but one completion: my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam." It is to "see and be seen by the great God who in Trinity is worshiped and glorified, and whom we now set forth before you as clearly as the bonds of flesh permit, in Jesus Christ our Lord."

If we come we will see the Incarnation of Christ. We see His miracles and his hear His proclamation of good news. We see the signs that He is indeed the Messiah. We see,

...the Son of God Himself being lifted upon the Cross in order to give His broken body as food for His people, and His shed blood as their drink, that their hunger and thirst for peace and joy and righteousness, and indeed for life itself, might be forever satisfied. 

In one of the vespers hymns for the feast day we see what it was that Andrew saw and shared,

Rejoice, O Isaiah, and receive the Word of God.
Prophesy to Mary the Maiden.
She is the Burning Bush unconsumed by the fire of divinity.
Adorn yourself, O Bethlehem.
Open your gates, O Eden.
Enter, O Magi, and see salvation swaddled in a crib.
Behold the star shining above the cave;
It announces the life-giving Lord who saves the human race. 

If we come, and if we look we will "...see [our] salvation swaddled in a crib."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: Don't Worry About Tomorrow

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

The Lord is the only One who bears our burdens and cares, all our infirmities and worries, both physical and of the spirit. He can bear everything, for He is Almighty. We must give over to Him all of our infirmities and those of our neighbors, through prayer. That is what prayer is for. We must be one with the Lord and we must not worry about tomorrow, for as He says, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6:34). This teaches us not to worry about tomorrow. But we do: we worry not only about tomorrow but even further than that, and this is very stressful for us. We are rational beings, created for one day of stress at a time. Yet we torment ourselves much more than that, and therefore we suffer. We are not obedient to the Lord when He tells us not to burden our hearts with food and drink and the cares of this world. We burden our bodies and our souls. Food and drink burden the body when we eat and drink more than we need. Our bodies must work hard to digest all that food, and so they are burdened. And if we also burden ourselves with thoughts, then the stress is doubled and so is our suffering. That is why we must always be praying. 

from Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: the Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - Christ is Born, Glorify Him!

In this chapter Fr. Hopko tells us that the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos in the Temple is the first time that the birth of Christ is announced during this season. He then explains that the canon of the Nativity of Christ was inspired by a famous homily given by St. Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century.

If you have a chance, read the homily linked above, because it is beautiful. It is so poetic and truly captures the joy of the feast. Here are a few excerpts:

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, because of Him who is of heaven and is now on earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, and with joy because of your hope. 

... for He who gives riches becomes poor, for He assumes the poverty of my flesh that I may assume the riches of His divinity. He that is full empties Himself, for He empties Himself of His glory for a short while that I may have a share in His fullness. 

... in creation He gave us a share of His own good nature. And now in the Nativity He takes on Himself our own sinful one. 

The homily is full of this comparison of opposites and the tension between them: trembling - joy, rich - poor, empties Himself that I may have a share in His fullness...

Christ is born; glorify Him!
Christ comes from heaven; go to meet Him! 
Christ is on earth; be exalted!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
And praise Him in gladness, O people,
For He has been glorified!

No wonder we have such great anticipation for this feast! 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - Temples of the Living God

I ended last time by mentioning Fr. Alexander Schmemman's words about Mary being the great example to us, rather than the great exception. When I turned to this chapter, I found those words looking back at me (I couldn't remember where I'd read them before, but now I know!).

This chapter then, is simply an expansion of that idea. Fr. Hopko points out how the Theotokos shows us what we can also become if we choose to allow the Holy Spirit to dwell within ourselves. For it is truly our choice. No one will force us to open our hearts to God; least of all God Himself. He created us with the knowledge that we might choose to turn our backs to Him, yet He made us anyway.

This is not mere symbolism... This is serious business. It is a matter of life and death. For we are either the living vessels of God... or we are, to use the apostle's language once more, "vessels of wrath" to be destroyed in our wickedness by God's righteous glory. 

There is no in between way, and it is clear that the choice is ours.

As we go the way of the Winter Pascha the choice placed before us is clear. We can follow the "narrow way" that leads to life, or we can go on the "broad way" that leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14). We can, like Mary, cleave to the Lord and become His dwelling place in the Spirit. Or we can through immorality and sin choose the death of the nothingness which we are unless the Lord Himself lives within us. 

There are only two options: life or death. May each of us choose the way of Life.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Meditations on the Winter Pascha - The Prelude of God's Good Will

This chapter is titled The Prelude of God's Good Will. Fr. Hopko talks about the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos* into the Temple (which is today - November 21). For those of my readers who are not familiar with this feast I will briefly explain. Tradition teaches us that at the age of three the Virgin Mary was taken to the temple by her parents to be dedicated to the Lord. She was born to them after they had been barren for many years and so they wanted to give thanks to God for blessing them with a child. When they brought her, tradition tells us that the priest Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist) brought her into the Holy of Holies where only the high priest was allowed to go, and that only once a year. The Church teaches that he did this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as a prophecy that this young girl was to become a living temple of God when she bore Jesus within herself. This feast is celebrated on November 21 each year, and while part of its purpose is to commemorate the historical happening of Mary's dedication to the temple, Fr. Hopko points out that,

Its purpose is not so much to commemorate an historical happening as to celebrate a dogmatic mystery of the Christian faith, namely, that every human being is made to be a living temple of God. 

The hymns of the feast proclaim this with great joy:

Today, let us the faithful dance for joy, 
Singing to the Lord with psalms and hymns,
Venerating His consecrated tabernacle,
The living Ark which contains the Word which cannot be contained.
For she, a young child, in the flesh
Is offered in wondrous fashion to the Lord,
And Zacharias the priest receives her with rejoicing 
As the dwelling place of God. 

This event is so powerful, because it gives us a glimpse of what good things are to come. We are all created to be temples of the Holy Spirit and Mary is the one who shows us the way. Fr. Alexander Schmemman liked to say that Mary is not the great exception, rather she is the great example.

She is a perfect example of what a Christian should be in all things. What stands out the most to me, as I have been thinking about all this, is that her love for God was so strong and so unwavering, that she accepted His will without question or complaint. When the angel Gabriel came to her and announced that she would bear and give birth to the Son of God, she didn't ask all kinds of questions about what it would mean, or how it might affect her or even why. She simply said yes:

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

What if I were to say yes to God in everything? Am I willing to do it? Am I even capable, given my sinful passions, of loving God so much that I would say yes to His will no matter what? My love for God is weak, and often fails altogether. But I have the desire to love Him, and if I look to His Holy Mother as an example, then perhaps, through her prayers, and by His grace, I might begin to make some progress. I can, at the very least, try to act upon what I've heard and possibly make a small beginning by doing my best to say yes to God.

Today is the prelude of the good will of God,
Of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
The Virgin appears in the temple of God,
In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
Let us rejoice and sing to her:
Rejoice, O Fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation. 

*Theotokos is a Greek word which literally means "the one who gives birth to God".

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: more from St. John of Kronstadt

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

Another great excerpt from this wonderful book.

You see very clearly that it is extremely difficult, and without God's grace and your own fervent prayer and abstinence, impossible, for you to change for the better. You feel within yourself the action of a multitude of passions: of pride, malice, envy, greediness, the love of money, despondency  slothfulness, fornication, impatience, and disobedience; and yet you remain in them, are often bound by them, whilst the long-suffering Lord bears with you, awaiting your return and amendment; and still bestows upon you all the gits of His mercy. 
Be then indulgent, patient, and loving to those who live with you, and who also suffer from many passions; conquer every evil by good, and, above all, pray to God for them, that He may correct them - that He may turn their hearts to Himself, the source of holiness. Do not help the Devil to spread his kingdom. Hallow the name of your Heavenly father by your actions; help Him to spread His Kingdom on earth. "For we are labourers together with God." Be zealous of the fulfillment of His will on earth, as it is in heaven. Forgive them that trespass against you with joy, as a good son rejoices when he has a chance of fulfilling the will of his beloved father.  

I have been noticing very much lately, that every time I want to point a finger, those other three fingers keep pointing directly back at me and there's just no way around it. May the Lord help me to be patient with others who struggle just as I do.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meditations on The Winter Pascha - Come and See

In this second chapter of The Winter Pascha Father Hopko points out that the Advent season begins with the feast day of the Apostle Philip. Philip is one of the first called apostles and it is he who runs to his friend Nathaniel to invite him to "come and see" Jesus.

Philip has encountered the Messiah, the Son of God. He then runs to his friend Nathaniel to invite him to come, see and know for himself, not through words but through experience, what a great treasure he has found. He invites Nathaniel to come and see who Jesus really is. Nathaniel comes, full of doubt and not sure if he should believe what Philip is telling him. He then encounters Christ for himself and he too begins to understand.

Come and see. It is good to know about things with the mind, but it is not always the same as knowing things from the heart. There is a kind of knowledge that is based on experience and action that sometimes goes deeper than that knowledge that comes from being told, or reading. Words can sometimes be a beginning, but they are not always the whole story, so to speak. Dr. James Taylor, author of the book Poetic Knowledge, has this to say:

Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is non analytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (aweful), spontaneous, mysterious..... a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole, rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning.

He uses words like encounter and act, and combines words like internal and external. Again, I am amazed at how the Church has provided for us. We are given the opportunity to experience worship with our whole selves - body as well as mind and heart. When we come to church we are invited to be involved completely; we see the icons, candles, gold; we touch by venerating icons, the cross, making the sign of the cross; we smell sweet incense; we hear beautiful music; we taste the body and blood of Christ. We physically gather to become Christ's body - if no one comes, the Church is not there. We have to get up and come together. We have the opportunity to be involved with all of our senses and to experience and encounter Christ in the liturgy.

O taste and see, that the Lord is good. 

Taste. See. Touch. Smell. Hear. We can do all of these things when we come. But like Nathaniel we have to get up and act. Nathaniel had to act upon the information which Philip had given him. Likewise we also, when we learn about something with our minds, must act upon it in order to bring the knowledge to our hearts. We must come and see ourselves what centuries of Christians have proclaimed: Christ has come to us and now it is up to us to go and meet Him.

Come and see. For, as Fr. Hopko puts it,

... if we do not come, we will never see.

Technical Difficulties

Some of you may have noticed that I changed things up a bit - I tried connecting the blog to Google +, just wondering how it would work out. But, then I learned that the only people who can comment on posts are people with a Google + account. And I don't like that because I think reader comments are so much fun. So I tried to switch back, but I still can't figure out how to get the comment box back to normal. I hope I will have it sorted out soon. My apologies to anyone who wanted to comment and couldn't.

Edit: I fixed it! Hooray! :)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Meditations on The Winter Pascha

Many years ago I received a copy of a book by Father Thomas Hopko titled The Winter Pascha. It is a beautiful book of short meditations on the meaning of the Nativity (or birth) of Jesus Christ as revealed to us through the hymns and writings of the Orthodox Church. There are forty of these meditations and I like to (try to) read one for each of the forty days of the Advent fast, which begins on November 15.

I thought it might be nice to share a bit of what strikes me as I read (although I realize that my own thoughts are not even close to being as edifying as Fr. Hopko's). My original plan was to post one reflection a day, and even though I had a small head-start, reality has hit and I have become aware that I most likely won't be able to keep up. So I will post what I have so far and will try to continue to work through the book, but I'm not promising completion.  (Incidentally, I recently had the chance to hear Fr. Hopko speak, and in that talk he happened to warn against writing just for the sake of writing. I think that is what I was trying to do here so that's another reason that I've decided to step back and do my best to only write what I feel called to share, rather than just writing to finish a series for the sake of completion.)

The Winter Pascha chapter 1

Fr. Tom begins by pointing out that the services and the preparation for Christmas in the Orthodox Church mirror what takes place during the celebration of Pascha (a word which we Orthodox typically use to refer to Easter. The word pascha means passover). We have a forty day fast, there are special hymns, readings and services which take place and the celebration of the feast continues after the actual day of the Nativity, all of which happen during the Lent and Pascha seasons. This patterning of the Nativity hymns and services after the Paschal ones truly magnifies the effect of entering into the celebration of the feast. The meaning is deeper and richer thus.

Those observations are indeed important, but what always brings me to a standstill, no matter how many times I read this book are the following words:

"The Lord's birth and baptism are directly connected to His dying and rising. He was born in order to die."

"Jesus lay as an infant in the cavern in the reign of Caesar Augustus that He might lay in the tomb under Pontius Pilate. He was hounded by Herod that He might be caught by Caiaphas. He was buried in baptism that He might descend into death through the Cross. He was worshiped by wise men that the whole of creation might adore Him in His triumph over death." 

I know, in my head, that Jesus was born to save us from the consequences of our sins. I know that. and I sometimes take it for granted. But when I stop and think about that fact that "he was born in order to die", I am blown away by the magnitude of what He has done for us.

Mankind is born in order to live, to grown in the likeness of the image of God so that we may be with Him for eternity. We were created for life. The consequence of sin is that we must die. We were not created for that. It us unnatural and painful. The soul was not meant to be separated from the body in such a way, but after the fall there was no choice but to pay the price: death.

But! Because we were created by the God of Love, or rather the God who is Love, He did not leave us to suffer. He came to give back to us the life which He so much wanted us to have. He came on purpose to die so that we might live. He became human so that we humans might become divine.*

I end (as Fr. Hopko also does) with words from the verses** sung during Matins on Christmas Eve:

Today He who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a virgin.
He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.
God who in the beginning fashioned the heavens lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from His mother's breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men.
The Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
Show us also Thy glorious Theophany! 

 *This sentence is not an original thought from me, but unfortunately I can't remember who said it, so I'm afraid I can't give credit where it's due.

**This hymn is another point in which the Nativity Feast mirrors the celebration of Pascha. You can find the words which are sung on Great and Holy Friday here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: George MacDonald

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words. 

The following sentence really ought to be read aloud in order to appreciate it fully. It comes from The Wise Woman by George MacDonald (which story ought to be read by everyone several times). 

In strict accordance with the peculiar nature of this country of uncertainties, it came to pass one day that, in the midst of a shower of rain that might well be called golden, seeing the sun, shining as it fell, turned all its drops into molten topazes, and every drop was good for a grain of golden corn, or a yellow cowslip, or a buttercup, or a dandelion at least,—while this splendid rain was falling, I say, with a musical patter upon the great leaves of the horse-chestnuts, which hung like Vandyke collars about the necks of the creamy, red-spotted blossoms, and on the leaves of the sycamores, looking as if they had blood in their veins, and on a multitude of flowers, of which some stood up and boldly held out their cups to catch their share, while others cowered down laughing under the soft patting blows of the heavy warm drops;—while this lovely rain was washing all the air clean from the motes, and the bad odours, and the poisonseeds that had escaped from their prisons during the long drought-while it fell, splashing, and sparkling, with a hum, and a rush, and a soft clashing—but stop—I am stealing, I find, and not that only, but with clumsy hands spoiling what I steal:—

“O Rain, with your dull two-fold sound,
The clash hard-by, and the murmur all round;”

—there! take it, Mr. Coleridge;—while, as I was saying, the lovely little rivers whose fountains are the clouds, and which cut their own channels through the air, and make sweet noises rubbing against their banks as they hurry down and down, until at length they are pulled up on a sudden, with a musical plash, in the very heart of an odorous flower, that first gasps and then sighs up a blissful scent, or on the bald head of a stone that never says thank you;—while the very sheep felt it blessing them, though it could never reach their skins through the depth of their long wool, and the veriest hedgehog—I mean the one with the longest spikes—came and spiked himself out to impale as many of the drops as he could,—while the rain was thus falling, and the leaves, and the flowers, and the sheep, and the cattle, and the hedgehog, were all busily receiving the golden rain, something happened. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

More thoughts on Charlotte Mason, ideas, habits and becoming what we behold

(I really need to learn how to come up with better titles for my posts, don't I?)

Several years ago I read a book called Ideas Have Consequences. The title says it all: ideas (good or bad) do affect our lives, for better or for worse. We act based on what we believe to be true. Our beliefs come about through the ideas that we allow to enter and grow in our minds.

If this is true, then it is also true that we must carefully consider what ideas help to shape our own lives and even more importantly we must also give careful thought to the ideas that we allow to enter our children's minds. Charlotte Mason says,

[We must]...attempt to set a noble child's heart beating with the thought that he is required to be perfect even as his Father which is in Heaven is perfect.
It is time we set ourselves seriously to this work of moral education which is to be done, most of all by presenting the children with high ideals. "Lives of great men all remind us that we can make our lives sublime," and the study of the lives of great men and of the great moments in the lives of smaller men is most wonderfully inspiring to children...
Vol. 3 p. 133

This concept of sowing ideas in the minds of children so that they will be inspired to be like the great men and women that they hear about is very striking. I wonder how much of what we ourselves have become (or are becoming) has been inspired by great ideas we've picked up through the years...

We entertain the idea which gives birth to the act and the act repeated again and again becomes the habit. "Sow an act," we are told, "reap a habit." "Sow a habit, reap a character." But we must go a step further back, we must sow the idea or notion which makes the act worth while.

[A child's] nurse or his mother knows how often and how ingeniously the tale must be brought to his mind...she knows too how the idea must be made at home in the boy's mind until it becomes a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist.
Vol 6 p. 102

This shows us why it is so important to expose children to, and feed them on, the good, the true and the beautiful - so that they can become like these things and these people they are breathing in, so to speak. I can think of many examples of people (both from books and from real life) who have inspired me to change my behavior and have resulted in habits that were either new or different from my old habits. I am reminded of A Little Princess - how Sarah behaved like a princess throughout all her trials because she knew how a princess ought to behave and the idea inspired the habits that she formed.

This means I need to pay close attention to the ideas that inform my habits. Why do I do what I do? What can I change to conform to the high ideals that I look up to?

I find myself becoming more and more like my own mother as the years go by and in turn I see more clearly how very much like my grandma my mom is. I also see my dad becoming more like his mother. Once again I am reminded of what Andrew Kern likes to say: "you become what you behold". Really, our children "behold" us daily at our best and at our worst during the most formative years of their lives. They can hardly help becoming like us. So if I believe all this to be true, then it is absolutely essential that I behave like the kind of person that I want them to become. I must be attentive myself (i.e. put down my kindle!), and speak kindly myself (so often I catch myself telling one child or the other to speak nicely to his siblings in a very mean tone of voice). If I want them to develop the habit of daily Bible reading then they must see me reading my own Bible, etc.

It's a little bit  very scary to think that my children will become like me when I know how very far I am from being Christ-like. But I have to remind myself that there is time and that God is merciful and is able to daily give me and my children grace, even when I mess up. There is time and there is grace. Thank God. And maybe the best habit to show by example is perseverance - when I fail and fall, I pick myself back up and try again because I believe in a God who forgives and I surely want my children to know that as long as they repent, they never need to despair of God's mercy and His love.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wednesdays with Words: Saint John of Kronstadt

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

The following comes from My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt:

You are a being who has fallen of your own free will, corrupted by sins; this ought to be the most powerful incentive for you to prayer. You daily receive the greatest mercies from God; this ought to be a powerful incentive to thank God. You daily contemplate the works of the omnipotence, wisdom and goodness of God; this ought also to be an incentive to daily praise. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Task Takes as Long as it Takes

In my previous post on repetition and memory I explored the concept of returning again and again to the things that are important to us; things such as prayer and how the church year is already perfectly set up so as to help us as we grow in our spiritual lives and come again to each cycle of prayer with fresh eyes and a new heart. Today I came across an Amish proverb, which I used as the title of this post:

A task takes as long as it takes,

and it got me thinking some more on this subject. When we memorize things and repeat them over and over, we allow what we are memorizing to become part of us. This applies to actions as well as words. I recently listened to a great talk by Jenny Rallens  about incorporating liturgy in the classroom. She talked about the traditions and rituals that she purposely makes part of her classes which help to begin to form students' affections, and she mentioned how the things that we do become the catalyst that determines what we will love. It makes sense that if we repeat a prayer or Bible verse so many times that it becomes part of us, then we begin to love what is said and the words have more power for us personally because they are part of what makes us who we are.

This is evident in all the years that I've spent playing piano. I play a piece time after time and my fingers begin to know it without conscious thought on my part. The piece gradually becomes part of the makeup of my being and I love it because I know it and because it has begun a work in my soul that shapes who I am.

This kind of practice is something that takes place without a thought for how long it will take. The intent is mastery, not completion. The end result is the driving factor, but the process is what brings the result about. The task may take days, or it may take years. Technical mastery can come about quickly, notes or words can be learned easily, but the shaping and changing of the heart only comes after living with a piece of music or poetry or prayer for a long time. Not a predetermined amount of time. There is no formula to be applied. Mastery takes as long as it takes and there is no need to rush it or to be agitated because it's not "done" yet.