Tag Archives: Russian Orthodox

A new heart of mercy and love

Readings for the day: 1 Cor. 8:8–9:2; Matt. 25:31–46.

 

Santa Maria Assunta Torcello Angel Detail

Last Judgment (detail), 12th-13thc, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.

 

Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

 

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

 

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my “god.”

 

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.

 

The freedom that Paul had in mind was even more radical: he was talking about the freedom of eating food offered to idols in pagan temples. Eating food that has been offered to idols… ! This is the paradigmatic expression of religious devotion; it is what we do, when we gather together as the body of Christ, to partake in his body. So when Paul says that we are free to eat such food, it is strong language indeed. We can only do this, as he points out, knowing that the idols don’t really exist, so that there is therefore nothing to prevent Christians from eating such food.

 

But he warns us, if our eating such food causes our brothers a scandal, and perhaps leads them astray—so that they also eat such food, while still thinking that idols are somehow real—then we are guilty of misusing our freedom to the destruction of others. We are responsible for having injured the one for whom Christ died.

 

As we move ever closer towards Great Lent, then, we are reminded that we are totally free, with the proviso that what we do must be for the building up, rather than the destruction, of the body of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

Having been confirmed in our freedom (and been warned what a dangerous liberty it is), and having heard, over the last two Sundays (the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son) of God’s patience and inexhaustible compassion—that he is ready to receive every sinner who returns to him—we are now reminded in today’s Gospel of the other side of this awesome truth: that the God who receives sinners does so as their judge. As we heard, when Christ comes again in his glory, sitting upon his throne, he comes as our judge.

 

 

We enter Great Lent, therefore, as a period of preparation for the return of our Savior, waiting for him, as we also do on the first days of Holy Week, waiting for the one who will return unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, to take us as he finds us.

 

In both cases we are presented with the humiliated Christ, the man of sorrows—the Bridegroom. In the words of today’s Gospel, Christ identifies himself precisely with the lowly, the outcast and the unwelcome: the hungry, the sick, the destitute, the stranger, the one in prison. These are his brethren, and what we do to the least of these, we do to Christ himself.

 

In all of this, Christ is not a judge in the sense of someone who takes records, evaluates the evidence, and then pronounces a sentence. Definitely not! God bestows his bounty upon the sinners and the righteous alike. Rather it all depends upon our state, how he finds us. How we respond to him then will depend upon the habits that we’re developing even now. It is this that will determine whether we become a vessel of his glorification or of his judgment.

 

The judgment that we bring upon ourselves is one that we are working out even now—in all our dealings with others, here and now, every day and every moment. Notice that nothing particularly great is expected of us (and nothing is said about fasting): we are presented with the poor asking for food, some bread—not a banquet; others asking for a roof, a piece of clothing, some cold water, a visit—nothing much, and certainly nothing which is not in our power to do.

 

In all of this, if we harden our hearts towards others, if we fail to respond to the opportunities which present themselves, then we are already passing judgment on ourselves. If we cannot receive him in his brethren, then we will no longer know how to receive Christ. When Christ returns in glory, we will be told to depart into the eternal fire—fire which is not prepared for us, but for the devil himself.

 

If we cannot respond to our neighbor in need, then the very glory and splendor of Christ when he returns will also be too much for us: for it is the same Christ in each case, even if we do not recognize him.

 

But such lack of compassion is not our proper inheritance; this is not how we were created to be.

 

It is striking that those who did open their hearts and their goods and time to others were also surprised at Christ’s words: “When did we do this to you?” They were not serving the poor out of a sense of duty, or hoping for a reward, but simply acting out of love, and in so doing acquiring a new heart of mercy and love, a heart which opens them up to receive the glory and splendor of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

 

This is the inheritance which has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Seeing God in one’s neighbor and responding in a Christ-like fashion—this is what it is to be in the image of God, living in the kingdom or paradise of God.

 

Let us pray that we may prepare ourselves for the approaching Lenten season, and also, more generally, that we be able to see every moment of our life as being under the judgment of the returning Christ, for we assuredly are.


 

cross_stands__52149-1406224506-300-300For more homilies by Fr. John Behr, check out The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year. Emphases added.

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Return to the Father

Written by Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring is a book of spiritual readings for the season of Great Lent.

People feel unhappy and they don’t know why. They feel that something is wrong, but they can’t put their finger on what. They feel uneasy in the world, confused and frustrated, alienated and estranged, and they can’t explain it. They have everything and yet they want more. And when they get it, they are still left empty and dissatisfied. They want happiness and peace, and nothing seems to bring it. They want fulfillment, and it never seems to come. Everything is fine, and yet everything is wrong. In America this is almost a national disease. It is covered over by frantic activity and endless running around. It is buried in activities and events. It is drowned out by television programs and games. But when the movement stops and the dial is turned off and everything is quiet …then the dread sets in, and the meaninglessness of it all, and the boredom, and the fear. Why is this so? Because, the Church tells us, we are really not at home. We are in exile. We are alienated and estranged from our true country. We are not with God our Father in the land of the living. We are spiritually sick. And some of us are already dead.

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Sunday of the Prodigal Son (detail). BLAGO Archives.

Our hearts are made for God, St. Augustine has said, and we will be forever restless until we rest in Him. Our lives are made for God, and we will be unfulfilled and dissatisfied and frustrated until we go to Him. All of God’s creatures, as Francis Thompson said in his poem The Hound of Heaven, are His “loyal betrayers.” They do not satisfy His children and cannot bring them peace. He alone can do that, because He alone is our home. And we are His.

The lenten season is the time for our conscious return to our true home. It is the time set aside for us to come to ourselves and to get up and go to the divine reality to which we truly belong.

97808814101431Excerpt from The Lenten Spring by Fr. Thomas Hopko, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983, p. 21-22. Emphases added.

 

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A feast of water

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on January 6, 2016.

Readings for the day may be accessed here.

Theophany 2016 2016-01-06 029 fixed

 

 

Archpriest Chad Hatfield is the first Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Father Chad came to SVOTS from St. Herman Seminary in Alaska, where he was serving as the Dean. He presently serves as a member of the Metropolitan Council of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). His experience in various pastoral, teaching and administrative roles, spread over some 30 years of ordained ministry, are now blended into the Chancellor’s ministry at SVOTS.

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The turning point of time

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on December 25, 2015.

 

Today, at this feast, we stand at the turning point of time.

 

angelsNot simply another turning point, as the world spins on its axis, or rotates around the sun, but the turning point of time itself; the moment from which we measure all time. And more: it is a turning point in the heavens themselves, opening towards us on earth, so that we can hear the angels singing the praise of God, if we have the ears to hear them, not our usual physical sense of sound, which at this time of year is bombarded by all sorts of noise, some of it claiming to be religious – but usually the religion of consumption; but with a purified hearing.

 

It is a turning point at which strange things happen.

 

According to an old tale, told by another story teller, in the night between Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas day, all the animals can speak, though few hear them or know what they say; Simpkin, the cat, as he wanders through the streets looking for mice to eat, can hear them chattering away and singing; but he was not admitted into their conversation; for he had hidden some twist and was prowling for mice to eat, as his master lay sick in bed, muttering to himself: no more twist.

 

That nature is overturned on this night is indeed an old idea. In the second century prayer for midnight, we hear:

 

In this hour every creature hushes for a brief moment to praise the Lord; stars and plants and water stand still at that instant; all the hosts of angels ministering to Him, together with the souls of the righteous, praise God.

 

And from the same period, we hear, in the Protoevangelium of James, how Mary and Joseph also stop, when Mary feels the stirrings of the babe in her womb ready to be born. They find a cave and Joseph goes off to find a midwife:

 

shepherdBut I, Joseph, was walking and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. …

Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still … I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking.

Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.

 

As Christ is born, creation stands still—strange things happen and nature is overturned, the heavens themselves are turned, and we can, if we listen, hear the angels praising (and the mice singing).

 

It is in this midnight silence, Wisdom says, that the firstborn Egyptians were slain by the destroying angel, so that the firstborn of God, Israel, might be set free from slavery, when the Word descended from heaven. While peaceful silence enveloped all things, and night was in the middle of its own swift course, from heaven, from the royal throne, your all-powerful Word, leapt as a stern warrior, into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your irrevocable command as a sharp rapier; standing, it filled all things with death and while it touched heaven, it stood on the earth.

 

This act, in silence, is what we celebrate today, as we too are set free from slavery, when the firstborn Son of God, Christ himself, is born from the Virgin, uniting heaven and earth, and we, in the midst of the death he casts upon the earth, are brought back to life.

 

Three mysteries of God, St Ignatius says, were worked in silence: the virginity of Mary, the birth of Christ, and the Cross. They were shrouded in silence, hidden from this world and its rulers, so that, when creation is silent, God can work, for Christ is the Word emerging from this silence. And it is this silence that St Ignatius asks of the Roman Christians, so that he too might follow Christ in his Passion, and so become a word of God, as did all those martyrs we celebrated in the days leading up to this birth of Christ; for as St Ignatius also says, Christ, the head, is not born without his body also being born.

 

It is this silence, then, that we need, if we are going to hear the angelic ranks singing in amazement today, and to join in their hymns of praise. This is something we will never hear, or be part of, if we remain on the prowl, as was Simpkin, looking to fill our stomachs by eating others, all the while keeping for ourselves what others need. Only when he repented, and brought to his master that which he had held back, only then was the magnificent garment that the mice had been working on only then was it able to be completed.

 

Christ’s body, miraculously woven in the womb of the Virgin, as she spins the thread, the twist, is today present on earth. That it weaves together heaven and earth is possible only because the heavens themselves are opened when they turn today, and when they are opened we can see the end to which the whole of creation (animals as well) are working.

 

Let us not say, then, that we have no more twist, nothing to contribute to the weaving of the glorious body of Christ, but instead give glory, thanksgiving, and praise for all that God has done for us today, giving of ourselves, giving our very selves, in return for truly today, Christ is born!

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Ayios Nicolaos tis Stegis, Nicosia, Cyprus

 

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.

 

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God does not need words

People often ask: how should we pray, in what words, and in what language? Some even say: “I do not pray because I do not know how; I do not know any prayers.” You do not need any specialized skill for prayer. You can simply talk to God. Many Orthodox Churches across the world use a special language in the divine services, such as Church Slavonic or Koine Greek. But in private prayer, when we are alone with God, there is no need for any special language. We can pray to God in the language we use when speaking with people, when thinking.

Prayer should be very simple. St. Isaac the Syrian said:

The whole fabric of your prayer should be succinct. One word saved the publican, and one word made the thief on the cross heir to the heavenly kingdom.

Prayer can be extremely brief. If you are just starting out on your path to prayer, begin with very short prayers, such as can allow you to focus. God does not need words; he needs men’s hearts. Words are secondary; of paramount importance are the feeling and disposition with which we approach God. To approach God without a feeling of reverence or with distraction—when during prayer our mind wanders—is  much more dangerous than saying the wrong words in prayer. Distracted prayer has neither meaning nor value. A simple law is at work: if the words of prayer do not reach our heart, they will not reach God. As it is sometimes put, such prayer does not reach above the ceiling of the room in which we are praying, and it should reach the heavens. Therefore it is very important that each word of prayer should be felt deeply by us. If you are incapable of focusing on the long prayers contained in the prayer books of the Orthodox Church, try your hand at shorter prayers:

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, save.

Lord, help me.

God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

One ascetic struggler said that if we could, with the full force of our feelings—with all our heart and soul—just say the prayer “Lord, have mercy,” then that would be enough for salvation. But the problem is that, as a rule, we cannot say this with all our heart; we cannot say this with all our whole life. Therefore, in order to be heard by God, we tend to use many words.

Let us remember that God longs for our hearts, not for our words. If we turn to him with our whole hearts, then we will certainly get a response.

 

9780881415285__41267.1443033296.300.300Excerpt from Prayer: Encounter with the Living God by His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev). Emphases added.

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Prayer for the acceptance of God’s will

Leanne Parrott Photography.

Leanne Parrott Photography.

O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs.

You love me more than I myself know how to love.

Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on You.

My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy.

Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways.

I offer myself as a sacrifice to You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will.

Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.

-Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

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Known by a name

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on Sunday, October 25, 2015. The Gospel reading for the day can be found here.

We are so familiar with most of the readings that we hear in Church on Sunday mornings, especially those that recount a memorable parable, that we rarely pay attention to what it might say to us—we think we already know.

So, we heard today the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; and as soon as we hear the first words “There was a rich man”, we think we already know what the parable is going to be about: that the rich are going to have a hard time getting into heaven, while the poor, having had a hard time of it in this life, will get in much more easily.

And then we are tempted to identify ourselves with the poor; after all, even if we are not as poor as some, we certainly are not as rich as others! There are many others who are much richer than we are, and they are certainly going to have a hard time of it. Even if we are not as destitute as Lazarus, we still find ourselves in more hardship than we would prefer—we are not as rich as we would like to be.

But if we pay closer attention, we will see that it is not simply about objective riches/poverty, but about attachment.

Rich Man in the Flame. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Rich Man in the Flame. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

It is striking that in the parable, the rich man is not named—he is simply known as one who is clothed in purple (a royal color), fine linen and who ate well. He is not named; as it says in the Psalms, about those who do not fear God: “I will not make mention of their names with my lips” (15.4). The rich man is not known by name, but is known rather by his possessions. And they are possessions which he has not used for the benefit of others, in a philanthropy, extending God’s own philanthropy—love of mankind; rather they are used for his own adornment and luxurious living.

Known by his possessions, the rich man is in fact possessed by his possessions.

And this is the reason he will have a hard time when he passes on from this life: it is not simply that he has had great possessions, but that he is their possession—they own him. He has not used his wealth for the benefit of others, but been too attached to what he has.

On the other hand, the poor man is named—Lazarus. Yet it is not simply his poverty which grants him a place in the kingdom, but that he has endured the situation into which he was born without complaint. He did not spend his life moaning about it, but rather takes an attitude like Job.

For him to have complained about it, would be like the rich man’s attachment to his possessions: as paradoxical as it might seem, the poor man would have become attached to his poverty—and this in turn would have kept his heart back in this world, and caused him great torment.

Poor Lazarus in Abraham's Bosom. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Poor Lazarus in Abraham’s Bosom. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

What the contrast between the rich man and Lazarus sets before us, as with Christ’s others words about material wealth, mamon, and our heart being where our treasure is, what all this presents to us is the challenge to be detached from the things of the world and to place all our hope, trust and love in God.

To live in such detachment, of course, requires faith. After all, it is not the evidence of our eyes that will persuade us that we can in fact give more generously to the poor than we like to think; the evidence of our eyes will always be to the contrary—I will be visibly poorer if I do so. The evidence of our eyes is not enough, and so the parable concludes with Abraham saying that even if someone should return from the dead—providing visible evidence—it would not be enough to persuade; if they do not already believe Moses and the prophets, no visible proof will suffice.

Moses and the prophets, of course, direct us to Christ, as the eternal and unchanging Word of God. And as we heard in the epistle, it is by faith in him that we are made righteous, not by anything that we can do of ourselves. In fact, as Paul said, in our desire to be righteous in him, we will be found to be sinners—that is, we are found to be living without the law, outside of the law. It is no longer a comprehensive system of regulations that we have to fulfill to appease our deity (however much we might tend to view religion in that manner). Rather if the righteousness of God is revealed in his crucified Son, then what is demanded of us is that we be, as Paul said, crucified with him.

And we have learnt from today’s parable a concrete way in which this is lived out is through our detachment from all worldly things; a detachment, not a despising; a detachment which enables us to see all things as the good gifts of God and frees us to use all things for the benefit of others—so that all things are indeed good gifts from God (not merely in word, but in reality), and so that we are not simply known by our possessions, or our achievements, but are known by a name.

And perhaps even more: as Paul concluded, if we are crucified with Christ in this way, then we no longer live, but Christ lives in us. We are called to be Christ’s own presence in this world; let us pray that we have the strength and courage to respond to this upward call of God in Christ, leaving behind all earthly cares to offer a sacrifice of peace and love.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.

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