Thursday, August 26, 2010

On A 15th Annivesary of Ordination

Saturday, August 26, 1995. Columbia, South Carolina. The midlands of South Carolina are being drenched by remnants of a tropical storm blown in from the Gulf of Mexico. At our home some miles East of Columbia, a ramshackle antebellum plantation house, the yard is flooding, our old car will not start, and the bishop needs to be picked up from the airport. This task is assigned to Rachel, a friend of our older daughter, Ryan.

When Rachel arrives with the bishop, Victor Mar Michael Herron, who has flown in from Knoxville, we jump our car and get it running. It is time to head into Columbia. We have arranged to use a large Lutheran sanctuary for the service. Lutherans are the best friends Independent Orthodox/Catholic jurisdictions have ever had when it comes to the use of worship space. This sanctuary dwarfs the few brave souls who venture out for the service. At some point, Mar Michael and I run to the store to pick up something or other. “You know you can still back out,” he says. He has to say that. He had also said it around a year earlier when, on September 18, 1994, our younger daughter’s birthday, I had been ordained a deacon. In both cases, I declined to back out.

We transferred the celebration of the Holy Apostle Titus from August 25 to August 26 for the ordination liturgy. We also commemorated Moses the Black, whose date on our calendar is August 28. Mar Michael presided at the Liturgy of the Word and I acted as his deacon. Our younger daughter, Cary, served as acolyte throughout the liturgy. Susan read the lesson from the Letter to Titus:
“…For a [presbyter], as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.”

Kyrie Eleison!

I led a responsive chanting of the psalm.

I do not recall if I or Mar Michael read the Gospel. The reading, Mark 10:32-38, records Jesus telling his disciples that he will be crucified and wondering if they “will be able to drink from the cup of which I will drink.”

All ordinations are another step on the road to Golgotha.

Mar Michael preached. I remember little of what he said except for some nice things about me and my family that, at least when it comes to myself, were not exactly accurate. We both then approached the altar, facing liturgical east, and I knelt, my head resting on my arms crossed on the altar. Using the Byzantine formula for ordination, he placed his pallium over my head, laid his hands upon my head, and cried aloud:

“The divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking, ordains the most devout Deacon Gregory to the office of Priest. Let us therefore pray for him, that the grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him!”

Mar Michael then offered the following prayers:

“O God without beginning or end, Thou who art before every created thing, and Who honors with the title of Presbyter those whom Thou deem worthy to serve the word of Thy truth in the divine ministry of this order: Thou, the same sovereign Master, preserve in purity of life and in unswerving faith this man whom Thou hast been pleased to ordain through me by the laying on of hands, graciously imparting to him the great grace of Thy Holy Spirit, making him wholly Thy servant, well-pleasing to Thee in all things, and worthily exercising this great honor of the Priesthood which Thou hast conferred upon him by the power of Thy wisdom. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in both worlds and unto the Aeon of aeons.”

“O God, great in might and inscrutable in wisdom, marvelous in counsel above the sons of men: Thous that self-same Lord, fill with the gift of Thy Holy Spirit this man whom it has pleased Thee to advance to the degree of Priest; that he may become worthy to stand in innocence before Thy altar, to proclaim the Gospel of Thy kingdom, to minister the word of Thy truth, to offer unto Thee spiritual gifts and sacrifices; to renew Thy people through the font of regeneration, that when he shall go to meet Thee, at the second coming of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, Thine only-begotten Son, he may receive the reward of good stewardship in the order given to him, through the plenitude of Thy goodness. For blessed and glorified is Thine all-holy and majestic name, of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in both worlds unto the Aeon of aeons.”

Mar Michael then bade me rise, vested me as a priest, and led the congregation in proclaiming Axios! Axios! Axios!

I then celebrated the Divine Liturgy for the first time, Mar Michael presiding from the chair.

Afterward, we returned to our home for a small gathering of those who had attended and perhaps a few others. Mar Michael stayed the night, and before he left, I celebrated again for him and the family, this time in the chapel we had prepared in the house itself. He seemed satisfied that I knew what I was doing, at least technically.

Obviously, much has happened since then. There have been ups and downs. However, I have never doubted that I am called to the priesthood of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church, and this calling has been affirmed by many people, both in and outside the ACCA. There has been little success as the world measures success, but God does not call us to be successful, only faithful. If I have been faithful, God is responsible. If not, then I am responsible. In any event, please keep this sinner, the most unworthy priest Gregory, in your prayers, and may our Lord continue to keep united in one heard and mind this little Church, the Antiochian Catholic Church in America, in which I serve as a priest, and may the Most Blessed Trinity unite us all in the Kingdom of Heaven. Unto Thee, O God, is due all glory, honor and worship, to the Father, and to the Son+, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, in both worlds and unto the Aeon of aeons. Amen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Now ain't that ironic?

Long suspected, now confirmed by DNA: Hitler likely had Jewish ancestry. The possibility of relatively recent African ancestry, however, is an entirely new twist. Jesse Owens, ya gotta love it!

"Hitler DNA Tests Show He Likely Had Jewish, African Roots, Daily Mail Says"

"In Christ, we are reconciled, not only with God, but with each other"

Sermon for August 22, 2010, Third-to-Last Sunday after Pentecost on the ACCA Calendar.

Readings: Ephesians 2:11-22, Psalm 27:7-11, John 12:20-26.

The season of Pentecost is coming to a close for another year, and today, we celebrate the Holy Greek Doctors – that is, “teachers” of the early Church. Next week, we shall commemorate the Syriac Doctors: Mar Ephrem, Mar Isaac, Mar Severus of Antioch, and others. In two weeks, the Last Sunday of Pentecost, we will celebrate both the Latin Teachers and Trinity Sunday.

The Greek Doctors are men such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who vindicated the Church’s teaching on the incarnation of the eternal son and word of God, Jesus Christ, against the Arians. They are teachers like the Cappodocian Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzen, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nyssa, who clarified for all time the Church’s teaching on the Trinity, that God is a community of Three Divine Persons who are one in being, one in essence: the unoriginate, eternal Father who eternally generates the Son and Word and who simultaneously, eternally breathes forth the Holy Spirit, who “proceeds from the Father and rests upon the Son.”

Yes, our God is the eternal, archetypal community, a communion of Divine Persons who are “members one of another” and in whose image and likeness we who are human are created.

The Greek Doctors also include St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, who without fear spoke truth to power and died in exile as a result.

In the Gospel reading from the Preaching of St. John, “some Greeks”, presumably Jewish converts of Hellenic descent, want to “see Jesus”. They approach Philip, probably a Greek-speaker, and Philip and Andrew go to Jesus. Interestingly, it is not clear that the Greeks are present with Philip and Andrew.

In any event, Jesus replies: “The hour has come for the Son of Adam to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.”

Now Jesus is quoted in other contexts as saying that in order to have life, one must lose one’s life. Here, however, with “Greeks” in mind, he speaks first of a cycle of nature, and then applies the same principle to humanity. If I would live, I must die to myself. I must live for something bigger than myself, outside myself.

Jesus continues: "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name." And, a bit later: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." And then, commentary from the gospel writer:“He said this to show by what death he was to die.”

In giving up his life to an unjust criminal execution, Jesus does many things. First and foremost, he defeats Satan, “the ruler of this world”. He defeats Satan, the master of death, by voluntarily submitting to death when He, being sinless, was in no way subject to death. He defeats Satan in this way by exposing Satan as the co-opter, the usurper, who uses good things, the State, culture, the divinely-revealed teaching in the Jewish law, as weapons by which to unjustly kill the Messiah. Jesus thereby exposes Satan as the thief who, upon entering the house and encountering the owner and the police, tries to convince the officers that the owner of the house should be arrested for trespassing!

Now the possibility that the state, the law, can be co-opted in this way is a stumbling block for all people. We really want to live by the law, by force. Why? So we, in fact, can justify protecting ourselves, secure in our possessions. For the Greeks, as for us, who are their heirs, this often takes the form, not of being afraid to die per se (although we are), but of inclining toward risking our lives in causes that are not worthy of self-sacrifice.

These causes are essentially oppressive of others but in them, we can glory because we think we are purifying, not ourselves, but the world around us and thereby protecting ourselves and all this is "true, good, and beautiful," etc. As Nietzsche pointed out, these are pagan values, the values of Greek philosophy. They are essentially the values of social Darwinism. Only the strong survive: only the strong SHOULD survive. I think of Naziism. Stalinism. The Confederacy and its desire to preserve slavery. I think of the neo-liberal approach to economics.

Yes, there may be a time and place where war is necessary. I think most agree that World War II, for example, was necessary. But in so many cases, people give up their lives for causes that lead, not to resurrection and life, but only to death. In any event, the great achievement of the Greek teachers was to use the language of Greek philosophy to express the Christian faith. In the West, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas attempted to use philosophy as the key to understand the Christian faith and in doing so, they distorted it. The Greek fathers used their Christian faith to understand and, where necessary, to critique philosophy. In essence, they nailed philosophy to the cross and when it was resurrected with Christ, it expressed a whole new reality but in the old, familiar language.

So then, if we wish to live, we too must die with Christ, along with our old presuppositions. If we do, we shall indeed also rise with him. As the reading from Ephesians explains, in dying with him, we are reconciled with all who follow him, regardless of ethnicity or culture, as we are all drawn to Christ, as He says in the gospel. We learn to appreciate the gifts that each group brings into the Church. In Christ, in his death and resurrection, the direct revelation given to Moses and the Hebrew prophets is fulfilled and completed as is the indirect revelation discerned by the Greeks and all paganisms. In both cases, the fulfillment is personal: the fulfillment is a person. The Eternal Son and Word of God-become-human, Jesus Christ.

Classical Greek philosophy is almost anti-personal (not unlike much of contemporary science). Why? In short, because personhood is unknowable. It cannot be reduced to something else. All we can discern of personhood is through its works, or energies.

A person is free. Free to transcend his or her human nature. Free to love. To love to the point of giving up one’s life for one’s friends. Free to be in communion with other persons. This is possible for us because we are becoming friends with him who gave up his life for us.

In so doing, we are also becoming friends with those who were previously enemies because they are different ethnically, or of the other gender, or because they are of a different socioeconomic class, and/or because we oppressed them or they oppressed us. No, in dying with Christ, in rising with him, all of that is irrelevant. We start to become true persons, in communion with others who are also becoming persons in Christ. We stop oppressing. We stop accepting oppression.

In Christ, we are reconciled, not only with God, but with each other.

Now, all who have been baptized and chrismated have begun this process. We continue it, at least weekly, by offering ourselves together to the Father in, with, and through the sacrifice of the Son in the sacrifice of the altar, as empowered by the eternal, all-holy, good, and lifegiving Spirit. Let us pray therefore that, in receiving in return the heavenly gifts of the body and blood of Christ, we may truly become what we are, one body and one spirit, members of Christ and therefore members one of another, for he is indeed Lord forever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Two Feasts in Mid-August

Today, August 14, and tomorrow, August 15, mark two Christian celebrations, the first being primarily Roman Catholic (but commemorating a martyr who could well be celebrated by the universal Church) and the second being indeed a celebration of the Church throughout the whole world.

Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom, the heavenly birthday, of a Polish Franciscan friar who sacrificed his life by way of the Nazi yoke in 1941. His name is Maximilian Kolbe. Briefly, after the Nazis divided Poland with the Soviets in September, 1940, Fr. Kolbe took up resistance activities, including sheltering refugees, Jews and others, from the Nazis. In February 1941, he was arrested by the Gestapo and transferred to Auschwitz in late May of that same year. A little later, a prisoner disappeared and the Commandant, thinking that he had escaped, decreed that 10 prisoners would be starved to death in retaliation. One of these men cried out in distress for his wife and children and Fr. Kolbe, having not been initially chosen, volunteered to take this man's place.

Father and the other men were confined together in one cell. He celebrated Mass for them as long as he could, using unleavened bread and wine smuggled in by sympathetic guards, andvhe comforted the men with his words and presence, leading them in songs and prayers. He told them that they would soon be with the Blessed Virgin Mary in heaven. Fr. Kolbe had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother, "the Immaculata" or "sinless one". Finally, he alone survived, and was then killed outright with an injection of carbolic acid. The full story, from Wikipedia, is found here. According to Jesus, "Greater love no one has than this, that one lays down their life for their friends."

August 15, of course, marks the dormition, the "falling asleep" and the assumption of the Blessed Virgin, body and soul, into heaven. This is indeed a celebration of the universal apostolic Church. The blessed Mother of our Lord, "the first of the redeemed," is first in all things after her Divine Son and completely shares in both his suffering and his glory. Thus, she is the first to experience the resurrection after him in that her soul and glorified body are reunited in heaven. A fuller account, from Orthodoxwiki, is found here.

From the Byzantine Rite, here is the Kontakian (Tone 2) for the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Mother of God:

"Neither the tomb, nor death could hold the Theotokos,
Who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life,
She was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb."

"Through the prayers of the Theotokos, Oh Savior, save us!"

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fr. Ernesto on JetBlue Flight Attendant

"JetBlue folk hero flight attendant - but why?"

"Now be honest, when was the last time you heard a sermon, on practically expressing love, that called upon people to be good customers as a loving expression of God’s care for us? And, when was the last time you heard a sermon, calling upon those in our congregations who are masters, that called for employers or supervisors or chief executives, etc., to promote just, equitable, and yes, loving employee guidelines within their companies, as part of their duty to imitate the God who is also our Lord and our Master?"

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fr. Stephen on Humility

This short piece, well worth the read, is here, but the most important thing that OCA priest Fr. Stephen writes concerning this is found in a comment that he makes in response to a question:

"We do not need to defend who we are. Such defense prevents us from becoming who we’re meant to be."

Let those who have ears hear and those who have eyes, see.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Various Posts Worth Reading

First, from Greek Orthodox scholar, Dr. Valerie Karras, who teaches at Southern Methodist University. In this article, Dr. Karras discussed the agreed statement on justification produced by a joint commission of Lutherans and Roman Catholic academics.

"Beyond Justification"

Next, Fr. Titus Fulcher is a Byzantine Rite Roman Catholic priest who lives here in Charleston, South Carolina. On his blog, "Byzantine Rambler" (linked on the right), he has posted an 8-part series of essays on the fall and its consequences. They are well worth the read and are all linked below:

"Image and Likeness: Installment One"

"Image and Likeness: Installment Two"

"Image and Likeness: Installment Three"

"Image and Likeness: Installment Four"

"Image and Likeness: Installment Five"

"Image and Likeness: Installment Six"

"Image and Likeness: Installment Seven"

"Image and Likeness: Installment Eight"

Finally, from Greek Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas (author of Being as Communion):

"Communion and Otherness"

Thanks to my friend, Archabbas Clement, aka "Mother Charlie" for referring me to the Karras and Zizioulas pieces. Amma's blog, "Anam Cara Dei" is linked at the right.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Transfiguration 2010

The story from the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36) is familiar enough. Jesus takes his three key disciples, Peter, James, and John, to the top of the mountain. There, he is seen to be emitting dazzlingly bright light and to be speaking with Moses and Elijah. Peter makes an irrelevant suggestion. The disciples are overcome with fear. A cloud appears surrounding Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. A voice speaks from the cloud, as at Jesus' baptism: "This is my beloved son. Hear him!" The cloud lifts and the disciples see Jesus alone. Jesus tells the disciples not to speak of this until after he has risen from the dead. They have little idea what this might mean.

For the disciples, the Transfiguration allows them to later experience Jesus' execution on the cross, knowing that he lays down his life voluntarily. For us, the Transfiguration speaks of the capacity of our humanity to be divinized in union with the humanity of Christ, provided that, as St. Paul writes, "we suffer with him."

Frederica Mathewes-Green writes, "Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change." The Transfiguration assures us that we can be transformed, in union with Christ, if we are willing to "change," that is, to die with Christ. This process of dying and rising is what living in Christ is all about. No pain, no gain. That's the news, the bad news and the good news.