Listening to Lessons from the Unborn

January 22 marks the forty-sixth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision regarding abortion in the case of Roe v. Wade.  From its inception the Church has strongly affirmed the sanctity of human life, no matter the age of a person or stage of his or her development.  Each year Orthodox faithful join the January Pro-Life March in the nation’s Capital, with our bishops often addressing the thousands assembled.  This article is a good reflection on this politically controversial and spiritually important topic.

"God or Nothing"

Archpriest Steven Kostoff

Recently, while browsing a bookstore, I was immediately attracted to the title of a new book God or Nothing, by Roman Catholic Cardinal Deacon Robert Sarah.  Although I have not actually read Cardinal Sarah’s work, I would like to reflect on what I believe the title is alluding to, or what direction I would pursue were I the one writing a book with such a title. This is because I have concluded that if God exists, then we are “something.”  However, if God does not exist, then we are “nothing.”  Hence, my affinity for the starkness of this book’s title:  God or Nothing.  This stark contrast is not meant to devalue genuine human experiences.  On the contrary, as human beings we think and feel, we create and love, and these are only a few of the deep experiences that engender both joy and sorrow in life.  Whether one identifies as a theist or an atheist, we all share these experiences, and they endlessly enrich our lives.  Indeed, without them, life would essentially not be worth living.

Yet what is above, below, or behind such meaningful experiences?  If God does not exist, then the inescapable (and, in my opinion, troubling) answer is nothing – literally.  There only exists the void from which we emerged and to which we will return – there is life, then there is decay and death.  This process of descent back into that void can be postponed but never eluded.  The business of living life only disguises this stark truth, which is probably a good thing, otherwise there would be too much despair in the world.  Nonetheless, I am trying to capture this wider-ranging aspect of our existence when I claim that if God is non-existent, then we are “nothing.”  And, of course, there is Dostoevsky’s famous aphorism found throughout his masterpiece The Brother’s Karamazov: “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible.”

Yet if God does indeed exist – as we believe, proclaim, and hopefully live by – then we are genuinely “something.”  We do not hover in a void, but rather our lives are grounded in the ultimate reality.  There is permanence above, below, and behind the world’s transience – our lives count.  Furthermore, they endure beyond the ravages of time and its attendant decay and death. That is because our lives are all contained within the “memory” of God.  (Therefore, it is customary in the Orthodox Church to sing “Memory Eternal” for the departed).

This “something” that we are if God exists is contained in that inexhaustible scriptural revelation that we are created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26).  Our human capacity to think, feel, create, and love is the result of that wonderful truth – that God is the source and origin of our lives.  It is because of Him we emerged from non-existence into being, which we receive as a gift to receive with thanksgiving.  For this reason, we do not have to justify our intuitive capacity to seek moral, ethical, and spiritual truth.  It is “natural” to be that way, because this conforms to the creative will of God.  The tasks of life may distract us – at times even overwhelm us, but this “living life” (to borrow another phrase from Dostoevsky) signifies something and not nothing.  Even further, if God is, then our lives add up to something much greater than the sum of all our human experiences in this life.  The Gospel would call this “abundant” or “eternal” life (John 3:16, 10:10).

God or Nothing.  All in all, an intriguing title for a book.  I’m not sure I will ever read it, but for one last time I will claim that although stark, this either/or approach is vital – it reflects a deep look at reality.  Could we even speak of a so-called middle choice?  The agnostic “maybe” or “perhaps” does not sound very satisfying or reassuring.  If we have chosen God over nothing, then our vocation is to embody this choice in lives that are full of meaningful pursuits, beginning with the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

 (Father Steven Kostoff is rector of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he has taught various courses on Orthodox theology. The preceding article was taken from Father Steven’s new book, “Monday Morning Meditations:  Reflections of a Parish Priest,” published by Kaloros Press).

On Politics and Religion

(by Protopresbyter John Meyendorff)

(Fr. John of blessed memory, was a Dean of St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary, a noted author, Church historian and patristic scholar.  He also represented the Orthodox Church in America in many Pan-Orthodox and Ecumenical affairs around the world during his tenure at SVS).  

In a totalitarian state it is easy – and often unavoidable – for the Church to be totally apolitical.  This is so because totalitarianism consists precisely in depriving the people of the right to think and decide on political matters.  The issue of “politics” (under an oppressive regime) arises only in the case of a revolutionary confrontation with the powers-that-be, and, in that case, for Christians there are difficult choices to make between active and passive participation in the change.  Quite often, Christians fail to satisfy either side because of their abhorrence of violence, which is practically inevitable in revolutionary situations.

In a democratic system Christians cannot be totally apolitical, because they freely vote.  If they abstain from voting, claiming to be apolitical, they in fact support the majority, which is a political act in itself.  They also pay taxes, which support government policies, and therefore are inevitably performing political acts.  So, in fact, an apolitical attitude in democracy is impossible.

However, Christians have advantages over their non-religious co-citizens.  They know through faith of the true meaning of such words as “justice,” “peace,” “security.”  They know that none of these realities can be provided by political or military or economic means only.  Politicians are lying when they promise those things to the people in their programs or their slogans.  True justice, peace and true security are accessible only in the Kingdom of God.  This basic belief makes Christians somewhat immune to total political commitment to anyone. 

However, it would be a mistake to think that the relative, temporary and partial forms of justice and peace can be ignored by Christians because they expect to find them in the Kingdom of God.  The commandment of love given by the Lord to His disciples refers also to this world and not only to the next.  “If someone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).

There is actually no clear and simple formula which would give us infallible directions as to how this divine love revealed to Christians is to be realized in their attitude towards society at large.  Historically, Roman Catholics and Protestants have relied on political solutions and methods more readily than the Orthodox.  To secure its independence from the State, Roman Catholicism became a state in itself, while Protestants, including the original white settlers in America, often dreamt of creating here on earth a just and “perfect” society.  Some Western Christians today, disappointed in the failures of the past, tend to ally themselves blindly with secular reformers or revolutionaries, hoping to reach “justice” in this way.  Orthodox Christians generally understand well that such solutions are quite mistaken.  However, they too have been often accused of being so detached from the world in their spiritual and liturgical experience of the Kingdom of God that they left their own countries in the grip of tyrants and dictators.

Personally, I believe that the Orthodox historical record in this respect is really not worse than that of the Christian West.  But it is true that if we, the Orthodox – especially now that we live far away from traditional structures which took certain Christian values for granted – do not take seriously our mission to the world around us, we will be judged accordingly.  This mission consists, first of all, in preaching the Gospel of Christ in its fullness, but it also involves feeding the hungry, helping the sick, being concerned with the weak and the disinherited.  There is no reason in this respect to leave a monopoly to socialist atheism, which is a miserable social failure anyway, or to agree with straightforward, selfish capitalism, which leaves the weak to care for themselves.  The Orthodox Christian solution is neither another ideological system, nor a politicized Christianity, nor an apolitical indifference to the world.  It implies the support of what is right and the rejection of injustice, in alliance with no one.  This freedom from all secular commitments, coupled with real concern for the salvation of the world, is the Christian position.  It somewhat annoys those who wish to use the Church for their own goals, but its strength lies in its independence and in its commitment to the higher Truth.  Let us not depart from it, and let us make the right choices accordingly.


(From a March 1983 editorial in the Orthodox Church in America Newspaper.  Reprinted in “Witness to the World,” published by St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1987, pp. 88-90).

Two Dimensions of the Church

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

(Excerpts from “Churchianity and Christianity,” Chapter 1, Test of the Gospel, SVS Press, pp. 18-22.  From a talk given on February 8, 1990.)

“If we enter the Church (through Baptism and/or Chrismation) what we discover is that the Church is a strange, living organism, simultaneously and equally human and divine.  The fullness of God abides in it. And also, all that is human is in it – what is fulfilled and what is in the making, what is tragic and what is already shining with glory. The fullness of God abides in it by the presence of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost.  And the fullness is in it because in Christ and in the Spirit, we are in God.  The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is our Father, our God.  But the Church is also human.  And in many ways, not simply in one way, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ we have a vision of man: man, as he is called to be, as he truly is, a human being at one with God.  Less than this, man is not a human being in the full sense of the word, according to the mind of the Scriptures.  Christ is the only true man because He is the only perfect man.  And perfect means fulfilled, brought to perfection.  

“But in the Church, there is also another dimension of humanity:  us – imperfect, in the making.  But we are imperfect in two different ways:  we may be imperfect while we strive God-wards, or we may be imperfect when we turn away from God.  It is not a matter of success; it is a matter of direction.  Saint Ephraim of Syria says that the Church is not a body of saints, it is a crowd of repentant sinners.  And by repentant we do not mean wailing sinners, but people who have turned God-wards and move God-wards, who may fall but will stand.

“But there is also another dimension in our humanity, which is neither the tragic dimension of sin, repentance, and struggle, nor the glorious dimension of the saints.  There is a dimension that is mean, that is small, that in a way is a betrayal and a renunciation – the fig tree covered with leaves and barren.  We can find this dimension in ourselves if we are truly attentive and honest.  I find it.  And I doubt that there is any one of us in whom there is not something of it.  It’s a way in which we renounce our vocation, while we still want to remain of the Church.  Christ came into the world to save the world.  He has left this task, His task, to us.  In the words of Doctor Moffatt in his translations of the Epistles: ‘We are a vanguard of heaven.  Our home is heaven.  And heaven is any place where God is in our midst, or where we are where He belongs.’  Christ told us that He has given us an example:  that is, that we are not only to follow in His footsteps, but to follow His example and be in life what He has been, within the limitation of our understanding, of our strength, or, rather, of our openness to the power of God, which is manifested even in human weakness, if this weakness is surrender to Him.

“And yet, what we see is that we treat the Church as a place where we can take refuge; we run away from life into the Church.  We hide from life in the Church.  How often it happens that instead of coming out of the Church in order to be sent ‘like sheep among the wolves’ (I repeat this phrase because it is so real in so many countries, in so many places now), we go out, ready to run away from all danger, to hide, to refuse to face any challenge.  God tells us to go out into the world for His salvation; we run back to be hidden under His cloak.  And this not only in great things. I’m not speaking of martyrdom, I am speaking of our everyday life.  We do not live our lives on Christ’s own terms.  We want God to live on ours.  We want Him to be our protection, our help, our safety. We almost (we do not say it of course, but our lives say it very often), we almost say to Him: ‘Die for me.  I’m afraid of dying, both for myself or for my neighbor, or even for You.’

“There is this dimension (in our lives), which is so frightening.  I do not mean to say that we must be missionaries, that we must go around the world proclaiming something.  I’m speaking of choosing something, of taking a stand in life, of being one thing or another. In the course of these talks I want us to ask ourselves:  what does the proclamation of the Creed, of the profession of our faith mean?  Is it just a world outlook, one of the many possible philosophies, something that satisfies us more than another?  Or is it an undertaking, and is it an experiential knowledge that binds us?  And the same applies to so many other things…

“…I would like you to think (of what I have said) in the way you would think of yourselves if you intended to go see a doctor because there is something that is not all right, there is a pain here, there is something that is not a fullness of life.  There is weakness, there is tiredness, there is pain, there is depression, there is misery, there is fear, so many other things.  How attentively we think of ourselves when we are physically ill, so as to describe it to the physician, for him to be able to understand and advise us how to come to health.  And this process is a creative one, because it is a way of breaking barriers, of emerging into freedom, of renouncing passivity in order to become active, creative – to turn from death or illness into health and life.

“I will end this introductory talk at this point.  Do not take it as being the voice of pessimism.  In a way it is a voice of hope, the voice of certainty that if we can see things truly, we can put them right.  And I don’t even say ‘with God’s help.’ Of course, God’s help will be offered.  But there is so much that we can do ourselves in His name, in our name, because of the greatness that already exists in us, because of God’s own image in us, for the sake of beauty, of health, of life, of truth.  So, think of what I have said as an opening into a new fullness, a call to conquer…”

The Great Unmasking

Fr. Lawrence Farley

(With the Dormition Fast upon us, August 1 – 15, the following article is offered as a guide to repentance and confession).

Everyone you meet and have ever met wears a mask.  You do too.  From the time we were children, we have been taught that certain things were acceptable and certain other things were definitely unacceptable.  For example, when confronted with infuriating people or situations in which our will was thwarted, sarcasm was acceptable.  Falling to the floor, flailing our limbs, and screaming (aka having a temper tantrum) was unacceptable.  It took us a while to learn this (ask any parent about “the terrible twos”), but eventually we all figured out this distinction and now, when confronted with infuriating people or frustrating situations, we opt for sarcasm, not tantrums.  Tempting as it sometimes is, we decide not to indulge our inner child and fall to the floor screaming.  But (let’s be honest) often we want to.

That is, we have learned to wear a mask.  On the outside of the mask we are adults, persons who can be sarcastic at times, but are still patient and long-suffering in the face of infuriating frustration.  Behind the mask, somewhere safe deep within, we are still two years old, and we fall to the floor when provoked.  There are many other things we have learned to keep behind the mask besides feelings of rage:  lust, disdain, hatred, contempt, and a host of other passions which would cause us endless mortification if anyone knew about them.  Our lives are studded with thousands of petty hypocrisies which mar our hidden souls, but few people know about them.  Perhaps canonizeable saints who have reached apatheia and passionlessness have no such dramatic differences between their inner man and their outer behaviours, but most people reading this post suffer from this spiritual split-personality, and hide it behind a mask.

That is what makes the Last Judgment so fearful.  It is not just that Gehenna and hell-fire await some and the Paradisal Kingdom of God await others.  What even the saved should find fearful is the fact that on that day the full light of truth will flood the world and sweep away all the shadows in which we have always lived.  Then it will be time to remove our masks, to discover how our voices really sounded, how our actions really looked, and what sort of persons we really were.  As the Lord’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 shows, there will be surprises for pretty much everyone.

When we reach that judgment and the time for the great unmasking arrives, it will be too late to re-write our past and attempt to present a better face behind the mask.  Life has no rewind button, and what’s done is done.  If we have lived a life of heedless hedonism and spent our time running away from God and toward sensual pleasure, it will be too late then to do anything to fix it.  We will be like Esau, who after selling his birthright for a single meal, “found no place for repentance, though he sought it with tears” (Hebrews 12:17).  Now is the time to begin fixing our face, so that when the mask finally falls, it will cause us less grief.

But how do we fix our face?  By daily examination of conscience and private confession to God in our prayers.  Before stumbling into bed at night, we should spend some time remembering our day, noting the things we did well and the things we did badly.  As we confess the latter and find mercy with our compassionate Lord, we cultivate a habit of inner watchfulness, of paying attention to the little twists which mar our souls.  That allows us to untwist them, and try to do better the next day.  Life has a way of rushing us forward heedlessly at break-neck speed, and of being so preoccupied with The Next Exciting Thing that we have no time to look back over the day just past.  It is not simply that we rush through life too quickly to smell the roses—we also rush through it too quickly to smell ourselves.  We need to stop and smell, and examine, and confess.  Of course, we will still suffer from blind-spots and miss things.  But we will catch things too, and have the opportunity to find healing and create some inner beauty behind the mask.  None of us know when the Last Judgment will come, or even when death will take us away and deprive us of the opportunity to repent and reform ourselves.  There is no sense in waiting.  The time for repentance is now.  Let us drop the mask for a bit and examine our faces tonight.

(Fr. Lawrence Farley is a graduate of St. Tikhon Orthodox Seminary and the author of many books including the Bible Study Companion Series; Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy; and A Daily Calendar of Saints)

All Saints of North America: Signs of Ecclesiastical Maturity

Each year, two weeks after Pentecost (this year June 10), Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of All Saints of North America.  Along with the Venerable Herman of Alaska, eighteen other men are specifically remembered by the faithful, in addition to unnamed saints whose blessedness is known only to God. 

Furthermore, according to one list there are as many as twelve Orthodox Christians not yet glorified (canonized), but whose sacrificial efforts in America merit serious consideration in order to begin the formal process. At least one is a woman, Matushka Olga Michael of Alaska (reposed November 8, 1979).  She is revered especially for her humility, charitable works, and for helping victims of abuse.       

The significance of these commemorations is multi-faceted but denotes significant development on the part of our local territorial Church. The celebration of North American Saints is a comforting sign of the Spirit’s activity in the “New World.” Equally important, however, the feast celebrates people on this continent who responded to the prompting of the Spirit, paving the way for future generations.  Their receptivity to the Spirit’s presence indicates ecclesiastical maturity, a spiritual awareness among people of genuine faith and love, “who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). 

It has been said that, “you cannot save what you do not love,” or conversely “you can only save what you love.” The North American Saints bear witness to this truth.  In their missionary efforts they were motivated by love for God, for those made in His image, and for this country.  Emulating Christ they embodied the New Commandment to, “love one another (love the world) as I have love you” (John 13:34-35; John 3:16). They identified with those to whom they preached and as a result, “thousands around (them were) saved” (St. Seraphim of Sarov).  

In a March, 1972 editorial, as the OCA was still embracing its identity as an Autocephalous Church, Fr. John Meyendorff shared his thoughts on love as the foundation of missionary activity in America.  He stated that, “Mission is not only ‘preaching,’ not only talking about God, or promoting ‘our thing.’ Mission is not a Christian commercial. It is a witness and an act of love. It implies love for those to whom it is directed, and love means self-giving, not simply giving something.”

Fr. John went on to say, “The Orthodox mission in Alaska had been successful in the past not so much because it was financially supported from Russia, but mainly because St. Herman stayed with his Aleutians until his death, and because a few real missionaries, like St. Innocent Veniaminov, gave their whole life to the people they wanted to evangelize.”  (Meyendorff, John, Witness to the World, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1987, pages 188-189). 

As a further example, the blessed Tikhon the Confessor, Enlightener of North America, publicly articulated his compassion for the American people in very personal terms.  Upon his arrival to New York on December 12, 1898, he lamented leaving behind his motherland, friends and family.  He reassured his new flock, however, with words from the prophet Hosea, "I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people..." (Hosea 2:23).  He told them essentially that, just as I was one with the people of Russia, and loved them, so I am now one with you, and I love you also.  (Orthodox America: 1794-1976, Orthodox Church in America, Dept. of History and Archives, Syosset, NY. 1975, p. 90).    

In our day, wherever the American Church reaps the spiritual rewards of evangelism, the sincerity and kindness of her missionaries are almost certainly evident. Conversely, that which often hinders the contemporary Christian witness is lack of love, lack of identification among the faithful with that which they seek to transform.  An ever-present temptation is to remain aloof not only from specific individuals, but from the public square, positioning the Church against society and society against the Church. The implicit message – to the detriment of Christ’s followers – is often understood in black and white terms:  i.e., the Church, and therefore those within it are good; society however, is evil. 

Such an approach is counter-productive to the Church’s mission. It meshes well with modern tendencies toward individualism and isolationism, while ignoring a basic fact: that society, like the Church, is not a faceless, anonymous entity.  It is not a “thing” to be converted. Christians help make up society, as well as the world in need of repentance that Christ came to redeem.  The faithful who daily “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) are intimately connected to that which is often squared off against the Body of Christ itself. Candidly speaking, the world that crucified Christ is our world.

While remaining vigilant, discerning, and faithful to the Gospel, it would seem that part of a Christian’s responsibility in America is to embrace that which is good in the neighbor and within American culture, building upon these positives, enriching and fulfilling them in the light of Orthodoxy. A quote from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians comes to mind: 

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

This attitude of openness was evident in the Apostle’s preaching to the men of Athens when he revealed to them the identity of their “unknown god” (Acts 17:16-33).  It assuredly characterized the approach of the North American Saints who became “one” with the people of this continent. While laying the foundation of Faith in this new land, St. Herman, St. Juvenaly and those with them, and later St. Innocent, sought commonalities -- points of contact -- with the indigenous population that could facilitate the dissemination of the Good News. (See especially Fr. Michael Oleksa’s impressive work, Orthodox Alaska:  A Theology of Mission, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1992).

Appealing to the above passage from Philippians Fr. Alexander Schmemann commented on Orthodox activity in America: “…we must, without denying any genuine value of our Eastern cultural and spiritual heritage, open ourselves towards Western culture and make our own whatever in it ‘is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious’" (Philippians 4:8).  (The Task of Orthodox Theology in America Today, September 1966).

This spirit of sensitivity remains a guiding principle to those who follow in the Saints’ footsteps.  It is a sign of ecclesiastical maturity within parishes and dioceses whose members seek to identify with those around them, while imparting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit’s Presence in the Church

(Archpriest Steven Kostoff)

“(On May 27, 2018 we will celebrate), the Great Feast of Pentecost. And it seems fitting for me to share a fine passage from Father John Breck, who wrote a summary paragraph of the role and work of the Holy Spirit in the divine economy, and in the life of Christian believers. This passage gives us a sense of the extraordinarily rich and varied aspects of the Spirit’s presence in the Church, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. I am breaking down Father John’s paragraph in a more systematic manner.

“The Holy Spirit …

  • Prays within us and on our behalf [Romans 8:26].
  • Works out our sanctification [Romans 15:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13;  Galatians 5:16-18].
  • Pours out God’s love into the hearts of believers, enabling them to address the Father by the familiar and intimate name, “Abba” [Romans 5:5; 8:15-16; Galatians 4:6].
  • Confirms our status as “children of God” through His indwelling presence and power [Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6].
  • Guides and preserves the faithful in their ascetic struggles against the passions [Galatians 5:16].
  • Serves as the Source and Guarantor of our “freedom” from the constraints of the Law, a freedom which enables us to behold the glory of the Lord [2 Corinthians 3:17-18].

“Looking up these passages in the Bible may further prove to be helpful in gaining a sense of the ongoing and endless gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to the Church and to our personal lives.

“I also would like to include a passage from Veselin Kesich’s book, The First Day of the New Creation. In his discussion about Pentecost, Professor Kesich offers a good summary of the Orthodox Christian position concerning the issue of the filioque. As Orthodox Christians, we continue to recite the Nicene Creed in its original form, without the interpolation of the filioque—the Latin term that means “and from the Son”—when proclaiming the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father. Professor Kessich summarizes the Orthodox position based upon a careful reading of the Scriptures. The “filioque controversy” remains to this day a divisive point of contention between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism respectively – and those Western churches that also use the term. The point to be made is not about remaining entrenched in a polemical position, but to try to come to some understanding as to why the Orthodox have never embraced this later addition to the Nicene Creed. In the words of Professor Kesich:

“It is equally true that the Father sends the Spirit [John 14:16,26]. The Son sends the Spirit, but the Source of the Spirit is the Father, for the Spirit proceeds from the Father [John 15:26]. The verb “proceed” that is used in John 15:26 is ekporeuomai. When it is said that the Son “comes forth” from the Father, the verb is exerchomai. Saint John consistently uses the latter verb whenever he speaks of the Son coming forth from the Father [8:42: 13:3; 16:27f.; 16:30; 17:8]. The Spirit and the Son have the same and only origin. They are two distinct Persons. Their missions are not identical. Although the Spirit had not been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified [John 7:39], yet it is nowhere stated in Saint John’s Gospel that the Spirit “proceeds” from the Son as He proceeds from the Father. Therefore, there is no filioque here.”

“Nothing like some good biblical exegesis to make’s one day brighter and more glorious during this (month) of Pentecost!”  

(Father Steven Kostoff is rector of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he has taught various courses on Orthodox theology.)

Paschal (Resurrection) Season: 2018

Introduction and Bright Week

The week following Pascha (Easter), is called Bright Week, by the Church. Pascha is celebrated this year by the Orthodox Church on April 8, one week after Christians of the Western Tradition. As Holy Week was a final time of anticipation and preparation for “the Feast of Feasts,” so Bright Week is a period of unique Resurrection joy, manifested outwardly in diverse ways. For instance, during Bright Week there is no fasting at all from various types of food; all liturgical hymns, ideally, are to be sung rather than read; and the Church remains highly decorated, with the royal doors and deacon’s doors of the iconostasis left open as they were during the Midnight Service. This latter practice emphasizes visually that the gates of God’s Kingdom have been open to man through the Cross, Tomb and Resurrection of Christ. Services during Bright Week are celebrated in a particularly glorious manner, identical to that experienced during the Midnight Service and Resurrection Vespers on Pascha Sunday. The traditional announcement, “Christ is Risen,” is sung repeatedly by the Church choir, and people greet one another with this same message of hope.

While Bright Week is a time of profound, perhaps uncommon celebration, the Resurrection season is not limited to one week. For forty days, until Ascension (this year May 17), the faithful recall in songs and greetings the joyous news that ‘Christ has trampled down death by death, bestowing life upon those in the tombs.’ Clergy and altar servers continue to wear their brightest vestments, and everyone stands (rather than kneels) in prayer, both at home and in Church. The practice of standing in prayer during the Paschal Season serves to stress our belief that in Christ we are already resurrected beings, residents on earth yet citizens of Heaven. The faithful continue this practice until Pentecost (this year May 27), when after Liturgy for the first time since Holy Week we kneel in prayer during three special prayers that are read from the ambo by the clergy.

The five Sundays following Pascha emphasize, through the appointed Scripture readings and hymns, (1.) post-resurrection appearances of Christ; (2.) the Church’s early life and missionary endeavors (epistle readings are taken from the Book of Acts); and (3.) aspects of baptism, through which we ourselves have died and risen with Christ to a new life in God (Gospel readings are taken from the most “sacramental” of Gospel accounts, that of John the Theologian or Evangelist). Fr. Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory) in his Orthodox Faith Handbook Series, Volume II, provides a summary of the meaning of the five Sundays of Pascha. The following contains quotes and paraphrases from that summary.       

Thomas Sunday (April 15):

On the Sunday following Pascha, called in our liturgical books “the Second Sunday,” the stress is on the Apostle Thomas’ vision of Christ.  The significance of the day comes to us in the words of the Gospel: 

“Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands;  and put out your hand, and place it in My side;  do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and My God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  (John 20:27-29).

In this last statement Christ refers to all those who will come after the Apostles and become disciples through their words. This includes Christians of every century, including our own.  We have not seen Christ with our physical eyes, nor touched His risen body with our physical hands, yet in the Holy Spirit we have seen and touched and tasted the Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4), and so we believe.  In the early Church it was only on this day that those baptized at Pascha removed their (baptismal) robes and entered once again into the life of this world.   

The Myrrhbearing Women (April 22)

The Third Sunday after Pascha is dedicated to the Myrrhbearing Women who cared for the body of the Savior at His death and who were the first witnesses of His Resurrection.  The three troparia of Holy Friday, (having to do with the Noble Joseph of Arimethea anointing and burying the Body of Jesus;  Christ’s descent into hell and its defeat;  and the angel’s proclamation to the myrrhbearing women of Christ’s resurrection) are sung once again and form the theme of the day:

     "The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the Tree, wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb."
      "When Thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hell with the splendor of Thy Godhead."
      "The angel came to the myrrhbearing women at the tomb and said: Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown Himself a stranger to corruption! So proclaim: The Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy."

The Paralytic (April 29)

The Fourth Sunday is dedicated to Christ’s healing of the Paralytic (John 5).  The man is healed by Christ while waiting to be put down into the pool of water.  Through baptism in the church we too are healed and saved by Christ for eternal life.  Thus, in the church, we are told, together with the paralytic, to “sin no more that nothing worse befall you” (John 5:14).  Our Lord’s question to the man, “Do you want to be healed?” is directed to us as well, reminding us that the gift of life and illumination through the Resurrection brings with it responsibilities.  It must be nurtured and shared with others. 

The Feast of Mid-Pentecost

In the middle of the Fourth Week, there is a day which is called by the Church, the Feast of Mid-Pentecost (this year May 2).  On this day we recall that Christ, “in the middle of the feast” teaches men of His saving mission and offers to all “the waters of immortality” (John 7:14).  Again we are reminded of the Master’s presence and His saving promise:  “If anyone is thirsty let him come to Me and drink” (John 7:37).

The Samaritan Woman (May 6)

The Fifth Sunday after Pascha deals with the Woman of Samaria with whom Christ spoke at Jacob’s Well (John 4).  Again the theme is the “living water” and the recognition of Jesus as God’s Messiah (John 4: 10-11; 25-26).  We are reminded of our new life in Him, of our own drinking of the “living water,” of our own true worship of God in the Christian Messianic Age “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4: 23-24).  We see as well that salvation is offered to all:  Jews and Gentiles, men and women, saints and sinners.

The Blind Man (May 13)

Finally, the Sixth Sunday commemorates the healing of the man blind from birth (John 9).  We are identified with that man who came to see and to believe in Jesus as the Son of God.  The Lord has anointed our eyes with His own divine hands and washed them with the waters of baptism (John 9: 6-11).  In Christ we are given the power to see and confess Him as God’s only-begotten Son, and we are given the ability to comprehend clearly and with love, our own lives, the lives of others and the world around us.

Ascension, Pentecost and All Saints Sunday

The Paschal Season ends with the great feast of Ascension (again, this year May 17) on which believers celebrate the Lord’s ascent in order to be glorified with God the Father and to glorify us with Himself.  He goes in order to “prepare a place” for us, and to take us into the blessedness of God’s presence.  He goes to open the way for all flesh into the “heavenly sanctuary...the Holy Place not made by hands” (See Hebrews 8-10).  Furthermore, Christ ascends in order to send the Holy Spirit (an event celebrated on Pentecost) who proceeds from the Father, to bear witness to Him (Christ) and His Gospel in the world, by making Him (Christ) powerfully present in the lives of His disciples.

On Pentecost (May 27) the Church celebrates the final act of God’s self-revelation and self-donation to the world.  God’s plan of salvation – starting with and including the formation of His chosen people, Israel; the sending of the prophets; the birth of Christ; His teachings, miracles, sufferings, death, burial and resurrection – all of this culminates with the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the birth of the New Israel, the Church of God, the life of which is the continued presence of the Spirit in our midst.

The Sunday after Pentecost, that of All Saints  (June 3), reveals the power of the Holy Spirit in this world, the reason that He was given.  The Saints are those who, without a doubt, have been saved and transformed by the Spirit’s presence, a fate open to all who believe.  And then finally, on June 10, we commemorate All Saints of America, as a logical follow up to the previous Sunday.  This celebration affirms God’s presence and activity amongst His disciples in North America, placing before us local and contemporary examples of sanctity.    

Thus, a journey which began for us way back on January 21 with the Sunday of Zacchaeus will end on June 10.  But the journey was taken for a reason.  The seasons of fasting and celebration that we have experienced are to lead us to a deeper faith in Christ as Savior.  They are to instill within us a stronger commitment to our own mission, to be Christ’s witnesses “to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

(Some of the above information taken from Fr. Thomas Hopko’s, The Orthodox Faith, Volume 2, Worship, published by the O.C.A.’s Department of Christian Education)

Personal Reflections: Early St. Seraphim Cathedral, Paschal Traditions and Outreach

Growing up in a Southern Orthodox community – St. Seraphim Cathedral – had its challenges as well as distinct advantages.  To be sure our membership did not have social and educational resources provided for in other congregations by generous budgets.  Neither did it possess the benefits of spacious facilities enjoyed by larger Churches:  in fact, quite the contrary.  The Cathedral’s initial building in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was a converted, one story, four room, wood frame home.  The community itself boasted a membership numbering just a handful of families and single adults. Later the small converted home became exclusively the fellowship hall, when the community built a modest, insulated sheet metal chapel.  Eventually the membership grew and the current two-story St. Seraphim hall was constructed in the early 1970’s. The new temple enjoyed today by the Dallas congregation was consecrated in April of 2001. 

As a youngster, however, I never felt that our parish – given its modest size – was deprived of anything.  The Church was our home, our spiritual family, and that experience which revolved around the liturgical life of Orthodoxy, made early St. Seraphim’s seem ten times larger than it was.  Our considerable resources resided primarily in the hearts of the people whose faith, work ethic and comradery left a lasting impression on many. I consider myself extremely fortunate – blessed – to have grown up in a family oriented, close-knit Orthodox parish, with serious-minded clergy, as well as lay elders (men and women) who led by example.  Pre-eminently of course, the presence and prayers of Archbishop Dmitri were a considerable help and inspiration, from St. Seraphim’s start in 1954 until His Eminence’s repose in 2011. 

Being an Orthodox Christian in the Bible Belt forced a person to learn the fundamental precepts of his or her Faith – even as a child – so that an intelligible answer could be given to the question, “What is the Orthodox Church?”  Addressing that question and speaking with others about the Church was something one came to expect.  The idea of local missions and outreach was taken for granted by our parishioners.  Conversions and baptisms were common experiences. Ours was an English speaking but multi-ethnic community, with cradle Orthodox as well as converts from various backgrounds, a congregation which enjoyed the company of inquirers regularly at liturgical services.  

As a child and young teen, I was occasionally confronted with religious differences both at school and around my neighborhood.  If nothing else I was asked by friends about “this Church to which I belonged” that had services on Saturday night, and for unheard of feasts; this Church that celebrated Easter on a different date than everyone else.  In those days Western Good Friday was a school holiday, but I was always allowed an extra day off for Orthodox Good Friday, a “perk” that made my non-Orthodox friends somewhat envious. As a matter of fact, one of my neighbors accompanied us yearly to the midnight Paschal Service to check out and enjoy differences in Easter traditions for himself.  It was his only regular exposure to Orthodox worship, but needless to say he found it fascinating. His family belonged to a local Protestant Church so our ways of celebrating Pascha stood in stark relief to Easter customs with which my friend was familiar: i.e. the Orthodox tradition of singing “Christ is Risen” repeatedly; the reading of the Gospel in various languages; the Paschal procession around the Church; the contrast between a totally dark, then brilliantly lit temple upon re-entering the building;  the inspiring sermon of St. John Chrysostom;  the blessing of Paschal baskets with rich foods not eaten during Lent; getting home at sunrise after three hours of worship and three hours of fellowship, and so forth. Yes, as youngsters we were a little tired on Bright Monday when we returned to school, but our fatigue was like a badge of honor: we had been through something uniquely special that weekend (not to mention that entire Holy Week) and we felt better for having experienced it.      

Even though sharing Orthodoxy with others was part of our experience early on, it was not until later that I personally became aware of the profound significance of this sharing.  Although relatively small in the 50’s and 60’s, given the Cathedral’s diverse cultural makeup and the example set by leaders, it just seemed natural – the thing to do – to speak about Orthodox Christianity with others and to welcome people into the fold, even young friends curious at first about the differences between Orthodoxy and their respective Churches.

I specifically offer at this time of year, these youthful recollections – partly out of nostalgia – but primarily as reminders of the importance of the sense of community for parish development.  This emphasis is especially significant now, as we experience the rich traditions of the Lenten and the Paschal seasons, through which the messages of brotherly love, forgiveness and unity are repeatedly stressed.  On Pascha night for example, we will sing, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us, and forgive all, by the Resurrection…”  I also wish to encourage adult members of the Church to lead always by example as we encounter Christ, the very Image (Icon) of compassion and mercy, through Orthodoxy’s profound sacramental, liturgical life. 

As we all know, Orthodox Christians residing in Texas find themselves in an area where the Orthodox Church is relatively unknown and sometimes misunderstood.  Our children are certain to be asked religious questions and will have to respond to these inquiries to the degree that they understand the Faith, and in ways that are consistent with their respective ages and activity in Church life. The hope would be with our young ones, that their identity as Orthodox Christians, their love for the Faith attained through the experience of community, the “badge of honor” referenced earlier, acquired through Lenten and Holy Week efforts, that these will be so ingrained in their minds and hearts from little on, that they will be delighted to ask others to “come and see;” that the distinct character of their “religion” will be cherished and something they will want to share.  At the same time, we adults must also try to embrace the challenges, both to foster a sense of Church family, and to make disciples of those around us, remembering that we are responsible for passing on the Orthodox Christian Faith to future generations.  In a very real way however, it all begins now, with this Lenten season of repentance, of rededication and renewal.