Transfiguration: August 6

Christ’s Glory and the Glory to Which Man Is Called Fr. Basil Zebrun

On Sunday, August 6, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. This key event of our Lord’s Ministry is recorded by the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three describe the Transfiguration as taking place on a mountain, Mount Tabor by tradition. The mountain was a most appropriate setting since our Lord frequently went up onto a mountain to pray. St. Luke relates that the Transfiguration began with prayer:

“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” (Luke 9: 28-29)

Within Christian tradition biblical ascents and encounters with God upon the mountains, or any efforts recorded in Scripture to follow the divine will, are often viewed allegorically (symbolically) as signs of man’s spiritual struggle, his movement toward the Creator. Mountains are further associated with divine revelation, God’s presence. We only need to remember Moses’ vision on Mount Horeb (or Sinai) of the burning bush, at which time he was called by God to free the Israelites, and the divine name was revealed, “I am Who I am…” We can also recall Moses receiving the Commandments on Mount Sinai, and Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb.

Liturgical hymns, as well as Old Testament readings appointed for the feast, recall these specific episodes from Exodus and 1 Kings. In the New Testament, however, on Tabor a greater experience is conferred, prefigured by prior events. So, whereas the Law was given to the Jews on tablets of stone, the chief disciples beheld the divinity of the One Who is the fulfillment of the Law and prophets. Whereas Moses received a written word and was told that he could not see the face of God, the Lord’s glory was revealed to the apostles in the face of the Living Word, Jesus of Nazareth. And whereas God was found in “the still, small voice” heard by Elijah, so His divine glory is found in those who are humble and still of heart, unassuming with regard to worldly glory, in imitation of the Incarnate, Transfigured Christ.

The exalted vision of Christ’s divinity on Tabor, indicating also the glory to which man is called; the connection between Tabor and God’s prior appearances to Moses and Elijah; and the Tabor experience as preparation for the apostles to behold the Lord’s crucifixion; these themes make up the focus of the Church’s worship on Transfiguration. As one example from Vespers:

He, Who of old, spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am Who I am,” Was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the Disciples. In His own Person He showed them the nature of mankind Arrayed in the original beauty of the Image. Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them partakers of the gladness, Foretelling His death on the Cross and His saving Resurrection.

(1st Aposticha verse)

The Evangelists indicate with one accord, that only Peter, James and John were privy to Christ’s glorious revelation. They were part of the inner circle of disciples. The fact that they were chosen to be witnesses of this sight teaches us – at least symbolically – that, “the privilege of contemplating God, and of entering into the joy of the Transfiguration is reserved for those who have followed the Master, long and faithfully…” (Anthony Bloom).

The writers of the Gospel describe the vision on the mountain as including Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah. The two Old Testament figures represent respectively the dead and the living of whom Christ is Lord, as well as the Law and prophets, of which Christ is the fulfillment. The fact that Moses and Elijah were witnesses to Christ’s Transfiguration influenced the Church’s use of readings from Exodus and 1 Kings.

On Tabor, the Father bore witness to His Son, and the Spirit was also revealed, indicated by the bright cloud overshadowing those present. Transfiguration therefore is looked upon as a great Theophany, similar to our Lord’s baptism, at which time the Holy Trinity was made manifest. The Transfiguration is a revelation of Christ’s glory as God, but as mentioned, a sign (a promise) of the glory for which man was created, and to which he is called through the Incarnate Lord.

And then, all three of the Synoptic Gospels tell us that immediately prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus said, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, that there are some standing here who will not taste of death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” Generally, the Church affirms that the Transfiguration is a fulfillment of that prophecy.

As the Church celebrates this event in Jesus’ life – marking its significance as both a revelation of divine glory, and of man’s destiny in Christ – Christians would do well to reflect upon the fact that Peter, James and John were prepared by our Lord for this experience. They were among the first of the chosen apostles; they were with Jesus from the beginning; they witnessed miracles and heard our Lord’s teachings; they saw how Jesus interacted and dealt with people; and in addition, they were familiar with the Law and the prophets.

All of that would have meant little, however, had they not been receptive to guidance and instruction. Their steadfast endurance led to the experience of greater realities, including the vision on Tabor. So it is with members of the Church. Orthodox Christians believe in a God Who at each moment is intimately involved with His creation, engaged in human affairs. It behooves each person to remember the tangible preparation for a higher way of life that Jesus gave to His disciples, and then to realize that He does the same with His followers in every generation. With each personal encounter, each situation, each moment of both faith and doubt, Christ is present strengthening and fashioning His people into recognizable icons of Himself.

More specifically the Church calls people to ascetic efforts as preparation for their own encounters with God experienced in daily life, as well as through prayer and the liturgical life of the Church. Striving toward inner purity (repentance) is requisite for those who desire to approach the Lord. Commenting on the Israelites drawing near to Mount Sinai (Exodus 19), and God’s insistence on preparation for such an approach, St. Gregory of Nyssa likens the Jews’ external efforts (i.e. sexual abstinence and the washing of clothes) to the need for a clean heart, a virtuous life on the part of those who desire to come close to God.

…The man who would approach the contemplation of truth must cleanse himself and remove all impurity from both soul and body, so as to be completely stainless and pure in both. Our exterior behavior must correspond to the inner state of our soul, that we might be pure for Him Who sees the interior. Hence by the divine command, before climbing the mountain we must wash our garments; and here clothing is a symbol for the external virtuousness of our lives…When this has been done…the soul begins its ascent to higher truth…

(From Glory to Glory, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY., 2001, pages 97, 98).

And finally, as St. Innocent of Alaska specifically taught – while distinguishing inner from outer Crosses – our Lord calls His disciples to bear everything with faith and love, as He Himself bore it all for the sins of the world. If Christians can affirm, if they can recognize the benefit of faithful endurance, indeed the glory of the Cross, then they will be worthy to see also the glory of Tabor, the light and life of the Kingdom of God.

The Symphony of Lent

Archpriest Daniel Kovalak

Having had the opportunity to sing an operetta with the local symphony orchestra, it’s remarkable to me how wonderfully our Orthodox liturgical progression from Pre-Lent to Lent to Holy Week to Pascha not only presents “the greatest story ever told,” but also resembles the performance of a musical masterpiece.

I recall how at one rehearsal the conductor, abruptly bringing all to full stop, angrily tapped his baton, stomped his foot and shouted, “You’re not following me! The score says lentando!”  Lentando means “to make slow;” slowing down the music’s tempo to create a reflective, contemplative, even solemn mood.  This is especially employed in operas to build and enhance the personality and disposition of characters and to give the audience glimpses into their respective life struggles and inner conflicts that will be brought to bear as the story unfolds.

That’s pretty much “lent,” isn’t it?!  Time to slow down, to adjust the tempo of our daily lives from the hectic pace that consumes us to a more contemplative one that incites inner reflection and self-awareness. It’s a time to earnestly reflect on our character: what makes us tick, what lifts us up and what drags us down.  The mood created by our extra services, their somberness and solemnity, complemented by the readings, hymns, movements, commemorations and participation in confession reveal our desperate need for some serious “lentando” in our lives.

Lentando, however, is not stagnant but dynamic. It lays a foundation upon which to build, paving the way for something to come. In musical terms, it’s normally followed by a variation of “andante calmo,” literally “walking calmly.”  Having manifested traits of the characters by slowing to a reasonable, manageable tempo, the piece now assumes and maintains a pace that allows the story to unfold.

The early weeks of Lent likewise assume we have hit our stride, that our pre-lenten instruction has adequately prepared us to adopt a certain rhythm, especially of prayer and fasting. And whereas Forgiveness Sunday Vespers directs us to “begin the fast with joy,” our now “walking calmly” includes “allegretto” as well—a tinge of joyfulness.

By the third week of Lent, when the precious Cross of Our Lord is planted in our midst, our musical score is marked “poco a poco accelerando”—to accelerate, to pick up the pace little by little, not just for the thrill of speed but because our desired destination is slowly coming into view.

When the music accelerates, it’s taking you somewhere; there’s a “crescendo”—a “growing”—to emphasize an imminent crucial point of the story it seeks to tell. Crescendo is a movement toward a point that prepares the audience to experience and embrace the climax of the story, with voices and orchestra collectively manifesting their individual talents at optimal levels to “bring the story home.” Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, only to call him to come forth after four days represents, at least to me, a great crescendo!

Each day of Holy Week represents “a symphony within the symphony.”  Like acts of a play, each building upon the one before, they’d be musically-marked “presto;” literally meaning “very fast,” but more appropriately “ready.”  Everything to this point of the symphony has been preparing the audience not merely to passively observe, but “enter into” the story’s summit.  All the variations in tempo, dynamics and mood; the array of sounds produced by combinations of instruments and voices; the musicians fully offering themselves in sacrificial service to achieve the desired end-result—all resources have been brought to bear and now stand ready to deliver “the message;” to the experience of its zenith.

There are many musical terms to be considered in reference to Great and Holy Pascha. My choice would be “vivace”—“vivacious”—joyously unrestrained, enthusiastic, exuberant, lively! That’s a pretty good word to describe our celebration of the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! If after progressing through the various stages, movements and elements of the score you arrive at the end and cannot muster some serious “vivace” at the proclamation of “Christ is Risen,” you just haven’t been listening at all.

The world continues its insanity at a frantic pace, with no storyline, truth, morality or particular destination in mind.  So many threatening and horrific events occurring these days are merely the latest, tragic reminders of the frailty and fallenness of the world.  But the symphony of Lent draws us into the premier masterpiece of God’s mission “for the life of the world and its salvation.”

(Archpriest Daniel is rector of Holy Cross Church, Williamsport, PA.)


The Lenten Observance

Archbishop Dmitri On Sunday, January 29, Orthodox Christians entered a four-week season of Pre-Lent, to prepare themselves for a spiritually rewarding time of year:  the Great Fast.  In anticipation, we offer the following article from His Eminence Archbishop Dmitri.  The Great Fast begins this year on Sunday evening, February 26.

In the not too distant past, a minister of one of the denominations was quoted as saying:  "Almost no one in my Church observes Lent in the traditional way any longer.  The people simply cannot find a place for fasting and self-denial in their current lifestyles. They are, however, attracted by the idea of a period of intensive sharing and helping others.  This is what we are concentrating on in our Church nowadays.  After all, isn't that what Lent is all about?"

It is unfortunately true that what this minister says reflects a very popular attitude.  There is just no place for Lent in the contemporary way of life, so some Churches have seen fit to adapt themselves to the "realities of modern life," skip the "empty ritual observances," and "make the spring preparation for Easter more meaningful" to their people.  These platitudes dominate many discussions of the purpose of Lent.

Still more unfortunate is the acceptance (sometimes without realizing it) by not a few American Orthodox of these notions.  Perhaps in a country like ours where certain religious and semi-religious ideas fill the air, it is natural for people who do not think things through to be carried along by the trends.  This is especially true when what is offered is less demanding.

No one will question the fact that the Orthodox Christian Lenten observance is difficult.  What is prescribed requires almost a super-human effort -- the dietary changes, the cessation of entertainments, the constant call to self-examination, the reminders of our need to turn away from this world and set our sight on God's Kingdom, the injunction to forgive and love even our enemies.  It has little appeal to a society in which self-indulgence is no longer a sinful departure from God's will for man, but a philosophy of life.  Orthodox people are inescapably members of such a society, and being Orthodox not just in name, but conscientiously, is really a deliberate rejection of most of what that society offers.

What is missing from so many discussions of Lent and what is of primary importance in the Orthodox concept, is the idea of repentance.  In fact, the underlying idea of the Great Fast is exactly that, and the ritual observance is nothing more than a sign of it.  By the way, the term Great Fast is still a better name for the period than Lent.  We use the latter term, however, for ease of discussion, for fear that many of our own people would not know what we are talking about if we used the other one.

Actually, by rejecting traditional Lenten disciplines, what society and some of its obedient churches and churchmen are implicitly rejecting is the very idea of repentance, because repentance means a change of mind, of direction, of one's way of life, of values.  These changes which must come from the heart, arise from a conviction that one does not live as God would have him live.  They would not appeal to a self-satisfied and basically self-righteous society.  And a society which is convinced that it is good and has no sin to be sorry for is just that, self-righteous.

The radical change of diet that is called for,  is a sign of a radical change of lifestyle to which the Christian Faith calls us, even if it means running the risk of being 'odd' to those we work and associate with.  The increase in church attendance (during Lent) is an indication of the Christian's longing to be with God, in His house, and with His people.  The sharing with and the helping of others, an enormously important part of the observance, is not just a response to some humanitarian concerns, but a response to Christ's new commandment to love one another.  All of these characteristics of the Fast are intimately bound together and interdependent.  A mere outward observance of these things without the change of heart that they signify, is useless.

The Church is calling her faithful people once again to the observance of the Great Fast.  Nothing has changed.  Even if someone, moved by a false feeling of compassion for the people, should try to 'lighten the load' and make it easier by reducing the requirements, he is fooling himself and those who follow him. The ideal is still the same -- in this world in which we live -- being in it, yet not of it, as the Lord has characterized His followers.  We shall be invited to come back to God, overcome all obstacles so that the One we see is Jesus, to overcome self-righteousness, to repent of our sins against God and against our fellow man, and to make our lives models of self-giving, sharing, and forgiveness.

The Lord's Baptism

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Water doesn't mean much to us today.  It's one of life's essential comforts, accessible, automatic, cheap.  You turn on the tap and there it is...However, for thousands of years, water was a primary religious symbol, and to understand why this was so we must recover the almost completely extinguished feeling for the cosmos.

To people of the ancient world, water was no less than the symbol of life itself, and of the world as life...Water is truly a precondition for life.  One can go without food for a long time, but without water a person will die very quickly, so we can say that human beings are by nature thirsty beings.  Without water, cleanliness is impossible, so water is also the symbol of cleansing and purity.  Water as life and as purity, but also beauty, power and might, as we see it reflect and absorb, so to speak, the boundless blue sky. All of this describes the perception or experience of water that placed it at the center of religious symbolism.

Go into a church on the eve of Epiphany while the "Great Blessing of Water" is being celebrated.  Listen to the words of the prayers and hymns, pay attention to the rite, and you will feel that there is more here than merely ancient ritual:  it has something to say to us today, just as it did a thousand years ago, about our life and our perpetual and unquenchable thirst for purification, rebirth, renewal...In this celebration water becomes what it was on the first day of Creation, when "the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep;  and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2).  The words of the service echo this in praise and thanksgiving:  "Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there are no words which suffice to hymn Thy wonders..."  Once again, a beginning.  Once again, humanity stands before the mystery of existence.  Once again, we experience the world joyfully and we see its beauty and harmony as God's gift.  Once again, we give thanks.  And in this thanksgiving, praise, and joy, we once again become genuine human beings.

The joy of Epiphany is in the recovery of a cosmic experience of the world, of recovering faith that everything, and everyone can always be washed, purified, renewed, reborn, and that regardless how dirty and clouded with mud our life has become, no matter what swamp we might have rolled in, we always have access to a purifying stream of living water, because humanity's thirst for heaven, goodness, perfection and beauty is not dead, nor can it ever die.  Indeed, this thirst alone makes us human beings.  "Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there are no words which suffice to hymn Thy wonders..." Who said that Christianity is depressing and grim, morbid and sad, and pulls human beings away from life?  Look at the faces of worshippers that night (of Theophany), and see the light and joy that shines as they listen to the psalm thundering its exultation, "The voice of the Lord is upon the waters" (Psalm 29:3), as they watch the priest sprinkling volleys of blessed water throughout the church, and those glittering drops fly as if throughout the whole world, making that world once again a possibility and a promise, the raw material for a mysterious miracle of transformation and transfiguration.  God Himself entered this water in the form of a man; He united Himself not only with humanity, but with all matter, and made all of it a radiant, light-bearing stream flowing toward life and joy.

But none of this can be experienced or sensed without repentance, without a deep change of consciousness, without the conversion of mind and heart, without the ability to see everything in a new light.  This was precisely the repentance John the Baptist preached and which made it possible to see Jesus approaching the river Jordan, and lovingly accept Him as God Himself, who from the beginning of time loved the human race and created the whole world for us as an image of His love, eternity and joy.

The Truth of Christmas

Archpriest Daniel Kovalak

Think not it is of small things you art hearing when you hear of this birth, but rouse up your mind and straightway tremble, being told that God has come upon earth” [Saint John Chrysostom].

Since October, we’ve been incited, with considerable help from corporate America, to think about Christmas.  Store aisles of decorations appeared overnight, urging us to consider how we can create just the right ambiance to adorn and enhance our celebration.  Countless colorful product catalogs and advertising circulars have been filling our physical and virtual mailboxes and newspapers for weeks, encouraging us to think about those “perfect gifts” for those special people in our lives.  Grocery stores have been prodding us to plan impeccable party platters for our holiday entertaining.  And no matter where we go, the sounds of Christmas fill the air; stirring us to persevere in our determined efforts to make this “the best Christmas ever.”

Then, the day arrives: “It’s Christmas!”  It’s now time to experience all the happiness and merriment for which we’ve been preparing for so long, to see our myriad plans come to fruition, to savor the fulfillment of our considerable investments, and to taste the fruits of our labors while feeling the joy we’ve been envisioning for months.

But, to borrow a line from the popular classic, Twas the Night Before Christmas, “and what to our wondering eyes should appear?”  The inflatable Santa in the front yard has succumbed to the elements and deflated, symbolic of how many will feel in coming days.  The recycling bins and trash cans already overflow with the remnants of a season just beginning.  That perfect gift of a power screwdriver, alas, has no power, and if we hear the song, “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” one more time, we’ll sue the radio station for harassment!  Yep, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

In the midst of all the commercialism, relativism—and dare I say paganism—that surrounds us these days, our Holy Church calls us to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in worship, as our living witness to the Truth. What IS the Truth from which all things “Christmassy” flow, the Truth that has become so obscured as to be dissolved amidst the “holiday” wrappings and trappings, the Truth that historically hit the world with such force that its impact literally split time in two?

The Truth lies in our simple three-word greeting: “Christ is Born.”  Though we say this a thousand times, we still fall short in comprehending this profound mystery. We know what it means to be born. The greeting also assumes we know Who Christ is.  Is this a fair assumption?

We know Christ historically. Saint Matthew’s Gospel opens with Jesus’ human genealogy—His “family tree.”  He was a real Person Who lived in real time in a real place.  Even non-believers can’t argue this. We also know Christ theologically.  Our Creed articulates our belief that He is “the Son of God… Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.”  And we certainly know Christ liturgically and sacramentally.  In every Liturgy we intimately “know” Christ “in the breaking of the Bread.” So our Holy Church cannot but bear witness to the Truth of Christ each and every time we gather for worship.

But history and theology can amount to little more than nicely packaged words without practical application. And worship services and sacraments can be little more than pious, ancient and empty rituals if separated from their Divine Source.  The Truth of Jesus Christ is that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).

When we spiritually and enthusiastically shout our “Amen” to the Truth of Christ as manifested and announced in the Church, and live by that shout, we truly hear the song of angels, behold the brightness of the star, exercise the humility of the Mother of God, express the wonder of the shepherds, and give Christ the gift of ourselves, more precious than the gifts of the Magi.  This is how we “give flesh” to the Gospel’s words that package the Christmas story. And in this, our joy becomes full, our hearts become glad, our souls rejoice, and our feasting becomes a spiritual banquet at the heavenly table of the everlasting Kingdom of God.

May we not, foolishly, settle for anything less!

(Archpriest Daniel is rector of Holy Cross Church, Williamsport, PA;  Lecturer at St. Tikhon Orthodox Seminary; and a frequent contributor to the Williamsport Sun-Gazette and other publications).

Bishop Alexander - St. Barbara Visit: December 3 - 5

Introduction: We are pleased to announce that on Saturday and Sunday, December 3 and 4, His Grace the Right Reverend Alexander, Bishop of Dallas and the South, will make his first pastoral visit to St. Barbara Orthodox Church.   On Monday morning, December 5, a meeting with His Grace at the Church is being planned as well, for the clergy of the South Central (Dallas) Deanery.

Elected by the Holy Synod of Bishops on Tuesday, March 26, 2016 at its Spring Session, Bishop Alexander succeeds His Eminence, the late Archbishop Dmitri, as only the second ruling Bishop of the Diocese since its establishment in 1978.

We all will have an opportunity to receive a blessing from and meet Bishop Alexander on December 3 and 4, in conjunction with the celebration of our Patronal Feast.  It is also possible that we will have a number of visitors joining us for the joyous event. More information will be forthcoming, but as a follow up introduction to Bishop Alexander we offer the following biography posted on the OCA website.

“Bishop Alexander [Golitzin] was born in Burbank, CA in 1948 and was raised at Saint Innocent Church, Tarzana, CA.  He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master of Divinity degree from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary.  He spent seven years pursuing doctoral studies at Oxford University in England under His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware].  During this time, he also spent two years in Greece, including one year at Simonos Petras Monastery on Mount Athos.

“After receiving his D.Phil. in 1980, Bishop Alexander returned to the US.  He was ordained to the diaconate in January 1982 and to the priesthood two years later.  In 1986, he was tonsured to monastic orders.  He served OCA missions in northern California and headed the Diocese of the West’s mission committee.

“In 1989, he accepted a position with the Theology Department at Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, a position that he left at the end of April 2012.  While teaching at Marquette, he had been attached to Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, Milwaukee, WI.  For 22 years, he preached, taught and served at Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, and witnessed to the Gospel and to Orthodox Christian theology at Marquette University.  He helped attract a dozen Orthodox Christian students to doctoral work in theology at Marquette.

“In June 2010, the Bulgarian Diocese initiated a search for a candidate to succeed His Eminence, Archbishop Kirill [Yonchev], who reposed in the Lord in 2007.  In October 2011, the Holy Synod of Bishops elected Archimandrite Alexander as Bishop of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese.  He was consecrated to the episcopacy as Bishop of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese during a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at Saint George Cathedral, Rossford, OH on May 5, 2012.”

Words Concerning Protocol:

When greeting His Grace, before formal conversation takes place, it is traditional to extend one's hands for a blessing (place the right hand in the left), accompanying this gesture with the words, "Master bless."  The Bishop will make the Sign of the Cross, lay his hand in ours, and we then kiss his hand.  In terms of physical movement, receiving a blessing from the Bishop is identical to receiving a blessing from a Priest.

Also, it is proper and customary that prior to the services the faithful be in the Church awaiting the arrival of the Archbishop as our father in Christ. Therefore, we ask that everyone please be in the Nave of the Church before the start of each service that weekend. People bringing food for the Sunday Meal, please arrive at the Church no later than 9:15 am, so that we may all be in the Church before 9:30 am, awaiting the arrival of Bishop Alexander.

Activities During and in Preparation for the Visit:

A reception will be held in honor of His Grace’s visit, following the Sunday Hierarchical Divine Liturgy on December 4.  A sign-up sheet will be placed in the Church hall for people to designate dishes that they can bring.  Looking ahead to Bishop Alexander’s visit, special rehearsals for both the choir and servers will be conducted in preparation.  In addition, special activities are in the planning process for Sunday evening, as well as Monday morning, December 5 with local deanery clergy

We invite all of our friends and members to join us for this very important weekend and to greet our new father in Christ.

The 7th Council: The Place of Councils in the Church

Fr. Basil Zebrun

     On Sunday, October 16, Orthodox Christians will commemorate the Fathers of the 7th and last Ecumenical Council as recognized by the Orthodox Church.  Convened in 787 AD, Nicea II addressed the issue of icons, upholding the traditional practice of icon veneration as an expression of faith in the Incarnate Lord.  St. John of Damascus (675-749 AD) was a main defender of icon use during the 1st period of the iconoclastic controversy.  In his writings he expressed in advance the mind of the Nicean Council, the basic and essential connection between icons and God’s incarnation in the Person of Christ:

     “In former times God, who is without form or body could never be depicted.  But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with me, I make an image of the God whom I see.  I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter.  Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation…” (First Apology On Divine Images, 16. Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1980. p. 23).

     As with the case of icons, councils are an important part of Church life, an expression of the Faith.  Their significance is rooted in a Christian understanding of God, as well as in an appreciation for the natural bond that exists between people possessing a common humanity, and most especially for the unity that exists between members of the Body of Christ.  The Bible (Acts 15) records a gathering of the Apostles in Jerusalem, the Church's first council.  It was convened to address the question, “were Christians required to keep the Law of Moses and receive circumcision as a sign of faith?”  From that time forward – especially from the 2nd and 3rd centuries on – Christian leaders have utilized councils repeatedly as venues through which the Body is governed and the Faith articulated.  Historically the Orthodox Church has been called, “The Church of the Seven Councils” a title which refers to the great Ecumenical gatherings of the 4th through 8th centuries.

     Councils have been, and are convened at all levels of Church organization:  from that of the local parish to gatherings of bishops representing Autocephalous Orthodox Churches globally.  In the Orthodox Church in America (O.C.A.) we are accustomed to:  diocesan assemblies, diocesan councils, get-togethers of deanery clergy, parish and parish council meetings, not to mention gatherings of special Church committees and ministry groups.  Every three years the O.C.A. also convenes an All American Council.  Ecumenical Councils however, such as Nicea II, are recognized as the highest legislative bodies of the entire Church, made up of bishops and Church leaders throughout the world.  Ecumenical Councils are concerned generally with teachings, practices, disciplines and ecclesial order affecting the Church universal.

     With these things in mind we may address in more detail the question: “Why is such an importance placed on councils in Orthodoxy?”  The answer is multi-level.  Theologically it stems from an understanding of the Church as an icon (image) of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit.  The Trinity Itself is Council (if you will), a Community of Divine Persons whose “deliberations” are indicated at the beginning of Scripture: “Let us make man in our own Image, after our Likeness, and let them have dominion…” (Gen. 1:26).  Councils are not simply something that the Church has, the Church is council. Councils are an expression of the Church’s Trinitarian nature” (Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1978. pp. 244-245).  To remain true to itself the Church is obliged to convene councils so that its many diverse members may become one community, may express their unity as one people for the glory of God, manifesting the conciliar nature of the Church.

     In addition, the Church – as mentioned earlier – acts through councils because of the natural bond between people, the common humanity shared by all.  Our mutual connectedness leads to the actions of each person affecting everyone else in some measure.  A 17th century poet famously wrote, “no man is an island," words often quoted not only by lovers of literature and poetry, but by theologians as well.  In his work John Donne was essentially expressing a profound Christian belief articulated by St. Paul, that, "we are members of one another" (Eph. 4:25, Rom. 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12).  As Christians we therefore seek to serve and to love one another as fellow human beings, as fellow members of the Body, brothers and sisters in Christ through Whom we are intimately united to God and to the neighbor.  Thus, it is only proper and in keeping with who we are – both as human beings and as Christians – that the faithful meet in council to discern the work of the Church.

     As it relates more to Church governance the question of councils is not answered simply in terms of representation. Councils do not exist merely so each person has a voice, or a say in “what goes on.”  As someone once said, “Councils are not merely a religious expression of democracy.”  On each level of Church organization, councils are made up ideally of those gathered in all sincerity to discern the Will of God.  Participants do not seek their own will; nor do they meet in order to secure the will of the people. Typically, the Books of the Gospel are placed at the center of these gatherings reflecting the standards by which councils are governed.  Prayers are offered at the start of each council and the Holy Spirit is invoked as the Guide through Whom Christ is made present and wisdom discerned, so that any decisions will effectively express God’s Will for the Church.  American dioceses and parishes even have general requirements printed in their by-laws for those who may officially participate in assemblies and councils.  The requirements exist because the Church desires that “people of good will” make decisions affecting its life, members who strive to place Jesus Christ as the first priority in their personal lives, and who carry that conviction into the Church’s council chambers.

     Taking all of the above into account, the commemoration on October 16 of the 7th Council held in Nicea gives us much to think about with regard to the place of councils in the Church.  The feast is an important reminder as well of who we are:  i.e. the people of God, bound to one another in Christ, possessing a common humanity, called to live according to the God’s Will, to seek and discern that Will, but to do so not in personal isolation, but within a living context of love and community.  We can recall here, what is chanted at each Liturgy just prior to the Creed.  These words indicate that love is the essential condition for expressing the common Christian Faith:   The priest exclaims: "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess,” and the faithful respond:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, One in essence, and undivided.”

What's in a Name?

Matushka Valerie Zahirsky Chair, Department of Christian Education, OCA

     When the great boxing champion Muhammad Ali died recently, events in his life were reviewed in the media. One of those events was Ali’s public embrace of Islam and his rejection of his birth name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, which he denounced as a “slave name.”

One has to wonder whether Ali really understood what he was rejecting and denouncing. The original Cassius Marcellus Clay was a white Christian, and also such a prominent abolitionist that he endured being shot in the chest, attempted assassination, and mob violence at the hands of those who wanted to preserve slavery. President Lincoln appointed him to the post of Minister to the Court of Saint Petersburg in Russia, and one of his proudest moments in that country was witnessing Tsar Alexander II’s edict emancipating the serfs.

Ali’s grandfather, Herman Heaton Clay, the African-American descendant of slaves, named his son in tribute to Cassius Marcellus Clay. The son passed the name down to his own son, who gave it up in favor of a name honoring the prophet Muhammad.

Our Orthodox Christian faith pays a lot of attention to names. Babies are traditionally given the names of saints, either those on whose feast days they were born or those whose names are part of the family’s history. Someone who enters the faith later in life often takes on the name of a saint. No matter how or why the name is given, it’s a way of encouraging the person who carries it to emulate the saint’s holy qualities.

The names of saints can also encourage us when we remember that even the greatest of them had failings to overcome, as we do. The peace-loving hero of children, Saint Nicholas, was once temporarily stripped of his episcopal office for striking the heretic Arius.

Saints may challenge us to rise to difficult occasions in the same extraordinary ways they did. What creativity and bravery Mother Maria Skobtsova showed during World War II in devising the plan of rescuing children from confinement by getting them out in garbage cans, not to mention remarkable powers of persuasion in convincing the garbage collectors to help her.

It’s a wonderful thing to have the saints always with us as examples, as sources of comfort and guidance. But even those who are not named after saints can look to the people whose names they bear as examples and guides. It’s unfortunate that Muhammad Ali refused to see Cassius Marcellus Clay in that way. Though no model citizen, Clay as an example of courageous insistence on the equality of all people, stands up better than most.

(Matushka Valerie is a graduate of St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary; current Chair of the Department of Christian Education, OCA; past Chair of the Department of Christian Education for the Armenian Orthodox Archdiocese; is the wife of Fr. Michael Zahirsky in Steubenville, Ohio; and has worked in the field of Orthodox Christian Education for over four decades.)

Christ is Risen!

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom When Christ first rose from the tomb and appeared to His disciples and the myrrh-bearing women, He greeted them with the word "Rejoice!"  And then later when He appeared to the Apostles His first words were "Peace be unto you!" Peace, because their confusion was very great - the Lord had died.  It seemed as though all hope had perished for the victory of God over human wickedness, for the victory of good over evil.  It would seem that life itself had been slain and light had faded.  All that remained for the disciples who had believed in Christ, in life, in love, was to go on existing, for they could no longer live.  Having tasted eternal life, they were now condemned to expect cruel persecution and death at the hands of Christ's enemies. "Peace be unto you," proclaimed Christ. "I have arisen, I am alive, I am with you, and henceforth nothing - neither death nor persecution - will ever separate us or deprive you of eternal life, the victory of God." And then, having convinced them of His physical resurrection, having restored their peace and an unshakable certainty of faith, Christ uttered words which may in the present age sound menacing and frightening to many, "As the Father sent Me, so I send you." Only a few hours after Christ's death on the cross, not long after the fearful night in Gethsemane, the betrayal by Judas when Christ had been taken by His enemies, condemned to death, led out beyond the city walls and died on the cross, these words sounded menacing.  And it was only faith, the conquering certainty that Christ had risen, that God had conquered, that the Church had become an invincible force that transformed these words into words of hope and triumphant God-speed.

And the disciples went out to preach; nothing could stop them. Twelve men confronted the Roman empire. Twelve defenseless men, twelve men without legal rights went out to preach the simplest message, that divine love had entered the world and that they were willing to give their lives for the sake of this love, in order that others might believe and come to life, and that a new life might begin for others through their death. [I Cor. IV :9-13]

Death was indeed granted them; there is not a single apostle except St. John the Divine who did not die a martyr's death. Death was granted them, and persecution and suffering and a cross (II Cor. VI: 3-14).

But faith, faith in Christ, in God Incarnate, faith in Christ crucified and risen, faith in Christ who brought unquenchable love into the world, has triumphed. "Our faith which has conquered the world is the victory."

This preaching changed the attitude of man to man; every person became precious in the eyes of another. The destiny of the world was widened and deepened; it burst the bounds of earth and united earth to heaven.  And now – in the words of a western preacher -- we Christians, in the person of Jesus Christ, have become the people to whom God has committed the care of other people; that they should believe in themselves because God believes in us; that they should hope for all things because God puts His hope in us;  that they should be able to carry our victorious faith through the furnace of horror, trials, hatred and persecution - that faith which has already conquered the world, the faith in Christ, God crucified and risen.

So let us also stand up for this faith. Let us proclaim it fearlessly, let us teach it to our children, let us bring them to the sacraments of the Church which, even before they can understand it, unite them with God and plant eternal life in them.

All of us, sooner or later, will stand before the judgment of God and will have to answer whether we were able to love the whole world - believers and unbelievers, the good and the bad - with the sacrificial, crucified, all-conquering love with which God loves us. May the Lord give us invincible courage, triumphant faith, joyful love in order that the kingdom for which God became man should be established, that we should truly become godly, that our earth should indeed become heaven where love, triumphant love lives and reigns.  Christ is risen!

His Grace the Rt. Rev. Alexander Bishop of Dallas and the South

     Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
     We have a new Bishop:  His Grace Bishop Alexander (Golitzin)!  His Grace was elected by the Holy Synod of Bishops on Tuesday, March 26, 2016 at its Spring Session to fill the vacant Dallas Diocesan See.  Bishop Alexander succeeds His Eminence, the late Archbishop Dmitri, who in retirement fell asleep in the Lord at the age of 87 on August 28, 2011.

We all will have an opportunity to receive a blessing from and meet Bishop Alexander on Sunday night, April 17, at St. Seraphim Cathedral in conjunction with Pan Orthodox Vespers.   The Diocesan Administrator, Chancellor and Deans of the Diocese will meet with His Grace on Monday, April 18.  More information will be forthcoming, but as an introduction to Bishop Alexander we offer the following biography posted on the OCA website.

     “Bishop Alexander [Golitzin] was born in Burbank, CA in 1948 and was raised at Saint Innocent Church, Tarzana, CA.  He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master of Divinity degree from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary.  He spent seven years pursuing doctoral studies at Oxford University in England under His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware].  During this time, he also spent two years in Greece, including one year at Simonos Petras Monastery on Mount Athos.

“After receiving his D.Phil. in 1980, Bishop Alexander returned to the US.  He was ordained to the diaconate in January 1982 and to the priesthood two years later.  In 1986, he was tonsured to monastic orders.  He served OCA missions in northern California and headed the Diocese of the West’s mission committee.

“In 1989, he accepted a position with the Theology Department at Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, a position that he left at the end of April 2012.  While teaching at Marquette, he had been attached to Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, Milwaukee, WI.  For 22 years, he preached, taught and served at Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, and witnessed to the Gospel and to Orthodox Christian theology at Marquette University.  He helped attract a dozen Orthodox Christian students to doctoral work in theology at Marquette.

“In June 2010, the Bulgarian Diocese initiated a search for a candidate to succeed His Eminence, Archbishop Kirill [Yonchev], who reposed in the Lord in 2007.  In October 2011, the Holy Synod of Bishops elected Archimandrite Alexander as Bishop of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese.  He was consecrated to the episcopacy as Bishop of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese during a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at Saint George Cathedral, Rossford, OH on May 5, 2012.”