Friday, June 23, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Gospel

          I would like to conclude this commentary series on the Divine Liturgy (or at least the first part of the Liturgy, the so-called “Liturgy of the Catechumens”) with a reflection on the reading of the Gospel.  In the Liturgy, after the reader chants the prokeimenon and the epistle, the Gospel lesson is then chanted.  But it is not chanted without a somewhat elaborate preparation.  Prior to the priest taking the Gospel book from the altar table and giving it to the deacon who will read it, the Gospel is censed from all four sides.  The Church recognizes the holiness of objects by censing them, so that it censes the holy icons on the icon-screen before the start of the service, the holy Gifts of bread and wine before they are moved to the altar table, and the holy people of God as they assemble for worship.  In the same way the holy Gospel book is also censed before it is picked up because the book represents Christ—we show our reverence for Him by showing reverence to the volume containing His words.
It is easy to miss the significance of this censing, since (for some reason unknown to me) the deacon censes not only the Gospel book but also the interior of the altar, the people within the altar, the icons on the icon-screen, and the people standing in the nave.  The rationale for the censing is thus easy to lose sight of, as one might suppose the deacon is censing the altar table along with pretty much everything else in church.  But he is not censing the altar table; he is censing the Gospel book, which happens to be resting on top of the altar table.  The focus and rationale for this censing is even easier to lose if the comprehensive censing is done during the reading of the epistle, for one might then imagine that the censing has something to do with the epistle.  It does not.  It has nothing to do with the epistle, and everything to do with the Gospel. 
The censing of the Gospel book at this point shows the importance of the reading.  The epistle is important too, but we do not cense the epistle-book before reading it.  The Gospel book, alone among the books we use, is censed before being read.  This reveals the supreme importance of those words—among all the other holy words, these words represent the Holy of Holies, the very words of the Master, the ipsissima vox of Christ Himself, and in them Christ even now stands in our midst to speak to our hearts.
Hearing these words brings with it a tremendous responsibility, for we will no longer be able to claim ignorance of the divine will if we fail to carry it out.  The Lord warned us, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), and once we receive the gift of hearing the words of Christ, we will be required to fulfill them.  We need therefore to let these words sink not just into our outer ears, but also into our inner hearts.  That is why in every Christian liturgical tradition a prayer precedes the reading of the Gospel, asking that we might be worthy of hearing it.  The Gospel prayer in our present Liturgy asks that God might illumine our hearts with the pure light of His divine knowledge and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of His Gospel teachings so that we might think and do such things as are well-pleasing to Him.  The prayer, too often said silently, is clearly meant to be said aloud, for it represents not the private devotional prayer of the priest, but the prayer of the entire congregation about to hear the words of the Gospel.  It is only after that prayer is said that the deacon dares to read the Gospel to the people of God.
To do this, he stands among them, not reading the Gospel from the ambo at the front of the Church facing the people, but standing in their very midst.  That is because it is not the deacon who speaks so much as Christ Himself, dwelling in the midst of His assembled people, and speaking His words.  We honour the Lord who thus manifests Himself in our midst by holding candles before the book containing His words, standing as a kind of honour guard around Him.  The psalm sung as a prokeimenon between the epistle and the Gospel always has as its refrain the cry, “Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!”, because the words of the Lord always produce joy in the hearts of those who hear them with faith.
Before reading the Gospel, the deacon asks for a blessing, since he is mindful of the importance of the work he is about to do.  The celebrant responds by blessing him as he requested, asking that God, through the prayers of the Evangelist whose book he is about to read, may indeed enable him to proclaim the good news with great power, fulfilling the purpose of the Gospel.  It is only after receiving this priestly blessing that the deacon reads the Gospel.  And the people also require a blessing to hear the words of Christ fruitfully:  the priest therefore blesses them also, saying, “Peace be unto all!”  The words of Christ are chanted to the cry, “Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!”, for these are not the words of someone long dead, but those of One even now alive in their midst.
All this extra ritual emphasizes something fundamental, not only about the Gospel reading, but also about the Liturgy as a whole—that in the Liturgy, Christ Himself comes to meet and transform us.  Liturgy is not like a funeral, wherein someone offers a eulogy praising someone no longer among them.  It is a banquet given by our divine Host who sits among us as we come to His festal table.  Even more than that, Christian Liturgy represents the voice of Christ Himself, praising His Father from the midst of His people.  That was the insight of the writer of Hebrews 2:11f:  the verse from Psalm 22:22, “In the midst of the church I will sing hymns to You” finds its fulfillment in Christ.  In the midst of the Church He sings our hymns to the Father, for we are His Body.  He stands among us, in the midst of His lampstands (Revelation 1:13), healing us with His Word, feeding us with His Body and Blood.  Every Liturgy is our saving rendezvous with this ever-living and saving Son of God.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Epistle

           In the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, after the Trisagion Hymn comes the chanting of the prokeimenon and of the epistle.  In many places the prokeimenon now has practically no purpose or significance, and looks like a verbal tag chanted in haste by the reader to introduce the epistle which follows it, for the people either make no congregational response to the chanting of the prokeimenon or a distinctly minimal one. 
Originally of course the prokeimenon was chanted precisely in order to facilitate a congregational response, because the prokeimenon was the refrain they were to sing interspersed among the verses of the psalm that the reader chanted.  The prokeimenon then did not serve as an introductory tag to the epistle, but as part of a psalm which was inserted between the Old Testament reading and the epistle.  This psalm provided an opportunity for the people to rest from listening and to refresh their attention by singing before listening to the next lesson.  (We see this same practice of inserting a psalm between numerous readings in the Vespers of Holy Friday, when the faithful listen to substantial readings from Exodus 33, Job 42, Isaiah 52-54, and 1 Corinthians 1.  The prokeimenal psalms there are interspersed between these readings and provide a break from listening.)  In today’s usage, the Old Testament reading has dropped away from the Liturgy, leaving the interspersed psalm hanging with not much to do, its once-numerous verses now reduced to a single verse.  No wonder in some places even this verse is now omitted; its original function has now become superfluous.   One could wish for the restoration of the first lesson and the interspersed psalm, not the further reduction of the psalm’s refrain.
But however the prokeimenon is chanted, after it comes the reading of the epistle, usually from the pen of St. Paul.  The reader chants it from the midst of the assembly, facing east along with the rest of the people, for it represents the abiding voice of the apostle still sounding in the midst of the Church.   It is too easy to under-value this reading, especially if the deacon insists upon doing the pre-Gospel censing of the Gospel book and much else during the time when the epistle is being read.  The deacon may regard it is a kind of liturgical multi-tasking, but it actually serves to denigrate the significance of the epistle.  St. Paul should not have to compete with the deacon and the bells on his censer for the people’s attention.  His words should command the undivided attention of all—including the deacon.
We can miss also the full significance of the epistles.  We regard it as “Scripture”, a holy text, and of course it is.  But it is also a personal letter addressed and written to people other than ourselves.  In listening to the epistle we are in fact reading someone else’s personal mail.  Think of how it would look if we read a letter addressed to someone else in a public place—say a personal letter written by the bishop and addressed to the priest.  Wouldn’t this be regarded as a bit odd, and perhaps a little inappropriate?  But no one regards the reading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as odd or inappropriate, despite the fact that we are not Corinthians and the letter was written to people other than ourselves.
This is because the value of the letter resides not in the personal circumstances which Paul addressed, but in the abiding apostolic witness.  These epistles reveal how the apostles dealt with problems in their own day, and thus how they would deal with the same problems should they befall us.  The Corinthians were told, for example, that the person who was living in open and serious sexual sin (in this case, living with his step-mother) must be excommunicated (1 Corinthians 5:1f), and so through this particular example we know how the apostles would deal with open and serious sexual sin in our own congregations today.  We can learn from these epistles what the apostles thought about who Jesus was, what salvation consisted of, and thus how we must therefore conduct our lives.  Because the Church is apostolic, their words and views have an abiding and authoritative significance for us.  Paul’s words to the Corinthians are not out-dated vestiges of controversies and cases long dead, but living words of contemporary counsel.  No wonder we read them every time we meet to celebrate the Lord’s Eucharistic presence among us.
  The epistles also reveal the nature of our salvation—that is a corporate reality, not an individual and private one.  If Christianity were a philosophy, it might be embraced and followed privately, without much reference to others who decide to adopt that philosophy themselves.  But our faith is not a philosophy, but a family.  Each one of the epistles was written to a community, a family, a group of believers who met together every week as the body of Christ.  The exceptions of the epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, prove this rule, for they were written to individuals to give them advice for ruling and living in the church community (see 1 Timothy 3:14-15).  Salvation consists of being part of the Church, and of finding our identity and healing within it.
It is easy to zone out mentally during the reading of the epistle, or to regard it as a mere add-on.  This is especially so if the homily is routinely based not on the epistle, but on the Gospel reading.  But we must not let our attention flag and our minds wander, as if St. Paul had nothing important to say to us that day.   We should listen up and pay strict attention.  After all, before the epistle is read, the deacon cries out, “Wisdom!” and “Let us attend!”  If we want to leave the Church assembly with more wisdom than we had when we entered it, we should indeed attend to what Christ’s apostles say to us.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book Review: The Departure of the Soul

 Lately a new book has become available, The Departure of the Soul, published by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Arizona.  Its full title is, The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church; a Patristric anthology, and this about sums it up.  It deals with the Scriptural material as interpreted by the Fathers, and goes on to examine the teaching as found in the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church, the writings of the saints, and the hagiography or lives of the saints.  It contains an examination of the iconographic tradition expressing this teaching with an impressive 216 pages of full colour plates, and much more.  It is a formidable volume, and not one to be held in one hand while drinking a Starbucks coffee with the other—it contains 1112 pages in all, bound sturdily between its two hard covers.  That makes it a bargain at $58.  It took five years to research and produce.
It also contains an impressive number of hierarchical introductory endorsements, including those of Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochians, Metropolitan Hilarion of ROCOR, Bishop Mitrophan of the Serbian Church, Archbishop Nicolae of the Romanian Church, and my own archbishop Irenee of the OCA.  (They will I trust forgive my lack of capitalization.)  The volume concludes with a number of 17 academic endorsements from scholars writing to support the book, including the respected and prolific Archpriest John A. McGuckin.  These impressed me even more than the hierarchical endorsements, if only because scholars are more vulnerable in their careers than are bishops, and must take greater care what they endorse.  The fact that a number of scholars endorse the book is very significant, for works emanating from a monastic milieu do not always find a welcome reception in the world of Academia—or vice-versa.
The book was not written because the Athonite monks in Arizona had nothing else to do.  In the Introduction it is explained that “In 1978, a lone author, Deacon Lev Puhalo (later Fr. Lazar Puhalo in tonsure), launched a campaign against the Orthodox Church’s 2,000-year old teaching on the trial of the soul at death”.  His teaching was banned by his own jurisdiction (ROCOR) whose Synod warned that his writing “can cause great harm to the souls of the faithful”.  Nevertheless (the Introduction continues) “Deacon Lev and several subsequent writers who reiterated his un-Orthodox views continued to issue their publications”.  They note that these writings “have fuelled a controversy for nearly forty years, even to this present day”.  Thus it was that in 2011 the editors of the book began their research into the topic.  Their book represents the fruit of their extraordinary labour, including chapter 7, entitled “On the Falsifications, Misrepresentations, and Errors of Those Who Oppose the Teaching of the Orthodox Church”.  Not surprisingly Puhalo comes in for detailed scrutiny, as editors present “over sixty fallacies which Puhalo used to attempt to support his invalid theories”, including many deliberate falsifications of both text and iconography.  Puhalo’s personal history also comes in for some needed scrutiny in Appendix G, which narrates his “Extended Biographical Information”. 
As a pastor, I note that even apart from the correction of distortions and misrepresentations of the Church’s Tradition, the book also serves as a corrective to the more widely-held errors of secular society, which routinely assumes that, with the possible exception of White Supremacists, terrorists, and Nazis, everyone goes to a heaven of some sort as soon as they die with little or no fuss.  Look at the pages of Facebook or any social media as soon as any celebrity dies:  there you will see a multitude of posts comforting themselves and others with the thought that the deceased celebrity has passed effortlessly through the Pearly Gates and is now strolling the streets of heaven (and possibly giving out autographs). 
It reminds me of the old 1974 song by the Righteous Brothers, “Rock and Roll Heaven”.  One of its lyrics reads,  “If there’s a rock n’ roll heaven, well you know they’ve got a hell of a band…Jimmy gave us rainbows, and Janis took a piece of our hearts…There’s a spotlight waiting, no matter who you are, ‘cuz everybody’s got a song to sing, everyone’s a star”.  A happy thought (and one that accords with today’s fascination with universalism), but is it sensible?  The Jimmy who gave us rainbows was Jimi Hendrix, and the Janis who took a piece of our hearts was Janis Joplin.  Jimi would become angry and violent when drunk or when he mixed alcohol with drugs.  After his death in 1970 at the age of 27, an autopsy revealed that he choked to death on his own vomit while high on barbiturates. Janis, rarely seen without a bottle of her favourite “Southern Comfort”, died of accidental heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol, in October 1970, also aged 27.  One can and should have sympathy for such young people, but it is at least an open question whether they made it to heaven, despite their acknowledged skill in rock n’ roll.  The point is this:  our culture assumes that everyone makes it to heaven, especially celebrities.  No fuss, no muss, no trial of the soul at the hour of death.  Just a quick and painless step from choking to death here on your vomit to the heavenly spotlight there, “cuz everybody’s got a song to sing, everyone’s a star”.   This is assumed without argument in our culture, and may not challenged at the office water-cooler without giving the impression of being a heartless, judgmental misanthrope.  But the challenge to our culture needs badly to be made just the same.  We may be grateful therefore that the monks in the Arizona desert have taken up that challenge, and done their work—and now offer it to us at such a comparatively low price.  No church library should be without one.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Trisagion

          In the Divine Liturgy, after the antiphons, comes the Trisagion Hymn, prefaced by a prayer in which the celebrant prays that the God who is hymned by the seraphim, the cherubim, and by every angelic power in heaven, may also deign to accept the hymn we now sing to Him on earth.  In many churches this beautiful prayer is said silently, so that the faithful hear only the final clause of the prayer (“For holy are You, O our God, and unto You we send up glory…”) and so miss the rationale for saying this prayer prior to chanting the Trisagion.  When we look carefully at the Trisagion Hymn, however, we see something a little odd—and something that provides a clue to the hymn’s original function and its present meaning.
            That odd bit to which I refer is the presence of the words “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages”—sometimes referred to in liturgical shorthand as “the Glory Now and Ever”.  Why are these words found at the conclusion of the Trisagion Hymn?  They are not found at the end of other hymns such as the Cherubic Hymn (“Let us who mystically represent the cherubim…”) or the anaphoral hymn to the Theotokos (“It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos…”) or the post-communion hymn “Let our mouths be filled with Your praise…”)  Why do we sing it at the conclusion of the Trisagion?  The answer:  its presence in the Trisagion is a vestige of the psalm of which the Trisagion once formed the repeated refrain.  It is, in fact, all that is left of the psalm—unless one counts the way the Trisagion is sung during a Hierarchical Liturgy with the bishop.  In that service, the Trisagion is sung not just three or four times, but many times, and in between some of the Trisagion refrains the bishop chants the verses of Psalm 80:14f, “Look down from heaven, O God, and behold, and visit this vine which Your right hand has planted and establish it”.  It is not a fancied-up version of the original Trisagion, but a vestige of the original. 
            In the original usage, the Trisagion was sung as a refrain to Psalm 80. The cantor would chant verses of the psalm as all walked in procession and the people sung the Trisagion hymn as its refrain after every verse.  Like all psalms, this psalm concluded with the “Glory Now and Ever”, after which the refrain was sung one final time.  In other words, the Trisagion Hymn once served as an entrance chant, something everyone sung while entering the Church.  Now that it is preceded by the Great Litany and the Antiphons, its original function as the entry chant has become obscured.  But a final vestige of this function can still be seen if one watches the clergy very carefully—as the singing of the Trisagion comes to an end, they leave their place in front of the altar table and walk to the High Place at the far east end, the place where the clergy seats originally stood.  That is because these seats were their original destination—in the days of Chrysostom the clergy entered the Church, walked through the nave, up into the altar area and took their seats at the far east end.  Only then after the initial greeting did the service begin with the readings.  The clergy now stand in the altar for quite some time before the Trisagion, but their final arrival at the High Place for their seats is still deferred until after the Trisagion has been sung.
            The fact that the Trisagion was originally an entry chant also reveals its true meaning and the meaning of the Liturgy as a whole.  That is, the Liturgy represents our drawing near to God, our leaving the world and coming into His Presence, our spiritual access into heaven where we stand before His face as His children.  That is why we sing the song of the angels:  in heaven the angels sing the thrice-holy hymn, crying “Holy, holy, holy!” (see Isaiah 6:1-3), and we sinners also sing a thrice-holy hymn to the heavenly God.  It takes boldness for us, frail creatures of dust and ashes who drink iniquity like water (Job 15:16), to stand before God as the holy angels do.  That is why in the preceding prayer the celebrant says that God does not despise the sinner, but instead appointed repentance unto salvation and has granted us to stand in the holy place and offer the worship and praise which are His due.  That is why we boldly enter His presence—not through our worthiness, but through His grace.  Through Christ and by His Spirit, we have an access into the divine presence not granted to the rest of the world.
            We must not however take this access for granted and become complacent because we routinely enter into Church and take our respective places before the face of God.   The psalmist long ago told us what we need to bring to God if we are to receive that grace—anyone who dares to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place needs clean hands and a pure heart, walking in integrity and humility (Psalm 24:3-4).  If we live as hypocrites and not a penitent disciples of Christ, walling off our Sunday devotion to Him from the rest of the week, we are in no condition to ascend into His holy place and sing the thrice-holy hymn of the angels.  Better to remain afar until we have repented and come to our senses.  Then we can join the throng of the baptized and enter with them into the holy place. 
            The Trisagion Hymn witnesses to the function of Liturgy as one of entrance.  Once we were far from God, separated from the covenants of grace.  Now in Christ we have been brought near, and boldly enter into the very presence of God.  When we sing the Trisagion Hymn we are reminded of that entrance, and of the grace by which we enter.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Unquenchable Fire

One can often tell how far a heresy has spread and how much it needs the antidote of refutation by the amount of ink it gets in blog columns.  I remember one young priest writing in a church magazine a piece summarizing the Church’s traditional teaching on gender and opining that the heresy of theological feminism had become widespread.  As if to prove his point, the editor was immediately deluged with indignant letters threatening to withdraw their support of the magazine and writing angry responses protesting that the proffered traditional teaching and its author were misogynist and fit only to be raked over live coals.  When the priest requested the opportunity to respond to the criticisms he was refused, for the editor said that if he printed anything further from the author the magazine would face financial ruination.  Since the priest wrote the piece upon an explicit request from the editor, the situation had its own share of irony.
            My own recent blogging experience offers the same kind of lesson.  One can often gauge the strength of a heresy by reading and counting the number of times a traditional statement of the Church’s teaching draws indignant fire.  In my own blog, many if not most of my blog posts draw hardly a whisper of response.  Thus I wrote a piece entitled, “All Kinds of Everything” about the Benedicite hymn and how everything in the world was a gift from God.  I wrote a piece entitled, “That’s an Outrageous Thing to Accept”, about the legitimacy of mission work.  I wrote a piece entitled, “A Lethal Legacy” about the importance of church-going in the raising of children.  I wrote pieces about the Feast of the Entrance, Palm Sunday, Pascha.  None of these pieces drew a single comment. 
Compare this with a piece on Deaconesses, which pointed out that the “revived” office now being considered bears faint resemblance to the ancient one.  This drew 16 comments.  And compare several pieces I wrote on Universalism, the teaching (popular today) that everyone will be saved.  The piece “Christian Universalism” denouncing the heresy drew 26 comments.  An examination of Dr. Ramelli’s book pushing universalism drew 21.  A piece discussing the meaning of the Greek word “aionion” (usually translated “eternal”) drew 34 comments.  A piece entitled “The Morality of Gehenna” drew 91 comments.  It is clear that in discussing the issue of the eternity of Gehenna I had struck a nerve.  Universalism was not long-dead heresy, surviving only among the “Unitarian-Universalist” churches.  It was apparently a going concern even among the Orthodox.  It could be found promoted among such books as Rob Bell’s Love Wins, such blogs as “Eclectic Orthodoxy”, and such scholarly writings as those of David Bentley Hart.
Some of the comments to my blog pieces were very insightful and thoughtful.  (Some of course were simply rude, but one expects this in the blogosphere.)  To respond to them even partially meant doing a lot of research, which I dutifully did before drafting my responses.  It soon occurred to me however that the topic required much more research and writing than could fit into a blog post or a blog’s comment section.  It would mean writing a book.
So, that is what I did.  The book is now available from Ancient Faith Publishing and is entitled Unquenchable Fire.  It aims at being both popular and thorough, and so contains chapters on Christ’s teaching on the subject of hell in the Synoptic Gospels, views of divine judgment in the time of Christ, the witness of St. John and that of the Acts of the Apostles, the apostolic teaching in the Epistles and in the Apocalypse, an examination of the Fathers’ words on the subject, a look at Origen and his legacy (including a look at St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory the Theologian), an examination of the Fifth Ecumenical Council and its significance, a look at the Church’s cultural understanding of the subject through its hymns and icons, an apologia for the morality of the doctrine, and a chapter examining the teaching sometimes called “Conditionalism”—i.e. the view that the damned will cease to exist after the Last Judgment, a view comprehensively championed by Edward Fudge.  The work comes in at 240 pages, and is available for $18.95.  And yes, this is a shameless plug.

But the point here is that I did not write the book for the modest royalties it might garner or to alleviate boredom, as if a parish priest has nothing to do but sit around and pound a keyboard.  I really do believe that Universalism (or the doctrine of the apokatastasis—everything sounds better in Greek) is heretical, and if taken completely seriously and lived out represents another Gospel.  The book was written to provide people like my own flock with an antidote.  No doubt people more scholarly than I could do better.  But until their works are offered through Ancient Faith Publishing or some other English language publisher, this will have to do for now.  Please allow me to commend it for your consideration.