Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Eucharist Dimension of Death

The Eucharist unites those who are broken in the body of Christ. Many times we think that because we are broken this brokenness we carry can never be restored. Humanity begins to develop different ideologies on how to be fix the brokenness of human beings in which, these ideologies, will always lead you back to step one. An example can be medicine. People take medicine in order to physically get better however, some individuals can develop an addiction which leads back to step one-brokenness. Now I am not saying medicine is bad, actually quite the opposite is true. With the rise of medicine, we as a specie have been able to advance far more in the past 150 years than we have in the last 2000 years before then. The natural question that stems from this then if we have advanced to this degree why is it that humans are broken beings? To answer a question is not easy but many points have been made from all sides. I would suggest that one common answer or common action that unites every human being no matter what religious belief or background one takes is death. Death, as we know it, will come to all human beings. Death is a certainty for all. Growing up I sarcastically was taught that two things that can never be avoided are taxes and death. Death is guaranteed to all, so by understanding death and what it means this will allow us to understand the brokenness of humanity.

What is death? Death in a physical sense and in a simple manner is when one's body stops functioning. Your heart stops to beat and life has left your body. You cease to exist. All human brokenness will cease once death occurs. However, society today treats death in the complete opposite manner. Death today is glorified and celebrated in way that people do not want to see death anymore. 50 years ago if a family member would die the body would remain in the home for a few days before the funeral took place. This practice today however, has ceased because people cannot see death no more. By not seeing death we as a society have forgotten what it means to be "dead". This is the simple reason why death is the hardest thing to accept. Death has become a "passion" and a form of brokenness to many because it is at the point of death that we as human beings cannot carry anything with us to the afterlife. This is a known fact that any human being can acknowledge no matter what one believes in. In death we lose all our positions. This is why death is hard for many. I would challenge the reader to take another perspective, or paradigm in regards to how one should view death. In order to accept death (seeing that it is the one thing that unites all human beings) we must understand what it means to live. It is in death that life begins. The church has always taught that through baptism and Eucharist we enter these mysteries through our death. We must die to the world in order to receive life. This is exactly what Christ gave to us through his own death. He was crucified and then was risen into life. This is why at the last breathe Christ said, "It is finished". What is finished?

The restoration of the human being. Humanity once again was restored in the image and likeness of our original creation. As God spoke in Genesis by making us in his image and likeness, through Christ death and life we have been restored. Brokenness is shattered and new life has been given to all. This is why we chant during Pascha (Easter) Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death. Through Christ death He abolished death and through death he gave life to all. Unfortunately, many in our society cannot comprehend such a notion of destroying death because there paradigm of death is limited. If death becomes a separation of the individual from their positions then death surely will be a great travesty to all. However, if we are "separated" from our positions and we learn to die daily to the "passions" that constantly bombard us then death will truly be a reward as the spirit goes to its rest in Christ. Positions are good and we need them to survive and expand however, when I speak of separation I speak of attachment. We cannot be attached to positions. To be attached means to be "addicted" (for lack of better terms). One example that comes to mind is Frodo from the Lord of the Rings. He grew attached to the ring that at the end he did not cast it into the fire until he realized how much pain it caused him. If we learn to live in harmony with creation and see the good in creation then surely death, when it comes to us, wont be painful, but rather a restoration to the one who gave us all that is good. This culminates in the Eucharist. What it means to partake of the Eucharist is to die daily to that which holds us captive. The passions we have created around ourselves are what we constantly need to die to in order to have life. Then and only then will we be able to say, "into why hands do I commend thy Spirit" as we depart from this world.    

The following are two passages that inspired this entry. Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Fr. John Behr look at the dimension of the Eucharist and what this means for us today. The life of the church has never been perfect, but we are all united in the body of Christ by our participation in the Eucharist. I highly recommend both books as they both lay the ground work of the Eucharist. Fr. Alexander was a liturgical theology professor at St. Vladimir's Seminary and the dean up to his death in 1983. Fr. John is a patristic professor at St. Vladimir's Seminary and is the current dean of the school.                      

For more than thirty years I have served the Church as a priest and a theologian, as a pastor and a teacher. Never in those thirty years have I ceased to feel called to think about the Eucharist and its place in the life of the Church. Thoughts and questions on this subject, which go back to early adolescence, have filled my whole life with joy—but, alas, not only with joy. For the more real became my experience of the Eucharistic liturgy, the sacrament of Christ’s victory and of his glory, the stronger became my feeling that there is a Eucharistic crisis in the Church. In the tradition of the Church, nothing has changed. What has changed is the perception of the Eucharist, the perception of its very essence. Essentially, this crisis consists in a lack of connection and cohesion between what is accomplished in the Eucharist and how it is perceived, understood and lived. To a certain degree this crisis has always existed in the Church. The life of the Church, or rather of the people in the Church, has never been perfect, ideal. With time, however, this crisis has become chronic. That schizophrenia that poisons the life of the Church and undermines its very foundations has come to be seen as a normal state.

Taken from the preface of Fr. Alexander Schmamann's "The Eucharist".

There is clearly a close relationship between the dynamism and the faithfulness of the Spirit and the action of the Word operative in the processes that lead both to the Eucharist and to the resurrection. It is by receiving the Eucharist, as the wheat and the vine receive the fecundity of the Spirit, that we are prepared, as we also make the fruits into the bread and wine, for the resurrection effected by the Word, at which point, just as the bread win receive the Word and so become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eucharist, so also our bodies will receive immortality and incorruptibility from the Father. As such, death, within the overall economy of God seen in the light of the Passion of Christ, takes on a Eucharistic dimension, alongside its educative and limiting function, and the economy as a whole can be described as the Eucharist of God.

Fr. John Behr, The Mystery of Christ, page 106.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Worship and Life

This icon shows St. Bishoy washing the feet of Christ. St. Bishoy is known for his humility and never saying no to any individual. One time him and the monks were on there way up to the mountain to meet Christ (it was foretold to them that Christ would appear on the top of the mountain). There was a beggar on the side asking for help to be carried up. All the monks ignored him except for St. Bishoy. He carried him on his back and the closer he got to the top the lighter the person got to the point where the person disappeared and it turned out this person was Christ whom all the monks walked passed. This is an excellent example of how we must all see Christ in every human being. 

Continuing from our last post on Father Alexander Schmemann let us reflect on the meaning of liturgical worship. Father Alexander always spoke about the the relationship of worship in relation for the life of the world. But what does this mean? How can one understand worship in relation to our own lives?

Liturgical worship should not be understood as another addition to the Christian faith but rather, it forms the foundation of Christian identity-expressing our highest purpose. Worship reveals to all what we believe and based on this belief, how we see ourselves in relationship to God, with one another, and the world into which we are called to carry the redemptive mission of Christ (cf. Mt 28-The Great Commission). The way in which the church worships is a witness to the truth of what she professes. Worship becomes a dynamic means of bringing in the entire human community into life everlasting with Christ. This is given through the expression of beauty! Liturgical worship transforms not just the individual but the entire community which participates in it. This is the dynamic relationship between worship and life. What is practiced is lived out, expressed, and becomes a witness for the life of the world.

The centrality of worship describing the life, identity and mission of the church, Fr. Alexander would use a Latin term to describe-"Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi". The phrase means the law of worship (prayer) is the law of faith (belief). Sometimes the term was expanded to include at the end "Lex vivendi" (Law of life), deepening the implications of this truth. How we worship reflects what we believe and this belief and worship shapes how we live. How we worship guides how we live the Christian faith and fulfill the Christian mission in the world by manifesting the joy in declaring the risen Christ.

Sadly though as society progresses forward and the rise of materialism and secularism, taking on passionate forms, becomes the paradigm to many. Liturgical worship then ceases to be at the center of life. Liturgical worship ceases to be lived out but instead becomes a form of rituals being performed by a few people. What then develops is a separation of the "sacred" (liturgy) and "profane" (the rest of the world). This point Fr. Alexander wrote greatly on stressing the fact that there is no separation of the "sacred" and "profane" because through God's creation all has been sanctified and blessed and this blessing is realized at the heart of the worship. By allowing worship to be our starting point in life then we will appreciate all of creation as it was meant to be from the beginning-God created it and it was good.

What has developed is an effort to simplify, by trying to make the worship more "attractive" to people from the outside has actually resulted into liturgical minimalism. This minimalism can take on many forms but one example of this can be when you enter into the "church" on a Sunday morning and is filled with people conversing with each other about how there week was or cell phones ringing throughout the service. This point goes back to the separation of the "sacred" and "profane". People have forgotten that Christ incarnate, the crucified and risen Lord is not only present in the "church space" but is present in the world as well. Our actions within the church determine our actions in the world. We must prepare our hearts and mind when we receive Christ and this is no different when we present ourselves in the world. This is why Fr. Alexander is stressing the point that there is no difference between the "sacred" and "profane". Every action, thought and step is done by choosing to put on Christ. Hence there is no such thing as "sacred" or "profane".          

Another liturgical minimalism that has developed is in the thought and ethos that people have began to develop that symbols of our worship, faith and our life is a problem. These long "liturgies" and "prayers" need to be reduced in order to accommodate the needs of the people. By stripping down the prayers and making the liturgical experience lose its richness, they think they have somehow made the faith more "relevant" and "contemporary". These individuals fail to grasp and understand human nature being symbolic. Anthropos (human beings) is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-27) making the human being a divine icon of God. With the initial creation being symbolic in nature, symbols touch us at a deeper level more than words or effective (emotional) participation can. When we seek the one who created us good in his image and likeness, this is where we hunger most for God and we turn to Christ through worship to understand this great mystery.

Back in 2010, Pope Benedict addressed bishops in Rome speaking to them about the meaning of the Eucharist. He said, "the center and permanent source of the Petrine ministry, the heart of the Christian life, source and summit of the church's mission of evangelization. You can thus understand the concern of the successor of Peter for all that can obfuscate this more essential point of the Catholic faith: that today, Jesus Christ continues alive and truly present in the consecrated host and the chalice". Pope Benedict continues on by warning the bishops that, "Paying less attention at times to the rite of the Most Holy Sacrament constitutes a sign and a cause of the darkening of the Christian sense of mystery, such as when Jesus is not the center of the Mass, but rather a community preoccupied with other things instead of being taken up and drawn to the only one necessary: their Lord. If the figure of Christ does not emerge from the liturgy, it is not a Christian liturgy. As venerable John Paul II wrote, "the mystery of the Eucharist is 'to great a gift' to admit of ambiguities or reductions, above all when, 'stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet;". By the end of his talk Pope Benedict summarized everything when he said, "Worship cannot come from our imagination: that would be a cry in the darkness or mere self-affirmation. True liturgy supposes that God responds and shows us how we can adore him. The church lives in his presence-and its reason for being and existing is to expand his presence in the world".

The relationship between worship and life is important in order to experience the beauty and to show it to others. As the old saying goes the truth will set you free. In this instance the truth becomes our unity in the body of Christ which becomes a life to all. When we come to encounter the joy of the risen Lord in the liturgy we live out his life in the world. The same life in which he was crucified we learn to be crucified to the passions and become free in order to sanctify our bodies and be made worthy. This joy then is experienced and share with everyone. By transforming our lives into the live giving bread we become a source of life to all. How? Our actions and interactions become this source of life. If you are at work, in school, studying, going out, helping with social services, helping at a church, going to a food drive, talking with the homeless, spending time with people at hospitals and the list goes on and on. All of this becomes sanctified and once people see the good in you then Christ becomes the paradigm to all. As Father Alexander Schmemann said, "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi", as we worship, we believe and so we will live!          
St. Francis of Assisi was always known to help the poor as he dedicated his life to the work of helping others unconditionally. Let us learn from St. Francis that we should never ignore or pass by any human being in time of need. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Remembering Fr. Alexander Schmemann

30 years ago Fr. Alexander Schmemann reposed in the Lord (Dec 13 1983). Fr. Alexander Schmemann has been influential in my "return" to the faith. Even though I have never had the chance to ever meet him, his spirit lives on through his writings. His writings have helped me transcend my understanding of the Liturgy, Eucharist, Baptism and the life of the world. Fr. Alexander was a prominent liturgical theology professor at St. Vlaidimir's Seminary in New York. He served as dean of the school from 1962 till his death in 1983. Fr. Alexander can be remembered for many things but one thing that he took take pride in was being faithful to the Christian faith. What do I mean by this? He thought, and many times he makes it clear in his writing, that the Christian faith was being robbed of its beauty. One particular point was the cultural walls we have entrapped ourselves in. We have to break out of these walls in order to bring Christ to all Americans. However, this cultural barrier we trapped ourselves in was an issue Fr. Alexander spoke against greatly throughout his writings. Another important topic he wrote on and dedicated his whole life to was the Liturgy! The Liturgy can be summed up as our starting point, our paradigm, our first principle. All his writings on the Liturgy can be summed up in saying if the Liturgy is not present in our lives then we are like the walking dead. This following passage on the Liturgy speaks about how the Liturgy is our starting point.

A month earlier, he notes that it is only in the Liturgy that things come together: "I become filled with disgust for the role I have been playing for decades. I have fear and apprehension at having to immerse myself in the affairs of the seminary and the church. I feel that everybody around me knows what to do and how and what for, but I only pretend to know. In fact, I don't know anything; I am not sure of anything; I am deceiving myself and others. Only when I serve the Liturgy am I not deceitful. And I will say it again: all of life flows out of-and is connected with-the Liturgy! I feel a collapse of any energy-especially spiritual. I would like to leave!"

Another big issue Fr. Alexander took to heart was his running polemic against "religion", as distinct from authentic Christianity centered in the revelation of God in Christ. This error he insisted, was to think that Christianity is a subcategory of "religion", when in fact Christ explodes from within history all human constructions of reality, religious or otherwise, thus illumining with the divine world of which we are part of. The two works that stand out on this issue are the journals of Fr. Alexander and For the Life of the World. Fr. Alexander wanted to distance Christ and Christianity from what he viewed as the stifling habits and thought forms of "religion". Religion as an organization and institution was the cry of Fr. Alexander wanted to outcast as the great travesty of the 20th century. Even "piety" is regularly dismissed as a distortion, and he rails against those who came to confession with all sorts of "problems". His answer to all was simply to "live"! Which is to say, his answer was, Christ! Christ was the center and focus to all of Fr. Alexander's writings.    

By way of conclusion I will leave you the reader with this final saying which sums up Fr. Alexander in the best way possible. May his memory be eternal.

"I realized that 'theologically' I have one idea-the eschatological content of Christianity, and of the Church as the presence in this world of the Kingdom, of the age to come-this presence as the salvation of the world and not escape from it. The 'world beyond the grave' cannot be loved, cannot be looked for, cannot be lived by. Whereas the Kingdom of God, if one tastes it, be it a little, cannot be not loved! Once you love it, you cannot avoid loving all creation, created to reveal and announce the Kingdom. This love is already transfigured. Without the Kingdom of God being both the beginning and the end, this world is a frightening and evil absurdity. But without the world, the Kingdom of God is incomprehensible, abstract, and in some way absurd".    

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Sacrament- For the Life of the World

Many approach the sacraments as some sort of magical trick performed by a priest. Actually it is quite the opposite. The sacrament, the mystery, is our participation in the body of Christ. The same Christ, who as the priest recites during the liturgy, "For being determined to give Himself up to death for the life of the world". Christ is the one who gave his life for the life of the world. This is the mystery in which we are called to participate in the sacraments. Our own "death", in participating in the sacraments is the same participation Christ gave us through his own life culminating in his death and resurrection. There is no separation in the life we are called to live within the body of Christ and the life we live for the world. There seems to be this preconceived notion that the sacrament is set out against, or existing outside the rest of life. There is a distinction between the sacred (sacraments) and profane (the world). This notion stands at odds with what Christ established as giving up our lives for the life of the world. The world has been sanctified by his death and resurrection. The idea of profane and sacred has been broken. All that we do and participate in has become sacramental. This explains why we must bring the conclusion of the liturgy (the Eucharist) to the rest of the world. This Christ who died and rose, in which we participate in through our own life, must be brought within the life of the world. The Eucharist represents our own death in the body of Christ, and if we accept this notion of death (which we do by participating in the Eucharist), then as we constantly are called to die we must live out this death in the world we are in constant motion with. Our lives then has, in a sense, become sacramental. We then become an offering made by our own death in the body of Christ that is constantly lived out.

The following quote that was e-mailed to me sums up these thoughts a lot more coherently. I would recommend Fr. Alexander Schmemann's book "For the Life of the World" as a good read on this very topic of the sacramental life.        

It must once again be emphasized that the sacrament is not something set over against, or existing outside, the rest of life, so that it is sacred while the rest of life and all other things are non-sacred or profane or non-sacramental; it is not something extrinsic and fixed in its extrinsically, as if by some sort of magical operation of Deus ex machina the sacramental object is suddenly turned into something other than itself and different from all other created objects. On the contrary, what is indicated or revealed in the sacrament is something universal, the intrinsic sanctity and spirituality of all things, what one might call their real nature. A recognition of the sacramental principle requires the recognition that nothing in life, in the created order, is, or can be, entirely profane or non-sacred; it requires the recognition of an essential “likeness”, a congeneracy or “identity in difference”, between the sanctifying power and what is sanctified, between the uncreated and created; it requires, finally, the recognition that the sacramental has a cosmic significance and is intimately related to every single aspect of created existence, and that therefore, while the way of looking at, or using, things may well be profane and non-sacred, the things themselves can never be.