Sunday, February 22, 2015

Forgiveness Sunday

In the Orthodox Church the Sunday before the start of Great Lent is known as Forgiveness Sunday. Vespers is celebrated in the evening and following vespers we ask for the forgiveness of all the parishioners while the choir sings, "Christ is Risen" and other joyful hymns. This is a beautiful service and one that speaks to the meaning of what Lent means. In the following Fr. Alexander Schmemann spells out the meaning and beauty of Forgiveness Sunday and tells us how we can benefit from it as we start our Lenten Journey. Enjoy!

In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent – the day on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated – is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of that Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:

"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses..." (Mark 6:14-15)

Then after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: "Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!", after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.

What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a "good deed" required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says:

In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!
For you abstain from food,
But from passions you are not purified.
If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.

One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no "enemies"? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them -- in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being "polite" and "friendly" we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual "recognition" which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.

On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As l advance towards the other, as the other comes to me – we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings us together by His love for both of us.

And because we make this discovery – and because this discovery is that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of reconciliation with God and, in Him, with all that exists – we hear the hymns of that Feast, which once a year, "opens to us the doors of Paradise." We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek during the long Lenten pilgrimage. Forgiveness Sunday: the day on which we acquire the power to make our fasting – true fasting; our effort – true effort; our reconciliation with God – true reconciliation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, 1982. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Behold: Dying, we Live!

The following is a small reflection by Fr. John Behr, the dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary and my Patristic and Old Testament teacher. Fr. John allowed me to explore the topic of death in a way that I have never heard before. His starting point is Christ and the cross. How do we understand Christ's death in relation to humanity as a whole? If Christ is our starting point then we must understand how it is that He died. This following reflection was taken from the St. Vladimir's blog website: Let us contemplate on this reflection as we begin the lenten season and consider our own death in the body of Christ. How does this take shape? How do I die in Christ? Let us see what Fr. John has to say on this. I pray for all that you have a blessed season of lent and I pray that we find Christ in all during our journey this lenten season. 


Pascha approaches: we should reflect once again on this crux of our faith, orient ourselves anew by the perspective that it offers, and enter afresh into its mystery.

Man of Sorrows. Double sided icon;
Byzantine Museum Kastoria,
Greece; Byzantine, 12th century.
By his death, his voluntary self-offering in love for us, Christ has destroyed death and granted us life. We say such words so often, that we frequently become immune to the stumbling-block and scandal that they present, and so overlook their implications for us. By dying, as a human being, Christ has shown us what it is to be truly divine: Lordship manifest in service, strength in weakness, wisdom in folly. If he had shown us what it is to be divine in any other way (acting, for instance, as a superhuman god), we could have had no share in him and his work. The fact is that we are all going to die, whether we like it or not. The only question is how we are going to die? Clinging to all that we think is ours, our own life and possessions, our own status or merit? Or following him on his path to Golgotha, laying down our life in love for him and our neighbors? Living, yet still dying, or dying to live.

The Witnessing Body

By his action, by his shed blood and broken body, Christ has called us to be his Church. We like to use the language of the Church triumphant, the glorious body with a mission to bring the whole world within its fold and so manifest the Kingdom of God upon this earth. And indeed this is our mission: Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit . But we must never forget that the glory of this body is one that is only seen by those whose sight has been trained to look upon the cross and see the Lord of glory. As St Athanasius put it, the more that the Lord is persecuted and humiliated, the more his glory and divinity is manifest … to those that have eyes to see.

And this continues, he affirms, in those who now constitute his body, those who take up the faith of the cross and willingly submit themselves to death, that he might live in them. Such a one was Blandina, the slave girl, the epitome of weakness in the ancient world, who was hung on a stake to be eaten by wild beasts. Spectators in the stands only saw another seemingly misguided fool dying for their entertainment, but those who struggled alongside her in the arena “saw in the form of their sister the one who was crucified for them.” Dying, Christ lives in her, so that she now lives eternally.

St. Blandina

The Scandalous Body

Let us never forget that this is the glory of the body of Christ, the Church, in this world, this is the life we profess to live, this is the inauguration of a kingdom not of this world. As we endeavor to extend this kingdom, we must of course strive to ensure that our behavior does not provide a scandal or stumbling block to others. At a minimum, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards of the society in which we live. But we must equally not fall into the error of supposing so doing is enough for the body of Christ to be in “good order”: as the body of Christ, we will be a laughing stock, held in scorn and derision –  let us never forget this, and let it always be for the right reason!

Troubles such as those that currently beset the Church have done so from the beginning, and they can easily become an occasion for loss of faith, especially if we set our stock solely on the “good order” of this world. Indeed, one of the desert fathers of old warned that in days to come one will scarcely find faith left on this earth, and that the struggle to keep the faith in such times will be greater than any ascetic feat performed of old. If such troubles can be an occasion for despair, they can also be a powerful impetus to make sure that our focus is properly oriented, that our faith is in Christ alone.
We live straining towards the future, the coming Christ, nourished by the hope that he offers. Let us not then be weighed down by the cares of today, for they too will pass; let us instead prepare ourselves for the still greater struggles ahead. But we can only do this if our sights are truly set on the Kingdom inaugurated by the Passion and manifest in those, in us, who by dying live.

Let us Forgive all in the Resurrection

Forgiveness is at the heart of the mystery of the Resurrection: “let us forgive one another so that we may cry aloud, ‘Christ is Risen!’” We cannot claim to be Christians, to dare to greet one another with this  paschal greeting, unless we do so with a forgiving heart. But the depths of this forgiveness is not plumbed if we think that this means the repentance of others and our forgiveness of them, resulting in a peace, or rather a truce, that suffices us. Christ came to call the sinners, so that if we would be amongst the called, this is how we must regard ourselves, the chief, indeed, amongst the sinners.

The embrace of Sts. Peter and Paul. Vatopedi
Monastery, Mt. Athos, Greece, 12th century.
We must be like the apostles: as Saul, confronted by Christ asking “Why are you persecuting me?” so becoming the great apostle Paul; as Peter, who before resuming his calling as a disciple, had to confess his love for Christ three times, standing by the burning coals, as he had denied Christ three times, warming himself by the burning coals, which harkens back to the vision of Isaiah who, seeing the Lord sitting upon the throne hymned by the seraphim, lamented “Woe is me, for I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips,” and so received the burning coal taken from the altar, hearing the words “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin forgiven.”
Approaching Christ in this way, as ourselves repentant and seeking forgiveness, our hearts will be broken so that the love and forgiveness of Christ can flow through us to others. Then we will be able to receive, from the same altar and with the same words of forgiveness, the medicine of immortality, so that dying we also may live.

Unless a Seed Falls in the Ground and Dies

We are called to take up the Cross, to die with Christ, to become the one body of Christ. Our divisions are truly a scandal of our own making. Whether they are between persons, within an ecclesial body, or between ecclesial bodies, each and every one of us is responsible for our failure to make Christ present through our witness, our martyria, to a world that is increasingly alienated from God and increasingly thirsting for Christ. Clinging on to that which we value, whether our own dignity confronting that of others, a strife-creating indignation within our ecclesial bodies, or our pride in the distinctiveness of our own ecclesial body and the hierarchies of a long-gone era, we are like the seed that remains alone, rather than dying to bear fruit. If we are to be Christ’s one true Body, we must follow him by dying to everything that separates us from him, all that belongs to this world rather than to the Kingdom, and hold ourselves open to wherever he may lead us. Dying, then, we might begin make Christ manifest by how we live as his one body.

We are on the threshold of the Pascha of the Lord. This is not simply an annual event, that we might forget once we stop singing that “Christ is Risen!” It is rather the eternal mystery, present at every moment – every moment, that is, that we do indeed take to heart its proclamation and by dying, live.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is Dean and Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His early work was on issues of asceticism and anthropology, focusing on St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. After spending almost a decade in the second century, Fr. John began the publication of a series on the Formation of Christian Theology, and has now reached the fifth and sixth centuries. He has recently completed an edition and translation of, and introduction to, the remaining texts of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He has also published a synthetic presentation of the theology of the early centuries, focused on the mystery of Christ. He is also a passionate cyclist, often rescheduling family events around the Tour de France. Fr. John’s wife, a Tour de France enthusiast and armchair cyclist, teaches English at a nearby college, and their two sons and daughter are being taught to appreciate the finer points of French culture: the great “constructeurs” of the last century, Le Grande Boucle, and … cheese.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Being the Wounded Healer

Within the last 5 months I've had many people ask me, "Bavly what exactly do you do at a Hospital and what is a Chaplain"? It is a loaded question and I don't think there is a direct answer. Depending on who asks I give an answer based on the person standing in front of me. But for everyone who does ask I always say, "I am a wounded healer providing spiritual care to those who are also wounded".

In my "profession" we must recognize that we are broken humans seeking to help others on their journey of healing which begins in suffering. Each person is different and each patient has a story. My starting point is diving into that story to see how the experiences of that person have shaped there understandings and realities around them. It's not easy talking to people and it's not easy when we have to deal with heavy things that come our way. Chaplains deal with a lot of human suffering and we must accept our suffering and the suffering of other humans as the starting point to wholeness and healing. In his classic work, "The Wounded Healer", Fr. Henri Nouwen says that we must make the individual realize that they are first and foremost a human being who is loved:

The Christian leader, minister or priest, is not one who reveals God to the people-who gives something to those who have nothing-but one who helps those who are searching to discover reality as the source of their existence. In this sense we can say that the Christian leader leads humans to confession, in the classic sense of the word: to the basic affirmation that humans are human and God is God, and that without God, humans cannot be called human. The Wounded Healer, Page 43.  

In finding our humanity in others we begin to see God in all. When an atheist asks me how do I understand death, or when a patient asks if dying because I am in pain is a sin, or when a patient is refusing medical care because they are DNR, I do not look just at the surface "issue", but I dig deeper and ask why are you afraid of death? Why do you think it's a sin? And why did you choose to have a DNR? Being a Chaplain can take on many roles and we have to embrace that as we offer spiritual care. Sometimes we do not have to talk at all, other times we are a 3rd party providing help to the extended family and sometimes we are the only ones at the bedside of a patient because they have no family and no one to be with them. What matters the most, and this is echoing the thoughts of Fr. Henri Nouwen, no matter what happens there is someone out there who loves you not because of who you are and what you accomplished but because you are a human being created in the image and likeness of your creator! 

"So what do I do at the hospital"? I still do not know how to answer such a question. However, my starting point rests in seeing the human being who is love and wants to be loved. If the message of the gospel is not about love we have forgotten how to be a human being. We have forgotten how to see our brothers and sisters as human beings. If the person in front of us becomes nothing more than a "person I must physically cure of his or her sickness" then our system has collapsed and we have forgotten how to look at each other as a human being. Being in that room and in the presence of the human is what I do at the hospital! Being a wounded human being approaching the bedside is my starting point. Shaping my beliefs on seeing the human being first is what I am slowly starting to understand being a chaplain in the hospital.