Dr. David Fagerberg, a liturgical theologian, has recently published a book entitled On Liturgical Asceticism. Essentially, this book seeks to explore and express the interplay between theology, liturgy, and asceticism. It might strike some people as surprising or even odd, but as they’ll quickly find out, that is likely because they’ve been out of touch with the Christian tradition. Fagerberg is a liturgical theologian who has studied his own Roman Catholic tradition intently and who has yet also been indelibly shaped by the Eastern Orthodox tradition. In fact, in this book, Fagerberg relies heavily upon the Orthodox tradition. His main contribution is showing how liturgy, at its heart, is an ascetical activity that serves to deepen one’s life in Christ. It may not be the way many are used to thinking of liturgy, but it is the way Orthodox theology operates. I will try to find time to offer a few quotes and/or additional thoughts as we proceed through Holy Week. Here is a link to the book on Amazon. The customer review is worth reading too
North Dakota has recently passed legislation restricting abortion. Although, in part, it draws a line at a “heartbeat,” which does not define when conception occurs and allows for “the morning after pill,” and certainly does not eliminate any and all(early) abortions, quite a few have reacted against it. Likewise, there have been objections to the bill requiring an abortion doctor to have admission privileges at a local hospital. Finally, there has been outrage even over the bill prohibiting genetic selection as a reason for abortion. Such bills are at least consistent with Orthodox Christianity (though Orthodox do debate how and when to legislate on moral issues, including abortion). Certainly, Orthodoxy’s canon law prohibits abortion or even causing abortion.
Interestingly, it is not just here in North Dakota where abortion has risen as a hot issue. I have recently learned that at one of our Orthodox seminaries, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, a pro-life society has begun. I provide a link to their blog here, which I’ll likewise include in the “Related Orthodox Sites” widget:
The work of Dr. Jeff Bishop (at SLU, from which I earned my Ph.D.) is very fascinating in this regard. This society did not exist while I was a student at SVS, but it has encouraged and enabled some thoughtful discussions concerning this issue. One talk may be found here:
Scroll down for the podcast entitled “St. Ambrose Society” for a talk given by Ian Jones, also an SVS alum, who is a doctoral candidate at Fordham. It is a talk worth listening to and may be worth remembering as this issue continues to be debated and discussed in North Dakota, which will almost certainly happen in full force next year when voters decide on a “right to life” amendment.
This Wednesday, tomorrow already, we will discuss St. Ephrem the Syrian in our Wednesday educational meeting. St. Ephrem is an important saint for many reasons, not the least of which is the Lenten prayer repeated so frequently throughout Lent:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk, but grant, rather, the spirit of chastity humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages.
Many of us, however, may not know much about St. Ephrem. We will discuss more and look at one of his Hymns on Paradise on Wednesday, but for those of you who cannot join us, let me share just a little. He was born likely around or shortly after the turn of the fourth century to Christian parents. He served as a deacon in Nisibis but near the end of his life, had to flee to Edessa along with other Christians, when the Byzantine Empire had to cede Nisibis to the Persian Empire after the pagan Emperor Julian was defeated by the Persians. Ephrem was known for his writings, especially his hymns, as well as organizing charitable work during a famine in Edessa near the end of his life. Those interested in learning more about him are welcome to join us tomorrow evening at 7:30 at Caribou Coffee, just south of 25th Street and 13th Avenue.
We don’t often think about St. Valentine as an actual saint, certainly not in our consumerist driven society. After all, there isn’t much of a way to make Christian martyrdom a consumer good, excepting, perhaps, creating and selling trinkets relating to someone who might be a martyr, as happened (at least for a time) in the case of a young girl who died in the Columbine shooting. I’m not saying we couldn’t make a consumer good from your death. We already do that to some degree with funerals and with the death of the unborn and there is a black market for organs, unfortunately. It can be done. My point is simply that Christian martyrdom itself is not a big seller. Certainly, cute pink hearts are sappier and happier.
That said, one should not think I am against giving “Valentines” or love or showing affection and dedication. To the contrary, I am in support of love and Valentines can be cute. I just think it’s also worth reflecting on examples of those who loved God so much that they were willing to give their lives for him, an act that is in Thanksgiving for Jesus having given his life for us. For taking on our humanity, he filled it with his divinity and granted healing to all.
So, here’s some good reading for St. Valentine’s Day:
Here is a link to the statement from the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in America:
The celebration of Theophany, together with the blessing of waters is a uniquely Eastern Christian tradition. The Western Christian tradition celebrates the visitation of the Magi to the young Jesus. These two traditions are not at odds with one another, though. In our Christmas hymnography, we Orthodox sing of the wise men, who were taught by a star to adore Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness ["sun of righteousness" being a reference to Malachi 4:2]. Jesus is the light of the wisdom unto the world. Indeed, Jesus is the Wisdom of God [e.g. Proverbs 8:22 ff]. This is also what we see at Theophany, for being the Wisdom of God, he has always been present with and to God, and thus is fully God himself as well. At Theophany, the Father calls Jesus his “beloved Son,” as a way of describing their relationship to one another. This same Jesus, or Son of God, is also the “Light of the world” [see John 8:12]. Light, Wisdom, Son, all are applied to the one and same Lord Jesus, the Christ. At Theophany, this all comes together in a special way, and we encounter God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This revelation of God, this Theophany, is also linked directly to the re-establishment of creation’s intended end–to radiate the divine goodness of God and serve as a vehicle for giving him thanks. At Theophany, we celebrate this with the blessing of waters. Through our prayers and the grace of the Holy Spirit, we ask God to make the water, and by extension, all that is blessed with it, holy water, done not so as to be a polar opposite of “secular water” (if you will) but as the fulfillment of what water is to be, what it was to be in Paradise and what it will be again in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Those interested in learning more about this blessing of waters and the history behind it should check this out:
It’s no secret that the media has pointed to difficulties within the Roman Catholic Church’s dealings (or lack thereof) with respect to wayward priests. Also, within Orthodoxy here in America, we have had a few bad apples as well (and let me be clear–sin is sin and abuse is abuse when Orthodox do it I think it’s nothing short of hellish). We Orthodox don’t get the media coverage because we’re such a small church, I suppose, though I also think some of the media coverage is because some people still love to hate the Roman Catholic Church.
That said, it always seemed to me that a hierarchically structured church was preferential to one that wasn’t because a hierarchical church could deal with such situations with some efficiency and because when it didn’t, one knew where to start applying blame and pressure. A hierarchy also functions as an anti-body system for the church body. A while back (maybe two years ago now), I saw a special on 20/20 or Dateline, that took on this issue, noting the problems within Protestant churches, especially those that were “low church.” Pastors could change locations/states by moving and set up new parishes, being unaccountable to a higher church authority. It is a perspective that I think people still fail to appreciate properly. I recently stumbled across an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that shows another problem when one lacks hierarchy–the local congregation may rally around the abuser and then the pastor need not even relocate to start another parish:
It might be politically correct to pick on the Roman Catholic Church and church hierarchy more generally (which would include Orthodox, as Orthodoxy and Catholicism are the two Churches with the strongest formal hierarchical structures), but I suspect that in this case (as in others), being politically correct is not the same as actually being correct.
I have already mentioned that Wednesday evening, one of the short talks will discuss fasting. That talk will be given by Larry Carcoana, our vice president and a founding member of our parish. A related talk will be a synopsis of the life of St. Nicholas, given by our choir director, Jason Kuntz. Both talks should be good and helpful as reflections on this time of year, prior to Christmas.
The third talk will be given by me and will briefly look at the relationship between Jesus’ birth and the Scriptures (primarily the “Old” Testament) in our Christmas hymnography. I won’t cover the talk here, now, but I thought I would take a moment to highlight it because it is an aspect of Jesus’ life that we often forget about.
It is easy to see how one can forget about it, what with elves living in the frozen north and making toys and flying reindeer. Those are very fanciful characters! Yet, we also often forget about the connection even in explicitly Christian settings, and that is the more troubling. I think we’ve long since known a person may be an atheist and yet celebrate Christmas in some sort of way (just focus on “Santa”–forget it means “saint”–try not to shoot flying deer for dinner, and have presents under a tree–again making sure not to interpret the tree’s symbolism beyond “spring’s around the corner”). What we might not as readily realize is that we can too easily show up at church for a Christmas pageant and leave with little more than a reminder that the New Testament mentions that he was born. More likely, we remember how the kids behaved up there. You know, little “Jimmy” was picking his nose and sally dropped “the baby Jesus.” Those moments are good and not to be dismissed, but if not taken any deeper, distract from a central reality: Jesus’ birth, according to the early Church, was something spoken about already in the Scriptures. God had already placed the events in Scriptures–from Bethlehem being mentioned by the prophet Micah to Jesus being the Sun of Righteousness mentioned by Malachi.
Of course, Jews in late antiquity thought Christians were crazy to read such things into the Scriptures. Christians, on the other hand, believed Jesus was the Christ and as such, the key that unlocked the proper reading of the Scriptures. In that way, what we celebrate on Christmas is nothing less than an eternally willed desire on God’s part to unite humanity to himself in a very special way. Because of our sins, that union also bring healing, but even had we not sinned, that union would bring about a fuller expression of what it means to be human.
As we journey forward in the Nativity Fast (or Advent, if you will), let us not forget that we are journeying to a scene of God’s love for us. For Jesus came into the world because he the Son of God incarnate, the Way to union with God the Father and in response to our sins, he is the crucified and risen one. That is who we celebrate.
This week, on December 5th, we will have a vespers followed by an open house of sorts to the community. I don’t know how many visitors we’ll get, but for us, December 6th is the feast day of our patron, St. Nicholas. We are named in honor of a Feast (Holy Resurrection–as in Pascha, or “Easter” as it is known to many) but, as is common in the Russian tradition, a parish named after a feast is also granted a patron. Vespers begins at 7pm, and refreshments follow. Following refreshments, three very short little talks will be given, one on the real life of the real St. Nicholas (hint: he’s NOT a fat elf with flying reindeer), one on fasting in the Orthodox Church, and one on our Eastern Christian hymnography for Christmas.
I think the fasting talk will be quite appropriate. The idea that we shouldn’t just live a gluttonous life from Thanksgiving until December 25, or maybe January 1st, will seem to be a unique concept (unfortunately) to many Americans. Nonetheless, there are Americans out there looking for a spiritual alternative. I recently ran across this essay that seemed to be yearning for something similar (and, hey, she mentions the Peanuts Christmas special, so how I could I not link to her post?):
Of course, we’re not Protestant Episcopalians and, of course, we’re in no danger of ordaining women, etc., but I think Pastor Dolan’s efforts to bring a different perspective to the Advent Season is a good one. Likewise, I think a reflection on fasting and the real St. Nicholas can help in this regard as well. St. Nicholas was known for his generosity and love but also for his asceticism. The three ought to go together. See, generosity without the others is merely playing the victim. Love without the others is misguided and can become selfishness. Asceticism without the others is legalism and possibly self-pity. St. Nicholas is a reminder to us that they all go together, that Christmas is a feast for which we ought to fast and prepare.
For those of you needing a quick primer on St. Nicholas himself, start here:
Some people have asked me what I thought of the recent Diocesan Assembly beyond my attempt to offer a summary of the proceedings, so I thought I’d give just a short assessment of whether I think it was positive or negative. I think it was positive. Fr. John and Archbishop Nikon, based on body language, were truly listening; they were actively listening. That is a good thing. I can’t predict what it’ll mean, of course, but my impression at this time is that the synod truly wanted to hear from us and Archbishop Nikon and Fr. John truly wanted to give the synod legitimate feedback the synod could effectively process. I, for one, believe that is very important and if I am right on this, I would go so far as to call Monday an act of sobornost. Yes, it was painful and yes, the divisions are there, so it’s not the ideal of sobornost, but there seemed to me to be true conciliarity and love at work in the midst of all this pain. It was a civil exchange by all parties and I truly believe we all love Bishop Matthias, the complainant, and the entire diocese. It is not always easy to see one’s way through these things, but I do truly believe that we have shown ourselves (this time, at least) to be above petty polemics, panic, and internal ecclesiastical warfare. All indications are that His Grace is following the lead and guidance of the synod, that the synod truly cares about the state of diocese, and that the clergy and laity are able to love one another even in the midst of difficult, painful times, even while expressing those very pains and concerns.
[Please note that for me, this is my final word and assessment on this event in our diocese. I have no desire to say anything further in this format at this time. The American Academy of Religion conference is about to begin and so I may offer a reflection or two on that in the coming days.]