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Archive for August, 2008|Monthly archive page

Confirmation… or disappointment.

In autobiography, Orthodox Christianity: in general on August 18, 2008 at 3:51 am

1964: Johnson over Goldwater (WAY over); Bonanza, I Love Lucy, Lassie; first race riots–Harlem, Mississippi; Vietnam War widens; Cassius Clay; Beatles, “I wanna hold your hand”; movie, “Dr Strangelove”; Turkey attacks Cyprus; Kruschev falls from power.  President Kennedy’s assassination in the previous November is still on everyone’s mind.  In this world, I was 13 years old: 7th grade at St Cassian (Roman Catholic) School, Upper Montclair, New Jersey–quiet suburbia about to undergo the cultural tumult.

Like any 7th grader, I am looking forward to the long month of May to end, since that month’s passing signals the approach of summer vacation. In Roman Catholic upbringing, 13-year olds are prepared for Confirmation, the sacramental ritual in which Catholic children are received by the bishop and made responsible members of the church.  We were prepared by our teachers, the Dominican nuns (quite the authority figures! My 8th grade teacher-nun was called “tank” by us in secret!) for the episcopal visit from the Bishop of Newark. On that warm spring-time evening, we all gathered in the parish church of St Cassian. The bishop held a general examination of our faith. He would call upon various individuals to answer specific questions on points of doctrine. We were expected to give the correct answer to these questions as we had been trained from the Baltimore Catechism.  My summer break would be just after the Confirmation service, since school classes were all done. Just this one, last effort…

The bishop called on me. There must have been a hundred kids in that little wooden church! And I have to deliver.  Fortunately, the question was one of those really basic ones which no one could flub. I think it was, “How many persons of God are there?” I aced it–three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After a few others were put on the spot–some with coaching from the bishop himself– we all drew near the altar rail to be confirmed. There we all are, kneeling and ready. The bishop comes down the line, imposing confirmation oil on the forehead and giving a gentle slap on the cheek. (The nuns warned us of this: the slap would come, a sign of the Holy Spirit “hitting” you!). I think we all flinched, expecting a blow.  Childhood imagination runs riot.

Since Roman Catholic confirmation is a sacrament, we were expected now to act like mature catholics. Unfortunately, it is a widespread sentiment that confirmation served the complete opposite function. No longer would our religion classes be as goal oriented as for that occasion. Only the boys who went off to seminary would experience that next step. (I had explored that interest only briefly and rejected it, since it meant that I would have to go far away and would not get to see any girls.) In our Irish / Italian Roman Catholic culture, once you were confirmed, there was a reception at one of the homes. Families celebrated this coming of age in the church with “the first drink”–nothing special, a little drink. Champagne. Only problem here is that no one warned me about the stuff. Looked like bubbly fruit juice to me. I downed the glass rather too quickly. I suppose you could guess what happened next. After everything was cleaned up from the nasal projectile emission, I got to thinking about the awkwardness of it all.  And that got me thinking about what confirmation was supposed to be. What was confirmed? What did I know? What kind of responsible catholic Christian was I going to be? Is it just to get to have champagne?

I had no answers to those questions. Indeed, those questions would pursue me for the many years to come, until one day a quarter of a century later. In that day, I would discover where real confirmation is to be found. And then it took another ten years before I could experience it: the gift of the Holy Spirit through the sacred Myron of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Roman Catholic rite failed to grant what it offered, since it was no longer energized by God. The Latin ethos had for centuries lost its interior, mystical ethos. I would have to find holy Orthodoxy to experience the answers to my juvenile confusion. Instead of champagne, I would find inner stability. Thereafter all of my angst, my compulsive searching, my aching for the divine homeland, my longing for God would find an effective treatment, a therapy of the Life-Giver Himself.  How I rejoice in the Gift!

We take a break from our sustained study of the Liturgy!

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on August 18, 2008 at 1:27 am

For those who are following my blog, I am turning my attention to other themes for a while. We have been giving special attention to the first half of the Divine Liturgy, up through the sermon. When I return to this theme, we will look at the second half of the Liturgy, the liturgy of the faithful, or the Eucharist, per se.

Let me know if you may have any questions, or if there are elements which I have inadequately explained. Sometimes persons coming from various backgrounds need differing points of detail to be more deeply thought through.  Anyway, I hope you are enjoying this sustained reflection as much as I am enjoying its composition.

Remember, the whole point in this endeavor is to help all Orthodox Christian laity, and those seriously inquiring into the Orthodox Christian Faith, to participate in the Divine Liturgy with a greater depth. If I am helping to bring this about in any of my readers, the return favor which I request is that you pray for the salvation of the soul of this writer!

The homily (or, sermon). Part X of the series on the Liturgy

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on August 18, 2008 at 1:21 am

Having heard the Holy Gospel, we are now ready for the preacher to explain the meaning of the holy words which were just uttered. In our holy Faith, the role of preaching is the fundamental way in which faith is stimulated in the hearts of those who hear. St Paul said, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing from the Word of God” (Romans 10).

The authorized preacher is the priest or deacon, and the permitted themes for the sermon are the appointed scripture lessons and spiritual commemoration of the day. Sometimes the bishop gives special instruction concerning what is read or said “from the pulpit.” In any event, the homily or sermon (both words, from the Greek and Latin languages, respectively, mean simply “a talk”) provides the hearers with a more clear understanding of the sacred words they have heard and the meaning of the specific teachings conveyed by the day’s commemoration.

In many other Christian gatherings, the sermon becomes the center-piece for the assembly. For Orthodox Christians, the sermon, although far too often undervalued and even in some places woefully neglected, remains an important but integral ingredient to the whole of divine worship. We do not break up the liturgy into segments, but rather take it as a uniform and spiritually enriching whole. The sermon provides its unique and very specific function, perhaps the part of the liturgy where the personal impress of the celebrant is most clearly stamped. For example, we know so much about St John Chrysostom, simply because of all the sermons he had recorded and left to posterity. God speaks through men, and men differ in idiosyncrasy of character and personality.

We must keep in mind, however, that the sermon plays a much less prominent role in Orthodox Christian worship than it does in Protestant assemblies. The reason for this is simple. Our purpose for gathering in the church temple is not to hear what the priest may happen to say on any given occasion, but rather to offer our “sacrifice of praise” to the Lord. There are, of course, times when the sermon is longed-for: times of personal or civil distress, or at the cusp of some important ecclesiastical event.  

The role of the laity during the preaching of the sermon is to listen carefully and to take to heart those elements from the homily which “strike home.” Our homilies are usually quite short; frequently the Orthodox homily is no more than 15 minutes long. Therefore, even small children can learn to listen with care. If the priest as preacher tends to speak too long, the laity have a responsibility to let him know so that he can learn to perfect the art of preaching. Elder Zacharias of Essex says that the core of a good sermon is “one simple thought, deeply expounded.”

The Readings from Scripture: Prokeimenon, Apostle, Alleluiarion, Gospel. Part IX of the series.

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on August 12, 2008 at 9:02 pm

So now we come to the first of the two climaxes of the Divine Liturgy, the high point of the Liturgy of the Catechumens; namely, the readings from Holy Scripture.

While the Trisagion is being completed, the reader, or someone capable of assuming this task, if there be no tonsured reader in the parish, approaches the solea, receives the Apostle (Epistle Book) from the priest and prepares to intone the lesson, a reading appointed for the day.

In the early church, there were more readings than offered nowadays. For example, in the Liturgy of St James there is a provision for a prophetical reading from the Old Testament. This points to the original way in which the Holy Scriptures came down to us. All of the canonically approved texts to be read in the Liturgy (apostle and Gospel) were eventually assembled into one place, and bound together. This is what we call the New Testament. Liturgically, the New Testament is made up of the two liturgical books (Apostle and Gospel), along with the non-liturgical book, Revelation.

New-comers to an Orthodox service of worship notice right away that the manner of speaking in the church differs from that which one finds in our everyday world. Ours is a special kind of language, elevated, classical (“thees and thous”), a kind of “sing-song,” either in what the ancients called recto tono, “straight-chant,” or according to ancient, well-established melodies. Even our churchly way of reading differs from that of secular society: the reader intones, or reads out in a melodic fashion, plainly but piously, confidently yet compunctionately. St John of San Francisco said that chanting and reading in a proper church fashion delivers the message contained much deeper into the souls of those listening than mere recitation, as when one reads out a newspaper article, or delivers an academic paper. Because readers require specialized training, the Church includes them among the minor clerical orders.

The choir (or reader) intones the prokeimenon, “a text before (another) text,” a “pre-text,” if you will. It consists of a refrain along with a verse, both drawn from the Psalter. These are properly sung according to one of the eight liturgical tones, but sometimes are merely read out. The prokeimenon prepares us for the lesson from the Apostle. Once again, an important liturgical moment (the reading of the Apostle) is anticipated by a special action (the intonation of the prokeimenon), so that our hearing is adjusted spiritually to take in the profound message. In parishes where the prokeimenon is properly intoned, the laity can learn to sing these along with the choirs.

Now we are ready to hear the Apostle: a lesson either from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, or from one of the apostolic epistles. We do not read from the Book of Revelation.  There is always a specific lesson appointed for the specific day of the week in a given order of weeks after the previous Pascha, and frequently another one for the saint or commemoration of the calendar date. We select one of those to be read out, according to specific rules. Everything is done in the Church “decently and in order,” with no one, not even the priest, exercising his own willfulness apart from the common and holy tradition. We may listen to the apostolic reading seated and with attentiveness. Notice that the deacon said, “Let us attend!” Try not to look at other persons and ignore the usual distractions for this moment.

Now, as the choir begins to sing the alleluiarion, the triple “Alleluia,” and the priest is censing about the altar, we are ascending even higher. Everyone stands. The smoke of the incense honors the Lord and indicates the climax of this section of the Liturgy.  The Apostle warmed our heart for Christ. Now Christ our God will directly speak His life-bestowing Word through the Holy Gospel. No layman ever reads the Gospel liturgically. That role is designated for deacon or priest. It is always chanted and accompanied by lights. Even before the Gospel is read, we engage in the first substantive liturgical dialogue with the presiding celebrant. He encourages spiritual readiness, “Wisdom! Let us attend…” and grants the dominical blessing, “Peace be to all.” This is what Jesus said when He appeared to His disciples and apostles after the Resurrection. They were locked up in their chamber “for fear.” Now Christ gives us the peace, as we are locked up in the chamber of our heart and beset with many fears. How often did Our Lord say, “Do not fear”!

The Gospel-book lies front and center on the Holy Table, always the prominent position. The book itself is usually very ornate and costly, its binding and covers made of fine metal, enameled or set with stones. When this majestic Book is opened, we stand attuned as described above for the Apostle. Before and after the Gospel reading, we sign ourselves with the cross while saying, “Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee.” The sign of the cross is the most profound act of prayer which the limbs of our body are capable of. At important liturgical moments like this, but also in or out of the church temple, by day or by night, during any endeavor, and facing any temptation, we can make the sign of the cross and immediately be refreshed with a vibrant spiritual realization of Christ’s holy presence.