Check out our facebook page for more info & photos!
"IN GIVING BIRTH YOU PRESERVED YOUR VIRGINITY, IN FALLING ASLEEP YOU DID NOT FORSAKE THE WORLD, O THEOTOKOS. YOU WERE TRANSLATED TO LIFE, O MOTHER OF LIFE, AND BY YOUR PRAYERS YOU DELIVER OUR SOULS FROM DEATH!"
Elsie Skvir Nierle, founding member of Holy Cross Church, fell asleep in the Lord on Sunday, July 17, 2016, just two weeks after her 89th birthday.
Born on July 2, 1927 in Ganister, PA, she was the daughter of the late John Skvir and Paraskeva Skvir. After graduating from Williamsburg High School, Williamsburg, PA, and the Jefferson University School of Nursing, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Temple University and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, both in Philadelphia. She taught nursing for many years in the Philadelphia area, then at Bloomsburg University.
A founder of Holy Cross Church, she served as council president when the parish’s new church was constructed in 1987-88. She was honored for her leadership at the community’s 20th anniversary celebration in November 1997. In recognition of her work for the Church both locally and nationally, she received the Order of Saint Innocent from the Orthodox Church in America.
“Elsie was an exceptionally generous woman who understood that every ‘house’ needs a firm foundation,” said Theodore Bazil, Senior Advisor for Advancement at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. “She funded numerous programs and projects for the Orthodox Church in America and its seminaries.” In 2002, she founded the John and Paraskeva Skvir Chair in Practical Theology at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, an Academic Chair established in honor of her parents. The Chair was held by Archpriest Paul Lazor until his retirement, and currently is held by Archpriest Dr. Alexander Rentel. In 1986, she established the Mary Skvir Memorial Scholarship Fund, named in honor of her departed sister, to aid students at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary and Saint Tikhon’s Seminary, South Canaan, PA. The same year, she also established the Father John Skvir Memorial Pastoral Fellowship Endowment of the Orthodox Church in America. Additionally, she served on the Ganister Orthodox Foundation Committee of the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania, a charitable organization that supports the special projects of many Orthodox Christian non-profits.
She was predeceased by her sister, Mary; brothers, Michael, Joseph and Archpriest John Skvir; and her husband, Dr. Richard H. Nierle. She is survived by eight nieces and nephews.
Visitation will begin at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 20, at Holy Cross Church, 1725 Holy Cross Lane, Williamsport, PA. A Memorial will be celebrated at 7:00 p.m. The Funeral service will be celebrated at the church at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, July 21, followed by a luncheon in the parish social hall. Interment will be at Saint Mary’s Holy Assumption Cemetery, Ganister, PA at 5:00 p.m. Thursday evening.
May Elsie’s memory be eternal!
See a new video series on our "ABOUT ORTHODOXY" page.
"...for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask of the Lord."
Years ago, a neighbor visiting a parishioner's home got a glimpse of our church bulletin hanging on the fridge that declared in bold letters, "Sunday of the Last Judgment." Fascinated and somewhat troubled by the reference, the neighbor asked "how do you know?"
Our annual liturgical preparation for Lent includes the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25). We should know, reflect upon and strive to apply the parable's lessons to our Christian lives, individually and corporately. Indeed our ministry to others, including "the least of the brethren" with whom Christ identifies Himself, is essential to the mission of the Church.
Lent clearly and relentlessly drives the challenge of Christian ministry home. And as our "school of repentance," the Church teaches us that true repentance begins not merely with a self-examination that itemizes our sins but assesses our motivation; what provokes them.
If we're honest with ourselves, we can likely echo the words of St Paul as he confessed: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Romans 7:19). This is a convenient excuse suggesting we are without self-control, which, by the way, is one of the fruits of the Spirit (cf Galatians 5:22,23). It means that though our intentions may be good, there's something within us that incites us to do otherwise; like obeying the devil's voice whispering in our ear. But can this be a valid argument for our "good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ"?
Why, then, do we appear to insist there are many ways to justify our sins; that there are numerous extraneous forces that cause us to sin? Why shouldn't Almighty God cut us as much slack as the American legal system? We could even cite a number of contemporary precedents in our appeals to defend ourselves.
We could use the "insanity defense." We sin because we've lost good sense and become rather fond of acting foolishly. This defense is an ancient one. St Anthony the Great said: "... the time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will rise up against him, saying that you are mad, because you are not like them" (Saying 25).
We could use the improbable "Twinkie Defense," a term coined by the media suggesting a defendant suffers diminished capacity as a result of depression caused by increased consumption of unhealthy and sugary foods. We sin because we eat poorly, get depressed and take out our aggression against others. (Doesn't fasting help overcome this?)
We could use the more recent "Affluenza Defense" that's basically an updated version of the parable of the rich fool (cf Luke 12:16+). It's defined as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more" and refers to "an inability to understand the consequences of one's actions because of financial privilege." We sin because in chasing the American dream we invariably use and abuse people and stuff without a hint of remorse.
A "dream team" of lawyers could go a long way in presenting our defense, right!? Not! The parable teaches there are only two possible options in Christ's judgment of each of us. There's EITHER sheep or goats, right hand or left hand, eternal punishment or eternal life. There's nothing in between and no recourse to endless appeals. As one of the vesperal hymns says: "No cunning argument or skill in eloquence can deceive Thy judgment-seat. False witnesses cannot pervert Thy sentence, for in Thy sight, O God, every secret stands revealed!" Case closed. This is how God's justice will ultimately prevail.
What we need to do -- what Lent especially seeks to inspire us to do -- is to strengthen our will and (re)gain self-control. This is essentially the aim of all the extra prayer, worship, fasting and almsgiving of Lent. Yes, our focal point is always Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Yes, our focus in Lent is His voluntarily laying down His life on the Cross for the life of the world and its salvation. And yes, we believe "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."
Having thus testified to what we believe, however, incites the question: "what must I do?" Matthew 25 provides a checklist answer and, who knows; it may also be used as a sacred scorecard. Rather than try to justify and defend our sins, our resources would be better used invested in ministering to Christ through others.
Remember the adage: "The best defense is a good offense."
Thanks to astronomers, ancient calendar-creators and time-measurers, every four years we observe a "Leap Year" and are given a gift of a February 29th. It's another good excuse for a party, for special sales at the Mall and even Hallmark greetings. How will we seize this opportunity and embrace this gift?
In the daily calendar of Christian saints, February 29 is dedicated to, among others, a pious and heroic fourth-century fellow named John Cassian.
According to historic commentaries, this humble spiritual elder was born in Rome of eminent Christian parents and, from his youth, was a zealous student of the secular disciplines, specially trained in philosophy. His secular training incited him to pursue sacred discipline as well, striving to deepen his faith by ascetic effort: vigils, fasting and prayer.
His spiritual aspirations inspired him to leave the comforts of Rome and head East; first to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, and finally to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) where he became a student of the great "doctor of the Church" and later patriarch, John Chrysostom, who mentored him in the faith and eventually ordained him to the priesthood.
After learning to exercise virtue, John Cassian returned to the West, settling near Marseilles where he subsequently founded two monasteries, became a prolific writer and Christian apologist, and composed many liturgical hymns that are used in churches to this day.
Cassian faithfully served the Lord for many years and enriched countless lives by his wisdom and pious example until he finally entered his eternal rest in the year 435.
There is a fascinating legend connected with John Cassian concerning his association with the great Archbishop and wonderworker of Asia Minor, Saint Nicholas -- the original Santa Claus -- who lived during the same era. This story has become popularized in various versions but it generally goes something like this.
The wagon of a humble farmer had become stuck in the mud. Cassian happened upon the scene and witnessed the farmer's predicament. Not recognizing the saint as anyone special, the farmer asked for help: "Kindly come to my aid, noble sir, and let us pull out the wagon."
Cassian replied: "I regrettably cannot assist you. I must not tarnish my garment, for I go to worship my Lord" and he went on his way.
Shortly thereafter, Saint Nicholas happened upon the scene and again, the farmer, not recognizing him, requested assistance: "Please, good man, help me pull my wagon out of the mud."
The celebrated archbishop Nicholas complied and, together, with great effort, they rescued the wagon. After exchanging pleasantries, they amicably parted company.
After their deaths, Cassian and Nicholas were reunited before the throne of heaven where they equally stood in fear and trembling.
The Almighty One asked Cassian: "Where were you?"
Cassian replied: "On earth, where I saw a farmer whose wagon was stuck. But I did not want to soil my garment to help him, for I was on my way to worship You."
Turning then to Nicholas, God asked: "And where, Nicholas, did you get so dirty?"
The archbishop humbly replied: "Please forgive my appearance, gracious Lord, but I helped the humble farmer."
Said God to Nicholas: "Since you have helped the farmer, my faithful shall honor your memory annually with a litany."
And to Cassian, God decreed: "Since you failed to help the farmer, you will have a litany once every fourth year."
The legend is instructive. There are varieties of gifts among the people of God. Nicholas excelled in charity. Cassian excelled in ascetic practice. Both remain noble gifts. But the legend suggests one superior to the other. We also learn that God eternally values our ministry to others: that He "sweats the details" of human need and we should do likewise; letting our hands be His and uniting our ministry to our worship.
In terms of modern society, we can personally relate to Cassian in another way. In non-leap years, he's like the Rodney Dangerfield among the saints: he "gets no respect." That's pretty indicative of us, isn't it? Though there are many positive, encouraging, hopeful and tangible ways by which we love, care for and serve one another, there are also numerous instances whereby in doing so we receive little if any recognition: where we "get no respect." Perhaps we occasionally suffer from a "Cassian complex!"
So on February 29, why not seize the gift of an extra day, earn some holy respect, and overcome the "Cassian complex;" first, by humble prayer, then by perhaps helping someone lift their wagon from the mud!
"Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." -- Hebrews 13:1-2
It wasn't that long ago when American families, gathered for a bounteous Thanksgiving dinner, would leave an empty seat at the banquet table in order to be able to welcome and accommodate an unanticipated guest to the feast. These days, the seat is often empty because a guest has abandoned their place at the table to head for the early Black Friday sales at the mall!
Thanksgiving is certainly a time to count our blessings and, with minimal reflection, the litany is extensive. Should it not then also be a time to share our blessings from the abundant treasuries of our lives into which Almighty God has made significant deposits?
As we go about our daily lives, that have become so hectic and overloaded, we need to make an intentional effort to rediscover the inestimable, spiritually-therapeutic value of keeping the commandment to love our neighbors. But when we consider things like ponderous social problems, world hunger, fighting disease, disaster recovery, etc, we're tempted to think "I've already got so much on my plate; how much of a difference can I really make?"
A common reason for procrastination is seeing a challenge before us as overwhelming and deciding we can do nothing meaningful to address it. The reality is we all have the opportunities and ability to help create positive change in the lives of others by simply loving them.
Remember the now classic story of the young boy walking along a beach after a terrible storm had littered it with starfish. He was observed throwing the starfish back into the water. When a passerby told the boy that with tens of thousands of starfish on the beach, his efforts wouldn't make much of a difference. The boy knelt down, picked up yet another starfish, threw it as far as he could into the ocean and said: "It makes a difference to THAT one!"
Jesus Christ once spoke a sobering parable of a wealthy man who enjoyed sumptuous meals while a beggar named Lazarus sat at his doorstep waiting for crumbs to fall from the rich man's table (Luke 16:19+). At his death, the rich man's apathy and indifference toward the beggar landed him in Hades!
Listen to what Saint John Chrysostom, the "golden-mouthed", fourth-century preacher has to say of Lazarus in his commentary on this parable: "Even if he is only one, he is a human being, for whom the heaven was stretched out, the sun appears, the moon changes, the air was poured out, the springs gush forth, the sea was spread out, the prophets were sent, the law was given -- and why should I mention all these? -- for whom the only-begotten Son of God became man. My Master was slain and poured out His blood for this man. Shall I despise him? What pardon would I have?"
Whether a starfish on the beach, a beggar on the doorstep, or an unanticipated guest, may not only the feast of Thanksgiving, but thanksgiving as a condition of a grateful heart, move and inspire each of us to help just one. This can begin to make a world of difference!
Welcome to today's edition of Bible Trivia. From the episode recorded in Matthew 9 pertaining to the healing of a paralytic brought by four friends to Christ, we have five questions.
1) What was Jesus' own city?
2) Christ healed the paralytic because of the faith he saw in what city?
3) The people of what city glorified God for this miracle?
4) Now, from Matthew 11, what city does Jesus condemn and compare to Sodom for its lack of faith and repentance?
5) Finally, what city was named for the Prophet Nahum who preached on God's judgment against idolatry, oppression, cruelty and wickedness?
The answer to each question is… CAPERNAUM.
Could this be right?! Did Christ really condemn His own city that served as His headquarters for the bulk of His earthly ministry?! How can this be? And how can it be that some 2000 years later there remains hardly a trace of this city?
This is significant and not trivial at all. The Gospel tells us that, in spite of all the miracles Jesus performed in Capernaum, He was ultimately rejected. His mighty works came to be regarded as insignificant to their faith and inconsequential to their lives. Somewhere along the line, the faith, awe and reverence we see in Matthew 9 disappeared and the city was rebuked by the Lord.
This reality is a stern warning and wake-up call to all who profess Christianity; especially to us as Orthodox Christians who are blessed beyond measure to celebrate Christ's presence in the life of His Church. If our faith is not continually deepened and enhanced through our worship; if our hearts are not moved; if our souls are not inspired, comforted and encouraged; if our lives are not profoundly influenced by the presence of Our Lord, we stand subject to the same condemnation as Capernaum! "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31).
The example of Capernaum goes beyond a city. It relates also to the Church. God has abundantly blessed us with the fullness of Holy Tradition -- His revelation to mankind, especially in the Person of Jesus Christ. We can't begin to count the blessings of our Church and express our gratitude in words. We simply and humbly carry on our Sacred Tradition in all its glory and splendor, with faith and repentance. But "unto whom much is given will much be required."
Historically, Capernaum was religiously grounded, but the city obviously had its share of distractions and entertainments that eventually usurped its faith in God. Nothing new here. In Joshua's time, Israel found the fire worship of their Chaldean neighbors as exciting as any rock concert; an attractive alternative to the same old boring sacrificial rituals and long prayers to which they'd become accustomed. Such fascination with the sights and sounds of colorful pagan rituals fueled Israel's inclination to adapt and conform to the conduct of neighboring nations. That's what happens with distractions.
Today, in our country, where a majority of the population claims an allegiance to Christ, contemporary "Capernaumites" appear to do likewise: become fascinated by and inclined to conform to various distractions.
Recently, a ruling of the United States Supreme Court redefined marriage for American citizens. The highest judicial body of our "land of the free and the home of the brave" determined that individual rights of citizens outweigh the free exercise of religion. The "Opinion of the Court" states, "Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations." Huh?!
Though some of the legal matters pertaining to marriage have certainly changed over the centuries, the nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman held historically by people of all cultures and religions has never changed. If the "Opinion of the Court" is true, I shudder to think how "new generations" will move subsequent Courts to further redefine marriage! Put another way, I can equip my 14-year-old Honda with a new engine, sound system, bucket seats and airbags, but it's still a car. I can't "redefine" it as a bicycle or a lawn mower!
As ancient Israel settled into the Promised Land, Joshua understood marriage as the key element of holding society together with, among other things, the responsibility of fulfilling the irreplaceable role in reproducing the human race and raising children to do likewise. That's how Israel survived. We apparently have now reached a point in history where pretty much everything can be redefined by "new generations," all in the name of freedom, tolerance and individual rights. Can we expect such a society to survive?
These "new dimensions of freedom" are also essentially telling us in the Church that we're indeed free to exercise our religion within our "worship space," but in the interest of respecting the freedom and rights of those outside the Church we shouldn't make any attempt to impose our faith upon, nor try to influence others in any way. In all probability, the Supreme Court of Capernaum decided similarly -- against the presence, power, teachings and miracles of the Incarnate God!
How desperately we need to again hear and heed the counsel of the Apostle Peter: "For it is God's will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God" (1 Peter 2:15-16).
After the Apostles miraculously healed a man, they were brought before the Sanhedrin and commanded to stop teaching in Jesus' name. "But Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than men'" (Acts 5:29). That's good advice, still utterly relevant. As a matter of fact, it sounds much like Joshua's final exhortation to Israel: "Choose this day whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15).
Do we as Orthodox Christians have sufficient faith and resolve to identify and address the root problem? It's the same problem Capernaum had. The city rejected Christ and was compared to Sodom for its lack of faith and repentance. Will our Church and our nation share the same fate?
One of the desert fathers tells of a young monk who approached his spiritual father and asked, "How can I be sure I am in the presence of God?" The elder replied, "You have as much control over this as you have the power to make the sun to rise." "Then," the young monk said, "what is the use of all of our spiritual exercises and prayers?" The elder responded, "These you do to make sure you are awake when the sun rises."
When Our Lord returns in glory, Capernaum, and all who willfully reject Christ, will be found sleeping. In spite of countless distractions, we must be awake to God! The Church must be alive, the faith must be vibrant, the Sacred Tradition intact. And so long as we enjoy the constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom we have, we must determinedly and intentionally share these blessings of God with others "for the life of the world and its salvation."
Message of Archbishop Mark
June 27, 2015
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” (John 3:16ff)
Dear beloved clergy and faithful,
The world in which we live today is nothing like the world in which many of us grew up. Whereas many once professed to be Christians and attended Church regularly, today it is no longer the case. Christian values are being rapidly eroded and made an object of scorn through the media. Some faith communities have succumbed to being politically correct rather than faithful to Christ and the Holy Gospel. Our own members sometimes challenge the moral and ethical teaching of the Church. The word Christian historically was used as an adjective to describe the way one lived their life. Today, while some still call themselves Christian they choose to live their lives in a manner contrary to the Gospel delivered once and for all.
Given the recent decision of the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex unions, as well as other similar moral issues related to human sexuality, our Church has not and will not change its theological and pastoral position. I encourage you to read our Holy Synod’s Affirmation on the Mystery of Marriage on the subject of marriage and human sexuality (http://oca.org/holy-synod/statements/holy-synod/synodal-affirmation-of-the-mystery-of-marriage ). Additionally, the Assembly of Canonical Bishops of the United States issued a statement in 2013 On Marriage (http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/about/documents/2013-assembly-statement-on-marriage-and-sexuality). By way of reminder, marriage is a Sacrament of the Church and only members in good standing may be married in the Church. No same-sex marriages or unions will be performed in an Orthodox Church or elsewhere by an Orthodox clergyman. That being said, we appear as hypocrites if we are soft on the epidemic of co-habitation, premarital and extramarital relations, but not so with those who fail in their struggle with same sex attraction. St. John Chrysostom says in his Homilies on Romans 1 & 2, that those who fornicate sin against their bodies, whereas those who engage in unnatural relations sin against nature itself. In either case, both need to be restored through the Sacrament of Repentance.
Our Church welcomes everyone who is sincerely seeking the Kingdom of God and desires to live a life of purity and holiness, regardless of their own personal struggles. We all have our own sins. By the Grace of God, we continue to repent daily and struggle to become what the Lord created us to be.
Your unworthy father in Christ,
Archbishop of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania
After the great flood in the days of Noah, the Lord made a covenant with him, promising never again to destroy the world with a flood. The rainbow is the sign of His covenant. But not many generations later, as the descendants of Noah multiplied and re-populated the earth, it was like deja vous all over again. Fallen man returned to his old, crooked ways -- selfishly looking out for himself and forgetting God.
In the book of Genesis, just five chapters after the story of the great flood, we hear man aspiring to become his own god. "Come," they said, "let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." (Genesis 11:4)
They proceeded to build their tower -- a great and presumably inpenetrable tower reaching into heaven that they imagined would intimidate their enemies and give them the reputation of being the most powerful people on the face of the earth. They had become too big for their britches and needed a serious dose of humility!
"And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth." (Genesis 11:5-11)
Here is the origin of the Hebrew word that is sometimes still used today; BABEL. Man, in his desire to make himself somehow equal to God, was humbled by God -- not with deadly plagues, locusts, famine or disease, but with confusion. Unable to communicate with each other, their plans for their great tower were shelved. (And this, before government agencies, building permits and zoning ordinances!)
Why recall this story on this day -- this great day in the Church of the Feast of Pentecost? Because Pentecost celebrates, among other things, the reversal of the tower of Babel story! Listen again to one of the festal hymns: "When the Most High came down and confused the tongues He divided the nations. But when He distributed the tongues of fire He brought all to unity!" As we heard proclaimed in the Pentecost story from the second chapter of Acts, the record of God's revelation to man in the Person of Jesus Christ was now something that could be equally communicated with all peoples of the earth -- in whatever languages were spoken. The people of Jerusalem were astounded as the apostles, empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit, began to proclaim Christ as the Promised Messiah in every known language. Folks thought the apostles were all drunk, but it was only nine o'clock in the morning! They knew the majority of apostles were Gallillean and yet they spoke in words that could be understood by all those present. Many of the people were pilgrims, coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Old Testament Pentecost -- the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai fifty days after Passover. Little did they know that this was the inauguration of a new era, a new revelation of God, a new Pentecost, fifty days after Christ's resurrection, with the descent of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the source of unity, of mission, of witness and evangelism. On behalf of the apostles, Peter rises to give the first Church sermon with such great power that, as a result, three thousand people repented, were baptized, and grafted into the new Body of Christ -- the Church.
What is this to us? As members of Christ and the Church -- as those who have been sealed with the same gift of the Holy Spirit in Chrismation -- we are no longer confused about God; we cannot be "babellers" when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel of Christ! The Holy Spirit is a "Spirit of Understanding." In our spiritual fallenness, we cannot even fathom the essence of God, the nature of God, the Divine Attributes of God. Yet through the Holy Spirit, our hearts understand this and in the Church, we testify to it and humble ourselves before Him.
So long as we run around in life striving to build towers into heaven and relying on our own feeble resources, we will be confused about God and our testimony will be weak. Our love for Christ and one another will be superficial.
But in the power of the Holy Spirit, we become the Church: the living continuation of the faith once delivered to the apostles and the perpetuation of the ministry of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
May we embrace this holy mission: this unity of faith, hope, and love as we humble our hearts, our minds and our bodies in submission to the revealed Truth of Almighty God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
In God’s “strategic plan” for the life of the world and its salvation, He decisively intervened, in Person, “trampling down death by death.” In the radiant light of Jesus’ glorious resurrection, darkness is overcome, creation is renewed, disappointment and despair no longer have the final word, sorrow is turned to joy and death has lost its sting. There is hope for all because Our God lives!
In his youth, the popular Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, boastfully declared his belief in no religion, saying they were all myths created by man. Years later, as he considered the implications of Christ’s resurrection, he experienced a heartfelt conversion. In a reflection entitled Surprised by Joy, he wrote, “No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a ‘transcendental Interferer.’ There was no region even in the innermost depth of one’s soul which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice: ‘No Admittance.’ And that was what I wanted; some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, ‘This is my business and mine only.’”
Here, Lewis expresses the sentiments of many today which are seldom spoken. We all want to feel independent, safe and secure in ourselves; to fence ourselves in and say to others and even to God, “Back off! Don’t bother me. Leave me alone.” Indeed, we have the right to say this.
But our crucified and risen Lord—the “Transcendental Interferer”—also has the right to step into our human situations, relationships, circumstances, schedules and plans to pursue us with His divine Love and persistent mercy. As He says to the self-satisfied Church of Laodicea, so He says to us: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelations 3:20).
Are we willing to open the door and invite into every aspect of our lives Him Who is incessantly knocking, knowing full well His Almighty presence will “rock our worlds,” challenge our status quos, and interfere with our personal agendas? After Our Lord raised His friend Lazarus from the dead, His critics posed a significant question to one other: “What shall we do, for this Man works many signs?” (John 11:47). This is a question with which every generation—indeed every soul—must wrestle. How do we welcome and respond to “this Man;” this “Transcendental Interferer?”
The early Church knew exactly what to do! Not only did they invite the Knocking Christ to fully enter and transform their personal lives, but as the new “Body of Christ,” they proceeded to preach, teach and invite all to do likewise. And their enthusiastic and resolute conviction bore amazing fruit; the Lord multiplied the believers and added to the Church, daily. So persuasive and convincing was the testimony and living witness of the apostles that they were accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
This is the faith we must each rediscover and apply to our busy lives and troubled times—the Paschal faith that rolls away the stones from our self-imposed tombs and shouts with David, “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.” This is the faith that responds eagerly and joyously to the incessant knocking of the Transcendental Interferer and opens the door to His Divine Love and persistent mercy.
By His abundant and amazing grace, the Risen Lord is still knocking. He stands ready to fill us with faith, light, hope, forgiveness, mercy and love—to interfere in our lives in wonderful and extraordinary ways—if we but open the door!
“Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:3-4).
On the first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the historic restoration of holy icons. And as the Church has done since 843 AD, we boldly proclaim to the world, “This is the Apostolic Faith.” Is this a statement of fact or a question?
There’s a simple test to measure this: to what extent do we imitate the apostles in following Christ in the hard realities of His Gospel—keeping the commandments, seeing Christ in the least of the brethren, being clean on the inside amidst temptations from the outside, forgiving those who would kill us, plucking out eyes and cutting off arms to prevent us from sinning, overcoming evil with good, blessing those who curse us? This is the icon of godly life Our Lord offers for veneration to those who would follow Him.
In these terms, we must honestly confess today that our lives are often the epitome of iconoclasm—not a shattering of wood and painted images but a desecration of the very icon of godly life announced and manifested by Our Lord and followed by the apostles.
We raise up our holy icons on the Sunday of Orthodoxy yet often forget each and every icon, regardless of who or what is depicted, invariably points only to Jesus Christ, “the icon of God.” We often fail to comprehend their relevance to our modern lives, that through them, just as on Pascha night, the Risen Lord shows us His hands and His side, gives us His peace, and reminds us that He endured everything for our salvation.
How often do our icons inspire us to echo words like Mary’s Magnificat: “for He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name” (Luke 1:49). We’re sometimes quicker to critique an icon’s artistic style than piously kiss it. And we probably spend considerably more time venerating the 42-inch flat-screen plasma icon at home than the precious, holy icons of Our Church.
Ultimately, despite all their personal shortcomings and fears, every apostle, save one, followed Christ in similar fashion, laying down their lives “for the life of the world and its salvation.” This was the price the apostles paid, willingly, for the right, privilege, and honor of following Jesus Christ. This was their painful realization of Saint Paul’s words to Timothy: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2/3:12).
Let’s fast-forward to 2015 and consider also the heroic martyric witness of our countless Orthodox brethren in the Middle East today—whose lives resemble those we laud in the Orthodoxy Sunday epistle from Hebrews—who, because of their apostolic faith “were tortured… suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword… destitute, afflicted, ill-treated… wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” Are we as diligent to read such testimony as we are the ingredients on food labels?
The best way to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy is to work ceaselessly to conform our lives to our bold declaration—“This is the Apostolic Faith”—to assure it’s not a question but a statement of fact. How do we do this? After Peter protested Jesus’ announcement that He was going to Jerusalem where He’d die and rise again, Our Lord responded to Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matthew 16:23).
That’s where apostles belong—following along behind Our Lord, in His footsteps; yes, even as those footsteps lead to Golgotha—to follow Him when the burden is light and when we feel the full weight of the Cross, to follow Him as the Victorious Lord and Master of our lives Who alone can triumph over all things and without Whom we can triumph over nothing.
It’s because the apostles knew their place—behind the Lord—that their mission was successful, that “their proclamation went out into all the earth and their words to the ends of the universe, that “the Lord added daily to the Church those who were being saved.” It’s because they humbly venerated the icon of godly life revealed by their Master that Truth prevailed. This is the fruit of Apostolic Faith we must work together to harvest today, that Orthodoxy may truly triumph—first in our personal lives, then in our parish communities, and ultimately, in the world.
As our sacred words and holy images proclaim, may we increasingly become, with Peter, “eyewitnesses of the majesty of God.” May we say with Thomas: “My Lord and My God,” with Philip “Come and see,” and with John, “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:3). Only then can Orthodoxy really triumph and the sequel to the Acts of the Apostles be written in our day.
May we ambitiously take up this challenge and fulfill our great apostolic commission as people “sent” by God.
"No one will be saved simply by knowing God's will; salvation lies in doing it." -- St Nicholas of Zicha
The famous parable of the Good Samaritan tells of a man being mugged and left half dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The first to come upon him were a priest and a Levite, but they passed by. We’re not told the reasons they passed by, but can speculate. The levite, a “religious professional,” was likely enroute to or from “work.” The priest was perhaps fearful he’d defile himself and thus become unable to perform his priestly service by coming into contact with someone shedding blood. Maybe they were just running late, afraid they too would be mugged, or even that the wounded man was faking his injuries. This is worthy of thought. After all, don’t we sometimes pass by needy neighbors for similar reasons?!
In any case, along comes our hero, the good Samaritan, who shows compassion to the beaten man, pouring oil and wine on his wounds—symbolic of the mysteries of the Church wherein Christ Himself is manifested as the good Samaritan to us, who are wounded by sin. After applying this primitive treatment, the Samaritan raises the bar in his compassion. He puts the wounded man on his own mule, transports him to a nearby inn, and gives money to the innkeeper to ensure the ongoing care and recovery of the wounded man. In addition, the Samaritan makes a pledge to reimburse the innkeeper for any further expenses incurred. So not only does the Samaritan take a personal interest in a needy neighbor—sharing his time, effort, wine, oil, money, and mule—but he also enlists the support of another. There is really no clearer call to charity than this parable. And as Jesus challenged an inquisitive lawyer to embrace compassion, so too our Holy Church repeatedly challenges us to “go and do likewise.”
We’re all well aware of the urgent and genuine needs of our neighbors. And since the Orthodox Church is pretty much everywhere in the world, the word “neighbor” for us has global application. No, we can’t begin to help everyone, but neither can we violate Our Lord’s commandment to show compassion to the wounded neighbors on our paths or our doorsteps.
Indeed, we should and do show our compassion by praying for them, but that’s not enough. The Bible says, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” [James 2:14-15]. It’s akin to wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ to someone who’s just lost everything. Our faith must blossom into good works, not just good wishes. Actions always speak louder than words. In fact, in the parable, we notice the absence of words. The Samaritan didn’t interrogate the wounded man, he just acted. What wounded neighbors need is not rhetoric but resources. In identifying Himself with the least of the brethren, Our Lord says, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” not “I was hungry and you formed a task force to discuss it or you applied for a government grant.” Our financial donations toward various charities, though helping to empower the Church to show compassion on our behalf, don’t absolve us from personal responsibility.
But there is yet another way for us to show compassion for our neighbors that’s not related in the parable. It’s simply this: If we really love our neighbors, we will also make every effort to warn them not to travel dangerous paths!
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where the beaten man had been mugged, had a reputation among locals as being an extremely dangerous one. Some historians refer to it as the “road of blood,” upon which unscrupulous robbers hid, waiting to pounce on new victims. So the story of the good Samaritan would’ve been a “non-story” had some compassionate neighbor told the traveler, “You’re risking your life if you go that way!” Instead of being called “the good Samaritan,” the parable could’ve been called “the foolish traveler!”
If we see people following dangerous paths in their lives, if we really love them, isn’t one of the best ways to show them our love to warn them of danger? As parents, we show compassion to our children in exactly this way—“don’t run into the street, don’t touch a hot stove, don’t get into a car with strangers, don’t hang around with bad people, don’t do drugs, etc.” Many roads in life are full of danger. Yet how often do we see neighbors following such grievous paths and remain silent or pass them by? Perhaps we ourselves are, knowingly or unknowingly, on such paths, and only the compassion of another can save us from being wounded, beaten or destroyed, or at least incite us to consider an alternate, safer route.
In this sense, the Church must intentionally strive to fulfill the role of Christ as the good Samaritan. The Church is to be a lighthouse that guides lost and wandering souls to the Kingdom of God—“a haven of peace in a tortured world.” Thus, the Church is a life-saving station that nurtures that equips and dispatches good Samaritans to be neighbors to others, or a spiritual GPS that displays the preferred path to a desired destination and warns of the dangers inherent on other roads.
Each of us has, in our individual lives, been beaten, bruised, wounded and left for dead, in one way or the other, by the “thugs” of passions and sin. But, thanks be to God, Jesus Christ has repeatedly been—and will forever be—our good Samaritan, applying His healing oil and wine to our wounds in the Mysteries of His Holy Church.
Especially as our thoughts now turn to Advent, Thanksgiving and the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, may our love for our neighbor truly take flesh in doing God’s will, so that we in the Church truly may be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” for that’s what our good Samaritan, Jesus Christ, calls us to be—and do!
One of the best ways to accomplish virtually anything is to enlist the support of others. This holds true for any worthy endeavor, from the simplest to the greatest. It should therefore come as no great surprise to us to read and understand Luke 5. Our Lord, desiring to save the world (the highest of all endeavors!) enlists the support of His first disciples. We generally refer to this reading as "Fishers of Men". In the rationale of corporate America, we may call it "Phase One of Christ's Strategic Plan."
Our Lord was preaching in His homeland when He initiates this phase. Approaching the Sea of Galilee, He watched as some rather frustrated fishermen were bringing their boats back to the shore. Among them were two sets of brothers; Peter and Andrew, and James and John. (Andrew has to wait until the next chapter in Luke to be mentioned. Luke, essentially Peter's secretary, apparently chose to show some preferential treatment and leave Andy out of his version of the "fisherman's call.") It is with these simple fishermen that Our Lord begins to implement His plan. He uses one of the boats as a pulpit. Then He requests Simon to head for middle of the lake, the deepest part, and once again let down his nets. Simon, though perhaps initially insulted by this advice, obeys the Lord. Lo and behold, the catch of fish now is so great that the nets began to break, another boat is summoned, and both of them begin to sink from the sheer weight of the caught fish. This episode certainly must have accounted for some legendary fish stories!
Simon couldn't believe his eyes! He immediately fell down before the Lord in humility, telling Him essentially that he (Simon) was not worthy to be graced by such an awesome and almighty power. But Jesus said to him; "Fear not, from now on, you will catch men." And the reading concludes, "when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him."
Mission accomplished! Phase One of Christ's plan was complete. He had succeeded in enlisting the support of others; apostles who would serve as His ambassadors in subsequent phases of His Divine Plan for the salvation of the world.
Notice here a couple of things in particular which pertain to all of us as apostles of Christ. First, Our Lord calls the fishermen 'at work.' They're not sitting around daydreaming, playing fantasy football or even praying. They're doing what they do to earn their livelihood! There's wisdom in this for us. Christ wants workers as His disciples. Those prone to idleness or laziness need not apply! He must be surrounded by what St Paul calls "fellow workers with Him." It's been said by many that one of the greatest stumbling-blocks to the growth of the Church today are 'pew potatoes': those who noblely find there way to the Sunday Liturgy but fail to pray or work for the Kingdom of Christ once they leave. Christ calls workers!
Next, notice the humility and obedience of the fishermen. These are essential qualities of fellow-workers of Christ. When Christ told Simon to go out into the middle of the lake, after going all night without catching a single fish, Simon could very easily have shunned the request and said something to Jesus on the order of; "Who do you think you are, telling me, a professional fisherman, how to fish?!" But nevertheless, he obeyed Christ. This is a lesson in faith for us! Regardless of our life experience, we must exercise obedience in faith; even though it may appear in the eyes of the world as foolish, fanatical, old-fashioned or irrelevant. Faith implies a humility that accepts and embraces the commands of God and acts accordingly.
Equally important in this is the symbolic element of what may be summarized in one word: evangelization -- the determined and intentional effort to joyfully live and share the good news of Christ! This is at the heart of Christ's command to Simon to "Launch out into the deep and let down your nets".
Historically, this referred to the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were those 'close to the shore' who, with the benefit of the entire Old Testament, should be easily 'caught' in the net of Christ. It was the Gentiles who were 'out in the deep'; those who would need to be persuaded and convinced of God's love through the person of Jesus Christ and His fellow workers!
This symbolic meaning needs to be updated because it's an evangelical challenge confronting the entire Church still today. For example, most if not all of our 'parish nets' have been successful in 'catching those close to the shore.' By the grace of God, we welcome among us numerous souls who have had no prior exposure, affiliation or familiarity with the Orthodox Church but who courageously venture into our temples and ultimately become "hooked" (increasingly, these days, after have done their homework via the internet before risking a foot in the door!). We don't have to do a whole lot of "fishing" to catch them. In most cases, all we have to do is 'let down our net', offer the opportunity, provide the facility, beauty and environment of the Church, and in they come!
But as Our Lord directed the apostles, so He directs us; "launch out into the deep". This is to say; don't be content with only those who can be easily "caught." Launch out -- into the communities and neighborhoods that surround us, the shattered families and broken lives of those we hardly know, into relationships with those who must be persuaded and convinced of God's love, mercy and healing through our 'fishing.'
Thanks be to God, many parishes have been successful to some degree in this challenge to "Go fishin'... for men!" But each of us, baptized into Christ and nourished by the Holy Sacraments, must accept this challenge, personally! We must each live up to the commitments we have made to God and His Church at some point in our lives.
Look again at the profession of faith that converts proclaim in the service for their reception into the Church: "This true faith of the Holy Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God being my helper. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in purity and good deeds." (Sounds pretty serious, doesn't it?!)
It's in accordance with this solemn profession that everyone of us who is in communion with Christ and His Church must act! We're all supposed to be 'fishers of men!' Yes, Our Lord is still 'the point-Man' in His strategic plan for the salvation of the world. But each time we gather as His Body the Church, we're reminded that He expects us to be His dedicated ambassadors and tireless workers -- humble and obedient fishermen -- to help execute His Plan: to catch a great catch for the Kingdom and glory of God!
"We pray to Thee, O Lord Our God, that the suffering people of Ukraine be granted the wisdom, mutual respect and love which will protect them from violence, preserve them in peace, and bring them unity and justice for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. And that Thou wilt grant comfort and consolation to the wounded and grieving, give rest to the souls of the departed, and grant strength to those who minister to all in Thy Holy Name."
“With what garlands of praise shall we crown Peter and Paul, the greatest among the heralds of the word of God, distinct in their person but one in spirit. The one, the chief ruler of the Apostles; the other who labored more than the rest. Christ our God fittingly crowned them with immortal glory, for He alone possesses great mercy” [Vespers, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul].
How wonderfully the feast of Saints Peter and Paul fits into the liturgical scheme of our Holy Church as yet another manifestation of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These two great pillars of the Church offer us significantly more practical wisdom than we imagine. The confession of Peter—that Jesus is “truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God”—is the rock of faith upon which the Church is built. And the perils of Paul, wherein he came to rely totally on the sufficiency of God’s grace, is something for all of us to consider. But in addition to their individual lives and struggles as recounted in the festal readings, it is their combined witness and testimony from which we can learn a great deal.
We’ve probably all heard of Sir Isaac Newton, the 17th century English mathematician who, among other things, formulated the laws of gravity and motion. In doing so, Newton coined two words to describe the forces of motion: centripetal and centrifugal. Centripetal force is what keeps things down on earth though the planet revolves at incredible speed. Centrifugal force moves things away from a center point—like going around a curve on a roller coaster and your body is forced toward the outside. Can’t we see these ‘forces of motion’ wonderfully illustrated in the persons of Peter and Paul?
Peter, as seen in his epistles, was always encouraging the early Church and Christians in the Roman diaspora to maintain unity within a hostile environment. He instructed Christians to band and keep together, regardless of the distance that separated them, in order to bear witness to Christ. “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Peter was a centripetal force for the Church.
Paul, on the other hand, was the missionary apostle; the centrifugal force of the Church that challenged her, and led the challenge, to expand her mission to include the Gentiles: “...I am eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:15-16).
Do you see the wisdom here? The Church was, is and must always be ‘a Body in motion;’ living and active, never stagnant. And the forces of motion and perfectly exemplified, respectfully, by Peter and Paul. Without the centripetal force of Peter, the Church would have become little more than loosely connected groups ‘doing their own thing’ with no cohesiveness or foundation upon which to build in a unified manner. And without the centrifugal force of Paul, the Church would have remained a relatively small Jewish sect in Palestine. The Church needed both of these ‘forces’ to implement the great Commission of Our Lord to teach and baptize all nations!
In like manner, we—as individuals and members of parish communities—need to practically apply these same forces of motion today. Our lives must be centered on Jesus Christ, anchored in intimate communion with Him Who alone is the Source of our being and the Author of our Salvation. We need centripetal force to keep us grounded in faith as we go about our daily activities and face the trials and tribulations of life. And the Church wonderfully provides this in her worship, sacraments, and ascetic life. But we also need the centrifugal force that ‘moves’ us to adapt to changing circumstances and relationships, helps us to gain new insights into God’s love for us, and share our faith with others!
The laws of motion are also important for practical administrative purposes within the Church. Every parish must recognize two types of goals in its collective life: maintenance and growth. We must be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us and concerned with the welfare of our parishioners. But we must also be willing to adapt, expand and widen our scope to fulfill our function as the Church to ‘teach all nations’.
May we learn from the example of Peter and Paul of the diversity of spiritual gifts within the Church that, though they may not always reflect uniformity, nevertheless serve a common purpose: to reveal, manifest and announce the living God that all may know Him and love Him as we do, and keep the Body of Christ ‘in motion’!
Cable tv gives us a wide variety of channels (filled with "nothing to watch!"). Personally I often revert to the station that has the only news we can really use: The Weather Channel. In addition to the local forecast, they have reports from folks they call "stormchasers." The channel execs dispatch these fearless(?) employees into the heart of every storm where they courageously stand (or at least, try to) in blizzards, tornados, tsunamis and hurricanes, through wind, snow, rain, mud and ice, to deliver eyewitness reports of the awesome power of nature. Whatever they pay them is not enough.
Despite the inherent dangers, risks and hazards, everyone seems to enjoy the thrill, excitement and adventure of the chase -- for whatever. Children at play in a game of tag, for example, are full of excitement and get much exercise engaging in the chase -- as do the parents running after them.
Though we don't often conceive it as such, our desire to engage in the chase carries through adulthood. It's always been the case. In the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, we read in just a few verses that the great and wise King Solomon chased after pleasure, laughter, wine, jewels, houses, vineyards, fruit trees, silver, gold, orchards and music. And he ultimately "caught" everything he chased!
Reflecting on all the wealth and wisdom and stuff he'd accumulated, however, he says: "Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (2:11). Finally, with righteous wisdom, he concludes by saying: "Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man" (12:13).
It can rightly be said that Jesus Christ was the greatest stormchaser Who ever lived. He was sent by His Father into the storm of fallen humanity: not to observe and report but to rescue mankind from the tsunami of sin, the hurricane of corruption, the tornado of death. After revealing in word and deed the will of God to save man and facing the winds and waves of ingratitude, hypocrisy, defiance and contempt, He ultimately, voluntarily, stretched out His arms upon a cross and declared of the storm: "It is finished!" Afterwards, He even went so far as to chase down Adam and Eve who, among countless others, were waiting for Him in the depths of hell!
After weeks of lenten reflection, we now find ourselves excitedly chasing the intense, spiritual joy of Jesus' glorious resurrection from the dead, celebrating our deliverance from the storm, in the hope it will penetrate our hearts with a personal experience of the immeasurable love of Our Lord as revealed through His cross and empty tomb. Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies fall far short of capturing that joy.
We've probably weathered many storms in our lives by God's grace. We've heard His words, seen His miracles and felt His peace. Now, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." And like those who "departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples" (Matthew 28:8) we run to share the good news of the resurrection to a world that often seems to prefer darkness to light, evil to good, and death to life.
Solomon was right. Regardless of the things we're so often consumed with chasing in life, our duty is to fear God and keep His commandments. The Great Stormchaser has visited and redeemed us! Let us worship Him!
Having had the opportunity to sing an operetta with the local symphony orchestra, it’s remarkable to me how wonderfully our Orthodox liturgical progression from Pre-Lent to Lent to Holy Week to Pascha not only presents “the greatest story ever told,” but also resembles the performance of a musical masterpiece.
I recall how at one rehearsal the conductor, abruptly bringing all to full stop, angrily tapped his baton, stomped his foot and shouted, “You’re not following me! The score says lentando!” Lentando means “to make slow;” slowing down the music’s tempo to create a reflective, contemplative, even solemn mood. This is especially employed in operas to build and enhance the personality and disposition of characters and to give the audience glimpses into their respective life struggles and inner conflicts that will be brought to bear as the story unfolds.
That’s pretty much “lent,” isn’t it?! Time to slow down, to adjust the tempo of our daily lives from the hectic pace that consumes us to a more contemplative one that incites inner reflection and self-awareness. It’s a time to earnestly reflect on our character: what makes us tick, what lifts us up and what drags us down. The mood created by our extra services, their somberness and solemnity, complemented by the readings, hymns, movements, commemorations and participation in confession reveal our desperate need for some serious “lentando” in our lives.
Lentando, however, is not stagnant but dynamic. It lays a foundation upon which to build, paving the way for something to come. In musical terms, it’s normally followed by a variation of “andante calmo,” literally “walking calmly.” Having manifested traits of the characters by slowing to a reasonable, manageable tempo, the piece now assumes and maintains a pace that allows the story to unfold.
The early weeks of Lent likewise assume we have hit our stride, that our pre-lenten instruction has adequately prepared us to adopt a certain rhythm, especially of prayer and fasting. And whereas Forgiveness Sunday Vespers directs us to “begin the fast with joy,” our now “walking calmly” includes “allegretto” as well—a tinge of joyfulness.
By the third week of Lent, when the precious Cross of Our Lord is planted in our midst, our musical score is marked “poco a poco accelerando”—to accelerate, to pick up the pace little by little, not just for the thrill of speed but because our desired destination is slowly coming into view.
When the music accelerates, it’s taking you somewhere; there’s a “crescendo”—a “growing”—to emphasize an imminent crucial point of the story it seeks to tell. Crescendo is a movement toward a point that prepares the audience to experience and embrace the climax of the story, with voices and orchestra collectively manifesting their individual talents at optimal levels to “bring the story home.” Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, only to call him to come forth after four days represents, at least to me, a great crescendo!
Each day of Holy Week represents “a symphony within the symphony.” Like acts of a play, each building upon the one before, they’d be musically-marked “presto;” literally meaning “very fast,” but more appropriately “ready.” Everything to this point of the symphony has been preparing the audience not merely to passively observe, but “enter into” the story’s summit. All the variations in tempo, dynamics and mood; the array of sounds produced by combinations of instruments and voices; the musicians fully offering themselves in sacrificial service to achieve the desired end-result—all resources have been brought to bear and now stand ready to deliver “the message;” to the experience of its zenith.
There are many musical terms to be considered in reference to Great and Holy Pascha. My choice would be “vivace”—“vivacious”—joyously unrestrained, enthusiastic, exuberant, lively! That’s a pretty good word to describe our celebration of the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! If after progressing through the various stages, movements and elements of the score you arrive at the end and cannot muster some serious “vivace” at the proclamation of “Christ is Risen,” you just haven’t been listening at all.
The world continues its insanity at a frantic pace, with no storyline, truth, morality or particular destination in mind. So many threatening and horrific events occurring these days are merely the latest, tragic reminders of the frailty and fallenness of the world. But the symphony of Lent draws us into the premier masterpiece of God’s mission “for the life of the world and its salvation.”