Month: March 2012

The Annunciation and the Absence of God

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Annunciation of the Theotokos, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who was the Orthodox Church of Russia’s bishop in London from 1957 to 2003, in the opening paragraphs of his book Beginning to Pray, directly addresses what is perhaps the most central struggle and disappointment of anyone who has ever even begun to contemplate whether there is a God or gods—namely, the absence of God. His book is about what its title suggests, beginning to pray, and he writes the following:

At the outset there is, then, one very important problem: the situation of one for whom God seems to be absent. This is what I would like to speak about now. Obviously I am not speaking of a real absence—God is never really absent—but of the sense of absence which we have. We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply. We turn in all directions and He is not to be found (pp. 25-26).

Is this not so for each of us who have ever wondered whether there is indeed a God? Such a question comes into the hearts even of those who have believed for their whole lives that God is real and that He loves us. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, or perhaps in the midst of some nightmare of suffering that seems to have no meaning, as Metropolitan Anthony says, “We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply.”

In some ways, this sense of God’s absence, that we are missing Him—which is not quite the same as simply having no sense of His presence—is a peculiarly modern problem. You see, as one looks at the history of mankind on this Earth, there is hardly a question to anyone almost anywhere at any time that there is some God or gods, “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Gods and demons and sprites and elves and faeries and spirits—all of these things were quite real to our forebears. They knew for certain not merely that they “believed in” such things, but that they had real evidence for their existence, that they interacted with them, that they were a normal, everyday part of life.

I mention all this because our thoughts turn today to one of the greatest of the feasts of the Christian year, the Annunciation—that moment when the invisible, immaterial God becomes incarnate as a human person in the womb of the Virgin Mary, at the announcement of the Archangel Gabriel and which we confess in our Creed. So why is former generations’ sense of the reality of the divine relevant to this feast? It is because the world into which God chose to become incarnate was not one that didn’t think He was “out there.”

The Jewish context of Jesus’ conception was one that very much believed that there was a God. Likewise, even the intellectuals among the Greeks and Romans who surrounded the Jews had basically settled on monotheism by then, despite the continuance of polytheism in the broader culture. But what they all had in common was the idea that God was “above” us, that He was “beyond” this world, that the created order was something too low, too dirty and unworthy of the divine presence.

From this image of the ancient world, we can see that, even if Jesus was not born into a world of atheists and skeptics, He was nevertheless conceived at a time when the idea of God being conceived was utterly unthinkable. What happens at the Annunciation was utter foolishness to both the Jew and the Greek. For the Jew, God would never become a man, and for the Greek and other Gentiles, God would not only not become a man, He certainly wouldn’t become a Jewish man! In the eyes of the citizens of Rome, the Jews were a subjugated people, not remotely worthy of such a divine manifestation.

But nevertheless, the true revolution began at that moment, the only real revolution that this world has ever seen. And if the coming of God as a material being into this world was an unbelievable and shocking claim to the first century, it is perhaps all the more shocking now. The revolution continues, because in our own time, our sense of things like metaphysics and religion and philosophy have all simply expanded upon that sense present in the first century. If, for them, God was forever apart from this material world, properly high in His Heaven, then for us, God has left this material world, never to return—if He was ever here in the first place.

Whatever the case, whatever our sense of separation and alienation from God, the feast of the Annunciation has arrived once again, for the unthinkable has happened: God has become man. He was and remains incarnate, a term that has its origins in the Latin word for “meat.” God became meat; He became flesh. He became visible and material—touchable. The separation is over.

In our loss and disappointment and separation, God Himself chose to overcome the divide between us so that we might encounter Him. The Greek word for this feast is Evangelismos, literally meaning the giving of the good news, closely related to Evangelion, the word for “the Gospel.” And yet, somehow, even 2,000 years after the proclamation of this good news began, people still remain separated from God. Why is this?

If you ever happen to be present at mealtime at my house, you may hear the voices of small people making various requests, whether it is for papa’s doughnut, to be released from the high chair, to be exempted from what everyone else is eating, and so forth. Much like your home, no doubt, whether and how those requests are answered depends very much on the manner in which the request is made. The same holds true for so much in life—if we want something, we have to know how to ask for it or perhaps how to look for it. The same is very much true for the presence of God Almighty. We cannot simply turn around in a circle, announce that we have not seen God, and thus declare Him not to exist.

As he continues his book Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony addresses this question, as well. So often, when we desire for God to make an appearance, it is because we want something from Him. We usually have little sense of developing an actual mutual relationship when we lay out our expectations of God. We may ask respectfully, but if all we ever do with God is to make claims on His providence, are we really seeking to overcome that separation, that absence?

We may complain that God does not answer our prayers, that He does not come running when we call, but, as Metropolitan Anthony writes,

If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him. We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer ‘I am busy, I am sorry’ or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is (p. 26).

The Lord God Almighty, the Creator of the universe Himself, has stepped into our world, our time, onto our planet, into our humanity, by being conceived of the Holy Spirit all those many centuries ago. He entered into human experience in that most intimate, secret and sacred of human places—the womb of a virgin. That is the kind of closeness and intimacy that He desires with us.

But we must also remember that while God is both giving and faithful (not to mention, relentless!), He is also free. He is free not to show up when we call. The gift that He offers us is not really about merely “going to Heaven when we die” or even about doing helpful stuff for us in this life, like curing diseases or easing our financial problems. Rather, what He offers is Himself. That is how He defined eternal life, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

Metropolitan Anthony puts it this way: “…we should be aware that He cannot come to us [when] we are not there to receive Him. We want something from Him, not Him at all. Is that a relationship? Do we behave that way with our friends? Do we aim at what friendship can give us or is it the friend whom we love? Is this true with regard to the Lord?” (p. 29).

This is the Annunciation. God has come to you by becoming a human person like you, and He has come to you precisely for you, not for anything He can get from you. That is how you know His love is true. He needs nothing from you. He is here because it’s you. Are you here because it’s Him?

To the incarnate Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Evangelicals at the Eucharist

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The Parakatathiki ("Charge"), when the Eucharist is placed in the hands of a newly-ordained priest by the bishop, and he is charged by him to guard it until the Second Coming of Christ. This picture is from my own ordination.
I was fascinated today to run across this call to the Eucharist, written from a Reformed perspective, by Peter J. Leithart, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and an eminent Evangelical theologian. (Seeing this, along with my recent posts on Evangelicals observing Lent, I’ve decided to create a new category for posts on this weblog: Evangelical Appropriation of Tradition.)

This is a fascinating self-criticism from within Evangelicalism, but I have to admit that after I got to the end, I had hoped there would be more to it. There is something very much missing from this, and as I attempted to remember how I would have read this as I would have as an Evangelical sixteen or so years ago, it came to me. There must be Evangelicals who read this piece and are thinking: Why?

The argument that Leithart makes here for Evangelicals to put the Eucharist at the center of their worship is really pretty weak: It helps Christians to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, well, we can remember such things in other ways, can’t we? If it’s really just about remembering, why should we have to break out the wafers and grape juice all the time? (And, you know, we have to vacuum the carpet afterward.) What does all that ritual actually do, anyway?

Mind you, I think Leithart is actually right about all the criticisms he levels at the results of a de-liturgized worship life. There can be no Church without the Eucharist. Christians are politically vulnerable without the Eucharist. Christian life is reduced to fads and programmes without the Eucharist; or, in the words of Fr. John S. Romanides, “When theology is false, then Christianity is reduced to activities.”

But, why? Why is a de-liturgized worship so vulnerable to all these distortions? Why do Evangelicals largely not see the point in the Eucharist?

It is because the Evangelical Eucharist is, to use Leithart’s term, merely a Sign. If it’s really just a reminder—a sign—then once I feel like I’ve gotten my memory in order, I don’t need the reminder any more. (And let’s not forget that doing communion all the time looks suspiciously Catholic.)

But now, if the Eucharist is actually real, if it’s actually what Jesus said it is, “food indeed” and “drink indeed,” if eating and drinking it actually put life into you, if it’s really so serious that you could get sick or die if you partake unworthily—well, that’s something else. When you’re given the opportunity to eat and drink God, then of course you will put that at the center of your worship.

And when that Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of God Himself, then there is no way you could ever stand to surround the act of communion with anything remotely faddish (if you do, it will clearly be a blasphemy). Eating and drinking God requires a dignity and power and reverence that are entirely beyond whiting out the lyrics of the latest Lady Gaga song to be replaced by what a friend of mine calls “Jesus is my girlfriend” music. There’s a reason why, when most of us picture Heaven (including the Biblical writers), we do not think of a pop concert.

And if you are eating and drinking God, and that’s putting life into you, then you are going to be granted, quite frankly, an otherworldly power that will not only make the unity of the Church utterly critical (not to mention, obvious), but you will also not be beholden to the temporal, transient temptations of this world, whether political or in other cultural ways.

In traditional Christian theology, the Eucharist creates an extension of the very incarnation of Christ. But in the Evangelical theological world, where associating physical matter with holiness is just idolatry, then you are creating an incarnational no-man’s land where holiness cannot touch. But you still have to live there, so you fill it up with programmes and politics, not to mention emotion and intellect.

A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.

Leithart also speaks of the priesthood of all believers (and, indeed, the Orthodox believe in that, too), but what is the point of a priesthood who really aren’t offering up any real sacrifice? A priesthood of “signs” is really just a priesthood of pretense, of pretending. No one puts on costly vestments and takes up golden vessels if he believes that what he places into them is just a symbol of something that’s not really there. (Well, some do, but eventually, their theological descendents always eventually start to put those things off, because they just don’t see the point any more.)

The problem with Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to come back to the Eucharist is that he doesn’t give them any overriding, compelling, positive reason to do so. His negative reasons are good, but theology has to have its own inner purpose beyond preventing or addressing dysfunction. The Eucharist’s purpose is not to hold back these distorting tendencies he identifies so concisely. Rather, its purpose is for those who receive it to become partakers of the divine nature.

And when you’re doing that, well, that changes everything.

Update: A friend points out this piece which examines all these issues in terms of their Augustinian theological background from an Evangelical (but apparently non-Zwinglian) perspective. He also rightly points out that Leithart himself probably would not embrace the fully Zwinglian “pure sign” sacramental theology I make reference to above. But of course Zwingli’s ideas about the sacraments are the context for almost all Evangelicals, and Calvin’s Eucharistic theology (from which Leithart is drawing) has its weaknesses precisely for the reasons outlined in the post on Augustine’s sacramentology.

Another point well-made by my friend is that the real reason why there is not likely to be any sort of Eucharistic revival among Evangelicals is that they really have no actual priesthood. It’s not something that can simply be started up by people who read some books. If you have no connection to the ancient traditions of Christian priesthood, what would actually make you think that the prayers of your newly-created priesthood actually would be the means by which God transforms bread and wine into body and blood? Ultimately, the various elements of tradition that are being appropriated here by some Evangelicals will necessarily be distorted, because they have been removed from the context of the tradition that gives them their power and meaning.

Things to Listen to

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It is Lent, and therefore many things have been happening. We hardly get much of a chance to catch our breath during Lent (despite a number of us being quite full of hot air). Somehow, though, in the midst of all this, there has been some recording going on here, and of course there are bits that have been recorded that had not been previously published. Thus, I thought I might give something of a recap of stuff that’s been released recently that you may have missed, as well as some items that are newly online.

A few weeks ago, St. Paul’s here in Emmaus (my church) hosted Richard Barrett to give a couple of talks for a retreat on Orthodox church music. (On his weblog, he recently reflected on his visit to Emmaus, among other places.) Here are the two titles, along with brief descriptions:

  • Psalterion as pulpit: The privilege, craft, and discipline of Orthodox liturgical song: The Byzantine rite provides a unique opportunity for the church singer to preach the Orthodox Christian faith in its fullness. In this talk, the practical and spiritual implications for the cantor and choir director are discussed, exploring how liturgical music is a responsibility to be honored, a skill to be learned, and a calling to be respected.
  • Mingling Prophecy With Melody: The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Music: St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great both describe music as the sweetener that God has given us so that we will want to worship Him. How does music work in that way? What do we sing, who sings it, and why? How does Orthodox liturgical music "set the tone" for our worship? This talk discusses some fundamental musical concepts and explores how they interact with our liturgy and our faith.

These talks were both well received, and they even include a bit of singing. My contribution to them was mainly the introduction at the beginning, though I do hum a bit of ison at certain points.

Something you probably saw (but I think is worth highlighting again) is my hour-long, airport parking lot interview with General Hospital actor and musician Jonathan Jackson, who is a catechumen (along with his wife and children) in the Orthodox Church, in the process of converting to the faith. The Jacksons are slated to be baptized this coming Holy Saturday (April 14, by the Orthodox reckoning). Here’s the chat:

Jonathan and I have stayed in touch in the weeks following the interview, and I’ve found him to be a remarkably earnest, thoughtful man. We’ve shared bits of writing with each other, including him offering some insightful comments on the manuscript I have in production (tentatively entitled An Introduction to God: Encountering Orthodox Christianity). He’s also shared some of his music with me, which I now recommend—it’s also earnest and thoughtful and not at all a mere “side project” for someone who’s otherwise got his career elsewhere engaged.

Finally, the newest release is the completion of a talk that is the last in my Meeting the World series. This one is a broadside against pietism in Orthodoxy. Here’s both parts:

  • Doctrine Matters: Why Orthodoxy Isn’t Just Orthopraxy: Part 1, Part 2.

At the beginning of the second part, I apply the naval cannons to that famous saying attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” For those interested in some other comments on pietism, take a listen to “Giving Up Something” for Lent (original weblog post here).

All this stuff is edited and produced by the fine folks at Ancient Faith Radio, to whom I am ever in debt.

Una Sancta: Fundamentalism, Ecumenism and the One True Church

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Una and the Lion, from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (Briton Rivière)

I believe that the church in which I was baptized and brought up ‘is’ in very truth ‘the Church’, i.e. ‘the true’ Church and the ‘only’ true Church . . . I am therefore compelled to regard all other Christian churches as deficient, and in many cases can identify these deficiencies accurately enough. Therefore, for me, Christian reunion is simply universal conversion to Orthodoxy. I have no confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs solely to the ‘Una Sancta’.

- Fr. Georges Florovsky, “Confessional Loyalty in the Ecumenical Movement”

A number of times in my life, especially since I have been ordained, and even moreso since I began writing and speaking publicly, it has been suggested to me (usually second- or third-hand) that I am some kind of fundamentalist—meaning not merely someone who holds to fundamentals, i.e., orthodoxy, but rather someone who is an intolerant militant.

Likewise, it has also been suggested to me (again, usually indirectly) that I am some kind of ecumenist—and here is meant not merely someone who will bother talking with other confessions and religions, but who will compromise with them on the truth.

I sometimes wish I could get these two groups of people together to let them have it out, and perhaps then I might know which sort of extremism best suits me by virtue of deciding who among these partisans I find most sympathetic. I suspect I will never get my wish, however.

Nevertheless, I believe it is the responsibility of any gentleman who aspires to integrity to take the words of his critics to heart, if only to remember why he does not agree with them. Also, I believe the issue of where exactly an Orthodox Christian ought to draw the line in these questions is very much something worth reflecting on. (I have written on this before, mind you, but that has never stopped me from doing so again.)

Suffice it to say, I do not believe that either fundamentalism or ecumenism (each as defined above) is befitting an Orthodox Christian, the first because it is a sin against love and the second because, well, it is a sin against love.

That fundamentalism is a sin against love is evident to all but the fundamentalist himself. This attitude, that it is I who possess the truth in and of myself, that it is I who am right, is fundamentally an error. Orthodoxy is not a measure by which people are judged to be correct or in error. Orthodoxy, because it is the truth, is actually Jesus Christ. Jesus said that He is the truth, and so we Orthodox rightly affirm that the truth is not a set of concepts which one can get right or wrong, but that the truth is a Person. Therefore, the one who is truly in union with that Person cannot be a fundamentalist, because he will have transcended worldly categories of rational correctness. He also cannot be militant, because the One with Whom he is in union is pure gentleness and respects the free will of mankind, having granted it Himself in the first place.

Ecumenism is likewise a sin against love, and, again, that is news to the ecumenist. He probably thinks he is acting in the interests of love, setting aside all that pesky dogma that divides and does not unite. But love does not lie, not even to spare the feelings of the beloved. And ecumenism is fundamentally based on the lie that there is no truth, that there are only “truths,” whose meaning never touches mankind such that he becomes responsible to something beyond himself. Rather, these “truths” are put in service to mankind.

Both fundamentalism and ecumenism (again, I stress: as defined above) are in their essence not remotely Christian. Why? It is because their purpose is always born of and directed toward this world. The fundamentalist serves worldly logic, always demanding correctness, while the ecumenist also serves another worldly logic, demanding instead social aims such as “justice” (defined typically in purely material terms) or “unity” (again, in material terms, not in terms of uniting with the one Christ). Neither fundamentalism nor ecumenism are actually about the truth, because they are about mere concepts (often about the truth), not about the Person Jesus Christ (Who is the truth).

Orthodoxy’s telos has always been directed away from this world, toward the Person Who is Truth Himself. That is why, as per Florovsky’s quote above, an Orthodox Christian must believe in only one Church, the Una Sancta (“One Holy,” from the Nicene Creed). Why? Because we believe in the whole Christ, according to the phrase of St. Augustine that Florovsky himself loved, totus Christus, caput et corpus (“the whole Christ, head and body”). Christ cannot be divided, and so there cannot be many churches. There can be only one Church.

Believing this and defending this to those who would deny it does not make one a fundamentalist. Why? It is because the uniqueness of Christ, which is the uniqueness of the Church, is not any human achievement. It is nothing for which I can take any credit. It is only something to which I can attempt to adhere. By my sins, I frequently separate myself from the Church, and it is only at the eschaton, the end of all things, when it will be known whether I will be fully and permanently joined with Christ.

Admitting that I am a sinner and do not understand the truth fully also does not make one an ecumenist. Why? Because God actually did reveal the truth, and He revealed that He is the truth. We cannot compromise on the nature of the truth—Who is a Person—any more than we can compromise on any other person’s nature. We can argue and issue agreed statements and overlook various points of doctrine all we want, but none of that will change the nature of Christ. He is Who He is. Working out a “confession” to which one must be loyal or to which disparate parties can agree is ultimately irrelevant to the reality, as though some “version” of Christianity could be found to be sufficient. The task of the Christian is not to discover the truth (or worse, “my” truth) so that it can be publicized to mankind but to be responsible to what was actually revealed to mankind. There is discovery to be made, but the discovery is how I may further conform myself to the revelation, not the revelation to me.

Yes, I believe that the Orthodox Church truly is the only Church. Seeing what I have seen, how can I believe otherwise? And I also wonder, how can anyone else who holds to some faith believe otherwise concerning his own faith? If what you believe is not truly the truth, why do you believe it? How is it worth your dignity and your loyalty if it is not the truth? Nothing is worthy of the name truth that does not call humanity to its knees in repentance to be transformed into what is higher and nobler.

What makes belief in the Una Sancta something that cannot be used as a weapon against others, something that cannot be turned into a fundamentalism, is that none of us truly knows whether he will finally be found in the Church at the end of time. The Church is not mine. The question is really whether I am the Church’s.

Likewise, the Una Sancta cannot be turned into a project of ecumenism, because the Church is truly the Body of Christ, the corpus of the totus Christus, and there is no amount of word-wrangling that will change the God-man Jesus Christ. In the end we must stand (in the words of the great Akathist of Romanos) “as mute as fish” before this mystery of incarnation.

Let us pray that in the end we will be found not to have neglected so great a salvation.

Update: For the sake of clarity, I thought I should make explicit that the definitions of fundamentalism and ecumenism used above are not my own, nor do I prefer them. To me, both words are almost entirely evacuated of any real meaning these days. I will, however, proffer my (observed) definition for fundamentalist as found in the wider culture:

fundamentalist, n. Anyone who is more serious about religion than I am, especially if he owns a gun.

On the Altar of the Cross

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The Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai, Lithuania
Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In today’s reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, we read his further elaboration of the dominant theme of the work, namely, the priesthood of Christ. The book, being written to the Hebrew people, that is, to the Jews, is at pains to express to them that the ancient priesthood of the Jewish faith, which offered up sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, was now being fulfilled in Christ.

Jesus, in His coming to Earth, had instituted a new order of priests, not one descended from Moses’ brother Aaron and the Jewish Tribe of Levi, as the old priesthood had been, but rather a priesthood that is not defined by fleshly descent, but by spiritual participation in Christ. And this meditation on the priesthood is what is brought before us in Orthodox tradition as appropriate to hear on this, the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross.

It is no secret that the central dynamic of true Christian life is one that is bizarre and unattractive to this world—crucifixion. Not only is the Christian Church the only religion in the world whose defining moment is the martyrdom of God, but we also make the unpopular appeal to those who would follow after Christ to come and be crucified with Him. If we are going to be identified with Christ, then we must be martyred with Christ, whether literally through physical death on account of our faith or in a more metaphorical sense through life-long death to the passions and foolishness of this world.

The Lord Himself says this in today’s Gospel: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” That’s the Christian life: Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. Follow His life. Follow His actions. Do what He did. Deny yourself. Be crucified. Do that, and you are a Christian.

Well, to be honest, that doesn’t sound so nice. We’re not interested in denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. We’d prefer to indulge ourselves and take up, well, just about anything but a cross. Take up golfing. Take up fancy restaurants. Take up collecting stamps. Take up expensive cars and houses. Take up video games. No cross, please, thanks.

So that leaves us the question as to why anyone would actually choose to be a Christian. A life of self-denial? Of crucifixion? Really?

In the face of these very clear words from Christ, to understand why anyone would actually want to live as a true Christian, and not merely as a Christian in name only, we have to understand what motivates people. There are many things in human life for which people will practice self-denial and even choose a very difficult way of living. Someone may strive arduously to be an excellent athlete, with all the training, sacrifice, change in diet, and rearrangement of schedule that requires. Someone may consistently and carefully woo someone for marriage, caring and serving, embarrassing themselves with romantic gestures, changing jobs, friends or place of residence. Someone may also go through the rigors of boot camp or basic training and enter into the separation from family, danger and risk that are required in order to be in the military. Or they may do whatever it takes to have and to raise children.

There are many difficult things that we as human beings will do in order to gain something more important, in order to serve an ideal or to achieve a goal that we regard as being higher and better than what we could have gained from the things we give up, from the self-denial and even pain we endure. In all of these things, we have to have a clear sense of what the goal actually is, that it is actually worth the struggle and pain. In the context of meditating today on the Cross of Christ, in the words we hear from Paul he explains to us what this is.

Christ’s offering on the cross is not as a victim. He was not involuntarily crucified. He was not overcome by His creatures and put to death, as though He never had any say in the matter. The whole thing was voluntary. No, it was not His own hand that killed Him—He did not commit suicide. But He could have stopped it at any point. So it was by His will that the crucifixion happened. Therefore, this act is an act of deliberate sacrifice. And if it is a sacrifice, then there must be a sacrificer. And what is a sacrificer? That is a priest.

Remember, the Epistle to the Hebrews is about the priesthood of Christ. And today’s reading is precisely about Christ as our great High Priest, the One Who offers up sacrifices on behalf of the people. Paul says here that He is “taken from among the people, is appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God, that He may offer up both gifts and sacrifices for sins; Who can have compassion on the ignorant and on those who are erring, since He Himself also is encompassed with infirmity.”

Jesus Christ is one of us, “taken from among the people.” But we could say that He is also “taken” from God, since He is God. He is the only being in existence Who can identify with both God and man, because He is both God and man. It is this God-man, this High Priest, Who offers up the ultimate and final sacrifice on the cross. That is the altar on which His sacrifice is given, and it is there that we join with Him, if we also take up our crosses and live in self-denial. It is there that we, too, become priests, participating in the one priesthood of Christ.

So why would we want to do that? What’s the point in also becoming sacrificers and, indeed, becoming the sacrificed? Why would we want to deny ourselves and take up our crosses? Jesus explains this to us in the Gospel: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

On its face, the words of the God-man, the High Priest, clearly indicate that our eternal salvation depends on being crucified ourselves. If we are ashamed of Christ and will not truly follow Him, then He will be ashamed of us when He comes in His glory at the end of time. In stark terms, we risk eternity in Hell if we do not take up the cross.

But there is also something else going on here: We lose our lives in order to save them. What does this mean? It is part of the nature of sacrifice. When something is truly sacrificed to God, it is not traded to Him. It is not merely “given up.” That is not what sacrifice is. Sacrifice is rather to offer something to God, upon which He takes it and transforms it by His touch, and then He offers it back, now changed, made holy and transformed.

So that means that being sacrificed, living a life of self-denial and crucifixion, is not merely the door to eternity in Heaven, though it certainly is that. That’s what Christ said. It’s also the key to becoming something more than we are, to becoming truly holy, truly human—that is, becoming what God created us to be. He made us to be saints. The pursuit of being a saint is the only thing that will last into eternity, but even more than that, it is the only thing truly worth man’s time and struggle. It is the only thing truly worth giving your heart to unreservedly.

Don’t you yearn to be something higher, something nobler? Don’t you long for glory? Doesn’t your heart burn within you not just to know about what is good, what is holy, what is filled with light and perfection, but actually to participate in it? Don’t you want, in the midst of this broken, fallen, darkened world, to see wholeness, beauty and light?

Come, then, deny yourself and be crucified with Christ. Take up this glorious struggle, this holy fight, this noblest and best of all human callings. He has called us all to be a holy people, a nation of priests. If we follow the way of the Cross, we will know true glory and power and joy for all eternity.

To the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

A Man Fully Alive

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The Transfiguration of Christ
Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Every single person, whether a man, a woman, or a child, has been given by God a deep, primal longing for Him.

We generally go through our days thinking of our desires for other things: I want breakfast. I want to sleep. I want to feel loved. I want some coffee. I want to get through this day. I want to finish this project. I want to buy a house. I want a car that won’t break down. I want to find someone who loves me. I want to be somebody. I want to make a difference. I want to get out of this traffic. I don’t want to die.

But if we really start to think about any one of our desires—pick one, any one—then we will find that they are fundamentally a desire for life. The desire for food is an obvious one, just like the desire not to die. But even our desires for possessions are about desiring life—we think they will help us feel alive, or at least that they won’t get in the way. A car that breaks down restricts my life, but a good car will get me there. Even the desire for accomplishment or love are about our desire for life.

But what is life, anyway? Is it simply to be animated, to be breathing and having our hearts beat rather than to be stilled and lying in a grave? Is it getting everything we want? Is it to “be all you can be”? Is it having a big list of accomplishments? Is it feeling safe, comfortable and secure? Is it even feeling content?

Those things are not life, but they do all point to what life really is.

Let’s think back to that moment when God created mankind: At one point, God took dirt from the earth and fashioned it into a man, into Adam. But Adam did not have life until God did something more than just shaping him. Adam became a living soul when God breathed into him the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). And what is the “breath of life”? It is nothing less than the very presence of God Himself. From the beginning, we were made to breathe God.

So why do we have this longing, this ache for life? Why do we always seem to want more? Why are we driven?
The reason why this desire for life is so driven and can even feel desperate at times is because of what Adam did with this greatest of all gifts given to creation. Yes, it says nowhere in Scripture that when God made animals or plants or rocks or even stars and planets that He breathed into them the breath of life. Only man received the breath of God Himself. So what did Adam do? When he sinned, we could say that in some sense, he exhaled God. He expelled the breath of life.

That is not to say, of course, that he succeeded in getting rid of God entirely from himself. God, in His mercy, remained within Adam enough to continue to keep him essentially alive, moving, thinking, feeling and exercising free will. But all of those functions came to be impaired, and Adam began to die. He also began to sin even more, because his free will had become distorted.

And therefore began the hunger, a hunger that has now lasted for millennia, a hunger that consumes our entire race. We hunger to regain the life that is the breath of God. Life—real life—is actually God. We call Him the “Giver of Life,” and what He gives is Himself, His actual presence. If you have life at all, even incompletely, then you have God within you.

And all of this is why we celebrate the man whom we remember today, on the Second Sunday of Great Lent. This man is called St. Gregory Palamas, and he was the archbishop of Thessalonica in Greece for a number of years in the 14th century, right around the same time that Geoffrey Chaucer was born, the man who wrote The Canterbury Tales.

But before he became an archbishop, Gregory was a monk on the holy mountain of Athos. During his time there and also when he later became an archbishop, Gregory was involved in a controversy that cut straight to the heart of this longing for life that all of us who are sons and daughters of Adam share.

At that time, there was a certain heretic named Barlaam, who was from the southern part of Italy, which was Greek-speaking at the time. Barlaam made the claim that the highest possible knowledge of God that anyone could have was through the mind, that the philosophers knew God better than the prophets and even the apostles.

Gregory answered that the human mind, while a great gift from God, was not actually capable of the kind of intimate knowledge and communion that Adam had received from God, that there was something much deeper, that the Christian could actually know God and see Him with the heart, as a light shining in. And indeed, sometimes this heart knowledge of God was so powerful and so pervasive that some people were actually seeing the light of God with their physical eyes.

Isn’t that why we’re here? Don’t we want to see God? Aren’t we here not just to learn about God with our minds, but truly to know Him with our hearts?

If I just study God but never really come to know Him—that is, if I know about Him, but don’t know Him—then am I really experiencing that breath of life? Am I truly alive?

Another of our saints, who lived quite early on in the Church’s life, in the second century in what is now France—Irenaeus of Lyons—wrote that “the glory of God is a man fully alive.” And with that saying, all of the pieces fit together. God’s breath, God’s life, God’s light—these are our experience of God’s glory. When God’s glory truly shines into a man or woman or child, then that person becomes fully alive, because God’s glory is God.

That is what life is, brothers and sisters—it is to have an intimate, personal experience of God’s glory, of God. All the other things we call “life” are really just reminders of our loss of that one thing needful—the glorious, life-giving breath of God.

That’s what salvation is. That’s what the Church is. That’s what Christian life is. That’s what human life is. It is a struggle to overcome our distorted wills, our distorted desires, so that we return to that perfect moment when the Holy Trinity breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, that moment when the communion with the Creator was perfect.

So how do we do that? In the epistle reading for today, Paul asks us, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” He by no means assumes that you can come here, fulfill a summary “obligation,” and then can say, “Yes, I’ve got the breath of God back.” Salvation is something that can be neglected, and if neglected, we will not escape all that the loss of the life given to Adam really entails—spiritual death, eternal death. Not ceasing to exist—no, for we will all exist forever—but an eternal existence of continual dying, decay and distortion.

But St. Gregory Palamas gives us the key. He earnestly taught that ordinary people, just like you and me, could see the divine light of God, could breathe the breath of God once more, if they will truly give themselves to prayer, to fasting, to worship, to good works, to humility, to real change, to becoming the kind of people concerning whom others can truly say, “Here is one in whom God lives, in whom God breathes. Here is one in whom I see God’s glory.” Are you such a one?

The glory of God is a man fully alive.

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Superior Vegetarian Chili Recipe (hyper-annotated)

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Rejoice, nerds and ascetics alike (and you know who you are), for your humble servant, the Irrev. Fr. Andrew, is passing on to you in tradition this, the recipe for the finest vegetarian chili you will ever eat. (If it is not, then that means you’re doing it wrong.)

This recipe originally started with a certain Mr. Gorski with whom I shared living space years ago, but in my vanity and wanton abandon, I took it upon myself to experiment with making it without any meat. And lo! there was an angelic-esque visitation, placing upon me not the monastic schema (for such a thing would never fit me, anyhow), but rather this recipe for perfect nourishment without the flesh of animals.

The annotation is for the nerds.

Superior Chili (vegetarian, hyper-annotated version)[1]


6 cans (12 cups) of beans (black, red or pinto, or a combination), soaked or at least somewhat cooked[2]
3 bay leaves
6 tbsp paprika[3]
2 medium sized dried peppers, ground[4]
1 tsp cayenne or other ground hot pepper
6 tbsp cumin
6 tbsp oregano[5]
4-6 medium onions
4 big-sized fresh hot peppers[6]
6 cans (12 cups) of tomatoes[7]
1 bulb of garlic, peeled and smashed[8]
vegetable oil[9]
splash of red wine (optional)

Preparation time: about 45-60 minutes

Cooking time: 3-5 hours

Put the beans in a big stock pot (as big as you got; no, bigger), under about an inch of water, along with the bay leaves. Bring the pot to a boil, and then back it off to a simmer. Now, make your chili powder.[10]

Combine the paprika with the ground dry peppers and cayenne.[11] Set aside. Heat a small pan to between medium and medium-high heat. Put in the oregano and cumin. Toast them in the pan, mixing continuously with the edge of a spatula to keep them from burning. When they start to give off a strong aroma and give off just a tiny bit of smoke, they’re done—this may be only 20-30 seconds, depending on heat, ambient humidity, etc. Add the paprika/pepper mixture, stirring for a few seconds until the whole thing is mixed up and warm. Remove from heat and set aside. This is the chili powder.

Chop up the onions and fresh peppers (exclude the seeds for milder spice level). Put some oil in a skillet and sautée the onions and peppers until the onions are translucent and the peppers are soft.

Add the peppers and onions to the big pot, being sure to include the oil, which is now full of oniony and peppery goodness. Add tomatoes. Add the chili powder. Add the garlic.[12] You may also add a splash of red wine.

Stir pot, sample, adjust spices as necessary. You may wish to add some salt, but you should probably wait until it’s more done.

Stir occasionally, letting simmer uncovered. Expect at least 3 hours of simmering time, but 4 may be better. It really depends on how much liquid you’ve got in the pot. It’s done when the thickness is what you expect chili to have.

Feeds a small army.

Various notes:

Shopping: When shopping for spices, go directly to the Mexican/Hispanic section of the grocery store first. They often have bulk paprika, oregano, and cumin available at a fraction of what you’ll pay elsewhere in the store. They may also have your dried peppers in this section. Also be sure to know your fresh peppers by name, because the clerk at the checkout line will have to call in reinforcements while trying to look up what you’re buying.

The Joys of Capsaicin: Capsaicin is the chemical which makes hot peppers hot. When a pepper is dry, capsaicin remains relatively contained, but when you cut up fresh peppers, even the mild ones like I prefer, you get it all over your hands. It’s invisible. If you’re like me, you absentmindedly touch your face often in your life. If you do this while you’re making this chili, YOU WILL FEEL PAIN. Capsaicin doesn’t just burn your tongue and make things have that nice flavor, but it also will make your skin feel like it’s glowing. It’s not too bad until you rub your eyes or (God forbid) do anything involving the inside of your nose. Avoid touching your face if at all possible, and wash your hands multiple times when you’re done. A friend of mine (an accomplished cook) recommends using latex gloves for handling the peppers.

The Spice Must Flow: This recipe is made to feed a small army. Many armies like spicy food, especially if they are composed of Indians or South Americans. American armies, however, tend to have a variety of preferences, so I recommend that unless you’re planning on just feeding Indians, South Americans, or otherwise spice-enhanced peoples, you should plan for a milder chili and make extra cayenne available for those who want it. If you accidentally overspice, don’t panic! Add more tomatoes and beans. (You can also soak a raw potato in the pot for a while. It will absorb both saltiness and spice. Don’t leave it in there.)

Meat: This recipe can handle meat, but the addition of it will magnify the spiciness. Be forewarned, and be prepared to back off on the dry peppers and cayenne. If you do put in meat, use steak. (Why settle for ground beef? This is Superior Chili.) Sear it, then throw it in the pot after everything else.

Adjust, adjust, adjust: I tend to follow this same pattern pretty much every time, but I always end up adjusting as I go. The world’s a crazy, chaotic place, and this isn’t a formula. It’s a recipe, which is a starting point, not a commandment. This recipe is what it is here because I decided to keep trying things. I eventually learned that using a bean to tomato ratio of 1:1 provides a hearty flavor even without meat. (Most chili recipes use a 2:1 ratio.)

Timing: Especially because there are so many variables that can affect the liquid level, the cooking time is going to be long and could vary. Start this around lunch time to be ready for dinner. If it gets done before dinner, put the lid on, lower the temperature even more, and let it simmer so that the flavors keep blending. Longer is better. (And this will taste even better tomorrow after it’s sat a night in the fridge.)



1. From the Rev. Andrew Stephen Damick, based on a recipe received from Mr. Christopher P. Gorski.

2. I really like using a 5:1 ratio of black to pinto. I honestly don’t know if the flavor would be as hearty if it were a majority red or pinto pot. In any event, they should already be cooked. The ones in cans are somewhat cooked, but the dry kind are most certainly not. If you use the canned kind, do not throw away the syrupy liquid but include it in the pot. If you use the dry, throw away the initial water you used to cook them. You’ll need to add more water when you put them in the pot. Dry beans are cheaper and will also tend to retain their shape better in the final product, but you also have to soak them overnight.

3. The chief export of Hungary is paprika. Support the Hungarian economy. Make more chili.

4. I like anchos, which really are simply what poblano peppers are called when dried. W hen grinding the peppers, you can use your coffee grinder, but be sure to remove the stems first. Empty out the seeds unless you like your chili extra spicy. (Clean your coffee grinder out by grinding dry rice in it, then wiping out with a cloth or paper towel.)

5. Powdered or finely ground is best, but coarse is usually cheaper. If you buy coarse, you can grind it up more finely with a coffee grinder.

6. I like to use 2 ancho/poblano peppers and 2 anaheims. If you like heat, add serranos, habaneros, and/or jalapenos.

7. Fresh really is best, but if you get canned, make sure they’re not the kind with anything added to them. We’ll season and spice our own food, thank you very much. If you use fresh, you’ll need to dice them.

8. You can mince your garlic if you like, but smashing really is better. The best method is with a mortar and pestle. A secret I learned from Palestinians is to salt the cloves before you smash them into a pulp. It brings out the garlickiness much better. Of course you don’t have to use a whole bulb, but how can you ever have too much garlic?

9. A relatively flavorless oil is best. Olive oil or other oils with their own strong character don’t usually work here, but of course your mileage may vary.

10. DO NOT pansy out and buy pre-made chili powder. This is what makes this recipe Superior. Thank my former roommate. (I will not even tell you how to use pre-made chili powder with this recipe.)

11. You may also add a little garlic powder if you wish, but really, don’t bother. You have a BULB of FRESH garlic going in later.

12. No wait, add more garlic. MORE. Make sure you scrape every tiny morsel of garlic into the pot.


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No, I'm not on all these. Sheesh. I don't even know what all of them are. (And no, don't tell me.)
If you can make any sense out of the headline for this post, You Might Be a Digital Native.

In any event, this is merely a reminder that, now with the addition of a Twitter account, I’ve completely signed on to the Great Trifecta of Social Media.

(Hm. Now the phrase social medium occurs to me, and I am left with an image of a very gregarious conductor of séances.)

You can find me now via Facebook, Google+ and (now) Twitter. Feel free to “follow” me or whatever it is you kids call it these days.

Try not to break anything, will ya?