priesthood

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.

Why I Can’t Be Your Spiritual Father: A Localist Lament

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Do you really know this man?
As I think probably happens to just about every clergyman who has some sort of media presence (even one so minor as mine), I get requests every so often from folks essentially to do the job that their local pastor should be doing.

Now, it may be that they don’t have a local pastor, perhaps because there is no Orthodox church near them, because they’re not Orthodox yet, or because they’re not committed to a particular parish. It may also be that their priest doesn’t have the time to help them, perhaps because he has a secular job, because he has health problems, because he’s lazy, because he doesn’t like them, or because the bishop has given him other responsibilities. It may also be because they don’t like their priest, because they want more from him than he has to give, because they don’t like their parish, or because they don’t want to commit to someone standing in front of them. It may also be that their priest is uneducated, that he’s overwhelmed, or even that he’s simply unaware of their problem. Maybe they’ve never even approached him.

There are probably many more reasons why people contact clergy they don’t know to try to get from them something that they aren’t getting locally.

If I already have a relationship with such a person, I may offer some advice, but ultimately, I always try to steer them toward the local church. If I don’t have a relationship with them, I may offer brief comments but typically will shy away from them. Here are some reasons why I almost always have to turn down such requests. I list them here not to talk about me, but rather as some things to think about when people are navigating the intersection of their spiritual lives in three dimensions with their virtual lives on the Internet.

    1. I don’t have the time. This is the biggest reason. I have a family and a parish I have to care for, and they require my time. If I began admitting people into my care who are not local to me, I would quickly become overwhelmed with email, phone calls, etc., that would soon destroy my ability to take care of my family and my parish. Most everyone who emails a priest out of the blue probably thinks he’s the only one to do so, but he’s usually not.

    2. I don’t know you. It’s really easy to lie over the Internet, whether intentionally or out of one’s own self-delusion. It’s also very easy to get the wrong impression about someone, because online we only present part of ourselves to our readers. It’s much harder to be fake and distorted with someone standing in front of you. Therefore, I am not qualified to give you spiritual direction over the Internet. I don’t have enough data to give informed advice.

    3. It’s draining for me. If you and I had a real spiritual relationship in person, then it could be sustainable for us both, but long-distance spiritual direction almost always is a one-way affair, and the clergyman can find himself giving and giving, and there is none of the renewal that comes of incarnate relationship. And, just to put it in stark, “earthly” terms, when you call on a clergyman outside your community to do work for you (and it is work), then you are practicing a sort of “spiritual socialism.” He is being supported spiritually and financially by another community, and you’re asking him to serve you without participating in giving to that community.

    4. I am not special. Just because someone writes a weblog or has a nice podcast or a book you liked does not make him an expert in theology, spiritual direction, etc. It also certainly does not mean that he’s holy. I’ve been given the responsibility by God for my family and by the bishop for my parish, and I try to do right by them. But I am no one special. Really. Don’t think that the clergy you see online are elite in any way. We’re not. In fact, you may want to question why a clergyman you see online all the time seems to have time for that kind of thing. Some of us are more “plugged in” than others, but that doesn’t mean we’re supermen. Some are online all the time because they have a lot of time on their hands. Others have just integrated Internet use into their work to a high degree. (See #6 below.)

    5. I do not want control of your life. I know that some people think of spiritual fatherhood in this way, and I think that’s a mistake. Even your local priest should not be treated as some sort of holy elder whose every command must be obeyed. That’s why I don’t like to use the term spiritual father to refer to myself, even for those who really are committed to my care. Confessor or simply father-confessor (or good old pastor) delineates the job more clearly. You are fundamentally responsible for your own spiritual life. The clergy are here to guide you, but they are not here to command you such that all you have to give is obedience. You’re a “rational sheep.” Use the brain God gave you. I can’t accept total responsibility for your salvation. I have a tough enough time with my own.

    6. I am not here for you. Yes, I have time to produce things that you’re seeing online, but almost all of them are simply a part of my parish ministry—I’m just doing my local job, and I happen to have a microphone and a weblog to go with it. I have them so that I can reach my own people even more effectively. If someone else can get something out of them, that’s a wonderful bonus, but that’s all it is. Now, if God puts you in my town or puts me in your town, then I will be there for you.

    7. I will not cheat your local community. If there is a genuine lacking in your local community, then instead of seeking out faraway surrogates, work to establish better community where you are. Talk to your priest, talk to your bishop, evangelize your neighbors, serve those in need—in short, do the job of bringing Christ to your place. If you instead rely on people far away and use them as stand-ins for what should be local, then you are cutting short the local hunger that makes the banquet possible. That is, if you think you’re getting via email what you should be getting locally, then you aren’t working to make it present to you locally. Don’t short-circuit the development of the Church in your community by bypassing the community. If you do not have it in you to do that sort of work where you are, then it might be a good idea to move some place where you can plug in to a healthy parish community.

    8. The priesthood is local. This is my most fundamental point. Almost everything a priest does in his priesthood requires physical presence. The sacraments, preaching, etc., are all fundamentally local acts, and even if some elements of the priest’s work can be published or broadcast, they always lose something in the transmission.

Now, there are of course many legitimate reasons why someone might be engaged in long-distance spiritual direction. The best one is probably the case of the person who physically moves away from their confessor after years of his spiritual direction. But even in that case, it’s a good idea to transition to someone local.

Most clergy are the kind of people who like to help, who may even feel a need to be helpful. And it can be flattering to have someone approach you because of your “fame” online. But, like Admiral Ackbar said, it’s a trap! (Especially if the person contacting you is an apparently attractive female. Or at least her profile pic looks that way. Remember that, on the Internet, no one is quite who they claim to be.)

Curiously, many of the dangers of online, long-distance romantic relationships essentially apply to online, long-distance spiritual direction. It’s really the problem with any virtual relationship. Man was not made to live in a non-dimensional world. He was made to live in communion, in community.

All that said, if you happen to email me, I will try to answer your email. If I do not already know you, especially if your email requires thought, my response may well be quite delayed. It’s nothing personal. Really. But maybe it’s time to go ask your own priest. Don’t have one? Here’s a place to start.

Text

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The Last Homely House, painted by J. R. R. Tolkien

Whenever I have not read The Lord of the Rings for some time, I feel as though I am a long way from home. I try (but sometimes fail) to read it annually. And yet I have all these books around that I bought but just haven’t gotten around to reading yet.

They’re good books, mind you. Being a geek who married a geek, our books bought on whims tend to be dense, hearty stuff. To my right is a Steven Runciman book on the 13th century Mediterranean (gazed upon lovingly), while G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (begun, but left off) is buried underneath some paperwork. Above me is The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (leafed through furiously), and I also appear to have a 19th century edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (never even glanced past the title page) somewhere floating about nearby. (Its chief virtue, besides being in dire need of a bookbinder, is that its prime page claims it was “done into English.” There’s a translator with gusto, I tell you.)

My educational background (B.A. in English Literature; most of a B.A. in Communication; minors in Religion, Classical Studies and Ancient Greek; M.Div. with Honors in Church History) marks me boldly as one who drowns in text. (I would say “swims,” but let’s be honest.) And yet I somehow never seem to find time to read. I’ve got too many projects going on, and reading lately is more like a sprinter chowing down on the carbs than like a cow browsing in clover. (One has to wonder which of those is really the more appealing image.)

Mind you, I look around at my books, and there really are many of them I’ve read, quite probably the majority. But these little golden volumes that I pull off the shelf but somehow haven’t read keep gnawing at me, and when the only steadily observable progress I make on anything new is the novel I read before bed, well, it’s still a little depressing.

I do console and excuse myself by thinking that I am still in recovery from seminary, which is where I learned the sprinter’s approach to reading, since everything must be eaten, digested, and then powered out in short order. Of course, continuing to exercise my “mutant power” of actually producing mounds of text in short order does nothing to adjust this problem. So perhaps this is actually some form of addiction and not really recovery at all.

There is a rehabilitation plan in the works, however, and it mainly consists of working out the balanced schedule for my writing and other educational work in the parish. Besides weekly sermons, I’ve been writing two lecture series per year, and I’ll continue to do that. I am planning on adding an ongoing adult educational class, as well, something less formal and rhetorically developed. (All this is not to mention the actual print publication project that’s in the works and slated for release in the Spring.) Once I’ve got my basic patterns in place, it should be easier to plan the workload for everything, and then that “Long term projects / Study” slot I usually have reserved for Wednesdays will finally get better used.

In the meantime, once I’ve finished the novel series I’m reading, I think I’ll go back home again for a while and hear some songs sung in the Last Homely House.

Can you then think that you are still among men?

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St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople

For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers. Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within. But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also, that “what has been made glorious has no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excels.” (2 Corinthians 3:10) For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith! Do these things seem to you fit to be despised, or such as to make it possible for any one to be uplifted against them?

Would you also learn from another miracle the exceeding sanctity of this office? Picture Elijah and the vast multitude standing around him, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones, and all the rest of the people hushed into a deep silence while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven upon the sacrifice:— these are marvellous things, charged with terror. Now then pass from this scene to the rites which are celebrated in the present day; they are not only marvellous to behold, but transcendent in terror. There stands the priest, not bringing down fire from Heaven, but the Holy Spirit: and he makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all, and render them more refulgent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awful mystery, unless he is stark mad and senseless? Or do you not know that no human soul could have endured that fire in the sacrifice, but all would have been utterly consumed, had not the assistance of God’s grace been great.

—St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, 3.4

The Voice

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Today’s saintly commemoration is the conception of John the Forerunner, known to most English speakers as John the Baptist, which is narrated for us, along with his birth, in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

A major thematic element for today is the Voice. Zachariah, not believing the archangel, is made bereft of his voice until such time as he participates in the naming of his son. Some might see in this a curiously arbitrary punishment, but for one who is a priest, as Zachariah was, losing one’s voice is no small thing. And this was not merely laryngitis, either. Zachariah could not function as a priest without his voice, and so for nine months, he is made to fast from his priestly office, and his voice is held fast and in check until his wife Elizabeth should give birth.

And then the one to whom Elizabeth gives birth is the Voice par excellence. He is the Voice crying in the wilderness, prophesied by Isaiah so many centuries before. And this Voice speaks only one Word, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the Word of God.

Yes, we may say that Zachariah was “punished” for his lack of faith when the archangel spoke to him, but may we not also look deeper? Was it not appropriate that the priesthood of the Old Covenant, the Aaronic priesthood, should fall silent at the coming of the one who introduces us to the true, fulfilled priesthood of the New Covenant? Before, there was a priesthood of the flesh, a priesthood of Levites, but now there is a priesthood into which all mankind may be initiated, the priesthood of Christ, which lasts forever, after the order of Melchizedek. Zachariah himself was ordained in this new priesthood when he named his son.

And so we too must all lift our voices with the Voice, proclaiming that same Word.