Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Message: Trusting in God

I have not recently posted on this blog; I have been quite busy dealing with various unpleasant but important affairs.   Throughout however I have grown in my understanding of one key tenet of Christianity: God will provide.  Repeatedly throughout the past year, there have been moments when I have allowed myself the sin of despair; I have slipped into despondancy and in so doing slandered my beloved Creator, who, the Scriptures promise, has given His angels charge over me, to protect me in all my ways, lest I dash my foot against a stone.

Every Christian should reflect on the manifold ways in which God has protected them throughout their life, through the intercession of the saints and the intermediation of His heavenly host of angels.   As an example of God's grace in my own life, one of the best incidents I can think of was on one occasion many years ago, when, in excruciating pain from a toothache, I inadvertently crossed a fully red light, in which traffic was already moving through the intersection in opposition to my vehicle.  A collision nearly resulted, yet through God's providence, I was able to avoid the other traffic, and was further blessed in not being cited by any policeman (I should add that to date; through God's providence, I have never been convicted of any traffic infraction; I am scrupulous about traffic safety, and the error I made on that day, distracted as it were by the explosive pain in my molar, mortified me, and is the only serious operational error I've committed, thanks be to God).

Another occasion comes to mind, also vehicular in nature, where I was struck by a hit and run driver on a freeway.   Though the damage to my car was considerable (a punctured tire, damaged suspension and smashed fender), and although the impact caused me to skid at least two lanes to the left, I miraculously did not hit any other vehicle, and was able to exit the freeway and reach the safety of a supermarket parking lot, from which I called the CHP and roadside assistance, without incident.  Well, without incident on the way there; while in the parking lot, which is in a rather nice area of North Hollywood, actually right across the street from where a friend lived, while I was on the phone with 911, I had the bizarre experience of being propositioned by a prostitute with turquoise hair.  I dispatched her swiftly; The CHP officers on arriving found this to be highly amusing.

These two incidents both occurred several years ago, and both involve extreme incidents that reflect the perils one faces just when driving one's car.  Yet they serve to demonstrate a fundamental point: we can trust God to protect us.  Yet if I had wrecked, in either case, I would still have grounds for trusting in God, because in such a case, it would be because God, in His infinite mercy, would, from my error in the former case, or the error of the other driver in the latter case, cause a greater good, through the operation of the Holy Spirit.

I am not a Calvinist; as an Orthodox, I believe that humans have free will.  However, God, being omniscient, has sure foreknowledge of our actions, and being a merciful God, who loves mankind, orchestrates events to ensure the best possible outcome for His children, that they may prevail in their struggle against the evil one, conquer the passions, and through our cooperation with the economy of salvation facilitated through the atoning sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, deliver us from evil, that we may draw ever nearer to Him.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Sunday Message: What to Pray For

This morning I heard a most excellent sermon, a rarity in the Orthodox church, where our preaching skills require improvement.   The essential point of the sermon was that we should pray for deliverance from temptations and spiritual illnesses; God grants jobs, housing, cars, and material benefits even to atheists.   God will provide for us the basic necessities of life; however, by praying for healing of our spiritual infirmities: our arrogance, cruelty, lust, intemperance, intransigence, and all vices, we can become transfigured, as was, for example, St. Moses the Black, who rose from being a murderer and adulterer to one of the great Desert Fathers.

This is a powerful message, and I was strongly reminded of the similar promise of St. Seraphim of Sarov: acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will be saved.   There is a fundamental truth for this.    In a few weeks time, we will celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, and it seems apt, in preparation for that feast, to begin to contemplate the process of personal transfiguration, that has the potential to lead us out of the depraved worldly existence, and into an exalted spiritual existence; by humbling ourselves, and admitting of our spiritual faults to God, we might obtain deliverance from them, and having obtained such deliverance, we ourselves might be transfigured.  When one looks upon the beautiful face of an elderly hierarch or monastic, one cannot help but see a certain luminous radiance emanating from them, and this alone is powerful enough to draw people to salvation in the Church.  

This essential transfiguration also provides us with the spiritual strength to endure without complaint the horrible travails imposed by the world, the ceaseless assaults of Satan, in the form of temptations or outright mocking, which those who advance in the hierarchy of the Church experience in increasing intensity (one might recall the physical violence suffered by St. Anthony at the hands of the devil); not only is the transfigured human able to withstand these assaults, but also to repel them, through serving the Church.  It is through this transfiguration that one can acquire the strength necessary for the Priesthood, or to serve in other mission fields and vocations.   Let us therefore consider how to acquire this transfiguration in our own life, by praying that our Lord might illumine us as to our own spiritual faults, that we might know what to pray for, so that as we approach the great feast, we might dare to approach that gladsome light of Tabor in our own lives.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Just what changes can be made to the liturgy?

Having addressed the first seven major criticisms levelled at the liturgy by the impious monks at New Skete in our previous posts, and also in our last post, two valid concerns, it seems fitting to look at the question of liturgical reform from another perspective.

Regarding the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, referred to within the Roman church and in general liturgical scholarship rather conveniently as the Byzantine Rite, the short answer is: none.

To be more precise, it would be a great destruction of our sacred heritage to modify the text of the existing service books in any way, to simply or reconstruct the liturgy, particularly to suit modern or ecumenical preferences and the declining personal piety of contemporary clergy.  Celebrating the liturgy in all its mystical splendour attracts congregants; watering it down alienates them.  Offering frequent services throughout the week at convenient times allows for a more full observance of the Typikon; omitting services such as midweek liturgies and Saturday vespers, and All Night Vigils, shoehorns everyone into having to make the one main Sunday Divine Liturgy, and if one cannot, for whatever reason, attend that one service, one is essentially out of luck.

This takes us to my primary point: while we cannot change the Byzantine liturgy in any way without doing damage to a priceless tradition, the grandest and most ornate of liturgies, and the one that is in many respects furthest removed from heresy and Christological controversy, we can improve the way we celebrate the existing services.   If we view the watered down approach of New Skete (aside from their commendable efforts to restore the Cathedral Typikon, the use of the Hagia Sophia before the fall of Constantinople), and the extremely abbreviated and diluted services of the OCA and the Antiochian church as the examples to avoid, and the traditional services in the great monasteries: Mount Athos, St. Catherine's in Sinai, Valaam, as the examples to aspire to, and are prepared to use some imagination in making the monastic level of liturgical service available to ordinary parishes, we can improve the manner in which the Byzantine Rite is celebrated.  Thus, we are not reforming in any way the liturgy, rather, we are reforming ourselves, by seeking to conform more closely to the Typikon, in all its splendor. 

From my perspective, improvements in the way we celebrate the liturgy could include:
  • Using the Third and Sixth Hours as the basis for a proper preaching service, with congregational singing of the appointed psalms, following a clearly annunciated, and not chanted, review of all of the daily scripture lessons, that have previously been read at Vespers, and will be read in the Divine Liturgy.   This frees up the clergy to chant the Prophecy, Epistle and Gospels in the liturgical languages (Church Slavonic, Koine Greek, Classical Georgian) without fear of comprehension.
  • Any time the parish has a long lunch following a Divine Liturgy on a Sunday, such as on a major feast day, the Ninth Hour should be celebrated.   In fact, every opportunity for parishioners to hear this most sublime office throughout the year should be taken; the monastic practice of beginning the All Night Vigils with it is most commendable, and ought to be adopted in parishes.
  • The use of beautiful green vestments should not be limited to Palm Sunday and Pentecost, but should be used on feasts of Confessors, as is presently the practice in many parishes.  Where this is not the practice, it should be made universal, so as to provide a more diverse array of color within the service.   For that matter, dark red vestments ought to be used more frequently as an alternative to black vestments, which are a late innovation; while I myself find the black vestments we use on Weekdays and in Lent beautiful, they have only been in use since 1821, and the use of dark red in alternation with black as Lent progresses would be most historically appropriate.  One might also dare to suggest that given the frequency with which red vestments are used throughout the year, during the Nativity Fast, it might not be entirely inappropriate to adopt western custom and use our beautiful purple and violet Vestments, otherwise used only in Lent.   In this manner, the variation of color in the parishes might be more evenly distributed, as well as the level of wear on specific vestments. 
  • Given the frequency with which gold vestments are used, every effort should be made to ensure that they are as elegant and beautiful as possible.  Parishes and priests ought to own multiple sets of these, in a diverse array of patterns, and rotate them to reduce wear; I have come to abhorr the dreadful sight of faded and threadbare gold vestments, which have changed to a faded and sickening yellow color, especially among deacons and in the paraments.
  • Some parishes, particularly in the Ruthenian tradition, use orange vestments as the default between the Apostle's Fast and Transfiguration; I find this an interesting custom that might deserve wider application, in parishes that can afford another set of paraments, and for priests that can afford another set of vestments.
  • The mystical character of every part of the Divine Liturgy should be intensified; priests should be encouraged to recite, as appropriate, Patristic homilies, or intone the great metrical homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist, et cetera.
  • Owing to the immense complexity of Orthos, or Matins, and the fact that it is commonly abbreviated in the same place, many people seldom or never hear certain parts of the service.  I propose that the abbreviations in Matins be done on a revolving basis, that over the course of time people may come to appreciate the service in its entirety.  Of course, this increases the demand on the choir and the clergy, but I feel its worth it, rather than the travesty of simply leaving most of the service as a theoretical liturgy that exists on paper but in practice, like the full 10 hour All Night Vigils, is never actually celebrated.
  • Urban parishes should follow the highly successful example of churches in central London and New York by offering convenient midday services to office workers throughout the week; suburban parishes should provide early morning and evening services instead.  In this manner, the neglected midweek portions of the Divine Office, and the Divine Liturgy, can be celebrated.
  • The restoration of the disused Divine Liturgies of St. James, St. Mark and St. Peter, with St. James being available as an alternative to St. Basil on Holy Saturday (given that the most visible difference between the two liturgies, the use of the hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, instead of the Cherubic Hymn, already tilts in favor of St. James, and the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem strongly suggest this was the ancient practice), St. Mark being used on the feasts of the Evangelist and other heroes of Alexandria, such as Athanasius and Cyril, and the Sundays following their feasts, and St. Peter being used during midweek services which are by nature pressed for time, owing to its shorter length.   Additionally, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil might be used in fasting seasons other than Lent.  This would have the effect of emphasizing the sublime, triumphant character of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is the finest liturgical composition known to man, and is neglected to a large extent in Orthodox parishes due to overuse; people simply take it for granted, and fail to appreciate its full beauty.   A slight reduction in its use would have the effect of illuminating its brilliant splendour as if with a giant spotlight.
  • The Violakes edition of the Typikon of the Great Church should be phased out, in favor of a return to the Typikon of St. Savas, which remains the norm in monastic settings and most of the Slavonic churches.   The Typikon of the Great Church, while a good idea in theory, was not well executed, and has attracted widespread criticism, from die-hard Old Calendarists to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.   It has many rough edges, such as the rather peculiar reading of the Matins Gospel between the Eigth and Ninth Odes, changes described by Ware as "ill-advised."  In a certain level, it could be seen as prefiguring the disastrous and divisive liturgical changes of the 20th century, such as the adoption of the equally problematic Revised Julian Calendar by a minority of Orthodox churches. 
  • Congregational singing in the Divine Liturgy is best avoided, except in communities that have the discipline and simple hymnody that makes this possible, for example, the Russian Old Ritualists. Congregational singing of the appointed Psalms and other hymns in an expanded service of the Hours, even with the accompaniement of an organ, if one exists (and I anticipate in the years to come, as mainline denominations contract, the Orthodox will acquire many fine churches equipped with majestic pipe organs), would be superb.
  • Speaking of the organ, its use in the Divine Liturgy should in general be discouraged, except for the purpose of providing a prelude and postlude; here, we might well avail ourselves of the music of Bach and other fine Western composers. Indeed, for the purpose of masking the sound of confessions, this would be vastly superior to the present use of the Third and Sixth Hours; a postlude might provide an amiable atmosphere in the nave as the congregants slowly disperse following the liturgy, creating a pleasing environment in which the Holy Icons might be venerated, and friends met, before proceeding to the Social Hall for luncheon.
  • I do not consider the Revised Julian Calendar to be a heresy; I consider the manner in which opponents of it in Greece and elsewhere to be persecuted a heresy.  Nonetheless, it is most definitely broken, resulting in an unnatural swelling of the period of time before Pascha, and an unnatural reduction of the time after; causing feasts normally celebrated in Lent to be celebrated outside of it, preventing the occurence of a Kyriopascha, and in general, causing havoc, confusion and schism.   The Finnish Orthodox Church frankly does better than any of the churches using the Revised Julian Calendar, by using the Gregorian Calendar; thus at least the liturgy flows according to its natural order, and events such as a Kyriopascha are possible.  Better yet is the retention of the Julian Calendar, as the problem of calendar drift is rather overstated, and over many many centuries, will correct itself owing to the slowing rotation of the Earth.  A number of elegant and non-disruptive mathematical schemes for preventing the celebration of Pascha in Gregorian September several hundred years in the future exist, but one is reminded of the saying by John Milton Keynes "In the long run, we are all dead."   From an Orthodox standpoint, one might reinterpret that, as considering it is best to leave this minor problem in the hands of God.   The beauty of the Julian calendar is that it separates the solemn observance of the Christian feasts from the madness of the secular holidays that have grown up around them; the crass commercialization of Christmas and Easter is thus bypassed, and a wall of separation erected between the Orthodox and the heterodox, preserving the Orthodox faith in its fullness, and providing a fine inducement for heterodox to convert, to escape the perverted madness of the "Holiday Season," and the sickening secular exploitation of the birth of our Lord.
That summarizes what I feel might be acceptable improvements to the way we celebrate the existing liturgy in the Byzantine Rite.   A few other points however should be made, in interpreting the above suggestions:
  • The implementation of such changes in praxis should only occur with the consent of the Bishop and the parishioners.   Such practices might be implemented first in newly created, mission parishes, and then be adopted by other parishes as they see fit.  Older practices should be preserved alongside.  If so much as one pious Orthodox parishioner is alienated as a result of these efforts to improve the celebration of the Byzantine Rite, the entire enterprise would be in vain.   This is my criticism of Nikon, and my criticism of the Revised Julian Calendar; in both cases, sweeping liturgical changes were forced on parishioners, using violence.  The Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church, USA, without violence, managed to suffer schisms as a result of the overly aggressive implementation of entirely novel liturgies.   Here, it must be stressed that no change is being made to the liturgy, and no changes in praxis at existing parishes will be made unless the parishioners enthusiastically agree to them.
  • Within the Orthodox Church, there exists a diversity of liturgical rites.  In addition to the Byzantine Rite, we have the reformed Western Rite, which in spite of some efforts to suppress it, continues, and must continue.   Within the Byzantine Rite, there exist at least five active variants: the Greek use, the Slavonic use, the Russian Old Rite, the Georgian use, and the Ruthenian use.   The difference in praxis between an Antiochian parish and a parish of Russian Old Ritualists might lead one to believe that a different liturgy is being celebrated; in fact, it is the same liturgy, celebrated differently.   This unity in diversity is beautiful, and adds greatly to the richness of the Byzantine liturgy.   Additionally, we have the disused Cathedral Typikon; while our prayers that this may someday be heard again at the Hagia Sophia might not be answered in our lifetime given the Islamic fundamentalism of the Erdogan regime, the use of this in at least one or two major Greek Cathedrals, as scholarship converges on an accurate reconstruction of it, would be splendid.   However, it would require many enthusiastic clergy to accomplish; the magnificence of services at the Great Church in its heydey, in some respects, exceeds that of even the grandest liturgical celebrations in the Orthodox church at present.
  • We may pray that the Oriental Orthodox and the Assyrians be persuaded to, for the sake of unity in the middle East, accept the faith of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which they appear close to doing; a union between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Coptic Church nearly happened in the early 19th century, only to be vetoed by the Khedive, following the strategy of divide and conquer.  If such a union, on the faith of the seven councils, was possible then, then it surely remains possible now.   This would entail the addition of five great liturgical rites to the Orthodox faith (the Coptic, Ethiopian, West Syriac, East Syriac and Armenian), and would be a joyous moment, more joyful perhaps than even the definitive defeat of Arianism following the Second Ecumenical Council.
In conclusion, just as I have eviscerated the most impious proposals of the monks of New Skete, I accept that some of the suggestions I have made may cause controversy.  I pray that not one of these ideas will be implemented in a manner that would cause discord, confusion or schism.  Lastly, if a truly competent authority, such as a qualified Priest or Bishop, concludes that anything that I have suggested is itself heretical, I beg to be informed of it, in all humility, that I may correct my error.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Modernist Revision of the Divine Liturgy: Part 8

This article on the WCC website, though more than a decade old, remains an accurate statement of the intentions of modernists regarding the Orthodox liturgy. The notoriously liberal monks at New Skete Monastery, formerly Catholic, but received into the notoriously liberal Orthodox Church in America (a jurisdiction whose autocephaly has never been universally recognized), corrupted by the modernist heresy so prevelant in the Roman church, manifested in the liturgical reforms in the wake of Vatican II (which, I should state, were a dreadful perversion of what Vatican II actually authorized; in terms of seeking reconciliation with the Orthodox, and in terms of the change of theological emphasis that Vatican II produced, it was, by itself, a movement in the direction of Orthodoxy), naturally want to do the same thing to the Orthodox church.

In this series of articles, I have enumerate many of their desired reforms, and then explained why these reforms are deadly, from the perspective of Confessional Orthodoxy.  This article is a bit different, in that it addresses two points which are in fact valid problems, although one cannot trust modernists such as the monks at New Skete to be able to provide meaningful solutions

Suggestion no. 8: Addressing The Preaching Deficit

"The word of God is also made present through the sermon, which is an integral part of liturgical worship. But all too often the sermon is of poor quality or simply omitted. Our churches should devote special attention to this critical need."

What should be done about this:

The splendid, mystical, ethereal atmosphere of profound holiness that dominates the Divine Liturgy is almost palpable; given that the Orthodox alone have preserved a Eucharist the reality and validity of which is beyond question, this has a distinct impact on the environment within the liturgy itself.  It has thus become challenging for even the most aggressive Orthodox priests to offer a compelling homily in the thickness of this atmosphere, fully vested and with the great spiritual presence of the Cherubim and Seraphim pressing down upon them.  The natural urge for a brief, spiritual homily in the Divine Liturgy is instinctive and should be followed; the Priest should not drone on as if he were Calvin, but rather should deliver a message that is spiritual, above the petty concerns of this world, and beyond the purely rational exploration of the faith.   Brief patristic homiles might be recited, or metrical homilies intoned.

However, the atmosphere in the Divine Liturgy itself does not abrogate the need for proper catechesis.  I propose to revitalize the languishing Sixth Hour as the forum for preaching, following the restatement of the daily scripture lessons during the Third Hour, with both hours forming one continuous service, with a 30 minute break between them for purposes of hearing confessions.   In this manner, the opportunity for longer, more intellectual sermons for the purpose of inspiring the congregation and catechizing them in the faith exists, and the Orthodox might better compete with the Protestants and better live up to the standard set by St. John Chrysostom.

Suggestion no. 9: Restoring Daily Prayer

"Other aspects of liturgical worship should not be overlooked. In 20th century Orthodox parish life, the daily office as a communal activity has been virtually abandoned. A Sunday-only church is a church deprived of much of the power of Scripture and most of the treasures of Orthodox hymnography. Our churches must explore new ways in which the discipline of daily prayer can be restored."

What should be done about this:

This is surely the most valid suggestion of the monks at New Skete, one which might be said to sincerely lack any trace of the impiety or disastrous ecumenism and modernism that characterizes the rest of their article.   By cutting back services to just a Sunday morning service, which is de rigeur in many Antiochian parishes, and is even advocated by some, we alienate those who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend the primary liturgy, and also fail to maintain our obligations to celebrate both the Divine Liturgy and the Divine Office to the fullest extent possible.   The more services a parish offers, the more opportunities it provides for laity to attend.  

The Church of England in recent years has saved many parishes in the City of London, which would otherwise be white elephants, by repurposing them as places of prayer during the lunch hour, for the tens of thousands of office workers in the Square Mile, which nowadays has a mere 900 residents.   Americans and those unfamiliar with London should note that I am not referring to Greater London, which is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but rather to what one might consider its "downtown" or "financial district," an area surrounding St. Paul's Cathedral that represented the original extent of London proper (the rest of London consisting of other boroughs such as Westminster, Kensington, Southwark, Greenwich, and Lambeth; many years in the past, these were distinct villages surrounding the City of London, but now all have been amalgated into one great city; the City proper however refers to an area of just one square mile, which once had a large residential population, but which today consists almost entirely of office space).

This idea, like black vestments and four part harmony, originated outside the Orthodox church, but is nonetheless a very good one; Orthodox parishes in urban areas can serve their congregants on weekdays by providing noontime prayer services.   I would suggest that the Divine Liturgy be celebrated on Wednesdays, Fridays, and feast days, the Typika on Mondays, and the Hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, except in Lent; if an evening service of the Presanctified is not well attended, then this is the time to do it.

In like manner, suburban congregations have already had great success providing services in the early morning, available to parishioners before work, and services in the evening, after work; this is the manner in which most midweek feasts are actually celebrated these days.

Orthodox parishes should improve their offering of recreational and family events, and couple these with weekday services.   Tired parents coming home from work, who want to spend time with their children, should be offered a strong incentive to do so in the church; Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has argued passionately that the atmosphere in the Orthodox church is, and should be, that of being at home, rather than the rigorous feeling of "soldiers on a parade ground" one encounters in Catholic parishes; to this end, let us make attending evening services as appealing as sitting on the sofa watching television, by coupling them with various forms of family friendly activity, and by providing within the nave itself comfortable seating; not obstructive pews, but movable chairs, that can be rearranged and that will not obstruct the pious who have the strength to stand, but that will allow the tired to rest, and bask in the holiness.   One should look to the church as a second home, a home away from home, and a place to escape all worldly cares, not just on Sunday morning, but every day of the week.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Modernist Revision of the Divine Liturgy, Part 7

This article on the WCC website, though more than a decade old, remains an accurate statement of the intentions of modernists regarding the Orthodox liturgy. The notoriously liberal monks at New Skete Monastery, formerly Catholic, but received into the notoriously liberal Orthodox Church in America (a jurisdiction whose autocephaly has never been universally recognized), corrupted by the modernist heresy so prevelant in the Roman church, manifested in the liturgical reforms in the wake of Vatican II (which, I should state, were a dreadful perversion of what Vatican II actually authorized; in terms of seeking reconciliation with the Orthodox, and in terms of the change of theological emphasis that Vatican II produced, it was, by itself, a movement in the direction of Orthodoxy), naturally want to do the same thing to the Orthodox church.

In this series of articles, I shall proceed to enumerate their desired reforms, and then explain why these reforms are deadly, from the perspective of Confessional Orthodoxy.

Suggestion no. 7: "Re-examining" the Lectionary

"In the Divine Liturgy, we receive spiritual nourishment not only through reception of communion but also through the hearing of God's word in the Scripture readings. But given the fact that few people regularly attend more than the Sunday morning Liturgy, the lectionary itself needs to be reexamined. In our present usage, only a very small portion of the New Testament is ever heard by the faithful, and the Old Testament is virtually absent. The faithful hear about the miracles of Jesus with great frequency; but they are not exposed to His ethical and moral teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount)."

Why this is a bad idea:

One might first remark that, from a Slavonic Orthodox standpoint, the last remark seems particularly laughable, given that the high point of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, forms the Third Antiphon, sung at every Divine Liturgy.   In the Greek tradition, this might not be the case, at least to the same extent, but given that I am a member of a Slavonic parish with very amiable relations with like-minded Greek Orthodox, I don't want to comment on their liturgy, given my relative lack of familiarity with it (unless one counts the tragically watered down form of the beautiful Arabic liturgy of the Antiochian church which dominates in America, although I don't fault the late Metropolitan Philip of blessed memory for this, but rather a certain culture of liturgical complacency which managed to infect the entire autonomous AOCNA, and which slipped under the evangelically-minded radar of the late, most excellent bishop).

Now, what follows is a highly technical discussion of lectionary systems.  For readers of a short attention span, let me summarize my objections to a "re-examination" of the lectionary: any substantial change to the Byzantine lectionary, such as moving to Byzantine-flavored variant of the three year lectionary used in the Roman church, and with variations, as the Revised Common Lectionary in most dying mainline denominations, would violate the Typikon, the Rule of Prayer and Life for Eastern Orthodox parishes, and disrupt our ancient and most excellent spiritual system.   The Old Testament is read frequently in a prophetic context at Vespers, as a prelude to the Divine Liturgy to follow on Sunday Morning, and I have argued elsewhere that these readings ought to be repeated during the Third Hour, and printed in parish bulletins, as a means of bringing the parishioners who miss out on Vespers up to speed on the message of the day.    What is more, it is fallacious to assume that the laity must hear the entire Bible read in church to be able to benefit from it; the Byzantine liturgy does not read the Apocalypse liturgically, but it has nonetheless had a substantial impact on the spirituality of our faith.

Moving back to this proposal, one can see where the monks' examination would invariably point us: towards a discussion on adopting some form of the Revised Common Lectionary.   This nightmarish prospect must first be firmly dispensed with, before we can move on to how to actually address the valid points of this particular issue they raised.   The RCL by itself, derived from the three year lectionary of the Roman Catholic Church adopted with the Pauline liturgy, has attracted much criticism.   Historically, the Christian church has always used a one year lectionary; some ancient Jewish communities attested to in the Babylonian Talmud and the writings of Maimonides used a three-year lectionary, but this was never the norm, and because the early church did not use a three year lectionary, it is safe to assume that this was a divergent practice, and not original form of the thrice-weekly reading reading of the Torah instituted by the Prophet Ezra, which forms the basis for the entire concept of the Lectionary (before that time, the King read a substantial portion of Deuteronomy to the entire populace assembled at Jerusalem every seven years, and this was the known extent of the public reading of the Torah).

The triennial nature of the RCL aside, one might also lament that compared to other lectionaries, it is highly defective.  The editors of it made extensive use of gender neutral language, obviously inappropriate within the Eastern Orthodox faith; it, for maximum inclusiveness, naturally omits or downplays many books that most Protestants regard as apocryphal, that are highly important to the Orthodox faith, and it omits certain vital passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:27-34, as discussed in the prior post in this series.   A very balanced discussion of the RCL, in which many of the faults therein are brought to light in comparison with the historic Anglican lectionary, which I consider a very good lectionary, in part for the fact that it manages to ensure the entire New Testament is read in the course of a year, and the Old Testament, sans some books inappropriately deemed "apocrypha", in two years, can be found in this issue of Liturgy Canada.

The Anglican lectionary is much like the Orthodox lectionary in that it really isn't a single "lectionary", but rather a system of separate readings for separate services.  To some extent, it has been used within Western Rite Orthodoxy.   The lectionary consists of paired Old Testament and New Testament lessons for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer respectively, an annual lectionary of Collects, Epistles and Gospels for Sundays and holy days throughout the year, read during the "Ante Communion" portion of the Eucharistic lectionary, and a monthly scheme for the reading of the Psalter, at Morning and Evening Prayer.   This system is obviously simpler than the ornate Byzantine Rite, but a highly functional one, and one which in fact shares a common, Apostolic origin with our lectionary.

The Anglican lectionary was, for its part, based on the pre-Tridentine Roman lectionary, which was mostly left intact at Trent, which, as one can tell by comparing it with the Orthodox lectionary via the tables presented at the Bombaxo website, is very similiar to its Eastern counterpart, differing primarily in the lack of the Lukan jump, the occasional use of the Old Testament as the "Epistle", and the shorter nature of the lessons (possibly a result of their being chanted in Latin and thus being unintelligible to the parishioners).  The Anglican reformers expanded the length of the lessons and read them in English, resulting in a system moving closer to Orthodoxy.

The Roman lectionary, owing to its short, stylistic lessons and inconsistency regarding the use of the Old Testament, was a prime candidate for reform in the wake of Vatican II, but unfortunately, rather than returning to Apostolic tradition, the reformers pursued a radically new direction.  Adding a separate Old Testament lesson to the readings at Mass was by no means objectionable, but the triennial cycle was, as was the somewhat liberal bias in the selection of lessons, which became further exacerbated with the Ecumenical derivatives of the new Roman lectionary.

Now, let us take a look at the Byzantine lectionary in greater detail.   The lectionary forms part of the Typikon, an elaborate system of rules, or if you prefer, a meta-lectionary, that governs all aspects of our liturgical services.  If followed in precise detail and without alteration, the Typikon repeats itself around every 535 years (I believe the precise number to be 537), factoring in the revolving octoechal cycle of hymnody, the weekly psalmody, and the ornate interaction between fixed and movable feasts.   The Typikon is more than a liturgical system however; it is also a rule of life; the Typika of Eastern Monasteries corresponds directly to the Rule of St. Benedict, and in like manner, the Typikon can also be seen as a rule governing the life of parish churches.   Of course, secular pressures make it difficult or impossible for most parishes to observe the Typikon in its entirety, but that fact is regrettable, and should be lamented, and not used as a justification for replacing it; the Typikon sets the standard we should seek to attain, and if a parish or monastery succeeds in following it precisely, great spiritual blessings will follow.

Naturally, implementing a triennial lectionary, derived from the RCL, but with a nod to Byzantine custom on popular feast days, which is doubtless what the monks at New Skete would have in mind, would violate the Typikon, and result in a profoundly watered down liturgy.   Within the present Byzantine Rite, there are in fact multiple discrete lectionary systems being observed: the weekly Psalter, the cyclical Matins Gospel, the Prophecy readings appointed for Saturday Night Vespers, and finally the Epistle and Gospel lessons of the Divine Liturgy itself, which unmistakbly follow the Hatarah and weekly Torah portion read since antiquity in Judaism.   A future article will examine this fact in light of the East Syriac lectionary, which preserves in some places distinctly Jewish Torah and Haftarah pairings, and follows them in due course with Epistle and Gospel readings.

In the Byzantine lectionary, access to the Old Testament is provided primarily by the Vespers prophecy read on Saturday night, as mentioned above.  This service is of extreme importance in our faith; its present neglect in some jurisdictions is egregious.  To the extent however that people do not understand it, and thus experience the ecstasy resulting from seeing the prophecy read therein fulfilled in the Epistle and Gospel read during the Divine Liturgy the next morning, I have argued for the repetition of this reading at the Third Hour.   However, attending both Vespers and the Liturgy is a far more spiritually healthy alternative, and this practice would most likely be substantially diminished were an Old Testament lesson to be included in every Divine Liturgy.

The main problem seems to be that, while the Byzantine lectionary does read over the course of the year the entire New Testament, many of the lessons are heard in services frequently celebrated only in monasteries, for example, most of the reading of Mark.   The Old Testament is used sparingly, where the Christological prophecy is at its most acute.   However, in both cases, the pious faithful can correct this problem by following the lectionary in their own private readings, or a Reading Plan such as this one hosted on Bombaxo.   There is also a lectionary contained within the Orthodox Study Bible, which is a most valuable resource for the laity and costs a mere $50 or so.  

Thus, the real answer to the dilemma posed by the monks presents itself: while, outside of the monasteries, in the average parish, the parishioners will not actually hear that much of Sacred Scripture read aloud, this problem can be overcome by the very healthy practice of regular, systematic and disciplined reading of the scriptures in private.   This activity should ideally be done together with one's family, combined with the saying of Morning and Evening Prayer (also conveniently featured in the Orthodox Study Bible, along with other liturgical resources).   The last word is that where the resources of the parish limit public celebration, private devotion must take its place.
Our next article in this series will address the monks' not entirely invalid complaint that the Sermon in the Divine Liturgy is neglected, while commenting on the risks of allowing the Liturgy to devolve into a preaching-oriented service.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Message: Where there is persecution, there is the Church

Today, July 9th on the Julian Calendar, we commemorate many martyrs.   The dreadful tragedy of the ethnic cleansing of Mosul last week weighs upon my heart, yet it is Sunday, and on this blessed day of our Lord, there is always cause for happiness.  Rejoice, for the Lord is with you, we can confidently say to the holy martyrs, and indeed even to ourselves, as we face our own tribulations which may seem in comparison trivial, yet which are no less painful to endure.

One bright moment in the past week was the joyous arrival in Rome of Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, the persecuted Ethiopian Orthodox woman who was subjected to such cruelties by the vicious Sudanese government as to qualify as a Confessor of the faith.  Confessors are those who are not martyred, but who nonetheless suffer gravely for Christianity; for example, Maximus the Confessor had his tongue removed.   This woman was forced in an act of unimaginable and callous cruelty to give birth with her legs chained, which has apparently left her child disabled.  I cannot imagine the pain this must cause, yet I cannot also help but imagine the wondrous joy she must now surely be experiencing, having been delivered from the clutches of her homicidal relatives and her homicidal rulers. 

That any family should seek to put to death a member of their own blood for confessing a different faith shows a perversity of thought that cannot be reconciled with human decency.  Yet within the early church, many did suffer in this manner; our Lord himself warned us this would be so.  "The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law."

Therefore, let us continue our prayers for all the persecuted church: martyrs, confessors, and especially those who persecute them, so that, like St. Paul, they may be moved by God to receive the Gospel.

The liturgical use of the Apocalypse

One aspect of the Orthodox Church that testifies to the antiquity of our faith is the fact that we do not read the Book of Revelations, or the Apocalpyse of St. John, in Church.   This owes to it being essentially the final book in the Athanasian canon to finally receive universal approval; the West did manage to make liturgical use of it, but for whatever reason, it was never introduced in the East.   The Syriac churches are even more limited, for they read only the Pauline epistles, excluding his pastoral epistles to Timothy, Titus, et al, and also the Catholic Epistles of Peter, John, James and Jude.  

Within the Byzantine Rite, sacred tradition demands that the lectionary be preserved to the fullest extent possible.  That said, one cannot help but wish that the beauty of the Apocalpyse could be heard in our churches.   There are, however, ways by which this can be accomplished, without altering the existing lectionary cycle.

The first, and least invasive way, would be to use the words of the Apocalypse in the composition of a hymn, most likely a Kontakion, to be served in an Akathist service, or another supplemental service such as a Moleben (or Paraklesis).  Additionally, the liberal quoting of the Apocalypse in homilies, particularly metrical homilies of various forms, would provide an effective and non-disruptive means of its introduction.  These hymns could be used to commemorate the feast of St. John the Beloved Disciple. The instructions of our Lord to the various churches also seem most especially suitable for the celebrations surrounding the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

The second, and slightly more invasive approach, would be to avail ourselves of the fact that not all Matins services have a Matins gospel reading.  The Matins gospels are cyclical; the Resurrection Appearances of Christ are read in a continual loop, as it were.   We could perhaps complement this, by at other times introducing a cycle in which the Apocalypse would be read continually through at Matins, and to round things off, additional cycles of Matins Gospel readings might be introduced for days on which there is normally no Gospel, perhaps covering the Acts of the Apostles, or the Prophecies regarding Christ that are read at the Vesperal Liturgy on Great and Holy Saturday.

Since these do represent the introduction of additional content into the liturgy, the use of these new facilities would have to be approved in each case by the local bishop, and their use would surely be a matter of discretion for the individual parish or monastery.  Those desiring to hear the Apocalypse in this manner could do so, whereas those who most commendably wish to preserve the Byzantine Rite in its most exact form would follow that path.   Ideally, at least half of all parishes would adopt the augmentation, but a viable minority would not, ensuring both the preservation of the unaugmented Matins lectionary and the introduction of the enriched Matins gospel cycles. 

There are of course other questions that would have to be addressed, for example, whether or not these other Matins Gospel cycles would imply a Polyeleos service.   Matins is an extremely complicated service; in fact, it is the longest and most complex service in the Byzantine liturgy, ever changing, and almost always abbreviated, often in different ways according to the custom of individual parishes.  Its celebration therefore is a most splendid example of the exquisite way in which we worship God, and we must avail ourselves of every opportunity to explore it more; those parts of it seldom heard ought to be heard more frequently, and every opportunity of improving comprehension and attendance, and providing enrichment, without violating the existing directives of the Typikon, should be seized.