Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Hales' Journey, Part Three - College, Love, and a Family Crisis

College Clint - still sporting the cool mustache but now sans cigar - with his brother Jason. He didn't go to THE University, but at least he got the T-shirt and hat!

I’ll warn you up front that this portion is a little longer than the earlier installments. But to really see how my life took some of the later turns it did, this portion is important…. By this time, I had decided that college might be a better option than a military career. So I returned to college and started taking classes. Of course, things were different than they had been before I left on my military excursion. I was now responsible for myself. I had to get a full-time job to support myself. I worked at a sandpaper plant, loading trucks.

I mentioned that I had begun to attend church on most Sundays, and that is true. I worked the night shift, from 8:45 PM to 7:30 AM, Thursday through Sunday. So I would go to work on Saturday night, get off work and try to go to church. Honestly, I slept more than anything else. It was difficult to keep my eyes open. Certainly, it was a step in the right direction, but I hadn’t come fully away from “the dark side” by this time. I was still partaking of intoxicating beverages on a regular basis and spending times in clubs and honky tonks.

My parents had moved to San Antonio during my army days, so my hometown was no longer a place to visit very often. My mom kept telling (on the phone) about this girl she wanted me to meet. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t interested. Mom had tried this stuff before – and I knew better than to fall for it this time. Let’s just say that her choices had not impressed me much. But one weekend I traveled down to San Antonio (I had arranged my work schedule) to see mom and dad.

School was about to start and I figured I should see them a little before I got really busy. On Sunday, mom leaned over excitedly and told me that “she” was here and that we would be introduced after the service was over. I immediately began to plot a scheme to be gone before that happened. Hey, I hadn’t had all that military training for nothing…

As the final “amen” was being uttered, I took off like a shot. I was practically sprinting up the aisle, toward the back door. My car was outside and I figured I would get in and drive to my parent’s home and wait for them there, feigning forgetfulness as the reason that I didn’t meet “her.” As I sprinted up the aisle, I noticed this cute girl a little to my right. She was wearing a pink and blue checked dress. She had “big hair” just like all the beautiful girls did back then. I thought to myself, “I wish mom would pick someone like that…” Suddenly, I felt my feet continuing to move, but my head and shoulders stopped cold. My mom had caught me! I don’t know how that little woman kept up with me, but she did. She promptly began dragging me to the cute girl. Yeah, that’s right. My mom introduced me to my wife at church. How much better can it get? Talk about arranged marriages… But I digress. I will talk more about Debbie later.

What happened over the next couple of months really shaped the rest of my life. Yes, mom had introduced me to Debbie (though I lived over three hours away). But all was not well in our world. My father’s health had been deteriorating for several years. During my time in the army, he had received a heart transplant. Though he improved, he was never fully healthy again. The strain on my mom was more than she thought she could bear. So about a month after she introduced me to Debbie, my mom ran off with another man, abandoning my dad.

My dad and I had always been very close. Our personalities were very much alike. When I was a teenager, we bumped heads on a regular basis. But as I grew older and more mature, we become very close. When mom left, we grew even closer. I made the decision to finish the semester where I was and then move down to San Antonio to take care of dad.

While I was convinced that I would marry Debbie (I literally told some friends that on the day I met her), she wasn’t so sure at this point. But for me, knowing that she would only live a few minutes away made my choice to move in with dad even easier. So I gave my notice to the sandpaper plant and began to prepare for my upcoming move.

Now, I don’t want to drop a topic I introduced last time. Remember the classes that I had decided to take? Specifically, I took a calculus class and an introduction to literature course. I loved math and hated English, remember? Well, life had decided to throw me a curve. By October, I was hopelessly lost in calculus. I couldn’t drop the course, because I was getting the GI Bill and to drop the course would move me below full-time and I needed that money. But I also knew there was NO WAY that I would pass it. So I just stopped attending. I took my “F” like a man…

Oh, and the English course? I loved it. I found out that I was actually really good at reading and writing papers. It was one of those things that I was just a natural at. When all was said and done, I ended up changing my major to English (eventually getting a Masters Degree in it – more on that later on).

So I was moving to San Antonio to take care of my heart-broken, sickly father while trying to develop a relationship with the woman that I planned to marry, whether she liked it or not. But this whole situation was finally primed to get me to really address my spiritual life (or lack thereof)…

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In the Army Now! - The Hales' Journey (Part Two)

Warrior Clint - Lean, mean cigar-chomping fighting machine, who helped keep the world safe for democracy for four years

Now, I had tried my hand at college. Honestly, I was (and am) a very good student. However, my dedication to learning was conspicuously absent by the end of my first college attempt. So the military seemed like a decent idea. I mean who could complain about wearing camo uniforms and shooting at stuff all the time, right? Well, it didn’t really turn out that way.

I joined the US Army not long after I turned 19. Two buddies also joined at the same time and a few months later, we arrived at Basic Training. The recruiters had shown us video of soldiers acting like Rambo. In reality, I spent more time doing janitorial work than “Rambo” stuff. That carried over in my regular duty station. I truly could not wait to get out of the military and try college one more time.

During my time in the Army, I was forced to pay attention to something that we like to ignore: death. I trained all the time for being adept and efficient in causing death and mayhem. That was my job. In fact, I had a very specific job that dealt with this. I was a sniper. I learned to crawl in terrible conditions to horrid locations in order to kill.

Having to consider the reality of death on such a frequent basis led to two things in my life. First, I tried to numb my brain as much as possible. Weekends were almost always devoted to drinking myself into a stupor. It was only by the grace of God that I didn’t become an alcoholic. I was just looking for some way to ignore death again. The second thing I did was start to consider my own mortality. The fact was that if I was placed in a true combat situation, there was a high likelihood that I would not survive. That scared me.

Somehow, in all of that fog, I began to consider God. I don’t think I even realized it at first. But for the first time in my life, I realized that the world would continue to revolve without me and that my place in the world was not to be the center of attention. So I began a quest, unconsciously at first, to find what I was created to do.

Finally, my enlistment was up. I returned to Texas, got a job and decided to become a coach/teacher. Summers off sounded fantastic. So I enrolled in the local college (not the one I had originally attended) and resumed my studies. I had planned on focusing upon football and math. Really, Chemistry had always been my favorite subject, but there were too many labs involved. Math was something else that I really enjoyed, so I figured I could handle spending the next few decades teaching it. Unfortunately, my advisor informed me that I needed to take one more English course. I was livid. I hated English courses.

Finally, we got it worked out. I would take some of my general education requirements, as well as Calculus (I had passed Pre-Cal and Trig before the Army stint) and an “intro to lit” class. The advisor recommended that I take college algebra to refresh my math memory, but in my egotistical way, I told him that I didn’t see any reason to go backwards in subject matter. It seemed that things were finally turning in the right direction for me. I even started attending church on most Sundays.

But things weren’t going as smoothly as I thought…

WOA Ch. 11 - On the Inner Warfare as a Means to an End

Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt. 11:29)

In my reflections on the first ten chapters of Way of the Ascetics, I have repeatedly emphasized that the self-denying measures that Collandier urges are not an end in themselves, but rather a means to an end. Such ascetical actions as fasting, limiting personal comfort and avoiding entertainment are valuable primarily in the way that they help us to attain mastery over our passions and inner stillness. As Colliander writes, “By throwing off the outer bonds, you throw off the inner as well.” (36). Using an excellent analogy, he elaborates on this idea:

“Always keep this in mind: you are not doing anything virtuous by your continence. Or can it be considered a virtuous act when a man who, out of his own carelessness, has been trapped deep down in a mine shaft, takes a pick and shovel and tries to work his way out? Is it not, on the contrary, quite natural for him to make use of the tools given him by a higher authority to make his way up out of the choking air and darkness? Would not the opposite be stupidity?

“From this picture you can gain wisdom. The tools are the implements of salvation, the commands of the Gospel and the holy Sacraments of the Church, that were bestowed upon every Christian at holy baptism. Unused, they are of no profit to you. But used in the right manner they will open your way to freedom and light.

We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22): we must, like the imprisoned victim, give up many opportunities for rest and sleep and enjoyment; we must, like him, watch and employ every moment when others sleep or occupy themselves with trifling things. We do not let the pick and shovel out of our hands: they are prayer, fasting, watching, and work to observe all the things whatsoever I have commanded you (Matthew 28:20). Further, if the heart finds such discipline difficult, we must use all our will-power to compel it to submit if we are to get out” (36-37).

Colliander then poses the question as to what our reward for such efforts will be. In this life, the toil itself is the reward. This is because it makes us stronger spiritually and more sensitive to God. It helps us to defeat temptation and orient ourselves toward the will of God, which St. Paul describes in one place as “your sanctification.” (1 Thess. 4:3). Ultimately, ascetical labors, when practiced consistently and fervently, bring us the freedom from the passions that St. Paul and the other New Testament authors speak of.

Speaking of this freedom, Colliander writes, “Like the prisoner, we are already free in hope, but the fulfillment of salvation lies beyond our earthly life: only there can we say definitely: I am saved. For the command to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) is impossible of human fulfillment here on earth. Why was it given to us, then? The saints reply: In order that we might begin our work now, but with eternity before our eyes. The goal of man’s freedom is neither in himself nor in his fellow man but in God, says Bishop Theophan” (38-39).

Commenting on Jesus’ command to “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matt. 11:36), Colliander comments, “…what do they get, all those who labour on their salvation and are heavy-laden with the world’s opposition, both within themselves and without? Those who take Christ’s yoke upon themselves and live as He lived, and therefore learn not from angels nor from men nor from books, but from the Lord himself…what do all these people get? The Lord Himself will give them rest. They will receive freedom from temptations, worries, humiliations, spite, fear, anxiety and everything else that disturbs the human heart” (40).

As a final note of encouragement, he adds, “Therefore we must not grow weary. We must be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord our labour is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Having once begun, we must not cease to perform deeds worthy of our repentance. To rest is the same as to retreat” (40-41).

Monday, April 27, 2009

New Series! - The Hales' Journey (Part One)

Football Clint - The Face of Raw Athleticism
Fourth Round Draft pick of the Hong Kong Headcrackers, 1993 NFL Asia champions

My new godson Clint Hale, also a dear friend and a member of my parish, has agreed to write a series of posts about his and his family's pilgrimage from being super-devout Church of Christ members (including a stint as missionaries to Estonia) into the Orthodox Church for this blog. I know that you will enjoy them. Clint is a very good writer and one of the funniest people I know. Here is the first installment.

First, I want to thank Fr. James for giving me a place to let others read about my family’s journey to Orthodoxy. My wife, Debbie, and I have been considering writing a book together that chronicles this major change in our lives. As of yet, it is only consideration. Perhaps my writing for Fr. James’ blog site will prompt us to do more than talk.

While the heart of the story is our conversion, it is important to get a little of the back story in order to know where we came from and what it took to get us to where we are (in Orthodoxy). Since I plan to let Debbie write about her own perspective, I will simply write about my own – at least until I get to the part where I met her, etc. So here is how Clint went from there to here.

My parents had been married for six years and had no children. They began to think that perhaps they were infertile. Adoption came up in their conversations and they agreed that it was viable. However, they decided to wait one more year and see if they could conceive their own biological child. They made that decision in 1968. I was born in August of 1969. At the time, my dad was a car salesman and mom worked as a secretary. We lived in the Dallas, Texas metro area.

When I was about two, dad decided to enter the ministry. I think he had considered it for a long time, but finally made the move. My family had become members of the protestant church known as the “Church of Christ.” So my dad entered a denominational “preaching school” which is akin to a technical school. It was a two year program and after he graduated, he entered full time ministry. That was about 1973. I had a little brother by then, and so we became PKs (Preacher’s Kids).

I grew up like most PKs. Generally, I was a pretty good kid, but I did have a wild side. I definitely fit the stereotype of a PK. When I was very young (until about High School), I was really a very well-behaved child. I was a “star pupil” in bible classes at church. If we had a contest to see who could memorize the most bible verses, I almost always won. I had a sharp mind, quick wit and an ego to match. My success in bible class and school only fed my conceit.

By the time I entered High School, I was very conceited and self-centered. I know that is a common malady in High School, but I was afflicted more than most. I cared little for others, unless it was to my own benefit. Church demanded too much of me, so I simply bided my time until I could quit going. That time came when I moved away from home and started college.

For several months, I continued to attend church, simply out of inertia. But by my second semester, I seldom darkened a church door. I won’t go into any details, but my life was simply an ego trip for me. I did what I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted. Looking back, my life was a mess. At the time, I thought things were great. I just hated going to college. I couldn’t decide on a major. Classes got in the way of my social life. So after three semester in college, at the ripe old age of 19, I made another big decision: I would just join the US Army.

(To be continued...)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Contemporary Worship

I found the following hilarious satirical take on contemporary worship on the website The Wittenburg Door (via Fr. Ernesto Obregon's excellent blog OrthoCuban). It was written by a fellow named Dale Peterson. Enjoy, and don't take it TOO seriously.

Thank you for choosing to worship with us today. If you are from a church that uses traditional hymns, you may be confused. Please take a moment to read through this guide to contemporary Christian music.

In our church you will not hear "How Great Thou Art," "Wonderful Grace of Jesus," or "Like a River Glorious." (Generally, hymns that have words like “Thou” are not used. They are too archaic and are normally replaced by words like “awesome” and “miry clay”). Yes, okay, we may do "Amazing Grace" or "Peace Like a River" at some point, but as a general rule we avoid songs with too many different verses or those that can't be played easily on guitar and drums.

If you are new to worship here, you may wish to know the reasons for this. One is that deep theological concepts do not belong in contemporary Christian worship. We frown on songs that change more than one or two words for each verse. For example, our version of "Holy is the Lord" consists of repeating that phrase six times per verse and then changing "Holy" to "Worthy," "Mighty," "Jesus" and finally changing "the" to "my." Isn’t that much simpler to sing and easier to remember? The twin goals here are a) repetition and b) chanting quality. We don’t focus on what we’re singing, but how we’re singing it. The main thing is to get that kind of tingly, "olive oily" feeling. Don't worry if you don't get this right away. It will come as you learn to disengage your intellect. Just free yourself. Immerse yourself. Relax.

Nevertheless, a traditional hymn may sometimes be used. For example, we’re not averse to "Holy, Holy, Holy." You may be tempted to sing this as you would have in your former church, but please note that it is sung here with changes, mainly the fact that we repeat it several times and try to sing as slowly as possible, thereby emphasizing the funereal nature of the verse.

Repetition is very important in contemporary Christian music. We repeat: Repetition is very important in contemporary Christian music. Just because a song may have one verse and one chorus does not mean that you only sing it through once. Old hymns have several verses, each of which introduces a new theological concept, and are meant to be sung once followed by "Amen." This is no longer how it’s done. The correct procedure is to sing the identical verse and chorus at least three times. Often it is preferable to repeat the verse two times initially before moving on to the chorus.

Also the worship leader may want to repeat a verse or chorus found in the middle of the song. This is signaled by “calling an audible." When this occurs, the worship leader will say the first few words of the verse or chorus he will be singing next. Sometimes, due to the similarity of the verses, this may be confusing and the overhead projector may flash several pages of text until the correct one is arrived at. Don't panic, this is normal. Just continue singing as though you know the words and soon either the correct slide will appear or a new chorus will begin.

After the verse and chorus are sung at least three times, it is permissible for the song to end. However, the chorus must first be repeated in its entirety, then the last paragraph, then the last line. When singing the last line it is important to slow down a little and look upward. Raising a hand is permissible and often done at this time. This may take a little getting used to but don't worry, if you just join in, in a short time you won't even notice and soon you will forget that you ever did it any other way.

We are just really glad you chose to share the worship experience with us today.

Thank you and we hope to see you again soon.

Thank you and we hope to see you again soon. Thank you. Thank.

[Fr. James' note: What is scary is that 15 years ago, I agreed with all this. Thank God, I didn't for long....]

Thursday, April 23, 2009

WOA Ch. 10: On the Sins of Others and One's Own

St. Dorotheos of Gaza, desert Father and writer on the spiritual life

A major theme of the first nine chapters of Way of the Ascetics is becoming aware of our own sinfulness. The main reason why we must do this is so that we can begin the lifelong process of cleansing ourselves of our sin and advancing along the path to theosis. Another reason we must come to terms with our shortcomings is to eliminate the temptation to judge others. As Colliander opens his chapter,

Now that you have thus become aware of your own wretchedness, your insufficiency, and your wickedness, you call upon the Lord as did the Publican (Luke 18:13): God be merciful to me a sinner. And you add: Behold, I am far worse than the Publican, for I cannot resist eyeing the Pharisee askance, and my heart is proud and says: I thank Thee that I am not like him! (33)

[Fr. James’ note: Isn’t that an interesting twist on the original story!]

But, say the saints, now that you recognize the darkness in your own heart and the weakness of the flesh, you lose all desire to pass judgment on your neighbor. Out of your own darkness you see the heavenly light that shines in all created things reflected the clearer: you cannot detect the sins of others while your own are so great. For it is in your eager striving for perfection that you first perceive your own imperfection. And only when you have seen your imperfection, can you be perfected. Thus perfection proceeds out of weakness (33-34).

In other words, seeing the depths of our own sinfulness allows us to, in the words of St. Ephraim the Syrian, “see my own sins, and not those of my brother,” and also to put into Jesus words “First remove the plank from your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5). Colliander continues:

For who can wish to be obeyed who realizes, with the pangs of love, that he himself never obeys his Master? What reason, then, has he to be disturbed, to become impatient and impassioned, if everything does not go according to his wishes? Through practice he has accustomed himself to wish for nothing, and for a person with no wishes, everything goes just as he wishes, explains the Abbot Dorotheus. His will has coincided with God’s will, and whatever he asks, he will receive (Mark 11:24) (34-35).

Now THAT is a goal to strive for…for our will to coincide with the will of God! Colliander concludes thus:

Can one very well be envious of a person who does not exalt himself, but who, on the contrary, sees his own condition and finds that everyone else is far more worthy of fame and honour than he? Are fear, anguish and anxiety possible for the person who knows that, come what may, he, like the robber on the cross, is receiving the due reward of his deeds (Luke 23:41)? Laziness leaves him because he is constantly unmasking it within himself. Dejection finds no place, for how can what is already prostrate be cast down? And his hate is directed exclusively towards all the evil in his own life that dims his view of the Lord: he hates his own life (Luke 14:26). But then there is no longer any ground for doubt, for he has tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is (Psalm 34:8): it is the Lord alone who bears him up. His love grows constantly in breadth, and with it his faith. He has made peace with himself…and heaven and earth have made peace with him.” (35).

One final caveat: be careful about the phrase “he hates his own life.” Be sure and take it into context with the previous phrase: “His hate is directed exclusively towards all the evil in his own life that dims his view of the Lord.” As Christians, we should not hate the totality of ourselves, for God loves us. If we hate ourselves, then we are essentially making God out to be a liar. Rather, we should hate the sin that is within us, and go to war against it, seeking to eradicate it. In this way, we will grow ever closer to God.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hale Baptisms

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Jennifer and I were blessed to gain five new godchildren this past Saturday -- Clint, Debbie, Becky, Joey, and Tommy Hale. I had a friend take a few photos and videos. Unfortunately, most of the photos didn't turn out very well. I'll post the good ones and then the video of the actual baptism. Clint, I have some other videos that capture other parts of the service as well, so remind me, and I'll put them on a CD for you and give them to you soon.

In the Baptism video below, the first boy being baptized is actually not a Hale, but the son of another parishioner. After that, the order of baptisms is as follows: Becky, Joey, Tommy, and Debbie. Unfortunately, the camera's batteries gave up the ghost right before "Big Daddy" Hale was about to get into the baptismal font (i.e., the horse trough). But I can promise you that he really was baptized. He waited a long time--six years--for this. As you can no doubt tell from the video, baptisms are a very joyous occasion at St. Joseph's.

The first photo was taken before the soon-to-be-illumined had renounced the Devil and spit on him. This one was taken right after that important event.

Here is a video of me performing the anointing with oil (well, part of it, anyway) prior to the Baptism.

Hale Anointing from Fr. James Early on Vimeo.

And here are the actual baptisms (again, minus Big Daddy's), performed by our pastor Fr. Matthew, assisted by Deacon Meletios. You can see my beautiful wife Jennifer in the background.

Hale Baptism from Fr. James Early on Vimeo.

It was truly a joyous occasion for all. If you have a minute or two, why not send Clint a congratulatory email at hale.clint at gmail dot com. I'm sure he would appreciate it.

May all the blessings of Pascha be on you and yours.

Reflections on Lent

Each year that I have been an Orthodox Christian, when Lent has ended, I have immediately moved into Holy Week mode, becoming even busier that I had been during Lent. I have attended the Holy Week services (at least all those that I could), trying to walk with the Lord Jesus through his last week of life on earth as he taught the crowds and was then betrayed, tried, crucified, and buried. Finally, I have rejoiced with the news that Christ is Risen!, basking in the light of the Resurrection and being spiritually blessed (while at the same time physically exhausted) by the Paschal Matins, Divine Liturgy, and Agape Vespers services. By the time Bright Monday has arrived, I have totally forgotten about Lent.

This year, I thought I would try to do something a little different. In my secular job, one of the many tasks with which I am involved is Program Evaluation. I use various types of data to help evaluate the effectiveness of the various programs that we run in our school district. I thought that it might not be a bad idea to attempt to apply this "evaluation mentality" to the Lenten struggle. So, I have taken some time to reflect on how Lent went this year for me, including what went well and what didn't, with a view toward having an even more profitable Lent next year. Although doing so is somewhat perilous, I thought I share my thoughts on this publicly. My hope is that you will profit spiritually from reading my reflections and that you may consider doing a similar self-evaluation, which I think would be helpful for each of us.

But before I continue, a couple of caveats are in order. First, in evaluating our Lenten journey, we must be careful not to make the evaluation solely about what we ate. In other words, we should not just say, "I kept the fast except for X number of days and only messed up Y times; therefore, I had a good (or bad) Lent!" For the fasting that we do is not an end in itself, but is rather a means to an end, namely, subduing the passions--reorienting our lives so that our soul is in control of our body and not the other way around. Of equal or (I think) greater importance is how things went spiritually. Did we make any progress in our spiritual warfare, or did we just end up eating differently?

Also, in evaluating our Lenten journey, we must beware the temptation to pride, particularly if our Lenten struggle has been mainly successful. If we have kept the fasting rules perfectly, we are in serious danger of thinking to ourselves, "Wow, I did it! Aren't I great?" And if we have made progress in our spiritual life, we face a similar temptation. We must always remind ourself, as St. Paul writes, that any victories we achieve are due to "not I, but the grace of God in me."

I always encourage my parishioners and other Orthodox Christians at the beginning of Lent to set one or two challenging but attainable spiritual goals in addition to keeping the fast as strictly as possible. If we merely say, "I'm going to keep the fast" but make no special spiritual efforts, we gain nothing. But if we go to the opposite extreme and just say "I'm going to sin as little as possible this Lent," I think we set ourselves up for a fall. It is much easier to juggle two balls than twelve! Of course, in addition to fasting, we should pray more, read more and give more, as the Fathers teach us, but that's not what I am writing about today. I'm suggesting that we should take a step beyond all that in setting specific spiritual goals.

For example, I made three specific goals for this Lent. First, I resolved to control my temper, particularly in my dealings with my children (who test me on a daily basis!). Second, I would talk less, particularly in regard to giving my opinion when it is not solicited. And although all of us could always do better, I feel like (thanks be to God) I had a pretty good measure of success in these areas. The third goal I made was to waste less time. I resolved to not watch any movies, and to watch very little TV. For me, these two resolutions are really too easy, because I almost never watch TV or movies anyway. What was tougher was to give up Facebook. I didn't COMPLETELY give it up, mind you, but I probably only spent a grand total of 15 minutes on it during all of Lent (which is a big improvement over the several hours a week I was wasting on it before Lent). I devoted that time instead to additional spiritual reading. And do you know what? I found that I really didn't miss Facebook at all, whereas the reading I did turned out to be a great blessing.

Lest I ramble on forever, let me list some general lessons I learned this Lent. These may not necessarily be true for every person, but I found them to be true in my life.

1. Once you have been observing Lent for a number of years, giving up animal products and alcohol isn't really that hard. (Note: I don't mean that it was all that easy, just that it is doable).

2. What is harder than giving up meat, dairy, etc, is actually cutting down on the AMOUNT that I eat and the number of times I eat. I found that it is all too easy to exchange eating too much meat, cheese, and so on, for eating too much Lenten food. I especially struggled with my craving for sweets. I need to work harder next year on not indulging it.

3. Even harder than cutting down on the amount I eat is eliminating the sinful use of my tongue. By this I don't mean using swear words, which I seldom do anyway, but rather avoiding sarcasm and words that hurt others.

4. Hardest of all (and I really did a poor job of this) is eliminating sinful thoughts. I was astonished at the variety of these thoughts and at the intensity of some of them. It is much easier for me to keep my plate "pure" (so to speak) than to keep my mind pure.

So, this is my "post-mortem" (if you will) on Lent 2009. Now it's your turn. I would love for many of you to post a comment and share your thoughts on this Lent. What did you find relatively easy, and what was especially hard for you? Where did you fail, and where did you enjoy victory? What did you learn? What adjustments will you make for next year? Let me and the rest of our readers know; you never know whom you might help if you do.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Christos Voskrese!

I try very hard to not post the same things that other Orthodox bloggers are posting. But this video is too good to not post, even though a bazillion other blogs also have it. You've probably already seen it dozens of times, but just in case you haven't (or even if you have), I urge you to watch it anyway. If you do, you will be blessed.

This is a contemporary arrangement of a poem written by Saint Nikolai Velimirovic, a twentieth century Serbian saint, and it features the angelic-voiced Serbian singer Divna Ljubojevic. Here's a translation of the lyrics (courtesy of Dejan, a reader of both this blog and Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog, from which I borrowed them).

People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mounts sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow, animals roar:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to You God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

And here's the video. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Christ is Risen!

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

May all the blessings of Pascha be with you and yours, from the Early family.

We had an absolutely wonderful series of Holy Week and Paschal services at St. Joseph's. Kh. Jennifer and I were blessed to gain five more godchildren - the Hale family! (the daddy of which is Clint, a frequent reader and commenter on this blog -- more on their Baptism later). I'm reveling in the light of the Resurrection but am also plum tuckered out, so this is all I'm going to write today. I'll try to get back into the swing of things tomorrow.

Have a blessed bright week!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Great and Holy Friday

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3and went up to him again and again, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" And they struck him in the face.

4Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him." 5When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!"

6As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, "Crucify! Crucify!"
But Pilate answered, "You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him."

7The Jews insisted, "We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God."

8When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9and he went back inside the palace. "Where do you come from?" he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10"Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?"

11Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."

12From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar."

13When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge's seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). 14It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.
"Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews.

15But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!"
"Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked.
"We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered.

16Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. 17Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

19Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read:|sc JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, "Do not write 'The King of the Jews,' but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews."

22Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written."

23When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.

24"Let's not tear it," they said to one another. "Let's decide by lot who will get it."
This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said,
"They divided my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing." So this is what the soldiers did.

25Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," 27and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

The Death of Jesus
28Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

31Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken," 37and, as another scripture says, "They will look on the one they have pierced."

38Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. 39He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Great and Holy Thursday

1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. 2 And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. 5 After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?”

7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.”

8 Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!”

Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”

9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”

10 Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” 11 For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, “You are not all clean.”

12 So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. 16 Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

18 “I do not speak concerning all of you. I know whom I have chosen; but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me.’ 19 Now I tell you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe that I am He. 20 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” 21 When Jesus had said these things, He was troubled in spirit, and testified and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me.” 22 Then the disciples looked at one another, perplexed about whom He spoke. 23 Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. 24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke. 25 Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.” And having dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. 27 Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered him. Then Jesus said to him, “What you do, do quickly.” 28 But no one at the table knew for what reason He said this to him. 29 For some thought, because Judas had the money box, that Jesus had said to him, “Buy those things we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. 30 Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night.

31 So, when he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him. 32 If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and glorify Him immediately. 33 Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come,’ so now I say to you. 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

36 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow Me now, but you shall follow Me afterward.” 37 Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake.” 38 Jesus answered him, “Will you lay down your life for My sake? Most assuredly, I say to you, the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Great and Holy Wednesday

The Scriptures are more or less silent concerning what Jesus did and taught on Holy Wednesday. Here is the parable of the Ten Virgins, actually told by Jesus on Tuesday, which figures prominently in the Bridegroom services of the Orthodox Church.

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. 3 Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5 But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.

“And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ 7 Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut.

“Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ 12 But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.

May you have a blessed service of Holy Unction tonight (or another Bridegroom service, if that is your parish's tradition). Here is the next installment from the Gospel of John film.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Great and Holy Tuesday

This is going to be quite long. For whatever reasons, the Synoptic Evangelists (i.e., Matthew, Mark and Luke) record a great deal of what Jesus taught on Tuesday of Holy Week--more than on any other day. St. John, on the other hand, records very little of what our Lord taught on Monday-Wednesday, but a great deal of what he said on Thursday, the evening before his death.

Here, I present selections from St. Mark's account of Jesus' teaching on Great and Holy Tuesday, followed by another clip from the Gospel of John film.

(Chapter 11)20 Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. 21 And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.”

22 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God. 23 For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. 24 Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.

25 “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

27 Then they came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him. 28 And they said to Him, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?”

29 But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things: 30 The baptism of John—was it from heaven or from men? Answer Me.”

31 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘From men’”—they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed. 33 So they answered and said to Jesus, “We do not know.”

And Jesus answered and said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

(Chapter 12) 1 Then He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. 2 Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers. 3 And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated. 5 And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.

6 Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

7 But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.

9 “Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not even read this Scripture:

‘ The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
11 This was the LORD’s doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

12 And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them. So they left Him and went away.

13 Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words. 14 When they had come, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?”

But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why do you test Me? Bring Me a denarius that I may see it.” 16 So they brought it.

And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”

17 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

And they marveled at Him.

18 Then some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him; and they asked Him, saying: 19 “Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man’s brother dies, and leaves his wife behind, and leaves no children, his brother should take his wife and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife; and dying, he left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and he died; nor did he leave any offspring. And the third likewise. 22 So the seven had her and left no offspring. Last of all the woman died also. 23 Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife.”

24 Jesus answered and said to them, “Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are therefore greatly mistaken.”

28 Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?”

29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. 30 And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

32 So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. 33 And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

34 Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But after that no one dared question Him.

35 Then Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, “How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David? 36 For David himself said by the Holy Spirit:

‘ The LORD said to my Lord,
“ Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”’

37 Therefore David himself calls Him ‘Lord’; how is He then his Son?”

And the common people heard Him gladly.

38 Then He said to them in His teaching, “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, 39 the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”

41 Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. 42 Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. 43 So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; 44 for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”

(Chapter 14) 1 Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. 2"But not during the Feast," they said, "or the people may riot."

3While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

4Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? 5It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.

6"Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

10Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

Great and Holy Monday

Here are the New Testament passages that describe Jesus' actions on the Monday before his Crucifixion:

12 Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. 13 And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.”
And His disciples heard it.

15 So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 17 Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’
18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. 19 When evening had come, He went out of the city.

(Mark 11:12-19)

And here is the next installment from the Gospel of John Film. Of course, the events depicted in this clip actually took place on Holy Thursday, not Monday, but close enough. St. John's Gospel is silent about the events of Monday through Wednesday.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Palm Sunday

May each of you have a blessed Feast of the Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem (i.e., Palm Sunday). Here is another clip from the Gospel of John Film, which dramatizes the Entrance and the events immediately following it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Jesus' Tears (Lazarus Saturday)

Over the last few weeks, the number of visits to this blog site has increased greatly. If you are a new reader of this blog, I welcome you and thank you for joining us. I hope that you will continue checking in. I thank all of you who bless me by visiting this blog--especially those who comment regularly. I wish each of you a blessed Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

Since so many of you are relatively new to this blog, I thought I would repost some reflections that I wrote last year on John 11:35, which simply says, "Jesus wept." If you have already read this, I ask your forgiveness. I pray that this article will be helpful to all of you.

O Christ God, when Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead, before Thy Passion, thou didst confirm the universal resurrection. Wherefore, we like babes, carry the insignia of triumph and victory, and cry to Thee, O vanquisher of death, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord.-- Troparion of the Saturday of St. Lazarus

My father was a tough-as-nails career Marine officer who fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia during World War II and in the frozen no-man’s-land that was the Korean Conflict. He was hardened by years of horrifying experiences that would have made Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger run away screaming. In the thirty-six years that I knew him, I never once saw him cry. Except when he gave in to an occasional outburst of anger, he was a model of emotional control. Compared to him, Mr. Spock and his fellow Vulcans were a bunch of emotional basket cases!

Dad always taught me to exhibit the same emotional control that he did, and in this he largely succeeded. As a result, I seldom ever find myself crying, except during an occasional tear-jerking part of a movie such as the “let’s play catch” scene in Field of Dreams. I’m not saying that this stoicism is good or bad; it’s just the way I am. I am without a doubt my father’s son, and weeping is just not part of my modius operandi.

But when my mother unexpectedly died in 2002, I found myself weeping uncontrollably off-and-on for days. The same thing happened two years later when my father finally succumbed to complications caused by the Alzheimer’s Disease that had ravaged him for over eight years. Two years, after then, when my daughter Audrey and I visited his grave in Arlington National Cemetery, I (foolishly, I know) told myself, “Don’t cry. Be tough. Hold it in!” And yet, when I actually laid eyes on his tombstone, I broke into an uncontrollable fit of sobbing that lasted for nearly 15 minutes.

This led me to reflect on the following question: What is it about death that makes even modern-day Vulcans like myself break down and weep? I have often heard death referred to as “The Great Equalizer,” and this is certainly true. All of us, no matter whether we are rich or poor, good or evil, Christian or non-Christian, have an appointment with death. And yet, the facet of death that makes it so hard to deal with is its being what I call “The Great Separator.” Perhaps the worst thing about death is that it separates us from those whom we love. When someone we loves dies, we lose the joy of being in their presence—seeing their face, hearing their voice, and feeling their embrace. And even if they seem to have died in Christ, there always remains that slight inkling of doubt: will I really ever see him or her again?

This brings us to today’s Gospel reading, John 11:1-45, which tells the story of the raising of Lazarus. This passage contains the shortest verse in the Bible, at least in the English version, verse 35: “Jesus wept.” I often used to wonder exactly why Jesus wept. He did not weep for the same reason that I wept when I lost my mother and my father. For the Lord knew that his separation from Lazarus would be very short-lived. He knew even before Lazarus died that He would raise him from the dead. So why, then, did he weep?

Some commentators have suggested that Jesus wept out of compassion for Mary and Martha. There is no question that this is part of why Jesus wept. He deeply loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and it was hard for him to see them experience a loss as great as that of their beloved brother, especially at a relatively young age. As the prophet Isaiah wrote of our Lord, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4a, NKJV). And yet, I think that there is much more behind Jesus’ tears than merely compassion and empathy, great though they were.

I believe that the clue to Jesus’ tears lies in a verb that St. John uses in verses 33 and 38. The root of this verb is the Greek embrimaomai, which is usually translated here as “groaned in the/his spirit” (KJV, ASV, NKJV) or “was deeply moved in spirit” (NASB, RSV, NIV). Both of these translations give the impression that Jesus was moved by grief. However, as Fr. Lawrence Farley points out in his excellent commentary on St. John’s Gospel,

The Greek word…savors not of grief, but of anger. It is used for the snorting of horses in secular literature; in March 1:43 and Matthew 9:30, it is translated "sternly warn,” and in Mark 14:5, it is translated “scold.” In all of its uses, the word conveys the idea of indignation. Christ, therefore, was not here moved with grief over His friend; He was moved with anger at the Enemy, and indignation that all the Father’s world could be so ruined.

So more than being moved by mere grief or compassion, our Lord was, in Fr. Farley’s words, “furious at the ancient serpent for wreaking this havoc.” In his thirty-something years of life, Jesus had no doubt seen a great deal of death, but now he had had enough! He was not going to allow death and Hades to claim his beloved friend, at least not now.

Jesus’ anger at death can be seen indirectly in his somewhat testy response to Martha’s objection to his command to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb: “Lord, already he smells, for it is the fourth day.” To this, our Savior replies, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

And so, the Lord Jesus, fed up with the Great Separator, marches to the tomb as a conqueror, intent on denying Death yet another victim. And, as Fr. Farley says, “looking on that blocked-up cave, He beheld not just the buried corpse of His friend, but the corpse of the whole world.” By raising Lazarus, Jesus gives the world a foretaste of the victory that he would win over death through his death, resurrection, and ascension, as well as an anticipation and an image of the final resurrection from the dead.

Holy Father Lazarus, pray to the Lord that our souls may be saved!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Lazarus Saturday

Today you get two posts for the price of one! Since tomorrow (or today, if you are first seeing this on Saturday)is Lazarus Saturday, I thought I would post a selection from the excellent Gospel of John film, of which I have written before. This clip picks up in the middle of the Lazarus story, but it includes the best part. Later on Saturday, I'll post some of my own reflections on Lazarus Saturday. Enjoy this well-done dramatization of the raising of Lazarus.

On the Conquest of the World (WOA Chapter 9) - Part Two

St. Isaac the Syrian

When I served as a missionary in Tuzla, Bosnia, I taught several Bible studies. In one of these, we were discussing St. John’s teaching that we should not love the world. A dear friend who was in the study group burst out, “I can’t do that!”

“Can’t do what?” I asked her.

“I can’t obey this teaching not to love the world. I LOVE the world. I love nature! I love trees, lakes, rivers, mountains and all of the beautiful things in the world.”

I explained to her that St. John is not talking about the physical world, the creation, in these passages. The biblical writers use the word kosmos (“world”) in a variety of ways. Sometimes it does mean the physical world. Other times, it means all the people in the world, as in the well-known and loved verse John 3:16. But usually, the writers of the New Testament use kosmos to refer to the part of creation that is actively opposed to God and to his will for humanity. And this is also the sense of the word that the Fathers usually employ. Listen to Colliander:

“To the world belong our desires and impulses. St. Isaac the Syrian enumerates them: Weakness for wealth and for collecting and owning things of different kinds, the urge for physical (sensuous) enjoyment; the longing for honour, which is the root of envy; the desire to conquer and be the deciding factor; pride in the glory of power; the urge to adorn oneself and to be liked; the craving for praise; concern and anxiety for physical well being. All of these are of the world; they combine deceitfully to hold us in heavy bonds” (30).

These are temptations that nearly all of us face at one time or another. Of course, some affect me more than others, while different ones will plague you. No matter which temptations you struggle with the most, you should follow Colliander’s advice: “If you wish to free yourself, scrutinize yourself with the help of that list and see clearly what you have to struggle against in order to approach God” (30).

He continues: “To ease the upward climb and to more readily cast off the heavy burdens, you can as often as possible ask yourself such questions” about your motivations for why you do things (for yourself, or for God or others). “…Without mercy you should ask yourself such questions continually and incessantly. But ask them of yourself only. Never in any case, not even in thought, of another. As soon as you direct such a question to your fellow man and not inward to yourself, you have set yourself upon a judgment seat and thereby judged yourself” (30-31).

This theme of “seeing my own sins, and not those of my brother,” in St. Ephraim the Syrian’s words, will be the topic of Chapter Ten, which we will examine after Pascha. From now until then, I will post Holy Week and Paschal-oriented articles. May God grant each of you a blessed Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Pascha.